Archive for Tag: errors

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 5: Fossilization

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I love the visual that the word fossilization prompts, even though I hate the idea that students might be making the same mistakes in 10 years that they are making now. It’s almost as though these mistakes are frozen in time; the speaker keeps making them even though other aspects of his/her English have improved. According to Jack Richards, in his fantastic book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, fossilization refers to “errors that appear to be entrenched and difficult to eradicate, despite the teacher’s [and I would argue the student’s] best efforts.” (Richards, 2008) He further points out that a great deal of the research regarding fossilization put a large part of the blame on the communicative classroom in which fluency is valued over accuracy. In other words, students are encouraged to make meaning when they speak and write rather than focusing on being grammatically correct.

Irregular Verbs or Respiration Vocabulary?

In fact, reading this made me feel a bit worried. In my teaching context, I deal with students whose goal is to get out of EAL and into their mainstream Secondary classes as soon as possible. They matriculate gradually, as their English develops, but clearly, for me and them, the focus is on academic vocabulary at the expense of grammatical accuracy. To my great shame, I have long argued that students in Year 8 Science need to be able to talk about the Respiratory System in order to pass their classes rather than waste time memorizing irregular past participles. I think I even wrote it in an earlier post in this very series! After all, no one ever failed a Science test because they wrote “breaked” instead or “broke.”

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 4

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

Welcome back once more! In Part 3 we took a look at sentences, most of which show subtle but important differences or changes in meaning. In the first section below, I asked you to explain the differences in meaning between pairs of sentences. In the second section, I asked you to make any corrections you felt necessary and then, most importantly, think about how you would explain the corrections to your students in a clear, simple fashion. So here are my explanations and changes. Let’s see once again how similar our work is.

Section 1. What’s the difference between . . .

a. Mr. Spock is a character on Star Trek.

    Mr. Spock is a character in Star Trek.

Explanation: We say on Star Trek if we’re talking about the television series, but we say in Star Trek if we’re talking about the movies. It’s on a TV show, but in a movie.

b. Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

    A Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

Explanation: In the first sentence, the speaker knows the person who’s on the phone. But when the speaker doesn’t know the person on the phone, he/she communicates this to somebody else by placing the indefinite article before the title or the title and name. That’s what we see in the second sentence.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 3

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Well, I’m back. Your inquisitor is at it again! I hope you enjoyed Parts 1 and 2  of my mini-crusade to help you, the English teacher, avoid “discomfort” when a student asks a question about grammar or usage and the answer doesn’t fall trippingly off your tongue. I also hope you learned a little something from the answers supplied in Part 2.

Now it’s time for Part 3. This time we’ll deal with sentences in which just one little word can change meaning tremendously, albeit subtly. So, without further ado, I’ll leave you to it. Please remember not to go running to a dictionary for help and not to google anything. If you can’t figure something out, that’s fine for now. Just have fun with these 16 items. The answers, of course, will appear in Part 4.

1. What’s the difference between . . .

a. Mr. Spock is a character on Star Trek.

    Mr. Spock is a character in Star Trek.

      b. Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

    A Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

      c. She’s going to have the baby.

    She’s going to have a baby.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author


Welcome back! In Part 1 we took a look at some lexical problems. I asked you to correct them and then, most importantly, think about how you would explain these corrections to your students in a clear, simple fashion. So here are my changes and explanations. Let’s see how similar our work is.

1.   (at a park)

A:  See Look at that bird! She’s feeding her chicks.

B: Where? I don’t look at see her.

Explanation: We use look at when we pay visual attention to something and we’re not focusing on any movement or action, but rather just the object of our attention. This is a voluntary action. We use see simply to mean what the eyes do when the eyelids open. This is an involuntary action. Person A wants Person B to pay visual attention to the bird; that’s why she should say “Look at that bird!” Person B uses see because his eyes simply can’t find that image.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Explain THIS. Part 1

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Picture this: A teacher is standing in front of the class. A student asks a question. It suddenly dawns on the teacher that he/she doesn’t know the answer. It also goes through the teacher’s mind that it would be so much nicer if that student hadn’t shown up for class! So now what? All eyes are on the teacher, whose heart starts beating a tad faster and whose forehead is suddenly feeling quite moist. What to do? What to say?

I bet you’re grinning right now. You can relate to that scenario, can’t you? I know I certainly can! But it’s an unavoidable occurrence in our profession; an occupational hazard, as they say. We just can’t know everything about everything! So I’m going to start a mini-crusade of sorts. I’m going to dedicate a number of my pieces on “Teacher Talk” to help teachers avoid some of those uncomfortable moments like the one I’ve just portrayed.

I think the best way to approach this crusade of mine is to offer you some mini-dialogues and sentences to think about and ask you to come up with interpretations you’d give to your students. First, we’ll check out some individual words in the lexicon; later, we’ll deal with phrases, clauses, or sentences in which just one little word or one change in stress can change meaning tremendously, albeit subtly.

