13 Mar Correcting Learners’ Speaking: Should We Still Bother? … 13 Questions to Consider
Author: Ilinca Stroe
“… so she get out of the station and start walking in the dark. No one in the street and she feel a bit scary. She not know where she go, exactly.” This is one of your students telling you how his sister-in-law got lost at night in a city she was unfamiliar with, during a business trip last winter. Your student, perhaps a pre-intermediate learner, is quite a fluent and confident user of English. Yet, obviously, his speaking could use a little more accuracy: he doesn’t use past tense (which, incidentally, you’ve taught repeatedly this term) to tell you about a past event; he doesn’t use the 3rd-person ending for present-tense verbs; he doesn’t use the auxiliary for present-tense negative forms; plus “scary” instead of “scared”…
But the story sounds gripping enough, he tells it well, creating atmosphere, etc., and you do understand what he wants to say, despite the errors. So: should you correct him or not?
For many teachers, there are (well-grounded) psychological reasons not to correct spoken English errors (or at least not on the spot): correction may make students feel intimidated, it can interrupt their flow of speech and break their train of thought and concentration, it can inhibit their oral production. Instead, we decide we’ll favour fluency over accuracy, and we refrain from correcting their speaking altogether.
For others, inaccurate oral production is intolerable, so they provide immediate correction as soon as an error comes out of the student’s mouth. That, of course, turns the learner’s speaking into a highly fragmented piece of communication replete with interruptions, which few classmates are patient enough to keep listening to. Accuracy is maybe gained, but meaning tends to get lost, along with the pleasure of verbal communication.
The two extreme attitudes are both to be avoided. No correction at all means no progress in accuracy and continued low language awareness. Also, let us remember that nowadays, given such an impressive amount of free language-learning resources that people can actually learn a language on their own, without a teacher, error correction is one of the major contributions teachers can (indeed, should) make to a learner’s progress. In other words, why should learners attend classes given by teachers, instead of home learning by themselves, if teachers don’t help them upgrade their English?
Error correction definitely falls within a teacher’s in-class responsibilities. But it should be done in a balanced way which benefits, not inhibits, the learner’s speaking. And the key seems to be that teachers correct selectively: to discriminate between the mistakes which we can let go (as they’re perhaps mere slips which don’t impede the meaning), those that need correction because they might hinder intelligibility or risk becoming permanent, and fossilised errors (like in our initial example) which, if not corrected, cause the learner to reach a plateau beyond which there’s no further progress for them.
Also, timing is very important in error correction, with teachers having to opt for one of two choices: either correct errors on the spot or go for delayed (post-activity) correction. On-the-spot correction implies interrupting the student while s/he is speaking, and may have the psychological effects (inhibition, intimidation, etc.) already mentioned. But in the case of fossilised errors teachers might have to do just that: be mercilessly firm and interrupt to correct promptly, or else those errors will be impossible to uproot, ever. On the other hand, delayed correction implies careful monitoring by the teacher during the speaking activity, and subsequently discussing the mistakes made. A lot friendlier, this latter type of correction also occasions useful reactive teaching, perhaps revising previously taught structures, perhaps tackling new language points.
There are EFL authors who maintain that, instead of “error correction”, we should speak of “managing mistakes”. Indeed, conducting error correction in a way that ultimately improves the learner’s speaking and oral communication in English requires a bit of a management process: decision-making in any case, as teachers often have to think on their feet in class, while students are carrying out a speaking activity, and make a fast decision about whether to interrupt and correct or to delay correction.
So for a better management of learner mistakes, two authors in particular, M. Bartram and R. Walton, in their work Correction, encourage teachers to consider these (not unhumorous) questions when deciding whether or not to let an error go:
- Does the mistake affect communication?
2. Are we concentrating on accuracy at the moment?
3. Is it really wrong? Or is it my imagination?
4. Why did the student make the mistake?
5. Is it the first time the student has spoken for a long time?
6. Could the student react badly to my correction?
7. Have they met this language point in the current lesson?
8. Is it something the students have already met?
9. Is this a mistake that several students are making?
10. Would the mistake irritate someone?
11. What time is it?
12. What day is it?
13. What’s the weather like?
- Does the mistake affect communication?
Last but not least, we should always bear in mind that the ultimate goal of error correction is, beyond better accuracy and correct speaking, beyond increased language awareness, this: shaping the learner’s self-correction ability. Once our students have become able to correct themselves, we know we, as teachers, have accomplished our mission: we have helped produce independent, autonomous users of English.
International House Bucharest runs regular CELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre, as well as training events on site or at partner locations. To sign up for a course or event, contact email@example.com.