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10 Ways to Ensure That Your Quiet Students Never Speak Out in Class

woman_holding_finger_to_her_lips_shhAngela Buckingham, language teacher, writer and teacher trainer, introduces her upcoming webinar on 24th & 26th September entitled: “Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom.”

As part of my role as a teacher trainer, I have observed many ELT lessons over the years: some given by new and inexperienced trainees, others by experienced members of staff who have been teaching language for many years. One area that interests me is the teacher response to learner mistakes in a lesson and what steps are taken towards oral error correction. Even if we haven’t thought about this consciously, our stance is usually writ loud and clear. What is evident to the observer is that teacher attitudes to learner mistakes can have a profound impact on behaviours in class.

Here’s my Top Ten list for ensuring that your quiet language students will be even quieter, simply by adopting some or all of these simple classroom techniques:

  1. Always correct every error you hear
  2. Ensure that you correct in a stern way; Do Not Smile
  3. Make sure that you never praise your learners for answers given in incorrect English
  4. Don’t give thinking time – where possible, make sure you supply the answer yourself
  5. When learners do answer, respond to the language only, not to the content of the response
  6. Spend most of your lesson facing the board, computer, or looking at the textbook. Avoid eye contact with your students
  7. Ask questions to the whole class but always accept early answers from the most confident students, who should get the answer right
  8. If a student is hesitant, don’t give them time to finish. Show in your body language that you are bored listening to their attempts
  9. Seize every error as a teaching opportunity – don’t move on until everyone in the class is absolutely clear what the mistake was
  10. Be prepared to interrupt your students’ interactions at any time, so that they are using Perfect English

Or… you might want to think about doing things differently.

Error correction in the language classroom is important – my students definitely want to be corrected, and can feel irritated if they aren’t. But for teachers, what to correct, when to correct, and how to go about it are issues we grapple with on a day-to-day basis.  How can we help our learners in an encouraging way?

In my upcoming webinar we’ll explore how to categorise oral language errors and examine strategies for dealing with them, as well as evaluating practical ideas for immediate use in class.

Join the webinar, Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom on 24th and 26th September to find out more.


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#EFLproblems – Monitoring pair work

Two men talkingWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes responds to Susanna’s blog comment about monitoring pair work.

Susanna wrote:

I wonder what the best way is to monitor pair work effectively. I use pair work because it helps students get used to speaking; however, I am aware that they may be making a lot of mistakes which I don’t have the opportunity to correct. Not all students are willing or able to correct their partner’s errors. Have you any advice on how to ‘listen in’ to six pairs of speakers?”

Susanna’s question is a common one: we put our students in pairs to discuss a topic, but we can’t monitor what they are saying, so we don’t know if they are making mistakes that we need to correct.

To answer the question, we first need to establish why we ask students to discuss something in pairs to begin with. At the heart of the matter is whether the purpose of the pair work activity is for speaking practice. The majority of the time, the purpose of discussion in pairs is for students to get more practice speaking in English, to build their fluency. In this case we need to ask ourselves: Do I need to correct every problem?

Since pair work discussion is primarily for fluency, not accuracy, the best thing to do is to let the students communicate with each other without the interference of the teacher. This can make some teachers (and students) uncomfortable. They may feel like they aren’t doing their ‘job’ properly if they aren’t correcting or seen to be correcting.

Here are some tips for pair work:

1.Outline the benefits of pair work

Make it clear to the students when they are meant to be practicing their accuracy and when they are meant to be working on fluency. Better yet, make the communication task so engaging that students will want to try to contribute something meaningful to the conversation.

2.Encourage clarification-seeking

Teach students some communication strategies such as asking for clarification (Sorry, did you mean….?; Can you explain….please?) and checking understanding (Do you see what I mean?). These phrases can be posted on the wall for students to refer to during communication activities.

