Effective Error Correction In The TEFL Classroom
Time to read 8 min
Time to read 8 min
Error correction is an important aspect of teaching and learning English as a foreign or second language, but it can be tricky. We know that when correcting errors made by English language learners, it's crucial to do so in a constructive and supportive manner that promotes learning without causing discouragement, but that is sometimes easier said than done. In this article, we will suggest when and how to correct mistakes and look at some effective error correction techniques.
We learn by making mistakes. We learn how to walk by first crawling and then standing unsteadily and finally falling down many times. Notice, infants often laugh and giggle when they fall down, they don’t yet associate making mistakes with failure. As children, we learn to speak by making and gradually self-correcting uncountable mistakes. When learning a new language, it is natural to make mistakes in all aspects of the language we are learning. The job of the English Teacher is to turn those mistakes into effective learning opportunities.
Some TEFL and ESOL teachers differentiate between Mistakes and Errors. The difference is subtle but may help you to prioritise what things need correction.
A mistake is an accident or a lapse, something that your EFL/ESL students have already learned which they should be able to self-correct if given the chance. Mistakes could include using the wrong vocabulary when speaking or making small lexical or grammatical mistakes when writing.
An error indicates something that your students really don’t know because they never learned it, or they have mis-learned or totally forgotten it. This highlights an area the teacher needs to explain in more detail or revise.
Errors can be further broken down into the areas of productive and receptive skills.
Errors in speaking and writing skills prevent your students from being properly understood and, at worst, can render what they say or write meaningless and unintelligible. Such errors could include using the wrong vocabulary or problems with pronunciation or grammar.
Errors in listening and reading skills include misinterpretation of content, misunderstanding of words, or a general inability to comprehend what is being said.So, the question is; When and how should you correct your students?
Before you begin an activity, decide whether the lesson’s main focus is about accuracy or fluency. For example, in a class discussion or debate where you want students to respond quickly and naturally to what other people say, fluency is likely to be the main focus. However, if you give students time to prepare a dialogue or role-play or if you assign them an essay to write, the focus will more likely be on accuracy. State the lesson aims clearly so that both you and your students are aware of what you expect from them in terms of accuracy.
At the beginning of a session, semester or term try to discuss with your students how they like or want to be corrected. While it may not always be possible to accommodate all their wishes, the discussion gives them a sense of involvement in the process and underlines the concept that making mistakes is part of the learning process and nothing to be ashamed of. It also gives you the teacher an insight into how individual students view the language learning process and can help refine how you give individual feedback and error correction when necessary. For example, some students may like being corrected immediately because they are more likely to remember and learn from it at that time, while others want to focus on fluency and will become demotivated if there is too much correction.
In accuracy-based lessons more immediate feedback is appropriate. For example, if a student makes an error with a new grammar rule that you have just taught it is best to highlight the mistake right away and elicit the correct use of English. More detailed error correction techniques are given below.
Repeat the learner’s sentence (including the error) and then reformulate the incorrect sentence in a way that is grammatically accurate. Ask the question, ‘Is that what you meant to say? This allows learners to hear the correct form without explicitly pointing out the error.
Allow the learner to complete their thought or sentence before jumping in to correct them. This may allow them to realise their error and self-correct before you have to. This method helps students maintain their confidence and fluency while still addressing errors.
Use CCQs and ICQs (concept and information checking questions) to elicit self-correction or further explanation. For example, "Did you mean to say...?" or "Can you clarify what you meant by...?" It is then easier to point out and explain the correct form.
Elicit feedback from around the class. For example, ‘Did that sound right to you? Did anybody notice a mistake? Can anybody suggest a better way to say that?’ Encourage learners to correct each other's mistakes. This fosters a collaborative learning environment and reinforces understanding.
Try to balance error correction with positive feedback. Even while pointing out errors on the spot, try to highlight and praise what students did correctly as well. For example, ‘That was very nice pronunciation, but you made a small mistake with the grammar we learned today. Can you think what that was?’
When dealing with written work, many teachers develop their own system of correction codes, such as "S" for a spelling mistake or "T" for a tense error. This shorthand can be helpful and time-saving for the teacher but is sometimes confusing for the student. It is important to make sure that your students properly understand the symbols you use and that other teachers are not using slightly different variations of your code. It is best when Error Correction Codes are standardized across the English department.
If you notice during the activity that your students are repeatedly making the same errors related to the main teaching point of the lesson, then it may be best to bring things to a halt. In this case, the real error may be yours. Your students didn’t understand the key point of the lesson. You may need to explain things again in a different way or plan a new lesson or activity for another time to address the issue.
If fluency is the main aim of your lesson, listen carefully and monitor your students while they are performing the set tasks or activities, making notes of major or repeated mistakes. Try not to interrupt while the students are actually speaking which will impede their flow and their confidence. Instead, use your notes for a later error correction session using some of the ideas suggested below.
In your lesson plan make sure you allow five to ten minutes at the end of your lesson to highlight any errors you have seen or heard during the main activity. Always keep notes as the lesson progresses and it is a good idea to write these on the board as you go along. This way there is something visual to refer to and it may even prompt the students to remind you of important errors at the end of the lesson. ‘Teacher, why have you written some and any on the board? What does 3PS mean?’ This is a way to engage students and make the correction session more collaborative and less teacher dominated. More importantly, when addressing ‘errors you have heard or seen’ at an end of lesson segment, the focus is on the language you want them to learn rather than the individuals who made the errors. No student is singled out or made to feel foolish for getting it wrong.
If a student finishes the main activity early you could co-opt them as your assistant, to go around the class and make notes of any errors they see or hear. They can feed these back to you or write them directly on the board. Stress that they should not name the students who made the mistakes. Alternatively, if your students are working in groups or pairs and you have a left-over student, you could assign them the role of assistant teacher for the whole lesson to watch and listen out for errors among their classmates.
Have students keep an error log where they write down their common mistakes. This could take a similar form to a vocabulary book or log. Review these logs periodically to track progress and discuss recurring errors. When students no longer make the same errors and have gone for a significant period without making a particular mistake, encourage them to cross the mistakes out as a sign of progress.
Using your own notes, student error logs and feedback from the end of lessons it may sometimes be useful to design your own lesson (outside the main course book or syllabus) to address specific issues your class is struggling with.
Like all teachers, TEFL and ESOL teachers usually have a degree of paperwork to keep up with, charting the progress and learning outcomes of their students. These should include the notebook on which errors and mistakes are recorded during the lesson. This, in turn, can be used as a basis for tests to establish how well students have learned and retained new vocabulary and language structures. Make sure any recurring errors and mistakes are covered in these tests. However, it may be best to reformulate the tests as quizzes. Quizzes incorporate an element of fun and can be done in groups; removing stress and pressure from individual students. If you tell your students they are going to have a test tomorrow it will probably elicit a quite negative response from some of them, however, if you tell them there will be a Kahoot Quiz (or something similar) in the next lesson they will probably look forward to it. They may even do some extra revision without being told to!
If Johnny is still making errors with the ‘third person singular’ (or anything else) after months or years, it is as much a sign that the teaching style or method he has experienced has failed as a reflection on Johnny’s learning ability. Repeated student errors also highlight where teachers are going wrong.