Skip to main content

Correcting students' errors

I am currently reading The Handbook of Language Teaching edited by Michael Long and Catherine Doughty. It's an excellent summary of research into many aspects of second language learning and teaching. Some teachers may find it slightly heavy-going, full, as it is, with detailed references to research, but I recommend it to you if you are looking for some serious methodological underpinnings to your work as a language teacher.

Diane Larsen-Freeman, a major name is second language acquisition research writes an interesting chapter about teaching grammar, part of which is devoted to error correction.

She begins by saying that the value of correction is hotly debated and that research offers no clear guidance on the best approach. That's useful! Some researchers feel that correcting at all is a waste of time since it makes students anxious and doesn't actually improve acquisition. Most researchers, however, take the view that giving correction in a supportive way is of value.

As with other areas of grammar instruction, you can correct explicitly or implicitly. In the latter case this takes place through means such as asking for clarification, confirming what the student has said, and by using recasts. She gives this example of an interaction between teacher and student:

Student: I was in pub
Teacher: In the pub?
Student: Yeah and I was drinking beer with my friend.
Teacher: Which pub did you go to?

Recasts are attractive because they are barely intrusive and take place within a meaningful exchange. However, some students seem to ignore them, at least in the short term. Perhaps there is a case, therefore, for being more explicit about when a student has made a mistake.

Another appealing approach is to use a prompt, such as repeating the student's error verbatim with a rising intonation, witholding approval and waiting for the student to "self-repair".

Sometimes explicit negative feedback might pay dividends, especially where there is a clear contrast between the first and second language. Without specific negative feedback the student may never actually realise they are making mistakes.

Larsen-Freeman says, and she is no doubt right, that error correction may be variously effective depending on the setting, the student, the age of the student and the type of error being made. There is probably no one best method for all occasions and as a teacher you may need to exercise very subtle judgments.

What about correcting students' written work? She does not refer to this, but once again, research does not give us definitive answers. Most teachers like to supply explicit corrections and some evidence supports this approach. Other studies, however, have shown that when two groups are compared, one whose written work is left uncorrected and the other supplied with corrections, there is little if any difference in the performance of the two groups.

So could it be better to offer implicit, or indirect correction, i.e. where errors are underlined but corrected versions not inserted. Gianfranco Conti, in a detailed blog on this issue ( points out the difficulties of this approach, e.g. the fact that students may not know the right answer.

So there are few unambiguous answers in this field. As always, it is really hard to set up rigorous, long term studies which isolate one approach over another. So teachers are left with their gut feelings and sense of duty. My own inclination during oral work was to ignore error or use recasts far more than provide explicit negative feedback. On paper I would use a mixture of explicit correction, some indirect correction (underlining) and, with the weakest students, I would sometimes ignore minor error for fear of plastering too much red ink over their work

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Popular posts from this blog

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…