Error correction – Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoYoung 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

Published by

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara has taught both English and ESL in the United States, and EFL in Japan for more than 25 years. She earned her BA from Western Oregon University and her Masters in TESOL from Northern Arizona University. Barbara has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the U.S. and Latin America, and is co-author of the best-selling young learners Let's Go series (Oxford University Press). She is also a founding member of the JALT Teaching Children special interest group. Her motto is "Always try new things," so these days, when she's not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, you'll often find Barbara online exploring the potential of social media for professional development. If you'd like to explore with her, you can usually find Barbara on her award winning blog, Teaching Village.

15 thoughts on “Error correction – Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto”

  1. Dear Barb
    I’m very inspired on reading this. Building, applying and testing sure sound super! And I suppose it’s true that in order to get them grasping the whole idea, we need to build them with the idea, that way it will be easier for them later on to apply it. I suppose that is why I did it too, by asking them to translate to Bahasa, I am actually trying to build and put the idea in their head.
    Honestly I have always been a bit afraid in correcting them especially in front of the class even though it’s for the benefit of others, for people here aren’t accustomed to have themselves on the spot. They tend to later be afraid on making mistakes by avoiding any attention. But over time I do find that once you’ve made them comfortable with the class, teacher and lesson, things can run smoothly.

    I suppose I have to learn a lot from you then. Please bear with me 🙂


    1. Asking students to translate something into their first language is often a good way to make sure that they understand, and can be a good way to get them to start thinking analytically about language.

      Generally, you don’t have to correct individual students in front of the class. I never enjoyed that as a student and can’t imagine that my students enjoy it, either. When I introduce new language, it’s with the entire class. Here’s where I focus on accuracy and give students a lot of chances to practice with the new forms. If I have students practice in pairs or in a controlled activity, I can listen in and see what problems they’re having, and then AS A CLASS we correct the error and practice some more. So, children who are having trouble are not singled out. Six Second Drills are one of my favorite techniques for giving students a lot of practice on form (in a short time). They’re also a lot of fun. I learned how to do them from my co-author, Ritsuko Nakata. Here’s a video of her demonstrating the drill at a workshop we did together a few years ago:

      I agree with you, Icha about not putting children on the spot. They do need and want correction, but I think it’s possible to do it in a way that doesn’t make them more afraid to make mistakes later. Also, by concentrating my corrections in one part of the class–where students expect me to make corrections–then I don’t have to interrupt activities later when the focus in more on meaning than accuracy.

      I hope this makes sense!

  2. Hi Barbara,

    How timely this is! My co-teachers and I were just discussing this at lunch. We have found, for example, that when students (Japanese 9-10 yo 4th graders) are doing a show and tell or presentation, we have two camps on error correction. One camp corrects the students on the spot, the other let’s them finish without immediate correction, and then reminds the whole class of the correct form. We haven’t really decided which is good/bad, right/wrong and definitely think it can depend on the student (is their confidence going to suffer or are they able to take being corrected in front of their peers, etc). I would think that the nature of the activity might dictate when we choose to or chose not to correct them (aka, which stage are we in), but also the setting (in front of whole class, during pair work, etc) might play a role in how we chose to deal with errors. What do you think?

    On thing is for sure, when they make those “over generalization of rules errors”, I always smile and my heart sings! I think, “Yes, yes, your internal grammar is in drive. Go, go go!” It is a wonderful thing, as you say. While we can mirror the correct form, it will be up to them and their brains to adjust when they have had enough input or a noticing moment.

    Thank you for your post.

    Catherine Oki

    1. Sounds like you and your co-teachers are having the right conversation. I’m not sure there’s an absolute best way to correct errors, and a teacher could probably be successful with either approach, depending on her personal rapport with the students.

      I’d probably fall into the second camp. When students are working hard to communicate something meaningful, the focus should be on the message they’re trying to communicate. I would encourage students to ask questions about things that weren’t clear, and I might try to help in cases where language problems interfered with understanding. But, I want students to think of language as a tool for communication–not just another set of rules to memorize.

      I’ve found that by setting aside a time in class to introduce and practice new language–where students aren’t expected to be able to use it accurately because it’s new–I’ve been able to do a better job of correcting language before they begin to use it to communicate. I’ve also felt more free to enjoy the attempts at communication without feeling obligated to correct everything as it occurs.

      I do think the nature of an activity, the setting, and the personality of students all play a role in how we approach correction. I have some students who constantly want to be corrected, and others who are (already) paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. I think the personality of the teacher also plays a role. My students hear me speaking dreadful Japanese with their mothers before and after class, so they know that I don’t let mistakes keep me from communicating 🙂

      1. Barb, I think your observation that you are also able to enjoy when you don’t feel like you have to correct them is keen and something to be remembered. This is so important isn’t it? Ultimately, we really need to keep in mind our objective and continue to be aware of our role in meeting the objective. Thanks for getting me to think more about it. I look forward to being in the classroom with this discussion fresh. Hearts, Catherine

  3. Let me join Catherine’s chorus line for a moment and sing out for those trial and error moments as well. I love it when my kindergarteners experiment with the language that they have! When my third grade elementary students have presentation opportunities, I wait until they are finished to attend to any errors because I’ve found that they are sometimes too nervous to concentrate on and absorb correction in the heat of the moment. A short review afterwards for the whole class proves most helpful. Barbara, Icha and Catherine, thank you for your experience and insights! I look forward to reading more.

