5 Truly Innovative Digital Language Learning Tools for 2020

As more and more digital tools are developed, it is always handy to know which are genuinely useful and innovative for our learners. Thank you to Sarah Bromley, who certainly knows her stuff, for this guest post.

By now most teachers are familiar with the idea of using digital resources such as YouTube videos and online quizzes. Nowadays those things, while still extremely useful, are almost ‘old news’.

What are the emerging innovations that will further revolutionise language learning over the next few years? As the founder of a company that develops digital products for language learning, I like to stay on top of the new and cutting edge tools that are becoming available.

Here are some of the most innovative and interesting tools that I’ve come across over the past year. They’re not really classroom activities – more tools that can support students between lessons, to help them practise or supplement what they learn in the classroom.

Ludwig

Ludwig describes itself as a “sentence search engine” that helps you write better English by giving you contextualized examples taken from reliable sources. Your students can use Ludwig to ‘self-check’ their own use of English. 

What I like about Ludwig is that it has formalised what I have tried to do for years using Google searches. When writing Spanish I sometimes Google a construction to see if I can find a good number of instances of it in high quality Spanish websites, to give me some indication of whether it may be correct. 

Ludwig has made it possible for English learners to do this more easily by only searching reliable sources (mainly newspapers, it seems).

I discovered an interesting use for Ludwig recently. A student said “come to grips with” and I told him we in fact say “get to grips with”. He then pointed out that according to online Cambridge Dictionary, “come to grips with” was acceptable. I didn’t think I’d ever heard it so I suspected it was maybe American English. A search on Ludwig confirmed this by showing that “come to grips with” appeared mostly in American publications.

Go Correct 

Full disclosure – Go Correct was created by me, the author of this article. However, it did win a British Council ELTon award for digital innovation in 2019, so it’s not only me that thinks it’s worthy of a mention! The British Council obviously agree. 

Go Correct uses the ‘chat bot’ functionality in Facebook Messenger to send daily conversation questions. The student replies to the question with a short text or voice message and their reply is corrected by a qualified teacher. The student can also click on a mistake for more information and see statistics about where they make the most mistakes.

Go Correct solves a couple of problems for language learners. One – how to get regular practice producing English. There are so many opportunities online to listen to or read English but if a student doesn’t use English in their daily life, it’s easy to let days or weeks pass without ever writing or speaking it. 

Even if students do have opportunities to use English day to day, most of the time they’re generally understandable so the people they’re speaking to won’t correct them. The idea behind Go Correct is that students can discover their mistakes and learn from them.

Wordbit

WordBit is an app that shows you a new English word every time you unlock your phone. This is clever because it takes an action that we do regularly and turns it into a moment to learn a word in English. I believe it’s well known in psychology that to turn something into a habit, it’s best to attach it to something else that’s already a habit. 

I believe the idea is that we spend (waste?) a lot of time looking at our phones so why not make use of that time to learn more words of English?

After using the app I realised that most of the time I’m unlocking my phone to do something useful or important (eg. check my location on a map) and at those times it was annoying to have to swipe away the vocabulary before I could do the task. If they could make it show the word every time I opened an app that I waste time on (eg. Instagram) then that would be really valuable. Also, I’d like to them to fix a couple of technical problems and curate their word list a bit better – I saw some rather obscure or rarely used words.

Voicebook

Voicebook takes listening practice and makes it more useful. Rather than students simply listening and answering questions about the parts they can understand, Voicebook gently pushes students past their current level of understanding.  

Learners listen to an audio recording and view an empty template of all the words in the recording. They then transcribe the parts they understand and the software reveals the words that the learner couldn’t understand correctly, allowing them to re-listen to these parts and focus on understanding them.

The software is still at an early stage and the interface is currently only available in Italian, however there are several English recordings available which you can filter by CEFR level.

Lingbe

Lingbe takes the traditional idea of a language exchange, democratises it and gives it some structure.

In Lingbe, learners make voice calls with people who are learning their language and they earn credits for the calls they make. They can then spend those credits on calls with people who speak the language they’re learning. 

