What would you feel if you are constantly being corrected for your sentences? Would you feel overwhelmed, embarrassed and frustrated and then give up, or would you feel more motivated and happier because you, at last, know what is the correct way of saying something?
Well, for an adult who logically has a better way of accepting rejections or corrections, and who is able to think of different perspectives, maybe he or she will feel motivated but even so, still, it will be quite annoying to be constantly corrected. Right?
Are we encouraged to correct children’s grammatical mistakes there and then, explicitly? I believe the answer would be no. This is mostly due to the belief that correcting too much can actually disrupt learning.
Children aged below 11 are still in the phase of developing, acquiring and learning about language. The first thing they need to know should not be fully about grammar, but how to understand messages and deliver the message across.
And delivering the message across can be done in many ways. The correct structure of sentences or grammar correction can be done once the children are able to grasp and deliver the meaning of messages they listen to or even read.
This correction also should be done subtly. We wouldn’t want the children to grow up being afraid of mistakes, where they end up being silent most of the time, lacking confidence and self-esteem due to overly corrected sessions by parents, or even teachers.
Children, in their early years of learning, are absorbing a lot of information. They learn how to tell the story of their daily life in pre-school, for example. They learn to express their anger, frustration, happiness, while telling us their story.
How, maybe, their friends play with them, how they get along, read with teachers and much more. Let them build that confidence first. Confidence to talk and express through words and sentences be it grammatically correct or incorrect.
I was once reminded by my children’s pre-school teachers to avoid giving so much unnecessary feedback, even as simple as “You are holding your pencil wrongly”. This is because what we think of as one simple correction might be something that can pull them back and bury their self-esteem of “Oh, I do not know how to even hold a pencil like my mom”.
Small mistakes like colouring out of line, writing uneven sizes of letters, hay-wire grammar of sentences should be ignored first as long as you understand their messages. There will be a time when the children themselves realise the correct way – which is mostly through modelling.
It may seem like a habit for parents or teachers to correct the mistakes there and then, explicitly, due to the adult nature of being annoyed by mistakes, or simply because adults are already feeling they are correct, or even just because they think they should be strict with the children.
However, believe it or not, we, as adults shouldn't do that.
Praise and repeat
So, how do we actually correct our children’s mistakes? Be it grammar or whatever language related, especially?
We praise and we repeat.
Firstly, we should be praising the children for their effort in doing something (doesn’t matter whether it is successful or not, just praise them). And then, you may correct them subtly by repeating the sentences in the correct form, using a very friendly-checking tone. As if you were checking whether they were saying this or that. That way, the children will listen to the correct form of sentences and will eventually code that in their mind for future use.
We may also focus on one part first, which is most probably a recurring error. You may practice with them, for example reading a book together with them with the correct grammar, intonation etc., read by you and they, listen, completing schoolwork or exercises and indirectly teach them the correct version. This is much more appreciated.
Another important rule for parents and even teachers on correcting children’s mistakes is that we have to be patient with mistakes and encourage them more to use the language. They need to feel safe using the second language as if they were using and learning their first language.
You can actually see the difference in self-esteem and confidence, especially of those children who are not being constantly corrected. Not that we are saying the incorrect grammar rules should be fossilised, but we should choose the right time and the right way to correct them.
I believe that with fluency, comes accuracy and to achieve fluency, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-exploration should be built first.
Raihana Ahmad Jalaluddin is a Language Teacher at the Centre for Language Studies, Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM).