Archive for Tag: error correction

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 5: Fossilization

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I love the visual that the word fossilization prompts, even though I hate the idea that students might be making the same mistakes in 10 years that they are making now. It’s almost as though these mistakes are frozen in time; the speaker keeps making them even though other aspects of his/her English have improved. According to Jack Richards, in his fantastic book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, fossilization refers to “errors that appear to be entrenched and difficult to eradicate, despite the teacher’s [and I would argue the student’s] best efforts.” (Richards, 2008) He further points out that a great deal of the research regarding fossilization put a large part of the blame on the communicative classroom in which fluency is valued over accuracy. In other words, students are encouraged to make meaning when they speak and write rather than focusing on being grammatically correct.

Irregular Verbs or Respiration Vocabulary?

In fact, reading this made me feel a bit worried. In my teaching context, I deal with students whose goal is to get out of EAL and into their mainstream Secondary classes as soon as possible. They matriculate gradually, as their English develops, but clearly, for me and them, the focus is on academic vocabulary at the expense of grammatical accuracy. To my great shame, I have long argued that students in Year 8 Science need to be able to talk about the Respiratory System in order to pass their classes rather than waste time memorizing irregular past participles. I think I even wrote it in an earlier post in this very series! After all, no one ever failed a Science test because they wrote “breaked” instead or “broke.”

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Error Correction and Fossilization

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

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.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Checking the answers in a homework or in-class assignment can be one of those huge time eaters. It is a necessary evil. After all, there is little point doing an activity if students never find out if their responses are accurate or not. However, calling on students to mechanically read their answers aloud can take up a lot of valuable class time with very little pay off. It is boring, predictable and involves very limited student talk.

My goal when I spend time checking student answers is twofold. First, I want to make sure students get the correct answers. And second, I want to make sure students understand why their answers were incorrect so that they can learn from their mistakes. But how is this best accomplished?

Time for Questions

When I assign homework, I usually provide the answer key. Students do the work, check their own answers, and put a star beside the questions which they don’t understand. At the beginning of every class, I ask the class if they had any questions about the homework. We go page-by-page and students can ask their questions and get a brief explanation. This system has worked very well for me in adult classes which are low-stress. Students have to feel comfortable enough to ask questions in front of their peers without losing face.

Of course, you also have to be able to trust the students to do the work before looking at the answers! One teacher I observed who did not have the same faith in her students put several copies of her answer key on the back wall. Students came early to the class to check their answers; it was a genius way to encourage students to come on time!

Check with a Partner

In a recent edition of Voices, Nicholas Northall suggests giving students time after an activity to check their answers with a partner. “This time allows them to discuss any answers they don’t agree on and to reach a conclusion as to what the right answers are” (Northall, 2010, page 11). This pair work would best supplement, not substitute for, a traditional answer check. Students still need your final word on “right or wrong.” But during this time, the stronger students may be able to explain their own choices to their partner, thereby eliminating the need for as much teacher talk.

Write it on the Board

I once observed a teacher who had her students come up one-by-one to write the answers to the homework on the board. This was SO boring for the students, and it cut into the time the students might be using for a communicative activity. Instead, she could have had the students who came into the class early write their answers up before the class even started. Or, she could have had the students work in pairs, as described above, and then shown the answers on a PowerPoint slide or overhead projector transparency.

On the other hand, I observed another teacher who used board writing in a very valuable way. She played a listening and, as the class listened and took notes, she took her own notes. After, the students were able to compare what they had written with her answers. It was immediately clear to the students if their notes were accurate and adequate.

Running for the Answer

Another teacher I observed turned her answer check into a fun communicative activity. She put copies of the answer key in several places around the class. She put the students into pairs; one was the “grader”, the other was the “runner”. The “graders” sat with both their assignments and their partners’ assignments. The “runners” moved between the answer key and the “graders.” telling them what the correct answers were. This format did take a bit of extra time, but the energy level in the class was high and all the students were interacting, so, in my opinion, the time was well-spent.

How do you check answers in your classes? Do you have any novel techniques for making the most out of this time? How do you make your answer checks clear and communicative?

Northall, N. (2010) What’s the answer to question 5? Voices, 216.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Too Much Red Ink? Providing Feedback on Students’ Written Work

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

Fairly recently, William Ancker conducted a research survey of students’ and teachers’ attitudes to error correction. The survey was administered in 15 countries and the results reveal that 24% of teachers, but 78% of students, feel that all written errors (or mistakes) should be corrected.

I’d say his findings confirm many teachers’ assumptions about their students’ views on error correction. When it comes to written work, students tend to expect that most, if not all, of their mistakes will be pointed out. They want to know what they need to work on, and they expect us, the teachers, to give them detailed comments on their work.

Many teachers I’ve known have argued that a page strewn with corrections or comments may not only impact students’ motivation negatively, but may also cause students to be confused about the structure and content of their writing.

