Error correction – Cecilia Lemos

What is an error, when we’re talking about language learning? According to Paul Lennon (1991) “a linguistic form or combination of forms which in the same context and under similar conditions of production would, in all likelihood, not be produced by the speakers’ native speakers counterparts”. Penny Ur (1991) differentiates errors (consistent and based on a mis-learned generalization) and mistakes (occasional, inconsistent slips) while Jeremy Harmer (2007) differentiates slips (mistakes students can correct themselves once they’ve been pointed out), errors (mistakes they can’t correct themselves and therefore need an explanation) and attempts (when they try to say something but don’t know the correct way yet). Being realistic, teaching as many classes as most ELT teachers do, with as many students, it seems hard to be able to differentiate. Maybe we can notice when it’s an unusual mistake for this or that student – hence a slip. But in my experience, most language teachers (and I include myself in that!) will react and correct any accuracy mistake. Sometimes we’ll take it easier at oral production – not to stop the flow – but most of us are merciless when it comes to writing.

After some reflection a few years ago, I changed that a bit. I realized my students didn’t have to speak/write perfect English – or as a native-speaker. They should be able to communicate effectively. Because Brazilian students are very focused on accuracy, I explain and work with the “communication” aspect in class.

So, sometimes, they make accuracy mistakes and I ignore them – because these mistakes do not hinder communication, they would still be understood by a native speaker. When correcting writings, sometimes I focus on the accuracy, and some (most) times, I focus on the content and effective communication. And it’s been working so far :-)


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Cecilia Lemos

Cecilia Lemos has been an English teacher in her hometown of Recife in Brazil, for 17 years. She is passionate about teaching for its power of transforming people and their future. She’s also an enthusiast about sharing and learning with other teachers around the world, especially through the use of social media. She loves books and languages.

30 thoughts on “Error correction – Cecilia Lemos”

  1. Well, Cecilia, you and I are certainly approaching errors the same way! I think my post says many of the same things as yours, but whenever you say communication, I think I said meaning.

    Errors are going to happen and continue to happen no matter how often or how strictly we correct them. Errors diminish when the student is ready, not when the teacher is ready. I wholeheartedly agree that focusing on the content and engaging the students to fine-tune or develop what they mean is both motivating and meaningful. It is one of the best ways to build confidence and rapport at the same time.

    Cecilia, it was a pleasure to read your post, and I’m very happy to be writing together!



    1. Hi Steven,

      Yes! We do think very similarly! Errors will continue to happen no matter, what. The key is on how we handle them, And I love how you describe addressing the mistakes as students make in writing…as they happen. I think that is really important to avoid fossilization – or to fight it.

      I have to admit I do a looot of recasting when correcting oral production, to avoid stopping the flow and preventing the best rapport with students.

      Do you have the same experience with your students? Do you think they pick it up? I always think students (or most of them) don’t really pick up any corrections when I recast…..

      P.S. I’m really honored to be having my opinion featured side by side to yours and Barb’s, Chuck’s and Scott’s. It has been an incredible experience. Looking forward to repeating it!!!!!

  2. Agreed on the fact that in class it can be difficult to differentiate which type of error the student is making. However, there’s almost always the common ones that you know, given the level, they shouldn’t be making (e.g. subject/verb agreement, missing third person ‘s’, simple present for simple past, etc.). I only usually focus on one error in writing, but to emphasise the need to pay closer attention to proofreading, I sometimes circle every one of those minor errors just to shock them.

    1. Hi Ty,

      Focusing on one error when correcting students’ writings is a good strategy, one that will probably be more effective in getting the students to notice the mistakes. I have observed that when students get their corrected papers back, filled with (usually) red markings, corrections and etc, there is just so much of it they will look at the grade and put the paper away, not really looking into the corrections – well, maybe glancing 😉

      On the other hand, when there are fewer corrections – be it because there were few mistakes or because the teacher focused on a specific type – the students actually take the time to look at it. I’m not sure if circling all the minor mistakes would change that – or if the students would see them as the regular corrections. I will try that and see what happens.

