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Comedy of errors

October 05, 2007

Hello again,

As we know language learning does not happen in a logical, linear fashion. Most of our students reveal from their placement test that they have an imperfect grasp ...

...of what they have already learnt and a range of gaps representing the new learning they need. Those whom we label “intermediate” are a mixed group, often with some basic, ingrained errors and often feeling demotivated because they can’t see obvious progress. If their teachers concentrate on their errors, they feel held back, yet the new areas just add to their list of imperfectly mastered language.

One approach that might be worth trying is first to identify with the group what the new language targets are for the whole of the course (if the course is a whole academic year, then maybe set monthly targets). At the start of each session that introduces new material, describe very clearly what the new aims are. But, before, launching into the new area, identify the enabling language that is a prerequisite. For example, if you wish to introduce a second conditional, the prerequisites are knowing how to form the simple past in statements, negatives and questions. Typically students will have learnt the simple past but make errors using the auxiliaries and sometime because they have forgotten irregular verbs. So, you have the opportunity to revise the simple past and tackle their errors so that they have the enabling structure for the second conditional. Because they have set their sights on a new language item, they should be more receptive to the work on the simple past.

Not all language areas lend themselves to obvious enabling prerequisites but I think the idea can still be adapted. Let us suppose you have students with specific pronunciation errors. If you are setting up a speaking skills session, then look at the key vocabulary. If it contains pronunciation pitfalls for your group, then identify the pronunciation points as the required prior learning.

This approach reveals not just where the errors are but imperfections in teaching and learning styles. Pronunciation problems may have arisen because the learners try to deduce pronunciation from spelling. They will make rapid improvements if you use the phonetic alphabet.

The final point I want to make is that you will also be giving them useful insights into their own learning processes. They will begin to be more at ease with the idea that language learning is cyclical and that it requires constant refining of what has already been acquired.

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  1. Graeme Says:

    Your articles continue to clarify and support what I am doing - or trying to do - in the classroom Brenda. Thanks so much and please keep them coming.

  1. msuze Says:

    There is an excellent competitive activity to reinforce the simple past of irregular verbs at verbbusters complete with bilingual lists and audio.

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