Feeling Comfortable Making Mistakes Can Really Help a Student’s Language Learning
It is inevitable that everyone will make mistakes when trying something new for the first time. Because there is no way to avoid them, mistakes should be accepted, treated as normal, and even encouraged. It is always better to make some mistakes in the attempt than not to try at all, and this is particularly true when learning a new language.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Catherine L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
My Own Foreign Language Experience
I studied French for four years in high school. By the time I finished my last French class, my speaking ability was still minimal and I wasn’t comfortable with anything beyond basic greetings, introducing myself, and counting to one hundred. I couldn’t answer any questions or hold a basic conversation. However, a few years later I got a job serving coffee while I was living in Montréal. When customers spoke to me in French, as a result of my customer service training, I had no choice but to attempt to respond in their language. My French language skills improved dramatically in those two years because I was forced to practice speaking the language every day even when I was uncomfortable, and I did not have the luxury of worrying about whether what I was saying was grammatically correct.
Translating This Environment to the Classroom
As a foreign language teacher, I think it is important to try to replicate aspects of the environment that I experienced while working in Montréal in my own classroom. Students should not feel undue stress, but they should be aware that they cannot fall back to speaking their native language and must find a way to communicate their ideas in English - even if they are unsure of certain words, or their grammar is not perfect. In order to facilitate this environment, a teacher must encourage students’ attempts, rather than correcting every mistake - especially during Activate activities, when the goal is for students to practice using English to communicate authentically. When a student needs to use the language skills they have learned outside of the classroom, the most important thing is whether they can communicate to an English speaker whatever it is that they need to say. Grammar rules and structures are important and they facilitate that communication, but the speaker should not worry about being grammatically correct so much that they do not speak any English at all. For example, if someone says “I go bathroom,” even though the sentence is not technically correct an English speaker will still understand that they need to go to the bathroom.
Dealing With Mistakes
If a teacher notices students making recurring serious mistakes during the Activate stage of a lesson, he or she should note down the problem areas and address them in a separate lesson. Stopping the class to correct mistakes during this time will discourage students from participating freely. If there are smaller issues, an acceptable way to provide assistance without correction would be to model the correct language in conversation with the student. Another method that can be employed during Engage or Study phases is to repeat the student’s sentence back to them with the necessary minor adjustments. For example, if a student says “I been studying every day,” the teacher can thank the student for contributing and encourage them with a “very good!” The teacher could then either respond with a sentence using the correct grammar structure (“You have been studying every day?”) or write one on the board (“Mikoto has been studying every day”). This allows the student to learn the grammar while still rewarding them for participating and for successfully communicating in English.
Practice Makes Perfect
In a foreign language class, students should be comfortable enough to make mistakes, but not so comfortable that they feel they can speak their native language if they can’t find what they want to say in English. It is the teacher’s job to encourage them with as much positivity as possible, and ensure that corrections are done gently, and in a positive manner. Foreign language teachers should not be overly critical or judgmental, nor should they ever discourage students from speaking in English. Attempts made in English should be constantly encouraged and rewarded because the more comfortable the student feels, the more they can practice and improve their language skills.
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