Error Correction in Language Teaching

  • This essay is a short review of one specific aspect of Brown and Larson-Hall’s 2012 introductory book Second Language Acquisition Myths. In particular, this review addresses the myth of error correction, which Brown and Larson-Hall phase as “Language Learners Always Benefit From Error Correction”.

Introduction

The question of error correction is certainly perplexing to many of us language teachers. Not only which form of correction, but even how to correct children as opposed to adults. As a teacher cited in Brown and Larson-Hall’s (2012) Second language acquisition myths  says, “[c]hildren make adorable mistakes” (p. 105; italics mine). Adults generally do not make adorable mistakes. The intersection between age and correction-type then, is in the center of this so-called myth. In my personal experience however, it seems the authors miss a few important factors in their deconstruction of this myth.

Beyond declaring one type of error correction better than another is the idea of dynamic correction (or assessment) (Lantolf & Poehner, 2011). Additionally, this myth is ripe for native-speaker bias in which native-speaking teachers correct what they perceive as errors, but what may actually be a more creative act of self-expression. Finally, while perhaps beyond the scope of their book, no mention is made of the philosophical concerns related to evaluation, both negative and positive. The categorizing and approving of specific types of error correction, which is the hallmark of the science cited in the chapter, seems to miss what I have experienced in my own classrooms as a more messy relationship between learners and educators and the process of evaluation.

Error Correction

Prologue: Native-speaker bias

Native-speaker knows best

 

To begin this discussion, I want to first address a problem present in the book, which goes largely unaddressed. In the chapter on error correction, the teacher “in the real world” (p. 105) points out an English construction they view as a grammar mistake of helping verbs and their objects. The teacher identifies the construction, “Let’s English!” as grammatically incorrect, because let requires a main verb (e.g. “Let’s do/eat/finish it!”). The teacher expresses the frustration of many when she says, “I have to admit that sometimes I just give up and say, OK let’s English! Corrections seem to do no good in some cases” (Brown & Larson-Hall, 2012, p. 106).

Verbing nouns is not uncommon in so-called native English. In my own classroom, we often play the card game Coup (Indieboardsandcards, 2016), where each player has two cards with names of certain kinds of people on them, like Duke, assassin, captain and so on. Each of these cards can perform certain actions in the game, like tax or exchange. When performing your action, it seems reasonable that you would use the verb to declare your action (e.g. “I will tax and take two coins!”). However, after a few games I, their teacher, began saying, “I duke your foreign aid”. instead of “[As a duke], I block your foreign aid”. The students soon caught on and began verbing the names of all the cards.

As a native speaker, I seemingly have the authority to be creative with my so-called errors. However, had my students begun doing the same thing without my help, would I have corrected them? I hope not, or at least I hope I would figure out a better way to understand why they did it. If it was a genuine mistake, I suppose I would want to help fix it. But if it was self-expression and creativity, well then why do I have the right to self-express, but not my language-learning students? The grayness of the two is nearly impossible to tease apart.

Recasts vs prompts

Brown and Larson-Hall (2012) end their chapter on error correction by advising teachers to use explicit prompts which both draw the attention of the learner to their error and provide an opportunity for them to correct it. Especially for low-level learners (and younger learners), explicit correction makes it clear what the teacher is expecting. This conclusion follows from the research provided, where two different types of error correction (recasts and prompts) are studied in experimentally sound conditions and generally prompts produce the kind of language improvement teachers look for.

Recasts, the authors note, are the preferred type of error correction by many teachers. They seem less intrusive to the language production of the learner and less directly evaluative. However, students, especially young learners, don’t seem to pick up on grammar corrections if they are not obviously pointed out.

This follows from the experience of everyone who has learned a language. The only time recasts happen naturally in the world is when interlocutors A) physically can not hear the speaker or B) the meaning of the word or sentence was unclear. In other words, recasts are communicative repair tools that people use to understand the meaning of each other’s speech. Additionally, it is generally found to be very rude and pompous to correct another person’s grammar in this way.

Explicit prompts, on the other hand, interrupt the learner’s communicative act, in order to step-down and address the grammar. I find that this interruption, especially in the beginning, may be surprising or annoying to students, but the research suggests that bringing learners’ attention directly to the problem helps them notice it. As long as the student is paying any attention to their teacher, their mental resources have to switch from communication to logical thinking about language.

