Although the behaviourist view of language learning has been largely discredited for some time now, a lot of teachers set great store by the stimulus / response way of inducing students to produce 'correct' language.

Make no mistake - methodology article

This normally involves drilling (e.g. choral repetition drills) and then some freer practice activity during which the teacher patrols each group noting down mistakes to give the class feedback on.

  • Handling mistakes
  • Teacher-centred phases
  • Student-centred phases
  • Conclusion

 

I think that the teacher can come across in a rather unfortunate light on this path. The students will see the teacher's primary function as being on the lookout for examples of inaccurate language which needs to be eliminated or punished, even! I'm not sure if this should be the teacher's primary responsibility and I'd like to explore here what I try to do when faced with mistakes.

Handling mistakes
Most lessons consist of two different kinds of phases:

  • Teacher-centred phases, in which the students are listening and talking to the teacher
  • Student-centred phases, in which the students are listening and talking to each other.

 

Let's look at how teachers can deal with mistakes in each type of phase.

Teacher-centred phases
Students generally want to know if they're doing something right. So if a student produces a particularly good example of appropriate, accurate language, then I think it's very important to give clear praise. However, if a student is producing inaccurate language at a time when you want all the students to understand what is accurate, then I tend to follow this 'error correction' procedure:

  • a) I elicit self-correction
  • b) I elicit peer correction
  • c) I 'backtrack' (this means I use what students already know)
  • d) I correct it myself

 

If a) doesn't work, I proceed to b), and if b) doesn't work, proceed to c), etc.

Here's an example of what the dialogue might look like. In this example, you'll notice that a) and b) don't work - but c) does work, which means that I'm not forced to provide the right answer

  • Student 1: Do you go to the cinema yesterday?
  • Teacher: Mm…try again? (= eliciting self-correction, using a general prompt)
    (pause)
  • Teacher: Yesterday? (eliciting self-correction, using a specific prompt)
    (pause)
  • Teacher: Can anybody help student 1? (eliciting peer correction)
    (pause)
  • Teacher: OK, ask student 2 if he goes to the cinema everyday. (backtracking)
  • Student 1: Er…Do you go to the cinema every day?
  • Teacher: Good! What was the first word? (backtracking)
  • Student 1: 'Do'.
  • Teacher: Good. Now ask student the question about yesterday. (backtracking)
  • Student 1: Ah! Did you go to the cinema yesterday?
  • Teacher: Good! (praising!)

 

Although the teacher is trying to get the student to focus on accuracy in the above dialogue, I don't think that it is punitive at all. On the contrary, it is empowering the students to communicate more effectively and I think that students are very much aware of this.

Student-centred phases
I think it's a good idea to give individual students the choice of what kind of feedback they'd like after a student-centred phase, also known as a 'freer practice' activity. I personally ask my students to choose between

  • exclusively positive feedback on their contributions
  • both positive feedback plus some examples of language they used which caused communication to break down.

 

I find that most students, in practice, will ask for the second of these, but they feel empowered just by being given this choice of feedback.

Let's assume that a student has chosen the second style of feedback. How could you go about doing this? One thing you could do is to give each student a language feedback sheet at the end of the lesson. On this sheet, give positive feedback where a student really stretched in order to communicate something difficult. But, if something was not communicated clearly, you need to write this down too.

The sheet could look something like this:

Language Feedback
Excellent contributions What did you mean by…?

You did very well in the role play
You spoke clearly, and you constructed some complex sentences. Well done!

(etc.)

"I haven't go to New York, but
I liked it very much."

(etc.)

 

As an extension to this feedback process, I think that it's a good idea to set up regular tutorials with each student to discuss how the listed examples of communication breakdown can be repaired. At the end of each tutorial, the teacher can set each student different language research tasks, if appropriate.

Conclusion
In conclusion, it's quite interesting to note that, while most linguists agree with Aitchinson, who says that correction doesn't help the language acquisition process of internalising rules, teachers still do tend to instinctively correct in the formal teaching process. There are probably a number of reasons for this, for example the teachers' own experience as a language student, and the fact that it seems more 'teacher-like' to do something about mistakes. But I believe that by modifying your approach from a more punitive one to a more empowering one, you will be making the process of learning a language both more human and more efficient.

A version of this article was first published in English Teaching Professional in July 2005. 

Further reading
Aitchinson, J. Introducing Language and Mind. London: Penguin Books. 1992.
Diane Larsen-Freeman: Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. OUP, 1986.
Penny Ur: A course in Language Teaching, CUP, 1996.
Jeremy Harmer: The Practice of English Language Teaching: Longman: 1991.
David Nunan: Language Teaching Methodology, Prentice Hall, 1991.

Paul Bress

 

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Comments

While reading your article, I could reflect on the way I've been correcting my students. It's always good to look for other ways to do that. Thanks very much for your article on this issue that all of us teachers are faced with. I find the language feedback sheet a great idea. However, I just have 45 minutes to teach each class and I would not have enough time to fill them in after each class, but I can definitely try harder to do that twice a week at least.

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