You don’t have to arrange a call in advance. The idea is that you go to the app at any time and there will be someone available to talk to. This takes some of the ‘admin’ out of a language exchange. It also means that you don’t need to exchange directly with someone who speaks the language you’re learning – you can earn credit by talking with anyone and spend it on the language you want. This is helpful if an English learner’s native language is not one that’s widely learnt.

While language exchanges are a great idea, they can be time consuming to arrange and I feel Lingbe solves that problem.

What’s missing from this list?

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any voice recognition applications in this list. This may be surprising because several have appeared over the past couple of years and it is definitely a growing area. However, the voice recognition language learning apps that I’ve tested don’t yet deliver what they promise. 

I found apps such as Elsa and Aivu to be disappointing. There’s still more work needed in this area. I’ve written more about voice recognition for language learning, in this article. I think voice recognition holds the potential to be the next big exciting development in language learning. In fact, it’s something I would love to work on if the opportunity arises.

Video for the Terrified (or just slightly nervous)

In a departure from the usual written form, this week’s guest post is a video from Eric Oscar Wesch from Etacude. If you’ve ever wondered about creating your own videos, but were too terrified or overwhelmed by the tech to start, this post will calm your fears, explain why we should all be doing it and get you started with tech that you probably already own. You’ll be making videos in no time!

Collaborate to Innovate

OK, before we start, I’ll admit I do have a vested interest. I firmly believe that we all know something and should pass it on to help us all grow as teachers. That said, I’m not the only one…

You probably don’t know me, I’m not Scott Thornbury or Jeremy Harmer (not least because I’m a girl) but neither am I Penny Ur or Laura Patsko some other big ‘name’ in the ELT world. I’m just a teacher, like you. The thing is, I know things that you don’t know and I’ve done things that you’ve yet to try, while you know stuff that I don’t and you’ve done things I’ve not even considered or had the guts to try – yet (go on, persuade me…). But then, you probably kind of had a sneaking feeling about that before you started to read, otherwise why would you be reading a post from someone you don’t yet know?

I’ve flipped classes, I’ve built a Moodle site from scratch, I’ve created courses and started a teaching business. I’ve navigated technology that I never imagined I’d be able to and I’ve met the most wonderful teachers. You may have done some of the same things, but you may also be able to hold the attention of a room full of teenagers, you may know how to use an interactive whiteboard, you may use dogme without batting an eyelid, you may be a marketing genius, you may be able to stand in front of a roomful of expectant people at a conference and not wish the ground would open up and swallow you – please, show me how to do these things.

Please, show all of us.

Many of us collaborate on a small scale, without even realising it. When you go into the staff room after a particularly stressful lesson and rant at your colleagues and someone offers a useful suggestion – that’s collaboration. You have learned another technique and your colleague has learned what not to do with that particular group of learners. Perhaps you have spent hours trying to find the perfect video for a lesson (we’ve all done it – that internet rabbit hole is a scary place), you are so pleased with yourself, you pat yourself on the back and show a colleague. That’s collaboration. Maybe you are stuck for an activity and post a request in a Facebook group. That’s collaboration too.

Broadwell (1969) suggests that development can be construed as a move from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’. The idea being that we may be unaware that we are doing something badly until we realise it has been made better.  It is in this movement where collaboration is most productive – someone else’s advice or guidance is so much more supportive than a ‘superior’ telling you how to ‘improve’.

If we can move past the ‘phatic communion’ (Lansley) of just moaning together and agreeing with each other, then collaboration can be a truly rewarding and, dare I say it, fun approach to learning and developing our skills. There is really nothing more thrilling than have peers thank you for your insight into something and then act on it. It is a boost to your confidence, validates your ability and experience and is great for consolidating the knowledge that you may not even realised that you had in the first place. When this tacit knowledge (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999) is realised or extracted then collaboration is the most effective approach to professional development. That penny-dropping ‘duh!’ moment, when we suddenly realise that we had the answer all along, cannot be replicated in a lecture theatre or classroom while we ‘do’ obligatory staff development – this is the stuff that we come to naturally, because we need the answer or information.

