On Feed-Back and Error Correction (I)
On Feed-Back and Error Correction (I) (Part One)
Consuela Popa, Romania
First published in “The Teacher” Magazine, Poland (January 2014 Issue)
Teaching, Learning, Feed-Back and Language Acquisition
Teaching means much more than just the multitude of teacher roles that we adopt throughout our teaching sessions or instructional programs. Teaching has got a perennial value, and it must be understood in its extremely complex and beyond time frames, without delineation limits.
The ultimate goal of “teaching” or pedagogy is not to “instruct” or “train”, nor to “tame”, our trainees, in a machine like manner more precisely, in order to “cope” with instructional sessions or learning sequences, throughout limited periods of time, but the ultimate goal (or if you wish, everlasting goal), of teaching is to inculcate deep, authentic, lifelong values and attitudes. It is through these values and attitudes that as learners, we achieve everything, thus teaching is not to be perceived as merely some “patchwork” or isolated sequences of teaching, learning, evaluation, feed-back, appreciation, and whatever else you might wish to call all those processes. It is a lifelong process. In my sentence above, I mentioned that as learners, “we” achieve everything, since I obviously perceive ourselves, teachers and our whole job as a continuous process of learning, of shaping and of training ourselves, I do not perceive teaching and learning as a dichotomy, but rather as two sides of the same coin, as a continuous flow.
However, somehow in between these notions -i.e., teaching and learning, some voices from the educational field usually placed feed-back, assessment, evaluation or/and testing, as also a necessary and requested process. I must admit that, faithful to my personal vision of teaching, learning and assessment/evaluation as being a continuous circle, a structure of intrinsically linked and extremely important components, I see assessment and evaluation, I see feed back as intermingled, intertwined between teaching and learning all throughout as a process with different facets. And of course, within the “thorny” or touchy aspect of “learning”, I also include, in an overlapping manner, especially when it comes to our linguistic field, acquisition, as a concept that has been so many times subject to a lot of research and reflection, and even big polemics and controversies in the field of language acquisition/foreign language, target language acquisition.
If I am to state briefly, feed-back is first, in my opinion, as a pedagogical concept, a naturally occurring and extremely important phenomenon in pedagogy. We give feed back as teachers, whether we are aware of it or whether we are unaware of it, just like we also receive feed-back from our students, in many ways. And we thereupon feed further, with information and experience regarding the learning and teaching process, our teaching sequences, that become a whole of intricate relationships and cease to be just isolated “themes” or “areas, or mere teaching sequences, with little, if any, connection between themselves.
The pedagogical contexts and phenomena are to be seen as a continuous system in which teaching, learning, feed-back, assessment, evaluation, are linked components in a living body. This living body is a body of learners and teachers alike, a body that is extremely active, reacts and interacts, sends out messages, receives messages back, and feeds this system forward with that whole amount of information, reintegrates all information gathered within further pedagogical situations, to the benefit of, in our case, language acquisition and learning. We build the health of the pedagogical body through a strong and intricate scaffolding of relationships, of stimuli, replies, of complex reactions and we build this healthy relationships upon the information that is transmitted and reintegrated in a feed-back-feed-forward cycle or conundrum. I have mentioned “conundrum”, because to me, the three components of the pedagogical cycle, teaching, learning/acquisition, and evaluation/assessment/feed-back (with feed-back here in our view as a main concept), cannot be clearly separated and cannot function unless they are all seen as a whole. And this is supposed to be like a puzzle. Teaching, learning and evaluation make up a beautiful chain in which feed-back generates feed-forward, and through our feed-forward we push our instructional/educational program further.
The “feed-forward”, as a pedagogical concept, is often defined as being any information and set of further decisions that are to serve as a generator of progress for teaching and learning development. Based upon our individual and general feed-back that we perform as teachers, we are able to promote the feed-forward as a tool for further development and progress of both learning and teaching. These concepts are full of riddles within themselves. We could accept, for instance, that “good teacher feed-back is one that generated good feed-forward for our teaching/learning/evaluation process”. Also good feed-forward means that we have an informative “past”, full of pluses, that satisfies our principles as teachers and we are therefore very confident to move on and achieve a lot of things.
Language Acquisition, Fluency, Accuracy
A very important aspect that needs to be mentioned here is the existence of some closely linked and compulsory principles. Those principles are, in language acquisition and language learning methodology, exposure to language and hence, listening as a primordial skill. Listening as a primordial skill is given its due emergency, together with speaking and the developing of all language skills towards academic proficiency/perfection. These skills should be mingled together in such a way that the concept of “language fluency” should not, under any circumstances, be hindered; thus, we should not be pretending to build anything else in terms of other language “skills” at the expense of fluency. Indeed, the comprehensible input (i+1), that has been so frequently mentioned about in methodology has got its vital share of contribution, and priority, still, whenever we aim at achieving language mastery.
In other words, no matter how “artistically”or fit, or methodologically accomplished, we might pretend to be training our students in the writing and reading skill, however, the dual, receptive-productive couplet, that of listening and speaking, should always come out or intervene as communicative traits of our language training program. We should always be ensuring that there is enough language exposure and oral production and that oral fluency is not somehow jeopardized as through too much focusing upon our strategic “skills” plan.
