What, When, Who and How to correct?
I had an interesting conversation recently with some teachers in Thailand. The topic of the discussion was error correction and more specifically should learners be corrected and if so what, when and how. The debate was diverse and there was lots of differing ideas, however two points that came across strongly were that:
- Errors should be corrected.
- Teachers do not correct enough.
This was interesting for me and led me to develop a workshop on error correction where I hoped to raise awareness and provide teachers with ideas and a flowchart to help with error correction in the EFL classroom.
Before doing that however, I looked at some of the vast research that has been conducted around this area. I looked mainly at the thoughts of Ellis (2009c, p. 6) who stated that
“[t]here is increasing evidence that CF [corrective feedback] can assist learning (…), and current research has switched from addressing whether CF works to examining what kind works best (…)”.
The main protagonist against error correction is Krashen (1982, p. 74), who calls it
“a serious mistake”, arguing that it puts learners on the defensive, leads to their reluctance to use and experiment with difficult structures, and fosters the development of learned rather than acquired knowledge which underlies spontaneous language production.
Krashen (2003) does later concede that there might be a case for error correction with some caveats and with this in mind and my own classroom experience I am definitely in the Ellis camp. I think it’s also important to consider the needs of stakeholders such as parents and learners who will insist that their errors and those of their children are corrected.
What is an error and a mistake?
So now we have decided that errors and mistakes do need to be corrected lets now look at the difference between the two.
- An error can be defined as an incorrect use of language in which the learner does not have the knowledge or correct communication strategy.
- A mistake is an incorrect use of language in which the learner is able to correct themselves
So in essence, errors need to be corrected by the teacher or someone else with the requisite knowledge. Mistakes can be corrected by the learner, although prompting may be required by the teacher to achieve this.
What to correct?
Think about your own classroom and how many errors and mistakes are made by your students. I hope it’s a lot as this is an indication that students are trying to use the language and are not afraid of making mistakes. Now, if you were to correct every single mistake every student made how do you think the students would feel? I think that you would definitely be proving Krashen right here and students would quickly be on the defensive. Communication would dry up faster than you can say ‘comprehensible input’.
So we need to consider exactly what needs to be corrected. My belief is that we should concentrate on focussed errors or mistakes. By this I mean errors or mistakes that are either being made in the ‘Target Language or errors particular to the culture i.e. mistakes or errors made because of the students first language. By using this as a guide we can predict errors and mistakes easily and formulate strategies that can be used to support learners.
When to correct?
Errors or mistakes in speaking can be corrected during (on-the-spot) for accuracy focussed activities or after a speaking activity (delayed correction) for fluency activities. This is generally accepted as a good rule to keep. As teachers we need to become proficient in keeping a record of mistakes and selecting which ones should be addressed and how.
When correcting learners’ written work this is usually delayed, the teacher can correct mistakes explicitly or indicate that a sentence or paragraph contains a mistake and instruct students to self-correct. It’s worth pointing out here that when asking students to self-correct we will have to check the work twice therefore increasing the workload by double. While effective in helping learners acquire the language it can be very time consuming so should be used depending on how busy you are. Teachers can also provide a model and have students compare their own work.
Who should do the correcting?
We are often led to believe that teachers should recognise the error and then encourage the learners to correct themselves. Evidence does exist that this is an effective way to encourage acquisition. The downside of this is that learners generally prefer teachers to correct them and additionally if an error is because of a linguistic inadequacy how is it then possible for students to correct themselves? They can only really correct mistakes not errors. It’s then up to the teacher to know their students and decide what is a mistake or error and act appropriately. If another student is available to correct the error then use this strategy.
How to correct?
As I touched on earlier, correcting written work is easier and provides a clear record of errors and mistakes. Learners can self-correct using a correction code as in this example.
