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Fossilized Error Correction

Error correction is a very important part of teaching a language. ESL teachers have to know when to correct mistakes and how to do it effectively. There are different types of mistakes: grammatical (tense, parts of speech, etc.), syntactical (sentence structure), lexical (vocabulary), phonological (sounds), and morphological (word form). Students make mistakes for several reasons. Here are some possibilities:

The word or grammatical pattern is:

  • different from their native language
  • similar to their native language but not exactly the same (L1 Interference)
  • an exception to the rule

Here are other possible reasons:

  • The students do not know the word, so they guess (ignorance)
  • The students do not understand the rule or know it partially (incomplete learning)
  • They overgeneralize the rule they have learned in previous lessons

What is a Fossilized Error?

A ‘fossilized’ error is an error that has become a habit, part of a student’s repertoire, and used subconsciously as if it were the correct form. A Linguistics professor once told our TESOL class that when it came to grammatical errors that learners make in developing their second language, the expression “practice makes perfect” should be revised to “practice makes permanent”. As he stated, “only perfect practice makes perfect”. He was a strong opponent of  ‘accuracy over fluency’.

In a perfect world, we would not allow errors to become habitual. We would model only perfect utterances and our students would only develop correct use of their second language. We would correct any error at risk of becoming a subconscious pattern. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. We don’t usually take students from the beginning of their language learning right through to perfect mastery. The world outside the controlled classroom also does not use perfect English. Even in using our native language fossilized errors develop.

How Can We Help Students Break a Fossilized Error?

We can take steps to help learners identify the error type they are making. We can help them to analyze the cause of the error, which may be caused by interference from their mother tongues such as a pattern that they have transferred from their native language, a feature that does not exist in their native language, or a very obscure rule which has no logic to them.

Students may benefit from a more in-depth study of how the correct pattern works in English. I have encountered experienced non-native English teachers who knew the rule, knew why they made the error and could teach the correct form to their students. When they concentrated consciously they could use the correct form; however, when they engaged in spontaneous speech, the incorrectly developed habit reemerged. That is not to say that intervention techniques and intensive practice activities cannot be beneficial. If something is learned once, it could be relearned. New studies in neuroplasticity indicate that brain cells do not stop developing as we age and we can keep learning.

Some argue that direct intervention has little effect. I have read accounts from experienced ESL teachers who say any type or amount of correction seemed futile. The rules for article usage, for example, are very complicated and for some language learners incomprehensible. Some of these teachers noted that through exposure, the error eventually ‘worked itself out’.

What if The Error Doesn’t ‘Work Itself Out’?  Is That Type of Error Damaging to the Ability to Communicate a Message? 

Teachers must carefully consider how much time and effort can be allotted to trying to break fossilized habits, and if the time spent is going to help. In some cases, we may simply have to accept that ‘perfect’ is not attainable and work on helping students keep learning and developing in other areas of their second language.

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