My first conscious and deliberate act of collaboration was some years ago. I’d been teaching in the UK for a year or so post-CELTA. I was getting on OK, still doing the post-CELTA thing of spending every waking moment planning lessons for a part-time job, but getting on OK and feeling like a ‘proper’ teacher.

For the B2 groups, there were just two teachers, myself and another (we’ll call her Caroline – because that’s her name). We soon realised that our learners were jumping from one class to the other and losing any course continuity. So, we decided to collaborate on creating a shared scheme of work.

We spent that year planning lessons and syllabi together and sharing our work, so that we both taught the same lesson (or variations of) each week. The benefits were myriad. Our learners could attend whichever lesson was convenient each week and not miss anything, lesson planning time nearly halved (tea and chatting did slow us down a bit) and we each learnt about new activities, approaches and techniques that we hadn’t tried before. I also learned more about teaching in that year than I had working by myself and doing the CELTA; and I made a wonderful friend. I also used the school LMS to give learners access to materials after class, something which was new to Caroline.

We all (mostly) advocate learners working out stuff for themselves as the best method of acquiring the language, the same goes for us, the teachers. In this connected world, there are so many ways of collaborating and sharing our knowledge and experience to help both ourselves and others. Work with a friend, join a SIG, co-teach, make use of any of the 1000’s of groups on social media, attend a workshop (maybe even an ELT.Training interactive online workshop) or even just take time for a cup of tea and a chat. When we get together to find the answers to questions we may not even realise we have, we can move mountains.

So, show me what you know, show all of us.

References

Broadwell, Martin M. (20 February 1969). “Teaching for learning (XVI)“. wordsfitlyspoken.org. The Gospel Guardian.

Lansley, C (1994) Collaborative Development: an Alternative to Phatic Discourse and the art of Co-operative Development. ELT Journal, 48 (1): 50-6

Sternberg & Horvath (1998) Tacit Knowledge in Professional Practice: Researcher and Practitioner, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc

Working on language learner pain-points through a coaching approach

This week’s guest post by the lovely Gabriella Kovács briefly discusses the basics of language coaching and gives you some ideas about how it works… and a very practical takeaway activity to use in your next lesson.

Something to identify is whether you are a coach coaching learners, or a language professional (teacher, trainer) using coaching elements, techniques and tools to add dimension to your classes. 
When you coach, you coach, when you teach, you may make use of specific coaching elements, but that is not coaching: that is teaching with a coaching approach.  In my experience of the past few years, the latter is basically what most language professionals need, this is what learning about LC can provide.

Language coaching is a process focusing on learner needs, interests, motivation and goals.  By identifying – with the learner – what and why they wish to achieve concerning their language learning and language usage goals, the missing pieces of the puzzle fall into place nicely.  By asking questions, guiding with empathy and positivity there will be space for the learner to come to terms with who they really are as language learners, language users and will increase their commitment to taking steps to reach their goals.

The definition goes: A conversation-based process with a purpose to map and create optimal language acquisition or language usage-related goals. The framework is based on strategies utilising intrinsic motivation and developing learning awareness, where both parties are equal partners.  It is important that clients (learners) claim ownership of their own development. (Source: Gabriella Kovács ACC)

Learners may feel stuck or demotivated, keep postponing exams, cannot significantly make progress, do not seem to find time to study the language, believe they are not good at learning languages etc.

For some, working on these issues might take one session, for others 3-6, it really is not about time. I have had clients collaborating with me for one session and leave happily, while others I support for months and work in true partnership with them, covering themes related to their workplace communication issues, exam preparation etc. 

Key questions to ask when beginning a coaching process might be:

In what way(s) is your goal supporting other aspects of your life?

Do you have an ideal type of teaching or lesson in mind you would feel comfortable with?

If you had 15 minutes a day to learn, what would you do in that time?

I work with adults in the corporate world and blend coaching with communication training. Many times I go in with 3-4 coaching tools and a handout and we discuss what is going on for the learner. I provide the attention all learners should be receiving – and they strive.

