Deciding What and When to Correct

I live here for five years.

On hearing an incorrect form like this, you have to decide what to do about it. Should it be corrected immediately? Left to form the basis of a remedial lesson? Offered to the student for self-correction? Corrected “surreptitiously”? Or ignored completely?

What you decide to do may depend on any one or more of a number of factors :
  • First of all, what do you believe to be the nature of the language learning process? Will the incorrect form be reinforced if it is not corrected, with the risk that it becomes “fossilised” – that is, irremediably fixed in the learner’s interlanguage – his or her personal version of the language. Or is there a “natural order” of language acquisition for language items which cannot be changed or hurried along by correction or any other form of formal teaching (1)?

  • Secondly, what is the objective of the activity and what’s the relationship of the incorrect form to that objective? If the form above occurred during a controlled practice activity on the present perfect, it would be counterproductive not to correct it immediately. The objective of the activity is to ensure students understand the form and use of the structure, and can produce it accurately.

  • On the other hand, in a fluency activity instant correction would distract the students and might well work against the objective – communicating effectively with whatever language students have at their disposal, regardless of how imperfect it is. There may still be a place for correction at the end of the activity, but unless communication has broken down entirely, you probably won’t want to interrupt.

    And a third example, if it occurred as a passing comment during a reading activity – The text says x about this town but I live here for 5 years and didn’t know – there would be no relationship between the error and the aim of the activity, and your decision would likely be based on one of the other considerations listed here. For example …..

  • What will be the effect on the student(s) of correcting or not correcting? If the student who made the comment in the reading lesson was a shy, weak person who rarely offered any contribution to the lesson, you might decide that correcting the error is less important than boosting the student’s confidence by reacting positively to the communicative value of the utterance. There is, however, always the possibility that by leaving the error you may confuse other students, who identified it as wrong but then, when you didn’t correct, weren’t sure. In this case, “surreptitious” correction can be useful – the teacher simply reacts to the student by parroting back the correct form . "Oh really? You’ve lived here for five years? I didn’t know that.” The student who used the incorrect form may not “notice” it, but those who are focusing on it, will.

    There are also students who want constant correction and others who don’t want it at all. Correct too much and you annoy the second group, don’t correct enough and you lose the confidence of the first, who feel that you are not “teaching” them.

  • Is the incorrect form a “one-off” problem, or is it something you’ve heard recurring frequently – either from that individual or the group as a whole. If so, remedial work may be necessary.

  • And finally, is it an error or a mistake. In ELT, these are not synonyms but have a precise technical meaning. If the incorrect form is due to a lack of knowledge on the student’s part – for example, if the student is a beginner who has never met the present perfect – it is an error. In this case, simple correction is unlikely to be helpful and is in fact more likely to confuse the student. The form needs to be taught, and until the students arrive at that point in the syllabus, it can generally be safely ignored. The same may be true if students are at intermediate level and the teacher assumes that they have met the form. If correction draws a response of blank looks, then even if it has been taught, it has not been learnt. It may have been misunderstood, or simply forgotten, and needs re-teaching. (2)

    On the other hand, an intermediate or advanced student might say the same thing but then, when the teacher indicated a problem, could self-correct. In this case, the correct form is a mistake – caused by the pressure of the communicative situation. A common example of this is the way students often understand a new form or use when it is first presented, use it accurately throughout the controlled and semi-controlled practice phases, but then become inaccurate in freer practice activities. In controlled and semi-controlled practice, students have little to do except concentrate on producing the form itself. In free practice (and fluency activities) this changes. They now have to understand what someone else has said, decide what they want to say in reply, and formulate their response in English – all in real time. This puts far greater stress on the brain, which responds by “simplifying” – and the result is a mistake.

    Mistakes then are a sign, not that the students do not “know” the form, but that they have not yet fully acquired or assimilated it - not at least enough for it to be produced in spontaneous communication. If your students expect correction, or if your view of language learning is that constant “noticing” will aid acquisition, then you might ask them to self-correct. If they don’t, or if you believe that only time and further “authentic” exposure to the form can lead to natural acquisition, you might let it go.

Your decision of what and when to correct will therefore depend on a number of variables, and your decisions may differ from group to group, or student to student. This is also true of how you correct – something that we’ll look at in detail in a future article.


1. For a view of error based on the idea of a natural acquisition order see James Trotta's article Understanding Learner Errors

2. In their book Correction, Bartram and Walton suggest that it is often impossible to distinguish between an error and a mistake and that it is therefore not a useful distinction. This is one of the very few things in the book that I don’t agree with. If you define, as I do, a mistake as something which the students can produce accurately under controlled conditions and can therefore self-correct, I find the distinction between an error and a mistake to be a criterion which I frequently apply when I’m deciding what, when and how to correct. Their own definition, which is vaguer, does however lead to more grey areas and I understand why they feel it to be less useful.

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