The Best and Worst Ways to Provide Feedback to Learners

Today we bring you the latest segment in a video series by Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Katharine Nielson, who’s answering all your nitty-gritty questions about how people learn languages.

As a language instructor, when and how should you be offering your learners corrective feedback? And what’s the worst thing you can do when a learner is in the middle of completing a task, answering a question or telling a story? In this video, Dr. Nielson explains the difference between implicit and explicit instruction and feedback,  talks about the most effective kind of corrective feedback (and when to use it) and some common pitfalls to avoid.


Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.

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Have you ever heard the word “shibboleth?” Does it look a little weird to you? Does it seem like a word you’d never be able to pronounce? Well, that’s actually the whole idea. A shibboleth is a word that is used to distinguish native speakers of a language from non-native speakers; shibboleths have a sound or combination of sounds that are extremely difficult for learners of the language to pronounce.

The term comes all the way from biblical times. According to the story, there were two tribes, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, who spoke two different dialects. The Gileadite word “shibboleth” was almost impossible for the Ephraimites to pronounce, because the Ephraimite dialect did not have the “sh” sound — just the “s.” So, when the war broke out between the two tribes and the Gileadites wanted to kill all of the Ephraimites, they used this word as a tool. Gileadites would ask people to pronounce the word “shibboleth,” and based on a person’s pronunciation, they’d know whether he or she was an enemy. If the person pronounced the “sh” sound, they were a Gileadite and therefore they were safe. On the other hand, if the person could only make the “s” sound, the Gileadites knew they were in the presence of an Ephraimite and they would kill him or her.

Though the origins of this word are pretty violent, the term can still be relevant today. As a learner of English, are there shibboleths that you feel you can’t pronounce properly? Do you think people know that you’re not a native speaker because of the way you say certain words? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments!

Maya Barzilai
Maya is a Pedagogy and Research summer associate at Voxy. She recently graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic. She loves not only learning foreign languages, but also learning all about the different languages of the world and what they have in common. Maya is passionate about sharing her love for languages with others and watching as more and more people become empowered by the knowledge of another language.

prepositions of position

8 Pairs of Easily Confused English Phrases

One of the most frequent types of mistakes that students of foreign languages make has to do with preposition use. Though prepositions can often be translated from one language to another, it’s usually hard to predict which one is used in what situation when learning a foreign language. It doesn’t help that prepositions can sometimes completely change the meaning of what you’re trying to say, especially in certain set expressions. Here are some pairs of phrases that seem pretty similar, but actually mean very different things.

If you can think of more pairs like this, please post them in comments. Also, feel free to add new sentences that use these phrases in different ways!

1. Hang up / hang out
To “hang up” means to end a phone call; to “hang out” means to spend time relaxing, usually with a friend.
If he hangs up before I’m done talking, I will be too mad to hang out with him this weekend.

2. Look up / look forward
To “look up” means to search and find information about something, usually in a dictionary or some sort of database. To “look forward” to something means to be excited about an event that will happen in the future.
After looking up the plot of Woody Allen’s latest movie, I’m really looking forward to seeing it!

3. Get into / get over
To “get into” means to become involved or interested in something. To “get over” can either mean the opposite of this — to lose interest in something — or it can also mean to recover from something, particularly an illness.
After I get over this flu, which is making me so weak, I’m going to get into biking again.

4. Throw out / throw up
To “throw up” means to vomit, whereas to “throw out” means to dispose of something that is no longer being used. Hint: In this case, “out” and “away” can be used to express the same meaning, so to “throw something out” and to “throw something away” both mean to put it in the garbage.
If my cat throws up on the floor in my living room, I’ll have to throw away the rug that’s in there.

5. Run into / run over
To “run into” someone can have the literal meaning of colliding with their body, but the phrase often means to meet or see someone unexpectedly. To “run over” something means to drive a vehicle over that person or thing.
I was so excited when I ran into my friend that I forgot to look both ways when crossing the street and a car almost ran me over!

6. Put down / put off
To “put down” another person means to insult them or make them feel useless or stupid. To “put off” something, usually some sort of event, means to postpone it.
I put off going out to lunch with my friend because the last time I spoke with her, she kept putting me down.

7. Hand in / hand out
To “hand in” an assignment means to submit it; to “hand out” means to distribute to a group of people. Here, because “in” and “out” are opposites, the two phrases have somewhat opposite meanings. However, be careful, as this is not necessarily always the case.
The teacher handed out the test to all of his students and told them to hand in the answers before the day was over.

