Tag Archives: error correction

Tips and techniques for correcting spoken errors

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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.

Teacher: No..

Student: Sorry, I want to heating it.

Teacher: No..

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.

 

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Filed under classroom ideas, Correction, Teaching methodology

Seizing the moment: when to correct students’ spoken language

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Assuming you believe that there is some value in teacher corrections (see my last post), the next question might be when to correct.

In my initial teacher training, I was taught that the teacher should correct during stages which focus on accuracy, and not interrupt while students are producing language in a ‘fluency’ stage (though you could note down errors to focus on in a group feedback stage at the end of the lesson).

Broadly speaking, I still think that’s good advice, but, as we have moved away from very rigidly PPP lessons, with clear stages which first focus on accuracy/controlled practice and then have a final fluency or free speaking stage, it has become harder to always judge exactly where the focus is at any given moment. And, anyway, is it always a ‘no-no’ to correct during a fluency stage?

I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer as to when to correct, but here are some factors I think are worth considering, in no particular order. You might have some more, or vehemently disagree. If so, please do comment.

1 Is it actually an error (something they haven’t yet properly understood or assimilated) or just a slip of the tongue? You might wait and see if it appears again.

2  Is the error quick and easy to correct, or to get the student to correct? If it will require a lot of explanation, maybe the student isn’t ready for it yet, or it might not be worth taking them and the class off topic (though see point 6).

3 Is the error something which the class is currently focusing on? If you have been looking at, say, past simple irregular endings, and the error is one of the verbs you looked at earlier, then correcting (or eliciting correction) might be useful for everyone, even if it’s in a nominally ‘fluency’ stage.

4 Is the error something that really impacts on communication? If no-one can understand what they are trying to say, or they are likely to completely misunderstand, then it probably needs dealing with- either immediately or later.

5 Is the error something that a lot of students habitually make, or are likely to make- will the correction be generally useful for the class?

6 Following on from that point, if a lot of students are making similar mistakes, it might be better not to correct them immediately and, instead, plan a new lesson around the area of difficulty, or, if you’re confident about it, change the direction of the lesson in order to focus on that point.

7 Finally, consider how this particular student is likely to react to being corrected. If they are shy or don’t usually speak out, you might decide to let something go in order not to knock their confidence.

In my next post, I’ll look more at how to correct, including who can make the correction and some different techniques for correction.

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Filed under Correction, Speaking, Teaching methodology

Teacher echo, teacher echo: helpful, or greedy and controlling?

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Recently listening to Cecilia Lemos’ great talk on recasting as a form of correction, and how she had decided it was not always very effective,  I started thinking again about teacher echo.

Recasting is repeating an utterance which is incorrect, in the correct way, hoping that the student will notice it. As a technique, it has its roots in the ‘strong’ communicative approach, and is based on what parents tend to do with young children, as they are learning. However, there is quite a lot of evidence that students rarely do notice recasts. For example, Havranek (1999) recorded 1,700 examples of recasts and found that:

–          Half the errors were committed again shortly afterwards

–          Less than a third of learners even remembered the correction (and if they did, it didn’t mean that they later produced the language correctly)

–          Peers did not notice the correction of others

So, if repeating an incorrect utterance correctly is probably of quite dubious benefit, why would teachers ‘echo’, or repeat correct utterances?

The most common reason given is that it provides learners with another opportunity to be exposed to the language. This comes from the same roots as the notion of recasting, and assumes that learners learn a second language in the same way as children learn their first language. But, as we have seen, learners don’t tend to notice or respond to the teacher’s repetition, even when there’s something salient in it.

The second reason teachers give for echoing is that it helps other students to hear what the first student said, as students are often prone to mumbling. This may certainly be true, but does it encourage the students to speak up and make the effort to communicate with each other? Or, rather, does it give the impression that the only communication which counts has to go through the teacher?

Which brings me to my third point (which, to be fair has never been offered to me as a reason for using echo). Habitual teacher echo massively increases the amount of teacher talking time. Now, I’m not against teacher talking time, per se. Good quality input from teachers is a wonderful resource. However, automatically repeating every utterance like a parrot is not good quality input. It just takes up valuable space and time.

And furthermore, people do not actually communicate in this way in real life, so it gives the impression that the interaction is not real in anyway, that it’s simply a mechanical exercise.