I need to add, also, that the “communicative” traits above are not to be understood in their controversial and distorted manner. We should remember that among the teaching approaches and trends, the communicative one has been turned into some overly pragmatic and absurd interpretations that end up by completely denying the serving of its very obvious sense, that of language fluency and use benefit.
The error correction matter has been put forward so many times because it is known that “correction” hinders fluency, or the developing of fluency, especially at lower levels, but also in advanced levels, when it is wrongly used, overly used, or misunderstood. And it is within this context that we discover the huge difference that the concepts or notions of “feed-back” and “error correction” can embrace. In other words, we should be giving professional feed-back, in our teacher role, and not “correct” mistakes, or “hunt for” them.
Especially at lower levels, when language exposure and comprehensible input should be ensured by all means, “error-correction” comes to interrupt the language flow or utterance that is due to take place, or, if you wish, that is due to be formed or to be “educated” upon language learners. (I tend to rather hate or avoid the term “enforced”, even though, it is known, that at lower levels, the tension is so high in order to generate good understanding of linguistic habits that it almost gathers a coercive dimension).
We should also be aware of the fact that the coercive factor was a “prerogative” and a badly used ingredient of the behaviorist trend in its negative acceptance. Also, the feed-back and error correction issue brings forward another famous couplet, to call it like this, if not dispute, which is the fluency versus accuracy issue.
The fluency versus accuracy issue, apart from numerous implications within the language acquisition field that it may have, comes to highlight our error correction and feed-back issue. We aim at ensuring that our students acquire language in such a way that both the speaking/communicative ability, and the listening comprehension level should reflect very good mastery of that language, while at the same time making sure that through the written as well as spelt code (and there is oral spelling/pronunciation, as well as written spelling), we have also achieved proficiency, mastery and perfection for our language learners.
Skills, Practice, Accurate and Professional Feed-Back
Today we base our language learning and teaching upon a variety of methods from past to present, combined together in such a way that they should serve the purpose of language acquisition and learning optimally. There are skills lessons, in which we practice and “drill” each aspect more or less separately or in combination/integration with other skills; here we can have special error correction lessons or sequences, or we can call them feed-back sequences, if you hate the word “error correction” as teacher
practitioners. In such writing or speaking practice lessons or sequences, we are able to set exercises, listening and speaking skills lessons, multiple choice, quiz, dual choice, true or false, fill in the blanks, cloze type of practice sets, where mistakes or slips are to be dealt with in particular by the teacher. Through such a multitude of exercises like the above presented, we have the opportunity to see our learners performing in speech, to grasp their level of listening comprehension, to figure out how they deal with writing or English in use aspects and how their brain perceives the structures of language, discourse type, textual and above the text level, topics, also word order, stress, fall, intonation, pitch. Punctuation is also given attention in the best way through these types of exercises and accurate details are perfected. In such cases the teacher feed back is necessary in a more focused manner, and errors or mistakes are given special attention. We can decide and agree also, together with our learners, whether there is any need for special correction codes and convenience, like when we correct such mistakes in an obvious manner(in traditional, communist if you wish, old way of feed-back), or we mutually agree upon a gentler way of error correction or feed back. We are to choose here the manner in which we score, grade, mark or allot/grant points to our students` drilled items, how we highlight such errors (colors, letters, symbols, etc), and how we discuss or reflect them in class within the learning groups later on.
Then, there are integrative or general type of lessons, like those lessons where everything has to flow and it really flows, and therefore, the issue of error correction becomes much more delicate then we might have thought. In such cases, it is recommendable that we should aim, as much as possible, at simply abolishing error correction. Subtle feed back, under diverse forms, such as repetition, echoing, gentle correction, is to be “administered” in such cases.
The whole process of communication and interaction in such type of lessons is meant to ensure that, as it has been said before in methodology, “language learning or use will take care of themselves”. Thus, no need for error correction to be made and for interruptions with that view in mind, since language use and language performance are to be seen as continuous opportunities for self-development and group development as a whole, as well; this development will come naturally, it will evolve well, provided that exposure to language, (the comprehensible input i+1), as well as the integration of all skills are done properly. (For readers who are not aware of the comprehensible input (i+1) concept, or convention, this has been agreed upon to be named so in methodology, so that it should mean the amount of language exposure that is being offered to learners, which needs to be even a bit above their assumed comprehension level, (hence, the i+1 symbol).
This kind of language infusion is supposed to help learners develop their language, while at the same time, in the type of lessons as the above discussed, integrative/language flow type ones, the error correction issue is to be definitely avoided through another type of feed-back, given either very gently during the course, or rather later on, at especially agreed /convened time. Moreover, language being a miracle, and language flow being absolutely necessary to be carried on and on, the fluency versus accuracy dispute comes back as a recurrent theme and we can only realize the huge gap that there is between fluency and accuracy. Since language flow is absolutely necessary, we will therefore be
extremely embarrassed, if not jeopardized, in our language mastery efforts, by this intercession through focusing upon accuracy, through error correction. It is later on that we will set special class sessions and practice to explain, highlight and draw attention towards the accuracy phenomenon and towards our students` language use with professional details. Keeping in mind that mistakes are a necessary phase onto language development, we are able to discriminate between developmental errors and persistent mistakes or errors. That is why the issue of feed-back on language accuracy comes to the forefront as an extremely delicate one, especially when we are placed in the realm of fluency.
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