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.
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Young learners are geniuses at discovering patterns. They construct an implicit understanding of grammar from the language chunks they hear in class. They refine their understanding through trial and error…and correction. Knowing that students are actively building, applying, and testing patterns helps teachers see errors, and error correction, in a different light.
Stage 1: Building
Students aren’t expected to know the language at this stage—that’s why they need clear models, lots and lots of practice, and correction. Students are inferring the rules underlying English, so they need something to infer from. This is where students have a chance to get language right.
Stage 2: Applying
Once students have a good understanding of a pattern, you can expect them to use it accurately. At this stage, students can easily correct themselves when you point out a mistake. However, if you get blank looks when you draw attention to mistakes, then you probably need to spend more time in Stage 1.
Stage 3: Testing
After learning to talk about singular and plural objects, you might start hearing things like They’re chalks or It’s a scissor. These are wonderful errors because they demonstrate that students understand some important language rules. Congratulate them on what they got right (pronoun and verb changes for singular and plural), let them know the correct way to say it (if you can’t let it go), and know that your students will eventually learn about mass nouns and counters. The fact that your students are willing to try language that they haven’t yet been explicitly taught is a very, very good thing. It takes time to build a language.
How do you deal with correction in your classes? I’d love to hear your ideas!
Barb Hoskins Sakamoto
Once upon a time we knew what language errors were, what caused them, and what to do about them. Back then, second language errors were just bad habits and like all bad habits could be overcome with hard work and will power. Then came the Interlanguage hypothesis leading us far enough forward to understand that second language errors might be part of a developmental process and nothing to worry about as long as Fossilization didn’t occur. I always loved that metaphor in which errors got likened to dinosaur bones so deeply buried in rock that nothing could be done except maybe blast away at them like the teacher in the Pink Panther film as she tries to get Steve Martin to say “I would like to buy a hamburger“. What makes this funny is that we’ve all been in this situation and know better than to think error correction like this can have any real effect. Right?
When I began studying Japanese many years ago, my wonderful professor employed a version of the Direct Method in classes full of lively drills of the ship versus sheep variety. In each class for awhile I always got called on to differentiate between a map and a piece of cheese — a sort of minimal pair contrast in Japanese involving vowel length. Sandy-san. Chizu desuka? Chiizu desuka? my professor would ask me while holding up a photo of either a hunk of cheddar or a map of Japan. It is a map? Is it cheese? I always got it wrong and not because I couldn’t tell the difference between the things, but rather because I couldn’t even hear the difference between the two words. Thirty years later I still can’t and always stumble whenever I have occasion to use the word cheese or map in Japanese — which is more often than you might imagine given that I love cheese and can’t read maps.
Interestingly, what got fossilized is not the bad habit of confusing cheese and maps or the error itself, but instead the memory of being corrected repeatedly in my professor’s very light-hearted way. It’s funny now, and it was even sort of funny then, but the moral of the story if there is one is that correcting errors just might actually have effects quite different than those you intend. Be careful of what you fossilize in the minds of your students.
What are language errors? Well, the definition may be a bit blurry just as it may be a bit technical, but we can say they’re often mistakes people make, things that deviate from standard grammar.
For early learners in my classes in Jakarta, Indonesia, one common error that I’ve seen involves the use of verbs. It happens because they haven’t got the full grasp of the language yet. For example, they’ll say “I don’t writing a book” or “I go to hospital yesterday”. Another thing that I normally meet in my class is the mistake involving the difference between it’s confusing and I’m confused or it’s interesting versus I’m interested. This leads to mistakes like I am boring today which is something many of my students have said when they try to express how they feel. They don’t even realize the mistake they’re making or what they’re really saying by making it.
So how do I deal with such mistakes? I always tell my students that they’re learning English because they want to learn the art of communicating in English, so in order for the other party to understand what they want to say, they have to make sure they have said the right thing. Therefore whenever I find an error in one of their sentences that causes a difference in meaning, I write it on board and ask them to translate it with me from Bahasa Indonesian into English. I tell them that in order to know whether they have said what they intended to say, it helps to translate it into their native language: that way they can fully understand where they went wrong. It works very well for my class, because then we can laugh at our mistakes.
As teachers, no matter what subject that we teach, we will see students making mistakes in doing their tasks. In English, you know that the errors can lead to different understanding on what is being talked about. Wrong use of words or grammar can surely lead to miscommunication. That is why it is essential for students to learn the proper use of English – because the purpose of learning a language is to understand the art of communication. But do I get upset about their mistakes? Surely not. That is the beauty of learning. As someone once said: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”
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 🙂