3. Let them talk

Students need to learn to solve communication problems on their own – this is part of the learning speaking process. They also need to learn to do it on their own – to build their confidence in their speaking abilities.

4. Monitor but don’t interfere

One strategy many teachers use is eavesdropping – listen to the conversations and make a note of any important errors or vocabulary issues. Make a note of good use of language, too. At the end of the activity, write the mistakes on the board (without saying who said the sentence!) and get the students to correct. This will be much more memorable to the students than stopping them in mid thought will be, when their focus is on trying to get their message out. By doing it at the end, students can be more focused on correcting the mistake.  Be sure to point out any good language use so that students can also see what they did right!

5. Develop your eavesdropping technique

If you are standing near one pair, listen to another. Do this so that the pair you are nearest doesn’t get nervous and stop talking.

6. Answer student questions quickly, then move away

If a student has a question about how to say something, help him or her out, then move on so that the pair can continue their conversation.

7.Let them know that mistakes are OK

Teach students the importance of trying to say something even if it’s not completely accurate. Some students don’t want to say anything unless it is correct. This may mean they are accurate, but not able to say much at all. Help them understand the importance of getting their message across. Make sure the classroom is a ‘safe’ place to try out language and make mistakes.

8. Ask students to reflect on their own performance

After the activity, ask students to make a note of anything they wanted to say but couldn’t. At this point you can help them create the phrase they needed. Ask students if they noticed when they made a mistake and if they were able to self-correct at any time. This kind of reflection on performance can help students be more self-aware and independent.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of monitoring pair work? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.  You can also take part in our live Facebook chat on Thursday 6th March from 12:00 – 13:00 GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


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#EFLproblems – Learners noticing and correcting their own mistakes

Corrections on textWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Mark Armstrong’s blog comment regarding the challenge of helping students to self-correct their own writing. Verissimo Toste from the Professional Development Team discusses how to encourage self-correction.

I don’t know if this is my greatest challenge but I would like to see my children self-correct more when they are writing. It’s a shame to see the same kind of errors popping up again and again. Sometimes it’s L1 interference, sometimes it’s just children being children. I do for a fact, though, know that they know better. I don’t want to cover their written work with red markings but I don’t want them to continue repeating errors either. Any ideas?”

Mark brings up an interesting problem: students correcting their own writing. Or rather, not correcting their own writing. Although I will focus my ideas for younger learners, I think many of them can be adapted for older students.

Mistakes are natural

First, let me focus on an important point – mistakes are natural, they are part of learning. They are an important part of learning. Get this message across to your students. I usually ask my students to talk to their parents about the “mistakes” they made when they were young and learning their first language. This generates a fun discussion in class, usually leading to difficulties in learning to ride a bike or learning to swim. The important point in the end is that learning involves making mistakes. If they aren’t making mistakes, then maybe they are not really learning anything new.

Mistakes are part of learning

Having established an environment in the classroom where mistakes are natural, it is now important for the teachers to consider what mistakes they expect their students to be able to correct. My first consideration is, “If a student were to look at the mistake again, would they notice it?” Then, I consider, “If other students were to look at the mistake, would they notice it?” It’s important to understand what students are expected to correct. For this, I have my students practice. I give them a text or a selection of sentences with mistakes made by students in other classes, maybe even previous years. I tell them how many mistakes there are and give them time to find them. They indicate the mistakes by underlining them. I walk around, look at their work, and tell them how many actual mistakes they have found.

Then, I put students into pairs or small groups of no more than 4. I ask them to compare their work with one another. At this point, students come up with a list of the mistakes they all have found. This may add up to 10, but it usually doesn’t. Together they look for the mistakes they have missed. They discuss these as a group and come to a consensus as a group. They must agree on a list of 10 mistakes. Once again, I walk around and tell them the number of mistakes they have found.

