A thought on error correction

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

People have all kinds of ideas about error correction.  Error correction is the technical term for when a teacher tells someone that’s learning that they made a mistake.  Personally, I don’t think there’s any problem with error correction.  Correcting errors is just fine. It’s correcting people that causes problems. A lot of teachers think they are correcting mistakes, but their tone of voice, the look on their face, even the amount of time they wait before offering a correction are all sending a message.  And if that message is less ‘there was a mistake’ and more ‘you made a mistake,’ then sure, the student is going to feel miserable.  They might not take risks in the classroom again.  We talk about error correction without really differentiating it from people correction.  But they are very different things.  And learning how to do one without doing the other is part of the reason why teaching can be so hard.

Praise for an in-service and big comfy chairs


Right before summer vacation, my school network held a three day in-service for teachers.  It was nice.  We got to sit in big, soft leather chairs which spun around when you pushed off from the desk.  The air-conditioning was on and the room was cool.  And everyone was willing to toss around some of the ideas they had been trying out in their classrooms.  So when I wasn’t spinning around in my chair, I was taking notes and wanted to post a few of the gems I picked up.  Here they are, along with a big shout out to the teachers who gave me their gracious permission to post their ideas here.

Shadowing dialogues: At our school we never let students read off a page.  Instead, students are encouraged to always read, think, look up, and speak.  Basically, as Michael West has said, the point is to make a connection of language, “not from book to mouth, but from book to brain, and then from brain to mouth.” (Michael West in Nation, P. 2009. pp. 66-67)  The process also lets students gain a greater awareness of sense groups and natural breaks within sentences.  But Antonio, one of the teachers at our Tokyo campus, noticed that his students were getting a little bored with the same old same old read/think/look up/speak process, so he added a shadowing component.  Students would form groups of four.  While two of the students were practicing the dialogue, the other two students would try and shadow what was being said.  After practicing the dialogue a few times, all the students would change roles.  Often students are so focused on what they are supposed to say during a dialogue practice that they aren’t really listening to what their partner is saying.  Throwing in a shadowing component to dialogue practice helped make sure that students were engaged in a reading/speaking/listening 3-skill activity.

Error Correction for written work: After a student has completed a written assignment, give them time to underline anything that they feel is off or might be a mistake.  When correcting the paper, only correct those parts of the text which the student has identified as a possible error.  If there are any other errors, you can underline them, but do not correct them.  This was an idea from Joel, a teacher in our Yokohama Campus.  He uses this style of error correction as a type of awareness raising activity.  If the students are aware of a problem within their own writing, Joel feels that they will have a better chance of making a connection between what they wrote and the target form and there’s a better chance that they would be able learn the form.  And by underlining other errors, he primes them to notice similar errors during the next writing assignment.

Story Jigsaw (Sadistic Version): This is an activity which should only be used after students have worked with a text for a while and gotten pretty familiar with it.  Students form groups of three or four.  They pick one paragraph from the text and using lined paper, write one sentence per line.  Then they cut up the paragraph, shuffle the sentences, and give it to another group.  At this point it is just a simple jigsaw activity and each group must put the paragraph they received in the right order. But once they have put the paragraph in the right order, they are then allowed to pick up the strips of paper, mix them up, and lay them at various angles over each other, obscuring a number of words in the process.  The original group then has to try, without moving the strips of paper, to say the entire paragraph.

I’m a reporter.  I have to ask questions: We use a text called “Stories for Young Readers” (Kinney, R. and Kinney, D. 2003) It’s filled with very short (~100 word), very basic stories of teenagers talking about their lives.  Trent, the teacher at Nagoya Campus, has students rewrite every sentence in the story in question form.  Then one student plays the role of a reporter while another student takes the role of the person from the story.  The reporter asks the questions while the other student answers.  This activity can be done in a 3/2/1 style where the interview has to be done in decreasing amounts of time.

Bingo Storyboards: If you have a story with pictures, instead of the normal activity of having students put the pictures in the correct order, you can have students lay the pictures out on their desk as a kind of make-shift bingo board.  As students listen to the story, they just flip a picture over if it matches what they hear.  If they get a row of pictures flipped over, they call out bingo.  To turn this into a speaking activity, you can ask the student who got the bingo to use the pictures to aid them as they try to summarize the portion of the story which they just heard.

Oral Cloze: This is another activity from Trent in Nagoya and one that works best after you’ve worked with a text a few times.  It’s just like a regular cloze test, in which every n-th word is omitted, only you do it orally.  Read the story and stop after saying every 5th word and don’t continue until a student from the class shouts out the next word of the story.

Ok, that’s roughly half of the ideas I picked up at the in-service.  We also did a bunch of in-servicy things as well and those were all quite good.  But the fact that the program director believed in what we were all doing in our individual classrooms and wanted to give us time to just put our ideas out there was very refreshing.  I am not a big believer in just throwing up a bunch of ideas onto my blog.  I usually try and have a little more structure to my posts.  But maybe structure isn’t always such a good idea.  Maybe having a clear purpose and neatly partitioned blog posts and in-service sessions cuts us off from an important source of creativity.  So I’m wondering, do other teachers’ in-services and trainings usually have time set aside for just sharing ideas?  Do you have any ideas for less structured in-services?  Because while I also dig listening to the expert at the front of the room, I’m really feeling like the person sitting next to me at any training, conference, in-service might have just the idea I didn’t even know I was looking for.


Nation, I.S.P. and Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. Routledge: New York.