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 🙂
Over the past 23 years, I’ve taken a number of approaches to error correction, and my current ideas are pretty indicative of how my teacher beliefs have grown and been affected by my deepening understanding of motivation, learner language (or ‘interlanguage’ – the language that is somewhere between L1 and L2) and learner confidence. Before describing my own principles of error correction, I have to make the disclaimer that my approach COMPLETELY depends on the level of the students and the context in which I am teaching. So, here is what now guides me now when addressing output errors (speaking and writing):
- Speaking – Meaning is all-important. My students know that I’ll step in and correct when meaning is lost, too confusing or very unclear. Otherwise, I ignore small errors that don’t interfere with meaning, such as “She work_ on Sundays” or “She went to _ movie.” Language is becoming more of an international communication tool than ever before, so I choose to spend more time building fluency and confidence, than worrying about incidental errors. Of course, I tell students at the end of activities, how some people will be even more impressed with them if they can clean up the small errors!
- Writing – More and more, I’ve come to realize that the most meaningful time to correct GRAMMATICAL errors (as opposed to structural or organizational weaknesses) is while students are sitting at the computer typing away. I see them really “getting it” – processing, digesting and storing a learning moment when given immediate feedback while they write (elicit first, supply answer if necessary). I endlessly walk around and around the class, trying to spend equal time with all of my students as they write. When I take essays home to correct, I give written feedback much more on content, style and impact as a reader.
Our live webinar on March 3rd was a great success. Thank you to all the participants. A recording of the three presentations is available on our website. itdi.pro/webinar.html.
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