Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Mistakes Students Make

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

As shocking as this may sound, in all my years of teaching English, I really hadn’t given much thought to the causes that lie behind student errors. I am sure that if someone had asked me, I would have probably been able to rattle off a few of the most commonly cited reasons for student mistakes. However, as a new French student, I was blindsided by an unexpected motivation for my own errors.

That Darn L1!

We all know about the challenges students face due to first language interference. For example, if a student’s first language is Chinese, he or she might neglect to include the BE verb in a sentence because there is no exact equivalent in Chinese. In other words, “[t]heoretically speaking, Chinese is less marked with this sense of “be”.” (Huang, 1994, page 3) Thus, understandably, students who try to master a new tense, for instance, which does not exist in their own language will struggle as they experiment with it.

Simply Not Enough Time

In addition to L1 interference, students may make errors simply be due to the fact that they have had insufficient exposure to the target structure. Vocabulary researchers have determined that students need to see a new word in context 12 (yes, that’s 12!) times before they have much hope of using it in a conversation (Hinkel, 2009). If that’s what it takes for a simple word to become embedded in a student’s consciousness, think of how many times they will have to see a complex grammar structure before they can use it without error.

Two Steps Forward …

Errors might also indicate that students are busy applying the rules that they have learned as they become more adept language users. For instance, if a student learned the phrase “I bought a sweater” as a chunk of language, perhaps in a clothing vocabulary lesson, but then reverted to “I buyed a sweater” after learning the past simple in Grammar class, a teacher might want to tear his/her hair out. Is this student actually moving backward? Educators, such as Schellekens (2008), would argue that, in fact, the student is moving forward. As students learn more complex structures, they begin to think consciously about their language and attempt to apply the “rules” they have learned.

Deliberate Errors? Oh the Horror!

While all of these reasons for student errors are valid, I have to add another to the list–students may make deliberate errors for reasons of social self-preservation. Of course, we might expect this of high school students railing against authority, but I was shocked and horrified when I found myself, an eager adult French learner, actually consciously avoiding the back of throat, French /r/ sound when I spoke out in the class. I was being deliberately lazy, and when I thought about it, I had to admit it was because I didn’t want the other students to think that I thought I was “all that” by imitating the teacher’s perfect /r/ sound when the rest of my language was such a disaster. This realization surprised me because consciously I know that none of the other students are even listening to me, much less judging me, and who cares what they think anyway? Nonetheless, I am sticking to my flat English /r/s.

Though this example is related to pronunciation, it could just as easily be a grammar issue. So, now when, as a teacher, I patiently recast and recast and recast, I wonder which of the many reasons are truly behind my students’ errors. If students are making deliberate or “lazy” errors, what can teachers do? Maybe if my French teacher overtly teaches the pronunciation of the French /r/, I will feel more comfortable using it, but maybe I will just ease into it as time passes. I am not there yet, but if you come to Belgium in a few months and hear a foreigner using a perfect French /r/, it just might be me!

Hinkel, E. (2009) Teaching Academic Vocabulary and Helping Students Retain it, paper presented at TESOL 2009, Denver, USA.
Huang, J. (1994) A Study of L1 Interference in Chinese Senior High Students’ English Writing,
Schellekens, P. (2008) Assessing the Skills of Migrants and Refugees, paper presented at IATEFL TEA SIG Conference, Dublin, Ireland.

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