Each of these mini-dialogues or individual sentences will have errors. Find the errors, correct them as you see fit, and figure out how you would explain your corrections to your students. That’s the most important part: how to explain the differences in meaning and/or usage.

So let’s get started. Please have fun with these while you think about them – and DON’T use a dictionary. There isn’t going to be any fun in that!

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Friday, July 8, 2011

The Elevator Pitch

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

I take an aerobics class several times a week. The same people tend to show up at the same class times, and after a while, we get a little friendly, although locker room chit-chat tends to revolve around exercise or the weather. However, recently, one of the women I talk to revealed that she is a high school biology teacher. That prompted me to mention that I work in education as well, in ESL. She said, “Oh, I have a number of international students in my classes. I have to go soon, but… what is one thing you could tell me about international students that you think I should know?”

Oh, my. It’s a big question, isn’t it? There is so much more to tell than just one thing! And yet… she’s out the door, and she doesn’t have time for me to cram my career and my degree into her head. She really does just want, at the moment, to know one thing. One thing that might make a difference, that isn’t too hard to understand, that can be communicated quickly.

Here’s the one thing I chose to tell her: That some of the mistakes that students make in writing that look like very simple things—mistakes with a, the, and choice of prepositions—are actually very high-level mistakes. They do not (necessarily) indicate a poor command of English, and cannot be cleared up in a few hours of study.

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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.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I’d like to explain what I call “The Final -S Problem.” For a lot of teachers, it goes like this: “I teach my students when to use a final -s, and they can do it fine in a controlled exercise, but then when they talk or write freely, they go and make final -s errors!” Whereupon the teacher throws up his or her hands in despair and determines that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language.

It seems to me that those who would expect immediate mastery of grammar patterns perhaps confuse teaching language with teaching arithmetic — though, even in arithmetic, students get to make repeated mistakes without all arithmetic teaching judged to be ineffectual.

What gets missed in this equation is that grammar teaching provides a foundation for processing, for conceptual understandings of how a language works, and for developing skills — sort of the way music lessons provide a foundation for learning to play the piano. Learning a second language is far more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than it is to learning arithmetic.

In learning to play the piano, certain students — especially adults who are literate and educated — find cognitive understandings of concepts such as musical key and notation helpful to the process, despite the fact that no amount of cognitive awareness is going to make anyone able to play the piano immediately upon being given abstract information about it. Can you learn to play the piano without cognitive knowledge of musical form? Yes. But is such awareness helpful for many adult students, and does it speed the process for them? Yes, indeed.

“The Final -S Problem” is a metaphor representing the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

Here are the questions I ask myself about “The Final -S Problem,” and my answers.

Q: Is it harmful for students to know when a final -s is supposed to be used?
A: That seems highly doubtful.

Q: Do students want to use final -s correctly? Do they care?
A: In my experience, yes.

Q: Is grammar information about the use of final -s helpful to students?
A: Yes. On a practical level, it helps students self-monitor, understand marked errors in their writing, catch a recast (students with a grounding in grammar often show that they “get” a recast with a look that says, “Ah, right.”), use a writing handbook, and make sense of dictionary notations such as mosquito, n., pl. –toes, –tos. More importantly, attention to final -s raises students’ awareness, making them more likely to notice it in what they hear and read.

Q: Are grammar concepts such as singular and plural useful?
A: From my observations both as a language teacher and a language student, yes. If I were to undertake learning Urdu, I know that I would like to understand how singular and plural are marked. And I also know that I’d like to be able to find that explicit information without having to figure it out completely by myself.

Q: Does information about using final -s help students reach fluency and accuracy in its usage?
A: In my experience, ESL students in my freshman English class who had spent four years at an American high school with no grammar component and with fossilized ungrammaticality underperformed (in accuracy within fluency, as well as rhetorical skill in writing and ability to comprehend academic English in readings) compared with students who had had a grammar component in their home countries (as well as in our IEP prior to their enrolling in freshman English). So, in my observation, the answer to the question is yes.

Q: Are there longitudinal studies showing that students who have grammar instruction in the use of final -s develop better usage than those who do not?
A: I think longitudinal studies are very much needed in the area of eventual (not immediate) mastery of grammar structures, comparing ELLs with no grammar component in their long-term instructional program with those who do have a significant grammar component.

Q: Is practice helpful?
A: Practice in a classroom context can instill confidence, encourage risk-taking, give students opportunities for experimentation, and lead to successful communication experiences. (A grammar base can easily lead to communicative activities. A lot of meaningful communication goes on in a grammar-based class.) But does practice guarantee mastery? No. (If it did, I wouldn’t still be hitting F-natural when I should be hitting F-sharp on the piano.) Grammar teaching simply lays the groundwork and helps speed the process in adults and young adults. Anyone learning a second language as an adult (which is different in a number of obvious ways from a child learning a first language) needs lots of input and experience using the language. Grammar-based instruction provides just a little help along the way.

Monday, March 30, 2009

If Not Mastery, What?

