For Initial Teacher Training qualifications error correction is a major topic. Both the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity Certificate in TESOL contain criteria on dealing with errors. They encourage trainees to deal with errors in a variety of ways, such as the following, which have been taken from Learning Teaching by Scrivener (2011: 285 – 290):
- Indicating an error has been made
- Eliciting the correction through questions
- Finger correction
- Opening the error up to the rest of the class
Although there is quite an extensive list of suggestions and techniques, they essentially boil down to two approaches for dealing with error:
- Immediate Error Correction
- Delayed Error Correction
Immediate Error Correction
The vast majority of ideas found in methodology books for dealing with errors focus primarily on the first approach: Immediate Error Correction. They spell out in detail error correction techniques for teachers because the most natural response for the teacher would be to simply correct the learners. This is seen as poor practice because it probably wouldn’t lead to anything conducive, as “the more the students are involved in correction, the more they have to think about the language…” (Edge 1989: 27). So it seems by giving teachers very clear learner-centred techniques for dealing with errors, learners will become more “aware” and “notice” their errors (Scrivener 2011: 285).
Delayed Error Correction
The second approach also takes a learner-focused stance, in that it encourages the learners to “discover” for themselves where they have gone wrong, with the hope their greater cognitive engagement will lead to them “remembering” the language better (Scrivener 2011: 285). Although there are a variety of ways to do this, their basic premise is the same: to collect samples of the learners’ errors to later feed back to the learners as an exercise.
Delayed Error Correction is probably most often conducted as a short whiteboard activity, where the teacher writes up a handful of incorrect sentences (or possibly a mixture of both correct and incorrect) and the learners have to identify where the issues are.
Issues with Delayed Error Correction
The idea behind this approach is simple yet beautiful: bring together a sample of errors and get the learners to tell you what they have done wrong. The only problem is that as each teaching year goes by, the more it seems to me this technique does not achieve the desired effect.
Firstly, unless the error was a slip of the tongue, the learner who made the error probably won’t know it is an error. This leaves a stronger learner to correct it. What does this achieve? Not much: the stronger learner has corrected something which they probably don’t make errors in; the weaker learner has failed to engage with the language in such a cognitive way that they will continue to make the same error.
Secondly, a lot of errors don’t make sense out of context – as does a lot of correct language! Take this sentence as an example, “You took the chicken out?” If this were dealt with as an individual item, it would be flagged up as an incorrectly formed question. However, in the context of a mother asking her son if he had indeed remembered to do what she had told him to do some time earlier i.e. take the chicken out of the freezer, then it makes perfect sense and is even stylistically and grammatically correct. So, putting on the whiteboard ‘He never play rugby’, what is it the learner is supposed to be correcting: He never plays? He has never played? He will never play again? Without a clear context, this attempt is a clear waste of time. Given this is delayed error correction, the context could have well been significantly earlier in the lesson.
Finally, as you go down the CEFR scale, the more and more learners think what you say, write and do is of the utmost importance. This ultimately leads to a situation which I have seen time and time again: listening in to the learners during a task, the teacher boards samples of their errors, and as they do this, the learners stop their task to focus their attention on the ‘important’ thing the teacher is writing on the whiteboard. This is when learners see the teacher as a ‘knower’ and more often than not, it leads to a situation which the whole approach is supposed to avoid: learners begin to immediately attempt to correct the errors. What’s more, the moment one of them starts shouting out possible corrections, the rest stop what they’re doing to join in.
Thornbury (Online) says that many perceived errors, such as not adding the third person –s morpheme, are “an inevitable stage of language learning” and they are “extremely resistant to correction.” Furthermore, errors do not seem to be a matter of L1 interference – they are predictable at each stage of learning the language. They must, therefore, be an integral part of language acquisition and remain unchanged until the learner has acquired that feature of language.
All of this suggests error correction should be dropped altogether. However, that might have a negative effect on the learners’ expectations: learners want and expect error correction– they might also feel “short-changed” if they don’t receive any teacher-led corrective feedback (Pinard Online).
If error correction has to be present due to learner expectation, yet it remains largely ineffective in preventing errors, then it seems the most obvious compromise is to correct errors at the moment where they most directly impede performance (both task performance and linguistic performance).
Most lessons will have a practice stage – if you’re delivering a PPP lesson, then this stage is the second P; for TTT lessons, this will be part of the second stage – it is during this stage where error correction might be most useful for the following reasons:
- Learners are concentrated
- Learners are focused on the target language
- Learners are using their existing knowledge to test out and ‘play with’ the target language
- Learners will expect 100% teacher-led correction at this stage
- Learners are cognitively aware and honed in on the target language
During this stage there is a greater focus on accuracy. Methodologists, such as Scrivener (2011) and Harmer (1989), identify accuracy-focused stages as moments where error correction could be most effective. When the lessons moves on to the final production stage (or second task stage) it really is necessary for the teacher to take a step back and let the learners get on with the task at hand: whatever mistakes they make will simply be inevitable and an integral part of the learning process.
Edge, J. (1989) Mistakes and Correction. London: Longman.
Pinard, L. (Online) DELTA Notes 1: Error Correction. Available at: http://reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/2013/08/10/delta-notes-1-error-correction/
Harmer, J. (1989) The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Longman.
Scrivener, J. (2011) Learning Teaching: The Essential Guide to English Language Teaching. 3rd Ed. Oxford: MacMillan Education.
Thornbury, S. (Online) Error Correction. Available at: http://itdi.pro/blog/2013/08/07/41/