Error correction – Steven Herder

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):

  1. 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!
  2. 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.


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Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.

12 thoughts on “Error correction – Steven Herder”

  1. I wrote over at Yitzha’s post that I sometimes use humor to deal with mistakes in HS and Uni classes. I should probably confess three things:

    1. I do it a lot.
    2. I only do it after reaching a level of trust with the students that allows for us all to enjoy the fun in language. I spend a great deal of time at the beginning of the year building trust, rapport and kindness in the classroom before the real fun begins.
    3. I share my own ongoing mistakes in English, Japanese and French liberally, because I believe that language mistakes should be laughed at and de-stigmatized, learned from when they make a difference in meaning, and ignored in many other non life-threatening situations.

    Creating a classroom atmosphere that is relaxed, fun and fair, where students laugh out loud and know that it is OK to make jokes sometimes, is my approach to the classroom and a teaching style that works best for me.

    It is certainly not a style that works for everyone, but having failed miserably as the authoritarian, the academic and the entertainer (just a few of the roles some teachers take) I have been trying to find my own comfort level in the “strict but kind” definition of a good teacher here in Japan.

    I encourage all teachers to find their own style through experimentation and by taking risks. I learned that once I could define and then explain my approach in the classroom to trusted colleagues, my confidence as a teacher grew quickly. I’m convinced that defining your teacher beliefs, and understanding how theory supports those beliefs, is the way to reach your true teaching potential.

    I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. Hi Steven. I think my style of correction seems to be very similar to yours. I think points 2 and 3 nail it on the head why humor can be so effective. It’s not about shaming students but about building that level of trust between teacher-student and student-student where we can laugh at the mistakes we make. Furthermore errors are not a bad thing but just a part of our language development and the more students realize that then the more willing they will be to take risks in the classroom and learn from that experience.

    1. Thanks for all the great posts and thoughts!

      As well as everything else, that last sentence particularly resonated with me, too, and I see other posts echoing something very similar which reminds me of Tim Murphey talking about encouraging ‘intelligent fast failure’ so that students learn to move on positively with their ‘mistakes’, especially where they’ve been used to educational contexts that can be rather unforgiving of the ‘wrong’ answers.

      Hence the need to be sensitive to the effects of correction upon confidence, self-esteem, and motivation – especially with regards to the manner, relationships, and environment in which correction is given – seems to be a key theme emerging in several of the posts and threads on this topic.

  3. Yes, Ethan. I love your last sentence.

    What is your teaching context and what levels? Does your approach work in various sized classes? Are they in an EFL (monolingual) or ESL (multi-lingual) setting?

    Geez, once the questions start, it’s hard to slow them down. Sorry, but I’d love to know a little bit more about your situation.

    1. I mainly teach oral communication at a university in Tokyo. There are 20 students in a class and they range from upper beginner to lower intermediate. I do a lot of cooperative learning activities so I am not really correcting students on the spot. I usually float around and if I hear something then I’ll jot it down and then bring it up at the end of the activity. If I am interacting with a student then like you I tend to focus on errors that interfere with meaning. In such cases, I might recast, ask for clarification, or even feign ignorance (i.e with a tilt of the head). That last one tends to get a laugh and also expanded talk out of the students.

      I really like the activity you listed below. It seems like a good way to raise the students’ awareness of the types of errors they are making. I’ll definitely try it in the coming semester.

      1. Ethan,

        Yes, we sound the same. I’m currently living a dream with only 12 students per class and a wonderful classroom with 14 computers with Internet and headsets, and a big screen TV.

        I teach TOEFL iBT speaking and writing exclusively for first years and academic writing and Oral presentations for second years in the spring semester. From August, all the second year students go abroad for up to a year.

        Again, I’m lucky that the students are all highly motivated to get as high a TOEFL iBT score as possible because that opens a wider variety of choices for school they can attend.

        Since motivation starts very high, I find myself focusing on fluency (speaking and writing) in the spring term, and more accuracy/complexity in the fall term. Of course sprinkled throughout is a focus on the Academic Word List (AWL) and vocabulary in general.

