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A Common Sense Approach to Treating
Error in L2 Learners
by Steve Schackne
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Much has been written regarding error correction-everything from direct prescriptive approaches to humanistic techniques which often avoid overt correction altogether. While there's no hard evidence that aggressive correcting leads to positive results any more than a hands-off approach does, a couple of general observations can be made. Error correction in the real world certainly is not as controlled as in traditional classrooms. Speakers who don't understand each other use rhetorical devices, such as paraphrasing and asking for clarification, to negotiate meaning and, hence, avoid directly confronting errors. These devices often come into play when a speaker makes global errors, those which affect comprehension. Local (minor) errors are often simply ignored. Second, most classroom teachers recognize that direct intervention is often ineffective and serves only to hamper communication, yet they are uncomfortable simply observing student error without taking action.

A Common Sense Approach

A common sense approach to treating error proceeds in stages (Investigation, Isolation, Explanation, Demonstration, Experimentation, Learning-Acquisition), and is minimally disruptive to both the flow of the lesson and student motivation.

Investigation (which also could be called assessment, exploration, discovery) engages the student in some form of communication to assess the general language level and the nature of language problems. This engagement could be a dictation, question-answer session, written paragraph, brief interview, or any other short activity.

Errors are then isolated for subsequent treatment. Isolated errors are classified along two lines: global-local, mistake-error. Global errors can be defined as those that affect comprehension, while local errors, though linguistically non- or sub-standard, do not break down communication. Mistakes are idiosyncratic, careless, and inconsistent, while errors actually involve language that has not been acquired or has been incorrectly acquired. Non-acquired or incorrectly acquired language that interferes with comprehension is, logically, the most urgent priority.

In the explanation stage, the teacher describes the error--this not only alerts the student that an error has been identified and is about to be treated, but also describes where the problem is occurring (ex: syntax, morphology, semantics, phonology, appropriacy) and what the problem involves (ex: incorrect production of a phoneme, misuse of a preposition, incorrect word use, overgeneralization of a verb, misuse of register/style).

The teacher will then demonstrate (or model) correct usage. The techniques in this stage will vary from teacher to teacher. Pronunciation problems could be addressed utilizing minimal pairs and points of articulation, while grammar correction could be handled by contrasting the unacceptable form with the acceptable form, making the transformations on a blackboard or overhead projector. Morphology and syntax problems most often involve developmental errors, such as the overgeneralization of L2 verb rules (ex: buyed instead of bought); however, contrastive, or negative transfer errors, while most often found at the phonological level, can also be seen in morphology and syntax when major differences exist between the native and target language morphological/syntax systems. Semantic problems occur at all levels, usually in the areas of usage and collocation. Appropriacy is later-acquired, and can be treated as a cultural, as well as a language, issue.

With exposure to the demonstration of correct form / usage / pronunciation, the student is now ready to embark on experimentation. This stage involves the trial use in communicative activities and/or real communication. Unlike traditional correction, where the student is drilled until the correct form is internalized, experimentation makes no short-term time demands on the student. The student attempts to correctly use the language in a real communicative environment, which may last an indeterminate period of time. The experimentation stage mimics a humanistic approach to correction, which places students in a low-pressure second language environment, hoping they will self-correct, avoiding intensive/direct correction techniques, which the humanists consider emotionally counter-productive. The difference here is that experimentation is encouraged to take place in a real world or communicative language situation where natural correction (ex: echoing, asking for clarification) can take place and re-focus the student on correct language.

Arrival at the final stage-learning/acquisition-is unpredictable. Students may learn quickly, then have to re-learn later, or learn later and have to re-learn periodically for the rest of their lives. Students could immediately acquire the language or (permanently) acquire it at some future time. Some students may never acquire the language, but this simply mirrors other correction approaches, and L2 learning in general, where people learn at different speeds and achieve different levels.

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