The Concept of Error


I speak Czech. Or, at least, I think that I do. To be honest, I rarely articulate a full sentence without making a few errors on the way: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, you name it ! Although I can make myself understood, order at a restaurant, ask my way around, even have a conversation with friends around a beer, there is always a few mistakes here and there. The people I talk to usually don’t seem to mind, as long as they understand what I’m saying. Nobody makes a fuss. And that got me to thinking… As a foreign language teacher, why I am so obsessed with correcting errors. All the time. Shouldn’t I just let it slide? Here are a few thoughts on the matter.

Recast is useless

As language teachers (or for some of us, as parents), we do it all the time. To “recast” is to orally remodel a mistake made by the student by correcting it. For example:

STUDENT: I speak good.

TEACHER: I speak well.

After a while, it almost becomes a second nature: the student makes a mistake, and bam ! we correct it without even thinking. Student repeats what we said and go on with the rest of their speech. According to Dr. Gianfranco Conti, founder of The Language Gym, recast not only doesn’t work, it’s not even noticed by the student.

The main reason why recasts do not work is that when the learners’ Working Memory is interrupted in the middle of speech production by the correction, it will not rehearse that correction for the time necessary to commit it to long-term memory -because it will be concentrating on resuming the interrupted conversation flow. Hence, the content of the correction will often be lost. (Conti)

Most of the time, recasting simply interrupts the flow of the student, cuts them midway and ruins any chance that he or she can say something of value after that.

An error is a goldmine

The way I see it, a mistake is a potential goldmine. Let’s take the case of peer assessment or of any team work. One student makes an error, the second one spots it and helps correct it. Pairing strong and weaker students will benefit both: the strong has to work hard to identify the mistakes; while the weaker one gets a more personal feedback and more relaxed explanation from a peer than from a teacher. I always tell my students how to address this in class, how not to interrupt somebody who is talking, and to take notes instead. It’s a win/win situation. A goldmine.

Feedback: Oral vs Written

While I don’t think recasting is very useful in most informal class situations, I think that the concept of error (and feed backing) is key to written tasks, and that it is essential for the foreign language teacher to properly address the mistakes made by its student in written. There are many ways to do it, and my favorite is underlining the mistake in my students text and indicating what kind of error it is (spelling, grammar, syntax, etc.), and then letting my students do the correcting work. This work better with older kids, but it’s still possible to do it with primary age students. It is essential to feedback on the written text, there is no way around it.

Hey! Teachers! Leave those kids alone

In a role play, in an oral presentation, in a formal/informal conversation, in a dialogue with another student, in a reading activity, in any oral performance that my students perform I now try one thing: Leave them alone, let them speak, errors and all. Let them go with the flow of the language, let them stumble and get up on their feet again. There’s a saying that says that you learn best from your mistakes… So why, as teachers, won’t we let our students makes mistakes in order to get better, more confident, at using the language we speak? Correcting them every second won’t change much, but letting them finish what they have to say, accomplish something with a new language they try to master, will not only boost their self confidence, but send them the positive message that they can succeed. That they can learn French, Spanish, German, Italian or English! And that is no small thing.

So, in the eternal words of Pink Floyd:

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