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 🙂