Monday, April 20, 2015

Monday Musings: The Importance of Making Mistakes

More than many other subjects, learning a new language involves taking risks.  To be successful, students must practice using the language.  That means both speaking it and writing it.  And when you are in the process of learning a language, it is inevitable that you will make mistakes.

ELLs who are willing to make mistakes and learn from them will learn the language more quickly than students who are afraid of making a mistake and never try to use the language.  ELLs who have some knowledge of English and are willing to risk embarrassment when talking or writing are going to acquire the language faster because they will be corrected by their teacher(s) and perhaps even by their classmates and as a result, they will learn the correct ways to say or write things.

Of course, ELLs who are at a lower level of proficiency are going to make lots and lots of mistakes.  That is why it is so important to correct errors in a sensitive manner.  If a teacher interrupts a student every time s/he says something wrong, that student might never finish a sentence and will likely be too discouraged from attempting to speak again.  Likewise, if a paper is so filled with red pen markings that the original piece of writing cannot be read, a student might never want to write something else.  Judicious use of error correction is crucial to supporting the efforts of ELLs in acquiring English.  Rubrics are very useful in this regard.
The importance of making mistakes
Rubrics used with ELLs to support their writing; source: The ESL Nexus
Teachers can create a supportive classroom atmosphere that encourages students to take risks as they learn the English language.  Besides not pointing out every single mistake a student makes, it's also important to not laugh when an ELL makes mistakes when speaking, although it's often hard not to.  Even more important is making sure the other students don't laugh at an ELL's mistakes.  Nothing shuts down a kid more quickly than being ridiculed by classmates.  

Teachers should explicitly tell ELLs that it's okay to make mistakes.  I even told my students that I liked it when they made mistakes because that showed me they were trying to learn.  When my students tried to use a new grammar structure or new vocabulary word in their speaking or writing, and it didn't quite come off, I praised them for making the attempt and encouraged them to try again.  Teachers who came into my room were amazed at how much the ELLs talked because in their rooms, they rarely spoke.  (Sometimes I wished they wouldn't talk quite so much but that was a different issue!)

When ELLs are fearful of making mistakes, they are going to play it safe and only use language they are confident with--and they will plateau and not develop their English skills further.  But when ELLs understand that errors are a natural part of learning a language and that being able to communicate effectively does not mean never making a mistake, they will feel more comfortable about taking risks to express themselves.  The ELLs who do not let fear defeat them are the students who will be more successful learners of English.