Be careful when using a correction code to ensure that if you share a class with another teacher you agree clearly on which codes you will use. Obviously using different codes will be confusing for students. My advice is to start by using four or five of the codes above and then graduating to use them all when students and you are more comfortable.
Correcting spoken errors is more nuanced and takes lots of practice. As mentioned earlier we need to decide whether we should in fact correct the error or mistake and then look at when. Below are some strategies for on the spot correction and delayed feedback. I came across them from a British Council Training programme and have used them effectively in my classroom. I hope you find them useful to.
The teacher will monitor and write down every sentence they can catch, correct and incorrect, on strips of A3 paper. After the learners have finished the speaking activity he or she gives the strips to the learners and ask them to put them in two columns of ‘Correct English’ and ‘Could be Better English’ Once established and checked by the teacher the learners can correct them.
Give Me a Hand
While learners are participating in a speaking activity, the teacher shows that they have made a mistake using symbols. For example, pointing forwards indicates the tense is wrong and should be in the future. Conversely pointing back would indicate a past tense should be used.
The 12th Man
Teacher writes six to seven sentences on the board. Some of these are correct, while others contain
errors. As teacher points to each sentence, the class cheers or boos, according to whether they
think it is correct or not. Teacher puts a cross next to the sentences the class thinks are incorrect,
then points to these word by word until learners locate the mistake, again by booing and cheering.
Sound as a Pound
While learners are speaking, the teacher indicates that they have made a mistake by using sounds.
For example, teacher sings ‘do-be-do-be-do’ to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the night’ if a pronunciation mistake is made. The Teacher buzzes like a bee to show missing verb ‘be’, e.g.
‘I going’. Teacher makes a ringing sound ‘(t)ing’ if ‘ing’ is missing, e.g. ‘I am wait for you.’ lastly the teacher knocks on the table (‘wood’) if learners misuse ‘would’, e.g. ‘If I would know the answer …’
You can make your own up here and have fun with this.
Oh No You Didn’t!
The teacher selects a text that contains typical mistakes that are common to the students. The teacher reads the text and when a mistake is made students shout ‘Oh no you didn’t” and then correct the mistake. This is best done as a team game.
Give Me the Slip
Every time a learner makes a mistake, teacher writes it on a piece of paper or post it note and discreetly hands it to the learner who has made it.
In the Teacher’s Shadow
While learners are speaking in groups, the teacher chooses one learner to shadow him or her while
they walk around, monitoring. When the teacher hears a mistake, he or she gets the ‘shadow’ to correct it. The shadow and the learner who made the mistake then swap places and the teacher continues monitoring with a new shadow until they hear a new mistake.
I have put together a simple flowchart that may help when it comes to tackling errors and mistakes in the classroom. I hope this will provide a framework moving forward.
I would encourage you to pay more attention to error correction because when I asked a lot of teachers if they correct too little or too much, 95% said “too little”. I imagine you are the same. Remember to vary your techniques of correction and please encourage students to keep a record of errors they make. We can refer back to these errors and mistakes when asking students to self-correct and, when competency is achieved, we can show a sense of progress very clearly.
Try to or three of the strategies listed above and make comments below on how effective they were. Please also let me know or add your own strategies below to share with other teachers.
Ellis, R. (2009). Corrective Feedback and Teacher Development. L2 Journal, UC Consortium for Language Learning & Teaching, UC Dav, [online] Volume 1(1), p. 6. Available at: http://epi.sc.edu/ar/AS_4_files/Ellis,%202009.pdf [Accessed 26 Mar. 2018].
Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition: Pergamon Press Inc
Del Spafford is the Regional teacher trainer and academic consultant for Macmillan Education, Asia. He has been working in ELT for over 20 years. His experience includes 11 years with the British Council in Thailand, where he has planned and delivered teacher professional development in a variety of contexts including both private and public schools.
He is a passionate educator and publisher and thrives on integrating research-based methods and ideas into courses and supporting teachers to implement effective learning strategies in the classroom.