Let me present an activity I often use with learners when identifying motivation, learning preferences, strategy issues for them. 

  1. Print and cut about 6-10 quotes and place them on the table in front of the learner/s. (If you have a class, then get them into pairs or groups of maximum 3-4.)
  2. Go through the quotes and make sure learners understand the meanings of the words and phrases. Make this as short as possible. (Don’t interpret the meaning of the quotes themselves to them.)
  3. Ask learners to choose 2 quotes that resonate with how they are feeling in connection to their learning challenges right now, why that quote is important for them at present.  Let them explain to you or their partner/group. 
  4. Finally get them to highlight and share some interesting ideas.  Let them reflect on the activity: Why was this activity valuable for you?
  5. You can even collect their reflections and summaries on post-its and put them on the wall.

This is a precious activity as it needs very little preparation, will support learning awareness and deepen understanding of aspects of learning/teaching learners may not have thought of before. It may take 10 minutes, it may take 30 minutes… Be prepared for a fruitful conversation indeed!

These are my favourite quotes, but there are many, many more out there!

  • Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  – From the book Narcotics Anonymous
  • If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much. Lewis Carroll
  • Nothing is impossible… the word itself says I’m possible! Audrey Hepburn
  • The journey is the reward.  – Chinese proverb
  • People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.  – Zig Ziglar
  • When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps. – Confucius
  • Problems are only opportunities in work clothes. Henry Kaiser
  • Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. – Confucius
  • I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. – Einstein
  • Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.- Xun Kuang
  • A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. –  Thomas Carruthers
  • That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way. – Doris Lessing

Hope you enjoyed reading this and found it useful. 

Australian-born Gabriella Kovács ACC, an internationally certified language coach, business communication trainer (B.Ed., M.A.), mentor and teacher trainer. She is behind the idea of founding an organisation to support all professionals interested in language coaching, which has manifested in ILCA (International Language Coaching Association).

Her mission is to add dimension and depth to ongoing language learning practices and create a more holistic, person-centred approach for language professionals. She provides webinars, f2f and online trainings, publishes articles and works with her clients.

Freedom, Shackles and the Comfort Zone

I’ve read a lot of posts and articles recently encouraging teachers to get out of their comfort zones and thought I’d start by sharing this graphic from www.teachthought.com.

And while I don’t disagree with anything suggested in this post, I wonder how aware we actually are about what is, and isn’t, within our own comfort zone? How do we define our own comfort zone? How do we take those first tentative steps out of our comfort zone? Is it even necessary?

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, comfort zone can be defined as a situation in which you feel comfortable and in which your ability and determination are not being tested

Doesn’t sound like too bad a place to be, if you ask me! But is it really the best a teacher can do for their students? If we spend a lesson testing our learners’ ability and determination, surely it is only fair that we should be put to the same test? So, how do we know, exactly, what might be in (or out of) our comfort zone?

For the purposes of this post I conducted a little (extremely unscientific) research. I asked teachers from around the world ‘How would you define your comfort zone, as a teacher?’ Firstly, yes, I phrased the question badly – I assumed that the concept of a comfort zone would be universal – turns out, it’s not! There were lots of responses involving coffee, a comfy chair, no children and even the pub. Many more responses were about the type of learners or lessons that people like to teach; C1/2, business, adults, poetry etc. What very few seemed to do, was to equate it to their methods, activities and style of teaching. Maybe defining our comfort zones by what we enjoy is no bad thing though.

My favourite answer (thank you Philip Shigeo Brown) was ‘A developmental place where we often strive to be and yet strive to grow beyond by getting out of it’. I reckon he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Or at least he would have done if people were actually aware of the existence of their own comfort zone.

Senninger defined the different learning zones long these lines;

The Comfort Zone – the area in which you feel you have mastery, where you are happy, content and confident in your abilities.

The Learning Zone – where you stretch yourself, try something new, feel a little discomfort but not much in the way of stress. Looking at new ideas and thinking ‘yes, I could probably give that a go’.

