“Don’t Speak until it’s Perfect”

Sometimes English class goes a little like this:

1) Here are some words, practice them.

2) Here is the grammar, understand it.

3) Here is the pattern, repeat it.

4) Here are more patterns, repeat them.

5) Here are some other options, repeat them.

6) Okay, now that we’ve spent 45 minutes repeating the pattern, you have 2 minutes to try to use it in a real conversation. Got it? Okay, go!

(and most depressing of all):

7) Tomorrow we are moving on to a new grammar point, which you will learn in the exact same way.


Everywhere within this type of lesson plan is the hidden message, “Don’t speak until it’s perfect.”

It is an approach that avoids the uncomfortable process of listening to mistaken English being spoken. But in the process of avoiding this hard truth of learning (i.e. mistakes are natural and inevitable), I feel that we often avoid actually teaching.

In the pursuit of perfect reproduction of the grammar point, students lose the chance for discovery through mistake. It also inevitably destroys confidence because with 2 minutes of “talk-time” and 45 minutes of examples, most students will fail to reproduce the pattern. Moreover, students miss out on an opportunity to learn a crucial learning tool: trial and error.

So, what’s the alternative? 

Flip the process on its head.

-Accept mistakes as an opportunity to learn.

-Let students practice a pattern by talking to their partners

-Use communication as a vehicle for smoothing out errors

-Enjoy mistakes and use them as a jumping off point for emphasizing the correct pattern.

Think what would happen if we told babies who were babbling their first consonant sounds to be quiet.

They probably wouldn’t learn their native language correctly.

Mother nature knows it well: humans learn through their mistakes. Let’s give our students the chance to make them by designing lesson plans and activities that are centered around making them.