What do you do when a helicopter parent swoops in to help their child during their English lesson but gives the child the wrong answer? Or, when a shy student uses their new vocabulary word, but the wrong verb tense? How can you gently correct these errors without having the parent “lose face” or the student lose confidence?

In this article, I offer strategies to use when teaching English and correcting errors in an online ESL classroom, specifically with children from ages four to 10. Children often respond differently to feedback, particularly error correction, than preteens or teenagers. Children generally feel excited to learn. They still want to play, and respond well to silly voices and nursery songs. This age group is also comfortable repeating words over and over. The way we communicate with a seven-year-old child is quite different than with a fourteen-year-old teenager. Naturally, the way we teach English and give feedback is as well.

Let’s focus on giving corrective feedback positively. Positive reinforcement is essential for children, teenagers, and adults to advance in any new endeavor. There are ways to encourage a student and still correct their errors. There are ways to make a student feel confident even though she may struggle with grammar or might lack precise vocabulary when referring to a topic of interest. Sometimes it may feel a bit awkward to correct our students, especially if they are excited about talking. After all, who would want to discourage such enthusiasm? However, parents and schools expect us to correct our students. How else will our students know if they say or write something incorrectly? Error correction comes with the territory when teaching English.

Here are some practical strategies to consider when giving feedback to children individually:

Anticipate their Challenges:

After we get to know our students, we can predict what will be easy for them and what will be challenging for them. We get to know their strengths and weaknesses. This takes time and trial and error. It means, overall, getting to know them as people as well as getting to know their actual academic level. We present the students with a lesson. We might assume that the lesson is supposed to be slightly challenging but not overwhelmingly so. This assumption is natural, but please be careful. Students may not give us what we expect. Some students will know every vocabulary word and will be able to replicate the target grammar structure; however, they may struggle with listening comprehension. Jot down a note or two about their strengths and weaknesses while in class. Ask the students questions that you know are easy for them to build their confidence, and then ask some that you suspect will be challenging. Use the same encouraging tone and show how pleased you are at their efforts. Smiling and words of encouragement go a long way. They are more likely to try something a little harder after saying something well in front of their peers, parents, and their tutors. As you get to know your students, you will know with whom to be animated in your corrections using silly voices and song, and with whom to just smile and speak softly.

Model the Correct Answer:

Instead of always correcting online ESL students after they say something, we can model it first. For example: Suppose you are practicing the past tense and you know your student struggles to remember irregular past tense verbs. Try modeling it for him: “Jimmy, I rode my bicycle in the park. Where did you ride your bicycle?” This way, he knows what the past tense of “ride” is and doesn’t have to struggle. He can simply answer the question using the same structure. Depending on which teaching platform you use, you can also type the sentences on the screen, so the students have a visual guide. Sometimes other students can model the correct answers for the less fluent students. If you know that one student is stronger in verb conjugation, have him answer your question first. The other students are likely to follow his lead. Modeling helps students who may be otherwise reluctant to speak overcome their shyness or fear of making a mistake.

Scaffold!:

Encourage students to speak by giving them as much guidance as possible. This is called scaffolding. Scaffolding is when you guide the students to produce the correct response…without providing the answer. For example, say the first syllable of a word a student is struggling to remember. This often jogs his memory. You are guiding the student without giving the answer. You can scaffold in silence as well by typing keywords on the screen as students figure out what they want to say. It’s also helpful to use props and TPR to scaffold for your students. This work well when you are trying to elicit certain vocabulary words, too. Eventually, the student will become more independent as his abilities improve and will require less scaffolding. ESL teachers usually become experts in scaffolding and our students will naturally start to scaffold for each other.

Recast the Correct Answer:

You can simply recast the correct answer. This strategy is particularly common when teaching English. You want to avoid saying words such as, “No”, “Wrong”, “That is incorrect.” “Uh-Uh.” These terms are discouraging and can shut down a student very quickly. No one wants to try to speak if he knows his tutor will utter these words after he speaks. Let’s suppose a student mispronounces a word. Here is how you can recast the correct response: “Your student is describing her birthday party and says, “I received (pronounced “ree-see-vehd” some presents.” You can repeat her sentence and pronounce the word correctly, “Ah you received some presents! How great!” You didn’t say she said anything wrong. You didn’t even make it obvious you were correcting her. You just acknowledged what she said as you would in an everyday conversation. Most of the time, older children will pick up on the fact that you are both contributing to the conversation and correcting them at the same time. They will often automatically repeat your sentence because they realize you are saying it the correct way. It is subtle and appreciated when a student doesn’t really want to have his mistakes explicitly pointed out. However, if the student doesn’t realize you are correcting them and does not say it again correctly, you may need to have them repeat your answer. Younger children frequently don’t pick up on this more subtle form of error correction. They require more obvious measures of correction.

