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My thoughts have been a bit stirred up after reading a little bit more than usual of colleague opinion and political opinion on teachers’ learning processes of teaching behaviour, on language learners making errors and on how to deal with the latter. The following article here is a very good description of most people’s opinion:

What I find outstanding is that almost everybody praises making mistakes. As to me, I can go along with Anton’s and others’ view that we may learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. The logic is actually based on our inner monitoring system that praises us for our successes, which may often have no lasting effect other than magnifying our ego, but if not that bad, at least lets us fairly swiftly forget about what was actually successful. Let me see the next … On the other hand, for most people, especially with self-monitoring types of teachers, partial or larger failures don’t leave us alone, keep our minds working on our memories of what may have caused the problems, and even keep us awake for some nights. Man is basically a problem-solving creature, we could say.

As a result, we go on experimenting and adjusting. But it usually happens on the basis of justified knowledge and on our previously successful practices. We very rarely change our whole way of teaching for the sake of change. We usually do it gradually, and according to plans, rarely on that basis of on-the-spot decisions even when we feel something’s gone wrong in class. It’s also only our consciousness that realizes the problem, not that of the students, at least for a while. It’s the normal way of professional development to reflect and then change.

We mustn’t forget, however, that a teacher occasionally making mistakes while experimenting is still a teacher, he/she has worked for years successfully to become a teacher, and then as a teacher. His and her ego is not going to be hurt for long and he or she has the expertise and knowledge to find a way or two to get around similar problems the following time. But what about students?

A totally different story, we should realize. Even if feeling the strength of being in a group, sometimes or often against the teacher as the case may be, they are still fragile, psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, faced with the group, with the teacher, with groups in the street and with their own families, while they can’t rely on  a history of successes at whatever they also make mistakes of. In most cases, they make a facade of strength to cover their insecurities, in certain cultures to a greater extent than in others, but they do. This should be one basis of our handling the mistakes they make, be it social or linguistic mistakes.

The other basis is the linguistic effect of our corrections. Linguists maintain that making mistakes is not only natural, but it’s also beneficial to the students’ development of the target language, and it will be solved all by itself in time anyway. I may agree, but perhaps only to differ.

The benefits of making mistakes can be justified to some extent if we consider the students’ good feelings while they play with, fool around with the language freely. For a while. But how long? When we want them, because we have to make them, to use the real kind of foreign language, how can we explain why and why then, not later, and not before? A solution to this could be if we could devise parts of later classes as well when they are allowed to fool with the language. If only it were so easy! But, granted, playing games with the language is important for learners.

Then there’s the question of mistakes disappearing all by themselves with time. Yes, if the student has a long enough time, and a lot of casual input, they may. Over a decade or two, as it happens with lots of Dutch people. But school takes shorter, results must be achieved, or the final exam result will be less outstanding than what all concerned desired for. True, there was little pain at school, but also little achievement.

Which is alright for a lot of kids, but look, if that’s the way everybody looks at it, students, left on their own wishes to be corrected, would achieve just as little in Maths or History, Physics or Biology as in English. We wouldn’t like to argue against the notion of guidance, would we?

But guidance as far as foreign languages (or music and art, for that matter) are concerned is involved in a lot more than giving the knowledge of the teacher over to the students, explaining and then after a while giving them tests. The development and then results at “tests”, if that’s the desired end-result, is based on doing a lot of small things all the way from saying the first strange sound and word, through simple repetition of basic sentences, listening, reading aloud, making up or writing their own sentences and texts to real communication and thinking in the strange, new language that they don’t use in their lives for a while. The Dutch may also be exceptions as they watch English TV, and also those with time and enough money and the addiction who play games in English. But if even the latter type only meets language patterns used by other freak users of English, their language wouldn’t ever evolve to resemble the English language used by natives and well-educated professionals all over the world. Besides, other languages don’t have these added benefits, so the problem of correction and other teaching methods is still there, and I myself would not consider it professional behaviour to simply let my students talk whatever way they prefer.

With this last statement, I declared already, in the face of all opposition, that I’m in favour of correcting mistakes. The question is rather how and when, than whether, as I see it.

