Thursday, March 19, 2009

What’s the Best Way to Correct?

Tamara Jones
SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Recently there have been several blogs about the importance of correcting errors. Students beg for it, and teachers know it is an essential part of language learning. So, if we all agree that corrective feedback is helpful, what are our options? How can we best address student mistakes? In terms of correcting spoken errors, we have several options:

Correction Definition Example: “He go.”
recasts repeat with correction “He goes.”
confirmation checks request meaning clarification by supplying corrected form “Did you mean he goes?”
explicit overt explanation and correct form “No, not he go.You want to use the 3rd person singular.He goes.”
repetition repeat the error with emphasis “He go?”
clarification questions signal a lack of understanding “I don’t understand.”
metalinguistic clues overt explanation without correct form “That’s not correct.You need to use the third person singular.”

As a teacher, I have used each of these methods at various times in my many years in front of a class. As a French student, I have (depressingly often) been on the receiving end of a variety of these correction techniques as well.

For the first several weeks of my French class, I repeatedly said “dans les Etats-Unis” when I referred to my life in the USA. My teacher patiently recasted and recasted and recasted: “aux Etats-Unis.” It was almost like a running joke in the class, but for some reason, I just could not get it right … until one glorious day when I just remembered. The entire class applauded, and since that day, I have said it correctly. Although researchers have often doubted the effectiveness of recasts, I am living proof that our patience is not in vain. I think the key is to keep them short and emphasize the correction.

Your Error for All to See

Another error correction strategy that my French teacher is fond of using is a variation of metalinguistic clues. When she hears an error and doesn’t want to interrupt, she writes it on the board. I do this, too, with my students. There is something about seeing the mistake that makes it easier to correct, most of the time. I use this a lot with my private lesson students, so I can offer the error correction they want and avoid the dreaded accusation that I am not helping them, but not interrupt the flow of speech unnecessarily. Some students have gotten so good, they actually correct themselves when they see me pick up my pen.

What Works for You?

In the end, we need to think about the preferences of our students and our own personalities as teachers. I would be interested to hear which of the above techniques you have used successfully or unsuccessfully, and which you have been on the receiving end of. In other words, what do you prefer as a teacher and a student?

Lyster, R., & Ranta, L. (1997) Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 37-66.

O’Relly, L.V., Flaitz, J. and Kromrey J. (2001) Two Modes of Correcting Communicative Tasks: Recent Findings. Foreign Language Annals, 34/3, 246-257.


Comment from Ela Newman
March 21, 2009 at 9:22 am

Hi Tamara,

Your comment about writing down students’ mistakes reminded me of the time I was introduced to this method as a learner of English. My private tutor, who was very fond of using tasks requiring both fluency and accuracy, would regularly produce a list of mistakes she’d noticed in my speech. At first, I rememeber being uncomfortable with this method. I understood its purpose, I think, but at the same time when seeing the tutor take endless notes, I’d pause my speech to analyze what I had just said. I must say, however, that the tutor’s feedback was so helpful that I started to appreciate the method and learned to ignore the moments when the “pen was in motion.” I’ve used the method myself with one adjustment: I tell students that I note down not only their mistakes, but also the most impressive structures and vocabulary items that they have used. This modification allows me to give positive feedback as well, but most importantly, it seems to take the “worry” off students’ minds. After all, I may have only positive comments to share with them.

The method you describe is a great way of offering thorough feedback. I’ve benefited from it, and I’m sure your students have as well.


Comment from sara
June 18, 2012 at 4:35 am

saima has shown a good attitude about trying to show her working skills and confidence.Keep it up!

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