Recently I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with some unknown to me Vietnamese teachers. I was reading a case study (Ha & Murray, 2021) investigating how training can affect teachers’ beliefs and their practices regarding oral corrective feedback (OCF). It was comforting to realise that I was not alone: the questions I have had about OCF for years are also being investigated by others across contexts, cultures, and time. To date, research has, admittedly, provided some answers but there are still quite a few questions that have not been resolved. As OCF is, in most cases, an integral part of classroom practice, I thought I would share some of these questions, starting with the most obvious one:
What is OCF?
Lightbown and Spada, (2013) define oral corrective feedback as an “indication to a learner that his or her use of the target language is incorrect” (p.216). OCF can target a broad range of errors in learners’ production, can be immediate or delayed, and it can stem from different sources: the students themselves, their peers or their teacher (Loewen, 2013). It is also known as error correction or negative feedback. The latter can be contrasted to positive feedback, which is “an affirmation of the content or correctness of a learner utterance” (Nassaji, 2015, p. 11) intended to provide the learner with affective support.
Can we do without OCF in class?
Well, OCF naturally occurs in class to varying degrees, whether intended or not, especially when meaning is negotiated (Loewen, 2013). Whether OCF should be provided or not depends on our beliefs (actual or stated) regarding language learning. From the nativist perspective, for which naturalistic exposure or modified input is the sole condition for learning, OCF is irrelevant; it hardly plays a role in the language acquisition process (Li, 2018). On the other hand, theoretical perspectives such as sociocultural theory, social constructivism and interactionist approaches claim OCF has an important role to play. For interactionists, especially, providing opportunities for learners to produce output and to receive feedback are core components (Mackey et. al., 2013). Experimental studies to date, mostly from the interactionist perspective, demonstrate beyond contention that OCF can facilitate L2 development (Li & Vuono, 2019).
From the pedagogical perspective, OCF was not considered significant in a range of different teaching methods, from humanistic approaches to the Natural Approach and to early versions of Communicative Language Teaching . In later versions of Communicative Language Teaching and in Task-Based Language Teaching, though, OCF was reinstated, as it was considered important for both accuracy and fluency (Ellis, 2017). Teacher guides (e.g., Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005) argue in favour of a “preventive pedagogy” (Lightbown, 1998, p. 189) that leaves little room for errors, but do advise in favour of OCF and even prescribe how and when OCF should be provided, so as not to interfere with communication and negatively impact affective factors.
Do all the errors that occur need to be addressed?
Research advocates focused OCF, i.e. addressing only some of the errors made (Ellis, 2009). Finding out about this research was a great relief for me, because growing up in a red-pen culture I felt overwhelmed with the number of errors corrected. It is not just that it was demotivating, it was also that after a while one simply does not pay attention anymore. A less-is-more approach is also what my experience as a teacher has taught me: As a novice teacher I was pressured into correcting everything explicitly to satisfy a demand for total accuracy that often equated teaching with testing. Learners, of course, due to cognitive and affective reasons, were not able to notice all the corrections in a process that was, it turns out, not conducive to learning.
So, the subsequent question is if not all, then which errors need to be addressed. This, in theory at least, is an easy question to answer according to teacher guides (Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005): Teachers should prioritise those errors that can lead to communication breakdown or affect larger stretches of discourse (impeding, global errors) and those due to lack of knowledge over the ones that do not affect comprehensibility of whole utterances (local) and those that are not systematic (known as performance errors or mistakes). However, research does not fully support this convenient recipe: there is evidence in favour of correcting local errors as well as non-systematic mistakes in addition to impeding, global errors. In any case, it can be difficult for teachers, especially less experienced ones, to make distinctions between global and local errors or errors and mistakes in the short time afforded to OCF (Ellis, 2009; 2017).
When is the best time to provide OCF?
Both immediate OCF, provided immediately after an error occurs, and delayed OCF, provided at a later point in time, have been found to be beneficial (Ellis, 2017). Immediate correction can have the benefit of incorporating the correct form into learners’ attempts to communicate and, thus, not compromising form over meaning in communicative tasks (Li, 2018). There are valid theoretical arguments in favour of delayed OCF, too. Quinn and Nakata (2017), besides affective reasons, note from the theoretical perspective of cognitive psychology that longer intervals between error and OCF lead to better long-term retention (p.37). Empirical research has not been conclusive as to when is the best timing for OCF (Quinn & Nakata, 2017). Teacher guides (e.g., Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005) suggest immediate correction in accuracy work and recommend delaying it in fluency work. Research, though, does not support the avoidance of OCF in fluency work, as it has been found to assist acquisition (Ellis 2017).
