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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

June 2000

Topic: "When and how should I correct my students?"

Julian Edge

My most direct and concise response to this question must be: At those times and in those ways that you think will be of most help to your students

I'm not trying to be funny here. The underlying message that this answer tries to establish is:

* You don't correct just because a student says something that isn't standard English. You respond to what they say as a potential step in their learning.

* Only you, that student's teacher, can take responsibility for the actual decisions of when and how to correct, because only you are in a position to gauge what is helpful at what point in the student's learning. There are no simple, linguistic rules to apply.

Having said that, here are some working guidelines that I find helpful in making those decisions over and over again. (I'm restricting myself here to talking about mistakes of structure, although it is worth remembering that native speakers will forgive structural mistakes – it is when they think that a foreigner is being impolite that they forget that that person is a learner and probably does not mean what the native speaker hears. I make the point here because correction for appropriacy and politeness can be much more important than structure if your students expect to interact with naïve, and frequently insensitive, monolingual speakers of English.)

1. I like to talk to students about correction, and being corrected. I listen to their preferences and explain my own.

2. I make it clear that some stages of some lessons will feature a focus on accuracy (when practising a new structure, for example) and that some will feature an emphasis on fluency and communication (when working together on a group task, perhaps). I explain why.

3. When we are focusing on correctness, I think of students' mistakes in three ways and respond accordingly:

If I think that a student can self-correct, I call their attention to the fact that a mistake has been made, and give them time to self-correct.

If I think (or it becomes obvious) that an individual student can't self-correct, but I think that someone else might be able to, I invite the rest of the group to help out.

If I find myself in a position where I am focusing on accuracy, and no one in the class can correct a mistake, then I have to realise that we are no longer talking about students' mistakes, we are talking about my failure to teach. I have to think about how I will re-teach this point in some other way.

Beyond slips and errors, sometimes a learner will try to express something that is simply beyond their grammatical ability. I call these 'attempts.'

There is no point in trying to "correct" something that a person has not learnt. But it can be useful to reformulate what you think that they wanted to say and offer this back to them. So, if someone says,

"I wish I was go to the beach yesterday – it was so hot,"

you might say,

"Yes, I wish I'd gone to the beach, too."

I find that I can use these three categories of mistake and three types of response in both spoken and written English and I hope they might prove useful to you:

slips self-correction
errors peer correction
attempts teacher reformulation

The essential point about correction is to think of it as feedback to a growing organism. Learners need information about the external target forms they are aiming for, and they need to believe that the essential internal language development is taking place inside themselves.

It ain't easy, that's for sure.
julian_edge.jpg Julian Edge, Aston Univerisity
Author of Essentials of English Language Teaching

Marc Helgesen

I don't disagree on the techniques Julian and Peter mention, but I'd like to bring up what I see as maybe the main question: when to do correction activities.

Over the years, there has been a lot of research on the effectiveness of reactive correction (correction after errors). And, as far as I know, there's no evidence that correction sticks. The issue, however, certainly does stick. It comes up regularily . Many teachers and learners feel a need for correction.

Perhaps we need to be looking toward a 'pro-active' type of correction. That is, learners can look at the errors that usually come up with a given grammar point or set of routines. They find and correct the errors. They are NOTICING how the language works. Then -- and this is the important part -- they go on to less controlled activities when the same language points are likely to come up. They can continue noticing.

While "noticing" as a specific technique for facilitating language acquisition may be new, the process itself isn't. In fact, you've almost certainly done it yourself. It often works something like this: The teacher, another student or the textbook points out some feature of the language. You think, "Really? I've never heard that." Then you go out into the real world and suddenly you're hearing it or seeing it a hundred times every day. It's not that you hadn't run into it before. It's that you never noticed.

We can set up that same situation in class. Look at the lesson you're going to teach. Think about the errors your students usually make. These could be based on functional routines:

(personal interests):
* What do you like sports?
* In my free time, I like listening to the music.

