Correcting EL teachers' mistakes at a teacher refresher course

Peer Correction and Feedback.
Nina MK, Ph.D.

"I continuing speaking..." "It quickens my heartbreak... " (heart-rate) "it aches to move... " (it hurts) "I am agree..." "Old castle have goats..." (The old castle has ghosts) "there are computers and a lot of". 

These are just a few examples of the mistakes that EL teachers made many times in my hearing. Some of them seem to repeat themselves forever and ever, like the mysterious form "I am agree". Others, like "goats" instead of "ghosts", seem to belong to one teacher. Why do you say "it aches to move?" I asked my colleague. And got the reply I know rather well: "Our university teacher taught us!" It never occurs to students that they need to check what their teacher says. Later on they become teachers and use the same form thus perpetuating the mistake. Generations of pupils would diligently learn that same "heartbreak" and only a few would notice that it does not correlate to the topic discussed. Most students would notice that for instance "a lot of" requires a continuation, an object, and here we have another problem. They would not correct their teacher because it is not done in their culture, or because the teacher may get angry and give them a low grade. 

A former student of mine begged me to help her friend figure out what was wrong with his English, why his boss told him to work at it before he could hope for a promotion. The young man told me that he finished one of the best schools in town and then took an intensive course at the university, so what could be wrong? Since I know my city colleagues quite well, I suggested he take any book and simply read aloud to me. He was quite surprised but dutifully opened a novel and began, " Zis woz ze sird time in zeah life zey met". His translation was fine, his grammar very good. I asked his permission to record his reading and then recorded the same passage myself. Then we listened together. His face became longer and longer, and finally he blurted out in frustration, "WHY?!" It took only a few lessons to help him. He was unfortunate enough to first have school and then university teachers who obviously never paid any attention to phonetics.

Each time I deliver teacher refresher courses or take part in a seminar or conduct a workshop, I hear my colleagues, EL teachers, speak and make mistakes. Naturally there are some, especially the younger generation, whose English is very good. The internet, travel, communication with colleagues around the globe provide access to resources undreamed of even a few years ago. And yet time and again the same old mistakes crop up. Those are my colleagues, not school pupils or university students. So I always have an internal brief struggle, a dilemma. If I don't correct them, they will not only continue making the same mistakes but also bring them into the classroom year after year after year. And who am I to correct my peers? But I do hear the mistakes. I am the instructor, the person they trust to teach them something new. So I work out a few tactful ways and means to perform error correction for my colleagues.

*I start by telling them about my own mistakes. For instance I know that I cannot pronounce the French "vingt", twenty, correctly. I remember that I could not at first understand some words over the phone when I worked at Columbia University in New York. Thus I lay the foundation. When a lecturer who is often perceived as "a know-it-all" admits to making mistakes occasionally, it provides a sort of a cushion, a softening effect once the need to correct adults' errors occurs.

* If several people repeat "I am agree" consistently, I inquire if their university teacher used to say that, or if they heard it somewhere, and let the group work it out. In general, if any mistake is made by a number of adults, it is much easier to work at it. For instance I train everybody with the help of some tongue twisters, like "Thirty three thousand thirsty thin thinkers thought thankful thoughts".
* When only one person has problems while being quite fluent and confident, it is perhaps better to ask them to remain for a few minutes after class and explain what the problems are. Most often they have no idea that they consistently make the same mistakes.

Your adult audience will respect you more if you tactfully correct their mistakes and yet remain open to their remarks and suggestions.

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