A lot of time and effort is spent on training courses and beyond in encouraging teachers to consider whether immediate or later correction of student errors during oral work is appropriate. There are a variety of good methods and techniques suggested for correcting students' errors on the spot. Mistakes are part of our life; we all make mistakes now and then. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as we learn from them and avoid repeating them over and over.
To correct students’ errors has always been, and will always be the concern of most teachers. Some teachers are in favor of immediate correction, while others are in favor of delayed correction. Some would even go further to consider the whole process as time–consuming. In this article, I would like to dwell, based on my practical experience, upon this controversial issue to offer some suggestions for both immediate and delayed correction.
When students are corrected in front of their classmates, they feel offended and get discouraged. They expect teachers to continually correct them during classes. Failure to do so is likely to create confusion and suspicion on the part of the students. As such, teachers are expected to strive to find most creative ways to deal with this problem that most typically arises. They need to encourage and stimulate their students to participate in class without any fear of making mistakes .
Most students refuse to answer to the teacher in the classroom on the ground that they are most likely to be the laughingstock of their class fellows. Consequently, they get discouraged and feel humiliated. They refrain from responding to the teacher’s questions which may deprive them of a valuable learning opportunity.
Generally speaking, there are three types of oral mistakes that need to be corrected during class-discussion. These are: grammatical, vocabulary, and pronunciation mistakes. This leads us to a very important question: should we interrupt our students during discussion or avoid interrupting them as much as we can? To answer this question we need to ask ourselves whether the focus is on accuracy or fluency. In fact, to save our students the embarrassment and in order not to distract them, we can employ less provocative approaches. One way is to make notes of the most common mistakes made by a student to be discussed later. Write them on the board without revealing the name of the student in order not embarrass him/her. Ask the rest of the class to identify these mistakes and correct them. Another way is to raise an eyebrow, or say, “Excuse me?” Or the teacher can ask for repetition without indicating the mistake.
Also we can employ another approach called, ‘selective correction’. In this case, the teacher decides to correct only certain errors. These errors can be decided by the objectives of the lesson, or the exercise that is being done. In other words, if students are focusing on past simple tense, then only errors related to this grammatical area need to be corrected. Other mistakes are ignored.
In conclusion, the teacher can decide which is the most beneficial and effective approach to error correction based on the situation itself. It will help students overcome their shyness and play an active role in class discussions without being afraid of making mistakes. In this case, they would acknowledge and accept their mistakes as part of the learning process instead of being offended when they are corrected by their teacher .
There some ways of correcting spoken errors are presented:
1. Facial expression. For example, raise an eyebrow, tilt your head to one side or give a slight frown. Most people will do this naturally, but there is a slight chance a teacher’s expression will be too critical or too subtle for your students to pick up on, and you can (amusingly) practice facial expressions in a teaching workshop by participants communicating certain typical classroom messages (“move over there to work with this person”, “work in pairs” etc.) using just their heads and faces, including feedback on spoken errors in that list.
2. Body language.The problems with using body language to show errors could also be that it is taken as very serious criticism or that it is too vague. Possibilities include using your hands (rolling a hand from side to side to mean “so-so attempt”; making a circle by moving your index finger to mean “one more time”; or a cross with fingers, open palms or even forearms to show a very clear “no” or “wrong”- probably only suitable for a team game etc where the responsibility is shared), head (tilted to one side to mean “I’m not sure that sounds correct”), or shoulders (hunched to reinforce “I don’t understand what you are saying”). Again, practicing this in a teaching workshop can be useful, as can eliciting other body language teachers could have used after an observation.
3. Point at the correct language. If you have something on the correct form easily accessible on the whiteboard, in the textbook or on a poster, just pointing at it can be a subtle but clear way of prompting students to use the correct language. What you point at could be the name of the tense or word form they are supposed to be using, a verb forms table or the actual correct verb form, a grammatical explanation, or another grammatical hint such as “future”, “prediction” or “polite”.
4. Repeat what they said. This can mean repeating the whole sentence, one section of it including the wrong part, the sentence up to the wrong part, the sentence with the wrong part missed out (with maybe a humming noise to show the gap that should be filled) or just the wrong part. You can illustrate that you are showing them an error and give some hint as to which bit is wrong by using a questioning tone (for everything you say or just for the wrong part). This method is overused by some teachers and can sound patronizing if used too often or with the wrong tone of voice, so try to mix up the different versions of it described here and to alternate with methods described in the other tips.
5. Just say the right version. The students can then repeat the correct version or tell you what the difference between the two sentences was and why their version was wrong. Because the students don’t do much of the work in this way of being corrected, it might not be as good a way of remembering the correction as methods where you give more subtle clues. Its advantages are that it is quick and suits cultures, classes and students that think of elicitation as shirking by the teacher. It can also be more face-saving than asking them for self-correction, as trying to correct themselves risks making even more mistakes. The “right version” could mean the whole sentence or just the correction of the part that was wrong. In the latter case, you can then ask them to put it into the sentence in the right place and repeat the whole thing.
6. Tell them how many mistakes. This method is only really suitable for controlled speaking practice, but can be a very simple way of giving feedback in that situation. Examples include “Most of the comparatives were right, but you made two mistakes” and “Three words are in the wrong position in the sentence/ are mixed up”. Make sure you only use this method when students can remember what you are referring to without too much prompting.
7. Use grammatical terminology to identify the mistake. For example, “(You used) the wrong tense”, “Not the Present Perfect”, “You need an adverb, not an adjective” or “Can change that into the passive/ indirect speech?” This method is perhaps overused, and you need to be sure that the grammatical terminology isn’t just going to confuse them more.
8. Give the rule. For example, “‘Since’ usually takes the Present Perfect” or “One syllable adjectives make the comparative with –er, not more + adjective” This works best if they already know the rule, and you at least need to make sure that they will quickly understand what you are saying, for example by only using grammatical terminology you have used with them several times before.
9. Just tell them they are wrong (but nicely). Positive ways of being negative include “nearly there”, “getting closer”, “just one mistake”, “much better”, “good idea, but…”,”I understand what you mean but…”, “you have made a mistake that almost everyone does/ that’s a very common mistake”, “we haven’t studied this yet, but…” and “much better pronunciation, but…” With lower level and new classes, you might have to balance the need to be nice with the need to be clear and not confuse them with feedback language that they don’t understand, perhaps by sticking to one or two phrases to give feedback for the first couple of months. It can also be useful to give them translations of this and other classroom language you will use, for example on a worksheet or a poster.
10. Ask partners to spot errors. This is a fairly well-known way of giving feedback in speaking tasks, but it can be a minefield if the person giving feedback has no confidence in their ability to do so or in how well the feedback (i.e. criticism) will be taken, and even more so if the person receiving the feedback will in fact react badly. This method is easier to do and easier to take when they have been told specifically which language to use while speaking and so to look out for when listening, usually meaning controlled speaking practice tasks. The feedback can be made even simpler to give and collect and more neutral with some careful planning, e.g. asking them count how many times their partner uses the target form as well as or instead of looking for when it used incorrectly .
The danger of over-correcting is than students will lose motivation and you may even destroy the flow of the class or the activity by butting in and correcting every single mistake. The other extreme is to let the conversation flow and not to correct any mistakes. There are times when this is appropriate but most students do want to have some of their mistakes corrected as it gives them a basis for improvement.
- Corder S.P. Error Analysis: Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition. London: Longman, 1974.
- Edje J. Mistakes and Correction. London: Longman, 1989.
- Alex Case Fifteen ways of spoken errors, Cambridge 2008.