We all make mistakes sometimes, especially when we’re learning new things. And for some reason, a lot of us have developed this idea that making mistakes is embarrassing, uncomfortable, and just plain bad. If you’ve ever received quality feedback or guidance on how to improve something, you know just how helpful error correction can be when done well. It’s certainly a delicate art though, so let’s talk about it.
Good error correction techniques, much like encouragement or praise, are handled with a genuineness and specificity with the goal of guiding your student to success. Error correction is not telling your students that they’ve done something wrong or bad, it’s a process that guides them to the correct response or form. The faster we come to an understanding in our own minds that error correction is a tool, and one that is often most effective when the teacher has very little involvement, the better we’ll be at guiding our students to correct speech.
To start, let’s talk about the different types of error correction:
1. Self-correction is an approach in which the student corrects themselves after recognizing that they made a mistake OR after getting a gentle nudge from the teacher that a mistake was made. Self-correction should be the first form of correction attempted when a student makes an error using a previously learned concept or word. Let’s say that in your last class you taught the past tense pronunciation rules for regular verbs (ie. the “t” sound that’s made at the end of the word “worked” instead of pronouncing the -ed ending as “work-id”). Today, your student forgets to apply this rule or applies it incorrectly by saying the word “missed” and pronouncing it as “miss-id” instead of “misst”. All it takes here is an obvious, non-verbal cue (like an exaggerated version of the face you may make when you’ve heard something that doesn’t sound quite right) for your student to understand that something’s wrong. If you give them space and silence to fix their error here, they’ll often know what they did wrong and have the ability to fix it. Self-correction gives students more confidence, keeps the spotlight on them, decreases teacher talk time, and allows students to have more control in their learning.
2. Peer correction can be used when, after nudging your student to self-correct results in silence, you ask other students if they can first (and only) identify the mistake, thus guiding the student further towards self-correction. If the student still can’t self-correct, you can ask another student if they know how to fix the mistake. Peer correction should only be used after a student has been given a chance to self-correct. Peer correction should create confidence and camaraderie among students when used appropriately.
3. Finally, Teacher-led correction is used in one of two situations — after students have been given a chance to self- and peer-correct OR when the student has made an error using language that has never been taught in class. The latter is actually not something we consider an error but is simply evidence that students are experimenting with language, possibly trying to use vocabulary or grammar structures they heard or read somewhere but don’t yet understand how to use them. If these errors come up and are not connected to the target language you’re covering in the lesson, continue on without addressing the error. We choose to bypass these errors because what the student really needs in these situations is not error correction, but teaching, and if you’re not teaching that concept in the current lesson, it’s best to jot down the error and plan to teach it in a future lesson when your student is ready to learn about it, and when you have more time to dedicate to it. If however, your student made an error using language previously taught in class and has not been able to self-correct (or receive accurate peer correction), it’s your time to pipe up and participate in the error correction process. YES, it’s finally your turn! But remember, teacher-led correction does not (ever) mean that the teacher jumps right in with the correct form. Our job is to continue guiding our students to the correction without actually doing it for them (unless we see that they need more assistance and can’t get to the answer on their own). During teacher-led correction, it’s important first to help your student identify the error that was made and work from there. Take a look at the following correction techniques you can use during teacher-led correction.
To help identify an error in a sentence, you may choose to write out the sentence your student said, word for word, and encourage them to locate the problem area. This particular approach is great for word order mistakes, errors with grammatical structures, or even pronunciation errors. Let’s say that your student said “Yesterday we worked late because we have so many works”. You can first give them that exaggerated facial expression we talked about earlier (it might look like raised eyebrows, a furrowed brow, tilted head, etc.) to let them know that something’s off and if they don’t correct themselves, write down the sentence as you heard it. After they complete their idea, acknowledge their message (ie. “wow it sounds like you had a busy day yesterday”) and share the error (ie. write it out and ask “can you find any errors in this sentence?”). It’s important that this be done in a way that still encourages your student to correct their own mistakes. Like all forms of error correction, give your student time to process and think of the correction. If they say no, circle/highlight/point to the area with the mistake(s) rather than stating the correction, and ask guiding questions to help inch your student closer to the correct form. They’ll get there (if it’s a concept you’ve covered with them in class) and if they struggle, help them. When a correction is made, especially if it requires a decent amount of teacher guidance, be sure to ask concept check questions to ensure that your student understands the correction.
Hand gestures are great for moments when your students have made mistakes with word order. Let’s say your student says they have “a car black” and they don’t recognize the mistake after you’ve given them a non-verbal cue. Hold up your right index finger and say “car”, then “black” as you hold up your left index finger. Your student may recognize the error at this point and self-correct but if they don’t, simply cross your right and left arms, swapping the placement of your index fingers. Students should at this point correct the word order themselves. Other gestures like pointing behind you while saying a present tense verb (with rising intonation, ie. “write??”) to indicate that a verb needs to be said in its past tense form, or forward to indicate the future tense are quick, almost wordless ways to guide your student through corrections. You can also use your hands to clap and demonstrate word stress or syllables for proper pronunciation corrections.
An end-of-class error summary is a great practice to get into with your students. To do this, keep track of your students’ biggest or most common errors during the lesson and reserve a few minutes at the end of the lesson to go over some of them. Please please please though, don’t let the last five minutes of class be the first time you address errors from a lesson. Doing this will only cause confusion and I promise you, your students will have forgotten their unaddressed errors from the beginning of class and wonder why you’re bringing it up now. Usually the errors in the end-of-class summary are a mix of already corrected errors from the lesson and any new ones that came up in the final activity. I like to write out the errors for this activity, one at a time, and ask students to find the error and make the correction. Giving your students another opportunity to correct their mistakes before class is over will help to reinforce the correct form and it can also end the class on a light note where students can have a laugh at any funny things they said and feel confident knowing that they were the ones to right their wrongs. Remember that when error correction is teacher-centered (the type where teachers just blurt out the correct form, denying students the chance to fix their own mistakes), the errors typically persist and no lessons are learned. It’s when students are given the opportunity to correct their own mistakes that they feel empowered in their learning and they learn to monitor future speech.
Error correction is a big topic and we’ll be helping out with general as well as specific tips for you to apply in your lessons in future posts. If error correction has been a tricky teaching skill for you to develop, start first by reflecting on your most recent classes. Think about the errors your students have made and how you handled them. Did you implement self- or peer correction? Did you use any of the aforementioned techniques? If not, which techniques would have made the correction process smoother and lighter? Error correction isn’t a skill that comes easy to most teachers and it takes time to develop. Take it lesson by lesson and evaluate as you go!
If error correction is the teaching skill you’re most focused on right now in your teaching career, what methods have you used to improve? What are your go-to error correction techniques and which ones from this list would you like to add to your arsenal?