There are many ways to assess learners, for example, mini-tests or observations, in order to evaluate and monitor their understanding and progress. As well as checking learners’ competencies in some specific language or skill, evaluation allows us to guide learners on how to improve. Part of this is noting any errors they make in completing the assessments, especially errors in the language they use. However, focusing on errors too much can be de-motivating for learners. They may struggle to improve because they are anxious about making mistakes, especially with productive tasks. So how can we correct English errors and at the same time keep learners motivated to improve?
One of the best ways to support learners in improving their accuracy is to follow a process. This has the advantages of offering a consistent approach which, in turn, helps to build trust that this is to help them. This process has six steps:
1) Decide a clear focus for accuracy
- When you design or set your assessment, think carefully about which specific aspect of accuracy you need to focus on. Learners, especially younger ones, cannot deal with a wide range of errors. This means it is best not to address several errors at once, but to go slowly and deal with them one at a time.
- The accuracy point you choose should connect with what you have been covering in class. For example, you may have been teaching the past tense or some specific topic vocabulary. Choose this as your accuracy focus so learners can see the purpose and connection with their learning. Don’t worry about them getting everything right – over the month or term you will be able to cover different aspects of the accuracy and build on their learning one step at a time.
- Decide on the priority of this accuracy point. It may be that the assessment has communicative skills as the focus, in which case only correct English errors that impede communication. Or if it is a discrete grammar or vocabulary test, then errors might have high importance.
- Remember over-correction can be de-motivating. Make sure your assessment task sets learners up for success so you are not dealing with too many errors.
Read more about setting learners up for success in the Effective Feedback paper.
2) Agree on accuracy focus with learners
- When you set an assessment task, you should discuss it with the class. Make sure part of this discussion establishes where (and why) you expect them to be accurate based on your decisions in section 1.
Read more about setting assessment tasks in the Effective Feedback paper.
- Make sure you discuss the priorities of the assessment. For example, if keeping talking or writing is more important than accuracy, simply remind them of this focus. In fact, this can be very helpful to you as a teacher, because learners will then reveal errors they make when they are not focused on accuracy.
- Remind your class not to worry – learning is not linear.
3) Have a ‘pause’ time within the assessment task
- Give learners a chance to check their work mid-way through the assessment. Rather than finishing a task with ongoing or repeated errors, it is better – and more motivating – to give them a chance to correct English themselves. This also supports self-reflection and autonomous learning. If appropriate, ask the class to pause mid-task and think about their language. Do not correct them at this point – just ask them to think before they move on.
- As you monitor them completing the task, make a note of if they are more accurate after the pause. If so, make sure you praise them for this good thinking when they are finished. If not, it may indicate a lack of understanding and the point may need re-teaching.
4) Note general errors
- As learners complete the task, go around the class and make a note of the general errors that tie in with the accuracy standards you set in section 1. Ignore other errors – you can pick these up when doing a test with another focus.
- Consider what might be causing the error, e.g. confusion with L1, too little practice, etc. This will help design any remedial teaching or practice.
5) Correct English with specific feedback
- After the task is complete, first let the class know what they did well in the task. Then write the general errors on the board. Give learners time to reflect on the errors and what the correct English versions are.
- Then you can either (1) get them to act immediately with a short Question and Answer session by asking them to write the correct English versions in their notebooks, or (2) set them a single improvement task to focus on error correction and pick up in the next lesson before they forget. This could be an extra exercise (online or printed worksheet) which you prepared earlier. Read more about single improvement tasks in the Effective Feedback paper.
- While doing this note individual learners who are struggling and may need extra support.
6) ‘Say it again, say it better’
- To embed accuracy it is critical learners get a chance to repeat the language that you are focusing on. This should be specific practice and may be an outcome from section 5. This can be done as ‘Say it again, say it better’ in class, a model recording online, or submitted work if you are not in class. It’s useful to articulate the language and not just write it.
Read more about articulating and repeating language in the Effective Feedback paper.
- It is also important to allow learners to repeat the assessment task. This allows them a second chance and gives them a model of success, which is motivating.
Finally, make sure you allocate a specific time or task for accuracy focus or error correction. Don’t let it dominate every class or learners will become demotivated. The focus should be on what learners can do or achieve.
Help learners reach for their goals, accelerate their progress, and go further by embedding assessment for learning into your daily teaching!
Discover a range of support, training and practical tips on our Assessment for Learning page here.
If you missed Elaine Boyd and Philip Haines’s recent live stream on giving effective feedback to teenagers you can watch it here on YouTube anytime.
Elaine Boyd is a consultant in English language assessment and has worked for a range of international testing organisations for the last 30 years. Elaine previously taught English in Spain, Italy and India, and has co-authored several exam coursebooks as well as courses for young learners. Elaine has also designed and delivered courses for teacher educators in assessment literacy and has published several articles in the field. She is an Associate Tutor on the M.A in TESOL and Applied Linguistics at the Institute of Education, University College, London. Elaine’s current research interests are classroom assessment and managing learner feedback.