If you want to get better at English, it’s essential for you to know what mistakes you’re making, and to learn from them.
However, there’s a difference between the goal of improving your English during a lesson – where mistakes do matter – and using the language outside of class in real life.
Outside of class when you’re at a party or talking to a friend, it’s better to be in the moment and the focus is on having a fun, enjoyable conversation.
In class, that’s the time to focus on your English and this includes getting feedback on your mistakes.
It’s a bit like learning how to dance.
During my dance class we have the time to go over all the steps together and make some changes based on the mistakes I’m making, and other times we look at what’s missing.
If I’m not leading my teacher the way I should, then it means she can’t follow according to the dance. So then she’ll stop and say: “Ah-ah, you’re leading with your hands, not your body.”
We then practise leading with my body and then the dance goes better.
But when I go to a dance party, I want to connect with someone and have fun. I want to be in the moment.
It’s the same with learning English. At a party the last thing people want to hear is: “I’m sorry for my English.”
And most certainly don’t want to hear: “Can you correct my mistakes?”
Don’t apologise for your English, and enjoy being in the moment when you’re talking to someone.
So you see, the focus changes when you go out and use English in your real life.
The idea is to see making mistakes in class as a positive part of learning, and to feel comfortable in learning from them.
But once you leave class, to ‘make the switch’ and clear your mind and focus on being in the moment in your interactions.
This is where I am different to some teachers as I know some don’t give feedback to their students on their mistakes.
Why Don’t Some Teachers Tell You About Your Mistakes?
This is a very big topic among teachers and in education, not just in TEFL (Teaching English As A Foreign Language).
It could be because we’re from politically-correct multicultural countries, and we might not want to ‘offend’ a foreigner on their English.
Quite significantly, some teachers won’t correct you on your mistakes because they’re progressives or liberals (in the US meaning), and don’t feel comfortable deciding what is “right” or “wrong”.
A liberal teacher may feel: “Who am I to decide what is right or wrong?”
Some say that there is no such thing as a mistake.
Some educators don’t want to stop your creativity. I personally know a few teachers who say “mistakes don’t matter” and they want to focus on encouraging creativity. I disagree – you can still have fun in your lessons and talk about all kinds of things, while still ‘ironing out’ common mistakes.
Some teachers really don’t like the idea of “failing” students. In fact, many liberal and progressive educators want to stop the idea of having grades (A, B, C, etc) in school, as each child is ‘special’ and ‘unique’ and learns in a different way.
Others may feel that many ‘mistakes’ are not mistakes after all. For example, some Americans say *He don’t instead of he doesn’t. So if some Americans say it, then it’s not a mistake, they say (you may have noticed that it’s quite common for he don’t or she don’t to be in pop and hip-hop songs).
So you can see that the belief system of your teacher is important and it influences how they respond to things such as mistakes.
Deep-down, some teachers sincerely believe that correcting mistakes is a bad thing. So that’s why they don’t do it.
I’ve also read some blog articles where some teachers say correcting grammatical mistakes, for example, is a waste of time ie they believe it’s an ineffective strategy in class.
Certainly, if your teacher isn’t correcting you or giving you feedback on your mistakes, then ask them why. Maybe they have a valid reason for your particular situation. To give an example, if a student is very nervous when we first start having lessons together, I might wait a bit to see if they get more comfortable speaking after a few weeks.
Even still, a teacher should tell their student why they’ve decided not to correct their mistakes.
Next, some teachers say they don’t correct mistakes when they’re focussing on fluency, but I’ve actually found as a teacher and a language learner that getting feedback on mistakes helps you become more fluent.
The great thing is that you’re the customer, the client, and you can choose which learning philosophies are best for your situation and needs.
Therefore, when you are interviewing a potential teacher, make sure you ask them about their beliefs on making mistakes.
If they match your beliefs, then great, you’ve found the right teacher for you!
Why Teachers *Should* Correct Learner Mistakes
The most important reason is because it works.
Not only have I been teaching English for more than 15 years, but I’ve also reached a decent level in French, Spanish, and Czech, and I’ve personally seen as a learner how effective it is when a teacher corrects you.
For example, the other day I was with my Czech tutor and I said let’s go to the post office (I’ve been sending boxes back to Australia).
I said: “Jdeme do pošty..” [do in Czech often translates as to in English]
She immediately corrected me: “Jdeme na poštu..” [in some collocations the Czechs use the preposition na and later on she explained more about what the difference is between na and do and k].
I then said the same phrase next time, and again she corrected me.
But since then, I’ve got it right each time. It took just two times of being corrected for me to remember: “Jdeme na poštu.”
So it’s a great example of how getting feedback on your mistakes can help you speak better straight away!
The other point is that we were talking about a real situation which was important to me, and that’s another reason why I remember it so well.
I see it too in dance. I’ve been learning zouk for a few years now and just started ballet a few weeks ago!
Without the teacher telling me what I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t have got better.
Of course, giving feedback on your mistakes still needs to be done in a supportive and positive spirit. You don’t want a Stalin or a Hitler to point at you and shout: “Wrong, wrong, wrong!”
That’s why it’s important to hire a teacher who’s smiley and patient, but still honest with you about where you are in your learning.
And you also want to know – and feel – what you’re doing better and where you’re making progress.
— 《 SabJan 》 (@sabjan10) July 19, 2015
Finally, there are all kinds of ways on giving feedback on your mistakes. If a student makes an important mistake mid-sentence, I might make a signal for them to correct it. Then we continue the conversation.
I might correct it myself and they repeat it.
I might write down the most important ones, and present them at the end of the class.
You can turn a mistake into a cool collocation or grammatical pattern. For example, if a student says *I did a mistake, I might write the word ‘mistake’ on a piece of paper, and ask the student to produce the most common verb that goes with it (ie make a mistake).
There are countless ways in how to deal with student mistakes.
Regarding my own students and clients over the years, I’ve found that correcting them on their mistakes in a positive way has definitely helped them speak better.
A simple example. I had a businessman as a client recently. He was mixing up gerunds and infinitives (eg is it I suggested going to the cinema or is it I suggested to go to the cinema?). By correcting my client and discussing it together, and then following up on this over a few lessons, he soon started using those tricky verbs such as suggest, recommend, insist, and imagine a whole lot better.
I was impressed with how well he started speaking, and because he could feel it too, he started to speak more confidently.
By the way, I’m not saying that every student should be corrected and given feedback in the same way – I am saying that a teacher needs to have some kind of ‘mistake philosophy’ and to then implement this according to each student’s personality.
Your English lesson gives you the opportunity to make mistakes and get feedback on them so that you can improve your overall speaking and communication skills.
Hire a teacher who sees mistakes as a positive part of learning, and hire someone who gives you feedback on your mistakes!
But outside of class, make a mental switch in your mind, and focus on being in the moment in your interactions. For example, if you’re meeting up with friends, go in there with a positive frame of mind and enjoy their company and have a fun time together!
Finally, and to be clear, I teach Standard International English, which means saying things like *He don’t is considered a mistake. That’s why students choose me, because they trust me to present the language which they need for work, travel or leisure. I’m the same when I choose my teachers for French, Spanish and Czech – I trust them to present the language they feel will help me, and to give me feedback on what I’m saying.
Coming up soon – End the fear! I have an article ready to go on how you can speak without worrying about making mistakes at your next party!