The Correction Dilemma

Few of us would argue that correction is one of the most important things we can provide as language teachers. Taking someone’s own, often carefully crafted response or utterance and helping them to perfect it is something that students often only receive in the classroom. This makes it valuable, desired and ultimately expected by your students.

The reason that students value the correction they receive inside the classroom so much is because they simply don’t get it on the outside. This seems especially so in English, where cultural politeness prevents most natives from correcting grammar mistakes as long as they understand the speaker (and the rest of the time we may just smile and nod!).

However, if used incorrectly or too frequently it can have a disastrous effect on fluency, confidence and morale. The goal of correcting every mistake is not only nigh on impossible, but is detrimental to students.

Constantly interrupting your learners to correct minor mistakes can be distracting and demoralising. It will make students feel under pressure and begin to obsess over accuracy. When they obsess over accuracy their fluency will take a back seat. And what is the point in learning a language without efficient, fluent communication being the primary goal?

What to Correct

So if correction is so crucial, how do you hit that sweet spot between effective and destructive?

Choosing what to correct is half the battle. Remember that correction should always have the students’ interests at heart, and should only be done in situations that allow them to grow as language speakers. Therefore I recommend that you consider the following four points;

  • Be selective – Don’t flag up an elementary student for using the past simple instead of the past perfect continuous. If they’re trying out language that’s above their current ability, let it slide. Focus on correcting things around or just above their level.
  • Be supportive – When they do make a mistake, make sure not to patronise them or make them feel ‘singled out’. Promote a culture of learning from your mistakes as a positive thing.
  • Be informative – Make sure that what you’re correcting is genuinely useful. Let’s say a student has accidentally mispronounced the brand ‘Mitsubishi’ when talking about their weekend. If the lesson is not about cars or any subject that would involve that word, let it go. There’s only so much vocabulary they can learn in a day. You will have to let some of it pass by – especially at lower levels.
  • Be collaborative – Don’t make it about the person, make it about the error. Involve the whole class in every mistake and let learners solve errors together.

When to Correct

As well as carefully choosing what to correct, it’s also a matter of when. It’s important to understand that there is a time and a place for highlighting errors. When a mistake is made in my classroom, my thought process goes something like this…

Correct them ‘on the spot’

Correct them later (Delayed Error Correction)

If the learner incorrectly uses a piece of target language when giving a response

When the learners are having a conversation together in their second language (L2)

When practising the form of a particular grammar structure

At times when learners are trying to complete an exercise together and using their L2 to communicate

If a learner requests a correction

If the activity is a ‘freer practise’ of freshly learnt vocabulary or grammar, and the aim is to build fluency

When the learner is not making sense.

When the learner is having a general conversation with you or another student outside the lesson or outside of an activity.

On the Spot Correction

How do we correct effectively ‘on the spot?’ Contrary to how I’ve seen some teachers behave (often in my own experiences as a student in high school), it is not about simply stopping the learner and preventing them from continuing until they fix the error. When a learner makes an error that requires ‘on the spot’ correction, it’s important to try and follow the below process.

  1. Wait for the student to finish their sentence. ‘On the spot’ correction doesn’t mean that general social constructs cease to exist! Let the student finish their sentence before speaking up.
  2. Respond to their sentence, or praise them in some way for their attempt. Some kind of response to the learner is crucial here, before you correct anything. Assuming they have made themselves understood, respond to them. If they’ve given you an opinion or information about themselves, answer in a way that you would when speaking naturally with a native speaker. This keeps learners motivated because they are making real, practical conversation and they understand that they have successfully got their information across in their L2.
  3. Clearly and respectfully draw their attention to the error. There are many ways of verbal and non-verbal highlighting of errors (it’s a whole blog post in itself!). Generally speaking, a non verbal indication is better to avoid repeating the error as this can lead to confusion. Using the example of a mispronounced word, you could choose to write the word on the board. Another method is to simply repeat up to the mistake, then gesture for the rest of the sentence. Whichever way you prefer, be sure to be clear and efficient at highlighting exactly where the mistake was.
  4. Offer the student the first opportunity to make the correction. As tempting as it often can be, the only time you should really be giving the student the correct answer straight away is when the word or grammar structure is somewhat above their level or a little irrelevant to the current subject and you don’t want to open a proverbial ‘can of worms’. You should give the student the first opportunity to correct themselves.
  5. Open the correction up to the class. If the student can’t correct themselves, offer the question to the rest of the class. As well as turning a mistake into a learning opportunity for everyone, if you regularly follow this method of correction the class will always be listening to other students when they speak, aware that they may be called upon to help with the corrections. This is invaluable for creating the right atmosphere in your classroom and is useful for maintaining concentration among larger groups.
  6. Prompt them or give it to them. If they still can’t give you the answer, there are two options. If you’re certain that they should know the answer at this stage of the course, help them by giving them a prompt. This could be the first letter or syllable of a piece of vocabulary, or it could be a quick gap fill on the board. If, however, you’re not convinced that they have ever come across the phrase before, you can now provide the answer.
  7. Cover the meaning, pronunciation and form of the answer. Don’t just think that giving them the answer is the end of it, however. Even if you managed to elicit the answer from the student or a classmate, you have identified a gap in their knowledge that you should look to fill. With the class, clarify the meaning of the new language and drill the pronunciation. Make a note of the word on the board and include it in your vocabulary recycling later in the lesson.