Who should be the one to provide OCF?
According to teacher guides, correction should be attempted in a very specific order; self, peer, and finally teacher (Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005). However, this suggested good practice regarding OCF is inconsistent with learners’ beliefs and expectations: learners generally have positive attitudes towards OCF, prefer more explicit correction of all errors if possible, and expect to be corrected by the teacher rather than their peers (Li & Vuono, 2019). My own experience of observing teachers in various contexts also indicates that most teachers don’t seem to follow the suggested practice anyway.
How should OCF be provided?
This is a difficult question to answer since the contextual, individual, and linguistic features affecting the delivery of OCF are intertwined (Yu et al, 2018). Teachers are often expected to make an on-the-spot decision about how to correct, which will inevitably be influenced by their own beliefs. Teachers’ beliefs regarding the provision of OCF, shaped by education, training, and experience both as learners and as teachers, are often rigid and can even contrast with research evidence (Junqueira & Kim, 2013). For many years, I advocated in my practice as a teacher providing focused (i.e., selective) OCF in an implicit way, so as to have minimal impact on fluency, taking into account affective factors as well. I believed it was best not to spoon-feed corrections and that self-discovery was both cognitively and affectively the optimal choice. I consciously avoided using any explicit OCF strategy, although I was aware of empirical evidence attributing merit to explicit correction, including those corrections which make use of metalinguistic clues (Ellis, 2017). By following closely pedagogical suggestions, I was in fact being dismissive of research and effectively limiting the range of my OCF repertoire.
I remember once I employed an elicitation strategy for a grammatical error that occurred during a short dialogue (I not like dogs in parks) in an adult elementary class. After all learners finished their contributions, I initiated an elicitation process as I had done successfully before. This time however, it ended up being a tiresome, awkward, ambiguous, and ultimately ineffective elicitation process. It would have been best to address this error with an explicit correction after the contribution was concluded. It would have been concise, closer to the occurrence, and since the omission of the auxiliary is a common error with low level learners, it could have provided others with an accurate example of the form to use in their contributions. Apparently, even in the most accommodating of contexts, even well-informed teachers’ beliefs do not always lead to efficient OCF practices.
How can a teacher decide on a recipe for OCF that works?
Unfortunately, as is true with many things in life, there is no such thing as a single foolproof recipe for OCF across contexts. I have found this to be the case in many of my previous learning experiences as a learner and as a teacher, as my example above illustrates. In fact, there are no definite answers provided either by research or by teacher guides (Ellis, 2017). Perhaps the search for a single recipe is misguided as “the constellation of moderating variables” (Russell & Spada, 2006, p.156) cannot always be simultaneously satisfied even in the same context.
What are teachers supposed to do?
As Ellis (2017, p.14) notes “the best advice that can be given to teachers is to deploy a variety of strategies”. This is good advice, but it presupposes that teachers are knowledgeable, have a good grasp of classroom complexities, and are willing to challenge their beliefs. For those less experienced and/or less knowledgeable what emerges as an invaluable step towards more efficient delivery of OCF, is teacher education and training (Borg, 2011). Delivery of OCF in the L2 classroom is demanding and difficult for all teachers, even those with a lot of experience and knowledge. In my experience, it is not always easy to adapt successfully to the challenges posed by the dynamic process of OCF. Consideration of the profile of your class and a comprehensive language analysis in lesson planning help to identify potential problems and subsequently elect OCF strategies more appropriate to the context. Voice, posture, gestures, choice of words are important elements to consider especially since these can enhance saliency of the OCF provided.
The way teachers provide OCF can also serve as a model for peer correction. Learners need to be trained how to provide peer correction and, as with teachers, this is a process that requires time, effort, and opportunity. Planning, acting, reflecting, observing, sharing experiences of practice, are key towards a more reflective practice.
The journey of reflective practice does not only help manage even unplanned OCF more efficiently but certainly improves all aspects of our teaching (Borg, 2011). The necessary condition, though, for all the above is that the teacher should challenge their beliefs, be ready to try new recipes. A well-guided, experiential training course does exactly that: it provides the tools to challenge the ways we do things in class including the way we deliver OCF. At least, this is what training offered me: a bold new perspective on practice and a re-evaluation of my beliefs.
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