Oral correction- insensitive or vital?

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?

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

celta compendium cover


Filed under Correction, Speaking, Teaching methodology

27 Responses to Oral correction- insensitive or vital?

  1. Pingback: Oral correction- insensitive or vital? | Teachi...

  2. Taking into account that we always correct people not mistakes, the so called “judicious correction” seems to be indispensible. As far as my humble opinion is concerned, when we talk to people using the right phrases, those that had been previously used by the speaker, however, in an incorrect way, the students can be given “soft feedback” and by listen to the native speakers quickly learn how to use the words or phrases in the correct way. Warm greetings from Poland.

    • Hi Kinga,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that reformulation can be be a useful technique- though I think there’s room for more direct approaches as well. I’ll write more about this next time 🙂

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  4. Alan Newcombe

    I think it really depends on the types of mistakes made by students and their relative language skill set.For example I recently had to literally correct all my 6th grade students who were pronouncing regular verbs in the past- tense as walk- ed etc.I presume they had been given this pronunciation as a model, or not been corrected by their previous teacher.Also if a student is reading aloud and making many mistakes then instantaneous correction will be counter productive.A great way to correct is to listen,take notes then put both correct and incorrect phrases/ sentences on the board and ask students to determine correct and incorrect and ask them to correct the errors. Having taught the Direct Method to adults, also where every mistake is instantly corrected I believe that certainly all adults crave appropriate methods of correction.With younger students we have to apply different strategies the key being obviously not to prevent fluency but rather to encourage it.Like the writer I am living in a different country and prefer to be “appropriately” corrected to enable me to use the correct forms.Consequently I believe that appropriate correction is a crucial component in any lesson whether during or afterwards.

    • Thanks very much for commenting. You make a number of good points, but the one that really stands out for me is the difference between adult learners and younger learners. I agree with you that adults are more likely to benefit from explicit correction, not less as the teachers I mentioned believed, as they are likely to be learning in a more conscious way.

  5. I read a really interesting article on the debatable effectiveness of grammar correction in ESL writing courses. It summarised that learners expect and desire corrections despite not actually learning much from them. It was specific to writing, but given the evidence in my classrooms I suspect the same is true for speaking. I’m currently working with colleagues of a similar mind to develop a focused, sensitive and above all genuinely useful way to offer feedback. It’s not easy!
    *the article was by Ronald Gray on iteslj.org

    • Thanks very much for the reference ( http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Gray-WritingCorrection.html). Interesting reading. Broadly speaking, I agree with much of what he says. Certainly, I think it’s true that a student has to be ready to take a creation on board, to get that aha moment. Also, I think that noting general areas of difficulty and then preparing a lesson around them is a lot more effective than lots of little individual corrections. However, I probably wouldn’t agree that written correction doesn’t work at all. mind you, I’m not sure Gray does either, it’s just a good grabby statement, isn’t it? It’s a question of recognising its limitations and seeing how it can be used most effectively, rather than just assuming that the more red ink the better.

  6. Gayle Lightbody

    You must correct! The secret for me is to do it for the right reasons. Everyone gets muddled. Is it a one-off or recurrent problem? Is it an unacceptable error for specific level as prescribed for many international exams? Is it just a bad day for a tired student? A flexible teacher will be able to correct according to situation and how well he knows the student’s language. I started teaching in a school where a policy of mortifying the students at every breath really left both teachers and students shivering wrecks at the end of a fairly unsatisfactory lesson. Sometimes I make notes and at the end of a lesson set a small piece of research homework, without specifically pointing out who and when. Sometimes another student will point it out for you.

    • Thanks very much for commenting. I couldn’t agree more that it’s a high level teaching skill to judge what to correct, when to correct, who to correct or not, and then how.

  7. Adrian navarro

    I personally think feedback is necessary as you said. What I like doing is taking some notes when my students are talking, trying not to stop them unless there’s something none of the other students can understand (nor even myself). After that I write examples, not only of their mistakes but also of their use of good expressions or correct utterances, on the whiteboard so all together can discuss them.

  8. galya

    As a CELTA teacher approaching the end of my first year of teaching, I LOVED this post! I think feedback is the most important part of my job – students can pick up a book and learn the grammar rules, but without a teacher, they don’t get the all important feedback – both positive and negative, which gives them the safe environment to practice the language, and the confidence to use it.

    That said, I do worry about the negatives of giving TOO much correction in my general English class, and focus on the mistakes students make the most often.

    I’m curious about exam prep groups though – is there such a thing as too much correction for these students?

    • Hi Galya, I think you’re right to be selective about correction, and frequency is definitely a good criteria. I’d say there is still a need to be selective with exam classes, for the same reasons as with non exam classes..not to overwhelm them. As we’ve said, the student has to be ready to ‘hear’ the correction.

