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Mistakes, Errors, and Correction

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Mistakes, Errors, and Correction

Imagine a pair of your intermediate students has the following conversation:

     A:  What are you going to do at Saturday afternoon?
     B:  I'm going to go to shopping.
     A:  I understand. Do you know what are you going to buy?
     B:  Not really. I maybe want to buy some new jeans.

Do you correct the conversation? If yes, what do you correct?

As teachers, we must decide whether or not to offer correction in each and every class. Appropriate correction and feedback is a staple of the ESL EFL classroom, just as are drills or speaking activities. But too much correction produces a class of students whose fluency suffers. They become overly concerned with grammatically correct responses. They produce lengthy pauses before answering even the most simple of questions, focusing too much on word order, verb tense, and the like. If the teacher swings the pendulum the other way and corrects too little, then words tumble out of the mouths of students. What comes out, though, is chocked full of problems with grammar and vocabulary. Too much and too little correction can hinder communication.

Before answering the initial question of what to correct, a distinction should be made between a student who uses previously learned material incorrectly and a student who incorrectly uses material which hasn't yet been studied. One is a mistake and in need of correction. The other is an error and can be ignored.

A mistake is a previously learned grammar point, vocabulary word, or phrase which the student uses incorrectly. He may have studied the material but got some wires crossed between his brain and mouth. Or it's possible he has just momentarily fallen into an old habit. Or he's so focused on using the newly presented target language of the lesson that he makes a slip of the tongue elsewhere. If we look at the example conversation at the start of the article, we could assume that lower-intermediate students would be familiar with prepositions of time. As such, student A makes a mistake when he says, "What are you going to do at Saturday?" Student B also makes a mistake with "I'm going to go to shopping."

A student who incorrectly produces language that hasn't yet been studied makes an error. Perhaps the student is trying to apply rules from his native tongue to English. Perhaps he has taken a previously studied English rule and extended it to a new and unacceptable situation. Perhaps the student watched a TV program in English the night before and is trying to use a word or phrase from there.

From the conversation, student A uses an embedded question, which likely falls just beyond his ability. He doesn't know that the word order will be different from a simple question, so he asks, "Do you know what are you going to buy?" instead of "Do you know what you are going to buy?"

With this in mind, it becomes easier to answer what should and shouldn't be corrected. In the sample conversation, there are three mistakes. The embedded question can be left alone. Any time the teacher wants to correct an error, then he must also be prepared to teach the new material. In our example, embedded questions would easily require a full lesson or two to teach, drill, practice, and apply. It would be better to ignore the error with a lower-intermediate class, although the teacher may want to focus a future lesson on embedded questions.

But that now leads towards a new problem. With the above explanation of errors and mistakes, a less experienced teacher might falsely believe that he should always correct a mistake and never correct an error. On the other hand, an experienced teacher may have already compiled a long list of buts to the above information. Again, too much correction leads to communication problems, as also does too little correction. A few additional points therefore need to be covered concerning what to correct.

During the first portion of the lesson time gets devoted to the target language. The teacher presents the material and follows up with drills for the students. The drills make the level familiar and automatic. If the teacher leaves a mistake uncorrected here, then students could establish the wrong pattern. In the future, it will become more difficult to break the habit.

The teacher should follow controlled activities with the chance to practice the language in a semi-controlled manner. Mistakes might pop up with the new material, as well as with English studied from past lessons. The majority of mistakes with the target language should be covered because the teacher wants to reinforce the correct language pattern. As for other mistakes, the more frequent ones may also be addressed. Any errors that require a minimal detour from the target language and/or purpose of the lesson are okay for correction too. From the example conversation, student A says quite unnaturally, "I understand." The teacher might want to use this opportunity to bring up and briefly practice a more natural response, such as, "Uh-huh."

Finally the last portion of the lesson has students use the language in free activities. This means tying the day's new material with other grammar and vocabulary in natural conversations and real, relevant situations. Role-plays, discussions, presentations, and task-based activities work extremely well. However, because these activities usually require extended talking, it's impossible for the teacher to jump in, stop the flow of the conversation, correct, and then expect students to continue where they left off.

The teacher should instead take notes during this final stage of the lesson. He may then present the mistakes in the final few minutes. This will ensure students can use the language uninterrupted and naturally. If there were many mistakes with the target language during this portion of the lesson, the teacher should use it as a guide for future lesson. He needs to spend more time on drills and practice in the early stages of the class. He may schedule a review session or provide different opportunities for homework. If there were errors but few mistakes, then the teacher has done a great job. It means that the lesson had a good balance between fluency and accuracy, as students correctly used what was taught. They also felt confident enough to experiment with the language... and that's what English study is all about.

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