To correct, or not to correct? That is the question…
Actually, no. When it comes to teaching languages, it is much more nuanced than that. Rather the question is how, when (and when not) to correct in order to achieve the maximum benefit to learners in terms of language development and motivation.
Investigate the subject and you will soon discover that there is a spectrum of opinions concerning the role of corrective feedback in language learning. Some say that uncorrected errors become habits with negative consequences that can persist for years. Others insist that errors are a vital part of learning and that excessive correction from the teacher negatively affects motivation and self-perception as a language learner. Occasionally, these beliefs are tied to the teacher’s own preferences as a language learner, but more often they come from the broader educational context and the expectations placed on students and teachers.
There are abundant examples of people who take up a language in order to communicate with its speakers. However, to say that these people represent anything more than a small minority would be a stretch. Most are language learners because they are compelled to be as part of their program of formal education. You might be wondering why this matters in a discussion of corrective feedback? Well, when it comes to formal education, the objectives of the system rank above those of the learner. I’m not sure about you, but the education systems I’ve participated in (as a teacher and a student) were focused on numerical assessments as an indicator of how well a student has grasped the curriculum. In such environments, minimizing errors is incentivised over experimentation. Plainly put, a student is judged to have “learned better” if she or he commits fewer errors.
If these are the standards for judging student success, is it any wonder that there are teachers who feel obliged to correct every error? Thankfully there is a trend in language learning to weigh the relative merits of accuracy against other factors such as the ability to communicate. Greater concern is also being given to the learner’s feelings about the language learning experience. It is now known that learners who report negative feelings (e.g., anxiety, embarrassment, frustration, etc.) are less likely to persist with learning the language over the medium and long term. As such, consensus is building around the opinion that classroom practices that provoke such feelings (e.g., excessive correction) ought to be abandoned.
Language teachers are increasingly wondering which approach to corrective feedback will result in the best balance between improving accuracy and encouraging experimentation. While there seems to be no single magic recipe, I’ve assembled a set of basic principles that can help language teachers understand when and how to offer feedback that is both helpful and motivating.
One size does not fit all
These days it is not unusual for a teacher to have students of various ages and backgrounds, especially in the world of online language teaching. Needs will vary, so don’t assume that all students will benefit from the exact same approach to correction. A student practicing for a presentation or speech contest will have a different attitude than one one who is learning in preparation for a holiday to an area where the language is spoken. Be aware of the learner’s goals, and (as much as possible) balance these with external expectations.
Timing is everything
As a child, you may have had the experience of excitedly telling something to your mother or father only to be interrupted with a correction to some minor grammatical infraction. It was as if the importance of what you were saying was dwarfed by that of the mistake you made. It probably felt discouraging. Students, too, may feel this way if you disrupt a moment of true communication with a correction to what they’ve said. There are no hard and fast rules about this, but as a teacher you must use your judgement to decide whether or not the moment is right to offer correction.
You are probably familiar with the expression “all things in moderation”. Well, it applies to corrective feedback as it does to things like eating, drinking, or shopping. While a learner may insist that they want correction, will they still feel the same when it’s offered on nearly everything they say? Not only is incessant correction likely to discourage the learner, it also reduces the value of each unit of correction. The more errors the teacher indicates, the less able the learner is to address any one of them.
Ask yourself this: What type of activity was the student engaged in when the error occurred? In order to offer valuable correction to language learners, it is essential to be aware of the broader context. If a mistake happens while the learner is practicing a particular form or structure, then it is best to offer immediate correction to prevent it from becoming ingrained. On the other hand, if the learner has been asked to explain what she or he did last weekend (a communicative task), then the teacher would be better to react to the meaning of what is said rather than the form. In this context, only errors that affect the meaning of what is being expressed should serve as the focus of corrective feedback.
Where to go from here?
The issue of corrective feedback is too complex to address in a single blog post, but I have put together a guide that offers greater detail and a bit more insight into the types of corrective feedback and how they are best employed in teaching languages. If you would like to get the Language Teacher’s Guide to Corrective Feedback, click this link and give us your details. We’ll be sure to send it to you right away.