They can also be based on a lesson's grammar or usage points.
* I enjoy to ski.
* (My friend is coming to Japan) You had better take her to Mr. Fuji.
* Tokyo is bigger Osaka.

(Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, Oxford Univ. Press can help you figure out what problems are likely to come up.)

Write 6-10 of the sentences on the board. The sentences include errors. Have students work alone or in pairs to try to correct them.

Then you can check as a class, either by having the class tell you how to correct the sentences on the board or by using "finger signals" -- you point at one finger for each word and use gestures such as "add a word," "get rid of this word," "add an ending," etc. -- to help the students come up with the correct form.

This type of activity has been used for years as an end-of-class consolidation but that's a lost chance. But doing it in the middle of the lesson, you help the students notice the form and continue to notice as they progress through the class.

You may notice I'm not reacting to specific errors by specific individuals. I'm not reacting at all. If reactive correction doesn't work, I'm suggesting making it pro-active by doing a FonF (Focus on Form) that deals with the kinds of problems most of the learners need to deal with.
marc_helgesen.jpg Marc Helgesen, Miyagi Gakuin Women's College
Co-author of English Firsthand and Active Listening

Peter Viney

On teacher training courses I always call sessions on this area 'Confirmation & Correction' rather than 'Correction'.

They are two sides of one coin. If you work on confirmation techniques for giving positive feedback to students when they're doing something well, correction becomes less and less necessary.

Confirmation means using the skill of attentive listening. You need to show students how carefully you're listening to them with your eye contact, facial expression, body language. You should also indicate that you're going along with what they're saying. The best correction technique then becomes an absence of confirmation. You don't even need to raise an eyebrow (a good correction technique in itself), you just stop giving positive feedback.

If the student has made a slip (I'm going to follow Julian Edge's terms here), they have the chance to self-correct. Many perceived mistakes are slips, where the student knows as soon as they say something that they've slipped. In fluency phases, you might not want to call attention to these slips at all if the point of the exercise is communication.

In accuracy phases, where you're working on a structure or a pronunciation point, confirmation and the subsequent absence of confirmation is enough to generate self-correction much of the time. When this fails, you have to decide whether to correct the student yourself or let a peer student come in. This is a matter of group dynamics. Some students prefer to be corrected by the teacher rather than a fellow-student. It depends on the group and how they interact.

You should make your intervention as minimal as possible. First comes lack of confirmation. Next I might choose signs or gestures to indicate the mistake. There are a series of gestures for time and number as well as pronunciation areas like intonation, stress and linking words. Then I might ask a leading question to prompt and direct them to the error. e.g.

- I go there yesterday.
- Was that yesterday or today?

If that fails, I'd reformulate and echo, "Oh, you went there yesterday?" The very last thing is to say "went." or "You went there yesterday." Try to eliminate "No!" and 'That's wrong" from your vocabulary.

I like Julian's category of "attempts" and the reformulation technique he suggests is the one native speakers use subconsciously with their own children.

- "I digged a hole in the sand and buried your car keys, Mummy."
- "Oh? You dug a hole? That's nice."

Notice that it's conversational, often employs a statement with an echo intonation, and that a comment is often added at the end to show that you're continuing the conversation rather than simply correcting. Note that in my example parents (like teachers) can do this without actually listening to the content of the statement.

Every teacher has to make their own choices about whether a phase is accuracy or fluency. The line is not a firm one. Even in accuracy phases, students might be saying something that's personally meaningful. For example, comprehension questions on a fixed text are an accuracy activity, but many teachers will move freely between comprehension questions on the text, and transfer questions. In doing so, you will naturally shift your attitude to the response.

- Did Red Riding Hood kiss her grandmother?
- No, she kiss … (teacher stops confirming) … she kissed …the wolf.
- Do you kiss your grandmother when you see her?
- My grandmother she die last week.

The ONLY appropriate teacher response is "Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that." You've switched from a language lesson to genuine human interaction. You cannot correct. That's the extreme example, work back and find the line from there.

