Wanted Mistakes

Wanted! Mistakes  by Michelle Caruana Dingli

I strongly believe that to learn we have to make mistakes. Yet, how do we as teachers deal with these in the class? It is only when we venture into the unknown, and experiment with language that actual language learning takes place (Vygostky). The teacher’s role in this is of paramount importance. 

Can you remember learning another language? The moment you stepped into unknown territory, what did it feel like? Most likely you wanted to be guided, not warned about the dangers or stopped. Therefore mistakes should be encouraged and allowed! 

I see mistakes as signposts, particularly post-beginner, pre Advanced levels, it is transforming from “recognizable passive” into “clear active language”. Mistakes show where focus is needed. This approach to dealing with mistakes does not only provide the teacher with a closer interface for detecting and targeting students, it also empowers the learners. Thus giving them responsibility for their own learning, for decisions about what points to raise (and how, when etc). When it is extended, it becomes learner autonomy. To succeed a foundation of trust and respect must be developed. If necessary changing the classroom atmosphere and the roles of those present. For example, in my last class, an honest evaluation of whether they wanted to learn English resulted 45% claiming not to. However once pretence was removed, the atmosphere changed and all my students did well in their exams. 

Ideas for Corrections. 

(1) Writing 

The students and you establish criteria of correction. The students in groups write a paragraph. I type these out and return them for evaluation the next day – obviously with all their mistakes. The students pick up both the strong and weak points 

(2) Homework Correction 

Groups are formed and students identify in this manner which areas are most likely to cause confusion. At this stage the students are more active, unlike the passive “nodding-ticking” creature I faced with my previous approach to correction. The aim here is not to get the right answer but to know why it is correct and the others are not. 

(3) Vocabulary Bingo - For beginners and elementary learners. 

It retrieves memorized words then puts them into use once again. Moving from the safe to the less safe. Depending on the level you would ask students to reproduce words newly learnt. Students have to write one word on a piece of paper. (I usually rip a blank piece of paper into 16 pieces). In this exercise anonymity is paramount. A word is picked out of the bad, we check for spelling, pronunciation and meaning. The word is then ready to be placed into a sentence. The sentence has to be interesting otherwise it gets scrapped. We then discuss. 

(4) Vocabulary Revision – For Intermediate or higher-level learners. 

This provides over 30 minutes of full student concentration, minimal teacher talks and plenty of peer checking. You need two distinct bags (I actually use shopping bags), students alone or in small groups scan their books for recently learnt vocabulary, writing each word at the top of a small piece of paper. Large enough for a definition to be written later. Once all the words have been jumbled, each student draw a word, which has to be defined before being put into the other bag, (one word only). This activity also allows the faster students to work harder, as the exercise finishes when all the words are taken. Students are then divided into groups; a consensus has to be agreed upon for each word definition. 

Although this may take slightly longer than a more didactic approach, it is thorough, going as deep into the subject as the learners wish. Furthermore, this approach focuses on process: how the goal is reached, as much as the final knowledge itself. The level of activity and involvement in the class minimizes boredom and guarantees that any student wishing to learn is able to do so, at their own pace. 

Michelle Caruana Dingli