Error correction 2 - What's the best way of correcting errors and mistakes?
As any teacher will tell you, repeated mistakes in student language are frustrating, and can linger despite the teacher repeatedly giving them the correct model. A teacher can repeat correct forms back at a student a thousand times, and there is no guarantee that the learner will apply that form in their language in the future.
This is because teacher correction is not in itself a particularly effective way to address problems with student language. In order for a correction to stick, the learner has to rethink what they are saying for themselves, and give themselves a reason for correcting their own language. This can be achieved in different ways:
Being selective in what you correct
We cannot expect absolute accuracy from anyone learning to do anything, language study included. Learners will make errors and mistakes in their speech, writing and other skills work. It can be demotivating and demoralising to try to correct every single problem in a student’s language, so be selective and focus on the specific language that you are teaching in any given class. That way, students will know to expect correction in what they are studying, and their accuracy in that area will improve, followed by other areas in future classes.
Prompting for self-correction
If you hear an error from a learner, the first step is to highlight that they need to think again about what they said. Different teachers do this in different ways. Some will hold up a hand and ask the student (politely) to pause for a second, others will interrupt and ‘recast’ the error at the student, perhaps with a rising, questioning intonation to show that something was wrong. Others will allow the student to keep speaking and write the error up on the board (or screen, for online classes) to analyse later.
These ways of highlighting errors may be more or less effective for different students (sometimes just a facial expression is enough to highlight that something was wrong, if the student knows that this is how you show that something needs correction). However you show this to the student, it is an important step, as it prompts for an attempt at self-correction. This shows you whether the student can correct themselves quickly (therefore that they know the form but made a slip), or whether they don’t know the correct form (and have made a true error), and so require further instruction on that point.
Passing the error to others for peer correction
If the learner cannot correct themselves, the next step is to pass the error to another student to correct. This serves two purposes - firstly, corrections from peers often sink in more than those from teachers, as peer knowledge implies that the original student should know this like their peers do. Peer correction also brings out teachable moments, where learner discussion can throw up issues that others in the class are having, providing an opportunity for everyone to get something out of the original inaccuracy, thus diluting the embarrassment of having made a mistake in the first place.
Deducing from an teacher-led example
If the error is not correctable by anyone in the room, then you can put up an example (perhaps a phrase or sentence from the peer discussion) onto the whiteboard and ask checking questions to analyse the spelling, meaning, form or whatever was inaccurate. This gets students rethinking the point and finding a way towards a more accurate form
If all else fails, then providing the correct form for the learner or class is a last resort, followed by some more practice of the point at hand to help everyone improve in that area.
As a rule, the process of student - peer - class - teacher correction is the most effective way to deal with inaccuracies in learner language, and can benefit everyone in the group rather than simply embarrassing the individual student who made the error in the first place. However, this can only happen if there is a relaxed, inclusive atmosphere in the class and students see the learning value of mistakes rather than being ashamed of them.
The next article in this series focuses on error correction with student speaking, and considers the role of dealing with accuracy while helping students to maintain fluency with what they are saying.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.