Positive Reinforcement in Language Learning

The year 1967 saw the the USA and the USSR perform nuclear tests, the Beatles released Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and L.G. Alexander published what is said to be the best-selling book in ELT First Things First.

Scott Thornbury mentions the book in his 2016 Plenary at IATEFL, saying it was so popular that you could even purchase a copy at kiosks! In the plenary, he also quotes the author saying “the student should be trained to learn by making as few mistakes as possible.” good-1122969_640

An idea born out of earlier methods, such as the Direct Method and Audiolingualism, the focus on accuracy over fluency was the pinnacle of the pre-communicative era in ELT. There was a general fear of encouraging mistakes by letting them slip, and ultimately allowing them to become fossilized.

Decades later, learners are now very much encouraged to prioritize fluency, to make mistakes and to learn from them. As a result, lessons nowadays often culminate in a Delayed Error Correction stage, where learners are given corrective feedback on the mistakes they made during the lesson.

However, has this shift in focus from accuracy to fluency been a wholly positive development in English Language Teaching, or have we created a new problem by resolving another? Keep reading to find out more…

What we’re currently doing

This focus on making mistakes and then correcting them has certainly encouraged a positive Learning Environment, where learners are discouraged from erring on the side of caution. There’s now an ethos of give-it-a-go and worry about the mistakes later.

While this is good, the move from focusing on correct structures to correcting errors has resulted, in my opinion, in a lack of positive reinforcement about the good language that learners produce.

In a typical language lesson, learners will be given structures to use in a speaking or a communicative activity, such as the following for expressing likes and dislikes:

  • … is absolutely great!
  • I really love …
  • … isn’t really my thing
  • I can’t stand …

During the lesson, the learners will try using these and might well produce flawed sentences, such as:

  1. *I really love skateboard
  2. *Dance isn’t really my thing
  3. *I can’t stand gyming

Of course, the teacher will jump on this opportunity and whiteboard these sentences for Delayed Error Correction. In this case, the result might be some remedial work on using the verb in the -ing form.

What we’re not doing

By focusing on the errors in lessons, which I agree is an essential part of the Learning Process and what many learners feel they are paying for, we completely ignore the good language learners produce.

Alongside the sentences above, the learners might have also said:

I really love skateboard. I’ve been doing it for years now. I find it fun and it’s also pretty good exercise. But dance isn’t my thing. I don’t really have any rhythm. Which is a pity, but I can’t be good at everything. And as for the gym, I can’t stand gyming.

The underlined parts are examples of language which is correct not only in terms of grammar but also in terms of lexis, style and appropriacy. The teacher knows these are correct and is probably quite impressed by the learner’s use of them, but does the learner know this?

You could argue that the learner must surely know the language they have produced is correct, otherwise they wouldn’t have produced it. However, we can’t be sure of that. How can a learner be sure of how correct their utterances are if the only feedback they get is the following:

  • The Communicative Aspect
    By the nature of being understood and successfully conveying the message, the language is correct enough to be meaningful to the listener and to complete the speech act
  • The Error Correction
    The only other feedback they receive is about errors

What we should be doing

As a language learner myself, I know you can go for years through the Learning Process, produce lots of excellent language and be totally unaware of how accurate it is: all you ever know is that you have successfully communicated your message.

However, as Thornbury and Meddings put it in in their book Teaching Unplugged (2009: 64), “it is possible to balance error correction with encouragement.”

To fill in the gap left behind when ELT moved from focusing on accuracy to fluency, I suggest teachers actively seek to do the following in lessons:

  1. When you hear good or even just correct language while monitoring, praise the learner for it
  2. Actively listen out for nice examples to write up on the whiteboard and share with the class – you can dedicated a section of the whiteboard to good language
  3. Draw the learners’ attention to nice language from reading and listening texts
  4. Highlight and signify the good language produced in learners’ writing

By doing the above, and without forgetting to look at errors, you help the learners to notice good language. Even if you board or highlight language produced by one learner, another learner might have produced the same language (you just didn’t hear it while monitoring), so this feedback will positively reinforce them and their language learning as well.

Do you do anything similar in your own lessons already? If you do, I would love to hear from you about what you do and how you go about it. Please feel free to leave a comment below or get in touch via e-mail.

