Positive Reinforcement in Language Learning

The year 1967 saw the the USA and the USSR perform nuclear tests, the Beatles released Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and L.G. Alexander published what is said to be the best-selling book in ELT First Things First.

Scott Thornbury mentions the book in his 2016 Plenary at IATEFL, saying it was so popular that you could even purchase a copy at kiosks! In the plenary, he also quotes the author saying “the student should be trained to learn by making as few mistakes as possible.” good-1122969_640

An idea born out of earlier methods, such as the Direct Method and Audiolingualism, the focus on accuracy over fluency was the pinnacle of the pre-communicative era in ELT. There was a general fear of encouraging mistakes by letting them slip, and ultimately allowing them to become fossilized.

Decades later, learners are now very much encouraged to prioritize fluency, to make mistakes and to learn from them. As a result, lessons nowadays often culminate in a Delayed Error Correction stage, where learners are given corrective feedback on the mistakes they made during the lesson.

However, has this shift in focus from accuracy to fluency been a wholly positive development in English Language Teaching, or have we created a new problem by resolving another? Keep reading to find out more… Continue reading

Error Correction: a Critique

For Initial Teacher Training qualifications error correction is a major topic. Both the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity Certificate in TESOL contain criteria on dealing with errors. They encourage trainees to deal with errors in a variety of ways, such as the following, which have been taken from Learning Teaching by Scrivener (2011: 285 – 290):

  • Indicating an error has been made
  • Eliciting the correction through questions
  • Finger correction
  • Echoing
  • Opening the error up to the rest of the class

Although there is quite an extensive list of suggestions and techniques, they essentially boil down to two approaches for dealing with error:

  1. Immediate Error Correction
  2. Delayed Error Correction

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Fluency, Accuracy and Scott Thornbury

Over the last three months I’ve gone through a process which has shredded to bits my grounding in teaching, thrown it up in the air and reformulated some of it, and shown me how to throw out the old and bring in the new. It has helped me to develop an approach to educating which is principled and grounded in sound pedagogic methodology. You’ve guessed it: the DELTA. DELTA Series Image

A topic which has cropped up again and again during the DELTA is the accuracy vs fluency dichotomy. Which of the two should there be more focus on? Which leads to better language users?

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