Published 21st October 2020

encouraging mistakes

When you are teaching English as a Foreign Language, there may be some moments when you despair of both your teaching and your students’ learning abilities. Lessons when it seems like your students are making more mistakes than they’re not, and it feels like all your lesson planning and preparation, as well as your teaching skills and techniques, are in vain. But aren’t the sounds of English mistakes exactly the sounds you want to hear in your EFL classroom? After all, if your students aren’t making mistakes then are they really learning new language? This is why we insist that as EFL teachers it is our duty in encouraging mistakes in the TEFL classroom. 

What are mistakes in the EFL classroom?

Let’s back up a step. What exactly are considered mistakes in the EFL classroom?

There are a range of mistakes an English language learner can make. They might make mistakes with word choice, pronunciation, word order, subject-verb agreement and grammar, just to name the usual suspects. 

Mistakes which students make because they are not familiar with the language or are still in the process of consolidating the language into their interlanguage, are often called errors. However, there are other mistakes which our students make even though they know the language. Mistakes like these include the omission of the third-person –s or the wrong word order when it comes to adjectives and nouns. They might make these mistakes from fatigue or anxiety or habit. 

Read more: Why Do My Learners Make the Same Mistakes?

Why should we encourage mistakes in the EFL classroom?

Mistakes are evidence of learning and opportunities for learning. A learner who makes a mistake is taking a chance and pushing themselves and their language production. If a learner plays it safe and uses only language they are comfortable with, then they won’t make mistakes. If, however, a learner attempts to use new or unfamiliar language, they are a likely to make a mistake in their language production. This shows that they are pushing themselves to the limits of their capabilities.

What’s more, the mistakes learners make show the teacher the current language level of the learners. The mistakes will identify what language the learner knows and is able to produce, what language they are still struggling with and the gaps in their knowledge. This is valuable information for teachers so they know what language needs to be practiced, what language needs to be introduced, and what language can be accepted as a part of the students’ language. 

Are all mistakes “good” mistakes?

Having said all that, we should put out that we do actually need to draw a line. What we refer to as good mistakes are errors. What are not good mistakes are mistakes. It is these mistakes which are not learning opportunities because there is nothing for the student to learn. These mistakes should be dealt with accordingly – by correction, so that they do not become fossilized and a part of a student’s language. 

What’s the best way to correct mistakes?

This depends on a number of factors; namely, what kind of mistake it is and when the mistake is made. If the mistake is made during a speaking activity which focuses on accuracy, then the mistake should be dealt with immediately. However, rather than provide the answer, the teacher should highlight through gesture or intonation where the mistake is and let the learner make the correction themselves. On the other hand, if the mistake is made during a fluency speaking activity, it’s better for the teacher not to interrupt but to do a delayed error correction at the end of the activity.

Read more: Accuracy and Fluency: What’s the Big Deal?

Bear in mind, if the mistake is a mistake – and the teacher is sure the learner knows how to correct it – a quick signal from the teacher should be enough to make the learner notice and correct their mistake. But, if the mistake is a genuine error, in that the learner is not aware of the mistake or the correction, then the teacher will need to take some time to teach the relevant language. 

This is where mistakes become learning opportunities. In this case, the teacher can take note of what the learner has said and draw their attention to it at an appropriate time. The teacher can either write a few example sentences with the correct language on the board and ask the learners to identify the form, meaning and context of the language, or the teacher can give a few example contexts of the language and try to elicit the form from the learners. 

Either way, because the teacher is not giving the answer to the learners on a silver platter, they are being forced to work for their understanding. This means they are interacting with the language on a deeper cognitive level which, in turn, means that the language will be that much more memorable. 

At the same time, when a learner is able to understand a mistake and the correction themselves, they will feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. They will get a boost in confidence towards their language learning ability and they will feel more comfortable making mistakes going forward. This effectively translates into intrinsic motivation for the learner, which is a much more powerful tool than extrinsic motivation.

Read more: How to Promote Motivation in the EFL Classroom

Encouraging mistakes in the TEFL classroom

All of these points should have highlighted to you the need to encourage mistakes in the EFL classroom, as backward as that may sound. The most important way you can do this is by creating an atmosphere in the classroom in which the learners feel comfortable enough to make mistakes. They need to be familiar and comfortable with their classmates so they won’t be shy to make mistakes, and they need to be sure that the teacher is not going to embarrass them when they do. They should also be familiar with their teacher’s particular way of error correction so that the process of identifying and correcting their mistakes is quick, easy and effective.

Read more: Effective Error Correction

Once you have identified your preferred manner of error correction and your students become familiar with your methods, error correction will become a seamless part of your lessons, meaning that mistakes will no longer be despaired of but can instead be embraced and used to our advantage.

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