Meeting expectations without hindering learning

Is there a way to satisfy students’ expectations without hindering their learning? In my experience, two strategies can help achieve a balance here: establishing a healthy attitude towards mistakes (that is, one which views mistakes as learning opportunities), and using an effective method of pointing out mistakes.

This is the method I use:

1. I give my students a copy of a chart listing grammar problems which are common at their level. To familiarize them with the tool, I provide them with a short paragraph containing various errors, assign them to identify and correct those, and ask them to expand the chart by adding examples of grammar problems found in the paragraph.

The columns of the chart are labeled in the following way:

SYMBOL – MEANING – EXAMPLE – CORRECTION – CHAPTER/PAGE

2. While correcting students’ written work, I underline problematic structures in the text and write symbols representing them in the margins. This is a fairly typical approach today. However, I also circle certain symbols. The purpose here is to indicate grammatical details that have been emphasized or specifically taught in previous lessons–those which students should be able to correct easily. In other words, I circle what I hope are mistakes (one-time slips), not actually errors (problems caused by students’ not knowing particular grammar structures yet).

Uncircled symbols suggest gaps or other issues. Students can learn the names of most of these by looking to the error chart, and then, if they wish, consult a grammar reference book to learn more about the issues. Students can also choose simply to wait for future lessons which address those grammatical issues.

3. As I discuss grammar points in class, I ask students to add new information to columns of the error chart, such as chapter and page numbers indicating the places in the textbook where certain points are covered.

Win-Win: Students get the feedback they want and the tools to self-correct

This method has worked well for me and my students on a few levels.

  • First, it allows me to give students the thorough feedback they generally expect.
  • Second, it alerts students to the mistakes they should be able to correct themselves. (Self-correction, it seems to me, is crucial to progress.)
  • Third, it affords students opportunities to investigate problem areas on their own. This encourages them to be independent in their studies and to go beyond what we do in the classroom.

I suppose we all feel awkward when we make a mistake and someone points it out, but if correction is done in a friendly, supportive and constructive way, I think we usually value it and appreciate the chance to remedy the problem, however small, and to increase our facility in writing. Sometimes progress lies on the other side of a blush (!).

Have you ever asked your students about their views on error correction? If so, what were their responses?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on Oral Correction

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

At a Sunshine State TESOL conference a year or two ago, I attended a session given by a professor from the University of Central Florida about methods of correcting of oral grammar. The paper presented was the result of a survey given to 80 community college students in Florida. They were asked which type of correction they preferred to receive from an instructor.

While I can’t remember the sample sentence used in the survey, the correction choices given to the students were as follows:

Student says “I go to the store yesterday.”

The choices:
  1. Rising intonation question (You go to the store yesterday?)
  2. Recast (I WENT to the store yesterday.)
  3. Explicit (Don’t say “go” for the past- say “went”)
  4. Metalanguage (Are you talking about the past or present? What has to change in your sentence if you are talking about the past? And, so, what is the past tense of the verb you want?)
The preferred correction method by a wide margin was method 4: metalanguage explanation. It seems that walking the student from the error through the correct answer is seen by students as being the most effective and the most “enjoyable,” if correction can be enjoyable.

We might jump to the conclusion that the preferred method was culturally related; however, the study included students from all different cultures, both low and high context. That got me thinking that maybe the preference bias had to do with educational level and goals. Maybe the fact that all the students were in community college meant they had developed a sense of what worked for them, or maybe being in community college meant they were getting strong and direct grammar instruction so the metalanguage was comprehensible and meaningful.

Personally, I use all four methods in my classes depending on the situation. Although I would never say “DON’T DO THAT — DO THIS,” but rather “Try this instead.” The metalanguage method logically seems that it would have the most permanent effect on learning, since students would know the “why” behind constructs and thus be able to correct themselves better in the future. It’s kind of like the Band-aid or surgery metaphor: going through a Socratic metalanguage approach addresses the root of the problem while an explicit correction or a recast merely puts a band-aid on the problem which will likely “erupt” again at another time.

The only problem I have with the metalanguage correction method is that it tends to single out a single erring student for what could be a long and tortuous questioning. I have gotten into downward spirals where I ask the student a leading question and he can’t answer. So I ask a more basic question, which it turns out he can’t answer either. Then I try a question from a different approach. By this time, the student just wants the ground to open up and swallow him, so I have probably now opened up the question to the entire class, trying to make it a class lesson instead of the single person focus it started out as. Still, that’s a pretty arduous process to be repeated X number of times in a 53-minute class!
My blogger colleague, Tamara Jones, recently related this experience:

“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 pose this for consideration:

What if one day, like a random quantum misfire, Tamara correctly said “aux”? This resulted in thunderous applause, in other words, positive reinforcement, which led to correct use of “aux” from that point forward? What if her new behavior wasn’t a result of the recast after all? Let’s face it — just because it’s “common sense” that correction will result in modified behavior . . . well, we’ve been wrong before! For a look at that very possibility, read What’s Wrong With Oral Correction.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What’s the Best Way to Correct?

Tamara Jones
jonestamara@hotmail.com
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.