In practise, these seven steps will probably take just thirty seconds or so, even if you have to cover them all. Does it seem like a lot of work? I thought so too when I started to integrate this process into my teaching, but after just a few days it became second nature. Besides, these unscripted moments may be the most memorable and important learning opportunities in your whole lesson!

You see, this kind of learning that occurs when a student attempts to say something from the heart, but cannot, is the most natural way to acquire new language that you can hope for in a classroom. You should pounce on these moments, record them, recycle them and above all, you should encourage them.

Delayed Error Correction

What is delayed correction? In short, it’s one of the best tools for nurturing fluency and confidence in your classroom. It is correcting mistakes without shyness or shame, and it can be a fun, engaging activity for the whole class to take part in.

Delayed Error Correction (DEC for short) is about making discreet notes when mistakes are made and returning to them later in the lesson to be corrected together. It should be a regular part of every language teacher’s lesson structure, and should be used frequently to nurture fluency and allow students to ‘get on with it’.

For me, at least one DEC stage is the first thing on my lesson plan, and I generally add a couple more throughout the lesson as the need arises and depending on the activities.

So how do we do it?

  1. Monitor the students quietly throughout the activity. Delayed correction requires the teacher to carefully listen to the students while they complete their pair and group tasks. Monitor closely enough to hear, but not so close that you become a distraction or a resource to ask for information. This is their moment to speak, and they should be free to train their fluency without fear of making mistakes.
  2. Make notes of any relevant information. I hesitate to use the word ‘mistakes’ here. DEC isn’t just about highlighting errors, although you should certainly be making notes of common issues or problems with target language from the lesson. DEC is about highlighting anything that may be useful or encouraging for your students. For more information on this, see the infographic below.
  3. Choose the most interesting, relevant and important for your DEC stage. Using your list, at the end of the activity or lesson you should have a handful of different examples of good language use, areas that need to be worked on and hopefully some interesting new language.
  4. Praise everyone, focusing on the examples of strong language use. Repeating and highlighting strong language use from a couple of students reinforces to the class that the teacher is listening to them, and builds confidence in you as a both an educator and as a person. Make sure to be generous but sincere with your praise, and to spread it evenly amongst all the students throughout the course.
  5. Get feedback from a few students who had interesting language to share. Use this opportunity to naturally focus on some of that interesting language you noted. For example, if one of the students was using some vocabulary for local holiday traditions that you found interesting, or perhaps used an archaic turn of phrase where you’d like to offer a more colloquial or fun expression, elicit it from them and use the opportunity to start a quick class discussion about it.
  6. Finally, look at the issues. By completing the previous two stages you have succeeded in treating your students as individuals and praised and encouraged them on their language use. Now, only after these stages, is it time to offer some correction. This should be done collaboratively, and you should try and turn the mistakes into gap fills or write the sentences incorrectly and get the class to solve them in pairs. Giving learners the chance to solve their own mistakes promotes autonomy and self correction, two things often lacking in many adult students due to their own experiences at school.

It’s important here that you change any information in the answers that would identify the learner who made the mistake, even to themselves. It’s discouraging to be singled out, so if someone used the wrong tense when talking about their sister, change ‘sister’ to ‘brother’ to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t ‘their’ mistake.

Sometimes your students may make no errors at all with the target language, but this doesn’t mean you get to skip this stage! Invent some errors that could have feasibly been made by the students, and use them to create the activity. Your students will have an extra opportunity to consolidate their learning, and they will benefit from having this as a regular part of their class routine.

Correcting Correctly

By diversifying how we correct our learners, we are adapting to their needs based on the language goals of a particular activity, rather than treating language learning as a simple ‘painting by numbers’. Both ‘on the spot’ and delayed correction methods are invaluable in their own way, and it’s up to us as teachers to implement them in a way that is both supportive and engaging.

Making mistakes and learning from them is how we learnt to speak as babies, but as we get older that shame of making a mistake develops and often never quite goes away. It is one of the hardest things to break down as a language teacher, but if you can transform the culture of your classroom into a place where students are encouraged to push themselves, and be rewarded with extra opportunities to learn when they make mistakes, you’ll in turn be rewarded with greater fluency and more confident students.

This is part one in our series ‘Nurturing and Promoting Conversation in the Classroom’. Sign up to our newsletter and never miss a post, or follow us on the social media links on this page.

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