12 thoughts on “Positive Reinforcement in Language Learning

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  2. I enjoyed this article, thanks. I already give positive reinforcement without really thinking about it but I can add the element of writing good examples on the board.
    When I am monitoring, some of my students get nervous when I listen in to the conversations and especially when I start to take notes! I try to be inconspicuous but it doesn’t always work and quite often they will stop talking and look at me, expecting me to correct a huge mistake they have just made! 🙂

    I am a little concerned with how much time I will be taking up to write whole sentences on the board after a monitored activity, especially if the problem is a simple preposition mistake.
    I have tried it before and by the time I have put a full stop on the end of the sentence a bright student has shouted out “that should say on not in” and I seem to have wasted a few minutes of writing time for not a lot of class value.

    Does anyone have any thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment Ben! I had exactly the same issue a while back. It wasn’t until I saw a colleague teach a lesson, in which she would go up to the board and write the sentence as the learners were doing their activity, that I realised this is what I needed to be doing.

      I don’t copy my colleague’s approach 100%, but I do take note – both physically and mentally – of things said in the lesson and I write them up on the board only when the learners are engaged in another task. By engaged here I really mean they’re got their heads down or a deep in conversation for like 5 or 10 minutes. Not just a “check with your partners” type task.

      I usually find this gives me the time I need. If I turn around and anyone is watching me over doing the task, I’ll ask them if they’ve finished, to which the answer is always “no” and they go back to their task.

      What about trying out this strategy? 🙂


      1. Thanks, I’ll give that a go this coming week!
        Possibly opening up a can of worms here but do you often have students talk in pairs or groups for more than a few minutes? Mine seem to stop after a short time and some told me they actually don’t like pair work as they might be making mistakes and they want me to correct them every time.
        Of course one 55 minute lesson per week in a group of 8 students goes very quickly when I do that but they are very insistent!


        1. Hi! I’m going to guess from this you probably teach in a central or western European country, like Austria for example. Is that right?

          I ask because learners there tend to be quite intolerant of ambiguity, which is what your learners sound like.

          When I taught in Poland all learners ever wanted was:

          1) To know what the right answer was
          2) Speak with me and me only i.e. the teacher

          When I taught in Poland, I would have argued that pair work and peer checking was extremely important and you can’t overlook it. However, now I’m much inclined to say: do whatever works for your learners.

          If your learners don’t like working in pairs, don’t make them. Let them work on their own. This is particularly feasible when we consider how much mental cognition goes into the process of trying to learn and ultimately acquire language. Alone time is very important in this process.

          Of course, they can’t practise speaking on their own. And asking them to check discrete items from a multichoice task, for example, is a prime opportunity for you to monitor and encourage them to help each other, so I’d still get them to check quickly together, but not necessary with the aim of talking to each other – just to look over their answers.

          For speaking, you can involve a mixture of quick pair discussion and then longer open class feedback 🙂

          Let me know how you get on!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Anthony,
    thank you for another great post. I completely agree with you, positive reinforcement is probably even more important than error correction.

    I have to say that one of my favourite delayed error correction activities goes like this: I take note of the Ss language while monitoring, both correct and incorrect examples.
    With lower level classes, I generally put the sentences on the board into two columns, one has the correct and one has the incorrect sentences. Then I ask Ss to choose which column has the corrects sentences, stressing that ALL of the language on the board came from them.

    With higher level students I make it a bit more challenging. For example I write the language on slips of paper as I hear it, and then distribute these slips of paper to pairs and ask them to decide whether it is good language or can be improved. Alternatively, I write all sentences on the board and assign the same task.

    I can see the look on the learners’ face when they recognize their sentence between the correct ones — and I make sure I praise for correct use of language while doing this activity.

    I learned and tried this technique during CELTA, and I’ve been using it so far as I find it very positive for Ss self-esteem. What do you think?


    1. I think they sound like good techniques and nicely altered for levels.

      I was just thinking how would they look from a Delta perspective? I think in Delta the sentences would have to be made into a worksheet with a sort of focus, but that’s not what error correction is all about 🙂 on my delta course my tutors actually told me they don’t believe in error correction at all.

      Liked by 1 person

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