Correcting Your ESL Students

Correcting your ESL students is necessary, but overdoing it isn’t always the right way to go. Of course, we all want our students’ English to improve. And if your instinct is like most teachers, it feels natural to help them improve by correcting every little mistake they make.  After all, if you let them go on pronouncing their words wrong or mixing up their tenses, how will they ever get it right?

ae4It makes sense – it’s the way most of us were taught as kids, too. If we misspelled a word, our spelling quiz came back to us with a big red “-1” on it and we’d be re-writing the word 5 or 10 times. If we weren’t careful about the grammar in our essays, they would come back to us covered in the dreaded red ink.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way.  In fact, as tempting as it can be, frequently correcting your ESL students can actually hinder their long-term progress in the language.  Here are a few reasons why you should only correct your ESL students very sparingly and intentionally:

Damaging their confidence

Speaking in front of a large class of peers is intimidating enough, especially for the more shy students. And many students have it deeply ingrained in them that getting the right answer is all tied up with their sense of self worth.

Frequently correcting their mistakes in front of the whole class can be a blow to their confidence that will make them hesitant to speak out in class again, and can hinder their long-term progress.

Prevents them from making mistakes

That might sound like a good thing, but remember that mistakes are how we learn best.

If your students are too afraid to try out new ways of communicating because they don’t want to have a mistake pointed out, or never get the chance because the teacher corrects their sentences before they’ve even finished them, then they never have the chance or the willingness to make and learn from their mistakes.

Interrupts the natural flow of language

A crucial part of fluency is simply being able to let language flow naturally. Even native speakers mix up tenses, conjugate verbs wrong, mis-use clauses, speak in run-ons and fragments, and make all sorts of mistakes during the course of a normal conversation.

Sometimes we recognize that we made a mistake, sometimes we don’t. Either way, unless the mistake prevents the other person from understanding us, we just carry on. It’s the conversation itself that matters, not the nuances of grammar or verb conjugations.

If your students are always having their speech interrupted to make corrections, they will never get a feel for how English speech flows naturally, and will have a hard time with one of the most important factors in learning a new language: carrying on a real conversation.

The correction might be above their current level

Sometimes a student will want to communicate a concept that requires more advanced grammar or vocabulary than what they currently know. Focus on making sure that you can grasp what they are trying to communicate instead of making sure that their grammar and vocab usage is perfect.

They haven’t learned that particular grammar and vocabulary yet, let alone had time to internalize it or practice it. Your correction is likely only going to confuse them, and is not really going to contribute to their development in English.

It can bring the class to a standstill

If you’ve ever experienced the way that class comes to a standstill while you try to coax a grammatically correct sentence out of a struggling student, you know what a nightmare it can be for everyone involved.

The other students get restless, the student you are trying to correct gets flustered and has an even harder time getting it right, you get frustrated because what should have been a simple little correction on a verb tense has now turned into a huge production.

Often this ends with the teacher saying something like, “Okay, we’ll have to work on that later, let’s move on,” which leaves the student feeling like a failure for not getting it right, and the teacher feeling frustrated and thrown off.

Even if the student does eventually get it right, all they have really learned is how to repeat what you are saying, and everyone has lost five minutes or more of class time. It’s a situation where, really, no one benefits.

You can create double standards

If you always spend a lot of time correcting the same students over and over again, it can leave other students feeling neglected.

On the other hand, if you demand perfection from some students and correct the tiniest pronunciation errors, but settle for a garbled approximation of an English sentence from others because that is the best they can produce at their level, you’ve created a double standard – and don’t think that your students aren’t aware of it.

So, if you correct a student’s pronunciation, and they are not yet at a level where they can pronounce it correctly, do you just ignore it and move on? It’s pretty hard to do so without sending the subtle message of “never mind, you’re just hopeless.”

If you correct some nuance of a student’s grammar and they get so flustered and confused that their entire sentence falls apart, do you stop everything to reconstruct it on the board and go back to square one in grammar, or just wave it away and move on, leaving them more confused than if you’d just let them go on? It can be a very difficult line to toe without leaving some students feeling left behind, or neglected.

You can lose the real point of language: communication

What use is knowing perfect grammar and pronunciation if they can barely carry on a conversation because they have to plan out every sentence so that they say it perfectly?

What use is being able to write English if it takes them an hour to get through the first draft of a paragraph because even in a draft they insist on the grammar and spelling being absolutely perfect?

Yes, getting the grammar, pronunciation, spelling, and sentence structure right are all important, but they are secondary to simply feeling comfortable with where their language abilities are at and being able to communicate their point to the best of their abilities.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you should never, ever correct your students. If they are allowed to go on making the same mistakes again and again, those mistakes will become ingrained, and their English will always be garbled and awkward.

But there are ways to correct your students that avoid the above issues and leave them feeling empowered.

Look for another article soon about how and when to correct your students so that you avoid the issues mentioned above.

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