A couple days ago, EdWeek published a blog entry about students’ mistakes–how they make them, and how the way teachers handle them can be helpful or harmful to the student. Although it seems the writer was drawing from his experience with younger, first language students, I still drew a lot of parallels to my experiences teaching English as a Second Language.

The gist of the article is that when we as educators rush to fill the gap of empty space where a student is struggling to find the correct answer, we leave him/her with several negative impressions:

  1. that if you’re quiet long enough, someone will swoop in and provide you with the right answer
  2. it’s not OK to struggle to find the answer
  3. you don’t have to take an active role in your own learning–it’s voluntary
  4. you don’t have any responsibility in this situation; just shut down and I’ll save the day.

I was immediately transported to my MA Tesol days, where we spent at least a couple of weeks discussing the pros and cons of various forms of error correction. Of course, recast was the lowest of the low–lock it in the closet for its ineffectiveness. We also have explicit feedback, which can sometimes fail to produce modified output; clarification requests (which I’ve actually had a lot of success with in getting students to “fix” their errors); metalinguistic feedback; elicitation; prompts; repetition; and translation (Rezaei, S.; Mozaffri, F; Hatef. A, 2011).

As a teacher, I often weigh in my mind the best ways to point out and correct errors to my students. I tend to have a lot of success with the “just pausing” level of elicitation, where I leave a gap of silence and let them work it out on their own. I teach Level 3, which translates to intermediate(ish) in a lot of cases, and at that level they have the ears to hear when things don’t quite sound right, even if they don’t always have the skills to form the perfect output–yet. In the same vein, I have found that repetition (combined with a bit of strategically placed inflection) also helps students to hear that what they said “sounds funny” and actually does result in uptake.

Still, in the classroom, as the Ed Weekly article said, we can’t help but to “feel” for our students, right? They’re kind of on the spot and they’re searching for the right word or answer…the clock is ticking..everyone’s eyes are on that ONE girl…and it almost becomes more merciful to just go ahead and supply the answer instead of letting them slog through the mental quagmire.

In my classroom, I often find students racing each other to supply the missing words and broken links, no matter how many times I remind them that I’m the teacher. I’m teaching in Qatar right now, and I think it could be related to the culture–here, it’s very big for students to “help” their friends (as opposed to it being some sort of competition between students, I mean).

In any case, we can all pretty much agree that when we race to provide the answers for students it doesn’t do them any favors–those answers don’t even stick as well as the ones students reached all the way back into their minds and dragged to the front do.

I know that going forward, I will definitely keep the Ed Weekly article in mind when I’m handing students’ answers, and I will try to foster a classroom culture where I encourage students to allow space for mistakes and for thinking. It is, after all, simply a part of the learning process.

Resources:

Rezaei, S.; Mozaffri, F; Hatef. A; Corrective Feedback in SLA: Classroom Practice and Future Directions. International Journal of English Linguistics. Vol. 1 No. 1.; March, 2011

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2015/10/students_learn_from_error_but_we_dont_allow_it.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB

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