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Response: Effective Strategies For ELL Error Correction

This week's question is:

What are the best ways to deal with error correction in the second language classroom?

Error correction in the English Language Learner classroom is always a challenging and controversial topic.  How do you balance students learning correct grammar and pronunciation, while at the same time wanting to encourage them to develop confidence to use the language?

Today, Anabel Gonzalez, Katie Brown, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, David Freeman and Yvonne Freeman, and readers, offer responses to this challenge.  You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Anabel and Katie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here (by the way, I have also posted - late - a great conversation I had with Andrew Miller, Suzie Boss, and Meg Riordan that relates to last week's topic).

You can read my thoughts on the topic at a British Council post I wrote last year, ESL/ELL error correction - Yes, No or Maybe?

In addition, you might want to explore this collection: The Best Resources On ESL/EFL/ELL Error Correction, not to mention all the previous posts in this column about teaching Teaching English Language Learners.

Speaking of ELLs, Katie Hull Sypnieski and I will be leading a free Ed Week Webinar on April 28th on the topic of English Learners and the Common Core: New Instructional Strategies. It coincides with the publication of our new book, Navigating the Common Core With English Language Learners. Ed Week has recently published two book excerpts.

Response From Anabel Gonzalez

Anabel Gonzalez is a Secondary ESL Teacher with the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina. She teaches students in grades 7-12 of various backgrounds, languages, and English proficiency levels. She has been a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory since 2014. Follow her on Twitter @amgonza:

"To err is human, to admit it, superhuman." - Doug Larson

To err is not only human, it's an integral part of language acquisition. While I'm officially an ESL teacher, to my students I'm also a motivator and cheerleader. From day one, I tell them to shed their pretense and shame. In my room all questions are valid and no error is too grave. I am also straightforward about the fact that while I am very tolerant and forgiving, others may not be. Outside of my classroom, my students may be misunderstood, misjudged, laughed at or mocked because of their broken English.  Life is likely to be difficult for them because of their language limitation, but that should never deter them from attempting to communicate in English, and I vehemently encourage them to press on.  

Errors don't define us and neither does our language proficiency or lack thereof.  Once ELLs shift their perspective, they are more able to freely err and embrace corrections not as setbacks but as stepping stones.

Nevertheless, error correction is a double-edged sword. Correcting for perfection can stifle fluency and cripple motivation. Yet, in order to strive for growth and improvement, we must be able to seek and identify errors, not shun them.

In order to strike that balance, here are a few points to consider when correcting errors:

  • Focus on the message. If the mispronunciation does not grossly distort the message, either subtly correct them by restating it using correct syntax or simply ignore it.
  • Watch for trends. Rather than correcting during a conversation or reading, watch for repeat offenses and address them at an appropriate time.
  • Use them as examples. Citing common errors can help meet a lesson objective.  
  • Focus on the positive. Before pointing out corrections, be sure to celebrate the growth.
  • Suggesting Tool. Using Google Drive's "suggesting" tool enables students to see changes and offers them the choice to accept or reject the correction. While they may generally accept a teacher's input, this tool makes them self-edit.
  • Individual conversations. Whenever possible, meet with students individually and ask them to share their thoughts as they wrote. Sometimes, a misused word completely alters  the message and clarification helps to accurately edit the piece. Most importantly, it validates their ideas and emphasizes their message, rather than the errors.  
  • Peer review and editing.  This works well when there are mixed proficiency levels. However, beware of the "blind leading the blind" resulting in undetected errors and/or more mistakes.

Erring is part of personal and academic growth. Most babies will fall countless times before learning to walk. An invention is rarely successful from the first try. Language acquisition is no different. While we should be careful not to overcorrect, we must help learners acknowledge and correct errors, giving them the opportunity to, as Doug Larson stated, become "superhuman."

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Response From Katie Brown

Katie Brown is an ELL Specialist, Teacher Leader TOSA, and the 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year. She has been teaching for 12 years in Bellingham, Washington where she has taught middle school Language Arts, Social Studies, AVID, and ELL. In her current role, she supports diverse learners through a combination of direct student support, instructional coaching with teachers, and family engagement. Katie also facilitates professional development in her building, district, and the state. You can find more ELL resources on her website: www.mycoachkatie.com:

What are the best ways to deal with error correction in the second language classroom?