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

I am often confounded by how much time to spend in class on a grammar point. My early training taught me to focus as much time as needed for students to get it–“get it” meaning being able to call up and meaningfully use the structure in free production. However, from further study, different books and papers I have read, and from lectures from instructors and researchers far more knowledgeable than I, it seems most experts in the field agree that students don’t “master” a grammar point at the time it is presented but rather in their own time.
Yet even if the students are able to use the structure fairly well in class by the third lesson, that doesn’t mean they use it error-free for the rest of their lives. We’ve all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes. Does this imply that if the majority of my students are able to form and use a grammar structure at the end of three lessons, that I shouldn’t waste my time spending four or five lessons on it? After all, we are on a fixed semester and have a curriculum to cover.

Clearly the structure won’t become automatic after three hours, nor is it likely to after five hours. If my goal can not be mastery (that is, repeated and automatic production of a grammar point without delay from obvious monitoring), what is my new goal? When is good enough. . . good enough?

I don’t buy the argument that learners will never be error-free. I’ve had non-native speaking professors who conducted classes for hours without a single spoken error and we know famous personalities who speak accented, yet grammatically perfect English. So I’m not talking about giving up my early dreams of student “mastery” because it is unattainable. It is, however, very impractical.

Life’s reality is that students don’t have unlimited time to reach the level of English they need for a goal-a job, college entry, grad school, whatever. As a result, instructors perform a kind of linguistic triage, deciding either at the classroom or the program level, what grammar to teach when. But surely we have to rely on more than a calendar to help us decide when it is time to move on to a new grammar point in the class, leaving behind one that may get a bit of recycling over the remainder of the semester.

Curriculum, assessment, objectives. Objectives, curriculum, assessment. It’s not as smooth as the teacher training books imply. There’s a lot of egg-chicken-egg going on. But since I have relinquished mastery as my goal, I remain stumped at how to define success. Is passing a test going to become the end goal of my course? Or perhaps increased awareness of grammar? Or maybe the ability to produce structures in class under guidance? How will I know if my students have been successful in my class?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What to Teach?

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

What will Keep Pino Safe?

Okay, I admit I am way behind the curve on this. People have been talking about English as a lingua franca for ages. However, it was not until I started my current job as an English teacher at the SHAPE Language Center on a NATO base in Belgium that the importance of non-native speakers being able to communicate easily in English with each other really hit home. English is the “official” language within NATO, so many of my students use English to communicate with their co-workers from other countries. An interesting example is one of my delightful Italian students, Pino, who wants to perfect his already impressive command of English in order to communicate more precisely with translators when he serves in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever my personal opinion about the war might be, I do know that when Pino is “in theater,” as they say, I want him to be as safe as possible.

A Legitimacy of Variation

Somewhat belatedly, I came across an article written by Barbara Seidlhofer in which she argues, if my understanding is correct, that since more non-native speakers than native speakers use English, native speakers don’t “own” English anymore. As a result, there is a “legitimacy of variation” (Steidlhofer, 2004, page 214) in grammar and pronunciation forms. In other words, when Pino is communicating with his German counterpart and an Afghan translator, certain non-standard forms of English are usually not cause for confusion. This begs the question, how important is it really that the speakers always include the final -s on third person singular verbs?

Incidental Errors?

Seidlhofer (2006, page 226) lists several common grammatical “errors” that many English teachers would correct if we heard, but which actually don’t cause any misunderstandings in non-native speaker/non-native speaker conversations.

  • the third person present tense –s (It cost.)
  • the relative pronouns who and which (The man which I know …)
  • definite and indefinite articles (Please pass salt. I went to the Chicago.)
  • tag questions (It will be ready, no?)
  • redundant prepositions (We have to study about … )
  • overusing general verbs, such as do, make, have, put, take
  • infinitives (replacing infinitives with that, as in I want that …)
  • explicitness (black color)

This list reads like an inventory of all the lingering mistakes my students of all levels consistently make. However, if these mistakes don’t cause any misunderstanding in the majority of English interactions should teachers be focusing on teaching and correcting them? Shouldn’t we instead focus on intelligibility rather than accuracy? After all, I have never heard of a conversation screeching to a halt, except in an English class, because the final -s was left off a verb.

Safe and Accurate

For me, the answer is simple. Even though I want my students like Pino to be able to express their thoughts as intelligibly as possible, I cannot let go of the notion of “correct English”. Moreover, I have never had a students ask me not to correct these minor errors because they were more concerned with fluency than accuracy. Usually, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help feeling that, although intelligibility is important, grammatical accuracy is as well. Furthermore, the studies I have read on English as a lingua franca (although I am by no means an expert) have neglected to comment on the perceptions created by inaccurate use of English. The German NATO soldier might not have any trouble understanding Pino, but if his English is better than Pino’s, will he subconsciously form a negative opinion of my student? I would be interested in knowing what others think about this issue. Are you hyper-vigilant in your correction or do you tend not to sweat the little stuff? As English evolves, and non-native speakers increasingly influence the way it changes, do you think the wretched final –s will eventually disappear?

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239