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Error-Correcting Techniques

Error correction is a necessary part of teaching English. Let’s face it, not every learner will produce perfect structure every time. They may get a little of course. Error correction helps put learners back on track to accurate English language production. As such, correcting errors is a valuable tool when helping learners develop their ESL skills.

But, some teachers may have only one technique in their repertoire for correcting errors in English language use – an overt method of calling out mistakes as they happen. I call it immediate-direct correction. That means teachers inject snap corrections while the student is speaking (or even writing).

If I could put it into simile, it would be like a cat pouncing on a mouse. Teachers listen intently as class members speak. Then, boom! When the learner says something that strays from conventional grammar forms … or when a student says something that strays from conventional sound production … when a class member makes inaccurate word choices – it gets corrected.

No one says error correction in an ESL lesson is bad in itself. But as teachers, we need to know that there’s more than one way to do it. We need to know that there are a few problems if immediate-direct correction is used all the time. And we’ll discuss them briefly here.

Read: Correcting Mistakes

Learners may feel intimidated using English.

When a language learner is developing their ability to use English, they might appreciate some positive reinforcement as much as corrective. If all they receive is a sudden correction, it may serve to make them jumpy when speaking. The result is it may cause them to be more hesitant when using English. That would be a step in the wrong direction.

It interrupts the flow of production.

If a learner has already formed his/her thoughts and is trying to produce them, interrupting those thoughts can be detrimental to fluency building. Students may forget what they wanted to say because they’re focusing now on perfection. The entire idea could be lost in the moment. Giving immediate correction may not always be the best method to facilitate fluency.

It can be embarrassing.

Done enough and in the presence of others, immediate-direct correction may cause class members to lose face. In a group setting, learners may simply be frightened of the continual shame of correction. And, they may take those same feelings outside the classroom.
In the end, they may have more knowledge about English, but ashamed to use it. That would be counterproductive to what we’re trying to accomplish in ESL classes.

So, what are some alternatives to immediate-direct correction?

Read: Error Correction: Examining Underlying Beliefs

Delayed Correction

Some teachers seem to enjoy correcting as if it’s absolutely part of our DNA as teachers. Frankly, in a way, that’s true. Part of teaching implies correction and is something most teachers desire to do. If they don’t desire to correct, they may feel compelled to correct. Either way, perhaps many, if not most teachers are inclined to correct erring students. However, that doesn’t always mean it has to be instant correction.

You’ve likely heard of delayed gratification? Well, this is similar, but for English language teachers (yes, my attempt at humor). But we’ll call it delayed correction. In other words, let’s wait until students finish their thoughts before offering correction. You’ll still get to scratch that teacher’s itch, but it’ll be less disruptive to learners.

Discreet (Real-Time) Correction

If you still find it hard to delay corrections, there’s another option. This technique allows you to give instant correction but with less oomph. An example of this might be simply:

Student says: Did you ate out yesterday?

Teacher writes/types: Did you [ate] out yesterday > Did you [eat] yesterday [verb tense]?

When I taught in a large international corporation, they had the technology I needed available. While my group class was engaged in discussion, I was off to the side taking notes on a keyboard. But my notes were being displayed on a large screen. All class members could see what I was typing and make the appropriate adjustments as they moved forward. My corrections took many forms. And the nice thing was I didn’t have to utter a word. Plus, teacher talk time was at a minimum.

If you don’t have access to a projector screen, you can use a whiteboard, a chalkboard, or even a large piece of paper on a wall.

The discreet (real-time) correction technique fits especially well in online classrooms. Most learning management systems have chat boxes as an essential feature. While a student is speaking, you can simply type the correction there. He/She can see it and respond appropriately – changing A to B without losing too much of a beat.

This allows students to see where they went wrong and correct. I also call this real-time correction. That’s because it happens as the student speaks. As they catch these things, it gives them a chance to correct themselves. All without our interruptions. It can also help retrain students’ minds with the accurate form.

Restated Repetition Correction

It isn’t uncommon for people conversing to repeat what the other person says. This is a form of listener feedback. It tells the other party that you’re attending to what’s being said.
We can do the same thing with English language learners. But in this case, we simply repeat the corrected version of what they’re saying. It can be considered part of listener feedback with a twist. An example of this could be:

Students says: I went to the store every day.

Teacher repeats: Ah, so you go to the store every day.

It’s important to point out that we shouldn’t (over-)emphasize our repeats. We shouldn’t accentuate the corrections. We simply inject them as might be done in a regular old conversation.

Parting Thoughts

If at the beginning of this blog, you were a teacher inclined to give immediate-direct feedback, you have options now. Hopefully, we’ve been able to clarify the potential pitfalls of continually using this form of correction.

But not only that, we’ve offered alternative ideas for error-correcting techniques. These ideas should help you and your class members maneuver through the difficulties of error correction.
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