Error Correction and Feedback.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
Errors and mistakes are part and parcel of our work. The topic name itself is fascinating: if we check a dictionary, we’ll see that “errors” are “mistakes”, while “mistakes” are “things done wrong”. The usage is different, too. For instance, the computer flashes “Error” at us even when we make “an honest mistake”. Verbal forms of “mistake” are widely used; I still have to meet a student who would say “to err”. To make error correction more effective, we may start by classifying mistakes into various categories. Let us try a non-traditional approach. To wit, it is clear that if students cannot hear well, we should listen to the original recordings more often. If they have trouble with a particular grammar theme, we know that practice makes perfect. If their writing leaves much to be desired, we can devise better ways to stimulate their output. When they speak haltingly, we encourage them to use full sentences, and to express their ideas better. “Young people do not read”, while not exactly true, is a familiar modern complaint. J.K. Rowling managed to awaken a fresh interest in reading almost single-handedly with her Harry Potter series. From very good books to well-made films with attractive young actors is a great way to keep up and develop reading skills; the opposite way, from a good film to a well-written book, may work too. Students talk about their interests at our lessons, thus providing us with ready feedback. I habitually jot down mistakes on individual cards, never interrupting a free flow of speech, to give the cards to my pupils later. If it is an error common for the whole class, I make a note for myself, and we work at it together. There are many categories indeed. Let us choose just two of them.
Category one. Pronunciation. Quite often, I get a new class or a new group of teachers at a refresher course. All of them say, “I sink, zis sin” et cetera. I begin by explaining that /th/ is one of the basic English sounds which exists in the voiced and unvoiced variants, as in “the thing”. Then I demonstrate its articulation, and write down a number of opposites on the board, like “sin – thing, sink – think, so – though, sought – thought”. Once the students remember its importance and produce the sound, the feedback is immediate: we hear “the” where previously there was “ze”. To consolidate, I bring in warmers, tongue-twisters, jokes, and then occasionally point out the frequency of a sound in real speech each time we listen to a recording. A colleague told me recently, with sparkling eyes, “You were right! I watched a TV show, and they really use this /th/ sound all the time!” Amen to that.
Category two. Vocabulary. Truth be told, I am not sure how to call this category. English is a highly polysemous language, yet polysemy is not mentioned in the traditional textbooks. Students learn a meaning of a word which remains with them forever, unless they are taught to consult a dictionary when needed. Quite often, when faced with an incomprehensible phrase or text, they try to understand it and translate the words in the only way they can, by using that one meaning they had learned in second grade. “He firmly gripped his driver’s head before making a hit”, we read. Silence. “She moved with a list to one side”. Again, silence. How do we teach children and adults what to do in such a case? I tell my classes that luckily for us, there is always some indication in the text which tells us we ought to consult a dictionary. There are a few simple rules. If it is an idiom, a figure of speech, we may recognize all the words, but the meaning of the whole phrase remains obscure. Usually, something looks odd: no article, for instance, where we expect to see one. “You have cheek!” is a clear example. When we know all the words but still cannot get the meaning, we should look at the context attentively. A dictionary will tell us that “driver” is a golf club; and if a ship or a person walks with a “list”, it means they lean to one side. Mystery explained.
Error correction is the stuff our work is made of. Well, at least a substantial part of it. Feedback, for me, is mostly an organizational problem. We want to make it more engaging and less tedious, we should make it as smooth and natural as any other activity. Once a student produces a difficult sound, all we need to do is say, “Good job!” When they finally write a test on the modals, or any other hard topic, without any mistakes, we tell them how good they are. Naturally we all have a number of students who would make the same mistakes again and again. We tell them to try, try, try again, and tell ourselves to be patient.