oral correction: it’s complicated

oral correctionFew teaching techniques in ESL / EFL are as difficult to master as effective, sensitive, principled and systematic oral correction.

I remember working fairly closely with Donald Freeman back in the mid 90s and, in common with all my colleagues at the time, I was in awe of the man’s deep understanding of learning processes and his talent for helping us, mere mortals, to see language learning in a completely new light. Of all his teachings, it was perhaps the principle of intervention through observation that has had the greatest impact on my work and this connects interestingly with oral correction, as I will explain. 

Intervention through observation in language learning means, among other things, that we must allow ourselves to be sidetracked by the sheer unpredictability of an English lesson and learn how to work with what is there.

Working with what is there means making the best possible use of all those unforeseen classroom events that stubbornly refuse to leave us alone so we can get on with our teaching the way we had planned to. This is extremely difficult to do. It takes the right sort of awareness, attitude and a certain amount of teaching experience.

But “what does all that have to do with oral correction?”, you must be wondering.

The more I see teachers grappling with error correction, especially oral correction, the more I convince myself that:

1. The kind of oral correction that maybe matters the most is the one that’s most difficult to pull off in class and;
2. This kind of oral correction is difficult precisely because it depends on our ability to work with what is there.

Let me explain.

It’s easy to correct a gap-fill exercise. The student says “afraid of go” and you tactfully remind her that “of” requires an “ing” and that’s it. Oral correction in drills is relatively easy, too. We provide an example and a prompt, which students respond to in a certain way. If they don’t, we correct them. Period. 

But what about the oral correction that needs to take place during discussions, simulations and role-plays, in which students are producing extended discourse and conveying the meanings they want to convey? What about oral correction during the usual “how was your weekend” beginning-of-lesson chats? What about things like “someone have a pen to borrow me?”, which will keep surfacing, over and over, despite your best efforts? What’s the best oral correction policy in those cases?

It seems plausible to me that when a student receives feedback on what he or she’s actually trying to say (as opposed to a drill or a gap-fill), oral correction is more likely to stick. This means that I tend to disagree with those who claim that, in free(r) communication, errors should generally be overlooked or dealt with en passant at a later stage in the lesson.

But how can oral correction help students think about language while they’re focused on meaning?

Here comes the tricky part.

Correcting students midsentence might be pointless, since people’s brains can’t usually process meaning and form at the same time. Oral correction at the end of the sentence might lessen processing load, but it might also disrupt the flow of whatever is under way in class. Not correcting at all is a dangerous alternative, which could lead to fossilization, depending on the student and on the error. Delayed oral correction, which many teachers usually regard as the ideal compromise, is perhaps not as effective as it’s often been made out to be – more details coming up soon.

I have deliberately modalized all the sentences above to make the point that when it comes to oral correction in language learning (especially during meaning-focused work), there’s no right or wrong, nor are there any ready-made recipes that we can rely on. So, a question like “someone have a pen to borrow me?” may or may not go uncorrected depending on the student in question, the recurrence of the error, the likelihood that it will be made again (and again) and so on and so forth.

What we should bear in mind, I believe, is that the learning potential of corrective feedback far outweighs the real but sometimes overestimated risk of inhibition and embarrassment usually associated with oral correction. Recognizing and tapping into the learning potential of an unexpected classroom event is critically important, but it depends on the teacher’s ability – and willingness – to work with what is there.

Thanks for reading.

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