Correcting Student Errors in the ESL Classroom
To err is human, to correct…
…is the teacher’s job.
Well, yes, but when and how should teachers of English as a Foreign Language correct their students’ mistakes? This is a major issue that plays out in classrooms every day, worldwide.
Learners battle away at the intricacies of English, trying to communicate in our language. When they, inevitably, err, if teachers issue corrections too forcefully or too frequently, students can lose confidence and motivation. However, if we don’t correct them, and let errors go, then these mistakes may become ingrained and hurt their future communication.
Four Ways to Correct Students Gently
So, how can we, as teachers, make sure that error correction happens, but in a way that students are still motivated? How can we be supportive while still pointing out flaws in their speaking or writing?
1. Repeat with corrections. One good way is to, when you hear a student make a mistake, repeat what the student has said but without the error. The student will hear you say it correctly, and will often repeat it again after you. Research shows this is an effective way to gently show students the path to self-correction.
2. Review at the end of class. A second way is to keep track of the errors made during a time period and then review those errors and provide corrections before going on to a new activity or at the end of the lesson. This works especially well in a big class, if you’re strapped for time, or if you notice a lot of students making the same mistake. Another reason this is a good method is that it addresses the problem with the class as a whole so the individual who made the mistake will remain anonymous.
3. Have students correct each other. Peer correction is another good item in the teacher’s toolbox. Pair work and small group work can be fun, but sometimes you’ll have an alpha student with more exuberance than grammar skills who gives bad advice to their less assertive partner. So, if you do use this, don’t forget to monitor what’s being said in the small groups.
4. Individually. The method that should probably be used most sparingly is personal correction. Yes, it’s more direct, but being singled out in front of the class will make some students uncomfortable. If you can do this quietly during group or pair work, that’s much better.
Fluency vs. Accuracy
English teachers always need to balance the twin goals of fluency and accuracy when they judge when and how to correct a student. There are students who are so afraid of being inaccurate that they hardly speak at all—that’s a fail in the fluency department. Or, the students who toss all grammar out the window and rattle on—score that a loss for Team Accuracy. Culture also has a role here—students who come from school systems that are very strict—to the point of physical discipline for making mistakes—will understandably be worried about their accuracy.
So, how to walk this particular tightrope?
Watch your students. Pay attention.
The 4:1 Rule
When I was in college, I worked in an institution with mentally ill people, some of whom had serious behavioral problems. We had a rule of thumb: four positive interactions for every negative interaction. And even though teaching ESL is obviously a very different field, I think that that is still a good rule. For every five times that you interact with students in the class—for every negative one create four more positive ones.
Part of your role is to be as positive and encouraging as possible— to try to build up your students’ self-esteem. Otherwise, students may feel that their language abilities are inadequate or feel that they make more mistakes than they actually do. You need to encourage them to communicate. So that’s why in a conversation class that’s geared toward verbal skills, teachers will often put fluency above accuracy and ignore student mistakes that don’t interfere with the actual message.
Three Mistakes You Should Always Correct
However, there are three times where I believe you absolutely must correct, even if your goal is fluency over accuracy.
1. Communication failure. The first is if the mistake the student makes interferes with the listener understanding what was said. When communication breaks down and nothing ends up being communicated then of course you need to fix that.
2. Bad/inappropriate language. Sometimes students will have picked up language that can, unbeknownst to them, create some problems, hurt feelings or even strain relatinships. For example, using swear words or words that could be construed as racist or sexist. You absolutely must let students know when they use this language, as they may not be aware of the full meaning of the words or phrases and how using that language might affect their relationship with a listener.
3. Habitual mistakes. And last, but not least, high frequency errors. Listen for mistakes that are particular to that individual. If you can help a student correct an error that they habitually make, then you’ll be able to help their overall accuracy, not just their accuracy for that particular conversation or activity.
TED’s Tips™ #1: Pay attention to your students to find out what correction methods will work best for that particular group. Age, culture and level of English will all play a part in how receptive they are to constructive criticism.