So, in answer to my own question, I would say that teacher echo is very rarely helpful, and that, while it may be a deliberately contentious over-statement, it is quite controlling and greedy. There are also a lot of much better things you could be doing to provide high quality interventions (more on this in a future post).

If you do want to see how much echoing you actually do, it’s really worth recording yourself teaching. This is pretty easy to do unobtrusively with a mobile phone, and may surprise you.  It’s also likely to improve the quality of your teaching, as raising awareness is the first step towards making conscious decisions about the kind of interactions you want your class.

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Filed under Speaking, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

Responding to students’ writing

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

I have called this post responding to writing, rather than error correction on writing, as I believe that there is a lot more to responding to written work than simply correcting errors.

To begin with, it is very important to respond to the content of the writing as well as the form. Otherwise we risk being like this teacher:

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

When we assess a piece of writing there are various questions we could ask:

  • Is the content interesting and/or appropriate to the task?
  • Is there a clear sense of audience (who the writer is writing to or for) and is this reflected in the language chosen?
  • Are the ideas well organised? Is there a sense of ‘flow’?
  • Does the writer use paragraphs and connectives well to help get their message across?
  • Does the writer use a good range of vocabulary in an appropriate and flexible way?
  • Can the writer structure sentences accurately, and with variety and flexibility?
  • Is spelling and punctuation accurate, adding to clarity?

It is, I think, important that we look at the questions further up the list, as well as picking out discrete errors with word choice, agreement, spelling and so on. Equally, it is important that learners are thinking about all of these areas as they write and rewrite.

Yet most feedback from teachers still tends to focus on error correction. Why? Could it be that it is actually a lot easier for teachers to give feedback in this way?

When students give peer feedback on each other’s work there is also a strong tendency to concentrate on discrete items, such as grammar and spelling, rather than looking at the whole. I suspect that this is both because it is easier, and because this is what has been modelled time and time again by teachers.

In fact, some would argue that focusing on these discrete items (by teachers or students) is not only just part of the whole picture, but may even be pretty much a waste of time. Truscott famously argued that ‘grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned’

Of course, other academics, such as   Ferris (2006)  disagree, but it is true to say that no-one (as far as I know) has yet come up with any hard evidence that grammar correction makes any dramatic difference. This post by Jeff McQuillan, on The Backseat Linguist reviews several studies which purported to show the positive impact of correction and concludes that, considering the huge amount of time and effort expended, the difference made was not really very significant. McQuillan also cites a study showing (no surprise here) that extensive reading had a much more noticeable beneficial effect.

Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a correction code to mark work from time to time. It can be a helpful way of focusing on accuracy, and perhaps has the added benefit of encouraging learners to proof-read their work more carefully.

However, I also think it shouldn’t become the default position when responding to students’ work.

In some very interesting comments on my post about process writing, Simon Marshall and Brian Morrison (@ButeBob) make alternative suggestions:

  • Using the Microsoft comments function to rewrite a small section of the text in a more fluent and/or appropriate way.
  • Focusing on what is successful about the writing- such as more complex or sophisticated language.
  • Pushing/encouraging students to try and make ‘safe’ language a little more sophisticated.

To these I would add:

  • Where possible, conferencing with students about their writing, rather than (or as well as) giving written feedback. This makes it easier (and actually less time consuming) to explain why something is wrong and what could be used instead.
  • If conferencing isn’t possible, try using the comments function not to reformulate, but to provide metalinguistic comments- explaining as you would face to face. You are unlikely to have time to do this in detail for all your students,  but even selecting a few key aspects to comment on could be very helpful.
  • Reformulating (as Simon suggests), rather than correcting. As well as using the comments box, you could reformulate a certain section of each essay, such as the introduction in an IELTS Part 1 essay. Or you could choose an essay (perhaps from a previous group, and anonymous) and rewrite the whole thing, asking students to then make comparisons between the two versions.
  • Deciding (perhaps with the students) whether to focus on paragraphing, linking, vocabulary, grammar, accuracy, range etc,  rather than trying to cover everything.
  • Correcting grammar mistakes or using a correction code, but choosing to focus on just ONE area (such as articles). This should help to make the point more salient, and thus students should notice and retain more.
  • Using models to help students learn about the different features of different genres, so that they can start to use them themselves (this fits in with McQuillan’s point about extensive reading)

And finally, bear in mind that in all likelihood, different approaches and methods will suit different learners, so it may be a good idea to provide a variety of ways of responding and correcting.

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Filed under Writing