How to deal with mistakes

On-the-spot, or at the end of the class? The eternal question for the English teacher (at least on the subject of error correction). All students will want some form of error correction, but getting it right can be a challenge. Under-correct and the student may feel that they aren’t getting enough benefit from the class. Over-correct and you risk interrupting the conversational flow. What a minefield!

Students always have an opinion

When you kick off your new course, you will want to do a needs analysis to get a good idea what your students want to study. I always use this opportunity to find out how the students feel about error correction. Berlin based students tend to have strong views on this and will happily inform you when they want to be corrected (and when you are not correcting them enough). In a 1-to-1 class, this can make tackling mistakes straightforward. Clearly, a group class can be more of a juggling act.

What is your class focus?

Think about the specific type of mistake and what you are trying to accomplish in the class.

When to correct

Type of mistake

Focus of class

Immediately

Repeated/old/common

Accuracy

Pronunciation

Controlled practice

At the end of class/activity

New (not made in class before)

Fluency / Free practice

Complicated grammar

Conversation

Correcting on-the-spot

Berliners usually prefer to be corrected immediately and will pick you up if you don’t do this. Whilst you want to make sure everyone is happy, correcting everything immediately can really ruin the flow of the activity/class. Try to keep it quick and snappy. Longer explanations belong in a dedicated correction slot.

What’s the best way to correct?:

  • The simplest way is to give them the correct answer, but students will often repeat the correct answer parrot fashion and promptly forget it.
  • I usually repeat their mistake back to them, and wait for them to correct themselves
  • Use gestures – pointing backwards when a present verb needs to go to past tense, for example
  • Coughs or other noises when you hear a mistakes can work well when your class expects them
  • A well trained class will even respond to your facial expressions or when they see you reaching for the red pen.

Doing your corrections at the end

Even if you correct the majority immediately, it’s always a good idea to hold an error correction slot at the end of the class, or of a fluency focused activity. It always rounds the class off nicely. The most straightforward way is simply to write the mistakes on the board and correct them in open class.

You could also:

  • Talk through each mistakes and do more examples
  • Do this as a team activity – give them 5 minutes to find the mistakes in groups
  • You can even turn this part into a game! Try a sentence auction to introduce the competitive element.

In my experience, a combination of immediate and ‘at-the-end’ correction works best in Berlin. Correct repeated mistakes and pronunciation problems immediately. More complicated and new errors at the end of the class or activity.

More information

Here are some other articles/websites:

John Hughes writing in the Guardian

British Council

Marisa Constantinides article on Fossilized errors, ELT Chat

 

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2 Responses

  1. Adi Rajan says:

    It’s fascinating how attitudes towards error correction differ across cultures. Your remark that “Berliners usually prefer to be corrected immediately” sparked off this thought. In Southern India, learners often doubt my credibility or the genuineness of my feedback if I don’t offer up anything corrective or negative … and are suspicious if all they are offered for an activity or an exercise is praise 🙂

    • That certainly seems to be the case in Berlin too. Students often lack confidence in their own language abilities. To a certain extent you can understand this as if they do something perfectly, then the activity could be too easy for them or they really don’t need to be taking a class.

      I find that adding a few positive sentences, e.g. grammar that was used correctly, in the feedback slot at the end can help them recognise their abilities as well as areas to work on.

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