How to correct speaking mistakes and not discourage students from opening their mouth?
When it comes to correcting students’ mistakes, I have a mental picture of my university tutor in my mind. My role model. I can vividly remember her attitude to our mistakes or wrong answers in general. Always careful not to interrupt us while we were speaking. When we said something wrong, she never frowned or said ‘No’ or ‘That’s not how it is said in English’. Instead, she corrected us in a subtle, indirect manner. For example, she used to say: ‘Are you sure?’ or looked at the whole group with a question ‘Do you agree with what your friend has just said?’. She kept asking until she found someone with the right answer. We were allowed to make mistakes. Mistakes were tolerated, nobody felt discouraged or unwelcome in the classroom.What a relief! What a refreshing and inspiring experience for me, her student, a teacher-to-be.
Obviously, mistakes are inevitable in the process of language learning. We need to take risks, fail, see our mistakes and try again to learn anything new. What lurks from behind students’ poor contribution to conversation classes is probably the fear of being wrong, making mistakes and losing face in front of their peers. Clearly, it is the teacher’s role to create a student-friendly atmosphere in the classroom and draw out those who do not step forward. We can do so by showing a positive attitude towards students’ attempts to speak and enouraging them to take risks with the foreign language. This is the only way to develop their confidence, fluency and overcome their reluctance to speak. Below I present a list of techniques for correcting students’ speaking mistakes which I have observed and adopted over the years in my teaching practice.
DO NOT CORRECT. Ignore the mistakes, at least for the time being. When students give a speech or speak spontaneously in pairs, immediate correction will intimidate them, make them lose the train of thought and simply discourage from participating in your classes. Ignore the mistakes for the sake of fluency and classroom dynamics. Leave your comments till the end of the class.
Encourage your students to SELF-CORRECT. Do not correct on the spot. Instead of giving them ready answers, give your students a chance to think and self-correct. They will probably realise and correct their own mistake. If you encourage students to self-correct, you develop their autonomy and raise language awareness and responsibility for the level of their English. This will foster their ability to manage a conversational exchange with a native speaker or classmates with no need to lean on the teacher.
NON-VERBAL WAYS OF ERROR CORRECTION
Teachers can indicate a student has made an error without using a word. Below you will find various examples of how to use one’s body language to convey this information. These are exaggerated, theatrical gestures or facial expressions which trigger students to rethink their answer. You can develop your own range of signals that you will use in your classroom. Consider the following:
- the look. When you spot a mistake, give your student a hint with a raised eyebrow. This should be enough to make them scan their answer,
- putting up a red grammar flag or a toy when a student has made a mistake,
- gesturing backwards when a student fails to use a verb in the past,
- crossing your hands or fingers to signal wrong word order,
- pointing your finger to your ear to indicate gross mispronunciation,
- waggling your little finger or writing a big ‘s’ in the air to show the lack of ‘s’ ending for plural or third person singular,
- silence. Do not be afraid of it. Do not give any feedback for a few seconds or move on to another student immediately. Just wait for the student’s reaction. Let them think and revise their answer. Students need time. Give them a chance to self-correct,
- putting your thumbs up as soon as the student has corrected their mistake.
Using gestures will remove any seriousness and criticism from correcting errors and add some humour and lighteness to your lessons.
Use VERBAL CORRECTION techniques as a last resort. You might: ASK a question: ’Is there another way to say that?’
REPEAT the wrong sentence with a rising intonation or a funny facial expression. For example, when a student says:’I went to school with your boyfriend’, you may ask: ‘You went to school with my boyfriend?’.
Repeat the wrong sentence PAUSING before the wrong word so that the student can complete it correctly.
PEER CORRECTION. Some students find it easier to accept correction from their peers. Engage the whole group in error correcting. This way you make sure the rest of the group do not mentally switch off when someone gives a speech. You could for example distribute some slips of paper and ask your students to note down any mistakes their friends have made. Then collect the slips and read the sentences aloud without mentioning any names. Poll the students if the sentences are correct or not and come up with the right versions. Clear up any doubts and write the correct sentences on the board. Alternatively, split the class into pairs or small groups and ask the most able ones to act as a teacher and correct others’ mistakes.
DELAYED CORRECTION. When students give a speech or are engaged in a conversation, do not interrupt them with any comments. What I like to do is take notes of their mistakes in my notebook and leave my comments till the end of the lesson or after all the students have finished speaking. When taking notes, I divide mistakes into logical subgroups such as: grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. At the end of the day, without mentioning students’ names, I report the mistakes back. Students probably recognize their sentences but they are not targeted. We discuss the mistakes and then write the correct versions on the board. I believe these sentences will sit in their heads as the most correct. I keep these records, revise and come back to them in a week or two. For the next class, I prepare an exercise which covers the structures they had problems with. Occasionally, I set aside a quarter at the end of the lesson to meet one-on-one with my students, to comment on their mistakes, review their progress in speaking and set targets for the future.
Some mistakes are hilarious. Share them with your students, help them see the HUMOUR of the situation.
When you correct your students’ mistakes, bear the following in mind: OFFER CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM. Don’t be all negative about mistakes. When you discuss students’ performance one on one, start with a positive comment, for instance: ’You have used a lot of sophisticated vocabulary and advanced grammar structures but …’ Show your students you appreciate their effort and contribution.
BE SYMPATHETIC. When you comment on your students’ mistakes, use a tone of voice and body language that help them accept criticism. Give them support with encouraging words such as ‘Good job’ or a smile.
BE SELECTIVE. We don’t have to correct every single mistake that we spot. Focus on target mistakes, which are key to your lesson aims, ignore non-target mistakes for a moment. Choose only one or two that hinder understanding. BE SUBTLE. When you comment on students’ errors, avoid using their names. Do not use negative, straightforward feedback words such as wrong or bad grammar as they are intimidating.
Mistakes help teachers pinpoint problems with grammar that their students have as well as check and encourage progress. When I explain some grammar structures to my students, I like to refer to typical mistakes. My favourite grammar book of all time, Swan’s ‘Practical English Usage’, is based on common mistakes. It is divided into a lot of short articles, each of which begins with a list of typical mistakes that learners make. Then there are examples of correct usage provided and the grammatical problem is discussed. I literally read this book for pleasure during my academic years. To conclude, when we think of error correction techniques we need to consider factors such as the stage of the lesson, students’ age and lesson goals. We need to be aware of whether we need to focus on ACCURACY or FLUENCY. Different techniques are advisable during the presentation or practice stage of the lesson, when we introduce new material to our students and do a lot od drilling exercises. Then it is important to correct any mistakes on the spot. Different techniques should be employed when our main goal is to develop FLUENCY. Let’s not treat mistakes as a necessary evil but as a learning opportunity. I believe this attitude helps students overcome their reluctance to speak English. Sometimes it’s probably the fear of both speaking English and speaking in public.