Monday, October 17, 2011

Trial and error and trial again

It wasn't until the late 1960's that we changed our paradigm of ESL students as producers of faulty English to intelligent, creative thinkers who are working through the progression.  A progression to produce closer and closer approximations of the complicated linguistic system that native speakers use with ease.

We started to look not just at the errors that the students were making but at the creative brilliance behind their successful hypothesizing and testing routines.  Encouraging good habits of hypothesizing and testing, encouraging students to make the errors and learn from them and providing an environment where the students feel not just safe but enthusiastic about doing this is simply the hallmark of a strong ESL educator.

But how do you measure up with your consistency in confirming or refuting these hypotheses?  In his book Teach like a champion, Doug Lemov gives some great tips on how to establish a standard for right and wrong answers and states that it is important to uphold the standard.  Giving a response that does not confirm the correctness or incorrectness of the answer in the students' minds is not doing them any justice.
And therein lies the balance of being a strict judge and a lenient peacemaker.  The greatest skill that a teacher can have is the ability to constantly monitor and correct the troops and yet maintain the morale to keep them marching.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Writing imperfectly

When I teach writing in class, the first thing I do is ask students to write a letter so that I can see what they can do.  I analyze all the mistakes in that letter and from that point on, I know what to teach.  What you have to understand with this is that I am never trying to completely eliminate their mistakes.
You see, if they make no mistakes, it is probably because they are reproducing the same material that they have already learned and are not stretching themselves.  So, I focus on eliminating the punctuation and spelling mistakes, and I am trying to eliminate the grammatical mistakes that they are making now and help them to make more complex mistakes in the future. 
When the mistakes they make are the same as a native speaker would make then I know that I have taught them well.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Correcting or nagging?

Studies have actually failed to show that explicit error correction causes a permanent improvement in production for learners of a second language.  Lightbown (1985) and others have then come to the conclusion that isolated error correction is usually ineffective in changing behaviour.

If you think about it, direct error correction usually relies on the student having an understanding of the correct form, they just mispoke because they are in the habit of mispeaking having never been successfully corrected before. 

If they do not have this underlying understanding of the correct form, they must be exposed to it in order for the language to make sense to them before they will reliably produce it correctly.  Surely, this will take multiple exposures and in the few hours that most ESL students spend in the classroom with many other students, a reoccurrance of the same error will take some time.

Point of this being that if you really want to correct behaviour, the best way to do this is to correct the belief that underlies the behaviour.

Lightbown, P. (1985).  Great expectations: Second language acquisition research and classroom teaching.  Applied Linguistics, 6, 173-189.