This article was published on the ELT NEWS website, Japan as part of the ‘Think Tank’ regular feature.
When and how should I correct my students?
On teacher training courses I always called sessions on this area “Confirmation and correction” rather than “Correction.” They are two sides of one coin. If you work on confirmation techniques for giving positive feedback to students when they’re doing something well, correction becomes less and less necessary.
Confirmation means using the skill of attentive listening. You need to show students how carefully you’re listening to them with your eye contact, facial expression, body language. You should also indicate that you’re going along with what they’re saying. The best correction technique then becomes an absence of confirmation. You don’t even need to raise an eyebrow (a good correction technique in itself), you just stop giving positive feedback. If the student has made a slip (I’m going to follow Julian Edge’s terms here, so a slip is not a “mistake”), they have the chance to self-correct. Many perceived mistakes are slips, where the student knows as soon as they say something that they’ve slipped. In fluency phases, you might not want to call attention to these slips at all if the point of the exercise is communication.
In accuracy phases, where you’re working on a structure or a pronunciation point, confirmation and the subsequent absence of confirmation is enough to generate self-correction much of the time. When this fails, you have to decide whether to correct the student yourself or let a peer student come in. This is a matter of group dynamics. Some students prefer to be corrected by the teacher rather than a fellow-student. It depends on the group and how they interact.
You should make your intervention as minimal as possible. First comes lack of confirmation. Next I might choose signs or gestures to indicate the mistake. There are a series of gestures for time and number as well as pronunciation areas like intonation, stress and linking words. Then I might ask a leading question to prompt and direct them to the error. e.g.
- I go there yesterday.
- Was that yesterday or today?
If that fails, I’d reformulate and echo, “Oh, you went there yesterday?” The very last thing is to say “went.” or “You went there yesterday.” Try to eliminate “No!” and ‘That’s wrong” from your vocabulary.
I like Julian Edge’s category of “attempts” and the reformulation technique he suggests is the one native speakers use subconsciously with their own children.
- “I digged a hole in the sand and buried your car keys, Mummy.”
- “Oh? You dug a hole? That’s nice.”
Notice that it’s conversational, often employs a statement with an echo intonation, and that a comment is often added at the end to show that you’re continuing the conversation rather than simply correcting. Note that in my example parents (like teachers) can do this grammatically without actually listening to the content of the statement.
Every teacher has to make their own choices about whether a phase is accuracy or fluency. The line is not a firm one. Even in accuracy phases, students might be saying something that’s personally meaningful. For example, comprehension questions on a fixed text are an accuracy activity, but many teachers will move freely between comprehension questions on the text, and transfer questions. In doing so, you will naturally shift your attitude to the response.
- Did Red Riding Hood kiss her grandmother?
- No, she kiss … (teacher stops confirming) … she kissed …the wolf.
- Do you kiss your grandmother when you see her?
- My grandmother she die last week.
The ONLY appropriate teacher response is “Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that.” You’ve switched from a language lesson to genuine human interaction. You cannot correct. That’s the extreme example, work back and find the line from there.
Which brings me to another point which I’d like to repeat and stress. In real communication situations students are far more likely to be corrected for lack of appropriacy than for lack of grammatical accuracy. I watched a queue of foreign students in England buying ice-cream, and the seller firmly added “please” to each request in turn.
Student: Vanilla ice-cream.
Seller: Vanilla ice-cream, please.
Student: Vanilla ice-cream, please.
Seller: There you go. Next …
Student 2: Choc ice.
Seller: Choc ice, please …
Inappropriacy will often be inappropriacy of intonation patterns or body language rather than the choice of words. This is somewhat unfair because students from cultures where requests are more direct and evenly stressed can be perceived as “rude”.