Error Correction

Today we had an INSET with a guest speaker Gillie Cunningham entitled ‘Erors are ok, or are they?’  It was a very insightful session, and she was a very entertaining speaker.  This is not a summary, but just a few things I have taken away.

  • We need to have a clear idea of what we are correcting and why.  What is acceptable to some people might be considered incorrect by others.
  • We should involve the students in error correction.  Do they want to be corrected?  When?  What are their goals?  Are they trying to achieve ‘perfect’ pronunciation?  Do they just want to communicate their ideas even if they aren’t ‘correct’?
  • We should take a principled and consistent approach to error correction, and we should make students aware of our approach.  This could be influenced by previous methods and reflect our beliefs on teaching and learning.
  • We should test and compare different techniques.

Some techniques she mentioned that I would like to try:

  • Silent correction of pronunciation.  Gesture how you want vowel sounds made, don’t voice them because students often try to copy the sound (unsuccessfully) when they need to change the movement.  Show them mouth movements and create a gesture for short and long vowels.  Get students to put a finger up to their lips so they can feel their tongue when pronouncing ‘th’ sounds like they’re thinking.
  • When correcting in freer practice, use ‘quotation’ gestures with your hands so it’s clear you are correcting not communicating.
  • Teach all the verb tenses with a gesture.  Then when students make mistakes, they can self-correct with just a gesture from the teacher.
  • Only correct certain mistakes.  Say at the beginning of class, ‘Today I’m only correcting the past simple.’  Or prepositions, or pronunciation, or whatever.  Students will be aware and so errors will drop.

I loved the way she delivered this presentation because I really did reflect on my own beliefs.   A few things she said about past approaches to errors that really resonated with me, and may explain why I could be seen as taking a ‘lax’ approach to error correction:

  • Teaching is subservient to learning–give learners more credit and let them work things out themselves (Silent Way).
  • Keep stress levels down to improve learning (Suggestopaedia and TPR)
  • In order to access language faster, how often and frequently we ‘trace’ a memory connection matters.  Doing something physical, like doodling, helps reinforce connections.  (TPR)
  • Students learn from their mistakes (Communication Approach) while behavioral theory suggests students learn their mistakes.
  • Students are more likely to learn if they can self-correct.

The thing I liked most about her talk is that it was so student-centred.  I was worried it was going to be a very error-centred talk, taking a very narrow view of ‘correct language, ‘ but I was pleasantly surprised.  Students do often ask for more correction and so I’ve been really trying to incorporate more explanation of when and why I’m correcting them, and when and why I’m not.  To end the talk, she gave us her three personal guidelines:

'Learning is experience.  Everything else is just information.'  -Einstein
‘Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.’ -Einstein

I loved that quote.  Here’s another good one:

‘Our ability to learn is far greater than our understanding of how we learn.’

To be honest, I might have misquoted that because I was trying to take down notes fast before the slide changed.  And to completely paraphrase her other guideline:

Set the bar high, and they will perform.  If you expect them to be good learners, they will be.