A common issue that teachers have to deal with is how to correct student errors. No-one likes being corrected; however, the school and the parents often demand it, and students themselves will complain that a teacher doesn’t correct them enough. So how can you create a win-win situation?

Errors vs. Mistakes  In language teaching, we distinguish errors from mistakes. A mistake is a common, accidental problem, which can occur when we speak too fast, think too quickly, or are nervous or tired. On the other hand, an error is a systematically produced problem, which is usually the result of ingrained patterns of language that we are not aware of.

Errors and mistakes can occur in speaking, writing, word choice, and pronunciation. Mistakes usually do not require much attention from the teacher. Learner errors, however, need to be pointed out so that the learner can eventually self-correct the problem without intervention from the teacher.

Developing Error Awareness  The process of error awareness is one in which we draw the learner’s attention to an error allowing them to eventually self-correct it. Getting to that stage can be time-consuming and frustrating for the learner and teacher because learners are, at first, unaware that they are making the same errors over and over. Nevertheless, it is a very necessary part of language pedagogy, and not one that should be dismissed or overlooked. Errors that are not corrected will, over time, become imbedded or “fossilized” in the learner’s fluent use of English.

To guide our learners toward fluency, there are three approaches to error awareness: Teacher modeling and correction; learner-to-learner comparison; and self-correction, which leads to proficiency and fluency.

1. Teacher Modeling & Correction of Spoken Errors  When the teacher corrects a speaking error, what he or she is actually doing is providing a correct model for the learner to emulate. This stage, applied at any level, and especially at low levels, ensures that the learners receive correct information.

The best technique that a teacher can use is to correctly repeat back to the learner what they had said incorrectly, and then have them repeat it again. Never echo the error that the learner has made, as this can sound like you are mocking them.

Whatever you do, you must make this process gentle and positive to ensure that the learner is receptive. Your goal is to ensure the learners are developing awareness of the error, rather than making it a matter of “right and wrong.” Avoid negative language at all costs. Avoid saying, “No,” or “Wrong,” or anything similar. In fact, praise the effort made, even if incorrect. Follow up by modeling the correction, and praise the learner again when he or she reproduces the language correctly.

2. Learner Comparison & Correcting Written Errors  In classrooms where the learners have developed a good working rapport with each other, (an important requirement for this technique!) the teacher can step out of the center by allowing the learners to develop error awareness amongst themselves.

It is important however, that the learners are encouraged to compare errors, rather than actually employ a correction technique. The latter approach could result in management problems for you. For example, a younger learner should not correct an older learner in some cultures. In others, a woman may not correct a man. In multi-lingual classrooms, there could be resentment of one national correcting a non-allied national (ex: Japanese to Russian, or French to German). Beyond the cultural conflicts, there could also be resentment arising from personality conflicts.

To get around these problems, an effective strategy is to leave spoken error correction to the teacher. For the correction of written tasks, however, invite learners to compare their answers. Avoid employing a teacher-to-learner correction of a task, which can be isolating, exposing and time consuming in most circumstances.

As they do this, make sure you monitor and make yourself available to clear up any further confusion, and also to correct any misinformation. In this way, it is unnecessary to correct the task with the whole class, and you can move more seamlessly on to the next task.

3. Self-Correction  When a learner can correct him or herself, you know that the learner has arrived at the most desirable level of error awareness: self-correction. There is nothing more satisfying than to hear your learners self-correct errors that, at one time, were frustratingly common every time they opened their mouths or put pen to paper. Getting to this stage, however, may take a while; especially for certain deeply-ingrained errors such as article omission, tense confusion, or word choice.

Be patient and gentle. Allow learners to finish talking. Don’t jump on the error. As soon as the learner has completed talking, draw their attention to the problem by asking them to repeat some part of what they said. If they repeat the error, gently indicate that there is a problem. If they are unable to self-correct, simply model correctly and have them repeat it.