Errors as Pedagogical Resource

Hi Everyone!
Let’s start talking about errors.

Teachers usually see students’ errors as negative – as something to do away with. Not seeing them as a hint to the way learners make sense of the foreign language limits the teachers’ possibility of helping students and their own opportunity to learn from errors to overcome them.

Students learning a foreign language go through five stages. First, they struggle to say what they mean. They put their ideas into sentences that almost always contain mistakes because they have their first language as their sole a mental grammar. In the second stage, mistakes continue, but students begin to self-correct (or not). This shows that a mental grammar of the foreign language is developing. In the third stage, self-correction stabilizes as learners refine their mental grammars. In the fourth phase, learners use strategies to convey more complex ideas and may resort to the creative use of the foreign language to express themselves. Finally, students develop fluency and appropriate the foreign language in their mental grammars.

All learners go through these stages, some faster than others. In other words, errors are part of learning. Thus, teachers should use errors as a pedagogical resource.

In the first three phases of learning, teachers should not ignore mistakes. This does not mean that they should point every error students make. Before moving to correction, teachers should analyze their nature. On the one hand, mistakes due to some momentary inattention to form, pronunciation or appropriateness can be ignored. But, if they break communication, they should be addressed. This can be done explicitly or not. On the other hand, errors should not be ignored for they emerge from learners’ communicative needs not matched by the language necessary to convey meaning. Thus, they offer a true and real teaching and learning opportunity. In the last stage, when learners are fluent and less vulnerable to correction, teachers should point out errors and mistakes. No correction in advanced stages may lead to a persistent faulty use of language simply because of the lack of explicit correction.

Some errors, though demonstrating lack of concepts (idea, word or structure), reveal the use of communication strategies. When students mean to say that they plan to take a trip and instead of using intend they say pretend, they have transferred from Portuguese to English – a communication strategy. In this case, if appropriate, the teacher may introduce a new concept to students – that of false friends, while praising their use of communication strategies.

This is a first post on errors as pedagogical resources. More in our newly released book: CUNHA, A. G.; MICCOLI, L. Faça a diferença: ensinar línguas estrangeiras na educação básica. São Paulo: Parábola, 2016.

¹ There is a distinction between error and mistake. An error shows an incorrect use of language as a consequence of lack of knowledge. A mistake shows an incorrect use of the language as a consequence of performance pressures (nervousness, time or context) or of a slip of the tongue.

Laura Miccoli

Laura Miccoli is a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and a researcher, consultant, and founder of Transforma Educacional – a social business to develop teachers professionally. She has authored “Ensino e Aprendizagem de Inglês: experiências, desafios e possibilidades” and “Aproximando Teoria e Prática para Professores de Línguas Estrangeiras”.

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