Error Correction & Focus on Accuracy

What to correct? How to correct? When to correct?

These are important questions


In order to help someone learn a language there needs to be focus on both fluency, being able to speak freely, and accuracy, making fewer mistakes. To help someone improve their accuracy, correcting the small mistakes they make can be really helpful, if done well.


So how do you correct mistakes in someone's language usage in a way that helps them reduce mistakes and become more accurate?


The answer is, there are many right ways. But if error correction is done in the wrong way it may not help the learner and could leave them feeling embarrassed or undermined.


Why do native speakers tend not to correct their non-native

friends or partners?


Over my years of teaching and the numerous students I have had the privilege of teaching, I have heard the same thing many times from students.


"Why don't my native English speaking friends/ colleagues/ partner correct my mistakes, I wish they would."


The truth is that most native English speakers don't learn about grammar in school. They don't know the grammatical rules. A lot of native English speakers wouldn't be able to tell you what 'adjectives', 'comparatives' and 'superlatives' are. This is not because native English speakers are stupid or ignorant, it's because it was never explained to them as part of a regular education. And it's not necessary for them to know what an adjective is in order to use English proficiently.


So, if you wanted to use the comparative of the adjective 'comfortable', we would say 'more comfortable' and not 'comfortabler'. A native English speaker would know this implicitly, it would just sound wrong to them if you said 'comfortabler'. But they would not necessarily know explicitly the reason why. An English language learner is more likely to know that the reason 'more comfortable' is correct rather than 'comfortabler' is that the adjective 'comfortable' has more than one syllable and to form the comparative of regular adjectives with two or more syllables we add 'more' before the adjective rather than 'er' on the end of the adjective.


Many English native speakers could therefore correct a mistake in a non-native speaker's English, such as the above example, but they wouldn’t be able to explain the correction. So they may avoid correction completely.


And, while they know ‘comfortabler’ is incorrect, they still understand what the speaker is trying to say. So they may avoid correction because they don’t feel it’s necessary. It’s not stopping them from having a two-way conversation, so why stop the conversation to correct a mistake.


We also need to remember that English people in particular, are ever so polite and will avoid appearing rude at all costs!



Another important question is - When to correct?


The most effective time to correct is when the non-native speaker makes a systematic mistake. This is the kind of mistake that is common for people of their nationality or people of their language level or is a fossilized mistake, a mistake that is ingrained and has become part of their everyday language.


If correction is made for systematic mistakes, language learners can apply that correction, start catching their mistakes when they make them, or are about to make them, in future and can start correcting themselves. They can really stamp out that mistake by becoming aware of the error and working to correct it not only in one particular word or phrase, but in large chunks of their language in which they use a similar pattern of language.


Here are some examples of systematic mistakes


Mistake: You can sign in?

Correction: Can you sign in?

Explanation: Many languages don’t change the word order from a statement to a question and use only intonation in order to turn a statement into a question. While intonation can be used in the same way in English, a word order change of the verb and subject does occur to turn a statement to a question.


Mistake: My friend said me….

Correction: My friend said to me…. / My friend told me…..

Explanation: The reporting verbs ‘say’ & ‘tell’ are often used in the past tense in reported speech in English.

Pattern for ‘say’: say + (that) + clause e.g. She said that Bristol is the best city in the UK.

Pattern for ‘tell’: tell + someone + (that) + clause e.g. She told me that Bristol is the best city in the UK.


Mistake: We are five in this classroom.

Correction: There are five of us in this classroom.

Explanation: ‘There are five of us’ is correct and ‘We are five’ is incorrect. Sorry!


When to correct: Systematic mistakes like the ones above.

When not to correct: Random, one-off mistakes.


And Finally: How to correct


1. Pick one systematic error that a learner makes. Explain why it is an error explicitly and what the correction is. Going forwards from there correct that error whenever it’s made. Initially this can be by stopping their flow to focus on the error. After that it can be repeating the error when they make it with the aim of them quickly correcting themselves then continuing to talk, so no great focus.

Slowly you will notice the learner making the error less and less and starting to correct themselves without you prompting them.


2. In a classroom error correction is so important. Here’s a few ways to deal with it.


  • On the spot – in the same way as above.

  • Write them down for later – list a few errors from the class. Put on the board later during the class and elicit the correction.

  • Write them down for later – list a few errors from the class. Put them on the board and ask one student to become the teacher, give that student the board pen and leave the room while the class works together to correct them.

  • Make a game – put the errors on the board, split the class into two teams allocate them some fictional money, explain that they are going to bet some of their money in teams on whether they find the right correction. If they find the right correction they double their money. If they don’t they lose their money. Competition is good!

  • Writing – to correct a student’s writing, don’t just give them the correction when they have made a mistake. Instead use a code, so you mark on the student’s writing where the mistake is, and what type of mistake it is, but not the correction. This way they have to work it out themselves and are more likely to remember the mistake and correction and to get it right next time. Students have to have been introduced to the code for this to work.


e.g. write ‘T’ above a tense error mistake.


Mistake: I lived in Bristol for 1 year.

Correction: I have lived in Bristol for 1 year.

Be a good friend/ teacher and help your language learner friend improve accuracy through error correction!