Mistakes and Errors
Errors happen when learners try to say something that is
beyond their current level of language processing. Usually, learners cannot correct errors
themselves because they don't understand what is wrong. Errors play a necessary and important
part in language learning. Slips are the result of tiredness, worry or other
temporary emotions or circumstances. These kinds of mistakes can be corrected by learners once
they realise they have made them.
Two main reasons why learners make errors.
There are two main reasons why second language learners make errors. The first reason is
influence from the learner's first language (LI) on the second language. This is called
interference or transfer. Learners may use sound patterns, lexis or grammatical structures from
their own language in English.
The second reason why learners make errors is because they are unconsciously working out
and organizing language, but this process is not yet complete. This kind of error is called a
developmental error. Learners of whatever mother tongue make these kinds of errors, which
are often similar to those made by a young first language speaker as part of their normal
language development. For example, very young first language speakers of English often make
mistakes with verb forms, saying things such as ‘I goed' instead of ‘I went'. Errors such as this
one, in which learners wrongly apply a rule for one item of the language to another item, are
known as overgeneralisation. Once children develop, these errors disappear, and as a second
language learner's language ability increases, these kinds of errors also disappear.
Errors are part of learners' interlanguage, i.e. the learners' own version of the second
language which they speak as they learn. It develops and progresses as they learn more.
Experts think that interlanguage is an essential and unavoidable stage in language learning, in
other words, interlanguage and errors are necessary to language learning.
Errors are a natural part of learning. They usually show that learners are learning and that
their internal mental processes are working on and experimenting with language.
Experts believe that learners can be helped to develop their interlanguage. There are three main
ways of doing this. Firstly, learners need exposure to lots of interesting language at the right
level; secondly they need to use language with other people; and thirdly they need to focus
their attention on the forms of language.
Look at the following examples of learners' oral mistakes. There are mistakes of accuracy
(grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary) and appropriacy. Can you identify them?
She like this picture. (Talking about present habit)
Shut up! (Said to a classmate)
I wear my suit in the sea.
Do you know where is the post office?
The dog /bi:t/ me. (Talking about a dog attacking someone)
Examples 1, 3,4, 5 and 6 all contain examples of inaccurate language.
In Example 1 there is a grammar mistake. The learner has missed the third person s from the
verb. The learner should have said 'She likes this picture'.
Example 2 contains an example of inappropriate language. Although Example 2 is accurate, there is a problem with appropriacy. It is rude to say 'Shut up!' in the classroom. The learner should have said 'Can you be quiet, please?', or something similar.
In Example 3 there is a vocabulary mistake. The learner has used suit instead of swimsuit. The learner should have said “I wear my swimsuit in the sea”.
In Example 4 there is a grammar mistake. The learner has put the subject and verb in the
wrong order in the indirect question. The learner should have said “Do you know where the
post office is?”
In Example 5 there is a pronunciation mistake. The learner has used the long /i:/ sound when she should have used the short /I/ sound. The learner should have said ‘The dog /bit/ me'.
Here are some ways that we can correct oral mistakes:
Finger correction. This shows learners where they have made a mistake. We show one hand to the class and point to each finger in turn as we say each word in the sentence. One finger is usually used for each word. This technique is particularly useful when learners have left out a word or when we want them to use a contraction, for example I'm working rather than l am
working. We bring two fingers together to show that we want them to bring the two words together.
Gestures and/or facial expressions are useful when we do not want to interrupt learners too much, but still want to show them that they have made a slip. A worried look from the teacher can indicate to learners that there is a problem. It is possible to use many different gestures or facial expressions.
Phonemic symbols. Pointing to phonemic symbols is helpful when learners make pronunciation mistakes, for example using a long vowel /u:/when they should have used a short one /u/, or when they mispronounce a consonant. You can only use this technique with learners who are familiar with the relevant phonemic symbols.
Echo correcting means repeating. Repeating what a learner says with rising intonation can
show the learner that there is a mistake somewhere. You will find this technique works well when learners have made small slips which you feel confident they can correct themselves.
Identifying the mistake. Sometimes we need to identify the mistake by focusing learners' attention on it and telling them that there is a problem. This is a useful technique for correcting errors. We might say things like ’You can't say it like that' or 'Are you sure?' to indicate that they have made a mistake.
Not correcting at the time when the mistake is made. We can use this technique to give feedback after a fluency activity, for example. It is better not to correct learners when they are doing fluency activities, but we can make notes of serious mistakes they make. At the end of the activity, we can say the mistakes or write them on the board and ask learners what the
Peer and self-correction. Peer correction is when learners correct each other's mistakes.
Self-correction is when learners correct their own mistakes. Sometimes we need to indicate that there is a mistake for the learners to correct it. Sometimes they notice the mistake themselves and quickly correct it. Peer and self-correction help learners to become independent of the teacher and more aware of their own learning needs.
