Managing oral mistakes in the english classroom
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Managing oral mistakes in the english classroom


I. Introduction

II. Managing oral mistakes in the English classroom:

A. Theoretical issues:

1. Modem methodological attitude towards mistakes and correction

2. Encouraging mistakes

3. Teacher’s reactions to an oral mistake

4. Effects of correction on children

5. Factors causing mistakes

6. Correction, fluency and accuracy:

a. Fluency

b. Accuracy

7. Forms of correction

8. Best time to correct mistakes

9. What to correct B. Practical Application of correction techniques:

1. Techniques of correction/how to correct

2. Techniques for indicating a mistake

3. Techniques for indicating a place of the mistake

4. Techniques for indicating the kind of mistake:

a. Traditional techniques

b. Non-traditional techniques

5. Delayed correction

III. Conclusions

IV. Appendices

V. References


What is a mistake?

As is to be expected different methodologists slightly differently discuss a mistake. However, all of them agree that making mistakes is a part of learning and, therefore, it is natural. „Mistakes are an inescapable fact of language learning. The fact that babies do it (…) indicates that mistakes are natural.“(I 11). Thus, all learners of a language whether it is their first language or a foreign one have one thing in common: they all make mistakes. Therefore, the conclusion that mistakes are inevitable in language learning is drawn in every methodological book on mistakes.

What is a mistake? Bartram and Walton (1991:20) classify mistakes according to their causes. The word „mistake“ appears to be only one in a range of words to denote various kinds of errors. These two methodologists distinguish mistakes, errors* and slips. They define mistakes as „caused by the learner not putting into practice something they have learned“ (I 20) and errors as „caused by the learner trying out something completely new, and getting it wrong“ (I 20). However, this distinction is only a theoretical one as in practice it is really impossible to distinguish between these two. The third type of mistakes is a slip, i.e. „wrong language caused by tiredness, carelessness, nerves etc.“ (I 20) which could be produced by anybody including native speakers.

The other classification of mistakes proposed by Bartram and Walton (1991:23) is based on the effect of mistakes. In other words, if the produced language violates the rules of the language system, but the intended meaning is clear and the grammatical mistake(s) does/do not impede communication such language is considered to be wrong only from the grammatical point of view, and functioning well as a piece of communication. Therefore, grammar might be less important than non-native language teachers tend to think („non-native teachers are the severest ones on mistakes“ (124)).

Edge (1991:7) calls this kind of errors mistakes of form. Generally, when teachers talk about mistakes, they usually mean mistakes of linguistic form. Edge (1990:9) a little bit differently

*Words mistake and error can be used synonymically as it is done by the majority of other methodologists.

from Bartram and Walton, divides them into slips, errors and attempts. According to Edge, slips are defined as careless tiny mistakes of linguistic form that could be self-corrected. Errors are the mistakes that cannot be self-corrected, but the class knows the correct form. The third type of mistakes – attempts – are defined as the wrong language used to express a thought having no necessary knowledge or through hypothesis-forming, as Bartram & Walton phrase it (I 12).

Edge (1990:2) also distinguishes mistakes of meaning which are considered to be the most important mistakes as they affect the meaning causing a breakdown in communication. Correct linguistic forms are of no use if they do not mean what is intended. In addition to this, Edge attaches the problem of politeness to the mistakes of meaning. Being polite with people is more important than being linguistically correct.

Somewhere in the middle between these two groups of mistakes distinguished by Edge, Bartram and Walton place covert mistakes – these occur when the student says something what they really do not mean, but what is linguistically correct. Consider the following examples:

1. If the company will guarantee delivery, we will order large quantities.

Normally will would not be used in the if-clause, though in this case it is

Possible in the sense of if the company is willing to… In another case, the same

student would produce something like ‘If the weather will get better, we can

play tennis’. In this case, there is no misunderstanding, but it is grammatically


2. How long are you in Vilnius?

This example is opposite to the first one. What the student really means is How long have you been staying in Vilnius? Therefore, they are talking about the past, but the person addressed will assume they are talking about the future. This example sentence causes a misunderstanding while being grammatically wrong.

Bartram and Walton treat this kind of mistakes in the same way as all other mistakes: if they hinder communication, only then they matter and should be rectified, first of all by the means of self-correction – the on-going
conversation/dialogue can help the student to correct it himself.

Moreover, Bartram and Walton (1991:12) suggest that many mistakes should not be corrected at all, but should be encouraged.

In general, modem language teaching methodologists claim that a mistake should not be treated as something negative which requires some punishment. On the contrary mistake is evidence of learning. Moreover, the idea that mistakes are a natural and, in fact, essential part of learning must be transmitted to the students. „The person who never made a mistake, never made anything“ (119).

The problem of this research paper is to establish theoretical and practical sides of managing oral mistakes in the English classroom involving a teacher’s possible reactions to a mistake, the suggested ways of the reaction, and when and how to manage oral mistakes.

The objectives:

1. to define a mistake (how it is understood and classified);

2. to discuss the possible teacher’s reactions to an oral mistake of a student;

3. to introduce the suggested ways of the reactions to the mistake;

4. to consider the possible factors or making oral mistakes;

5. to establish the effects of correction on children;

6. to present when to correct and when not;

7. to consider what mistakes to correct;

8. to exhibit ways of indicating spoken mistakes;

9. to exemplify what techniques should be employed for correction.

Materials and methods of this research paper will be discussed in the second half of it as they are closely connected with the issue itself.

