A take on mistakes

Correcting mistakes - for teachers; How to overcome your fear of mistakes - for students; Personal experience - Maria Kuzmina.


Teachers have to deal with students’ mistakes on a day-to-day basis, which is no surprise to anybody. Even native speakers make mistakes, especially in informal situations, so there is nothing to be worried about. However, it is not always clear what kind of mistakes should be immediately corrected and which ones left for later. Do you know that there are different types of mistakes? In today’s newsletter we are going to answer these questions and more.

To begin with there are different kind of mistakes students make and different reasons they make them:

  1. Developmental errors.
    These happen as a natural part of learning a language, when students are trying to process new information and implement it in their worldview. Students are trying to work out how the language system works.
    Sometimes, they will over-generalise a rule, assuming that it can be applied to all words of a certain category, just like children may form new words using the patterns they have noticed in the language. These errors show that the student is actively analysing the language and trying to understand it.

  2. Interference errors.
    These happen when students learn their second or third language. They try to use the rules and patterns of the language they already know to say something in the new language. Usually, these are mistakes in word order, collocations, idioms and words with multiple meanings. For example, Russian students often confuse “to decide” and “to solve” because these words are translated as one in Russian. Being aware of these differences will help a teacher prepare for and even prevent possible interference errors.

  3. Interlanguage errors.
    It often happens so that at a certain level students develop their own version of the language they are learning, often due to inconsistency in studies or if they frequently change their teachers.

  4. Fossilised mistakes.
    If a mistake is left uncorrected for too long, it may get imprinted into a student’s mind and will be extremely hard to get rid of. These may happen if the students studied themselves or were taught something wrong. These are the mistakes a teacher should correct immediately every time a student makes them, otherwise, they will remain indefinitely. 

  5. Slips.
    These are accidental mistakes and students make them when they are less focused on how they speak and more on what they say. Sometimes a student is simply tired or is so engaged in the discussion they become careless with what they say. Students will usually be able to correct these mistakes on their own and may even be surprised they have made them. If the purpose of the task is expressing opinions, exchanging ideas or brainstorming, these mistakes may usually be ignored.

  6. Attempt mistakes
    Students may make mistakes in the areas of language they haven’t yet learned or which are beyond their current level. In these cases they shouldn’t be corrected, although you can encourage your students to paraphrase using the language they already know.

How can we correct mistakes?

Every task is usually focused on either Fluency or Accuracy. If you are practicing a new structure during a PPP lesson, this is a task on accuracy. When you are doing speaking activities you are practicing fluency, which is a spontaneous use of the language students already know and try to use.
Generally, we correct more during Accuracy practice, because we want to make sure the students understand what they are learning and remember it correctly. But if you correct too much during Fluency practice, the students may become reluctant to try out new things and may stall in their development. We recommend noting the majority of mistakes down and discussing them during the feedback stage, when the speaking practice is finished. As mentioned earlier, this does not refer to fossilised mistakes. 

There are different ways to correct mistakes during fluency practice:

- facial expressions
You may indicate a mistake by simply frowning or making a funny face. This will definitely take pressure off your students. On the flip side, they may become too acutely aware of the changes on your face even when you are simply reacting to the ideas. 

- gestures
Tap your pen on the table, signal surprise or disagreement, wave your hands back to indicate that a past tense should be used or forward for a future one. It also creates a more relaxed atmosphere, but make sure this will not offend your students and do not overuse it.

- repetition
Repeat what the student said omitting the part with the mistake or stressing the mistake with your intonation.

- ask a question
Simply ask a question about the mistake, like “do we say …?” or “When do we use …?” and direct the student to the right answer

- peer correction
You should use this tool carefully because students may correct each other wrong. However it can be a good practice for everyone to raise awareness about their own mistakes and reinforce their knowledge.

- reformulation
Respond to a student’s mistake by repeating what they said but saying it correctly.

Some students say they want to be corrected immediately as they make a mistake, but if you actually do that it will only frustrate them and affect their motivation. But if a student is highly motivated and is focusing hard on accuracy, when saying something right is extremely important to them, then do correct their mistakes as they speak.
It is also a good idea to give class feedback without focusing on who made the mistake, but doing the correction together as a class activity. It will take pressure off the students and will not make anyone feel stupid, especially because some may make more mistakes than others. 

Finally, if you do choose to correct mistakes during a communication activity, use gentle reformulation as much as possible, naturally weaving your commentary into the conversation. You can still address these mistakes later, where you will provide an explanation without interrupting your students’ flow.

6 Ways to overcome your fear of making mistakes

We often believe that our fear of making mistakes comes from a fear of failure. While this may be true, we can narrow it down even further by saying we fear the negative effects of making a mistake. To change your current situation, you must be willing to make a change. You have to get a little uncomfortable. Here are 6 ways to overcome your fear of making mistakes so you can move onto bigger and better things.

1.    Change the way you think of failure

2.    Find an accountability partner

3.    Celebrate the small victories

4.    Understand why you’re afraid

5.    Let things fall into place

6.     Face fear head on

Failure will happen no matter what but how you react to it says a lot about you as a person and where you’re headed in life. You basically have two options: The fear can either hold you back from even trying to do those scary things or it can propel you forward. We hope you choose to embrace fear, let it ignite your fire, and empower you to make changes in your life. Honestly, what’s scarier? Taking a risk or staying where you’re at forever?
Read more here

Personal Experience

How to teach beginners
and help them feel making mistakes is okay:

1. Simplify words and phrases that you use while speaking. In my opinion, many teachers make the mistake of using too much English in their lessons. Without doubts, teachers should surround their students with English speech from the very beginning, but it must be limited. Give positive feedback every time your students try to build a sentence or using new vocabulary.

2. Check for understanding even if students catch the information. When teaching beginners, you should read your student’s body language and often ask “Okay?”, “is everything clear for you?”.

3. It’s great to use body language and also visual aids with beginners. Students will better understand what the teacher is trying to say if it is provided with visual cues. Your body language can also help you show how you support your class: open postures, a smile, calm and soft intonations will definitely benefit your teaching style.

4. One of the most important pieces of advice is to be patient and positive. Some beginners may be slow in learning, have difficulties with understanding, using a foreign language etc. Teachers should support their students and give more positive feedback.

How to teach advanced students
and help them feel making mistakes is okay even if your level is high:

1. Motivate your students to reach new goals in their learning. Teachers should encourage them to get out of their comfort zone and reach new horizons. At this level students easily lose their motivation, that’s why even making mistakes can be a new challenge they would love to accept! 

2. Set a goal with your students using the SMART system. Student’s goal must be: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound. High level students should know why they want to increase their level. And teachers should understand the purpose of teaching high level students. If you work on a specific topic that is trying to master a missing skill, make it a goal-plan using SMART, it might be a nice implementation for your students. 

3. Challenge your students. Advanced learners seem to know everything in the language and use it fluently. For that reason teachers should enrich student’s vocabulary by using more advanced collocations, phrasal verbs, idioms and also develop natural speaking. It would be perfect if students could combine studying with non-native teachers and native speakers as well. 

4. Use more role-plays, interviews, debates and try to engage your students in more high level movies/TV-series, magazines and news. It helps them to dive into more difficult grammar and vocabulary. They will understand how the language works and develop spontaneous creative speaking. When your students speak, try making notes of all the corrections that should be done and ask your group to say those phrases or sentences one more time, but correctly. The best option would be to ask them randomly, so that they could correct mistakes of each other and think all together.

That’s all for now!
Stay amazing ❤