I work on product development for an ESL software company called Off2Class. Several months ago we released an ESL Placement Test. As a product manager who is responsible for testing and improvement, this means that lately I’ve been reviewing a lot of student placement test results! This position allows me to analyze data and compare the placement test results of hundreds of ESL students from each corner of the planet.
Since I started reviewing student placement test results I’ve noticed the rise of a noteworthy trend. Almost every student who sits our placement test possesses a significant amount of ingrained or ‘fossilized’ errors. That is, deficiencies in their ESL understanding at proficiency levels lower than their aggregated results would indicate. While I knew that fossilized errors existed, I was concerned by the pervasiveness of such errors across such a large number of tests. In fact, until I commenced an extensive review of student placement test results at Off2Class I was unaware that virtually all ESL students carry with them a significant amount of fossilized errors.
We’ve all witnessed the ‘fossilized error’ phenomenon…
As teachers we’ve all seen it. Students who might otherwise be placed around the B1/ pre-intermediate range that continue to display errors when using the present simple negative. Or perhaps, an advanced student who still cannot manage to use the most commonly used phrasal verbs with object pronouns.
Naturally, I started to ask myself why this is the case…
By the time most ESL students reach adulthood they’ve been through a number of ESL learning experiences. They may have gained English exposure at school, on an exchange program, while on holiday, at a private language academy and possibly a mix of all of these. Very few adult learners are ‘pure-beginners’. Each time a student enters a traditional ELT institution such as a bricks-and-mortar language school, it’s the job of the school to place that student into a class grouping of similarly ranked students. This is where the problem lies. Most adult students don’t sit nicely into common class groups. A student is placed into a ‘B1’ or ‘pre-intermediate’ class and the student’s entrenched errors remain unchecked. The student progresses to upper levels of proficiency, taking the fossilized errors with them.
Are there new models that could help?
Several new student learning experience models are emerging that offer an alternative to the constraints of the traditional in-classroom model. Online language tutor marketplaces such as italki and Verbling are making it easier than ever for students to access personal language coaches. The one-to-one model has the advantage of not being constrained by the need to fit students into class groupings. As a result, the model has the ability to quickly target a student’s fossilized errors. One-to-one tutors are free to pick the best possible materials and approaches that fit their student profiles. For example, when I took on a French tutor last winter through italki, my tutor started by correcting my use of articles (or lack thereof!). Even though I’m functionally fluent in French, these pre-intermediate errors had carried on with me throughout my traditional, classroom learning experiences.
These new models are far from perfect!
Of course, the success of these new models for students depends on locating a decent (and affordable) tutor. Navigating a tutor marketplace and making sure one picks the right language coach can be challenging. Quality between tutors varies greatly. Though like all modern marketplaces (e.g. Airbnb), student reviews and ratings provide user-generated quality control. With a bit of trial and error (most tutors offer a discounted or even free trial lesson) a student can locate the quality amongst the crowds.
In my role at Off2Class I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of online ESL teachers working with various marketplaces and I’ve always been impressed with the quality of instruction. These teachers are far more than people with whom ‘to have a chat via Skype’. Many teachers use our Placement Test to help them develop learning plans for their students, and teach using a curriculum that is crafted directly to meet their students’ fossilized errors and weaknesses.
What does the future hold?
The fact that it is becoming easier (and more affordable) to find a personal language coach online is a great breakthrough for learners looking to resolve their fossilized errors. For tutors, being able to offer this high degree of learning personalization is a Unique Selling Proposition over the traditional in-classroom learning experience.
The obvious challenge in adopting these new models for the traditional ELT industry is how to provide this type of individual learning attention in a way that’s commercially viable. No DOS or Academic Director possesses the resources to provide classes that can address all members of the class at the same time as each students’ individual fossilized errors. But, by blending the two models together, profitability can be maintained. For example, many schools I visit are now offering one-to-one teaching (whether in-person or online) as an additional option to their students. Or, when students depart from their in-classroom courses, many schools offer an option for students to continue with their teacher, on a one-to-one basis in private lessons. A student might be willing to pay a premium for this personalized learning experience. In addition, a mix of asynchronous (e.g. self-study) and live learning can be blended in order to find a commercially viable offering.
Through a combination of private tutors (made readily available through online marketplaces) and language schools offering online (or in-person) personalized tuition, I believe that we can start to address the problem of fossilized errors in a way that the ‘traditional’ ELT industry, with its fixation on assigning students to levels, has manifestly failed to do up to now. My suggestion to decision makers within traditional ELT institutions would be to embrace the power of these new one-to-one learning experiences. Use a mix of technology and personalization so that you can compete with the ever-rising presence of online ESL tutors and their hyper-personalized approach!
About the Author
Kris Jagasia is a co-founder at Off2Class a toolkit for ESL teachers. He’s primarily responsible for product development and testing and in this role he gets to work with ESL educators working in all sorts of environments. From teachers providing private lessons through tutor marketplaces to those working in traditional bricks-and-mortar language schools. You can reach him by leaving a comment here or by using this contact form.
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