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To correct or not too korrect?: Learning in 21C beyond the ticks and crosses

Andy Denney, Former Head of High School EAL, Dover Campus
27 April 2018

EAL Learners at UWCSEA Dover

How should teachers (including parents) respond to multilingual learners’ errors in written English? If that sounds like a silly question, read on!

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Surely, we should correct errors, shouldn’t we? How else will learners learn from their mistakes? Duh!

A study in Hong Kong (1), for example, found that the majority of students surveyed pushed for complete and comprehensive correction of all their errors by the teachers, and they complained when the teachers fell short of this. What wonderfully keen and dedicated students!

Reportedly, they would settle for nothing short of total correction so that they could redraft their work to perfection…more easily.

And there lies the crux of the matter. If the objective of the teaching is to facilitate the production of perfect display pieces in English, then the more the teacher corrects, the better the final copy will be. In fact, teachers might as well do the whole piece of work themselves, and thereby save everybody heaps of fruitless time and effort.

Unless, of course, the more proper aim of learners’ writing tasks is not to manufacture perfect display pieces, but rather for learners to develop their own control and learning. If this is the case, then things get more complicated.

Firstly, it is useful to distinguish between mistakes that could have been avoided and errors that simply lie outside the learner’s competence zone.

With the former, ‘mistakes’, perhaps the learner has been careless about the language in her eagerness to express her ideas and demonstrate her understanding of the topic. After all, the main point of using language is to express thoughts rather than to show off grammatical accuracy. So what would be the point of teacher correction here? There is even the risk of sending the wrong message: ‘It’s not your ideas that count; show me you can get those blessed verb agreements right!’

Ah, that’s all very well, but nevertheless, accuracy of language does remain an undeniably important factor in successful communication of ideas, doesn’t it? Yes, it does, and if avoidable mistakes are undermining the quality of the ideas being expressed, then we should have no compunction in telling the learner to go away and write the work again with proper care and attention to accuracy so as to do justice to her ideas. If the mistakes were avoidable, then the learner should be able to identify and correct them with minimal or no further prompting from the teacher.

So, after all, there does not seem to be so much scope for actual teacher corrections here, in the case of avoidable mistakes.

What about with those unavoidable errors, then, where the learner has plainly not yet mastered the vagaries of the English prepositional and tense systems, but is nevertheless earnestly wrestling out solutions to important global issues? Surely here, at least, the teacher’s pedagogical input through the red pen is helpful? Well… yes and no. No, because here again the idea content is paramount, and to slash in red at a learner’s ideas probably does not do much to engender independent thinking or to boost confidence. And no again because for every possible red slash there are likely to be immeasurably more green ticks deserved for all the aspects that have been effectively executed.

Besides, errors can stand as a healthy sign that the learner is trying to go beyond what he comfortably knows, which is exactly where we want the learner to freely venture.  

However, as we most definitely do want to guide the learner from can’t-do to can-do, then yes, sensitive and discretionary use of the red pen (to whatever extent red is compatible with sensitivity!) might work.

But why use red? And don’t forget to balance the critical red with the congratulatory green. After all, learning is all about carrots and sticks, isn’t it? Hit the wrong with the red stick and reward the right with the green carrot (if you’ll bear with the miscoloured metaphor). Um… well, actually, such pseudo-Skinneresque donkey doings, for all their lingering intuitive appeal, have rather fallen out of (current) fashion and favour among the boffins.

But we have to do something, don’t we? A resounding ‘yes indeed’ to that. There is so much we can and should do to capitalise on the learning opportunities presented by errors. There is so much we can do that seems immeasurably more constructive and engaging than plain old correction.

Here are a quick half-dozen of the favourite approaches taken by UWCSEA Dover’s EAL Department:

  • Using a list of codes for error-type identification, encouraging the learner to work out for herself how to correct each specific error.
  • Alerting the learner to just the location of errors, and letting the learner do the rest of the work.
  • Selecting only target items for correction, based on their importance to the task and their frequency.
  • Collating whole-class common errors and using these as a resource for teaching, quizzes and competitive correction games in the next lesson.
  • Conferencing in real time, or using other technology, to initiate a learning dialogue on the work, through comments and replies.
  • Using screencast recordings in which the teacher talks through the work line by line and shares the recording with the learner.
  • The list does not end there by any means; and with today’s resources, there are all sorts of creative options at our disposal when we respond to written work.

We could, moreover, flip the whole issue on its head and prioritise what happens before the writing begins. Prevention is better than cure, and one of the most powerful error-preventative techniques we can employ is something called frontloading, where we seek to pre-empt the errors before they are committed, by priming the learners carefully with the key language features they should focus on, before they set finger to keyboard.

So, to correct or not too korrect? Perhaps yes, correct, but not too korrect.

Referenced work
Lee, Icey. ‘Error Correction in the L2 Classroom: What Do Students Think? ‘ TESL Canada Journal Vol. 22 No. 2. Spring 2005. Web.  5 June 2014