Ignoring mistakes. In fluency activities we often ignore all the mistakes while the activity is in progress, as the important thing is for us to be able to understand the learners' ideas and for the learners to get fluency practice. We can make a note of frequent mistakes and correct them with the whole class after the activity. We often also ignore mistakes which are above
the learners' current level. For example, an elementary learner telling us about what he did at the weekend might make a guess at how to talk about past time in English. We would not correct his mistakes because the past simple is a structure we have not yet taught him. We may also ignore mistakes made by a particular learner because we think this is best for that
learner, e.g. a weak or shy learner. Finally, we often also ignore slips as learners can usually correct these themselves.
Can you remember how you felt as a learner when your teacher returned a piece of written work? Many learners say they want to have all their mistakes corrected, and some teachers still believe it is a good thing to correct every mistake. But it can be very discouraging for your work to be covered in red marks, with corrections written in between the lines, and a single word at the end, or maybe just a tick.
The key question for teachers to ask themselves is what students learn from this kind of total correction. The answer is probably very little. If everything is corrected, learners will probably look over their work without thinking enough about any individual mistakes. Even if they do pay more attention to the corrections, this method does not involve them in any kind of learning process - they simply look at the corrections and teachers hope this means that they will not repeat the same mistakes.
So, what alternative methods can we use?
Selective correction With this method the teacher still gives the correction, but focuses on one or two areas (e.g. verb tenses, use of prepositions) while ignoring other mistakes. The students are told in advance what the correction focus will be, which should make them think more carefully about those particular aspects when they are writing.
Signposting. One way of getting students to take a more active part in the correction process is just to indicate where there are mistakes, leaving students to think about what is wrong with what they have written and correct it themselves. The 'signpost' can be a mark in the ;background: #ffffff; line-height: 0.17in; widows: 0; orphans: 0"> Correction code
Another method that involves students and makes them think about how they can correct their own work is the use of a 'correction code', a set of letters and symbols which make it clear what kind of mistake they have made. For this method to work well, it is important to keep the number of symbols to a minimum and for all the students in the class to know the code. If two colleagues are teaching the same class, they also need to agree on a common code, so as to avoid any confusion. In the box below there is an example of a correction code. But it is only an example - you may prefer to use more or fewer symbols, and to create some of your own. The important thing is for students to be absolutely clear about what each of the symbols means.
Gr = grammar
P = punctuation
V = vocabulary (wrong word)
Pr = preposition
? = I don't understand what you have written. Please explain.
Sp = spelling
WO = word order
T = wrong verb tense
WF = wrong form
N = number / agreement (singular vs. plural)
л= something missing
0 = not necessary
With both signposting and the correction code, instead of just handing outcorrections, the teacher introduces an extra stage of learning, where students have to identify, or at least think about, the kind of mistake they have made, and correct their own work. We remember things much better when we have to make an effort to find the answers ourselves. It also means that rather than correcting every mistake, the teacher has to stop and think about why the student has made a mistake. Is it just a careless mistake that could be made by a native writer? In this case it may not even be necessary to point it out. Or is it an error that is repeated throughout, which might be because of first language interference? Or is it the result of the student being ambitious and attempting to find a way of expressing something which is beyond his or her current level?
If this is the case, the teacher needs to think about whether or not the student will be able to correct it.
How can self-correction be managed in the classroom?
Students attempt to discover the problems, make their own corrections (perhaps using a different coloured pen) and return their work to the teacher. This gives the student the opportunity to reflect on their mistakes and make improvements to their writing. It also shows the teacher what the learners are able to do and what still remains difficult or unknown. The teacher now has to check the corrections, and give the student feedback on anything that is still wrong or that the student has been unable to improve.
Students work in pairs, or in small groups. They exchange their papers and attempt to correct each other's work. Again, the teacher has to build in an extra checking stage, as students will often not be able to provide appropriate corrections. But as with individual self-correction, the students have to go
through a process of reconsidering what they have written.
The teacher selects several common errors made by the students and highlights
them on the board for the whole class. Students then continue to correct their
own work, either individually or in pairs or small groups.
How can the teacher deal with items that students are unable to correct for
One of the ways that you can help students improve their written work most effectively, is to take a short part of what they have written, and rewrite it yourself, as you would have written it, without regard to what they have actually written linguistically, taking only the content of what they say. Just going back over their mistakes is likely to be less effective than looking at a simple short piece of language well constructed which they can compare with their own.
If students repeatedly make the same mistakes, or are unable to correct
themselves, the best response from the teacher may be to use these items as the
basis for planning remedial teaching in future lessons.
Once the students have corrected as much as they can, the teacher can concentrate on the remaining problems. Rather than just correction, students need to understand why they have made the mistake and how to put it right. At this stage students need feedback from the teacher - some kind of explanation of the particular language point and perhaps one or two examples to show them how the language should work. Ideally, feedback would take place in a one-to-one tutorial session, but with a large class this may not be practical, and feedback can take the form of written notes at the end of the student's work.
Correct promptly for accuracy, afterwards for fluency
Re-formulation is often better than correction
Give students the chance to correct themselves
Ken Lackman «Error Correction Games for Writing»
Michael Lewis, Jimmie Hill «Practical Techniques»
Alan Pulverness « The TKT Course»