This categorizing and evaluating error correction types seems to show that, of course, explicit prompts are better. However, we need to think more clearly about what our categories do. In many enterprises, category formation focuses specific content as exemplary and tends to ignore content on the boundary. When we think of error correction strategies then, it seems that explicit prompts are the best fit for the category.

Dynamic assessment

There is another way to think about error correction however. Instead of categories, we can think about error correction continuums, where the type of error correction selected by the teacher should meet the need of the learner. Instead of simply using “more” of one type of correction over the other. I believe that dynamic assessment (DA) (Lantolf & Poehner, 2011) provides a better method for error correction than simply preferring explicit prompts over recasts.

DA can allow teachers to see more clearly what level their learners are at, beyond just “can do X, can’t do Y”. It asks teachers to address a learner at the stage they are at. If a learner makes a mistake, but has almost nearly mastered the content, it may only take a questioning look from the teacher to make the student realize their mistakes. Other students may not even know that they don’t know they made a mistake. The point is, the teacher needs to listen to the student, identify where they fail to address their problem, and give correction at a scaled level. This changes the suggestion we would give teachers. It’s not simply be more explicit, it’s: meet your learner where they are.

Evaluation

Negative and positive evaluation

In my view however, this discussion of good, better, best jumps ahead to quickly. No mention in the chapter is directed at the concept of correction fundamentally. At a basic level, correction is a type of evaluation that goes beyond identifying good or bad production to providing opportunity to correct it. However, acknowledging the root of evaluation is important because it raises important philosophical implications for our language teaching and learning.

Earl Stevick in his language teaching book A Way and Ways (1980) notes that while negative evaluation is at times seen as controversial, positive evaluation is more often assumed to be good no matter what. This is seen as a mistake and it is argued that positive evaluation can be as harmful as negative. Stevick (1980) describes the use of evaluation as establishing an “evaluative climate” (p. 23) in the classroom. This climate is a tension between what is called the performing self and the evaluative self that resides in all of us. This is linguistically evident in phrases like “I’m my own toughest critic”. Often that is the truth. However, the same tension that we all at times inwardly feel is often unknowingly established in the language classroom through any type of evaluation.

Stevick (1980) illustrates this idea by an experience he had with a german friend who once told him, “Oh, I like talking with you. You use such correct grammar” (p. 23). This immediately made him self-conscious of his grammar, whereas he wasn’t before. I also felt this same tension while talking to people in Brazil. Often after “hello”, people would comment “Wow! you speak such good Portuguese!”. This experience always led me to feel pressure, because I knew that after a few minutes of talking, they would realize I didn’t actually speak such good Portuguese. I just happened to say “hello” very naturally according to them. This experience happens much more often in Korea, where any knowledge of Korean by a western-foreigner is met with much praise and adoration.

Natural evaluation in language

The issue with positive evaluation in the classroom, I think, lies in the way we naturally express positivity towards the language use of other people when they speak. In a phrase, we don’t. We signal satisfaction with the words of other people by attending more and responding to their language use. When someone says something interesting, we say, “That’s (the content)  interesting!” or “Well said (the content)!”. It would be seen as patronizing to say, “Very good on your grammar”.

Brown and Larson-Hall (2012) acknowledge this idea when they talk about the teacher who reacts communicatively to the content of their learner’s mistakes of “have” and “be” and this is how I try to signal error correction in my own classroom. I try to show interest in the content, while also signaling that the error is in the language itself, not the semantics. It is a difficult thing to do.

Conclusion

The word myth is something of a sledgehammer. It lacks nuance. It certainly is false that learners always learn from error correction; however, it is a very strangely worded myth. Brown and Larson-Hall (2012) handle the scientific debate between different types of error correction in a way that is probably helpful to many language teachers, but I wonder if they don’t in some ways only change the problem quantitatively and miss a greater opportunity to really address the issue with correcting language learner errors.

The scientific categorization of error correction types divorces the ecological practice of teachers and the needs of students. It says “this is better quantitatively” without perhaps addressing the qualitative issues and fears of teachers and students in evaluation.


References

Brown, S., & Larson-Hall, J. (2012). Second language acquisition myths. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 

indieboardsandcards. (2016). Indieboardsandcards.com. Retrieved 5 March 2016.

Lantolf, J., & Poehner, M. (2010). Dynamic assessment in the classroom: Vygotskian praxis for second language development. Language Teaching Research, 15(1), 11-33.

Stevick, E. W. (1980). Teaching languages: A way and ways. Rowley: Newbury House Publishers.

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