When Are Mistakes Not Mistakes?

On the moretprs forum, Deb asked some interesting questions. The first was about whether or not she should give vocabulary lists to her students. She said that she thought it helped those who were visual learners (and convinced parents that there was some work going on in class). Dr. Krashen replied that vocabulary lists were interesting to those who actually care about how languages are put together but most students would not benefit from them.  Her other questions were about correcting students’ mistakes, spoken and written.

I’ve often thought about these questions myself and thought I would share my thoughts.

IMHO vocabulary lists will help some students, those who as you say have visual memories and those who are interested in languages, as Dr. Krashen says. I don’t see how they can hurt the others, who will ignore them anyway, right? Unless you tell them to memorize them, in which case they will waste a lot of time and effort that will not be very productive. Memorization is by definition short term. I prefer to give my students a story, maybe a new story, that uses the vocabulary in question. If they read it through they’ll get revision in context, which will give them new associations to help them remember the structures. Once they have enough associations, the word/structure will be in their long term memory. You might ask students who are artistic to illustrate the new story, which will give even more associations, visual ones, with the structures. So basically, you have to decide whether your limited time is better spent making up three categories of vocabulary lists or making up a new story for the most important vocabulary. (And you can cheat by giving them a story by a student/students in another class using the same vocabulary.)

Illustrated student stories, written and illustrated by students, are a good way to build up a library for FVR. It’s a struggle for us to make the language simple enough, but they do it automatically with the limited language they have. I think there is a natural curiousity to see what a fellow student is able to do, a curiosity that can help make the story “compelling”.

I think you’re doing it exactly right when you “echo” what a student has said. I first saw an Irish girl who was teaching English in France do this.  She had a lovely accent and would smile and nod at the culprit and say what he’d been trying to say as if she was just repeating his statement in an affirmation.  She was addressing the content and not the form, as if to assure him that she had understood. This is what “caretaker speech” does all the time. Baby says “peas” and you echo back “please”. Student says “la verte voiture” and you smile and nod and say “Oui! La voiture verte!” The student may catch what you changed and take note or they may not catch it, in which case it means that they’re not ready for that yet. But they won’t feel humiliated because you pointed out that they had made a mistake, which will make them think twice before speaking up again.

As for “correcting” written work, I prefer to “edit” it. I’ve explained this on my blog, but my examples are from small groups of students. With a class I would choose three papers, one very basic, one more complex and the best paper of the lot. Then I would “edit” them so that there are no mistakes. I type the three papers up, and bingo! You have an embedded reading. (I understand that this is how Laurie Clarq first started doing embedded reading.) When you return their papers where you have underlined in green everything that is correct, you also give your students the three edited versions, telling them that they were written by students in the class but not giving the names. You will see them reading them closely. Each time I’m amazed at how attentively students read texts written by their classmates and how willing they are to read the same story three or four times. I call that compelling comprehensible input. I answer any questions they have about structures and vocabulary, smiling like the cat that ate the cream because I know that they’re going to retain my answers to their questions. If there were frequent mistakes that you corrected and no one asks why, it means they’re just not seeing them yet. You may want to target those structures in your next lesson. Consider their mistakes not as proof that they haven’t learned it, but rather as indications of what you haven’t given them enough input about.

Basically, one thing that I have learned from horse riding is that it’s much more effective to teach a horse how to do something right than to spend time teaching it not to do something wrong. Pointing out mistakes is teaching students not to do something wrong. Giving them correct models is teaching them to do it right.

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