Immediate, Explicit Error Correction (with a little humor):

Immediately correct the student when he doesn’t use the correct sentence structure or mispronounces the words or doesn’t conjugate a verb correctly, etc. For instance, your student says “I have two loose tooths.” You can stop him and say “I say. You say. (Use TPR and point to yourself and then to the student.) I have two loose teeth.” Encourage the student to repeat the corrected sentence. It can help to use humor when correcting the students. They will want to say it correctly and won’t feel reprimanded for saying it incorrectly in the first place. For example, you could say, “I have two loose teeth” while making a funny face and using a silly voice. With really small children, they will all eagerly repeat the sentence and laugh. They will be more likely to remember how to say the sentence correctly because they will remember what made them laugh.

Don’t Shy Away from Repetition:

Repetition can help students remember the correct way to say something, and is especially useful when teaching phonics. It works very well with younger children. And, it doesn’t have to be boring or dull. Turn it into a poem or a song or try using funny voices. Not only does it help children learn to read in the natural rhythm of the English language, but it can help them learn proper sentence structure.

Parent and esl student looking at computer

Error Correction when Parents are Present:

It is not uncommon for parents to not only witness the class but to actively participate as well. It is common for parents to be present when your students are young children. Some parents may be cooking dinner, folding laundry or scrolling on their phones…perhaps out of sight of the tutor, but listening to every word. They may choose to follow along quietly, or may only intervene to encourage their child to sit down or answer a teacher’s question. Other parents, on the other hand, may sit near their child and whisper the answers or even say the answers in a tone audible to the tutor and the other students. Some parents are extra enthusiastic and will answer all of the questions, whether they were intended directly for his child or not.

One thing is for certain: While parents can prove to be a helpful asset to the child by correcting his behavior, encouraging him to speak, or being available to fix any tech issues, sometimes parents answer too many questions or give the incorrect answer. What can you do to correct the student (and the parent) to ensure that the parent remains a superhero in their child’s eyes?

Recasting:

Recasting can work well in this situation. Simply repeat what the student said while subtly saying it the correct way. Make it sound natural, and as if you are contributing to the conversation. For instance, let’s say the parent said, “I studying yesterday,” and the child repeated it. You can reply, “You know, Katie, my daughter was studying yesterday too. What subject were you studying?” This allows the student to answer the question and use the word “was” in her sentence. Parents pick up on this correction as much or even more than their children. They will even model it correctly to their children too. If you think the students or their parents won’t pick up on it, you can slightly exaggerate the words “WAS studying” with your tone of voice: that can help emphasize what needs to be corrected.

Naturally Re-Direct the Student when the Parent Misunderstands:

Situation 1:
Let’s suppose the parent responds to a question incorrectly because she misunderstood the question. For example,Tutor to child: “What time did you eat dinner?”
Parent to his child: “I ate noodles for dinner.”
Child to tutor: “I ate noodles for dinner.”
Tutor to child: “I love noodles! They are so delicious. I am glad you had noodles. Brady, What time did you eat dinner tonight?” (Use TPR and point to a clock or a real or imaginary watch on your wrist.)

Trust me, the parents and students will either realize they misunderstood and will answer correctly or they will not realize it and proceed to answer the question correctly anyway. Either way, you will still elicit the answer you want.

Situation 2:
Sometimes you can acknowledge what the parent said as being correct for a different situation and then return to the original question. Let’s consider the following situation:

Tutor to child: “What is your daily mode of transportation?”
Parent to his child: “I went to Japan by plane.”
Child to tutor: “I went to Japan by plane.”
Tutor to child: “Ah, of course! Your mom is right. It is necessary to take a plane when traveling to Japan. Or, you could go by boat. Planes and boats are great when traveling. What is your DAILY mode of transportation? For example, how do you get to school every day?”

You have not explicitly said the parent was wrong. You actually recreated a situation in which the parent is correct and then returned to the original question.

Final Thoughts about Error Correction when Teaching English:

Error correction should be encouraging, not discouraging. It is entirely possible to do this, with or without the parents present. Have fun with your students and continue to praise even the smallest efforts for they are significant to them.

Now, that you have some ideas on how to gently correct your students, read my next article, “Online Learning Assessment: Get Creative.” Learn different ways to give formative feedback when teaching English: nonverbal, oral and written. My tips help you go beyond using non-specific adjectives to using words that state exactly how a student is progressing academically or in behavior

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kyle smithers

I think that repetition can often go underrated. To compare it to something else would be that musicians will practice one piece of music many times to get better and even specific parts of the piece repeatedly to perfect it. I think the same technique is equally valuable with fluency/pronunciation.

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