This is the third (very belated) part in a series on oral correction. In the first part, I wrote about the importance of correction, and in the second about when to correct, so in this post I’d like to concentrate on the actual process of how to correct.
Let’s start by looking at immediate correction, while the student is speaking. The pros and cons of doing this are discussed here, but assuming that you have made the decision to correct immediately (and not just reformulate), how can you best go about it?
Most teachers would agree that it is usually best to try and elicit a correction from the student. The argument is that this will involve them in deeper mental processing than if the teacher simply provides the correct language. Some might argue that this is too difficult for the students, but I’d say that if they can’t attempt a correction even with help, then there probably isn’t much point in making the correction as it is likely to be something beyond their current level of competence.
But no-one can correct themselves if they don’t know what the problem is. Take this (fictional) example:
Student: I want to heat it.
Student: Sorry, I want to heating it.
Student: Er, I want heat it?
Teacher: No, you want to EAT it!
So, the first thing to consider is how you are going to help the student realise where the problem lies.
In the case above, the teacher could do a number of things:
- Indicate where the problem is by simply saying ‘pronunciation?’
- Ask a question to show the possible confusion- You want to make it hot?
- Repeat the sentence, stressing ‘heat’ in a questioning way.
Depending on the error, we can use a number of prompts to help the student self correct. Using a keyword, such as ‘pronunciation’, ‘tense’, ‘article’ and so on can be useful if the student knows the metalanguage. However, gestures can also work very well for giving the student a ‘nudge’.
Here are some useful possibilities:
Third person –s – Write an ‘S’ on the palm of your hand, so that when you open up your fingers the students can read it. In this way you can just ‘flash’ the –s whenever anyone forgets. (Be aware that in some cultures it is rude to show your palm however)
Word order– gesture with your hands swapping right over left to show that the order is different.
Missing –ly on an adverb. (E.g. a student says ‘I walk slow’) – Make an L shape with your hand (British and American teenagers sometimes use this to mean ‘Loser’ though, so use with some caution)
Tenses– pointing backwards for past, forwards for future and down for present (though a friend of mine thought that the teacher was teaching the word for table when she pointed downwards!)
Missing word- Spell out the sentence on your fingers (from right to left so that it runs the correct way for the students) and hold the finger representing the missing word, asking what word is missing.
Wrong word- Similar to missing word. Spell out the sentence or phrase, with one word for each finger and stop at the wrong word and ask them to correct it.
Contractions or linking – Again spell out the words on your fingers, then hold two (or three) together and ask students to say it again, putting them together. For example, ‘I would not have done it’ – you could hold would, not and have together to elicit ‘wouldn’t’
Contractions or short vowels sounds– You can pinch together your thumb and index finger to show either a contraction ‘I would’ – ‘I’d’ or to elicit a shorter vowel sound ‘sheep’ to ship’
If the student just can’t self-correct, and assuming you’re not asking the impossible, you then have a choice about whether to try and encourage a peer correction. I think it’s important for students not to jump in and correct each other too quickly, but it is useful if you can build a class culture where it is acceptable for students to correct each other. As Caleb Gattegno said, ‘A mistake is a gift to the class’. Knowing that they might be called upon, will keep students listening while you are working with an individual student to correct an error, and it’s likely that other students in the class will have similar difficulties, especially in a multi-lingual class. I would use this kind peer correction quite sparing though myself as the original student might start to feel too exposed. It’s a judgement the teacher needs to make, depending on the student, the error, the stage of the lesson, how long the first attempts to elicit correction have taken and so on. It might be better just to give the correction and move on.
However, in post-speaking correction, peer correction can be really useful. The classic way of doing this is to note down errors (and sometimes good examples) while the students are speaking, and then write them on the board without saying who said them. Students can then work together to correct them.
Variations include turning the activity into a grammar auction, where groups of students bid for sentences they believe are correct, or asking students to decide which sentences are correct or not before correcting as a class.
Students can also take on the ‘teacher’ role if you allocate an observer to each group doing a speaking activity. The observer should note down any errors (or examples of good language) that they hear. The group can then work on the language together as a follow up to the speaking activity.
Perhaps the key thing with all of these techniques is to remember and to help students remember that mistakes are indeed a gift. They are how the teacher can evaluate what needs teaching or reviewing, and they are often the moment when a student finally ‘gets’ something that they have never quite understood.