This activity, which I may do once a month if necessary, helps my students notice the language, since the mistakes I choose are related to the language they have learnt or are learning. The activity also helps to make mistakes part of learning, reinforcing the discussion we had previously. More importantly, however, the activity creates a need for the teacher to help. The next time I do the activity, I underline where the mistakes are and ask them to correct them. I follow the same steps, going from working individually to small groups. This type of activity helps students develop their language noticing skills. Students not only learn to become aware of their mistakes, they also begin to learn how to avoid them.

Mistakes are there to be corrected

At this point students are ready to begin correcting their own work. However, why should they do this? Why correct? If students are writing, then I suggest that their writing be “published”, displayed, shared with others. This could be a simple poster displayed in the classroom or a text on a school blog. If they are writing a story or a poem, these can be made into a book. The important point is that others will see their work. This will give them a reason to correct. It will also help them to accept the teacher’s role as a facilitator, helping them to improve their work.

The next step in this process is for students to understand the idea of writing a first draft; that what they write the first time is not final. Equally important, they need to accept that it is not the teacher’s job to correct what they themselves can avoid. Students write their first draft in class and then take it home to check for mistakes. It is important for them to write their texts first in class and then to look at them again at home. Students may not notice mistakes immediately after writing them. This becomes clearer when they look at their texts again after some time has passed. For classes that are reluctant to do this, I collect their first draft and give it back to them two days later for homework.

Having looked at their own texts, I ask them to share these texts with other students in the class. At this point students work in pairs or small groups, suggesting possible mistakes to each other.  Taking the suggestions into consideration, they write the second draft of their texts. These they give to me. Depending on how confident my students are, I correct only those mistakes I feel the student will not be able to. The others I simply indicate it is a mistake by underlining it. At this point, students should be able to write their final draft, which they will share with others in the class.

In closing…

One final thought on this process. In some classes, and with parental permission, I have asked my students to write their work on Word and then to send it to me via email. I do this for a few reasons. One, they slowly learn to use the spellchecker and to react to that information. Two, they are more accepting of correcting mistakes as they don’t need to write all of the text again. Three, not needing to write all of the text helps them to focus on correcting the mistakes and avoiding them later. Finally, it makes use of their computer for classwork, a skill they will need later in their academic life.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting young learners involved, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 20 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for our next blog posts:

08 January 2014 – Teaching monolingual vs multi-lingual classes
22 January 2014 –  Teaching students over 50 years old


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Speaking for fluency in public, and for accuracy in private

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English 2nd edition, looks at the concepts of accurancy and fluency in young English language learners.

If you think about it, we need to give children plenty of listening practice in order to help them speak. It’s logical. It follows the natural route of language acquisition: given the right conditions, input (listening) will become output (speaking).

So, one of the best ways to get children speaking English is to provide them with lots of listening practice and guide them into spoken production. Children may not see the point in learning another language: it has no reality in their world. But they have less of a problem in using or repeating another language when they are having fun.

How can we make this happen in the classroom? Let’s look at one way of doing this.

An animated story is a perfect vehicle for moving children from listening to speaking. For a start, most children like stories. They are fun and engaging and children enjoy them. Stories are part of their reality: storytelling is an activity to which children are accustomed. More than that, stories are based on real life and so they are relevant.

When they are trying to understand a story, the language has a purpose. It is given a context and it becomes meaningful. Participating in a story gives them a reason for understanding.

Above all perhaps, children love stories. They can listen to them again and again and never become bored. Stories often have strong repeated phrases. For example, how does this line from a famous children’s story finish: “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow….”? Small children will often join in and say these powerful, repeated lines. They are acquiring language.

In our context as language teachers we can take advantage of this strong human urge and the powerful human activity of storytelling. The stories in our coursebooks are often vehicles for the language we want to introduce to the children. The language that is repeated in the story is usually the language that we want children to “get”.

Helping children to act out a story can be a fruitful classroom activity. Most children enjoy it (but do keep in mind that not all children enjoy it). The specific language aim is to activate a piece of language.

