Thursday, December 6, 2012

Error Correction and Fossilization

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I recently received an email from a teacher concerned that exposing students to incorrect language usage in error correction exercises will lead to fossilization of the incorrect usage.  Below  is my response to him, which I thought might be of interest to others as well.

“Fossilization” means that usage errors have become embedded (i.e., habitual) in L2 learners’ language production.  It occurs when learners get no corrective feedback.  In some cases, L2 learners with fossilized language patterns are able to communicate successfully enough for their immediate purposes and thus have no immediate motivation to change.   Other times, L2s have no resources available to help them improve their English usage.

L2 learners who come to our classes, however, do not want to emerge with fossilized language.  That’s why they are in our classes, trusting us to move them forward during their interlanguage period as they reach toward a higher level of communicative competence.

Error correction exercises mitigate against fossilization.   Here are some of the ways students benefit from these exercises:

  • One of the skills L2 learners need is self-monitoring.  Error correction exercises give them practice in looking carefully at what they themselves have written and cognitively applying what they have learned about using English structures. These exercises remind students to self-monitor and show them how best to do it.
  • These exercises are also excellent summaries of the grammar the students have just been exposed to in their lessons. Teachers find them a good way to review the grammar they have just spent hours or days or weeks teaching the students.  Reinforcement is always helpful in the language classroom.
  • I have also observed that these exercises are popular with students; they enjoy having the chance to apply their knowledge. As teachers, we want motivated and engaged students.  Students don’t want to make mistakes and become actively engaged in experiencing how to detect and correct them.
  • A pragmatic consideration is that the kind of scrutiny students need to use in error correction exercises prepares them for the kind of scrutiny they need to apply when taking a multiple choice test involving grammar.  (Multiple choice grammar tests are, of course, a lot easier than error correction exercises. As teachers we wish we didn’t have to teach to tests, but the world doesn’t always work that way.  Our goal as teachers is to expedite L2 acquisition, not to teach to tests.)

There is no evidence that exposing students to incorrect grammar usage in a controlled teaching situation has any adverse effect.  Fossilization does not arise from this source.  Fossilization occurs when L2 learners create their own grammar patterns and use them repeatedly with no input that their usage is incorrect.  One of the best examples is students’ tendency to drop be in the present progressive or be going to: e.g., #I going to a movie tonight.  If they don’t hear the /m/ and are not made cognitively aware of it, i.e., don’t know that it is supposed to be there, then they don’t use it in their own production and thus create their own fossilized pattern that their brain latches onto.

If, however, students are exposed to language such as #I going to a movie tonight in a teaching situation and are aware of correct English sentence patterns, they can begin to recognize this error and begin the process of applying this recognition to their own self-monitoring.  In this way, L2 can create new and correct patterns faster and more easily than if errors are not pointed out to them. We know that students don’t change incorrect grammar patterns from simple one-time instruction.  L2 acquisition is a lengthy process.   Self-monitoring is just one part and error correction exercises give them good practice.

Fossilization is the result in large part of students not having cognitive awareness of grammar; it is not the result of seeing or hearing incorrect usage.  Seeing an incorrect sentence in a practice exercise does not lead them to make the same grammar error.  That is a misconception that used to be held by some in the field.  L2 students are exposed to incorrect language usage every time they listen to a fellow student or open their mouths/write something down that contains an error (which is often).  It is not this kind of exposure that leads to fossilization.  What fosters fossilization are such things as

  • the lack of grammar information with no input on errors the students are making,
  • the lack of ample practice and experimentation in the acquisition of new structures,
  • and the resulting inability to self-monitor and move onto new levels of usage ability that becomes automatic (in place of the automatic fossilized structures).


Comment from naleeni
December 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm

there is no evidence that incorrect usage by teachers has no adverse effect? I find it hard to accept, sorry Betty.

Many teachers whom I had shadowed as substitute teacher have created indeed by and large contributed to this situation. Even my daughter has had the misfortune of being incorrectly corrected! This in spite of being an L1 speaker of English at home. We are not native speakers of English however. Many Malaysian children, both in elementary as well secondary, go through this misfortune and of course it has to take parents and other modalities to come to the rescue – such as exposure to movie dialogues, songs etc by native speakers. But then again these are children who do have access and help.

However, for children who can’t tell the difference or who have no power to check a poor language teacher are very much at a disadvantage. Therefore, the incorrect usage perpetuates into fossilization )):

Comment from Ismael Tohari
December 13, 2012 at 6:07 am


I have got the following questions:

1. How long will it for an error to become fossilized either for an adult or a child who are learning a language?

2. How long will a fossilized error take to be corrected?

3. Don’t you think that when trying to correct a fossilized error would result in giving up learning on the part of the learner as they don’t see quick improvement since correcting a fossilized error will take more and more time than correcting a mistake?

Thanks a lot.

Comment from admin
December 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Dear Naleeni,

I did not say that incorrect usage by teachers does not lead to fossilization. I believe we have had a misunderstanding. I was responding to a question about error correction exercises — exercises in which the student is asked to identify and correct grammar errors. These exercises are helpful for second language learners and do not lead to fossilization.

Betty Azar

Comment from admin
December 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Hi Ismael,

Betty doesn’t know the answers to your questions, but she asked me to refer you to the following articles on fossilization that might be helpful to you.

Best wishes,

Comment from aziz
August 1, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Hi dear Betty;

I really appreciate your response on this pretty controversial-if we might say-topic.I have always perceived that fossilization is something not easy to get rid of especially in listening as a skill.I could not agree more with your remarks.Error correction does not lead to fossilization on the contrary if as you have said – is used in a controlled teaching situations,learners will recognize unwanted patterns and try to avoid the in the upcoming tasks

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