Monday, March 12, 2012

Error as a ‘Positive’ Factor

Error as a ‘Positive’ Factor: John De Mado 
(all images below are the intellectual property of John De Mado and no copyright infringement is intended)

John De Mado spoke about the existence in language classes of not one, not two, but in fact three languages that any instructor a second or foreign language must deal with. The L1, the L2, and the student’s own interlanguage as he negotiated the movement from L1 to L2. 

He discouraged teachers from becoming editors of student interlanguage. Jokingly, he imitated the “gringo” accent of a typical American student learning Spanish (“tango” instead of “tengo” for example). While, as language teachers and language lovers, our natural tendency is to cringe or yell when we hear students say “grassy ass” instead of “gracias,” he begged us not to constantly edit our students. 

He asked us why we are afraid of letting students make errors. Overwhelmingly the answer given was fossilization. He shocked the audience of teachers by asserting that at the level that we teach there is no such thing. It was easy to hear the scoffs and see the rolling eyes. He repeated and insisted it was true! There was no evidence that our students were capable of fossilization because 1) they have such minimal language and 2) if they choose to pursue past level four or so, they won’t choose to fossilize. Choose to fossilize? Again, the audience scoffed but De Mado insisted that fossilization is a loss of facility and it is a choice to stop actively pursing and studying the language. It is a choice to discover and work toward correcting mistakes. 

Our students do not make mistakes, they make errors, he asserted. These are non-permanent. However, if we run students off they will never take ownership of the language and work to correct their errors. He asked how much we would spend to renovate an apartment that we didn’t own? Would we spend $10,000? $20,000? Of course not! It is not ours! So it is the same with language. As long as teachers are the editors and providers of language, it doesn’t belong to the student. They need put forth no effort to improve it. 

He suggested three strategies for facilitating language learning in a way that encourages students to own it. We need to create a safe space where risk-taking can happening. In the real world, students will need to take risks to use the language with native speakers. Second, we must leave room for intuition about language, as it would occur outside of the classroom. This means when a student pauses, we don’t give the answer, but give them time to work it out. Finally, we must let them be vulnerable. Help them understand that errors are a natural part of the process and that is how they learn.

He encouraged us to remove the word “mistake” from our professional vocabulary and always use the word “error” which basically carries the meaning of a learning opportunity. 
Another important strategy to make risk-taking, vulnerability, and intuition (RVI) successful in the classroom environment is to add it to the rubric and make it least worth as much as “accuracy” is. This way students take these behaviors seriously and you can encourage them to engage in the more readily because they are required. 

Returning to the metaphor of a language like a home, he asked what most people’s first homes look like. Most, he asserted, are “fixer uppers.” 

The role of grammar is to reduce error. It is largely non-communicative. It is identification, not communication. It doesn’t exist to create communication, it’s purpose is to avoid miscommunication. If students buy into the language in an upper level, then they can focus on grammar but at the beginning levels, the focus should be on communication with grammar serving only to support that communication. 
On a side note, if you ever get the chance to hear John De Mado speak, I highly recommend it. He is a high-energy and highly entertaining public speaker who really seems to know his stuff. Check out his website for some resources too.

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