The best ways to correct language errors with our students who are learning English is to do so in a way that preserves the student's dignity and self-confidence. This might look and sound different for each individual child. I'll discuss this generally and then get down to some specific examples.

I believe that students want to be corrected. They want to read, talk and write as best they can. But HOW we correct them is what we need to focus on in order to make sure those corrections stick.

You may be familiar with second language theorist, Stephen Krashen, and his affective filter hypothesis. This is one of the most important theories to understand if you are trying to deal with error correction. The affective filter hypothesis states that variables such as motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety can play a large role in the development of a second language. For example, if anxiety is high, this emotion can block input to the brain.  In a second language classroom, our goal should be to lower the affective filter so students are willing to take risks and make mistakes. We can do this by creating an environment where students feel safe.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you make an error correction:

  • What's the learning target and success criterion for this lesson? In other words, what specifically are my students learning today, and what will it look like or sound like if they got it? If a student makes an error that pertains directly to the target, then correct indeed! If they make an error that isn't relevant to the target, make a note of it and stay focused on the learning at hand.
  • Is the student actually making an error, or is it just a mistake? An error usually occurs consistently. You notice it again and again. If it seems like a simple mistake, maybe wait and see if they make the same mistake again.
  • Does the error cause a breakdown in communication? In other words, does the error prevent the student from getting their ideas across, or do you still understand what they are trying to say? If it doesn't impede natural communication, I would hold onto the correction for now unless it is part of the learning target for that day.  
  • Is the error correction going to cause the student embarrassment? Consider other students and adults in the room, the context, and your relationship with the student. One strategy would be to try to help the student recognize their own error by providing an example and asking them what looks different.

Personally, the best way I have found to correct the errors of my students who are learning English is to create a classroom environment that expects and enjoys mistakes. I try to infuse humor into our learning and highlight mistakes that make us laugh. I try to speak and write in their languages so I can make mistakes too.

Most importantly, I celebrate what they are doing right.

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Response From Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, PhD, has taught kindergarten through university and is the former Dean of Education at the Universidad de las Américas in Quito, Ecuador and former Director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning (IDEA) in the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. She currently conducts educational research with the Latin American Faculty for Social Science in Ecuador and teaches "The Neurobiology of Learning and Sustained Change" at the Harvard University Extension School.  She is the author of Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science and Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching.  Her current research focus is on neuroscientific influences on early math education and pre-literacy skills. Watch Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa speak about mind, brain, and education science here, and visit her at http://traceytokuhama.com/:

Errors are a part of all learning. As a teacher, I often tell my students that I don't care how many mistakes they make, so long as they are always new ones.  A student's self-perception as a learner is vital in his actual success as a learner. This means there is a great burden on the teacher to create the right environment in which everyone can "dare to err" in order to grow.

One of the reasons that small children learn foreign languages so quickly is not because "they are sponges" but rather because small kids have small egos. Most children under five years of age aren't really bothered when an adult corrects mispronunciations or grammar; they accumulate new rules as they go along and, as a result, learn quickly because their egos don't get in the way. The older we get, however, the bigger our egos become, which makes public error correction embarrassing. Additionally, as older learners we often have errors related to literacy, not just speaking, increasing the number of mistakes we are likely to commit. It takes a special kind of teacher to know how to create the right environment to correct mistakes and encourage experimentation at the same time.

My own three children were raised in four languages, and I watched them become proficient multilinguals with a variety of tactics, which had different levels of success depending on their ages, stages of language development, and personalities. To summarize their processes, however, I would have to say that the best way to correct errors in all three of their cases was through modeling. 

When they were younger, I found that they quickly corrected themselves when faced with a native speaker's proper use of language patterns. If, for example, my son would say "I goed to the park" instead of "I went to the park," it was my job as his first language teacher to model the correct sentence pattern. To do this I said, "You went to the park? I went to the park, too!" which would maintain the general conversational tone, correct the error, and not explicitly call out the mistake and create embarrassment.

