Defossilization of our teaching habits

There are many articles about fossilized grammar errors, fossilization of errors, dealing with fossilized errors, overcoming fossilized errors, arresting fossilization, etc. But there aren’t many on the topic of fossilized teaching practices. In L2 learning, fossilization refers to the process in which incorrect language becomes a habit and cannot easily be corrected. Although language fossilization has a rather negative connotation, especially among us English teachers, by now we’ve accepted the inevitable; we know all too well that fossilization is unavoidable to a great extent. Still, we never cease to look for ways to help our learners deal with fossilized language.

One of the ways is prevention. For example, if you teach real beginners, you can focus on accuracy from the very start and nip each problem in the bud. However, you should still keep in mind that students follow a non-linear learning trajectory towards the aquisition of the L2 and sometimes they will keep making the same mistakes regardless of your efforts. So you need to be patient. One way or another, fossilization can only be fixed when attention is drawn to the issue. That is to say, learners need to become aware of the problem to have the capacity to correct it.

The same as fossilized language, fossilized teaching practices are difficult to fix. The main reason is that for the most part, they are invisible to the eye of the performer. Thus they first need to come under the spotlight to be confronted. But if it is us teachers who help our students to see and overcome fossilized errors (because they can’t do so themselves), who will help us to fix our fossilized teaching practices?

I would argue that we, teaching practitioners, also follow a specific, non-linear trajectory when developing professionally. At the beginning of our careers, we know nothing. They did tell us something in methodology courses but the truth is, the reality shock is overwhelming. Later on, throughout our professional lives, we’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again until somebody points to them or until the circumstances (lessons that simply don’t work) force us to change some of the things we do. It is only then that we spiral up to the next level.

On a more practical note, here are some of the ways of putting ourselves in the limelight: we can record a lesson of ours and watch it, we can ask a colleague to come and observe us in action, or ask for feedback from our students. These methods may be really painful at first. It is indeed agonizing for our egos to hear that what we’ve been doing for years and years simply doesn’t work the way we thought it did. But they say that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional and recognition and acceptance of a problem is the first step towards solving it. Alternatively, to circumvent the pain but still learn and evolve, we can go to ELT conferences and read books and blogs about reflective practices. Or we can blog about our own teaching experience. Putting ourselves out there like this will help us shine a bright light on some of the areas of our teaching practices, which, in result, will become less ossified.

In conclusion, we must constantly question what we do in the classroom. Asking questions and looking for answers is the best way to potentially defossilize our undesirable teaching habits.

Homophones – pain in the neck?

Recently it has come to my attention that I tend to misspell certain words. Such a discovery may not seem particularly groundbreaking since everybody errs. What does bother me a bit though is that these misspellings often pass unnoticed (by me as well as my spellchecker). I’m specifically talking about homophones, i.e. words having the same pronunciation but different meanings. Although for some reason, it’s unlikely that I will confuse mourning with morning, chances are that I will use brake instead of break without realizing that there’s something wrong with my sentence. I mean, I obviously know the difference between the two expressions but I confuse them nevertheless. Other words I tend to ball up are basic words such as heel vs heal, knew vs. new. Believe it or not, I even caught myself using no instead of know once or twice. And yes, once vs one’s can be tricky too. Well, it seems that the more notorious the word is, the higher probability there is that I will mess things up. Also, short words tend to be trickier since generally, you automatically pay more attention when producing more complex language. This implies (to me) that as I write, I actually hear the words in my head. Funnily enough, once I’m using a more complex expression, which I’m not 100% sure how to pronounce, I hear myself spelling it in my mind (the Czech way though).