8. Break into / break up
To “break into” a place means to forcibly enter it, and is usually used with a place that you should not enter or to which access is usually restricted. To “break up” with someone means to end a relationship.
If your girlfriend breaks into your house in the middle of the night uninvited, that’s probably a pretty good reason to break up with her!

Maya Barzilai
Maya is a Pedagogy and Research summer associate at Voxy. She recently graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic. She loves not only learning foreign languages, but also learning all about the different languages of the world and what they have in common. Maya is passionate about sharing her love for languages with others and watching as more and more people become empowered by the knowledge of another language.


False Friends: English-Spanish

Because of the English language’s roots, there are often many similarities between it and other languages.  Words sharing the same root are called ‘cognates’, and they often help language learners understand the other word’s meaning.
Example: ‘family’ [English] = ‘familia’ [Spanish]

Sometimes, these 2 cognates don’t have the same meaning and are called ‘false friends’.
Example: ‘assist’ [English, meaning ‘to help’] ≠ ‘asistir’ [Spanish, meaning ‘to attend’]

In this post, we’re going to focus on English-Spanish false friends.  Here are some more examples!

English: ‘library’ [meaning: a place where you borrow books]
Spanish: ‘librería’ [meaning: a place where you buy books]
Example:  The New York Public Library is one of my favorite places to read and borrow books.

English: ‘topic’ [meaning: a theme or subject]
Spanish: ‘tópico’ [meaning: cliché]
Example: Last night the conversation turned to many topics, including the war in Iraq, the economic crisis and universal healthcare.

English: ‘informal’ [meaning: casual]
Spanish: ‘informal’ [meaning: unreliable]
Example: Our workplace is very informal; we’re allowed to wear anything we want!

English: ‘particular’ [meaning: specific]
Spanish: ‘particular’ [meaning: private]
Example: In Catalunya, particular emphasis is placed on learning catalan.

English: ‘content’ [meaning: satisfied]
Spanish: ‘contento’ [meaning: happy]
Example:  I’m content with the progress we’ve made on our project.

English: ‘to realize’ [meaning: to become aware of]
Spanish: ‘realizar’ [meaning: to put into effect]
Example:  It took a long time, but the Bush administration finally realized that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

Can you think of any other English-Spanish false friends?  Let us know!

Gabi O’Connor
Gabi is a Pedagogy & Curriculum Fall Associate. She has spent the past several years teaching ESL in Ireland, Spain, France and the U.S., most recently as a Featured/Recommended Tutor for NYC-based startup Tutorspree. Gabi received her BA in English Literature and French Translation at the University of York, her M.Phil. in Popular Literature at Trinity College Dublin, as well as certification from the University of Cambridge TEFL program. Having lived in eleven countries, and learned several languages as a result, she has a passion for expanding her and others’ cultural and language horizons.


FREE LESSON: Is hearing the same as listening?

Many students of English use “listen” and “hear” as if they were the same. Don’t be confused; there is an important difference! Intention is the difference between listening and hearing.

Listening is something that you do on purpose; you listen to music and listen to your mother. Your parents and your teachers always want to know whether you’re paying attention; they ask, “Are you listening to me right now?”  Hearing often refers to volume and sounds. When you go to a rock concert with friends, you might yell, “What?! I can’t hear you! The music is so loud I’m going deaf!”

Imagine a spy snooping outside the door, trying to listen in on a secret conversation. This act of eavesdropping shows the difference between listening and hearing. If the walls are too insulated and the door is soundproof, he might be disappointed to report: “I was listening outside the room for an hour, but I couldn’t hear a thing!”

Nowadays, with telecommunications as a part of daily life, we often have to check on the quality of the signal or connection: “I only have a few bars (of cellular reception); can you hear me?” Or just before the call drops, you hear your friend complaining, “I’m sorry–you’re breaking up–I can’t quite hear you.”

You can also get clarification or check whether you have understood someone by asking, “Did I hear you correctly…?”

Esther Liu
Esther  received her TEFL certification through the University of Cambridge and has studied Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin, Mandarin, and most recently Python. Passionate about educational linguistics, instructional design, intercultural communication, and new media, she also loves alphabetizing, biking, farming, food, people, piano, theology, traveling, and ultimate frisbee. An incurable ENFP, Esther believes in tech startups and is stoked to be a VoxyTutor and blogger!