It’s a cliche, but there’s also some truth in this video. As Mark Bartram and Richard Walton point out in their seminal book, Correction, ‘You don’t correct a mistake, you correct a person.’
If teachers always jump on every little mistake, and fail to even vaguely listen to the message that the students are trying to communicate, the emphasis in the classroom will not be on communication at all, but on producing correct forms. And, surely, language is first and foremost about communicating? The students are also likely to stop trying to take risks with language, or produce anything original, and may even stop speaking altogether. The balance of power will be weighted firmly on the side of the teacher, who appears to be the only person ‘in the know’.
Perhaps this is why so many ESOL teachers that I observed while tutoring on a Diploma in teaching ESOL were happy/proud to say that they never corrected students. They seemed to feel that there was something inherently authoritarian and negative about correction. Incidentally, I specify ESOL teachers because, probably unsurprisingly, I’ve never found teachers who have been through the CELTA/Cert TESOL route who feel this way.
I started to wonder what it was about the way these teachers had been trained which had led to the formation of this belief. In some cases they hadn’t really been trained at all, but had got into teaching through volunteer work. Perhaps, in that case, it was, at least sometimes, a combination of not really knowing the language systems well enough to have the confidence to correct, and the slightly patronising and protective approach to students which can occasionally come as a result of well-intentioned volunteering. [Oops, I can see some angry comments winging their way already- note how tentatively I've phrased that point!]
Or perhaps it was the teacher training methodology, firmly rooted in the principles of andragogy, with its emphasis on self-direction and learning from experience.
However, while adult students (and not just adults) clearly need to be self-directed and learning from their experience, that doesn’t mean, I believe, that the role of the teacher is simply to present them with input or opportunities to speak and then step back. ESOL students in particular, have plenty of daily opportunities to read, speak or listen in English, but what they don’t have is anyone to give them feedback. I remember feeling really frustrated as a learner of Polish, living in Poland, when I finally realised that I had been confidently using the wrong case ending to buy something every day for about three years..and no-one had ever corrected me. Ultimately isn’t feedback (or judicious correction) the most important thing that we can do for our students?
In my next post, I plan to take a look at what exactly we might mean by ‘judicious correction’- when and how- but I’d be very interested in any comments on the whole idea of whether we should correct, and if I’m alone in thinking that it’s a particular issue in ESOL teaching?