Achieving oral proficiency in a foreign language can often feel like an insurmountable challenge. And sometimes, no matter how fast you ride your horse toward it, it still remains a distant speck on the horizon. My adult English learners frequently express their frustration with this feeling, so I always have a lesson ready to help them take ownership over their speaking journey. I call this lesson “The Morale of Making a Mistake or an Error,” and its objective is to teach adult learners the basics of error analysis. As a result, they become better equipped to measure their own progress and they learn not to sweat the small stuff.
From day one of their speaking practice, my adult learners must be able to classify any deviation from correct grammar as either a mistake or an error and maintain two respective lists in their notebooks. A mistake is a grammatical correction that they already know, but they just didn’t apply it correctly in conversation at the time. An error is much more important because it tends to be unrecognizable to the learner; errors represent a lack of knowledge of the correct language rules and a gap in understanding that the teacher and learner must work together to address.
These distinctions are particularly effective for intermediate to advanced students where the learner typically experiences a feeling of “leveling off” in their progress, or they feel like they are making the same mistakes over and over again. It becomes more difficult for them to identify notable day-to-day improvement, and they are often discouraged by repetitive, minor errors, which are usually caused by interference from their mother tongue.
In these moments of frustration, I ask my adult learners to take out their error analysis lists and tell me which one is shorter: the mistakes or the errors. The number of mistakes almost always outweighs the number of errors, and in some cases, they even find that one of their previous errors could now be better classified as a mistake. Their faces light up at this hint of progress and I remind them then that even native speakers make frequent mistakes and they certainly don’t give up speaking!
The power of providing students with consistent visual measurements of progress is one of the great advantages of the online language-learning environment. Through historical feedback, skill scores and word performance percentages, students now have a much more precise picture of their language evolution. Tiny victories can suddenly become major motivators when mapped out in greater detail, and students are very much empowered by this new level of control and autonomy in their learning process. By teaching students to pinpoint their more serious errors as well as to recognize and celebrate their small advances, we are creating a more effective learning environment.