As the children grew older and had literacy to contend with, I saw several distinct tactics from different types of teachers. In German, the teachers would explicitly cross off words, mark up my children's papers with coding indicating the type of error and have them re-write their work. In French, the teacher would correct different types of errors, one at a time, over several drafts, which would reduce the number of marks on the paper and allow the children to focus on specific aspects of language individually (verb tense one day, vocabulary the next, accents marks later, etc.). In English, I allowed them to write freely and to focus only on the content of the writing, not the form, so they would develop their creative voice and vocabulary. In Spanish, the children were asked to write outlines of their proposed responses to a given assignment, which were corrected, then move on to the introduction, which was corrected, then on to the body of the argument, which was corrected, and so on, until they completed the assignment.

I am happy to say that all of these approaches worked in their own ways and that my children (now all in college) are multiliterate and multilingual. In retrospect, however, I see how one of my children loved the order of the German system and hated the repetitive nature of the French. My second child, wildly creative to this day, felt more freedom in English than his other tongues and struggled with the re-writes required in other languages. My third loved the order and clear rules of the Spanish and German techniques but also found his argumentative and debate-driven expression easier in English. This means that all of the teaching models worked to an extent, but their individual personalities responded differently to yield varying results.

So, what is the best way to correct errors in second language classrooms? Model correct language usage in an environment that celebrates mistakes because they are evidence that the child is learning. This places a large weight on teachers, who need to adjust to different ages and stages of development as well as to different personality types by subtly correcting faults in ways that individual learners will accept. Learners who are open to correction learn faster, but most students, no matter their age, dislike public disclosure of their mistakes. This means our job as teachers is to help build openness to corrections, but also to protect students from the humiliation of being told they are wrong in front of their peers.  We can do this by creating a culture of evaluation that realizes that errors in second language classrooms are to be expected, celebrated, and corrected through modeling.

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Response From David Freeman & Yvonne Freeman

David and Yvonne Freeman are professors emeriti at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. They have published extensively on ESL methods, bilingual education, linguistics, reading, and second language acquisition:

"I am boring."

"I have lived here since two years."

These are errors typical of second language learners, the students García (2009, 2010) refers to as emergent bilinguals. Students who acquire English as a first language seldom if ever make errors like these. Instead, native speakers might make the following errors:

"I bringed a toy to play with."

"There is two boys over there."

These are normal errors that disappear as children move through the developmental stages of language acquisition. While teachers usually assume that native speakers will make these normal, developmental errors, they may feel that they should correct the kinds of errors emergent bilinguals make.

However, research by Krashen (2003) and others suggests that error correction for emergent bilinguals that involves explaining the grammar rule involved and providing the correct form has little or no effect on students' ability to speak without errors. A better approach is for teachers to model the correct form in their response. When a student says, "I am boring." the teacher might respond, "If you're bored, maybe you should choose a different book to read." This type of response is similar to the way parents respond to the messages their child is communicating, not to the child's grammatical correctness.

If teachers stop to correct grammar during oral interactions, emergent bilinguals do not improve. Instead, they may forget what they were trying to say, or else they may simply avoid talking. However, it is only when they engage in classroom discussions that English learners' oral language improves, and they move through stages of second language development.

With written language, emergent bilinguals have time to edit their work, so they benefit when teachers provide feedback on errors by using formative assessments rather than by teaching traditional grammar rules. MacDonald and her colleagues (2015) describe a four-step cycle for formative assessments. The teacher plans instruction, gathers language samples, analyzes the samples, and provides formative feedback. The feedback is designed to affirm students' achievements and then outline clear next steps that students can attain.

For example, emergent bilinguals might write a report and make no transitions from one paragraph to the next. The teacher could discuss how to connect paragraphs using conjunctions and give students examples of conjunctions they could use to connect their paragraphs. Then students could work in pairs to help one another add conjunctions to make their writing more cohesive. This approach is much more effective than teaching grammar rules or simply correcting what students have written.                                                              

Teachers in classes with emergent bilinguals should take different approaches for responding to oral and written language. During classroom discussions, teachers should respond by providing correct models while keeping the focus on meaningful dialog rather than by correcting errors. On the other hand, teachers should use formative feedback that identifies and helps students focus on specific aspects of their writing. What is most important is to engage students in meaningful activities during which they use oral and written language for authentic purposes. In the process, emergent bilinguals will develop greater proficiency in their second language.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Anabel, Katie, Tracey, David and Yvonne, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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