Error Correction: Examining Underlying Beliefs

Error Correction in ESL TEFL course trainerHow Much Correction?

Everyone comes to teaching with underlying beliefs about what a language is and how a language is learned. To be reflective in teaching, it is important to examine beliefs: where they come from, if they are well-founded, and if they need to be challenged and possibly changed.

What Was Your Experience as a Student?

Think back to when you were a student, even in learning to write in your mother tongue, how much and what kind of correction did your teachers give? Was each error highlighted?  Were you penalized for errors?  Did you have to write errors out and redraft your writing until it was ‘perfect’? Were you allowed  to make mistakes without any correction? Were you ever praised for making errors? Did you enjoy  or feel you benefited from the kind and amount of correction your teachers gave?  Why or why not?

Where Do Preconceived Notions and Beliefs Come From?

Past experience is where beliefs about what language is and how a language is learned are first formed. If we learned from experience that a language is learned from careful study of patterns, from repetition of correct utterances and every error should be corrected, then we likely believe that is what a good teacher must do to help students learn. While this approach may work for some situations and some learners, it is important to look at the underlying principles and question if they are appropriate for your learners and in all situations.

I was once conducting a TESOL teacher training course when a native English trainee who had no teaching experience interrupted a conversation  to correct the speech of a non-native English teacher with ten years of experience. Why?  The native speaker no doubt felt she was being helpful and that it was her duty to correct. To a native speaker, the error type could seem like an elementary error that ‘marked’ a beginner level of speech, an error that if left untended would be passed on to students; It was omission of the third person singular –s ending in the simple present tense: “He take the bus to school”-.

Did Correction Help?

No, it was detrimental in many ways. It was the wrong time and place because first it interrupted the flow of the conversation. It was not an error that caused any miscommunication. Second, it  embarrassed the non-native speaker and set up a feeling of antagonism amongst the participants.  Lastly, the correction didn’t help the speaker in any way.  If people are playing a game, do you jump into the middle, and stop the game just to tell someone they don’t know how to play ‘properly’?   This is touching on an underlying belief that many people have with regard to language, that every error should be corrected and it is the duty of the native speaker to correct the non-native speaker.

How many times have you experienced either personally trying to use a second language or observed when another non-native speaker was corrected by a native speaker and little was accomplished except humiliation and ill will? Share your thoughts below via Disqus!

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