Groundhog Day in the Exam Preparation Classroom

By Katherine Bilsborough

*Groundhog Day: a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated

Have you ever noticed that students make the same mistakes over and over again, even when you’ve drawn attention to a specific error, explained why it is wrong and given them practice in the particular language point in question? Nowhere is this more true than in an exam preparation class where students need to focus on the errors they are making in order to eradicate them and reach their desired level to pass the exam.

Fun and games or shock tactics

There are many tried and tested error correction techniques. However, after teaching hundreds classes of FCE (First Certificate in English) preparation I came to the realisation that for most students, the only way to smash through the gridlock was either (a) to add a competitive element to error correction, turning it into a classroom activity and preferably a team game or (b) to introduce some kind of shock element to make students sit up and take notice of a common error that they keep making again and again.

Two ideas

The following are two practical ideas for addressing error correction that I have tried successfully with my own clases. The first one is a team game that is easy to set up and can be used with all ages and levels. The second is a more personalised activity that students do individually but which can also be used with all ages and levels.

  1. Place a bet!

Collect 6 or 7 examples of common errors (grammar, vocabulary and spelling are best). Write the errors in sentences to give context and add 3 or 4 other sentences that have no errors. You should end up with a list of around 10 sentences, some with errors, some without.

Put learners into teams and give each team a copy of the list.

Explain that they have a limited time (10 minutes) to decide whether each sentence is (a) correct or (b) incorrect. If they think the sentence is incorrect, they have to be able to explain why. If they can’t explain, they will be penalised.

When the time is up, give teams an extra 2 or 3 minutes to bet on each of their choices. The have to bet on every sentences. They can bet between $10 and $100. Later, if they are correct, they have a chance to double the money. If they are wrong, they will lose the money.

When everyone has finished placing bets, draw a grid on the board and elicit the answers (correct or incorrect) from each team.

Team A Team B Etc.
Sentence 1 Correct $40 Incorrect $100
Sentence 2 Correct $10 Correct $50
Etc.

Read each sentence in turn and tell students whether it is correct or incorrect.

When a sentence is incorrect, choose a team that has bet correctly to explain why it is incorrect. If they give the right reason, they double their money. If they don’t, they lose it and another team explains the problem. When a team explains the error correctly, they double their money and any other teams who have bet in the same way also double theirs automatically. For fairness, it is of course important that you choose a different team to explain each time.

At the end of the activity, invite a volunteer up to the board to do the calculations and find out which team finishes with the most money. This is the winning team.

  1. Sure or unsure?

This is an activity I originally saw at a workshop given by Mario Rinvolucri about 25 years ago. I’ve used it hundreds of times since and I always get a thrill when I see the look of surprise on the faces of the students at the end of the activity. The example below focuses on errors in spelling but the activity can be adapted and used with other aspects of language too.

Collect 8-15 words that your students regularly mis-spell.

Tell students to draw two columns in their notebooks and write the headings sure and unsure at the top.

Explain that you are going to dictate some words. They should listen and then write each word in one of the columns, depending on how sure they are that they know how to spell it. If they are sure, they write it in the sure column. If they aren’t sure, they have a go anyway but they write it in the unsure column.

Explain that nobody is going to see what they have written and you aren’t interested in how many words they spell correctly or incorrectly.

Dictate the words one by one, giving students time to write.

When you finish, write the words on the board for students to check and correct their own answers.

I can guarantee that almost every student will have an incorrect answer in their sure column. This is because we often believe we are writing a particular word correctly when, in fact, we aren’t. We’ve been mispelling it for ever. It isn’t until we are shocked into this awareness (and watch while students consult dictionaries to try to prove you wrong) that we finally realise our error.

This activity can be used when doing langauge exercises in a workbook with students simply writing the answers in one of two columns in their notebooks. The psychology is simple but effective. By giving students permission to get an answer wrong, pressure is taken off. Then, if they get an answer wrong when they were sure it was right, they will be forced into taking a closer look at the language point in question to make sure they understand it better.

Please try the ideas if you think they might be appropriate for your students. And if you do, I’d love to hear how the experience went. Good luck!

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