by Aggie Chapman

Mistakes are an inherent part of learning, and though nobody likes making them, they can really help us learn, so long as we go about them the right way. What does that mean?

There are mistakes and MISTAKES

Some teaching approaches differentiate mistakes and errors as two different things – putting it briefly, errors are the mistakes that you make repeatedly so they are “ingrained”. Though without making it unnecessarily complex, mistakes or errors are the things that we get wrong. By and large, they can be grouped into:

1. Serious mistakes – the ones that block communication or make it very difficult. They can lead to a misunderstanding or make it difficult to understand what you were trying to say. These mistakes include the wrong use of words, grammar, pronunciation, or spelling.

2. Common mistakes –   made by multiple students – that’s a signal that a part of the class hasn’t mastered something and needs more practice. It’s also possible that the students try to use a phrase or structure that they haven’t studied yet, hence they get it wrong, but as it seems important in their communication, why not teach them what they want to learn?

3. Slips (a.k.a. silly mistakes) – the ones that you make even though you know (and most of the time use) the correct version well. You look at them, can’t believe you made them, and correct yourself immediately. They are not a big deal for communication purposes, but they shouldn’t happen if you’re planning to take an exam.

4. Mistakes above students’ level – you might be surprised to hear that, but this kind of mistake is not a problem even in formal exams! Well, unless you keep using vocabulary or grammar above your level and keep getting it wrong, of course. While it may not be necessary to teach the point in question to the whole class, I tend to explain the issue to the student who made a mistake, either telling them how to fix it, or if it’s a complex language point I tell them what it is and offer help if they wish to study it on their own.

5. Recurring mistakes – as individuals we all have our own individual style of speaking and writing. We tend to use certain words and phrases more than others, and it is reflected in the mistakes we make when we speak and write. That’s why some students may make the same mistakes repeatedly, despite having them corrected or having fixed them themselves. Recurring mistakes are quite serious – at some point they become ingrained and even though the learner may progress with other language points, they keep making the same (sometimes quite basic) mistakes at higher levels. It’s important to spot and eradicate them as early as possible.

Should everything be corrected?  

It’s quite common that students want to have ALL their mistakes corrected. I get it, if you sign up for a course, you want to make progress and it stands to reason that you want to know what you get wrong and why.

Spotting and correcting mistakes is quite different for speaking and writing. It’s a good idea to have all the problematic bits highlighted and corrected in written work. As the text is there in black and white you can have another look at it in class or at home.

When it comes to speaking, though it’s a whole different thing. If you wanted all your mistakes corrected, you’d have to limit yourself to individual lessons only, where you would do all the speaking. Your teacher would be busy taking notes of your mistakes and couldn’t interact with you  – ask you questions, comment on what you’re saying, the way it happens in real communication. This means that except for giving individual speeches it wouldn’t help you develop your communication skills at all. And then, after you’ve just accomplished something – talked about something in a foreign language or got your message across you would go on to see a list of things that you got wrong. Not very encouraging, is it? It’s one thing for the teacher to praise you and point out a few things that you need to polish off. When you talk about correcting every single mistake, some of which would surely be just slips of the tongue, is very time consuming, and it’s not really time well spent!

An even more extreme way is to stop you each time you make a mistake. The teacher cutting into your talk makes you lose the flow of your thoughts and the corrections don’t make much sense as you are concentrated on what you were about to say instead of what you have. So, you’ve been interrupted, corrected and instead of picking up your conversation where you left off, you’re now pondering “did I really say that?” or “ohhh, so you say defrost not unfreeze” or something equally insignificant to the task at hand!

Correcting mistakes rarely fixes the problem

When you see the mistake corrected, you have the “aha!” moment, and it feels like the problem’s sorted. However, unless you focus on the point that you got wrong and practise using it correctly, you’re likely to repeat it. 

I like to engage the students in correcting their own errors, so long as these are at their level, rather than above. In this way they need to analyse the errors – think why what they said or wrote is wrong, and how to make it right. When correcting written work, I try to hint what kind of problem we have in their written work – whether it’s vocabulary, grammar, spelling, style, or other. And when I can see that the student was trying their best but didn’t get something quite right, or tried to use the language that’s beyond their level, I give the correct version that they’ll probably want to use in the future.

By the same token, I’m convinced that it helps to redo the written work if there are many inaccuracies, especially if you are preparing for a language exam. You don’t have to rewrite the text word-for-word, if you find it boring. Instead, you can create a similar text, in which you include the expressions or structures you used incorrectly in the previous task. 

Another idea is to keep a log of the mistakes you make and try to include some of the corrected ones in future tasks – not all of them at once, but aim to incorporate a few things that you got wrong before each time you are writing or speaking.

Embrace the mistakes

Hopefully you can see that mistakes are not the end of the word. Instead of losing sleep on how silly we looked when we said something wrong, it’s far more productive to focus on turning them into a learning experience.

There’s nothing worse than avoiding practising through fear of making mistakes. Over the years I’ve met lots of students who were reluctant to speak, write or do any kind of activities because they were so worried about making mistakes. Well, how else are you going to learn? Observing others, listening or reading will help with your passive knowledge (understanding), but won’t contribute much to your ability to use the language.

Accept that you are going to make mistakes and be ready to learn from them. Don’t fall into a trap of setting yourself a goal to get it right the first time, some mistakes need more corrections than others, don’t get frustrated that you’ve made the same mistake again, but aim to remember it and try to get it right the next time. Sometimes it may mean taking things more slowly because more attention needs to be paid to the part that you find tricky. That’s fine, it will only last a while before you get better.

You can do it by setting realistic expectations – trust your teacher, they know what and when to correct. If you feel they don’t correct you enough, talk to them, but be prepared to accept that what they do is actually the right amount and manner.

Don’t gloss over the corrections, or inaccuracies highlighted in your work  – focus on what’s wrong, analyse the mistakes and how to fix it. Remember that you need to use the problematic language in order to make it better. Only rarely, when the correction evokes really strong emotions do we remember it immediately. It can happen if you are astounded that what you used to think was correct, actually isn’t; or if you fail an important test; or the teacher corrects mistakes in a mocking or humiliating manner (hopefully the last one is just the remnant of the past, though!). It can also happen that the mistakes we make are simply funny, and so we’re unlikely to repeat them in future.

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