Understanding Learner Errors

Today's article is written by James Trotta. James is a teacher trainer at SMU-TESOL and runs ESL go, a website with free resources for learners and teachers.

Many language teachers and learners blame L1 transfer for a majority of their problems with L2 grammar. For example, many Korean learners will tell you that English is hard to learn because the SVO word order is different than the SOV word order used in Korean. It’s true that novice level learners studying EFL in Korea do make word order errors such as ‘He ice cream like’ or ‘I school go’ but as learners advance these types of errors are quickly outnumbered by errors from different sources.

One common type of learner error is the natural order error, a missing grammatical morpheme. Natural order errors are made by all learners in a predictable order. Taking the ice cream example above and correcting the word order gives you ‘He like ice cream’. The missing –s for the third person singular is a very common natural order error and is made by all learners, from novice to advanced. In the natural order of English morpheme acquisition, third person singular –s is one of the last morphemes mastered by learners.

This natural order is important if we are to have realistic expectations of our learners. I once had a colleague telling me how disappointed he was with his introduction to writing class. He had spent all week teaching them subject verb agreement and then assessed their first writing assignment based on how well they performed with subject verb agreement. The learners didn’t perform well. Errors such as ‘My friend know me so well’ were frequent.

The learners were novice high or intermediate low and they performed exactly how someone with knowledge of the natural order of English morpheme acquisition would expect. They won’t be ready for third person singular –s until they are far more advanced. That doesn’t mean they can’t get the grammar right on a TOEIC test or some other meaningless measurement of knowledge about grammar. It means that when using the language to write or speak they have to make errors with the third person singular s morpheme.

So English teachers need to do a little research. I haven’t taught you anything about natural order; I’ve only shown you why natural order is worth knowing. Understanding the morphemes that your learners are ready for will help you know what to expect from and how to assess your learners.

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