Focus on error: a proposal for creating oral accuracy sessions

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The students were sharing stories in a circle. They had practiced for several days, and were fluent enough; however, in the telling almost none of these low intermediate English learners actually used past tenses to describe past experiences.

Fluency and grammar do not travel the same neural networks. To test this notion, think about listening to a student in order to give feedback on both. Hard, right? This is multi-tasking at its most challenging. Much like writing an email during an important conference call, it leads to doing neither well, and more often than not, a headache. Yet students need and expect feedback on error in order to develop as speakers.

Fluency activities such as the prepared story in the above example are important for language development, but a deliberate error-correction session can also be valuable for both EFL and ESOL students. The following is one possible approach to designing a session around error correction.  As one element in a larger sequence, it gives students tangible focused information on the clarity of a specific element of spoken language.

The approach is based on the following principles.

  • Students know that they are working on accuracy.
  • Students produce shorter utterances that support a focus on form.
  • Students are familiar with the grammar or pronunciation point being practiced.
  • The role of the teacher is to help the student self-correct.

Planning

An error correction session in a grammar or speaking listening class ideally comes after exposure to a correct form, which can be a mini-lesson or a review of a structure that students are struggling with or one that they might need for an upcoming task. Sometimes, as in past tense endings or third person –s, it is difficult to know if errors are due to pronunciation or grammar, but both can benefit from corrective feedback.

To prepare, create a set of questions designed to elicit the target structure ahead of time. With set questions, you don’t have to think of them on the spot, and you can devote more mental energy to listening to students and helping them work through their error. Past tenses provide a great example because the question has the base form, and students can be guided to use different endings as in the following mix of regular and irregular verbs. (The session could easily be adapted to focus only on sounds or only on irregular verbs.)

  • Where did you walk yesterday?
  • What did you eat last night?
  • Who did you see last weekend?
  • What did you decide to study yesterday?

When it is time to begin the session, arrange the classroom in a circle if possible. Then give students an orientation about what is expected of them and what they can expect from you. This way, they are not surprised or embarrassed when you interrupt them. For example, you might adapt the following:

“I am going to ask you to speak, using the language we practiced. If you say the grammar correctly, then I’ll move on. If you don’t, I’ll stop and we’ll work on it together. Your classmates can listen, but they must not help.  When it is your error, you are the one who gets to correct it.”

This last bit may mitigate students trying to “help” a speaker by shouting out the correction. You may eventually have to remind students not to “steal” someone else’s error, but it can be done in a good natured way.  

Finally, invite the students to challenge themselves, and reassure them that making mistakes is part of the process:

“We are going to move quickly, so pay attention and be ready with an example. This is an opportunity to test out ideas that you are not quite sure about, and to get feedback on things that other students may also need. Do not worry about making a mistake. It is my job to help you, and everyone will learn.”

Eliciting and responding

If you have prepared questions, begin by asking a stronger student to answer one of your questions, and eliciting examples of the target language.  Bear in mind that getting them to produce the target structure may or may not be as easy as it seems at first, as in the following example:

Teacher: What did you do last night?

Student: nothing.

Teacher: Can you give me a sentence? You can still use the word nothing, but I’d like to hear a verb.

Student: I, um, I didn’t do nothing.

In the above, a couple of things have gone off track. The student gave a lazy answer, and then produced an error that was not part of the lesson plan. The correction would be, “I didn’t do anything,” which is not the focus of the lesson. Here the teacher must make a decision. Notice in the following response how he  focuses on the error but also gives the student an opportunity to self-correct:

Student: I, um, I didn’t do nothing.

Teacher: Change nothing.

Student: I didn’t do anything.

Teacher: That’s correct.

The above exchange is quick, and the student is able to produce a correct sentence. The teacher can then move on to the next student.

As students produce utterances, continue to listen for errors. As in the example above, when an error surfaces, intervene. Often you can use a a visual cue, such as a raised eyebrow or a hand-signal to let the speaker know that an error has occurred. At that point, work through the following sequence:

  1. Give the student an opportunity to self correct on his own. Sometimes the signal is enough. The speaker will restate the sentence correctly. Go to the next student.
  1. If the student does not correct after six seconds, indicate where the error occurred by repeating the sentence up to the error. If the student self-corrects, ask him to repeat the correct sentence, and move on to the next student.
  1. If the student does not self correct, give quick, direct, neutral information, e.g., “change the verb tense,” or “use past tense.”
  1. If the student still does not self-correct, you might ask if he wants to pass. If he says yes, nominate a peer to correct –usually peers are dying to correct at this point. Or you can provide the correction yourself.
  1. Invite the student to repeat the correct form to insure that the interaction ends in a successful utterance. It is often a good idea to have students say it two or three times as they often default to the original error. By having them repeat it, you are helping consolidate the new form.

Throughout the activity, it is generally good practice to avoid praise, as praise can distract students and make them self-conscious. It also adds to unnecessary teacher talk. Note that simply knowing one has said a complete and correct sentence is the best reward a learner can get.

Continue the activity for about 20 minutes, moving around the room until all students have had a turn. When students are comfortable, you can add a level of challenge by asking one student to ask another student a question and intervening only when there is an error by saying, “Tuan ask Sima.” “Now Sima ask Julio.”

Once students are trained in the process, an error-correction session can be a welcome addition to a sequenced lesson plan for enhancing oral development. Students can leave the class with perhaps a little more clarity about a specific structure that can feel as useful in its own way as having told a good story.

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