To correct or not while someone is speaking

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I don’t like correcting students while they are communicating. My reasons are several. First of all, I don’t want to interrupt their flow of thoughts. As I strongly believe that meaningful communication leads to language acquisition, herein lies my priority. Which is not to say I never go more deeply into questions of accuracy, grammar reflection, vocabulary practice and at times even drilling of forms. Many students expect this in a language course and some profit from it.

So when the question came up in class and some said they believed they wouldn’t improve if I didn’t correct them on the spot, we entered into a discussion that touched upon the very core of what we believe how languages are learned or, more specific, how we as individuals believe we best learn.

I tried to explain why I don’t like correcting, but that I was still open to accepting their request; their wishes, in the end, are more important than my linguistic principles.

It is not that I never correct. However, I do it more in one-to-one situations I think. In a group context, my practice is different: I listen and collect recurring mistakes to address them in later sessions.

With classes whose students are mainly German speakers, one of these areas of recurring mistakes are eg the over-use of the continuous forms, and the lack of understanding of the present perfect. However, I emphasize that the most important distinction to make in English is that between the first and the second form of the verb i.e. between the ‘simple present’ and ‘simple past’ (see Verb Structure Circle in pages above).

With vocabulary it is slightly different. In conversation, it occurs more naturally that I correct the false use of a word or expression, or offer an alternative, or a choice when the speaker gets stuck. This seldomly leads to an interruption of someone’s thoughts as the missing word or expression is needed to express them.

Structural inadequacies do not necessarily hinder expression – another question we frequently discuss: which grammatical mistakes truly disrupt communication and/or can lead to misunderstandings. (Someone in the group remarked that, though communication might also work without grammatical perfection, he would still like to speak correctly – a valid demand which I do not deny even if it sometimes seems so; I just want to set the priorities straight when it comes to successful communication.)

So where improving grammatical accuracy is concerned, my approach is to take a time out from topical sessions and focus on form. Very often this is not just going through exercises, but discussing why certain forms are used in a given context: the semantics of a form and the reality of choices depending on the context or on whatever nuances the speaker wants to express.

If someone, e.g., overuses the progressive, I find it necessary to devote at least one whole session to the topic. I do understand that after having done this, the question arises how to transform the theoretical knowledge into practice. Awareness or intellectual reflection of the form does not necessarily lead to correct application in the future. It is only a first step. It is a gradual process, and takes time. And more than one time-out of “focus on form”. In the end, it is the amount of exposure to the language, listening, reading, and communicating that leads to further language development and improvement. There are no short-cuts or magical methods.

So, back to the initial question:

I don’t believe correcting class participants (for form) while they are focusing on finding the right words for what they want to express will lead to any improvement concerning the form in question. Practice and experience have shown that doing this risks totally cutting the speaker off. Correction distracts the speaker away from what they were trying to say, from their content.  

Studies have found that most corrections of form provided while a speaker is focussing on interaction and trying to express thoughts go widely unnoticed. I have made that experience my self. Additionally, studies and research on the most efficient language teaching programs have come to the conclusion that immersion programs emphasizing meaningful communication with additional focus on form are the most successful.

In child language development it has been found that not only is correcting the child not helpful, it even disrupts the natural acquisition process, as language use is first and foremost interaction, a semantic and pragmatic exchange; language is the tool to achieve whatever the child has found out can be achieved by using it. With sufficient, (meaning a lot of) in-put, children figure out the regularities on their own and the fine-tuning is developed along the way. Some psycholinguists believe that adults still have this capacity of being able to develop a new language in similar ways; others believe there to be a critical period beyond which people lose this ability (more on this some other time).

Overly concern with accuracy is a legacy of school days. Anyone with a sound understanding of language developement and aquisition, teaching and learning research and theories knows that much of what goes (went?) on in schools is often detrimental to learning (a topic covered more deeply elsewhere; see eg TED talk, Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity).

The question for me is: how much perfection is really necessary and what should our priorities be when leading a group. Mine is clearly on helping them express subjects and topics important and meaningful to them in the foreign language. Correct use of grammatical forms in those moments takes a backseat.

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