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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

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