Students shouldn’t be afraid of using the wrong tense or omitting an article as making mistakes is the proof of learning, but the question is how teachers handle these mistakes. Too much error-correction can demotivate students, on the other hand, to let the conversation flow and not to correct any mistakes can also cause some problems in the future. The difficulty, of course, is in finding the middle ground. What should we correct, when should we correct it, and how should it be corrected?
Step 1 – Identify the reason for making mistakes (what to correct):
1. L1 interference – happens when the learner’s mother tongue affects performance in the target language. For example, learners make grammatical mistakes because they apply the same grammatical patterns as in their L1.
Read more in “Learner English”, a practical reference guide which compares the relevant features of a student’s own language with English, helping teachers to predict and understand the problems their students have. It has chapters focusing on major problems of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and other errors.
2. A developmental error – an error that occurs as a natural part of the learning process when a learner tries to say something that is above their level of language.
3. Overgeneralization of a rule – the process of extending the application of a rule to items that are excluded from it in the language norm.
4. A fossilized error – the process in which incorrect language becomes a habit and cannot easily be corrected.
5. A slip – a mistake made by a learner because they are not attentive or tired.
6. The nature of English – some set collocations, idiomatic expressions may cause errors.
7. Bad model – students learnt poor example and incorrect language from any available resources.
- We shouldn’t correct slips as they happen not because students don’t know the material but are caused by tiredness, inattention or just having too much to think about at the time.
- We should be careful with correcting developmental errors. Making such errors is a natural part of learning a language. You may just ignore them, as the student hasn’t studied the essential material yet or you can just articulate the correct sentence and that you are going to study that grammar or vocabulary later.
- We must correct all other types of mistakes, but don’t try to correct all the mistakes students make, choose ones which are relevant to the lesson/topic/activity.
Step 2 – Choose the best time to correct (when)
There are two kinds of error correction:
- Hot correction – as soon as we notice a student making an error.
- Cold correction (delayed error correction) – in order not to interrupt the learner during a speaking activity- as we are focusing more on oral fluency, we need to monitor and record the language of the learner to focus on the errors when the activity is complete. Conduct an error correction after the activity of at the end of the lesson.
- Use hot error correction during the presentation of the target language or controlled practice, as we are more focused on accuracy here. You should encourage SELF CORRECTION n first and then peer correction if needed, therefore ask CCQs (concept checking questions) that focus on meaning and form.
- Use cold (delayed) error correction while students are doing freer activity. Monitor the students and take notes of mistakes.
Step 3 – Choose an error correction technique (how)
There are many ways to correct errors:
1. Finger correction – use fingers to show the mistake in the sentence.
2. Gestures – every teacher has a set of gestures to show students they’ve made a mistake. Teachers might gesture backwards with their hands to show students they haven’t used the verb in the past. Students often use the wrong pronouns, for example “She walked your dog.” You can point to yourself with a look of shock or surprise.
3. Facial expressions – when a student makes a mistake you can use an exaggerated facial expression to signal the mistake.
4. Cards (visual reminders) – some students often omit “-s”, “be”, etc. So you can just prepare a card with a big “S” or “AM/IS/ARE” and raise it every time students do this mistake, students instantly know they should go back and say it again. Later, you can just stick an empty card on the desk and point at it when necessary.
5. Visual analysis – write the sentence on the board and highlight indicators, question marks, everything that might help the student to correct the mistake, e.g.:
6. Repeat up to the error – repeat the whole sentence up to the error and make a pause waiting for the student to say the correct word/phrase. If the student has a difficulty correcting the mistake, give options.
S: My mum is really interesting in politics.
T: Your mum is really …
T: InterestING or interestED?
7. Demonstrate more examples – elicit or demonstrate more sentences with the same vocabulary or constructions.
S: I love SHocolate.
T: Read the words “chair, chicken”, now read this word “CHocolate”
8. Echoing – echo the mistake with emphasis on the mistake.
S: He like listening to rock music.
T: He LIKE?
S: He likeS listening to rock music.
9. Ask for clarification – ask your student to repeat the sentence.
S: I went to the magazine.
T: Sorry? Where did you go?
10. Recast – reformulate the utterance into a correct version (emphasising the place of the mistake) and encourage to continue the conversation.
S: Yesterday I went in the shop.
T: Oh really, you went TO shop. Which shop?
!!Try to elicit the corrections as much as possible. Get students to fix their own mistakes.
What error correction techniques do you prefer?