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 themselves. This increases the chance they won’t make the same error again. Fingers crossed.
Let’s have a look at the factors that make up good error correction.
Accuracy vs. Fluency
Just like battle between good and evil, there is on-going 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.
Really 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; any grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary can be faulty. However, that’s not the way 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 really impact the effectiveness of communication.
It goes without saying that errors that students are making in what you’re trying to get them to learn are the most important and urgent to correct, whereas an occasional off-target error 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, and it may be worth stopping an activity to make sure that all students are aware of the correction (otherwise students may continue practicing incorrectly!)
Off target errors should be done as soon as you can, 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, then 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 fossilize.
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). Either through partner activities (students have to give their partner a token every time they make an error), to small group activities (students try to make a presentation with zero errors), there are choices to get students to cooperate.
The last choice is explicit correction from you, the teacher.
Raising Awareness (That an Error Has Been Made)
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 personally love using non-verbal correction for immediate on-the-spot self-corrections and save verbal error correction for after an activity has finished.
Technique (How to Correct an Error)
These are all the techniques you learned on your TEFL course – things like timelines for clearing up grammar tense misconceptions, to the phonemic chart and modelling for pronunciation errors.
I personally learned loads of great techniques when I first 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. Don’t say I never do anything for you :-).