Sunday, 1 April 2012

Correcting Speaking Errors

What follows is a summary of a talk Scott Thornbury gave during a recent webinar on error correction.  He proposed that there are at least ten ways to correct an error in spoken English.

Let’s take as an example the common mistake:

‘My sister’s very beautiful.  She has got a long hair.’

1.   ‘No.  She has got long hair.’

2.   ‘No.’

3.   ‘No.  Anyone?’

4.   ‘No.  She has got ………?’

5.   ‘No. ‘Hair’ is uncountable.’

6.   ‘Oh, a long hair?  Where is it?  On her nose?’

7.   ‘Oh, she has got long hair, has she?’

8.   ‘Oh, really?  My sister has got short hair.’

9.   ‘Sorry?’

10.                ‘Good.’

Methods 1 – 5 are explicit error correction, where the student is clearly told that they have made an error.  Methods 6 – 9 are implicit error correction, where the students are not actually told that they’re wriong, but their error is implied.

Number 6 is correction through humour (or sarcasm!), perhaps reinforced through drawings or mime.

Number 7 is recasting or reformulation – a benign way of giving the learner a chance to correct themselves.

Number 9 indicates misunderstanding and invites self-correction.  Another way to do this would be to make a clarification request.

Number 10 is the humanist approach – that is, to ignore the error completely!

Dismissing the last method as being totally ineffective in the language classroom, which of the others have merit?  Well, all of them to some degree.  Over the last 20 or 30 years of EFL teaching, implicit methods of error correction have been favoured because they are more like original language acquisition.  However, current thinking is that we need to be more direct as teachers and that explicit correction is best.

There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning.’

So, in conclusion, when your students are wrong, tell them! 

And a final tip from Scott – have students write their errors down in their notebooks to focus their minds on them: ‘My Favourite Errors’.

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