The Panic Zone – does exactly what is says on the tin, new practices which genuinely scare the heebie-jeebies out of you. Stress on an unproductive level. Cold sweats, nightmares, irrational urges to go to the loo 47 times in 5 minutes, you get the idea.

On the whole, I get this explanation and I like it. I would probably make just one teensy change…

I don’t see how the lines can be defined, there must be degrees of challenge? Surely there can’t be some arbitrary tipping point at which things go from stretch to utter terror? (having said that, my first conference presentation came jolly close…). To my mind there are some ideas that I am more comfortable with trying than others; some practices I would more readily incorporate into my teaching than others; some contexts that I would find more challenging, terrifying and stressful than others, but would still give it a go (as I do, periodically, with teenagers) and some stuff that I would just never even countenance (not much – but some).

The thing is, as we stretch ourselves, the things that start off panic inducing, gradually move into our learning (or stretch) zone. As the comfort zone becomes wider, the slightly scary thing becomes the comfortable thing and the terrifying thing also moves – to become a somewhat less terrifying thing. Imagine the plughole in the bath – that big hairy spider will go down it eventually, as the water spirals round.

If you google the topic you will find loads of ‘inspirational’ graphics along these lines.

Now, I don’t know about you – but I just find this plain depressing. Is it really suggesting that unless we take some almighty leap into the unknown, we will never be any more than mediocre, with sad mediocre lives and an uninspiring outlook on life? This is just unrealistic (a bit like a celeb’s Instagram accounts – where everything is perfect, they all wake up with a full face of make-up, a kale smoothie in their hand and no-one sweats at the gym). If we used this as ‘inspiration’ we’d NEVER get to the ‘good stuff’ because it’s just too far away!

The key is to take little steps. Reflect on your teaching, see where your own comfort zone lies and then decide where and whether you should move on a little (or a lot). Find something that interests you; a question you’d like the answer to, a new activity that helps your learners, collaborate with a colleague, read, observe a colleague and copy something that you feel works well, research other approaches to a recurrent classroom problem.

Your comfort zone is just that, comfortable. It isn’t a prison but neither should it be your goal (I was going to say it isn’t a gaol but neither should it be your goal – but wasn’t sure if old English words were universal and, actually, it looks a bit naff, but hay ho).

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable in what you do (although there have been suggestions that the boredom of staying within your comfort zone may contribute to burnout) but, just for kicks, maybe add just a frisson of stretch.

References

Senninger, 2000 – Learning Zone Model; Abenteuer leiten – in Abenteuern lernen (Facilitating adventures – learning in adventures). Münster: Ökotopia Verlag

Ed Tech – The Journey or the Destination?

I recently read a post which was, basically, a teacher evangelising about using technology in the classroom. She said ‘I am passionate about my mission to get all of our teachers to embrace technology’ (or words to that effect). In the same week I read a post that was entitled ‘How to Ace Your Next Observation Lesson’, the first idea was to include ‘some sort of’ tech. apparently lesson observers just go nuts for that sort of thing. But why?

Are these people suggesting that all tech is good? That having tech in your lesson somewhere automatically elevates a mediocre lesson to a great lesson? It would seem so. I remember being told by the supposedly expert teaching team at the FE college I was working in a few years ago, that I should ‘use Face Book’ with my learners between classes. It is worth bearing in mind both that the learners in question were adult pre A1 level and that I had never used Face Book. There was no explanation as to HOW I should (or even could) use it, nor WHY it was apparently such an amazing idea to supplement their learning this way. It seemed that they just thought that tech was good, tech was modern, tech was the sign of a progressive learning environment, tech made everything better (and don’t get me started on the lesson observations that were marked down because I didn’t use the interactive features of the whiteboard…).

Using technology in and between lessons has to be done to improve the overall experience for our learners. Using tech for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone. We may see an interesting idea while tumbling down the internet rabbit hole and think ‘hmm, that looks fun I’ll use it my class’ – but first we should ask ourselves – WHY should we use it? HOW will it help our learners? WHERE does it fit with our lesson? and ARE our learners able to use it?

The SAMR model (Puentedura) takes these questions one step further and gets us to evaluate the tech by its application and purpose.

