My father taught me a venerable but valuable maxim: It’s not a mistake... it’s a learning opportunity.
I’ve taken this advice to heart, and I apply it in my classroom to help students become less self-conscious and discouraged by their language mistakes. Gone are the days of punishments and humiliation for giving an answer other than the ‘correct’ one. As ESL teachers, we’re in the business of encouraging fluency, which is so closely tied to confidence that we must consider carefully every opportunity to build up our students’ self-belief, and their readiness to spontaneously contribute, no matter the ‘risks’ of making a mistake.
I remind my students that mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning process, and they are absolutely inevitable. My students are often mystified when I announce, “Mistakes are wonderful!” or “Being wrong is the best thing that can happen!” This is especially true of students from Asian cultures which sometimes seem to offer little alternative to the correct answer except harsh criticism from classmates and teachers alike. This promotes shyness and silence – two of our greatest enemies in the classroom – and, although it is often deeply culturally engrained, I endeavor to uproot this philosophy from the outset and replace it with a classroom atmosphere which is tolerant of mistakes, and even encourages them.
Over the years I’ve developed some methods of correcting my students’ mistakes which embody this light-hearted, compassionate approach. Every education system is different, although I have always felt that producing language, imperfect as the results might be, is the fastest – and perhaps the only – way for our students to improve. I urge my fellow teachers not to let mistakes create obstacles to production, but to use them as examples, and then move right along.
8 Effective Methods To Correct With Compassion
I’ve found, time and time again, that gentle encouragement and a respect for the vagaries of the learning process serve so much better than criticism or sanction. Consider these aspects of error correction for your ESL classroom (or elsewhere).
Target Your Corrections
If we pulled up our students for every mistake they made, it would dominate the class and create unnecessary anxiety. Choose language points on which to focus, and ignore the rest. These points could include:
- Grammar and vocabulary which was covered recently, or which will appear on an upcoming test.
- Mistakes which are influenced by the students’ first language (L1). Examples of this include ‘Chinglish’, the result of habituated, direct translation from Chinese to English.
- Long-standing problems. An example would be Spanish-speaking students who drop the final ‘s’ from nouns and verbs, or Koreans who confuse /p/ and /f/ sounds.
Encourage Peer Correction
Advice is often readily received from friends and classmates, while corrections from the teacher carry a certain weight which might promote nervousness. Open up the problem to the class, rather than correcting it yourself, to turn the mistake into a shared learning moment.
Laugh It Off
Many mistakes are funny, and some are hilarious; many ESL teachers keep a diary of the comical errors they encounter. Humor more deeply etches the moment in the students’ minds, raising awareness and increasing the chances of self-correction in the future. Laughter also evaporates the seriousness of the moment, a good reminder that learning should be fun.
Send It Back with Interest
The majority of language mistakes are spotted and corrected by the students themselves, but only when they’re made aware that the mistake exists. I embody the principle of ‘Ask, Don’t Tell’, so when I hear a mistake, I send it back as a question. For example:
Student: Last weekend I go shopping. Teacher: (Raising an eyebrow) Go? Student: Oh... sorry... Went shopping... Teacher: Much better!
Perhaps three-fourths of error correction in my classroom is done without my having to say anything. A system of gestures can be used to quickly communicate all of the following:
- Word Order (crossing hands)
- Tense (thumb back over your shoulder for the past, pointing at the floor for present, pointing into the distance for future; alternatively, simply tap your watch)
- Third Person Endings (draw a big ‘S’ shape in the air)
- Fragmented or Short Answer (expanding hands gesture)
- General Reminder (hands on hips, waiting for a better version; this works best for mistakes which are rooted in language points the class has repeatedly covered)
- Be Careful! (a raised finger or other body language which communicates ‘caution’)
- Can Do Better... (a frown, carefully deployed, shows the student they have missed something)
- You Got It! (thumbs up, as soon as the problem is corrected)
- Not This Again! (exasperated eye rolling, or pinching the bridge of the nose; this works for mistakes which almost everyone has learned to self-correct, and which the teacher might deliberately have turned into a ‘pet peeve’ to further raise awareness)
- One More Time? (cupping a hand to your ear and leaning in, as if you had missed the student’s first try)
Blame the Product, Not the Student
Particularly when correcting written work, I always try not to say, “You’ve spelled this wrong,” or, “Your grammar is poor here”. Use the passive voice instead: “This sentence needs to be re-thought,” or, “This article would benefit from a little more editing,” or, “Could this be expressed more clearly?”
A great many ESL errors concern tenses. Many of our students’ first languages do not conjugate for tense, or use a grammatical particle (as in Chinese) to quickly express chronology. If the student forgets a time expression or fails to conjugate, I often simply throw in the question, “When?” This is a shorthand way of asking, “When did that happen?” and always gets the student thinking. I make the point repeatedly that, unless my students take care of their tense-related grammar and time expressions, I won’t know what they mean.
Let It Go, then Track Back
Especially when the students are reading aloud, I try to let pronunciation and intonation errors go until the student has finished reading, and then go back to fix them. Marking the problem on your own copy is helpful. So as not to single the student out, I normally drill the pronunciation issue with the whole class.
The compassionate raising of awareness and the building of our students’ capacity for self-correction are both hard-won skills for a teacher, and I hope these tips help to create a language environment in which your students become used to another favorite maxim of mine: don’t be shy – give it a try!
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