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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 5; September 2001

Major Article

Give me mistakes!

Claire Thomas-Φzel.

Page 1 of 1

The start

Some time ago, a friend who had studied Psychology, at a department teaching in English language medium, was appointed to teach English at a School for the Blind in Ankara - the one she herself had attended for her first 8 years in education. I offered to take some classes for her to observe. While I had anticipated difficulties in working with visually impaired children (work described in Thomas 2000), I soon found I faced a greater hurdle: the children had endured years of inappropriate teaching, with a well-intentioned but inadequately trained teacher. When not getting the correct answers to his questions, he would lose his temper. Thus the children very quickly learnt one thing: not even attempting an answer, they would settle down for several semesters of letting waves of English monologue wash over them, as the teacher talked to himself; blind himself, he had not picked up on the lack of response. Thus, bad habits accumulated over years of negative experience. The deepest damage, however, seemed to be the fear of failure: it had driven these learners to stony silence.

Initial failure

I knew that many of the children wanted to learn: there was curiosity, if not high levels of motivation. I also knew many had better trained memories than mine, so the first task was to retrieve some of the words that had been stashed away. However, when we pushed on, from words to simple sentences, enthusiasm waned. While in most classes a few pupils managed a start, opening the way for others, in one class, I was confronted with total silence; not one child would offer anything... Even the friendliest of approaches would not thaw the petrified figures in front of me.
I stood there like a prune: a teacher with nothing to work on!
In my frustration, I pleaded:

"Give me MISTAKES!"
and added, to confirm my unprecedented request, "I do NOT want correct sentences, you don't need help with those". The teacher grinned: "She wants mistakes! Give her mistakes!" The children wanted to please their teacher, and giving me mistakes was one thing they could do, though after such a long silence, they were even slow at that. "Was it safe? Did she really mean it? And why? What on earth would she do with mistakes?"

We thus began our slow march forward, wading through stagnant marshes of basic grammar errors, accumulated without understanding over the years. The sentences that we corrected together provided a gradual review in a learner-generated context, of what they needed, as they needed it. As the children began to make sense of some of the structures, they gained enough awareness and knowledge of the logic - or lack of it - to start correcting the sentences the class was producing. We then began moving from peer-editing to self-editing.

First analysis

What was happening? The easily memorised lists of words had 'felt safe'. Furthermore, in a traditional system where much of the approach is based on memorisation, the ability to memorise lists of words is seen as not only useful, but is rewarded.
Grammar rules 'feel safe' too: predictable like mathematics...or so people think!
However, put both the words and the grammar together, and you are walking through a field full of pitfall traps (the void of the missing word) and mines (the varying grammar structures) that explode while you pay attention to other details. The pupils couldn't use their precious words: they were too afraid of breakage! What the learner needs is a guide, someone whose functions include not only fishing people out of the holes and defusing the mines, but also enabling learners to fall safely!

I was beginning to realise that I was faced with a more fundamental problem than working out how to teach visually impaired learners: these particular learners were traumatised and needed to overcome the hurdle of fear. These blind children taught me to see this response, this reluctance in learners of English, which may arise in a wide variety of situations. As with any trauma, it is not just a matter of picking the person up and dusting off the dirt, but having the patience to gradually work through the scar tissue that resists new growth.

My philosophy

As a teacher, I know where I want to take my students. However, I must start by finding out where they are. Once beyond Beginner level, students come with a sizeable body of knowledge, yet with variations between students. They need to realise what they – themselves and their peers - do know, and how much of that knowledge is firm and reliable. The approach I am developing aims at transferring responsibility to the learners by enabling them to look at what they have, and consciously sort it into categories:

  1. "I'm sure I know"; well done – quick praise – but let's not waste class time on this: it is no longer relevant.

  2. "I don't know whether I know"; recognised but not yet fully assimilated. This is highly relevant so we will work on this together!

  3. "I'm sure I don't know"; often non-essential material, not suitable for the students at this point: not yet relevant. This is not encountered in graded texts, but may appear in external/real material. Students need to learn to distinguish between what is worth looking at in more detail and what is not: for instance, technical vocabulary or literary style.

I see mistakes as signposts particularly to the middle category, to what is transforming from 'recognisable passive' into 'clear active language'. Mistakes show where the focus is needed. This approach not only provides the teacher with a closer interface for detecting and targeting students needs. It also empowers the learners, giving them responsibility for their own learning, for decisions about what points to raise (and how, when etc.). When this is extended, it becomes learner autonomy. A word of caution: such responsibility requires a foundation of trust and respect, possibly requiring a fundamental change in the classroom atmosphere and in the roles of those present.