To better familiarise yourself with the whole SAMR approach there is an excellent video here. The basic idea is to reflect on why the tech is being used, is it merely as an adjunct? (such as replacing pen and paper with a screen and keyboard) or does it allow us to achieve something that would previously have been inconceivable? (like collaborating on a podcast with students from a school in a different country). The SAMR model also ensures that we consider the use of the tech in question, is it just for fun (which is not necessarily a bad thing – ‘brain breaks’ can aid learning) or is there a pedagogical purpose?

We need to be picky when it comes to tech, we need to evaluate what it is and why we are using it. There are loads of fantastic apps, programmes and software available out there – but we have to be sure that we are adding value to the learning experience with them, not just ‘teching’ for the sake of it.

References

Ruben R. Puentedura. Transformation, Technology, and Education. (2006)

6 Ways to Increase Your Learners’ Vocabulary

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Spaced repetition – once introduced, keep using the vocab so learners become familiar with it – review new vocabulary at the end of each lesson and the beginning of the next. Encourage the use of flashcards and/or apps like Quizlet and Brainscape for repetition between lessons. Typically, a word needs to be used 14 times before it is considered ‘learned’.

Teach in Context

Learners need to have somewhere to ‘put’ new vocabulary., if it is taught in context, studies have shown that they are more likely to retain it than words in isolation. Context also helps with comprehension of new vocabulary. So, if it is not relevant to the lesson – don’t introduce it yet!.

Read

Learners need to understand 95% (Laufer) of a text to make it enjoyable and comprehensible. Reading is an excellent way to be introduced to new vocabulary in context. Try graded readers, newspapers, magazines, internet articles – anything that interests the learner (sport, music, film reviews or even whole novels).

Teach Word Formations

Introduce learners to the different affixes that, using the same word stem, give a different meaning. With a knowledge of these prefixes & suffixes, learners can rapidly increase their working vocabulary. A little basic morphology and learners can create word families of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs all from one word.

Chunks and Collocations

Words are rarely used in isolation – teach your learners which words are commonly used together. Verbs and nouns together aid fluency. Knowing the function of a word (in action) makes it easier to understand and remember. Use Corpus based dictionaries and sites for practical examples like BNC/BYU and Just-the-Word.

Word Webs

Encourage learners to create lexical sets when learning new vocabulary. Include synonyms and antonyms and anything relevant. Writing words as a ‘web’ can make the words more memorable and connections and relationships between words easier to see than in a standard list. For an excellent example see vocabulary maps.

Fossils, Slips and the Power of Positivity

A recent question posted in a Facebook group got me thinking. The question was along the lines of “how should I deal with students’ fossilized errors?” The answers were varied, ranging from drills, games and repetition to gestures, signals and electric shocks (ok, I made that one up, but…).

Maybe the first question, rather than ‘how?’, should be ‘why?’ – Why are they making the error and why should we correct them?

Selinker coined the term ‘fossilization’ in 1972 to describe the errors made as a result of differences between a learner’s L1 and the L2 they have learned; where the L1 has a strong influence on a learner’s use of the L2. Selinker also, handily, came up with the concept of ‘interlanguage’ in order to explain the process of using the L1 as a template for learning the L2. Fossilized errors are the L2 language that stops changing despite more of the L2 being learned.

For example, pronunciation of ‘ed’ in the past simple (looked, liked, showed etc) is troublesome for even high-level French speakers – instinctively using /id/ rather than /d/ or /t/ because of the L1 need to articulate all vowels. Similarly, speakers of many nationalities often have difficulty with the third person singular –s in English because it just doesn’t exist in their L1.

The term has, however, become widely used and abused to encompass all errors repeatedly made by learners. But are all of these ‘errors’ actually errors? Are there different types of errors? At what point do they become fossilized? (and is it really such a terrible thing?).

James (1998) defined errors as ‘an unsuccessful bit of language’ (a gloriously vague definition which somehow makes perfect sense), but are there degrees of success? Should a valiant attempt to use language, with little or no effect on intelligibility, really be deemed an error? Using James’s definition, if the language is successful (in that the learner is understood) then no error has occurred.

