Adapted from the Oxford University Press ELT blog site
There are many ways to assess learners, for example, mini-tests or observations, in order to evaluate and monitor their understanding and progress. Evaluation also allows us to guide learners on how to improve. Part of this is noting errors, especially errors in the language they use. However, too much of a focus on errors can be de-motivating. Learners may struggle to improve because they are anxious about making mistakes, especially with productive tasks. So how can we correct English errors and at the same time keep learners motivated to improve?
One of the best ways is to follow a process. This offers a consistent approach which, in turn, helps to build trust that this is to help them. This process has six steps:
1. Decide a clear focus for accuracy
When you set your assessment, think carefully about which aspect of accuracy you need to focus on. Learners, especially younger ones, cannot deal with a wide range of errors, and it is best not to address several errors at once, but to go slowly and deal with them one at a time.
Your focus should connect with what you have been covering in class so that learners can see the purpose and connection with their learning. For example, you may have been teaching the past tense or specific topic vocabulary. Don’t worry about them getting everything right – over time you will be able to cover different aspects and build on their learning one step at a time.
Decide on the importance of this focus. It may be that the assessment focuses on communicative skills, in which case only correct English errors that impede communication. Errors in a grammar or vocabulary test might have high importance.
Remember that over-correction can be de-motivating. Make sure your assessment task sets learners up for success so you are not dealing with too many errors.
2. Agree on the accuracy focus with learners
When you set an assessment, you should discuss it with the class to establish where (and why) you expect them to be accurate.
Make sure you discuss the priorities of the assessment. For example, if keeping talking or writing is more important than accuracy, remind them of this. This can be very helpful to you as a teacher, because learners will then reveal errors they make when not focused on accuracy.
Remind your class not to worry – learning is not linear.
3. Have a ‘pause’ time within the assessment task
Give learners a chance to check their work mid-way through the assessment. Rather than finishing a task with ongoing or repeated errors, it is better – and more motivating – to give them a chance to correct themselves. This also supports self-reflection and autonomous learning. If appropriate, ask the class to pause mid-task and think about their language. Do not correct them at this point – just ask them to think before they move on.
As you monitor them completing the task, note whether they are more accurate after the pause. If so, make sure you praise them for this when they are finished. If not, it may indicate a lack of understanding and the point may need re-teaching.
4. Note general errors
As learners complete the task, go around the class and make a note of general errors that tie in with the accuracy standards you set in section 1. Ignore other errors – you can pick these up when doing a test with another focus.
Consider what might be causing the error, e.g. confusion, too little practice, etc. This will inform any remedial teaching or practice.
5. Correct English with specific feedback
After the task is complete, first let the class know what they did well in the task. Then write the general errors on the board. Give learners time to reflect on the errors and the correct English usage.
Then you can either get them to act immediately with a short Question and Answer session where they write the correct English versions in their notebooks or set them a single improvement task to focus on error correction and pick up in the next lesson before they forget. This could be an extra exercise which you prepared earlier. While doing this note individual learners who are struggling and may need extra support.
6. ‘Say it again, say it better’
To embed accuracy it is critical that learners get a chance to repeat the language that you are focusing on. This should be specific practice and may be an outcome from section 5. This can be done as ‘Say it again, say it better’ in class, or submitted work if you are not in class. It’s useful to speak the language and not just write it.
It is also important to allow learners to repeat the assessment task. This allows them a second chance and gives them a model of success, which is motivating.
Finally, make sure you allocate a specific time or task for accuracy focus or error correction. Don’t let it dominate every class or learners will become demotivated. The focus should be on what learners can do.
Help learners reach for their goals, accelerate their progress, and go further by embedding assessment for learning into your daily teaching!