    Ogaki, Japan

    1. I agree with you, Kim. I think that in a presentation moment, the focus is (quite appropriately) on the message. If they communicate their meaning, that’s success! Generally, they’ve had to try some unfamiliar language in order to communicate what they want to get across, so of course they’re going to make mistakes. I figure that if people never makes mistakes then they’re not saying anything very interesting!

      Pulling out a few general errors to deal with as a class is my favorite approach, too. It seems to be the most effective, although that may also be because it forces me to prioritize errors and only deal with the ones common to most of the students.

      One of the (many) nice things about teaching children is that they actually CAN get the forms right. I teach adults, too, and as much as they love to have me correct mistakes (proves that I’m worth my fee, I guess) I’ve never seen much improvement in accuracy.

      Thanks for adding your experience to the pool, Kim!

  4. Dear Barb!
    Wonderful post and nice way to sum up and define how kids learn (through their mistakes as well). Not long ago I overheard the conversation of my adult students before their class about their kids (3-5 year old) and they were sharing their stories on how amazing kids are in understanding probably not only the pattern but the whole range of language, from context to word formation and so on. They were talking about an example of one bad word and how precise the kids can be with its usage just from the situation or two when they came across it. They may not understand the word itself but understand everything else and that’s something fascinating on learning language.
    It does seem that at that age the brain is in kind of a “survival mode” absorbing everything and as a complex to get the most out of it and make baby able to suvive and fit into the world as soon as possible without standing out of the line because of the lack of context or ability to express themselves.

    Well, as teachers we should probably take advantage of that fact and put our students into situations or create such environment where we boost this kind of complex and intensive absorption. Mistakes definitely are an opportunity to create it as well.

    Thanks again! Your post made me thinking more about it! 🙂

    1. That’s true, isn’t it? The bad words seem the easiest to learn!

      I do think that the same development that enables children to learn SO much in such a short time about the world and its rules is what enables them to shine in foreign language learning. They seem primed to make connections between things.

      I agree–we ought to make good use of this period of cognitive development!

  5. Hi Barb. Thanks for your post.

    I tend to correct on the spot during speaking activities. As for writing activities, I’m not as quick to point out their errors. However, I have found that my students really want me to check over their writing and drawings. It seems to me that they want more feedback in these stages than when we are doing speaking activities.

    Perhaps this is more common for young learners than for adult learners.

    Mark in Gifu

    1. That’s interesting, Mark! I guess I tend to correct on the spot when we’re working on forms and introducing new language, and then try not to interrupt the flow when the focus is on meaning.

      For writing, I use a workshop approach so the focus is on correcting for meaning until the very end of the process. I’d prefer to have mistake-laden writing that is interesting than letter-perfect writing that says nothing. Of course, this means that a writing project takes several weeks to complete, since we only meet once a week for an hour. But, I ask students to question each other about the parts of their writing that aren’t clear, and the parts that they’d like to see expanded. Then, at the final revision we focus on conventions like spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. I’ve found that if I correct those things early on, then students aren’t as willing to revise their writing–it feels done, I guess.

      You say that you’re not as quick to point out the errors in writing. How do you deal with the errors? Do you provide individual feedback or collect errors and deal with them as a class?

      I’ve found that adult learners are just as eager for correction, but less able to internalize it. Knowing that children are able to learn the correct forms makes me feel like we do them a disservice when we don’t provide them.

      1. Thanks Barb. Great ideas. 

        My writing activities are highly structured or scaffold to limit student mistakes. However, when they do make a mistake, I correct them individually.

        Barb, as you know from my guest post for your blog, this past school term  (April 2011 to March 2012) I have been teaching lexical chunks in conversation-based activities. I have introduced lots of language, we have done lots of pair work and lots of writing. I have seen an improvement in all classes. However, I have yet to push them or even give them a little nudge to create their own ideas.

        Because of this recent topic on error correction, your post and the webinar talk, I am thinking it is time for that nudge. 

        I have created a worksheet for this purpose. On an A4 sheet of paper I have made four squares, in each square there is a picture of a different situation. Under each picture there is a space for their writing. The pictures are of a mother and her daughter holding hands, another of a rabbit holding a large pocket watch running, an airport with a plane taking off and a fisherman catching a gigantic fish. Obviously, the task is for them to write something about the pictures.

        I will be handing out this sheet to all my elementary school aged students starting today.

        I am a little nervous for the results because this will tell me how well I have been doing my job. 

        Wish me luck or should I say wish my students luck. 
        Mark in Gifu

  6. Hello Barbara!

    I think what you say in the end sums everything up perfectly; sometimes when a teacher lets go of constant error correction, students eventually get it more easily than we may think! This is a part of the very process of language learning, which is identical even when it comes to our mother tongue. Offering the right linguistic item and then ignoring some minor mistakes made along the way can do the trick, after all. We wouldn’t like to fossilize the wrong things, like fear or confusion, in the young students’ minds, as Chuck says in his post, would we?

    Thank you Barbara for another enlightening post!

    Kind regards,
    Christina, your fellow villager 🙂

    1. Thanks for saying it better than I could myself, Christina! Sometimes when we let go of being perfect, we become better than we could ever have imagined! And we certainly don’t want to teach fear or confusion.

      Thanks for chiming in 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.