        BTW, I love the head tilt. Very kawaii…


  4. Hi Steven
    Love this post a lot!
    I think you’re right on asking them to write more to get them realizing where they’ve been. I should do that too! And yes, I do walk around a lot in my classroom to correct them personally. In fact that is why I become a Montessori teacher now, cause I don’t spend time sitting on my chair when I’m teaching. As in Montessori we are taught to ‘float angelically’ in classroom. 😉
    Anyway, it’s a great honor to be writing with you

    Icha Sarwono

  5. Totally agree on humour points and correcting writing, in fact I should be doing that now.
    The spoken word is often gone too fast for students to take correction usefully. Non-verbal lanuage can work there.
    Unfortunately, many of my students do very little written work because of the nature of the courses but we are using more each semester.

  6. Dear SV,

    Yes, the speaking output certainly lacks the luxury of time that both students and teachers enjoy. It’s here one minute and gone the next!

    I’d like to share one useful activity that surprised me in two ways:

    The activity
    Students practice talking in pairs about a topic (e.g. a city/country that I’d like to live in for a year) They are asked to think of 2 or 3 reasons and built a coherent 60 to 90-second answer giving details and examples. Once they have practiced with a few partners, they then record themselves. This can be on anything from a computer using a free software like Audacity to a smartphone. Many students these days know how to record themselves. The homework is for students to type/write out the script exactly as they said it and then with a different color, correct it.

    1. The first thing that surprised me is that the students thought this was a great use of their time. No, I mean it. They really thought that would learn a lot from this activity. They all did it as well.

    2. Initially, they caught probably 80% of their own mistakes. The second thing that surprised/impressed me was that when I found a few more mistakes, they were already totally engaged with their own tapes script so I felt that were really digesting the “new” mistakes that I found. Usually, when I hand back corrected homework, they simply look at my feedback, say “Hmm?!?” and then stuff the paper into a folder unless I make an activity out of them revising their work.

    Does anyone else have ideas that seem to work or make the most out of speaking and error correction?

  7. Steven,
    We share the same style of teaching. When it comes to dealing with errors, I often share with my students some of my own and some pearls I have heard over some years. But, as you said, that must come with a certain level of trust between teacher and students.
    Mistakes are surely a sign that students are learning something. Teachers must create a friendly, non-threatening environment in which students will not be afraid of making mistakes, of experimenting or hyphotesizing language, looking for diifferent ways of solving a problem and expressing their ideas.
    However, we must be cautious when correcting and giving feedback to our students so as not to frustrate them. What it usually works is explaining to our students how edifying mistakes/errors can be and provide ways for them to develop through their own mistakes.

    It was nice reading/meeting you!

  8. Hi Steven!
    I agree with you on the humour points and correcting speaking.
    I have tried walking around the classroom, helping my students correct their grammar mistakes while writing process is on but I have noticed they are distracted by that activity of mine. Somehow it seems, when they see me standing next to them or approaching them, they stop writing just to see what feedback they’ll get and not rarely they lose the thought (flow), this breaks the story line, interrupts their imagination, concentration etc. So I stopped doing so, but on the other hand, the students who are ok with this are free to invite me to come to their desk and check up on the mistakes. And they do… And, of course, there’s the written feedback they all get… So, this is what works well for us…

  9. I don’t use to consider students’ levels to correct their mistakes; I thought the same ways could fit well (I’ve worked with intermediate and upper-intermediate students), but thanks to you I realize I’ve got to be very aware of this aspect. Your first point is, I don’t know, just similar to what I often do with my students, for if there’s no meaning there’s no message. Sometimes the confusion is because of mispronounced words, others because of English usage. In the first one, I try not to correct so much, though some of my students used to murmur the right pronunciation pattern. Why I don’t usually correct? Because in my context, women are frequently those who mispronounce words and they tend to become reluctant speakers when overcorrection takes place and of course it’s very different with males, they just get it and continue speaking.
    When it’s about English usage, I’m more serious, because if they get stuck with it, their mistakes will be more obvious and grow into serious language learning problems. I try to give a ‘small’ piece of explanation concerning the specific mistakes they make. But let me tell you that desire to correct while speaking activities is very tempting.
    Concerning writing, I used to highlight mistakes with colors and give written feedback, and in class I try to show the right way. I also write about what they like, so I don’t overemphasize on the how, but the essence of the writing activity.
    I’m still learning, and thank you for sharing your own experiences so I can improve my teaching practice, for I’m just on my baby steps.
    Thanks a million!

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