      1. Hi Cecilia

        I totally agree with you when you mean do not point out all the student’s mistakes. If we point out all the mistakes it’ll hardly disappoint the student and as a consequence they will reduce comunicative production. I only point out when the mistake prevents the basic idea in the speech.

        1. Hi Auzeni,

          I think pointing out all mistakes – especially if they are many of them – not only frustrates and will most likely have the student feel insecure and probably reduce their attempts at producing (especially orally), but more importantly, it is a bit pointless. The student will not be able to process all the corrections being made. Whilst, if we focus on one or two aspects/problems, it’s more likely that we get their attention, they won’t feel overwhelmed and may even learn!!! 😉

        2. Yes, that’s all warm and fuzzy, but in certain contexts, some students could use a little blow to the ego, believe it or not.

          Still, I was actually referring to circling all the fossilised errors that they overlook and think aren’t important enough or meaning to take the time to proofread before submitting an assignment. 😉

          1. Warm blow to the ego is a must for most students, especially in the beginning of the relationship/establishing rapport.

            But I am with you on the fossilised errors… when I hear a student sayin “I have XX years old” I cringe…. and prrofreading???? Do your students actually do that? I guess that’sa difference between college students and teens. Mine don’t know the concept and find it irrelevant, I’m afraid :(

  3. Hi Ceci!

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I agree completely with you (as well as with Steven :-)).
    The situation is same here in Slovakia where students often refuse to communicate unless their English (here they mean mainly grammar) is perfect.
    First of all, what really is perfect? I also try to tell them and encourage them that as long as they are understood and “get what they want” in foreign language, it is good. But then, of course, we want to be better as learners and so overcoming mistakes should be taken as a natural and not painful process as well.

    I always try to work with mistakes in context, individually if possible to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment and help them maybe remember the situation.

    Wouldn’t it be better and far more useful to put mistakes from the position of obstacles on your way to stops where one can ponder and take time to realize what and how things work without the hassle and trying to keep up with others’ pace?

    “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery” James Joyce

    1. Hi V!

      We are definitely on the same page. “First of all, what really is perfect?” you asked and I agree with you. Not only is the answer to that a subjective one, especially when talking about language, but also, aren’t our learners being unrealistic? I mean, do they speak their own languages perfectly?

      I am not saying – as you mentioned yourself – they should stop trying to overcome the mistakes, learn and improve their English. As you said (and it made me remember a talk by Herbert Puchta in Curitiba last July, where he discussed how important making mistakes is, because learning through making mistakes is more effective and lasting) mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning process, and they should be looked at as opportunities to ponder and realize how things work.

      As teachers, what we can do is help our students see that.

      (Love the Joyce quote!)

  4. Hi there,
    I do the same as Tyson (writing); usually, we do one formal sample a month, and on each one I focus on a specific area (s/v agreement, then organization/mechanics, prev/new vocab usage, etc.).

    As far as speaking, I agree that we should focus much more on communication than on accuracy, since it is the main purpose of learners coming to class in the first place. Depending on how ‘scary’ some mistakes are, I address those after they have finished expressing themselves (which I’m sure is nothing new) by questioning their choices prior to formal correction. :)

    Great post.

    1. Hi Lu!

      It’s interesting (and very positive!) to see that so many of us are taking that approach when correcting students’ writings. Focusing on one aspect / area makes much more sense, because we can’t expect students to learn 1,000 things at the same time, right?

      I have a question for you, though… You said: “As far as speaking, I agree that we should focus much more on communication than on accuracy (…)”. Do you believe accuracy is more important when writing than speaking?

      Lack of accuracy in writing is more evident, I think – and of course we have to take into account the reason for writing, the register, the audience, etc Perhaps there are more circumstances in writing where accuracy is important?

  5. Hello Cecilia, Lucia, Vladimira, Tyson and Steve,

    I’m so enjoying this comment thread. On a few of the other posts and in the comments, people have been mentioning recording conversations and the importance of having students do the hard work of making transcripts. I’ve been having the students use the voice recorder feature on their cell phones a lot in class lately and this helps me circumvent the problem of interrupting the flow of conversation and the frustration of students failing to pick up on recasts.