For this reason, I wonder whether it would be helpful not to use the word ‘errors’ at all, perhaps ‘slips’ and ‘attempts’ might better describe (and serve) our learners’ language use.

Slips are very often what we mean by ‘fossilized errors’ and can often be corrected without too much trouble, but only if the learner is in on the idea. The learner knows the rule/meaning/grammar etc but their interlanguage has got in the way of internalising and acquiring the language. They use an incorrect form/meaning/grammar because it is instinctive, not because they don’t know it. Recasting, gestures, facial gestures are simple ways of prompting the learner into realising their slip and correcting themselves. If the corrections are not internalised after a period of time and the error has little effect on the intelligibility of the learner, I would be inclined to ignore it after a while rather than repeatedly denting the learner’s confidence.

Pieneman (1988) came up with the teachability hypothesis; it runs along the lines that if the learner isn’t ready to learn something – they won’t learn it. This means that all the corrections, games, drills, recasts, role-plays, gestures and electric shocks won’t make the blindest bit of difference. As a teacher this is the point at which we should consider sitting the learner down and firmly say ‘this isn’t working, perhaps we shouldn’t do it again for a bit’. It can become infuriating, and somewhat soul-destroying, for the teacher to repeatedly point out the same wretched slip lesson after lesson after lesson after lesson ad infinitum, and similarly distracting and depressing for the learner. We can facilitate learning, but we can’t force it.

Attempts, on the other hand, come from a different place entirely. These could result from language the learner has noticed (nothing can be learned unless it has already been noticed, Schmidt, 1990), possibly has been taught at some point (but not yet acquired), maybe has been heard somewhere or is a close or unsuccessful direct translation of the L1.

Attempts could also be language the learner does not yet know, has not learned, but has maybe noticed (and thus, attempted to use). This may seem contradictory; how can a learner use language they have not learned? This is often language that forms a ‘false friend’ in their interlanguage (vocabulary or structure that they think they know, but does not translate) or a genuine misunderstanding about the meaning/use of a structure or vocabulary. Either way, because the learner hasn’t already learned the language/vocabulary/grammar they can’t self-correct and need to be taught the form, meaning and pronunciation.

Attempts are ripe for teaching. This is language that is useful to the learner, that makes some degree of sense to the learner, that they have heard and are now curious about. This is the language that you can teach, this is the language that will have your learners leaving your classroom thinking ‘that was really good, I learned something useful that I understand’ – just the reaction we all really want! Attempts are what you should be using to plan your lessons, attempts are proof of the language your learners want and need to use. Attempts are good and to be encouraged because it shows you what they can and can’t do and what they want to be able to do. When people say ‘we learn from our mistakes’, in ELT, they really mean ‘we learn from our attempts’.

Attempts show us, the teacher, what our learners can and can’t do and also what they want to do with the language. Because the learner can’t self-correct, this is where things can get a bit sticky; do we really need to (indeed, should we) correct all of these errors? Perhaps it should be the consequence of this ‘unsuccessful language’ that should drive our correction technique for this type of error. It is up to us to decide whether the attempt affects the learner’s communicative intelligibility and should be corrected, or whether (for the time being) it can be left.

Errors are negative; they are the big red marks in my maths book. Errors make the learner feel they are wrong. Errors are rarely praiseworthy. Attempts are what we should be striving for. Attempts are positive. Attempts are the best bits about teaching. Attempts show effort, need and the confidence to try. Make a note of attempts in the classroom, use them. Maybe not in that lesson, maybe the next, or the one after that – but use them.

Imagine saying to your learners ‘that was a great attempt – let’s see how we can make it even better’. It sounds much more encouraging than ‘let’s correct the errors together’ (and so much better than an electric shock).

Tamara Parsons

References

James (1998) Errors in Language Learning and Use: Exploring Error Analysis. Harlow, Essex: Addison-Wesley Longman

Pieneman (1988) Determining the Influence of Instruction on L2 Speech Processing. AILA Review

Schmidt (1990) The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching