Error correction – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury

What are errors & how should we  deal with them in our classes?

- Scott Thornbury

When I first started teaching the answer to these two questions was clear and unproblematic. What are errors? They are any departure from standard English. How should we deal with them? We should correct them lest they become ‘bad habits’.

Subsequently, these two questions have become the most difficult, problematic and mysterious of all questions related to language teaching.

What are errors? We simply don’t know any more. Why? Because there is no agreed upon standard by which to measure learners’ output. For a start, there are so many varieties of native speaker English (both spoken and written) that it’s impossible to decide if a sentence like ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ is ‘wrong’ or not. On top of that, many learners are not interested in speaking ‘native speaker’ English anyway.

What should we do about errors? Research suggests that correcting errors has only an accidental effect on accuracy, and that many so-called errors (like failure to add –s to present simple third person singular verbs, as in she work) are an inevitable stage of language learning, and are extremely resistant to correction. On the other hand, if we don’t correct errors we may send out a message that accuracy doesn’t matter, which may threaten the long-term language development of our learners. Also, we need to be aware that excessive correction can be very de-motivating for many learners, while not to correct errors will make us look incompetent in the eyes of other learners.

In short, errors, and the way we handle them, are an enormous puzzle, and I would be fascinated to know how you deal with this puzzle yourself.

Scott

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About Scott Thornbury

Scott is a teacher and teacher educator, with over 30 years' experience in English language teaching. He is currently Associate Professor of English Language Studies at the New School in New York, teaching on an on-line MATESOL program. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and his native New Zealand. Scott’s writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology including The A-Z of ELT, How to Teach Grammar and Teaching Unplugged. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers (CUP) and was also the co-founder of the dogme ELT group, whose archived website, called Teaching Unplugged, can be found below. Scott currently leads a fascinating community at the popular and thought-provoking blog, A-Z of ELT blog. Scott is lead author in the iTDi Teacher Development program as well as being iTDi's Academic Director.