    But when it comes to writing, I’m definitely a bit more hard-core than most in regards to error correction. Partially because I think that errors in writing, whether they impact understanding or not, can have a host of other negative consequences. Fair or not, when it comes to formal writing for things like university applications, academic articles, and resumes, form is highly valued and judged quite severely. So I think we need to help students become aware of register and discourse communities early on in the process and if we decide to let certain mistakes go uncorrected, we should have valid reasons for those choices, reasons that the students can also understand.

    Thanks again for the chance to join in on this conversation.


    1. Hi Kevin,

      I have a feeling all teachers are harder when correcting mistakes. For starters, there’s no concern in interrupting the flow. But I agree with you that our students will probably face many more situations where formal writing will be required of them, and in those situations lack of accuracy or appropriateness has more negative consequences than not being able to convey exactly what they want to say. It may be the deciding factor to whether they get a job or are accepted to a course.

      When I decide to let mistakes in writing go uncorrected, I do let students know that I’m doing so. My objective in doing it is to get them to stop and actually look at the corrections, reflect. As I mentioned in my reply to Tyson’s comment, I have the impression that when there are too many corrections the students just don’t look at them with the attention we wish they would – maybe because they are overwhelmed by the many types of mistakes being pointed out? Just a theory :)

      Thanks for your comment and your view on things!

  6. Hello Cecilia, (and everyone)

    I agree with you when you said it is difficult to differentiate the kinds of errors that happen when one is learning a language. However, this differentiation helps us, teachers, to deal with them. Each deserves a different treatment as well. We are all aware of the various tecniques there are to correct an error.
    What most teachers fail to do, unfortunately, is to explain to their students that errors, mistakes, slips and the like are part of the process of learning and they therefore should not be afraid of them. This way students will feel more engaged into producing language (either in writing or speaking), and they will consequently feel more receptive to corrections and more aware of their own mistakes. In my humble opinion, correction should be meaningful as well.

    1. Hi Bruno!

      Yes, different types of mistakes have different ways of being handled – or at least should have! My difficulty is in knowing which mistake is being made especially when considering the students’ oral production – the “right there on the spot”. I find easier to differentiate them when correcting written work, or if – as Kevin mentioned in his comment – I have recorded their speaking and have time to listen to it, ponder about any mistakes made to identify which type they are. Maybe that is one of the reasons most teachers are more strict when correcting written work?

      I agree with you that making our students aware of the importance (and inevitability, really) of making mistakes and how they help their learning process is a key issue, but I have to admit I struggle with it. It seems students are just so used to directly associating making mistakes to failure that most can’t see the positive side of them. I keep trying, though! 😉

  7. What an interesting topic. I think part of the problem is (as has been noted in various research articles) native speakers tend to be more lenient than non-native speakers (with regards to the spoken language). Plus I think there is a tendency to set different levels per country as to what is or is not acceptable (cf the discussions in Europe ‘is your B1 my B1′ with regards to the CEFR). For spoken language it’s often a matter of judgement as to when it’s ok to break in and correct someone, for written language I would always inform students in advance of what I will be paying particular attention to (such as no prepositions at the end of a sentence 😉 ).
    What I tend to do, with regards to written work is to underline any mistakes, hand it back to the students and get them in small groups to correct 1 of the pieces of work together. They choose which one and they work together to correct any errors, whilst the teacher walks around and assists. This way they learn from each other and the teacher has a better idea of any general class mistakes which could be dealt with centrally. In a school setting this can be used for extrinsic motivation i.e. if you correct 1 work satisfactorily then the whole group will get an extra (half) point….Works quite well over here!

    1. Hi Louise,

      I also think (and have read many articles ad research results as you mentioned) that NESTs tend to be more forgiving to minor mistakes, especially in spoken language. And maybe it’s because we are more formally taught the grammar, and maybe many NNests believe (I’m still not sure if I am over that myself) in the importance of accuracy to “make up for” not being a native speaker.

