TESOL Teaching mistakes to Avoid 6: ‘Correct’ answers are enough
In this series of articles, we are looking at some common teaching actions which more often than not simply don’t work. If you find yourself doing this in the classroom, think about why you are doing it - if you don’t have a clear reason, or evidence that it helps students to improve their language in practice, it may not be the most effective way…
In most school subjects, performance can be assessed by how much information has been retained by a student, as demonstrated in a test situation. A history paper has a set of key points which are expected to score the points, a science or maths paper has questions which can be individually marked as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. This is because the majority of subject content taught in schools is knowledge-based. Knowledge is built and the amount of knowledge retained is tested at the end of a course or school year.
Many teachers treat language in the same way, assessing their students’ knowledge in tests with rights or wrong answers to grammar examples, vocabulary quizzes and other discrete, correct or incorrect response questions.
Language learning, however, does not work in the same way. Anyone who has taught in countries which rely on paper-based assessments for their students to progress in their language education will know that language knowledge and language performance are not the same thing. Deeper language development does not just involve right and wrong - internal knowledge of grammar structures and words does not make for a successful user of a language. There are infinite ways of communicating the same ideas in different ways, some more appropriate or accurate than others in different situations, with different people and for different purposes. If a learner relies only on the knowledge that they have retained to get things right, they are unlikely to survive in the freer, uncontrolled and messy environment of real world communication
So how can we develop this flexibility with language, and help students to develop the wider range of skills required to handle any English-language situation, from assessment situations to spontaneous, real-world interaction?
One way of doing this is to build in more interactive events in the classroom. In the tasks that you set your students, focus on more than just answers to questions. After a task, don’t just list correct answers for students, but task them to share their responses and the processes they used to get to those answers. Being able to justify a language choice is really important, and can build more discussion into task feedback, as well as raising critical awareness in students as they work.
One way of building this short interactive event into the dialogue of the classroom is based around the following exchange, which will be familiar to students and teachers around the world. After an activity, the teacher asks:
‘So what is the answer to number 1?’
To which the student responds: ‘B - lantern’
And the teacher gives their assessment of the response:
‘Yes, good work’, or ‘no, try again’.
This exchange, where the teacher puts their judgement of correctness onto an individual student’s idea, is great for quickly confirming correct answers during post-task feedback, but is that the real goal that we are trying to achieve by doing the task? No - in fact, each response for a student can be seen as a stimulus for further ideas about how or why the student chose that answer. This is where the student (and others in the class) can get more out of a task and a set of answers, learning how to perform tasks better with the language they are learning, and opening up new doors for development.
Notice what happens if we add a quick question about the student’s process after they make their first response:
Teacher: ‘So what is the answer to number 1?’
Student: ‘B - lantern’
Teacher: OK, why do you think that?
The student’s response here is totally open, depending on what they heard / read, the language used, synonyms or the relationship between ideas in different sentences or paragraphs… There are a thousand ways that a student could have reached the answer ‘B’, and by explaining that, we (and the rest of the class) can develop an understanding of the processes which we use to make these important language choices. This is a much more powerful tool for learning than the correct answer, presented on a plate by the teacher.
Another stimulus question could be: ‘how did you decide on answer ‘B’’, prompting the student to talk about the thought process that went into the choice. This is the same thought process that all students would have tried, so is relevant to everyone in the class. Why not open that up for discussion, to get everyone applying the same skill (if it was successful), or rethinking their response if not?
With this questioning technique used regularly after a task, students will come to expect that you will ask them about their process, and will start adding this information in to their responses themselves. When this happens, you know that they are working more reflectively, and really developing a range of strategies to make good language choices when they work with English.
As we can see, just focusing on a correct answer can never develop the range of strategies that students use for making language choices. This is equally true of test situations and the choices made in free language work or classroom tasks. By encouraging a more critical, reflective approach to the work that students do, the more likely they are to make better choices in the future and be able to apply them in the situations where they find themselves using English outside the classroom.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.