Accuracy is the key

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Tony Elston has devised a corrections sheet that helps KS3 and GCSE students benefit from their own mistakes

The need to improve pupil accuracy is much discussed. HMI Ian Hall made it the subject of his keynote speech at the most recent Secondary Languages Show organised by the Centre for Information on Languages Teaching. The new GCSE mark schemes also raise the importance of written and oral accuracy for exams in 2003 and beyond.

We need to encourage pupils to distinguish between the wholly acceptable errors which arise from the important risk-taking involved in creating new language, and the careless errors which knowledge of the language enables pupils to avoid.

Since prevention is better than cure, the ideal is to present new language in the most effective way possible so that it is always used accurately. It helps to carefully juxtapose expressions that have frequently confused previous learners. To make up for failing to help generations of pupils to permanently memorise the difference between je and j', j'ai, j'aime and je suis, I now display an A3 poster in my classroom that features these expressions vertically alongside their English meanings. Referring a pupil to the poster allows instant highlighting of the difference between the key expressions.

This poster principle can equally well be applied to higher-level language by including, for example, sixth-form expressions with brief explanations: Bien qu'il y ait des avantages, il y a aussi des inconvenients. (Bien que + subjonctif.) However, given that pupils will always make their own mistakes, we need to make them focus on these. The "Corriges et nouvelles" expressions sheet encourages learners to demonstrate understanding of their mistakes by including the English, and its format enables self-testing.

Learners record correct versions of phrases you have corrected during routine marking, and of common class mistakes you have highlighted. They can also include new expressions which they intend to use actively.

Using coloured paper for the sheet makes it easy to locate, and learners should refer to it before embarking on each new piece of extended writing.

(To make space for my corrections, I always ask learners to write on alternate lines when producing extended pieces of writing.) Learners could also tick each expression every time they reuse it, so reminding themselves that they have checked the expression and are copying it carefully.

An increasing number of languages departments encourage learners to correct their own mistakes through margin abbreviations such as T (wrong tense) or A (adjectival agreement), and provide checklists of what learners should look out for when scrutinising their work. Such abbreviations are all the more effective if based on those used across the school - for example, on a marking policy list provided by the English department for whole-school use. It is also helpful to show key class errors on an OHT and ask pupils to correct them.

Tony Elston is head of languages at Urmston Grammar School, Manchester. His key structure learner reference sheets are available from Aide-memoire (0161 374 9541). He is also co-author of the KS3 French course Genial (Oxford)

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