Jada was a 3rd grade student who was behind in reading. The interventions at school weren’t working. I praised her correct answers, thinking, as many American educators and parents, this would help her confidence. When she made a mistake, however, she had a meltdown, and her emotional reaction to a simple miscue took several minutes. Overall, I figured her meltdowns after miscues were consuming a lot of instructional time. 3 minutes here, 4 there… it all added up. I had to figure out a way to resolve this.
I was typical. I praised correct answers. I offered encouragement whenever she made a mistake. This method deserved some reflection. Was it really effective? Does praising correct answers in hopes of avoiding errors really build self-esteem? From Jada’s lessons (and from many other student’s I’d worked with), the answer seemed like a resounding no.
I began trying something different. I no longer praised her correct answers. Instead, I only praised her when she gave a correct answer AFTER making a mistake. I explained the importance of mistakes, that the cliché that “we learn from our mistakes” rings true, especially in reading. Across several lessons, the meltdowns nearly disappeared. She no longer disparaged herself after making an error. Instead, she saw the error as an opportunity to improve.
Errors are important when learning to read
Dr. Nicole Anderson, scientist and senior author of “Making Mistakes While Studying Actually Helps You Learn Better,” says, “Our research found evidence that mistakes that are a ‘near miss’ can help a person learn the information better than if no errors were made at all.” In sum, in reading, it’s better for a child to try to decode a word on his own, make an error, and then discover the correct answer. He might read “Dan” as “Pam.” This slight error will help him analyze and learn to correlate the “D” symbol with the /d/ sound.
“These types of errors can serve as stepping stones to remembering the right answer. But if the error made is a wild guess and out in left field, then a person does not learn the correct information as easily,” says Anderson.
In phonics instruction, it’s best to teach kids phonics sounds explicitly. However, during reading time, the student needs to try to put into practice what he’s learned. It’s very tempting to provide the answer when you believe the child will make a mistake. It’s also tempting to provide a clue.
Let’s say the child is learning the e at the end rule as in “bake.” Do not provide the child with the clue,” there’s an e at the end” before she reads the word. Instead, allow her to make a mistake.
Never provide clues before the child has grappled with the word on his own. Trust that mistakes help kids learn.
There are cultural differences in how we view mistakes
In American classrooms, educators offer their students profuse praise. One study analyzed American and Japanese math classrooms by videotaping lessons. An analysis of the videotapes showed that American teachers excessively praised students, while Japanese teachers rarely praised students. Instead, Japanese teachers placed value on error correction.
While Americans may believe praise can boost self-esteem, it might not if it’s rendered excessively. Excessive praise makes children believe that the correct answer is what matters, not the trial and error process of learning. Should we really be praising kids when the answer comes easily? Or should we embrace the learning struggle and instead praise kids when they struggle through error corrections?
Overall, in math, Japanese students continually outperformed American students in the study.
Let the student make the error, guide him to the correct answer, then praise him.
When kids are learning to read, it’s normal to make lots of decoding errors. Let your students make errors. Never offer hints before he reads the words. If he does make an error, then guide him to the right answer. For example, if he reads “bake” as “back” you can ask him, “What’s at the end of the word?” He’ll likely notice the e. Then you can say, “What does the e do?” The student can then recall from lessons that the e makes the first vowel say it’s name. When he reads “bake” correctly, then it’s time to praise him.
“The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one.” -Elbert Hubbard
Reading Elephant offers systematic printable phonics books.