General Method

I will now give the essence of my approach; this can be applied to reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar and many other activities, whether productive or receptive. I elicit in a neutral manner, trawling for anything the students may have in mind, not giving any hint of whether points are correct or not. When the students get used to the method, they trust me to value the incorrect answers rather than scorning them. Once all ideas have been collected on the board, students then decide which of their peers' suggestions are suitable, and if not "Why not". This is a group responsibility, not an opportunity for individuals to outshine others. Only after this are the students allowed to consult the reference sections in their books, to confirm whether or not their knowledge and guesses were correct. Finally, I will take on the 'teacher role' of giving answers and clarifications, and highlighting any points they may not have picked up from books and discussion. Although this may take slightly longer than a more didactic approach, it is thorough, going as deep into the subject as the learners wish, focusing entirely on items that they decide are important. Furthermore, this approach focuses on process: how the goal is reached, as much as the final knowledge itself. The level of activity and involvement in the class minimises boredom and guarantees that any student wishing to learn is able to do so, at their own pace.

The importance of mistakes

1. For students:
-a- The novice language users move from "security in rigid rules" towards "security in errors", from the limiting to the unlimited, from fear to courage.
-b- Students feel, and are, in control. They are responsible for making selections: both topic and structures. They are also in control of the speed of the activity: it will only go on as long as they maintain interest.
-c- Mistakes show the level at which the learner can operate, by revealing the points at which passive knowledge is being transformed into accurate active production.
-d- Learners need firm foundations: Going too fast: doesn't allow time for firm foundations, resulting in lack of trust and confidence. If learners are taken too far, too fast into new territory and deep water, fear and insecurity will resurface.
-e- Learners need to feel safe to say "I need help". Some fundamental errors, misconceptions and omissions persist until higher levels. This method enables learners to raise any queries as soon as they become aware of a discrepancy between knowledge and actual usage.
-f- Learners vary, not only between each other, but also from one day to the next, from one activity or topic to another. Memory is leaky, unlike money put into a bank: unused words and structures seep out. And not all points will have been registered in the first place.
-g- In group-work, students learn to decide how reliable another person's knowledge may or may not be. Valuing peer knowledge further decreases dependency on the teacher.
-h- In a group / class, even if many may not be aware of a point, one or two will, and this is sufficient for the matter to be raised, resulting in learning for all.
-i- Students develop awareness of not only the target but also the process, leading to better understanding of where change is needed, thus students are better be able to remedy the weakness.
-j- When students have responsibility, they can't turn round and blame the teacher! They have the choice to do nothing, to watch or to participate. Willing participants strive towards the target, and the teacher no longer drags reluctant participants: it's their choice. (A note: I apply this at university level, or in 'English for fun' situations with children. How would such lack of compulsion work in statutory education classes? I feel giving freedom, with limits, may work… Any comments?)
-k- Learners gain confidence, which empowers the weaker ones, and pushes the stronger ones on, stretching all to their limits. "Playing safe" – remaining silent - breaks the rules of this game, but only penalises the unmotivated, not the unable.
-l-Mistakes occasionally reflect a connection a student has made, that has gone unnoticed by others, but that is useful for understanding meaning, remembering spelling etc. eg. " Are 'husband' and 'housebound' related?"

2. For the Teacher:
-a- The teacher must tune into the learners: It is vital to start WHERE they are by observing what they have picked up / what they think they have picked up / what they can do.
-b- Mistakes highlight where help is needed. The teacher then focuses on the parts that need further work. "Though I recognise and praise what you can do, I'm not interested in that now. Just give me the problems: pure and concentrated!"
-c- The teacher not only appreciates what the students know, but also their ability to effectively sort their knowledge and select what they need help with.
-d- Teacher time is not wasted where help is not needed and energy can be focused on observing and managing rather than on giving.
-e- While taking some load of the teacher, this approach does require finely tuned remote control. The teacher has to be ready to remind anyone attempting to push acceptable standards of interaction about the conditions initially agreed. Once these are infringed, the teacher has not only the right but the duty to reclaim control, so that the majority of the class does not lose out. But this is another issue…
-f- A colleague's comment: "If I use this method, how can I keep control?" Perhaps the teacher has as much to learn here: learning to let go of the control, and hand over to the learners. Does she always have to be in control, and be responsible? In the same way that many approaches to discipline now hand over responsibility for behaviour to even young children, responsibility for learning can also be relinquished.
-g- "Starting where they are" is even true for teachers. The young teacher mentioned in the first paragraph once told me in her early days "I don't know whether I can teach English, but I can teach the children to like English". From there, she progressed, improving and consolidating what she could do.