      I like underlining (or highlighting) mistakes and handing it back to the students so they have another chance and are given an opportunity to reflect upon the mistakes they’ve made, I also do that often – learning from mistakes is more effective learning than being spoon-fed after all. However, differently from you I usually ask them to do it individually, to their own pieces. As most of my students are teenagers, they are very self-conscious and most don’t like having others see their work – which, in my opinion just corroborates to the idea students are ashamed of making mistakes and especially having people notice them. But then again, a mistake is not a mistake until it’s noticed by someone – or is it?

      Thanks for sharing how you handle error correction and adding to this interesting discussion thread!

    2. Hey Lu…

      Your answer was the one I expected, I just wanted to make sure. 😉 I also feel I am more critical and have a lower tolerance to errors in writing. Even if I don’t correct them – if I am doing a more focused correction as we talked about – I notice them much more (and I process/take them in).

      Thanks for answering my question!

  8. Hi Ceci …

    Well, I need to confess that I tend to be much more critical of student’s written production. This being due to the fact that the moment of correction (which does not rely on on-the-spot feedback/replying) is when we are in a room somewhere, analyzing where strengths and weaknesses lie, without having to provide an on-the-spot reply.

    In spoken communication, I see the need to transmit a message as more immediate, and in order to give them the opportunity to express themselves fully, I am more lenient towards slips or mistakes.

    So, it isn’t necessarily about which I consider more or less important, but how I approach each one, considering the event at hand. Hope I’ve answered your question. :))

    Great thread going on here. :)

  9. Have enjoyed your interpretation of error correction ,Cecilia . Your teaching experience
    has inspired you to act more humanizingly ,as a students`guide to error correction.
    Speaking of humanizing, here`s a dimension teacher educators and teachers could
    consider when reassessing their correction strategies: Language learners` right to
    make errors/mistakes,or ,to rephrase it in the perspective of Linguistic creativity:
    Learners`right to use the second/foreign language creatively.
    What effect the application of such dimension would have on teachers` correction ?
    I first thought about Learners Errors as rights in the mid 80s,when
    my piece A gap in ESL pedagogy was published by TESOL Newsletter.April,1986.
    For a detailed treatment of Learners Rights, see my chapter Second Language Learners
    Rights, in Vivian Cook (ed) Portraits of the L2 User. Clevedon and Buffalo,Multilingual
    Matters,2002 The chapter has sections on Learners`pronunciation,grammatical,and
    vocabulary righgts. Also included: a brief section on Learners rights as testees or
    In short, how can we,as teachers,harmonize learners ` rights-responsibilities and
    teachers` rights-responsibilities ? Herein lies one of the fascinatingly challenging
    missions of all language educators.
    Keep up your relevant work,Cecilia. Will read all posts with much interest.

    1. Dear Professor Francisco,

      Thank you for the reference, professor Francisco. I found the article from the Tesol Newsletter (the link is here: – but since it has all the newsletters of that year, you can go straight to page 60, where your article is featured).

      The challenge of educators (in general, I think) is to harmonize rights-responsibilities of teachers and students in a a world that gets more and more demanding. All of that while adjusting to new realities, tools, students and teachers. Not an easy task, but we didn’t become teachers because it was an easy job, did we?

      Thank you for your support, professor. Cheers!

  10. Hi Cecilia,

    I’ve just had an enlightening experience as a language learner concerning the problems of over correction.

    I’m in Pakistan at the moment and the taxi driver who drove me home this evening took it upon himself to teach me a bit of Urdu in our 15 minute journey. He was a great teacher. He picked a really useful area to teach me which was “I’m going home’. I repeated it over and over until I felt comfortable with it and he gave me loads of positive feedback. When I tried experimenting with the form to say things like ‘Are you going home?, I’m going to England, I’m going to eat etc. he showed me that he’d understood what I was saying and responded to the content of what I was saying. We had fun.

