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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 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 – Error Correction

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.

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.

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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