Error Correction

As I sit here staring blankly out the window of my Parisian suburban train, I find myself experiencing twenty minutes of earphone assisted peace. In this tranquility, many curious thoughts on teaching and learning start to materialise. Now, through tumblr, I have a way to needlessly share them with the public at large.

So without further waffle, let’s talk about error correction.

I was teaching a pre-intermediate class recently – the classic “present yourself” lesson plan. I noted a couple of their mistakes:

  • “I am studying here for 3 weeks.”
  • “I am unemployed since January.”

Instinctively, I prepared for a grammar session, in which students would have unquestioningly accepted their mistakes and noted the corrections. But in looking at these mistakes from another perspective, they represented examples of grammatically correct ‘chunks’ (for Michael Lewis fans), simply mismatched. For instance:

  • “I am studying here,” well formed positive progressive statement.
  • “for 3 weeks,” correctly constructed prepositional time adverbial.

In another context, matched with a different chunk, these constructions would have been commendable. So I took a different approach: I drew squares around the chunks, praised their formation and demonstrated alternative partner chunks that would have been grammatically appropriate.

This all sounds like “So, what’s new?” kind of stuff, but it went down really well with the students. It was like I lifted that layer of punishment or criticism that comes with mistake correction and replaced it with praise and discussion.

It reminded me that correction can go down differently with students depending on our approach. It also reminded me that delayed error correction, although arguably less effective than immediate feedback, is a stress-free and holistic approach whose overall benefits outweigh its disadvantages.

In conclusion, I’ve reinforced my belief that self-reflection concerning teaching in general is essential, and can lead to the kind of experimentation and habit-changing that allows us to better satisfy students’ particular needs. As you can imagine, I’m a big fan of experimental practice, and evaluating each experiment is the only way to really learn and improve as a teacher.

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