Taking the first basis discussed above, that of considering students’ fragility, I argue for soft correction approaches. I’ve seen many a student with good abilities and intentions not able to get over their weaknesses and mistakes after lots of years, in one case after nine years, simply because of the rarity of exposition to the language and to correction. People can be understood and can communicate quite well in a freak language, if that’s all they want to achieve with priorities elsewhere in life. But for real good language use, they must be corrected in school.

The soft approach means that not all mistakes deserve immediate attention. Lots of methodology books deal with how we can make a list during lessons of some of the mistakes made by the students and then we can tell them about the problems. My problem is, though, that if I start taking notes during the lesson and then later look at the notes and begin to quote their mistakes and faults, they will surely know next time when I start taking notes that they’ve made mistakes. It’s like political tricks – people and students are not stupid, even if sometimes mislead.

I like instead to make different small signs when the mistakes happen and quietly let them quickly understand that they’ve made a mistake and perhaps let them time to correct themselves. There’s also a lot in the literature about this. What I consider important is that during valuable communication in class I don’t frequently stop students to correct small faults. Communication being the ultimate goal for me, it is valued high above any problems with the language. On the other hand, if misunderstandings ensue, I must remember perhaps a chain of mistakes that led there, and I must be ready to help, which the context usually helps a lot anyway. If there have been a few smaller problems, I may quote a few by heart and we may discuss them.

Usually, if there’s a major language issue at the basis of the class and the discussion, I only concentrate on mistakes related to that. But in such cases the discussion must usually be preceded and supported by some directed, more structured task to practice the language item in focus, so not a lot of correction is necessary later, which makes it easier. But correction is feedback, a sign of developing in the right direction, so it must be given. In this respect, learning a language is different from other school subjects in that a mistake doesn’t lead the student, without being monitored, all by herself, to a realization of it – a mistake has no consequence in itself for the student because he/she usually can’t find out about what’s wrong and what’s correct on his/her own. In this respect, language learning is not the perfect way of self-experimenting with the world for the upbringing of geniuses. Only the teacher can draw the attention to the fault, reality has no other way to make its way.

After introducing new language, the ride gets tougher with group work, if the teacher employs that at all. Of course, some don’t risk group work, because he/she himself/herself feels insecure, not being able to be in charge of several groups at the same time. I admit that it’s daunting to follow a dozen students talking perhaps at the same time in groups of three or four (I don’t often find it beneficial to assign discussion tasks to larger groups unless the nature of the task demands so, because the smaller the group, the more chance everyone has to express themselves, leading to invaluable STT – student talking time). But I can assure you that with practice, most teachers can get used to identifying so many different voices in their classes, like a conductor can identify dozens of various instruments in the orchestra, sometimes each musician playing the same instrument. It takes time and practice. For me, it goes without saying that correction of mistakes during group-work is not only next to impossible, but it’s also unnecessary. The aim of group-work is fluency, remember, not accuracy, and some of us feel insecure with that in small groups. But it is a very important phase of language development. We will surely experience an enhanced wish on the part of the students to speak the language and a more relaxed atmosphere after group work, which is usually necessarily followed by class discussion, if for nothing else, at least for a summary of points collected in groups. Students will feel brave enough in that phase after well-prepared and well-performed group-work. Task-based learning is one major such system which utilizes group-work followed by class discussions, the ultimate variety being, as far as I’m concerned, the so-called ‘balloon debate’, but I’ve also created mock-political discussions as well, which led to several hours of great, meaningful and enjoyable language use.

During whole-class work, I’m sure that direct and ad hoc correction and practice of mistaken language is not a very good way of dealing with problems, except at the initial stage of presenting a new kind of language feature. Too strong criticism and correction from teachers may draw various reactions depending on the personality and the situation of the student. Some may react by closing in, and then our correction is lost on her/him. Some may react violently, provoking arguments and disrupting work. We don’t want that. Of course there may be some who take even strong correction well. The variation is endless. But I don’t jump on the opportunity to correct also because most students are vulnerable and ready to counter-attack, perhaps after class, when we don’t hear them. They feel urged to defend their pride in front of peers at the cost of the authority. I agree that they often don’t have other means of defense. So why stimulate this behaviour? If, on the other hand, they don’t feel attacked and thus intimidated by the authority, everybody has a good chance of escaping unscathed, and then the correction of the mistake can really build into the language system of the student as correct language use. And this is the aim, isn’t it?

by P.S.