Positive Reinforcement in Language Learning by @ashowski

The year 1967 saw the the USA and the USSR perform nuclear tests, the Beatles released Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and L.G. Alexander published what is said to be the best-selling book in ELT First Things First.

Scott Thornbury mentions the book in his 2016 Plenary at IATEFL, saying it was so popular that you could even purchase a copy at kiosks! In the plenary, he also quotes the author saying “the student should be trained to learn by making as few mistakes as possible.”

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Anthony Ash and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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An idea born out of earlier methods, such as the Direct Method and Audio-lingualism, the focus on accuracy over fluency was the pinnacle of the pre-communicative era in ELT. There was a general fear of encouraging mistakes by letting them slip, and ultimately allowing them to become fossilised.

Decades later, learners are now very much encouraged to prioritise fluency, to make mistakes and to learn from them. As a result, lessons nowadays often culminate in a Delayed Error Correction stage, where learners are given corrective feedback on the mistakes they made during the lesson.

However, has this shift in focus from accuracy to fluency been a wholly positive development in English Language Teaching, or have we created a new problem by resolving another? Keep reading to find out more…

What we’re currently doing

This focus on making mistakes and then correcting them has certainly encouraged a positive Learning Environment, where learners are discouraged from erring on the side of caution. There’s now an ethos of give-it-a-go and worry about the mistakes later.

While this is good, the move from focusing on correct structures to correcting errors has resulted, in my opinion, in a lack of positive reinforcement about the good language that learners produce.

In a typical language lesson, learners will be given structures to use in a speaking or a communicative activity, such as the following for expressing likes and dislikes:

  • … is absolutely great!
  • I really love …
  • … isn’t really my thing
  • I can’t stand …

During the lesson, the learners will try using these and might well produce flawed sentences, such as:

  1. *I really love skateboard
  2. *Dance isn’t really my thing
  3. *I can’t stand gyming

Of course, the teacher will jump on this opportunity and whiteboard these sentences for Delayed Error Correction. In this case, the result might be some remedial work on using the verb in the -ing form.

What we’re not doing

By focusing on the errors in lessons, which I agree is an essential part of theLearning Process and what many learners feel they are paying for, we completely ignore the good language learners produce.

Alongside the sentences above, the learners might have also said:

I really love skateboard. I’ve been doing it for years now. I find it fun and it’s also pretty good exercise. But dance isn’t my thing. I don’t really have any rhythm. Which is a pity, but I can’t be good at everything. And as for the gym, I can’t stand gyming.

The underlined parts are examples of language which is correct not only in terms of grammar but also in terms of lexis, style and appropriacy. The teacher knows these are correct and is probably quite impressed by the learner’s use of them, but does the learner know this?

You could argue that the learner must surely know the language they have produced is correct, otherwise they wouldn’t have produced it. However, we can’t be sure of that. How can a learner be sure of how correct their utterances are if the only feedback they get is the following:

  • The Communicative Aspect
    By the nature of being understood and successfully conveying the message, the language is correct enough to be meaningful to the listener and to complete the speech act
  • The Error Correction
    The only other feedback they receive is about errors

What we should be doing

As a language learner myself, I know you can go for years through the Learning Process, produce lots of excellent language and be totally unaware of how accurate it is: all you ever know is that you have successfully communicated your message.

However, as Thornbury and Meddings put it in in their book Teaching Unplugged(2009: 64), “it is possible to balance error correction with encouragement.”

To fill in the gap left behind when ELT moved from focusing on accuracy tofluency, I suggest teachers actively seek to do the following in lessons:

  1. When you hear good or even just correct language while monitoring, praise the learner for it
  2. Actively listen out for nice examples to write up on the whiteboard and share with the class – you can dedicated a section of the whiteboard to good language
  3. Draw the learners’ attention to nice language from reading and listening texts
  4. Highlight and signify the good language produced in learners’ writing

By doing the above, and without forgetting to look at errors, you help the learners to notice good language. Even if you board or highlight language produced by one learner, another learner might have produced the same language (you just didn’t hear it while monitoring), so this feedback will positively reinforce them and their language learning as well.

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