The theoretical and practical value of the research paper To start with the theoretical part of the issue, every language, first of all, is spoken. Therefore, the command of the spoken language is one of the most important aspects of language learning. One can study a language (for example, Greek or Latin) without the real usage of it. Yet, most people aim to use a language for a number of different reasons which may be personal or cultural, educational, political or other. Indeed, the communicative language teaching approach (one of the latest ones) views language as a system for communication.

The aim set by this approach is the learner’s ability to communicate in the target language. Then, one’s language must be comprehensible – not necessarily perfect*, but to a great degree appropriate and, certainly, correct. The question is in what ways the correctness should be achieved? The answer to this question is the basic issue of this research paper. It includes the teacher’s attitudes towards oral mistakes and reactions to it, possible factors under the influence of which an oral mistake occurs as well as aspects of correction and the ways of it.

*It is important to note that anybody’s knowledge of a language is partial if „even the dictionaries disagree about some things“ (16).


The general tendency of the language methodologists is to view making mistakes as a part of learning, and correction as a part of teaching. In addition to this, the teaching exists to serve the learning. Students depend on the teacher as the teacher decides whether to correct or not, when and what to correct and what techniques to construe.

It is a general tendency for teachers to be worried by mistakes (especially non-native ones, according to Bartram and Walton: „non-native teachers tend to be severest of all on mistakes“ (I 24). Nevertheless, these two methodologists suggest that „good English“ does not mean „free of mistakes“. In real life the importance of a mistake depends on the situation it occurs. However, very often a teacher’s reaction to an oral mistake is to immediately correct it. It is not always bad. Yet, there is a number of points for a teacher to consider before leaping on the mistakes. Thus, correction should not mean insisting on everything being absolutely correct. On the contrary, it is a means of helping students to improve their accuracy in the use of language.

Encouraging mistakes

In contrast to correction, Bartram and Walton (1991:12) enlist three reasons why mistakes should be encouraged:

1. Forming hypothesis on what one already knows about the language. For example, if a learner knows that the past tense form of the verb is built by the means of-ed and knows such forms as arrived, liked, passed, talked, walked it is highly probable for him to experiment with buyed, goed, spended, drinked etc.

The importance of hypothesis forming rests on the fact that it indicates the learner’s moving forward in the language learning process. Mistakes occur due to the learner’s guesses, experiment with new forms of the language and they should be encouraged not hindered by immediate correction.

2. Hypothesis-forming based on the learner’s mother tongue. The target language is not always distinct from the mother tongue. Thus, the first language (LI) provides a chance for a learner to experiment in the new language: if a particular form exists in their mother

tongue, it is probable that it is exists in the second language (L2), too. For example, a German or a Lithuanian speaker with a cigarette and no lighter may ask; Have you fire? Bartram and Walton (1991:16) emphasize that teachers, in fact, tend to be severest on this kind of mistake though they should not be. When a student wants to say something in the target language, but
prevented, he/she starts worrying about the possibility of making a mistake and chooses not to say anything at all, i.e. no practice (which is essential in the foreign language learning process) is taking place.

3. The third reason of encouraging mistakes is promotion of learner autonomy. „An independent learner is the one who takes responsibility for his own learning“ (V 295). Though it is a primary and the simplest definition, it implicates that the learning process is essential. Yet, there would be no learning process without real practice.

Similarly, Edge (1990:15) discusses the harm of discouraging the learning referred to as learning steps. Edge’s view coincides with the view of Bartram and Walton and other modern methodologists that it is very dangerous for a teacher to be a heavy corrector. When a student knows that the teacher will always correct them they will take care to say only what they are sure is correct. Consequently, the students have too little opportunity to practice the language by experimenting within it.

Teacher’s reactions to an oral mistake

First a fall, the way the teacher reacts to a mistake is significant. Not only what a teacher says, but also the way they look, or move, the tone of their voice are important. If students are criticized for trying, they will stop it.

Bartram and Walton (1991:26) divide teachers into two major groups due to the extent of their correction:

1. the heavy corrector,

2. the non-correctors.

Both variants are extremes. On the one hand, the heavy corrector creates a tense teacher-focused atmosphere which restrains the students’ creativity by paying more attention to accuracy rather than fluency, imagination, independent thinking. Students tend to be cautious all the time and learn to come up with fixed phrases. This results in their inability to make new interesting sentences.

Tension which prevails in the classroom of the heavy corrector also hinders students from free thinking and efficient learning. As stated by Edge (1990:16) the over-correction results in two outcomes: no mistakes and, consequently, no learning steps are taken. Moreover, students who are corrected all the time soon get bored with it, especially if they are trying to express themselves. Therefore, the heavy correcting teacher causes student problems. Yet, the internal struggle on the part of the teacher is often present as well: often teachers do not want to overcorrect, but they feel that is their duty. The most striking point is that „teachers end up correcting right to right, or even right to wrong.“ (126).

On the other hand, the non-corrector creates problems centred on the teacher himself/herself. Firstly, such a teacher may feel guilty as not doing what must be done – i.e. correction. In addition to this, the non-correcting teacher often receives a number of complaints from school authorities, parents, and students themselves. School authorities and parents are especially dissatisfied when the teacher is preparing the students for an examination, because examinations are generally accuracy-based. Students themselves want to know their mistakes and improve. As Bartram and Walton emphasize students rarely complain openly about being corrected too much. On the contrary, Staefania’s (2002) observation is that the majority of students expect and want to be corrected as they consider it to be helpful as well as useful. Moreover, „it is the traditional view of what a language teacher does“ (I 29). One more problem of a non-corrector is their deteriorating image as students tend to think of such teachers as lazy, irresponsible or incompetent. Finally, according to Knierim (2002) the students „leam“ mistakes from each other if they are not corrected and, consequently, do not make progress as they do not know what is right and what is wrong.

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