Which brings me to Julian's other point which I'd like to repeat and stress. In real communication situations students are far more likely to be corrected for lack of appropriacy than for lack of grammatical accuracy. I watched a queue of foreign students in England buying ice-cream, and the seller added "please" to each request in turn. Inappropriacy will often be inappropriacy of intonation patterns or body language rather than the choice of words. This is somewhat unfair because students from cultures where requests are more direct and evenly stressed can be perceived as "rude".
peter_viney.jpg Peter Viney, Freelance ELT Author
Co-author of New American Streamline & Grapevine. Peter's Web site

Setsuko Toyama

Basically, I try not to disrupt the flow of the conversation by correcting. The rapport between the speaker and the listener is very important.

I also try to demonstrate how to really listen as I would in a real conversation. I will occasionally paraphrase or repeat phrases to show my understanding and interest.

My students are false beginners. When they do speak up, accuracy is not my priority. I am addressing to the reality of the students who are not doing English majors but are taking an English course as it is required for credits. In the class, they use the language they have stored during the 6 to 8 years of mostly grammar translation, for the first time, to communicate and to vocalize what they have been seeing in text.

I do not want to correct them at the risk of making them clam up for the rest of the course, or get reluctant to speak up. I rephrase what they said instead:

Student: I enjoyed to ski.
Toyama: You enjoyed skiing? Did you go to Joetsu?
Student: I was exciting of the game.
Toyama: I see, you were excited at the game.
Student: What do you like sports?
Toyama: What sports do I like? I like aerobics.

Most Japanese students have had an incredible amount of correction in all the subjects in their education of 1-12. Some are used to it but some just flinch when they are being corrected. To many students, being corrected means they have failed. It might sound to some of you that I am exaggerating but both teachers and students are so exam-oriented that it is almost their nature to seek for one single correct answer in any task.

I remember clearly a PTA event when parents were invited to observe a math lesson. The teacher explained a new formula and let the children practice. Then she called on a few students. Each had to say Yes, Ms. so and so, pull out the chair, stand next to the desk and recite the answer. When a child made a mistake, the teacher scolded the child, saying, "I told you not to make that kind of mistake, didn't I? Were you listening to me at all?" The humiliated child almost cried and to this day I believe he started to hate math at that moment.

Perhaps this is an extreme example but it reflects the teaching that is being conducted in Japan to some extent. Making mistakes is BAD. Many Japanese teachers correct any mistakes (slips or errors or attempts) in order to help students to be successful in the awaiting exams.

In language learning, making mistakes is a natural step of growth. My students have to get used to this concept and speak more and more without worrying about making mistakes. That is why I do not 'correct' my students.

When the same kind of errors occur in numbers, I prepare an extra handout on that point and spend perhaps 5 minutes on it in the next lesson as a warm-up/review time. When I go through the handout, I tell my students that this is not an attempt to make them native-like speakers but to help them develop awareness about standard English in order to increase the possibility of being understood when speaking English.

Let me show an example to follow up on students who were 'exciting' at games or events. Japanese translation for passive-form adjectives such as excited, bored, amazed, etc, end with '-teiru' form. It is the same ending for present progressive form of verbs, which look the same as adjectives ending with -ing. That is why Japanese students tend to say 'they are exciting, boring, amazing...' when, in fact, they are excited, bored, amazed... I hand out a list of adjectives and ask students to think of a place or an event. Students in pairs tell the partner about the event and how they feel:

Example: I saw Star Wars Episode 1. It was exciting. I was excited. I finally ask the students about the English lesson and we have a good laugh as there's always a volunteer who shoots up his hand and says, It's boring!

Some students do want to be corrected on the spot. Those are eager students who prefer being corrected to being uncertain whether what they said is correct or not. They are also quick learners so I can simply supply a word or two and they strengthen their awareness.
setsuko_toyama.jpg Setsuko Toyama, Toyama English House
Co-author of Journeys: Listening and Speaking & Development Editor of SuperKids

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to save time we should correct mistakes using , correct mistakes strategies such as , time lines ,finger correction ,gesture, phonemic symbols, and recasting and of course I agree with all

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