When we’re learning a foreign language, we’re bound to make mistakes. I always encourage my learners to take risks and praise them when they get out of their comfort zone. As far as I’m concerned, mistakes are learning opportunities. But not all of them.
Errors, mistakes, slips. Is there a difference? Some writers use these terms interchangeably, others say they’re different. Personally, I like these two definitions:
Errors are new mistakes . Students dont’ know the form so they are experimenting. (TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC, 2008)
Mistakes are inaccuracies caused by anxiety, tiredness or other reasons. Students know the correct form but don’t produce it. If prompted, they’re able to correct their mistake. (Swift, 2010)
So, although I believe that mistakes are necessary, repeating old mistakes deserves more attention, as it might lead to fossilization, or stabilization.
a process which sometimes occurs in which linguistic features become a permanent part of the way a person speaks or writes a language.
(Richards and Schmidt, 2002)
Here are some ways to draw your learners’ attention to common mistakes and hopefully eradicate them.
First of all..
…record common mistakes. Keep one list per class. Then, use said list occasionally to remind learners the correct form or pronunciation at the beginning or end of class. How can you use this list?
1. Kahoot them
Create a kahoot quiz for your students, using common mistakes they make. They all love kahoot, so it’s a fun and quick way to get their attention and make them reflect on their mistakes. Use it as a back-up activity every now and then.
Here is a great idea for reviewing word stress by ELT planning: Kahoot for word stress!
2. Whiteboard race
Write those mistakes on a piece of paper and put it on the whiteboard. Run a race; students work in groups, one person from each group at a time can correct one sentence, then pass the marker to their teammate to correct the next sentence. Use it as a warmer or cooler.
Online version: students do the activity in breakout rooms, using google docs, jamboard or any other collaborative whiteboard.
3. Reverse translation (YouTube, 2016)
Warmer: tell them you’re going to dictate some sentences and they have to translate them directly into L1. Don’t show them the sentences. Include language they would normally misuse. When they finish translating them, tell them to put this sheet aside and go on with the lesson.
Cooler: Then, at the end of class, tell learners to go back to that sheet and translate the sentences back to English. Reveal displayed sentences on the whiteboard. Learners notice their mistakes and as Thornbury (2014) says, they are triggered to fill this gap.
Reverse translation suits monolingual groups as learners can compare and reflect on their sentences together. It also suits multilingual groups, as learners “become teachers” at the end of the activity when they see their own mistakes; the teacher does not need to speak the L1. See example below:
|English||He must be crazy|
|Translate to Spanish||El debe estar loco|
|Translate back to English||He must to be crazy|
|Notice error||He must to be crazy|
4. Write the phonemic script and elicit the word
I’m a big fan of the phonemic script; I think it can be an incredibly useful tool. That’s why I always train my learners to use it and it has helped improve their pronunciation.
For instance, most Spanish learners say /ˈmɪnʊts/ instead of /ˈmɪnɪts/ . So, after adressing it, I also note it down as a common pron mistake. Then, in next classes, I project a list like the one below and ask them to find the words. With teens, I make it more competitive: e.g., set a time limit or give them points for right answers. They actually find that very exciting, as it’s sort of like decoding a message!
Here’s an example:
How do you deal with your students’ frequent mistakes? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments!
YouTube. (2016). Philip Kerr: The Return of Translation. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk-DUsgaZ4o [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].
Richards, J. and Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics.
Swift, S. (2010). An ELT Glossary : Mistakes. [online] Eltnotebook.blogspot.com. Available at: http://eltnotebook.blogspot.com/2010/11/an-elt-glossary-mistakes.html [Accessed 29 Feb. 2020].
TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC. (2008). Error Correction. [online] Available at: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/error-correction [Accessed 27 Feb. 2020].