Traffic lights: A free resource for correcting errors and checking understanding

Traffic light prisms – easy to make and use!

Earlier this year I became concerned that I was over-correcting my adult students during speaking activities. I tend to use both direct correction and delayed correction (via the board) depending on the situation. I know that many of my learners do want me to correct them directly, but I wasn’t sure that all of them did, and I suspected that one just wanted to express himself freely.

I shared this concern with a colleague, Rosie Moëd (Thanks Rosie!), who reminded me of an old idea for giving students the power to decide when and how they want to be corrected, called ‘traffic lights’. Each student is given three colours, red, yellow and green, and before a speaking activity they display one on their desk to indicate to the teacher whether they want lots of correction (green), some correction (yellow) or no correction (red).

Sure enough, I found my hunch had been right. In a class of 10 students (so small, I know: I’m lucky!) on a general English course, I found that 6 of them usually gave me the green light (literally) to correct everything, 3 chose yellow (Correct Only Important Errors), and the student I had been worried about showed me the red light… for the first hour or so of the lesson. Once he warmed up, he usually went to yellow, except on ‘bad days’!

They work well in small classes of adult learners in the UK (used with students’ permission).

Since then I’ve tried the traffic lights with other classes, including business English students, and would say that I’m getting about 65-70% green lights. I’ve only got the red light from one other student, but I’ve always been surprised about who chooses yellow and who chooses green. It seems to be about personality, rather than age, proficiency or even confidence.

Traffic lights for checking understanding

I’ve also tried using the traffic lights to check understanding of difficult grammar. Partway through the lesson, if I wasn’t sure whether to move on or continue clarifying/eliciting, I got them to use their traffic lights to show how much they felt they understood (green for ‘I understand’, yellow for ‘I partially understand’ and red for ‘I’m confused’). If I got mainly greens, I chose to move on. If not, I provided more examples, used translation tools, etc. It worked well because it was quite subtle – they didn’t have to raise their hands, respond verbally or write anything. Of course, many would argue that this is the role of concept check questions, but if you don’t like them, or just want a backup tool, traffic lights can also be used for this purpose.

Try them out

Here are two more templates – one specifically for checking understanding, and one with plain traffic lights if you want to use them flexibly for both error correction and checking understanding:

If you can’t print in colour, first try the ones with text on them, and then if you find them useful, get the students to colour them in themselves to save you the trouble!

I’d be interested to know how they work in other classes and contexts – especially with teenagers/secondary school students. Here are some of the questions I’m thinking about:

  • Do more yellow and red lights appear in classes of younger learners?
  • Are they practical/useful in larger classes?
  • Do more confident students show green more often, or is it about personality?
  • What other uses might they have?

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