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George Chilton - We all make mistakes
Correcting people’s mistakes is not a very natural thing to do. It sometimes feels rude or uncomfortable, and we might well feel quite awkward about doing it. In what situation, other than in a classroom, do we stop people from talking and tell them that they have made a mistake?
I do recall a teacher friend of mine getting himself into quite a lot of trouble for unconsciously correcting a man’s grammar in the pub. This, I urge you to avoid.
However, in the classroom, error correction is extremely important. I challenge you to go through an hour and a half without hearing a load of mistakes. If you do go through an hour and a half without hearing a load of mistakes, the class is either far too easy, or your students are asleep.
Noticing errors is simple, however the correction of these errors is a challenge for most teachers, and I think it’s one that takes a while to get right.
So, in this post, I’m going to talk about a few of the principles I follow when correcting errors, and some of the techniques I use to do so.
What’s the target language?
It might sound lazy, but you shouldn’t correct everything that goes wrong in a speaking activity.
Lower-level students in particular are likely to makes mounds of mistakes. They key is to make sure that when they are using the language they have been practicing, they should be getting it right.
By focusing on mistakes that fall outside of the target language, you are likely to cause confusion, you’ll lose focus, and the students upon seeing their every shortcoming will be despondent. It’s much more effective to correct mistakes relating to what has been practised in the class.
However, I will add a caveat – if you find one particular error is being repeated, you should correct it, or you will just be reinforcing bad habits.
If you’re working with a higher-level group, it is a good idea to look at mistakes that do fall outside of their target language, so that they become more aware of their production. Often these errors are just slips, but if they are bad habits they are well worth looking at as a class and fixing.
Should I correct on the spot?
Yes and no.
On the spot error correction is sometimes necessary. If a student says something that hinders understanding it should be corrected there and then– the other students are unlikely to get what’s been said, and communication has broken down. Correcting at this point helps the students in their activity.
If a simple error is repeated again and again, it should be corrected—or else it will be reinforced by your silence, and the students will likely to continue making the same mistake. And worse, other students may assimilate the error.
If the error is part of the target language, you should consider correcting on the spot too—a mistake here shows the students have not understood the language correctly, and an interruption will help them focus and avoid making the same mistake again.
On the other hand, if the error is simple and does not hinder the communicative aims, you should consider allowing the students to continue speaking without interruption. No-one’s perfect after all. Note down these errors and save them up for correction later if you feel that they are important.
Error correction techniques
It’s always a good idea to note down the errors as you hear them.
When noting down errors during an activity, group these mistakes by type by putting them under headings. For example: Vocabulary, grammar, syntax, pronunciation/stress.
When you come to correct them afterwards, you can pick and choose those that are most frequent/important and also do so in a logical order. It’s much simpler for students to follow if you correct their errors in their categories.
Peer correction is a useful, collaborative way of correcting mistakes after an activity. Write an incorrect sentence on the board and solicit corrections from the students. It’s simple, impersonal, and by doing this, students analyse their own mistakes and will reflect on their language use.
As a teacher, it’s also useful to gauge how your class is doing; if they find it easy to correct, you’ll see it was probably just a slip. However, if they find it very difficult you’ll see it’s something to work on in class.
Self-correction helps students reflect on their own language use and helps them to be more critical of their production. I often use mobile phones to record students as they speak (especially in one-to-one classes). It takes a while for students to get used to hearing the sound of their own voices, but it soon becomes routine.
Play back their recording and have the student pause every time they think they hear a mistake. Talk about what they said and how it could be improved. Afterwards, play again and point out any significant errors that they missed and work on correcting the language together.
It’s all well and good correcting mistakes, building awareness, and improving accuracy – but students also need to work on their errors in a focused, practical way.
Once you have corrected the errors you should find time to have students practise the correct language until they get it right.
If the error is related to pronunciation or word stress, for example, it’s easy enough to drill the language in the lesson. Otherwise, a simple way to practice is to have student write sentences, dialogues, or definitions in order to reinforce the correct language. If students continue to make mistakes with the new target language, it’s probably a topic for the next class.
It’s not all bad
Students can become overwhelmed if all they hear from you is what they’ve done wrong. It probably goes without saying, but you should sandwich the negative in between the positive.
Start off with praise – tell students how great they were, point out some good use of the target language. Single out students for praise for their good efforts.
Follow this up with a breakdown of the errors, without picking on individuals.
Finish the correction by highlighting some of the best use of language students used.
By making these happy sandwiches, you show students that there is hope, that they are learning and improving – and you help to give them encouragement and a little more motivation—which is part of the job, after all.