Updated: Oct 6, 2020
I have a love/hate relationship with being corrected. This is true about most any correction - language corrections, parenting corrections, and communication corrections, to name a few (like when my husband shows me a text message that I sent him in which my explanation or message was totally unclear).
The perfectionist side of me loves knowing precisely what I did incorrectly, so I can strive towards perfection in the future (I know...I know…there is no such thing as perfection).
Yet, there is another side of me that gets frustrated when someone corrects a mistake I made. I might not show it, but my internal dialog can get a little mean.
On my worst days, I become silently frustrated at the person for correcting me, or mad at myself for not knowing the correct answer in the first place. Upon reflection, I’m mostly mad at myself for not knowing absolutely everything perfectly.
And, that’s pretty crazy.
But, I’ve learned from experience that if I feel this way, there is probably someone else out there who feels the same way. This article is for that person.
Why does error correction feel so personal sometimes?
When a teacher corrects you, it can feel personal. It can trigger you to feel inferior, like a small child. In fact, being corrected can feel very close to being reprimanded or criticized, even if that is not the intent.
Maybe you received a verbal rebuke as a child, or a physical one. Receiving error correction - even in a friendly language session - can take us back to that place. When this happens, we tend to respond in three ways: We can receive the correction gracefully, become defensive, or shut down and not receive the information.
On my good days, I invite correction and can thrive on it. But, that’s not always the case. So the question is...
How can we stop taking language correction personally?
After giving it some thought, here are my suggestions for people like myself who sometimes get a little defensive—even if it is just on the inside.
1. Become an engaged participant in the correction process.
We can start by taking more ownership of the correction process as a student. We can start making correction time a true conversation between student and teacher. Sometimes teachers will help us with this, but sometimes we need to initiate the correction conversation ourselves.
How many times has this happened to you? You make a mistake. Your teacher corrects you. You say the sentence correctly by repeating what the teacher just said, and then you move on.
Did any real learning actually transpire?
It’s tough to say. According to Shawn Loewen, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, some researchers believe that it is not necessary for the student to verbally correct the error after the teacher has offered a correction. Furthermore, if the student makes the correction, he or she might simply be “parroting” or repeating what the teacher said and not necessarily integrating the concept. On the other hand, at least one study suggests that “shadowing” or repeating can be helpful.
The jury is still out, as they say.
In my opinion, only the student really knows. If you, as the student, are able to recreate the structure at a later time without the teacher’s prompting, then true learning has taken place!
On the other hand, if you receive a correction but remain confused or unsure, and it feels important to you, it’s your right and responsibility to say, “Hey, wait, could we review that? I don’t understand that concept completely.”
Or, simply: Can we practice that again?
Sure, you might have an insightful teacher who notices that you need more help, but few people can read minds. As motivated and engaged learners, the responsibility is largely ours to ask for help when needed. We don’t need to know teaching strategies or methods—that’s the teacher’s job. But asking for help is the student's.
2. Choose a language teacher and environment that is friendly.
If you are prone to anxiety, choose a teacher who specializes in creating a low-stress learning environment. As I mentioned, error correction can feel intimidating for some people, and that’s normal. Professor Masoud Hashem of Islamic Azad University explains,
“...For many language learners formal language classroom setting was a major source of stress and anxiety because of its demand to be more correct and clearer in using the target language.”
With this in mind, shop around for a teacher who promotes a relaxed yet focused atmosphere. In addition, feel empowered to ask the teacher which methods he or she uses for correction, so you will know what to expect. And, if you prefer a certain method of correction—or no correction at all—explain that, as well. The clearer the expectations, the less anxiety you are likely to feel.
Whether or not you love being corrected or hate it (or you are somewhere in between), it’s important to reflect on how you feel about the language correction process. The more aware you are about your resistance or openness to it, the more beneficial the process will be for you. Without feedback or correction, we simply cannot take our language to the next level. The good news is that we play a crucial role in the process when we choose a teacher that understands our correction needs and when we ask for clarification when we need it.