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Why, When & How to Error Correct your Students
How to correct errors to ensure effective learning.
First of all, don’t worry if your students keep making errors. It shows that they’re learning (however slowly) and trying things out with the language. All of which puts them on the road to success.
It’s your job, however, to make sure that the errors don’t ‘fossilize’ or get stuck into place.
Ideally, you’ll highlight that an error has been made and let the student recover. This increases the chance they won’t make the same error again. Fingers crossed.
Let’s look at the factors that make up good error correction.
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Accuracy vs Fluency
Like a battle between good and evil, there’s an ongoing struggle between accuracy and fluency in the language classroom.
You’ve most likely noticed it yourself - you're in the middle of an activity, and a shy student keeps making a mistake. Do you correct them now and de-rail the conversation they’re having? And also dent their confidence in front of the whole class? Or wait til later, when it won’t be as effective?
While there are no hard and fast rules, there are some guidelines.
It depends on two things:
The type of error
The timing of the error
Type of Error
Errors can be made with just about anything in English; grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary can be faulty. However, that’s not how I’m going to classify learner errors. I prefer another division, the ‘Barefoot Hierarchy of Errors’…
The Barefoot Hierarchy of Errors
This way of classifying errors helps me to make decisions about how and when to correct them in the heat of the class. Different errors have different levels of importance. So from most to least important:
On-Target Errors — errors with the stuff you’re trying to teach them.
Off-Target Errors (high frequency)– high-frequency errors (not stuff you’re trying to teach, but things they should know, and it’s happening waaaay too often to overlook).
Off-Target Errors (low frequency) — occasional and minor errors that don’t impact communication effectiveness.
Students making errors in what you’re trying to get them to learn are the most urgent to correct, whereas an occasional off-target mistake from one student is lower down the scale of importance.
When to Correct
The type of error will indicate when you may wish to correct it. On-target errors should be corrected as soon as possible. It may be worth stopping an activity to ensure that all students are aware of the correction (otherwise, students may continue practising incorrectly!)
Off-target errors should be corrected as soon as is convenient, especially if many students are making this error. It’s probably not worth interrupting a fluency task to do so, however. If it’s just one or two students making the error, you may wish to notify them at a different quiet time sometime later in the class.
Off-target errors that are low frequency you may wish to notify students individually, later, or ignore for the moment.
As with all of these, use your common sense. Don’t overload the students, but also don’t let their English errors fossilise.
Who Should Correct?
Ideally, the student that made the error should correct themselves. By asking a question, they may be made to realise what they did wrong and make the appropriate adjustment.
If not, getting another student to correct can be a great way to correct an error (assuming learners are familiar with each other and not afraid of losing face). Do this through partner activities (students have to give their partner a token every time they make an error) or small group activities (students try to make a presentation with zero errors).
The last choice is an explicit correction from you, the teacher.
Raising Awareness of an Error
You can either say something (“You boy!” :-)) to indicate that the student has made an error, or you can use a non-verbal signal. I love using non-verbal correction for immediate on-the-spot self-corrections and saving verbal error correction for after an activity has finished.
Error Correction Sequence
These are all the techniques you learned on your TEFL course — things like timelines for clearing up grammar misconceptions to the phonemic chart and modelling for pronunciation errors.
I learned great techniques when I started teaching, from observing my fellow teachers’ classes and flagrantly stealing ideas wholesale.
To help you visualise the process of error correction in class, I went and made you a handy flowchart:
See you again in two weeks.
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