5 Ideas for Learner Language

Language learning is often thought of in terms of individual lessons. Learners come to class to learn a specific language point, such as a grammatical tense or a lexical set. Of course, language learning is a much more complicated process: it is a cognitive challenge whose particulars, such as a tense, span far more than a single lesson. However, regardless of this fact, teachers still deliver lessons based on specific linguistic topics, like a grammatical tense, which is why so much course material comes from a grammar-based syllabus.IMG_0036

As a consequence, this often results in teachers delivering very language-heavy lessons where the materials, such as the coursebook, are the driving force in the room, rather than the learners’ language. Each learner will be at a different stage of language acquisition, and as a result when they communicate they rely on the version of the language they know. For example: one learner might know the Will-Future in English and can use it to talk about future events, whilst another might have not acquired this yet and will rely on the Present Tense and future adverbials, such as later, next year, in the future. This phenomenon is present in the mind of every language learner and is known as Interlanguageyou can read more about it here.

While it is easier to focus on a learner’s interlanguage in smaller classes, with larger groups it is a much more tedious task. In fact, striking a balance between individual attention and open class plenaries is one of the greatest challenges of a language teacher. One way of finding this balance is by taking note of the language learners produce during communicative activities, such as discussions and tasks: this way everyone completes a single task and the teacher listens in to what language the learners are using to express themselves.

Many Initial Teacher Training programmes, such as the CELTA, encourage trainees to make notes about learner language.  Many teachers do this, but the inevitable question still remains: What to do with learner produced language? Here are five suggestions…

Language Correction

Often referred to as Delayed Error Correction, this is when the teacher writes down incorrect utterances produced during a communicative activity. The teacher then puts these on the board at a later stage in the lesson, which might be at the end of the activity or it might be at the end of the lesson. The learners are then asked to identify the mistakes and correct the errors. This is a method for providing language feedback on real mistakes while not interrupting the flow of fluency-based activities.

Language Worksheets

This takes the same approach as above but instead of boarding the language, the teacher collates them on to a worksheet. This worksheet could be given as homework or used in a subsequent lesson. A good thing about this approach is that the worksheets can be re-used at a later date to test whether the learners have remember or forgotten their mistakes.

Language Exploration

After using the above two ideas for a while, teachers start to realise that very often learners can easily identify their own mistakes. In which case, what they will probably need is not language feedback but encouragement to explore and play with the language, which in itself will often produce new errors. So, to this end, board the sentences you have collected and ask the learners to find another way of expressing the same idea but in other words. Encourage them to change the structure of the sentence as much as they want, that way it won’t be a simple exercise of finding synonyms. Take the sentence below as an example from an intermediate class:

Original Language: I don’t like coffee
Explored Language: Coffee isn’t my cup of tea

Language Guiding

While helping learners to expore their own language mistakes, teachers often realise that there are chunks of language that they would like their learners to produce but they simply cannot. In a recent advanced level class, several members of the group made the same mistake: Yesterday I discussed about the problem with my parents. This is a class of Spanish speakers, in whose language the verb discutir means to argue. This is a simple case of L1 interference: the English word discuss is so close to the word in their mother tongue, they don’t even consider it might be anything different. So, to combat this but without spoonfeeding them the solution, teachers can board sentences containing the target language but gap out another part of the sentence, so that it is still a language exercise. With the example above, I wrote the following on the whiteboard:

Yesterday I had an argument _________ with my parents

They usually realise what their original mistake is, but sometimes it can be a good idea to point it out and make it clear i.e. discutir is not discuss in English.

Language Upgrade

How many times have you heard your learners say I think and wished they would say something else? Well, look no further than Language Upgrading. This is a simple notion, yet very effective. You take note of simple and repetitive structures and phases learners regularly repeat and write them on the whiteboard. Then, you get the learners to figure out other ways of saying the same thing. You might get them to do this on their own or in groups. Either way, you will need to have a set of answers up your sleeve just in case they can’t produce anything else.