    When I got home I was buzzing. I tried all this new knowledge out on the guy who cleans the flat. I really wanted him to understand what I was saying. He did understand but his response was to try to make me say better versions of what I was saying. Maybe what I was saying was pretty inaccurate, and his intentions were very well meaning, (as language teacher’s intentions all over the world are when they correct their learners) but the result is that my motivation just evaporated and now I can barely remember a word.

    1. Hi Nick,

      Your first-hand (and fresh out of the oven!) account is the perfect illustration to what we are saying (I think I can say we, because it seems there’s a common sense on the issue). In a comfortable environment, where you didn’t feel judged and your mistakes were not incessantly pointed out, where your attempts at using the language and communicating were fostered and welcomed, you felt safe to take risks. When that changed, frustration made an appearance instead, and motivation vanished. And the best thing about your anecdote is that I believe you could only notice what happened because you are a language teacher and you see things through a language teacher’s eyes. Knowing that, I am sure if you come across that same taxi driver – or an equally welcoming listener, you will try your hand at Urdu again. Our students are not that lucky, and they most likely close up for a while.

      My experience visiting Germany without knowing any German have been similar to what you said. I would do my best to communicate with whatever I knew (from phrase books and such), make inferences and get by when people welcomed that. But when people didn’t show much patience or started correcting me, I shied away and switched to English.

      I think that is especially true for beginners. And it all depends on the students’ short/medium/long term goals as well.

      Thanks for sharing that!

  11. Hi Ceci,

    ‘De los errores se aprende/from mistakes we learn’, a saying here and a principle of life. Sometimes it can be hard or not that hard! It depends on the way we see them. Something I have learnt as a person, a learner and an educator.
    Of course, we would love our students to make few errors or slips during learning. However, we all know errors and/ slips will take place because our students are experiencing with the language, sometimes ‘playing’ with it. While writing skills are being developed in class, it is ‘normal’ to react and try to correct them. However, if we try other ways to do that so by applying some games for error correction, the situation can be less painful for our kids and for us!
    I agree with you on having communication that essential, more than on accuracy. That fear to err can stuck them.
    As an EFL learner, I can tell you I still make lots of mistakes but that is not a good reason to quit communicating with other NNSs and colleagues who have a higher level of English… or to NSs! I know I am learning. Something that I always share with my students. Empathy plays an important role here! :)

    1. Hi Ana Luisa!

      I’m sorry it took me so long to reply to you… I don’t know why, but I didn’t receive the message telling me there was a new comment :-(

      I’m glad we see eye to eye on the issue. Teachers have to remember that if the students are making mistakes it means they are using the language – first and foremost, experimenting with it. If we think of how we learned our L1s (because just like you I am an EFL learner myself), we also made mistakes – the same mistakes again and again – until we learned the proper way of saying things. And that learning never stops.

      The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know, right? If Socrates said that, who am I to contradict? 😉

      Thanks for your comment!

  12. Hi Ceci,
    Well, It’s very helpful explanation, In this semester I will take that topic on my dissertation, Em, would you share any sources (book, journals) for this topic…Very kinds..

    Best regards,

  13. I fully agree with you, Cecilia:) I don’t usually correct all my students’ mistakes, because it influnences their flow of speech, and also their attitude to teacher’s correction. Some students might not want to share their ideas because they feel that their English isn’r perfect, and a teacher always corrects all their mistakes. I think when mistakes don’t influence the meaning of a speaker’s message, so mistakes shouldn’t be corrected.

  14. I agree with the statement that error correction can become a sensitive issue and should be approached in the correct way. Like Barbara, I also do believe that correcting students during the first stage of language acquisition should be a natural process. In the “Building” stage, students long for guidance and support from the teacher which might commonly take place through error correction because students explore with the language and do tend to make many mistakes.

    Once students reach the second stage of “Applying”, error correction should be more subtly so that students don’t become demotivated. In this stage as well as the third stage of “Testing”, students should also be given the opportunity to correct their own mistakes.

    Learning a new language is a slow and often difficult process in which errors will be made. The challenge for the teacher thus is to find the ideal balance, keeping in mind his/her students’ personalities, of correcting students’ errors and allowing them to realize and correct their own mistakes.

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