3. In terms of the task:
-a- This approach to learning can be applied to any skill or area of knowledge: not only for EFL but for life!.
-b- Self-editing skills are developed: students learn to weed out: what is or is not a problem: only the former can be given to the teacher. This in turn alters the students' view of the teacher.
-c- It provides an English task-with-a-purpose: while looking for problems, in their own work or that of a partner, students are scanning a significant amount of language for parts that "don't smell English": a fairly sophisticated form of scanning.
-d- When students are deciding which of the suggested possible answers are 'right', I tend to get them to focus more on why the others are 'wrong', determining clear limits to the "usability" of a term or rule.


  1. Homework. Part of the homework task is identifying sources of problems / confusion / error, resulting in increased learner awareness. When checking in class, students have had a few minutes in small groups, to look at what others have produced and to compare answers that they have had difficulty with. With no idea of the correct answer, any discrepancy has to be discussed. Most problems are resolved among peers, without class time being spent on minor individual hitches. At this stage most students are active, unlike the passive 'nodding-ticking' creature I faced with my previous approach to correction. Students who have any significant points raise them after the quiet discussions, for the benefit of the whole class. The aim here is not to get the right answer but to know why it is correct, and others are not. We will only check the unresolved points as a class. In other words, it is their responsibility to ask, or else the class will move on to more important points.

  2. Writing: In the same way that I tend to get students to look at why answers are 'wrong', I now tend to avoid the use of ideal paragraphs in writing: these too often only show students what they cannot yet do. They need to consciously take steps forward, steps that they are capable of taking. By working with what can be produced, we weed out basic errors, and strenghthen foundations. After the whole class has agreed on the criteria to be aimed at, students spend around 15 minutes working in small groups writing a paragraph. I type these out, without any changes, and return them for evaluation the next day: both strong and weak points are picked up. Students often identify points I have overlooked. By first working in small groups, all have time to reflect and contribute. When points are finally made to the class, these have to be explained clearly, others adding or improving points if necessary. The "perfect paragraph" that students so often ask for is a pacifier: it makes them feel they've been given something – and the teacher feels she has given something too – but of what value? Firstly, according to what criteria are such paragraphs ideal? Secondly, how does this help with anything other than a mechanical ability to complete a fixed format? Very often these paragraphs are above the production level, and thus are something unachievable: 'what can't be done' then discourages students, only limiting them to mechanical replication, without ability to use the language confidently or creatively. Later when the learner realises that the ideal paragraph doesn't mould onto the next topic, they feel let down and helpless.

  3. One-to-one teaching: I give the learner the responsibility for identifying their needs. This is partly a test of motivation; if there is none, why carry on? In the first week many students are reticent, but eventually learn not to miss opportunities. Once they realise that this is serious business, they learn to aim well, omitting both the "too easy" and the "unnecessarily complex", getting the balance of "suitably complex essential language". If not able to consciously tell me where they have problems, they will reveal areas of weakness in regular writing, and difficult passages encountered in the week's home reading.

  4. Individual composition improvement: With writing to be submitted as homework to another teacher, I first scan for what has been said and what message is intended, identifying common errors, eg absence of verb or preposition problems. With the learner, we then go over the errors, looking at their sources, going as deep as necessary for the learner to distinguish between 'what is being produced' and 'what should be produced'. On return to the composition, if points have been understood, the learner is able to make their own corrections. The result is a composition of plausible English: neither taken from a book, nor written by a third party, which has provided a genuine learning opportunity, targetting fundamental flaws in knowledge. We also have a contented learner, and a teacher who has NOT written a piece of homework!

  5. Trauma. I now make a point of raising this possibility early with new classes; 'Does anyone not like or even hate English?" Over the next few weeks I get a trickle of people wanting to talk privately (from 10 to 30% of the class). The talk often resolves the issue ( the unpleasant class, severe teacher, parental pressure of the past - once faced from a different perspective – becomes less daunting, shrinking to a more manageable size). With a few, this is the first step in addressing a complex web of negative responses. Until these are resolved, learning is hampered. In a typical case, the student will repeatedly tell me – in L1 - that they not only hate English but they simply can not understand. One seriously affected student, who turned out to be reflecting an unhappy home situation onto her English, refused to attempt any homework for a month, until I asked her to write mistakes, lots of them. This was the beginning of pages of writing, full of emotions and claims of 'me-no-can-do. By June, the student who'd wanted to give up in October passed the Proficiency exam (pass grade: 60%) with 90.5%!


