Errors and correction, or What is the purpose of a classroom?

Students make mistakes.  That is the purpose of school, to allow students to make mistakes and be corrected so that they can learn how to do things properly.  But correction is a very delicate thing.  If you correct too much you become the tyrannical dictator of a teacher who expects students to be perfect and NEVER gives an A.  If you don’t correct enough you become the liberal socialist of a teacher who believes that all children are perfect, no matter what they do, and who NEVER gives a F.  Teachers need to correct students’ mistakes so that they know there were mistakes and can improve.  There can be no improvement without some sort of correction.  But, teachers cannot correct students too much or they begin dreading school, despising it and no learning takes place.

 That is the quandary I find myself facing as I look forward to being a teacher.  What is my attitude towards correction in the classroom?  How much correction is too much, and how do I ignore mistakes that students make while encouraging them to speak properly?

Especially in the foreign language classroom, correcting students is a vital part of the learning process.  Students need to be encouraged to speak and communicate in the foreign language.  And they will make mistakes as they try to use the language.  But the amount of correcting a student may need as they try to use their foreign language can sometimes be overwhelming – their pronunciation, their vocabulary, their grammar, their use of idiom could all be wrong, and should be corrected so that students speak properly.  But if every single mistake is pointed out and corrected students will stop speaking in class for fear that they will make mistakes. 

It then becomes the job of the teacher to become students’ “German mothers.”  This is a term I borrow from one of my own German classes.  The teacher asked us how little German boys learn the language – how do they know that it is ‘der Ball’ and not ‘das Ball’?  They make mistakes – they say ‘das Ball’ and their mother tells them, ‘No, it’s der Ball’.  And the next day they make the same mistake, ‘das Ball’, and their mother tells them ‘No, it’s der Ball’.  This teacher than told us that our German textbook would be our “German Mother”, gently reminding us of the mistakes we would make and what the correct way of speaking should be. 

As “German Mothers” teachers should correct students as gently as German mothers would correct their children.  And it’s interesting to study how parents teach their children language.  Mostly it is through correct input, and repeating the proper way of speaking after a child has made a mistake.  The most important thing, to keep a student motivated to continue learning the language, is to encourage and be positive.  As I consider my own attitude and how I want to teach, I hope I will be patient with students’ mistakes and correct in a helpful, loving manner.

Students need to hear correct German spoken and used in the classroom, and this is where I see a great benefit in using internet technology to show films, clips, music, etc. in the classroom so that students hear German spoken by actual Germans.  And that is a gentle form of correction – exposing students to correct forms that they can imitate. 

The bottom line, then, is that students need to speak the language in order to learn the language.  Some mistakes, especially those that are common or widespread amon several students, should be pointed out and addressed.  And this can be done in a tactful manner without offending.  I would like to develop a friendly classroom atmoshpere where students know that their language mistakes will be corrected, and not because I’m mean and want to prove that I’m smarter than they are, but because they need to hear the correct way of speaking if they want to learn how to speak correctly.  And all students are fair game, I’m not picking on one student.  We all make mistakes.  And I would also show students that I do not know everything there is to know about German.  I look words up all the time, to find the correct word, to findt the gender, to find the usage.  The important part of learning a foreign language is to be able to communicate in that language – that means a lot needs to be memorized, but it also means students need to know how to find the information they need when they need it.

Students need to be taught and shown that mistakes are natural and normal when learning a foreign language (and in any other subject, for that matter) but the most important thing is that a student is learning from mistakes and not repeating them.  Learning is essentially a series of mistakes. As Samuel Becket said “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

2 thoughts on “Errors and correction, or What is the purpose of a classroom?

  1. The hardest part is to encourage students to speak out and make mistakes. When people feel that every mistake docks an imaginary point off their total grade, making mistakes suddenly becomes a high-stakes endeavor. In order to relax students to a mistake-friendly environment, you’ll have to disengage class performance (at least during practice and such) from grading.

    1. True. And that is why I think a lot of foreign language classrooms (and other classrooms, for that matter) are starting to give out “Participation points” to students who make an effort. The focus, then, becomes ‘Are you trying’ rather than ‘Are you right’, which is a big improvement. But, at the same time, we can’t spare children’s feelings and tell them they’re doing great when they are making mistakes. We still need to encourage correct speaking and the minimizing of mistakes, without making kids feel bad or dumb. That is the fine line teachers walk.

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