When I started teaching English language learners, I avoided addressing my students’ language errors in class because I was just grateful that they volunteered to speak at all. I was also unsure how to provide feedback in the moment. On top of that, I thought that I simply lacked the time to address all the errors that students were making.
One day, I had the chance to explain to a student why he needed the article a before certain nouns. He told me this was an “aha” moment for him, and I was reminded of the value of corrective feedback.
Here are some ways to address students’ language errors in class while also building their confidence with spoken and written academic language.
How to Give Corrective Feedback That Builds Confidence
Teach and practice how a vocabulary word is used in different situations: When introducing a new vocabulary word, I also teach the correct conjugations, prepositions, parts of speech, and collocations of the word when used in different contexts. (A collocation is a series of words that are often found together. For example, after defining the word indicate, I explain that it’s typically paired with that, why, or how.)
If the word is a verb, we practice using it in different tenses and paired with different subjects. I include the correct prepositions alongside the vocabulary word on our class word wall. If students use the word with an incorrect preposition, I direct them to the word wall and ask them to choose one of the correct pairings.
Explicitly model how to correctly complete a response frame: Language teachers commonly use response frames to model the academic language their students need to practice. For example, to practice using the word persuade, we might use this frame: “Citizens can persuade political leaders to _____.”
I improve the quality of students’ shared responses when I demonstrate how to generate the correct language in the blank. In this example, first I clarify the meaning of the word citizens. Then I highlight the word to as a grammar clue in the sentence. When paired with persuade, the word to signals that next we need a base verb (an action word with no changed endings). I write improve public transportation in the blank as I think aloud, “People are late to work because the buses don’t arrive on time. Many people want to persuade our mayor to improve public transportation.”
I recite the completed sentence aloud, modeling the correct pronunciation and emphasis. I prompt students to repeat out loud together so they will be more comfortable sharing their own examples. With this added step, students build fluency.
Provide word banks for a response frame: A word bank is a list of possible words or phrases that correctly complete a sentence frame. For the example above, I post additional base verbs (like repair, build, and fund) and define each one. I also invite suggestions from the class, helping students phrase their choices as base verbs.
When students share completed sentences aloud that do not use base verbs, I either ask them to choose a base verb from the word bank or remind them how to change their word into a base verb.
Use response frames with the same grammatical structures over several lessons: To reinforce the grammatical structures I teach, I review additional frames with the same structure both throughout one lesson and across several days. I do this until students demonstrate more independence with the structure.
Ask students to explain their choices: When I provide explicit guidance on how to complete a particular response frame, my students become more prepared to justify their own language choices. While explaining, they often self-correct or ask for assistance.
Provide corrective feedback to all students: Since I don’t have time to check each student’s response to every frame, I have them share their examples with a partner or group. I circulate while listening for mistakes and strong examples. When I notice common errors, I redirect students’ attention to the front and provide corrective feedback to everyone at once, often drawing their attention back to the grammar clue embedded in the response frame. I might also share a strong example from a student and ask them to explain why it works.
Create regular opportunities for students to improve their responses: I often ask students to review their written examples after receiving feedback. Students can then edit their sentences. If they used the target language correctly, I invite them to improve the rest of the sentence with more precise language. When students regularly improve their work, they come to see the value of receiving corrective feedback.
Model a growth mindset: As teachers, we can model how to learn from our mistakes. Maybe we had no backup plan when our technology failed, or we didn’t catch the typos on a handout. I invite students to correct my mistakes using the same respectful tone that I use when giving them feedback. I acknowledge the error, thank them for the feedback, and commit to fixing it.
Our learning environments are stronger when our students are empowered to participate, make mistakes, and use feedback to improve. English language learners are working to understand how to use a language fluently, which means learning the nuances of how the language works at the sentence level. With a classroom culture of targeted instruction with corrective feedback, not only will our students learn English—they’ll learn how to learn.