Anyway, I’ve recently learned that as far as homophones are concerned, a difference in spelling doesn’t always indicate a difference of origin. As a rule of thumb, dictionaries treat homophones as different words simply because they are spelt differently. So a traditional dictionary will not give you a clue as to whether the words are historically of the same origin. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find out that for example flower and flour have much more in common than you would expect. So, a crazy question occurred to me: is this type of ancient knowledge somehow ingrained in our brains? Well, my hypothesis is a bit flawed, at least in my case, because I’m not a native speaker of English. But still, maybe one of my genes was inherited from someone whose mother tongue was English indeed. Shakespeare maybe? Who knows? One thing is certain, language and brains are amazing entities. At the same time, I think it’s not really surprising that the brain, having to constantly make millions of decisions at every point of our lives, occasionally chooses the wrong option out of the two available in its inventory – and opts for no instead of know. It’s not a tragedy after all; unless this misstep influences our future in some way, everything is fine (apart from the fact that we made idiots of ourselves).

But here’s the thing. While I sometimes err when it comes to homophones, my students don’t as often as one might suppose. They throw around all sorts of other spelling mistakes, particularly typos are their favourites, and they like to coin new words too. But homophones? No, that’s not a big problem. There’s this idea at the back of my mind, I must have heard it somewhere, so correct me if I’m wrong, that native speakers tend to make homophone errors more often than L2 learners do. So my hypothesis is (and maybe somebody out there has already tested this) that the more frequently you are exposed to a language, the better you get at it but at the same time, you become more susceptible to committing a homophone error in writing. It seems that when your level of L2 is not high enough, which is the case of some of my students, your brain really needs to focus on in what is happening and is less prone to making careless mistakes of this sort. I mean, when producing and essay, my students probably think twice before engraving their words in stone (at least in the ideal world scenario), so these slips will not happen as often. They simply want to get things right and thus play it safe. So confusing weak with week is most likely off the table because they are familiar with both words but don’t use them too automatically yet. On the other hand, they might not even ‘consider’ confusing words such as wright vs right, simply because they are NOT familiar with the former. However, when they have enough knowledge, they might do so as a result of trying to use a rule in a context where it does not belong (overgeneralization error).

To conclude on a happier note, homophones are not just a pain in the neck. They can be fun since they are used to create puns, which is a feature I like to use in my lessons.

What about you and homophones?

Errors in disguise

A colleague of mine has a very weak student in class and she’s worried that he might fail his final English exam, which he’s taking in May. Now and then, during our regular coffee chats, she comes up with a little rant. Last time she looked really frustrated when she told me that the student, who should by now be somewhere around the B1-B2 level, can’t use basic grammatical structures correctly. I should stress that my friend does her best to help this particular student and she has spent lots of extra hours with him after school explaining stuff.

Nevertheless, she is desperate that, for example, the student uses the present simple tense when talking about past events. So instead of saying: The other day I went to Prague … he says: The other day I go to Prague …. I couldn’t but agree that this could be a real problem during his state exam, but then I thought of the last conference I went to, and I remembered Piotr Steinbrich’s plenary speech, in which he mentioned the fact that although the present simple is considered one of the most basic grammatical structures, i.e. A1 structures as described by CEFR, it can actually indicate a fairly advanced level of English when it’s used for talking about past events. So in an attempt to console my friend, I told her humorously that during the actual exam we can pretend that the student uses the structures on purpose.

My colleague smiled faintly but immediately went on to tell me another example of the student’s ignorance. “Just imagine, I asked him something about dinner and he started describing his typical lunch at the school canteen. I couldn’t believe my ears!” I sympathised with her but then I remembered another conference, particularly Nikki Fořtová’s workshop, during which she talked about differences in lexis across various cultures. She told us, for example, that *pond* is not what Czech people think it is and that *dinner* may actually be *lunch* in a particular cultural context. So again, I tried to lift my friend’s spirits by telling her that if this happens, we can pretend that the boy is actually on topic.

Now, this chat I had with my friend got me thinking. We have all sorts of errors, such as typos, slips of the tongue, errors related to interlanguage, random errors, systematic errors, etc. But sometimes students use structures which may be correct under certain circumstances but as their regular teacher you know that they use them because they can’t use the ones you expect them to use. I mean, the student mentioned above does not know that dinner may be lunch or that present simple can be used for past events. He simply messes things up and his teacher knows it because otherwise he makes mistakes which imply that his level is not that high. The question is whether and/or how to penalise those errors in disguise.

I face a similar dilemma when teaching reported speech or the past perfect tense. The rules are not always clear-cut and as a fairly advanced user of English I know that it’s not always necessary or even desirable to use a more complex structure, simply because it’s not natural.

The obvious conclusion is that as long as the student is understood, everything’s fine. On the other hand, our students are required to take exams which are designed to test their level of proficiency, and we teachers need to take this into consideration when assessing a student’s performance. On a more learner-centred note, maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to push our students to acquire the more complex structures, even though we know they will easily do without them, because without this extended linguistic knowledge they might not be able to come back to the simple structures and use the language naturally. I might be completely wrong but that’s how I feel it being an L2 learner myself.

Collective feedback on written assignments

In this post I’d like to share one of my favourite ways of giving feedback on written assignments, which I’ve been practising for some time now and which has proved really useful and effective in my teaching context. I usually do this with intermediate classes but I believe it can work with lower levels too. This method is a classic one, nothing really revolutionary, plus no technology needs to be involved. However, I can’t think of any reason why it couldn’t become high-tech.

One of the questions that may pop up immediately is: How do you know that the method is effective? I can tell quite easily; students pay attention during the feedback presentation, and they constantly ask questions, make comments and ask for clarification. And although they are not able to avoid all the discussed errors in their next written assignment, I notice that they do eschew some. This, in my view, is hard evidence that the feedback hit the right note and that they have improved.

So what do I actually do? I teach classes of 10 up to 23 students.  When I correct and grade their written assignments, I always create a ‘collective feedback’ report in which I have collected the most frequent mistakes the students made. This means that a mistake is recorded only if it’s made by at least two students. I don’t pay attention to individual or rare errors because pointing to them when giving feedback to the whole class would not be too effective and it would also become time-consuming. Moreover, although I never mention the names of the students who made particular errors, if I picked a unique error, the author might easily recognise it and feel exposed and subsequently embarrassed. It’s just safer to refer to each error as something more people struggle with.

I should mention that one of the rare positives of teaching large classes is that the more numerous the class is, the more beneficial this type of feedback generally becomes, since in a class of 23 students, each student actually learns from 22 other people. This, quite obviously, wouldn’t be possible if you teach one to one.

An example of a collective feedback report, page 2
An example of a collective feedback report, page 1

Now, I should stress that it’s absolutely necessary to give this type of feedback before handing out the corrected assignments; otherwise it would be a complete waste of time. Each student would stare at his/her own essay without paying much attention to what I say about the other errors. So, the psychological effect of handing out the assignments after the feedback conclusions are out is clear – students listen carefully in an attempt to spot their own errors among the plethora of incorrect language items produced by their peers. This is desirable because even if Student A didn’t make the same mistake Student B made, this doesn’t mean that Student B’s error is not a potential area of difficulty for Student A. Also, during the feedback time, students are trying to figure out what mark they got by ticking off and counting the mistakes that are presumably theirs. This keeps them in suspense and when they finally get the assignments back, they are ready to accept the grade without feeling too disappointed. In other words, they get mentally prepared for the outcome, which may be less painful than if you just served an E straight away.

To sum up, I believe that this method is more cognitively challenging for your students than just giving out corrected essays with individual feedback reports on them. Also, it may be motivating for the weaker learners to see that they are not the only ones who make mistakes. There’s another advantage to this approach; this kind of feedback is a great tool for monitoring the class’s progress. You can always look back at the previous reports and see what some of the recurrent problems are. Having said that, it’s highly beneficial to store all the reports, either digitally or in a paper file, because then you can compare class A with class B, for example, and see what your next steps should be in case you want to help your students make progress or avoid failure.