Here are some thoughts about speaking and error correction. The idea of “private practice” and “public performance” may be worth bearing in mind. Or, maybe the concepts of accuracy and fluency.

As they practise, go around helping them say the language. If you like, this is private practice and so getting it right (and that means correction by you, the teacher) is important. They are not exposed in front of the whole class. They are in a private space with you and a small peer group. They are more likely to hear and respond to your correction when they are not exposed in front of the whole group.

When a group shows their story to the whole class I think the dynamic has shifted. I think it’s very important to give positive feedback as this is happening. Help them say the language if they need it, but avoid overt correction. This is now a public performance and so correction is probably inappropriate. Having fun and being motivated is far more important than language accuracy.

Correcting errors is an important part of our work as language teachers. But over correction will demotivate the children. I need to be principled about what I correct and, perhaps more importantly, when I correct it.

How do you encourage accuracy and fluency of language in your classroom?

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Why Teach Grammar?

Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 with co-author Catherine Walter about ways of linking grammar with vocabulary, pronunciation and skills, Michael Swan looks at why you should teach your students grammar.

People probably argue more about grammar than about anything else in language teaching. Research and theory have a good deal to tell us in this area. So does common sense.

1. Regularities

Languages have regularities (if you don’t like the word ‘rules’) in the ways they shape and organise words for various reasons. If you’re not aware (consciously or unconsciously) of these regularities you may not be able to understand language successfully, or structure it so as to make yourself understood.

2. Can you pick them up?

Mother tongue: yes, of course, we all do.

Foreign language: some yes, some no, some maybe. (If you could pick all of them up, immigrants would speak like native speakers.) It depends which regularities and where.

3. Which?

  • Some regularities are so obvious and simple they can easily be picked up from experience. English SVO word order. Japanese question formation (put ‘ka’ at the end of the equivalent statement).
  • Some regularities are too complex to be fully learnable in a reasonable time by any approach. English noun compounding or article use. Japanese topic/subject marking.
  • Some are in between. English question formation. German word order.

4. Where?

When we talk about ‘picking up’ grammar regularities, are we talking about long exposure in a country where the language is spoken, or about three hours a week in secondary school?

5. So does teaching help?

With many of the in-between items, surely. More in the three-hour-a-week situation, fewer in an input-rich context, but some in any situation. If you’re unclear about German word order, five-minutes’ explanation will shortcut a whole lot of struggle trying to make sense of what seems to be very confusing input. What would be the value of withholding this explanation?

6. But knowing what happens isn’t the same as being able to do it.

Of course it isn’t. But it’s a start. Knowing which is the accelerator and which is the brake doesn’t guarantee you can drive. But it beats not knowing. Most skills learning proceeds in part by moving from conscious knowledge to unconscious mastery: it’s a matter of procedural learning ‘leaning on declarative crutches’, in DeKeyser’s words (1998: 49).

7. But isn’t there evidence that teaching grammar makes no difference to learning?

No. Forget Krashen. There’s good evidence in the other direction: see the important research meta-analyses by Norris and Ortaga (2000) and Spada and Tomita (2010).

8. But some people go on dropping third-person -s for ever, however much you teach it.

Sure. There are things like that. The reasons are complicated and interesting.  I’ve never really got hold of vibrato when playing the violin, though I’ve been taught often enough. That doesn’t mean my music lessons were useless. On the contrary, I would play even worse, or maybe not at all, if I hadn’t had them, bad vibrato or not.

9. But is correctness really important?

This is like asking ‘Are boots important?’ It depends what kind of boots, and what you want to do. Rock-climbing? Skiing? Ballroom dancing? Having breakfast in bed? A high level of grammatical correctness is important for some purposes; less so for others. And not all aspects of grammar are equally significant. Getting some things wrong can hinder communication quite seriously; other points may matter very little on way or the other. It’s unconstructive to generalise.
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