Trial and error. That’s how we learn best, it would seem. Get on the bike, try to ride, fall down, then get up and try again. It’s the same way when learning to speak a new language. Try to say something, get it wrong, regather one’s thoughts, then try again.
The question is, of course, how do learners figure out how to speak in sentences? How do they make that jump from one-word utterances to entire stories?
One possible answer to this is the concept of ‘chunking’. Once learners figure out how to name something, for instance ‘elephant’, they then figure out to describe that elephant. Which elephant? The big elephant, the grey elephant, the hungry elephant, the big, grey, hungry elephant. In this way, learners start to string words together like beads on a string, in a process called ‘chunking’.
In language, it’s possible to ‘chunk’ words together in a myriad of ways, such as:
- noun phrases (The big bad wolf)
- verb phrases (had been reading)
- adverb phrases (all day long)
- prepositional phrases (in the library)
- clauses (when the wind suddenly blew the building down.) – and of course –
- conjunctions (if, and, but)
Once learners figure these tricks out, they can create longer and longer sentences. As a teacher, it’s important for us to be able to give our children the words and tools they need to apply these tricks to their own output, as well as applying it in breaking down the input they get. Just as they can put the beads on the string, it’s important for them to realize they can take those beads back off in order to make better sense of input.
We teachers take advantage of this ‘chunking’ process. We break up our spoken language into logical chunks to support their understanding. We speak at a level just above what they themselves can produce, keep our tempo in check and use vocabulary just within their grasp.
We also encourage our learners to make the next step in their development. There are different ways of doing this, but this time I want to focus on a method called ‘corrective feedback’. For years, I’d been instinctively giving children feedback on their language output by simply giving them the correct form of output back, and expecting them to repeat the correction. You can only imagine how pleased I was when I recently found out about research that had been done in this very area of teaching. Of course, the research had been conducted a decade or two before, but the information given is nonetheless relevant to our work as ESL educators today. Later, I also found a youtube link in which these different forms of feedback are clearly demonstrated.
In short, there are six basic forms of corrective feedback (from ‘Research on Error Correction and Implications for Classroom Teaching’, Tedick and de Gortari, 1998):
- explicit correction: the teacher indicates that the output is incorrect and gives the learner the correct form (‘Oops, let’s try again. It’s the red coat.’)
- recast: without indicating that the learner made an error, the teacher reformulates the learner’s output in correct language use (‘The red coat.’)
- clarification request: the teacher asks the learner to re-phrase the output so that it is easier to understand (‘Excuse me? Can you repeat that, please?’)
- metalinguistic clues: the teacher poses questions or gives information to the learner so that the learner can repair his/her own errors (‘Remember, we’re talking about the past.’ or ‘We start questions with “Do you…”‘)
- elicitation: the teacher asks questions to cue the student that he/she needs to try again (‘Do you…?’)
- repetition: the teacher repeats the output, placing the accent on the error, so the learner gets the chance to repair the error in output (‘Bike you to school?’)
Not all of these are useful for the young ESL learner, of course. Most often, I applied recasting, clarification requests, elicitation, and repetition in my feedback to children’s output. My feedback was focused on a couple of things: error correction, but also language development in the form of chunking.
simple line of language development using ‘chunking’ as a base
For instance, when a child could give yes or no as an answer to questions, I would start to elicit one-word answers from him or her by modelling the correct answer. Once the child felt at home giving one-word answers, I would recast the output into two- or three-word answers, encouraging that child to repeat after me. Eventually, children would start to move up the line of development and be able to speak in simple sentences.
In order to work like this, I had to have a clear vision of what kind of output I could expect from the children, and how I could encourage them to continue in their language development. This kind of knowledge allowed me to work outside of the ESL textbook, adapting the input to the children’s needs.
It’s important for ESL teachers to understand where their children are at, and how to correct their output without putting them on the spot. The kind of feedback we teachers provide depends on a number of variables, such as the children’s general knowledge of the language, their meta-understanding of the language, and their level of self-confidence in expressing themselves.
An example of feedback gone wrong is “That’s incorrect, try again”. Of course, we mean well when saying such things, but it’s hardly what the learner needs. In my experience, children always try to give as correct an answer as possible, and to simply say “try again” without providing a clue as to the correct answer only results in embarassing the child, who will probably decide never to raise his hand in class again. It’s far better to give the correct answer to the beginning learner, so he can learn from his mistakes without embarassment. More advanced, self-confident learners can deal with elicitation and repetition, as they already have a number of strategies to deal with various linguistic situations and will appreciate the chance to fix their errors without being ‘babied’.
For now, I will conclude this chapter on chunking and feedback, but will probably return to it again at some later date. Until then, please let me know what you think!