Let them speak! Tackling oral error correction

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We all make mistakes – it’s inevitable. In our classrooms, errors are a natural and expected part of language learning. We think it’s obvious. We think we know this. Nevertheless, we plan our activities with the ideal learner in mind and expect the lesson to flow smoothly with learners interacting and speaking fluently. However, when we go into the classroom, it’s a different experience: we forgot that our learners make mistakes and that they have a right to do so.

We have moved away from only drilling grammar to a more balanced approach with the presence of not only accuracy-focused exercises, but also fluency-based activities. This means we have had to come to accept that we need to make way for errors. Mistakes exist and we have to find ways to tackle them. When learners are involved in a speaking task and we feel the urge to correct them, there’s always the risk of disturbing the flow of communication, and therefore, decreasing confidence and reducing learner motivation to communicate in the target language. 

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Here are some tips for dealing with spoken errors

Don’t correct language above your learners’ level

If one of your young learners is trying to express themself and they need to use the future tense (that you haven’t taught them yet), they’ll most probably get it wrong. Leave it. Let it go. That’s an error, not a mistake. It’s an error because you have not taught that language yet. Your learners cannot be expected to produce a correct utterance if it’s something that they don’t know yet. Perhaps you re-state their sentence correctly just to provide the correct form of input (and you also show you are listening and you care): e.g. ‘So, tomorrow you will go to your grandma’s house! That sounds fun!’ 

Now, if this same child has forgotten to use the auxiliary do when asking a question (something that you have taught), then this is when you want to step in and do something about it. This is an example of a mistake, not an error: getting things mixed up, using the wrong word, knowing the correct form, but failing to produce it. Usually, if prompted, the learner should be able to correct the mistake.  

Consider the aim of the activity

If you’re working on accuracy, OK, go ahead and fight the mistake. If you’re trying to improve your learners’ fluency, it isn’t a good idea to correct them while they’re speaking as they’re trying to convey an idea. You don’t want to discourage them. They’ll lose confidence in themselves and will feel frustrated in the midst of their thoughts.

Depending on the aim of the activity you might want to try: 

  • On-the-spot correction: Use this form of correction for accuracy-focused activities. This means correcting immediately, e.g. when practising the present perfect and a student uses the wrong form of an irregular verb.
  • Delayed correction: Use this for fluency-based activities, meaning after the speaking activity. This doesn’t mean to say: ‘Oh, we’re working on fluency now, so we’ll leave correction until next week.’ Instead, do it straight after the activity has finished. 

Don’t interrupt!

A basic rule of respect is to wait for your turn to speak. If someone is speaking, a colleague, a friend, your husband, your child, a learner, do not interrupt! There are different moments for correcting, but interrupting is never a good move. At the most, a confused look, a raised eyebrow or a gesture can be very powerful in giving learners a hint that something has gone wrong. The learner will most probably finish their sentence and then re-cap what they have said. If it’s still troublesome, repeat the mistake, narrowing down the focus until they get it: ‘He like swimming? He like? Like?’

Give wait-time

Don’t jump in to correct what was wrong. Indicate a mistake has been made (using the strategies above for not interrupting) and give the student a few seconds wait-time – see if they get the hint. Give them that little nudge. Don’t interfere too soon and let them think. They might be able to recognise their mistake and self-correct. Keep this in mind: the less you help, the better. Self-correcting can be much more powerful than having someone tell you where you’ve gone wrong. 

Another way to help a learner correct an oral mistake, without spoon-feeding the answer, is to have them find the correct form in their books, on the board, or on a poster. Just say, ‘Look. The correct version is on page xx/on this poster.’ Sometimes, learners don’t need much help at all, instead what they need is just a chance to try again. Give encouraging words: ‘Try again’, ‘One more time’ or ‘Have another go’. 

Make correction a step in your lesson plan

Use correction as a follow-up to your class activities. Go around monitoring, jotting down mistakes you hear. Start writing these mistakes on the board as your learners continue with the activity. They might just spot something they or their partner is doing wrong there and then. Next, bring everyone together as a group and use the displayed mistakes to be analysed together. Alternatively, you might want to write the mistakes on slips of paper for learners to look at in pairs. Make it anonymous but also encourage learners to think back to their oral production to identify whether it could have been their or their classmates’ mistake. Train them to monitor their language and reflect on their learning.

Give positive examples of mistake-making

Make mistakes yourself – on purpose! Let your learners spot the mistakes you make and correct you instead. Show how you deal with this: laughing at your mistake, displaying a positive attitude to their correcting and reflecting on your own language. If you’re teaching the younger groups, use a puppet who always makes mistakes. This brings in some humour and you can all learn to laugh at your mistakes and acknowledge that it’s OK. 

Work on acceptance!

Your learners will inevitably make many, many mistakes. Accept it. We tend to see mistakes negatively, but making mistakes can actually be a good sign! They are indicators that learning is taking place: that our students are trying to make room for new learning.

If I’m teaching my younger learners to say ‘It’s (a cat)’, they’ll probably start saying ‘It’s a blue’ when they could say ‘It’s blue’ perfectly well the day before. This is a sign that they are acquiring an implicit rule and so they hypothesize about it and apply it to everything: a great big positive sign!  

Learning a foreign language, means one is bound to make mistakes. Create a safe environment and encourage your learners to take risks. Allow them to speak and to communicate. Most of them haven’t got that chance outside the classroom. Praise them for trying and give them more than just one chance to get it right. The mistake isn’t the problem, it’s how we deal with mistakes that can cause more damage than help. 

About the writer

Sarah Hillyard is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and holds a Master’s Degree in Teaching English to Young Learners from the University of York, U.K. She has been teacher and coordinator at pre-primary level and is now ELT academic consultant for bilingual schools. She is tutor on NILE’s online course “Teaching English in Pre-Primary Education” (UK). She delivers webinars and teacher training sessions at conferences and schools and has published articles focusing on teaching English to young learners. She is co-author and series consultant for Pearson’s new pre-primary course “Little Stars” and primary course “Our Stories”. She used to be an actress with The Performers (TIE – Theatre in Education) and is now the company’s ELT consultant.

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