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How to Correct: Four Ways to Handle Mistakes

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To produce proficient speakers of English, we must offer correction in the classroom. The most obvious and oft-used form tends to be the direct teacher-to-student type, as in: "Akinori, you should say, 'Have you ever gone abroad?' instead of 'Have you ever went abroad?' Remember: go, went, gone." But this kind of correction proves the least desirable, especially if used often, because:

  1. Teacher-to-student correction creates a teacher-centered classroom. In other words, students wait until after the activity to receive confirmation by you on a job well done (or not so well done, as the case may be).
  2. Although there are a variety of techniques which encourage students to notice the language, and which you can employ throughout a lesson, correction from the teacher prevents students from noticing mistakes; and students need to notice their mistakes. It can also harm their ability to analyze why something is wrong.
  3. It negatively affects confidence.
  4. It lowers retention.

In other words, students aren't used to taking responsibility for the language they produce. In the real world beyond the classroom, this can translate into hesitant speakers unsure of their abilities. They likely have weak language-recognition skills, too.

It would be oversimplifying to just state that this type of correction has no place in the classroom, though. It does, especially in the early stages of the lesson when students first practice the target language. They haven't become familiar with the new material, so can't yet judge what's right and what's wrong. They need direct feedback from you. Very low-level students also benefit from teacher-to-student correction. There's the guarantee that any correction given will be right, clearly explained, and supported by examples. But we can offer correction through other techniques as well. In addition to teacher-to-student correction, consider the following:

  1. Self-correction
  2. Group correction
  3. Student-to-student correction

The remaining course of this article will explore and explain the positives and negatives of these different types.

Self-correction: In a classroom that focuses on conversation and self-responsibility, students should correct their English quite frequently. In doing so, they increasingly notice and correct problem spots, both individual weak points and ones connected to their native language. For example, Japanese learners often drop articles (a/an/the) and plural "s," as well as confuse gender pronouns (he/she). Even higher-level learners have this problem. But with repeated self-correction, students better remember the right language and use it... which leads to establishing the right pattern, or habit... which leads to correct use of the language over time. In addition, when students' confidence increases with self-correction because they catch and correct their own mistakes.

Students may correct themselves in the middle of a conversation, such as, "I goed to... I mean, I went to the beach yesterday." This is obviously ideal. Although you want to strive for little to no intervention on your part, students may require a minor prompt. You could raise an eyebrow, for example, or say, "Excuse me?" This signals a mistake was made, and the speaker should review and correct what he just said.

Self-correction should take place quickly, hardly affecting the flow of the conversation. If students correct themselves too much, it can have the opposite affect. It hinders fluency. You also can't always rely on students to catch their own mistakes. These may go uncorrected.

positives: encourages recognition of mistakes; builds confidence; aids retention.

negatives: students may not be able to recognize mistakes; overuse hinders the flow of conversation.

Group correction: A student doesn't always catch his own mistakes, though, no matter how skilled he may be. Or perhaps you don't want to interrupt an activity. Or maybe you feel as though you have corrected too much during the lesson already, so teacher-to-student correction is out, too. Group correction is an alternative, with peers in small groups pointing out mistakes.

The idea is that groups of students work together to help one another. Because large groups can prove intimidating, five students or fewer together end up as ideal.  With role-plays, presentations, interviews, debates, or any other type of group activity, students note mistakes for a feedback session later. Similarly, one student can sit out, observe the conversation, and jot down notes. Other students then rotate out to observe as the activity continues. A correction session follows in which your English learners play the role of the teacher. Always stress that feedback should be positive, and that everyone benefits by pointing out and correcting mistakes together!

Group correction has the potential to foster teamwork, as well as a sense of support in the classroom. Both are important in creating a positive learning environment where students can feel comfortable experimenting with the language. It also provides the opportunity for learners to notice language problems without help or interruption by the teacher. Unfortunately, this also means that any errors (unfamiliar language, or language above the class's ability level) will remain uncorrected. As I wrote in "Mistakes, Errors, and Correction," you don't always want to spend time teaching new material outside the scope of the lesson. And what of the times you do want to take a little detour, though? Unfortunately with group correction, you'll miss opportunities to fine tune your learners' abilities.

Two final points: stronger students will help weaker students in the group, yet everyone benefits. Chances are high that other people in the group made similar mistakes, including the more adept students--just no one noticed. Hence everyone gets reinforcement of the correct language. Student talking time also rises, because learners must point out and discuss the problems.

positives: fosters teamwork and support; stronger students help weaker students; increases student talk time, as everyone talks about the mistakes.

negatives: students may not catch mistakes; errors (unfamiliar language, or English not known to be unnatural) will go uncorrected.

Student-to-student correction: This isn't so dissimilar from group correction. It has many of the same advantages and disadvantages.  The primary difference, though, comes with students working in pairs rather than groups.

You can use this type of correction in any conversational activity. As with all conversations, the primary objective is to exchange ideas and/or information. Assign a secondary objective of listening for, identifying, and correcting any mistakes. Students could also work in pairs with a worksheet, discussing and correcting sentences with mistakes that you have purposely made. Both encourage high student talk time, and fosters comprehension and teamwork.

On the negative side, students could miss problems with the language, or even correct something that doesn't need correction. In group correction, these problems are less likely, because everyone benefits from more than one person's knowledge of English. Student-to-student correction also has a tendency to eat up a lot of time.

positives: encourages high student talk time, comprehension, and teamwork.

negatives: students might not identify the mistakes, or might try to correct language that isn't wrong; can be time-consuming.

If any of the techniques for correction get overused, you limit their effectiveness.In a typical class, some combination of teacher-to-student, self-correction, and peer-to-peer correction provides the most benefit. It ensures that you have the chance to point out problems with the language. It also allows students to build confidence and responsibility through self-correction, plus language recognition skills while correcting a partner or a group member.  When employed together, we produce proficient speakers of English.

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