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Error Correction in TESOL

ESL teachers and students often have differing views on the importance of error correction. Some students insist that they want the teacher to note and correct all errors made at any time in a lesson. Some teachers want to encourage their students’ confidence and don’t feel comfortable correcting students as they feel corrections may interfere with the development of the students’ fluency in English. What’s a teacher to do?

Error correction is a very important part of TESOL. Teachers have to know when to correct mistakes and how to do it effectively. This article will teach you why students make mistakes, how to reflect on the types of mistakes that students make, and what you can do to help them improve.

Why Do Students Make Mistakes?

Mistakes are a natural part of learning a language. Students make mistakes for several reasons. Here are some possibilities:

  •  It is different from their native language
  • It is similar to their native language but not exactly the same
  • The students do not understand the rule
  • It is an exception to the rule
  • The students do not know, so they guess

Error or Mistake? 

Most linguists distinguish between errors and mistakes in the language acquisition process. Mistakes are ‘slips of the tongue’ that students make for a variety of reasons: momentary inattentiveness or distractedness, speaking too quickly, or just getting things mixed up.

An error, on the other hand, is a deviation from standard English because the student does not know the required structure or form. A student can be expected to self-correct a mistake but may not be able to correct an error without more focused teacher intervention.

When to Correct?

In order for teachers to know when to correct, they have to take into consideration a range of factors, including:

Stage of the Lesson/Type of Activity

Are students working on accuracy or fluency-based activity? When the focus is on accuracy, teachers can correct more immediately. For fluency-focused activities, teachers can correct right away those mistakes or errors that are impeding communication, but in general, can hold other issues until the end of the activity.

It is a good idea to have students reflect on the type of mistakes they make. This can also be done in pairs or groups. For example, in a speaking lesson, the teacher can take notes of the mistakes the students made while speaking. At the end of the speaking activity, the teacher can write the list above on the board and the mistakes they made so that they can identify the type of mistake and decide why they think they made it. This is a great opportunity to reflect on their learning process and remember the correct forms or uses of the language

Level of the Student

If students make errors in language structures or items that are beyond their expected level, then teachers need to determine if the student has enough background knowledge English to deal with any correction. If a student is trying to express something far beyond his or her current ability in English, the teacher may have to simply restate the information as clearly and simply as possible.

How to Correct?

When possible, teachers should encourage students to recognize and correct their own errors. Teachers can draw attention to errors by using gestures and facial expressions, or by using a visual cue. Examples of visual cues can be reference sheets in the classroom or information on the whiteboard. Additionally, for written work, teachers can use editing symbols for grammatical or vocabulary errors that students should be expected to know.

How Much Correction?

Everyone comes to teaching with underlying beliefs about what a language is and how a language is learned. To be reflective in teaching, it is important to examine beliefs: where they come from, if they are well-founded, and if they need to be challenged and possibly changed.

What Was Your Experience as a Student?

Think back to when you were a student, even in learning to write in your mother tongue, how much and what kind of correction did your teachers give? Was each error highlighted?  Were you penalized for errors?  Did you have to write errors out and redraft your writing until it was ‘perfect’? Were you allowed to make mistakes without any correction? Were you ever praised for making errors? Did you enjoy or feel you benefited from the kind and amount of correction your teachers gave?  Why or why not?

Where Do Preconceived Notions and Beliefs Come From?

Past experience is where beliefs about what language is and how a language is learned are first formed. If we learned from experience that a language is learned from careful study of patterns, from a repetition of correct utterances and every error should be corrected, then we likely believe that is what a good teacher must do to help students learn.

While this approach may work for some situations and some learners, it is important to look at the underlying principles and question if they are appropriate for your learners and in all situations. I was once conducting a TESOL teacher training course when a native English trainee who had no teaching experience interrupted a conversation to correct the speech of a non-native English teacher with ten years of experience. Why?  The native speaker no doubt felt she was being helpful and that it was her duty to correct.

To a native speaker, the error type could seem like an elementary error that ‘marked’ a beginner level of speech, an error that if left untended would be passed on to students; It was the omission of the third person singular –sending in the simple present tense: “He take the bus to school”-.

Did Correction Help? No, it was detrimental in many ways. It was the wrong time and place because first, it interrupted the flow of the conversation. It was not an error that caused any miscommunication. Second, it embarrassed the non-native speaker and set up a feeling of antagonism amongst the participants.

If people are playing a game, do you jump into the middle, and stop the game just to tell someone they don’t know how to play ‘properly’?   This is touching on an underlying belief that many people have with regard to language, that every error should be corrected and it is the duty of the native speaker to correct the non-native speaker. How many times have you experienced either personally trying to use a second language or observed when another non-native speaker was corrected by a native speaker, and little was accomplished except humiliation and ill will? Share your thoughts below via Disqus!

Tips for Effective Error Correction

  • Be explicit about your approach to correction

Moreover, let students know how and why you correct (or don’t correct!) at specific times. As mentioned above, teachers and students often have different expectations for error correction. Make sure that students understand your goals.  And that they feel confident that you are using a principled approach to error correction.

  • Recognize that language is developmental

Making errors is a natural part of language learning. If your students aren’t making errors, they aren’t communicating enough! Provide the necessary structure for correction, but don’t overdo it. Everyone can slip up.

  • All speakers make mistakes

We all make mistakes when we are communicating in our first language. This is why writers need proofreaders. ESL students make mistakes, too.

As ESL teachers, part of our goal is to encourage students to express themselves in English and to help give them the instruction, tools, and support they need to meet their learning goals. Appropriate error correction is an important part of that process.

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