Here are a couple of activities that I now use in a wide range of regular classes, particularly relevant to my focus on valuing mistakes.

  1. "Vocabulary bingo", for beginners and elementary learners, retrieves memorised words then puts them into use: moving from the safe to the less safe. A blank page is ripped from the middle of a notebook, then torn into 16 pieces. The children have to write one word on each piece. In a higher class, I might ask for newly learnt words; in a lower one, anything goes. Anonymity is paramount: all papers are collected in a bag, with no check: this stage is dynamic: raising excitement and involvement. Some words will be misspelt, even beyond guessing. Some children might even contribute the same word several times. No problem; at this stage I'm simply looking for involvement! The next stage, done orally as a whole class, focuses on the words generated. A word is randomly picked out of the bag; in a varied manner, we check for spelling, pronunciation and meaning. Not everyone will know every word, but each word is known – or considered known – by at least one person! The word is then ready to be put into a sentence; if given a correct sentence, I'll push the class until I'm given something "interesting": something with a mistake, because I'm NOT interested in correct structures. Every mistake is discussed with the class, looking for the source of the problem (L1 interference, irregular grammar, or forgotten rules) and for ways to avoid repeating the mistake. And then we pick another word... I often do this myself: to maintain control, not only of the mystery but of the right to alter, skip or 'present diplomatically' eg. with earthquake survivors, words like 'house' and 'father'.

      A variation on the above was developed with a group of boarders who wanted to study more effectively in the evenings: memorisation wasn't enough. They wanted something eminently feasible and without chance of failure. Yes, they could write out all the new words they wanted to learn on pieces of paper, but who would be able to help them with the mistakes? This led to a discussion of the importance of the process: seeing the words, trying to guess meanings and making sentences. The final task was being able to take their own decisions as to whether these were acceptable or not. If still unsure they could take the unresolved sentences to a teacher.

  2. "Vocabulary revision", for use with classes of intermediate or higher level learners. This provides over 30 minutes of full student concentration, minimal teacher talk and plenty of peer-checking. The essence is that all contributions are anonymous - removing fear and allowing each to work at their own pace - removing the pressure of time and competition, and all participants are always active - first producing then selecting.
    Method: The teacher needs two distinct bags, eg. green and purple. Students – alone or in small groups – scan their books for recently learnt vocabulary, writing each word at the top of a small piece of paper(1/16th A4): large enough for a definition to be written later. If class time is scarce, students can be asked to do this at home, each bringing around 15 contributions to be put in the green bag. Once all the words have been jumbled, each student draws a word, which has to be defined before being put into the purple bag (one word only: to encourage focus on each word, without evasion to easier words). In a class of 20, around 300 words will be checked, at between 10 to 20 words per student, stronger ones working faster than weaker ones. Here the teacher gets a lot of exercise, walking round to all members of the class, supplying new papers and collecting definitions. Occasionally some words keep 'coming back', when students don't know or can't define them. Eventually, the faster working stronger members will have a go, and leave the green bag empty! The last step involves checking the definitions. Here learners must work in groups: consensus is essential. Each group receives a fistful of 'definitions' to be sorted into 'correct' versus 'suspect/incorrect', each group checking around 40 definitions. The end product of the process is a small number of papers for the teacher to check with a very receptive class. Thus the teacher only serves as the paper collector, and does not intervene until the last few minutes when she clarifies any confusion- once all the queries problems and uncertainties have been concentrated

A general approach

I now have a range of activities and a philosophy that enable me to enter any class of learners and feel reasonably effective, even with only half an hour to share, establishing safe conditions and clear achievable targets. This approach works for any level, any age (post pre-school), with large classes, and in private lessons. I've used it in special cases of "English trauma", as well as with blind and partially sighted learners. The most difficult situation was with a group of young offenders, in which only a couple were motivated while several were illiterate; the approach was still effective, as we worked with what they knew: they came up with over 90 words relating to sports, music, food and technology. There must be many lessons to be learnt from other challenging language teaching situations. Has anyone else got any to relate?

Thomas C. 2000 "Beginners in the dark." Proceedings of the 7th METU ELT Convention. (forthcoming) Also on www.dbe.metu.edu.tr/claire/

--Translation consequences: a short note in another edition?
--Passing on the challenge: to others, esp to new teachers
--Zero readers? Next issue.
--When a learner leaves the class, how much have they learnt, not just in terms of adding to their short-term memory, but what will they remember in a few years time?

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