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Language Upgrading doesn’t have to be limited to chunks of language and phrases, it can also be used with entire sentences. For example: you board four simple sentences the learners have produced and ask them to find a more complex or ‘fancier’ way of saying the same thing. This way you push their language beyond the simple repetitive structures they use lesson in lesson out.

Do you use any of these techniques? If you do or if you have, leave a comment below and let us know how it went.

20 thoughts on “5 Ideas for Learner Language

  1. I use the techniges of delayed error correction and the language worksheets,they are really workable with my kids .they compete to find and discover the teacher’s mistakes on the board and correct them

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  2. I always use ‘delayed correction’ and I noticed students often don’t make the same mistakes a second time. Thus I do believe that not correcting them on the spot will allow them to autocorrect…

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    1. You could always use a signal to show that you have heard them make a mistake and they have the opportunity to try to autocorrect, if they don’t manage it well it’s ok as you can always use the delayed error correction system 🙂

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  3. i have used these techniques very successfully in the class room. yes it is true that most of the times they may not remember that these errors are theirs, i think that should not be a problem as what we do is take up a few errors collectively and make it an exercise for the entire class. everyone discusses and corrects the errors. it has worked in my classes, and this is what i recommend to the teachers in my teacher-training programmes.

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  4. Hi Anthony… thanks very much for replying with the link. If this appears, then yes it’s worked. I don’t “blog around” much. (Can you say that?). I should also look for suitable blogs for students to use. I imagine this could also be a similar way to use your ideas and see what common mistakes they might make, or repetitive language tbey may rely on etc.

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  5. This is great Anthony! Thanks for sharing! As for delayed correction, I am a big fan of it because I think it leads to deeper cognitive processing. The learners look at their mistakes, analyse them, copy what they have to copy, etc. Onthe spot correction, does not necessarily require so much conscious effort on the part of the learner, therefore I wouldn’t deal with errors (things learners are not aware of yet) with that technique. On the spot correction, on the other hand may be more useful for mistakes, when the learners know sth is wrong but yet they still make that sort lf developmental mistake (encouraging on the spot self correction with little mistskes, is my personal fav technique because at least you’re getting the learner to think about language too).
    What I would add is that apart from focusing on mistakes or areas that require upgrade, a teacher can also focus on good language use. Instead of correct the mistakes feedback stages, you could have find the mistakes and correct them and tick the examples of good language use. That way, se are also praising good language use and even dealing with emergent language, sometimes learners use good language and they’re not even aware of the fact that they have used it 🙂

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  6. I think it’s also important to board good examples as well as ones with errors for correcting. It’s a good chance to praise them. I usually board good sentences in green/blue and ones that need changing in black with corrections on in red. Some students love seeing something they said go up on the board as a good example – motivating for them. (Some shy ones not so much, but you don’t have to point out whose it was. They usually know)

    I saw on the Future Learn distance learning course I was doing an activity called “fish bowl” where students are encouraged to role play and if they get stuck can pull a line out of the fish bowl (I hadn’t come across it, but I think it’s quite well known in EFL). I wondered if good examples of language with a group you taught regularly could be put into the fish bowl for later use.

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  7. I think every lesson should contain questions such as..
    What do you think……..?
    How do you feel if………?
    Such questions improve creative and critical thinking and allow learners to use the language and link it to real life.

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  8. I regularly used all of these except one – that’s the first one. Rather than “delayed correction”, I used “on the spot correction” while the student was still present to what they wanted to express. If the correction is delayed I found the students had often forgotten the situation and the language written on the board appeared as foreign to them as a sentence in a manual or book. It was no longer “theirs”. I sometimes put the sentence on the board as you describe but I also used other techniques for helping students to correct their sentences themselves.

    I’ve frequently heard and read teachers say that they fear breaking the fluency of the student’s expression if they interrupt the flow to draw the student’s attention to a problem in their English. In my experience this doesn’t happen if the teacher waits until the student has finished the sentence, and then intervenes in a tactful, non-judgemental way.

    I’ve successfully used the other four techniques and found students responded very positively to the opportunity of correcting and expanding the language for themselves

    I’d be interested to know of other similar exercises. A teacher can’t have too many of them in their “mental satchel”, can they?

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