To Correct or Not to Correct, That is the Question


I’ll never forget one of the first ELL classes that I taught. It was focused on speaking and listening, and I was blessed with a relatively talkative bunch. One student in particular loved being the center of attention. Though he had some major pronunciation issues, we always understood his interesting, crazy stories because of his facial expressions and expressive gestures. I rarely if ever corrected this young man because I didn’t want to squelch his confidence. Towards the end of the course, he came to me one day visibly upset. He had overheard some of his coworkers talking about how difficult he is to understand. He looked at me straight in the eye and said, “Teacher, why didn’t you tell me? I didn’t know I had a problem.” I was stunned, and then saddened. In my desire to build him up, I had neglected to address one of his most pressing needs. In that moment, I realized the importance of error correction.

In today’s post, I will address some of the details of error correction-notably when to do it and how.

When Do We Correct Errors

The answer to this question is anything but definitive. It really does depend on a number of factors including the type of class, focus of the exercise, and student personality and current mood among others. That being said, the list below gives you some basic guidelines to help you make your decision.

Top 5 Instances for ESL Error Correction

1. If the error impedes meaning No one likes to be constantly misunderstood. If a student is unable to get his/her message across due to an error, that error should definitely be addressed.

2. If it’s an error using the target language of the day If you are teaching present perfect tense and the student is making mistakes using that tense, let him/her know. Errors in the target language tend to be more contagious than others, so make sure the student fixes his/her mistake.

3. If the focus of the class is accuracy The focus of the class definitely affects the amount of error correction that you do. In classes such as pronunciation and grammar, the goal is accuracy. So, it makes sense to correct mistakes. In conversation classes, however, the goal is generally fluency. So, it generally makes sense to do error correction less often.

4. If the error is consistent Some students who have studied for a long time sometimes make the same mistakes over and over again. With these students, it can be helpful to focus on the correction of one of these habitual errors. However, be careful not to overdo it. If the error is fossilized and you constantly draw attention to it, you may end up frustrating the student. Address it gently and with an awareness of the student’s mood and attitude.

5. If the student requests it Some students have very specific goals for their learning, one of which is better accuracy in English. If a student asks you to correct his/her mistakes, do it. Just as in #4 on this list, make sure not to correct too many errors at once. Focus on 1 or 2 to correct, and bring those to the student’s attention.

The second part of the ''when" is whether to correct in the moment or after the error has occurred. In-the-moment corrections work well if the focus of the exercise is accuracy or if the error is one a student can relatively easily correct. If the focus of your exercise is fluency or if the error is a bit more complicated, it might be best to write down the mistakes you hear and then address them after class or in a quiet moment during class.

How do we Correct Errors?

This may seem like a silly question. We should just tell them the correct answer, right? Not necessarily. Corrections often go in one ear and out the other. However, if we involve the students in the error correction process, they are much less likely to make the mistake a second time. Strategies we can use to get our students involved include the following.

1. Repeat back the sentence in a questioning tone.

This works well for errors in which the student is missing a word or when the wrong word or phrase as has been used. If the student is missing a word, sometimes the simple repetition of the sentence helps him/her understand the error. If is an incorrect word, emphasize the word. Examples:

ESL Student's incorrect statement: She eating pizza.

Your correction: She eating pizza?

ESL Student's incorrect statement: Mary be late today.

Your correction: Mary BE late today?

2. Fill in the blanks.

This style works well for missing words. In this method, you do a gesture or make sound to help students know that something is missing.

Example:

ESL Student's incorrect statement: She eating pizza.

Your correction: She ______ eating pizza.

3. Miming the correct word or phrase.

This method works when incorrect words or phrases are used. If it is an issue of meaning, you can mime the correct word. If it’s an issue of verb tense, you can use simple gestures for past, present, or future.

Example:

ESL Student's incorrect statement: I go the store yesterday.

Your correction: Not I go, but I (gesture like you are waving behind you to demonstrate past tense)

4. Mouthing or whispering the correct word or phrase.

This method also works well for incorrect words or phrases. You repeat the sentence back to the student, but in place of the word that was wrong, you whisper or mouth the correct answer

Example:

ESL Student's incorrect statement: I always use a skirt.

Your correction: I always (mouth the word “wear”) a skirt

Please note that it might take some practice to get students to work with you on error correction. Some students come from cultures in which ELL teachers simply provide the answer. So, you may need to ease the students into this process. Start doing error correction one-on-one initially or in small groups. Once students get the hang of it, then you can do it with the class as a whole.

Do any of you have specific strategies for error correction? How does it work for you? Please feel free to comment below.

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