Correcting Written Work : Encouraging Noticing

Correcting written work is extremely time consuming, and is only worth doing if the students are really going to benefit from the corrections. For this to happen, they have to do more than merely look at their work, say “Oh yes” and put it away again. They need to “notice” the difference between the target language input (the correct sentences) and their own output (what they originally wrote). This skill of “noticing” is one that many researchers suggest is essential for second language learning (1), and is indispensable if we want our students to develop the ability to learn autonomously.

In this two part article, I want to look at how teachers can limit the time they spend marking, while also ensuring that students have the maximum opportunity to “notice” the correct language and thus to learn from their mistakes (2). In this part of the article, I’ll look at correcting written exercises which have a “right answer” – the sort of exercises often found in workbooks and grammar books and assigned for homework – and in the next part, I’ll look at correcting freer written work.

Exercises which have a definite right answer can, of course, be marked in class. This has the advantage that mistakes can be explained on the spot, but it can be extremely time-consuming. The other option is to give the students an answer key and ask them to self-correct. Many workbooks have a printed key and, even when they don’t, it’s still quicker for the teacher to write out and photocopy the answers than to mark the work of several classes – especially if the course is repeated over several years.

However, this option has several disadvantages :
  • Students may “cheat” - like the 16-year old I see regularly on the bus copying from the Headway key into her workbook.
  • Even adult students sometimes just don’t bother to check. They do the exercises, presume they’ve got them right, and don’t look at the answers.
  • Even when they do check, they frequently miss mistakes.
  • There may be mistakes which they spot but don’t understand.
  • If they rub out the original mistake and write in the correct answer when they correct, it becomes impossible to evaluate their progress.

If the disadvantages can be avoided however, they are far outweighed by the advantages. Some solutions are :

  • If cheating is likely to be a problem, keep the answer keys in class, distribute them at the beginning of each lesson, and ask the students to spend the first five minutes self-correcting. While they work you can monitor to check that the homework has really been done, and that they are “noticing” their mistakes.
  • Tell the students not to rub out or cancel the error when they correct. Instead, they should underline it and write the correct version above it, using a contrasting colour. For example :

John live in London.

  • If they don’t understand the mistake then they should put a cross in the margin, so that they can easily find it and ask the teacher when they are in class.

If exercises are self-corrected in this way, the teacher can check the work easily to ensure that students are spotting their mistakes, can give any necessary help, and can quickly evaluate their level of understanding and progress. As students arrive they can be asked to open their workbooks at the next exercise to be checked by the teacher, and while the rest of the class is arriving the teacher can quickly look at the work done. If there are still uncorrected mistakes, the teacher should simply underline them (in a third colour) and ask the student to check again. This way students gradually become more used to noticing the differences between their own work and the answers.

If the teacher initials the bottom of each checked page, it avoids the problem of not remembering which pages have and haven’t been checked. And at the end of each unit, the teacher can ask students with unchecked pages to hand in their workbooks – important if it’s always the same people who get to the class first, and therefore the same people whose work is regularly checked.

This technique also at least partially removes the cheating problem. It’s unlikely that any student will make no mistakes at all, and it becomes particularly suspect if the same student who has no mistakes in this type of activity then makes a lot in freer activities.

As students won’t necessarily use the technique totally effectively at first, you might like to start by getting them to self-correct a few exercises in class. This not only familiarises them with the technique and how to do it, but also allows the teacher to see which students have the most difficulty in self-correcting, and who will therefore need the most careful monitoring in the initial stages.

This type of active approach to error can also be carried over into the correction of freer written work, which I will talk about in the second part of this article, later this month.


(1) See for example Scott Thornbury Uncovering Grammar Oxford : Macmillan Publishers 2001. An interesting article on encouraging noticing in the classroom is Vincent Ferrer,
Using the mother tongue to promote noticing

(2) I am using the terms error and mistake interchangeably in this article. I'll discuss the difference between them and whether they require different treatment some other time.

Photo by GoldenEel, via flickr, made available under Creative Commons Licence.

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