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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



It’s clothes, not clothies: the art of correcting a language teacher

by Ross Clarke
Language: EN
Document available also in: HU


Correcting students is part of the job of being a language teacher, carefully deciding when to ignore a mispronounced word and when to remind them (possibly for the fifth time) that they’re using the incorrect form of the verb.

What happens though when the mistake you see or hear comes not from a student, but a fellow teacher? Do you correct them, ignore it, speak to them about it in private, or ask them directly? It’s a tricky situation and one I’ve, unfortunately, found myself in many times. Of course, I’m not saying that the odd misspelt word should lead you to question a teacher’s credentials – after all, nobody’s perfect.

I was first put in this awkward situation when team teaching with a non-native English teacher. The class on this particular day was about clothing, how to describe appearances and saying what someone is wearing. My colleague – a much more experienced teacher – announced to the class of eager students, “Today we are going to talk about clothies”.

Hmmm… what to do now? In that moment, I had to make a decision whether I should jump in with a correction and potentially undermine the teacher in front of our class or leave it and allow the students to learn the wrong pronunciation.

Partly out of inexperience and partly out of knowing that I would have not only broken the confidence of the teacher, but also opened her to doubt in the eyes of our students; I asked to speak to her very quickly. I suggested that this could be a good class for me to lead, as it was all about being descriptive. It meant I’d be able to mention the word ‘clothes’ multiple times in a natural way and hope that my voice be the one our students remembered.

For non-native language teachers, the mistakes tend to be pronunciation rather than grammar or spelling and most teachers are open to corrections, tips and notes. One teacher I worked with openly admitted to her class that she was not a dictionary and she didn’t know everything in English and that questions about pronunciation or technical English were best asked to me.

If I am in that awkward situation these days  – unless absolutely necessary – I wait until the end of the lesson to speak with the teacher and explain (in the interests of fluency and natural speech) that the word or phrase is pronounced in a certain way.

Of course, the issue becomes more difficult when you’re faced with a native language teacher. Without getting into a debate about TEFL standards, there are a lot of people who, because they are native speakers, assume they can teach English. The question is, what if their own command of the language is full of bad habits that they find hard to correct or do not acknowledge as wrong?

Here are a few examples I’ve witnessed in speech and on paper from English teachers:

“If I had revised, I would of passed the exam.” (If I had revised, I would have passed the exam.)

“It was a very unique situation.” (It was a unique situation.)

“Its they’re fault.” (It’s their fault.)

“I wan a prize.” (I won a prize.)

I could talk all day about the misuse of apostrophes and the difference between ‘well’ and ‘good’ but I also realise I’m a bit of stickler. In reality, we all make errors in speech (even me!), but they really shouldn’t happen in the language classroom to the extent that the students are learning the wrong word or falling into bad habits themselves.

As I said, these days, after the class has finished and the students are out of earshot, I tend to let the teacher know (as nicely and as constructively as I can) that they’ve made a mistake. Sometimes this is well received, other times, not so much. As I see it, as teachers we need to practise what we preach, “You should learn from your mistakes”.

Ross Clarke is a freelance lifestyle journalist and education advisor based in Spain. He has taught English as a foreign language to learners at all levels in the UK and Spain and advised on all aspects of higher education in the UK. He teaches ballroom dancing in his spare time and specialises in CLIL (content and language integrated learning).

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