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How to Correct Students’ Speaking Errors

Christine Mosso

We are teachers, but we are also managers, referees, entertainers, psychologists, and…baggage handlers. No, not the kind that loses your luggage or sends it to the opposite ends of the Earth. We deal with the emotional baggage our students carry with them every day. Some may be Louis Vuitton bags, some may be ratty grocery store bags, but most are somewhere in between. This baggage is what can stand in the way of a student learning and enjoying the process of learning; of taking risks in the classroom; of taking on and meeting challenges.

One of the situations when we can find ourselves tripping over these bags is when it is time to correct student speaking errors. Those fragile adolescent egos don’t react well to anything they see as criticism, and they very easily pile those bags into high walls. Too much correction, the student gets frustrated, gives up, and tunes you out. Not enough correction and you’ve done this student a disservice. They may be unprepared for the next level of Spanish, or find out later that they really don’t know what they should and don’t have the skills that they thought they had. So what do you do?

The Perfectionist

Think about the teacher who seeks perfection, corrects everything. Maybe you had a teacher like that-what was that experience like? The problem with this perfectionist is that constant correction impedes fluency. It also can tend to make students not want to open their mouths-I’m going to get it wrong anyway, so why bother.

The Teacher That Does Not Care

The opposite end of the correcting spectrum may seem to give the students the confidence to speak, but they will soon assume you aren’t doing your job because they never get any kind of correction. They have to be making mistakes, right? So you may lose those students too-the teacher doesn’t care, so why should I?

 Here are my thoughts on this-and I welcome your feedback on this rather controversial issue.

The first step is to continually remind students that there will be mistakes-lots of them. But we learn from mistakes and it’s OK to make them while we are learning. Keep the atmosphere positive; tell the class about some of your blunders.

The next thing we can do is really take a look at the speaking activities the kids are doing. What is the focus besides fluency: vocabulary, grammatical structure, etc.?  Focus in on what the answer was to that question and that’s what you correct. Maybe it’s an adjective agreement, verb endings, vocabulary, or vowel sounds. Let the students know that’s what you are looking at, this will gives them focus.

Thirdly, depending on the type of activity, you may choose to make corrections at the moment, when the student has just finished, or address consistent errors as a class. When you have a focus for your correction laser, you manage the class time better, the kids know what you are looking for and will focus their energies on getting that right, and you have some feedback on how you’ve prepared the class for that activity. Are the errors sporadic or widespread? Is there something that seems to be a consistent error? Do I need to review or re-teach?

You still have a lot of baggage to handle. Some of it may be too heavy. But these strategies will help make the lifting a little lighter when it comes to learning a language. You may also find that your students may suddenly realize that this bag is actually a carry-on. They can handle it themselves. 

So what are your feelings about correcting? When and how do you do it? What works best for you and your students?  


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