• ESL Conversation Class: What If They Make Mistakes In Pairs? Myths About Pair Work.

Myths pair work cover shot

A teacher once said that she avoided pair work during conversation lessons because she wouldn’t be able to monitor all the students to catch their grammar mistakes.  Is this a legitimate reason?  Researchers have studied what, in fact, happens when students work in pairs with other students and when they work with non-native speakers which can dispel some of the mis-assumptions about the drawbacks to pair work.

Pairs and small-group work assumptions

Some teachers are hesitant to have students work in pairs/small groups because they have some assumptions:

Myths 1: They will make mistakes when they are in pairs/small groups, and they learn incorrect English from each other.  In one study which addressed this issue, researchers found in ten hours of observations of adult ESL students only one case in which a student changed a correct answer to an incorrect one as a result of being mis-corrected by a fellow-student.  In another study, the subjects mis-corrected only 0.3% of their partner’s errors.  As the researchers stated, “…miscorrections are not a serious threat in unmonitored group work.”

Myth 2: ESL students will speak more if their partners are native speakers (e.g. Americans) or their teacher rather than ESL classmates.  Actually, the reverse is true.  A study that counted the total words produced by participants in either non-native/non-native speaker pairs or native/non-native speaker pairs found that non-native speakers talked significantly more to each other than they did to native speakers.  The researcher concluded, “Clearly, if production practice is viewed as essential to acquisition, learners will benefit by practicing with other learners rather than with native speakers.”

Myth 3: ESL students will more carefully monitor their speech when interacting with native speakers.  According to research, there were no significant differences in the number of grammatical and lexical errors that students made when native-speaker/student conversations were compared to student/student ones.  In sum, having a native speaker, rather than another student as an interlocutor does not seem to ensure that students will speak more grammatically correct English.

Myth 4: Native speakers (e.g. Americans) or teacher will correct their ESL partners’ grammatical mistakes.  Is it not to be expected that students will ask a native-speaking partner to assist them and that the native-speaking partner will correct the students’ mistakes?  Two interesting studies were conducted to see if this actually happens.  In one study, in which students had conversations with their native-speaker friends, the students made 1,595 errors of which only 7.3% were corrected by the native-speaker.  In another study, researchers studied 4 ½ hours of conversations between students and native-speakers.  The students only asked for help 28 times.  Interestingly, when students had conversations with other students, they asked for help 21 times over the 4 ½ hour period.  In other words, students rarely asked for help whether their partners were native speakers or other students.

If you would like more information about the sources of these studies, please let me know.

David Kehe

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