4. How do you know when to correct a child’s error and when to let it go? How do you try to prevent the errors?

In Dual Language Instruction: A Handbook for Enriched Instruction (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000, pp. 78-79), the authors suggest that teachers always keep the focus on meaningful communication and demonstrate genuine interest in what students are attempting to communicate in the language of instruction. Yet some researchers (e.g., Lyster, 1998) have noted that form-focused intervention may be required in order for students to change their communicative behavior and that soft correction (e.g., gentle feedback and modeling the correct form) may not be sufficient to change students’ language output. This would be especially true if students’ errors are already fossilized or entrenched in their speech patterns.

In form-focused intervention, students are made explicitly aware of an error. They attempt to correct the mistake themselves, and once they are aware of the error and how to correct it, the teacher provides many opportunities for practice so that the new behavior is internalized.

As a general rule, when the number of errors made is quite high (in the early stages of proficiency), correction is low and the focus is on the meaning of the communication. Once errors naturally decrease (at later stages of proficiency), teachers make learners aware of the remaining errors in their speech that they have not been able to work out on their own. Writing is a good place to work on errors because they are more visible. Effective teachers always have a particular focus of intervention in mind. Rather than pointing out every error in a child’s speech or text, they focus on a feature of language that is giving the student particular difficulty. They might teach a mini-lesson on that feature and then provide practice opportunities and continuing feedback until the target feature or pattern is fully acquired.

Teachers in the Key Elementary 50/50 immersion program in Arlington, VA believe that it is impossible and counterproductive to attempt to correct every error students make. If, for instance, the student is explaining her mathematical reasoning but her flow of speech is constantly disrupted by the teacher, she may be discouraged from participating in class the next time. Or the teacher and students may lose track of the content goals for the lesson.

At the same time, teachers at Key believe that correcting the students’ language is important, and it should be done early on to prevent the fossilization of errors. To do this, teachers need to have clear language goals for the students – they need to understand what should be corrected and when. Curriculum guides such as the Arlington (VA) Public Schools Curriculum Framework (link coming soon) provide teachers with the specific language goals students need to develop at each grade level. By having both a content goal and a language goal for the unit, teachers can zero in on grammatical structures that are targeted in the unit of study and concentrate on correcting only those structures during the content lesson. This allows teachers to maximize language learning without losing track of the content goals.