  9. Mark Bartram

    Hi Rachael, Thank you for mentioning our book, and for the interesting discussion. Three points spring to mind, and which might provoke further discussion. The first is that at the time we wrote the book, there was a general feeling that teachers corrected too much, and often as a knee-jerk reaction to a mistake, rather than a principled decision. The second is that teachers that I meet in seminars often say that correction has very little effect but they insist on doing it anyway! That strikes me as odd. The third is that correction is often inconsistent in its coverage – teachers (including me) tend to be much hotter on grammatical mistakes than, say, collocational or intonational mistakes (because they’re easier to spot, and also to correct). I think the fundamental question is whether the time we spend on correction is well-spent, or whether it wouldn’t be more efficient to spend that time on other ways of improving our learners’ language, eg more input, more speaking practice. Mark

    • Hi Mark,

      Three very good points, and I agree with all of them! I was trained at a time when there was still a feeling that you shouldn’t let anything slip by, and it’s definitely much more complicated than that. In fact, it’s terribly difficult to make these decisions on the hoof, especially, as you say, when we should be thinking about a lot more than whether the student has missed the third person ‘s’ or the article.
      The point about doing it even if you feel it’s pointless is odd, but I think it’s probably as much about being seen to do it as anything. Students still sometimes ask for every mistake to be corrected, though interestingly a lot less than they used to IME. I guess it’s a way of showing that you’re listening and that you have the knowledge to do it. Which, of course, are not great reasons.
      I do think we shouldn’t be spending lots of time on scattered around correction, however, I think it’s still as essential bit of seasoning to the main dishes of the input and speaking practice, and without it, they can be a bit flavourless!

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  11. I personally like and use “reformulation”, and whenever possible I also try to do what Adrian Navarro mentions: taking notes of relevant mistakes and commenting on them at the end of the lesson without addressing any student in particular: “these are some mistakes I’d like you to pay attention to…” Everybody takes advantage of it.

    • Hi Sonia, I like both those techniques too, especially the second one. With re formulation, I think it’s a good way of offering the opportunity to notice for those learners who are ready for it, but it’s tricky to do well, without descending into teacher echo.

  12. Sorry to be predictable, but here is the angry comment. First, I totally agree with you that correction is important, and that we all have to take a good look at not just whether we correct, but also how and when we do so. However, I do not understand why you make the assumption that ESOL teachers are less likely to be familiar with language systems than CELTA ones. This has not been my experience, and I have worked extensively with both groups of teachers.
    Further, I agree that the two groups have different ways of negotiating the space between learner and instructor. However, “patronising” is a loaded term that does not seem appropriate here.

    • Hi Joanna,
      I’ve just re read what I wrote, and I can see why you’ve read it as being about all ESOL teachers. However, that was not my intention. I taught ESOL myself for a number of years, and there are certainly many many teachers in the sector who are very well informed about language systems, and who have a much more generally rounded knowledge of education than those who have only taught EFL In private language schools.
      However, I still think that, particularly when you look at ESOL teachers working in the community, there are a surprising number who have not been given any training at all in language awareness, just PTTLS if they’re lucky, and who don’t therefore correct language, or teach it really, because they don’t have the confidence to do so. Instead they provide plenty of opportunities for learners to USE language, which is helpful, but by no means all that a teacher should be doing.
      To go on t the patronising comment, obviously that’s was intentionally loaded and provocative and definitely not a feature of the whole sector, not even a feature of all of those without much training, but, again, I do think it exists. I have had quite a few teachers explain to me that they don’t correct (at all) because it might upset students, which seems to me to miss a good part of the point of being a teacher. feedback, and correction is part of feedback, is something that learners may well not be able to get from anyone but their teacher.

  13. Rob Jenkins

    Native speakers themselves make lots of grammar book “mistakes” based on their own regional usage. I am from the UK and there are many regional differences in usage and of course pronunciation.

    For example, in Cardiff (my hometown) they speaks like this, doesn’t they? I loves you, gorgeous. etc etc

    Now we all understand the speaker but a TEFL teacher would be alarmed to hear a student make such a clear grammatical error.

    Many native Irish speakers use the verb bring when we might expect a take “I have to bring my mum to the airport to catch a plane.” ” I would of had of gone there…” to name just a couple that we may have heard when in contact with locals from the Emerald Isle.

    How many would dare correct the Irishman here or the man from Carediff (note the local pronunciation!) ?

    Now , if a student is taking an exam of course, then standards are set and required to be passed in order to gain a certificate that will be recognised by an employer or university admissions officer. So surely correction here is essential.

    I think a paying student will expect to be corrected but subtly and politely, and then be given an opprtunity once corrected to incorporate the correction into their English. Why point out a mistake and then not drill the student so that the mistake is corrected?

    I personally believe hearing fellow students making the same mistake may make a student feel less conspicuous but don’t we have here a case of the blind leading the blind?

    A teacher will possibly permit mistakes to promote confidence but while the students are speaking the teacher should jot down as many mistakes as possible and then read those mistakes out giving the poor perpetrator the possibility to correct before the teacher gives the correct form, It may not be a good idea to allow fellow students to correct as this may create tension. Clear correction rules might be agreed upon at the start of the course by all concerned so that a class is conducted in the most comfortable atmosphere possible.

    Tyrants, go back from whence you came !

    • Hi Rob,
      That’s a great point about agreeing correction norms with the class, and can give an opportunity to explain why you won’t be correcting EVERYTHING if that is what is initially requested.

  14. Pingback: Seizing the moment: when to correct students’ spoken language | elt-resourceful

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