Correcting written work in the ESL classroom

In my last two posts, I discussed ways of giving immediate and delayed feedback. Below, I look at how we might correct ESL students’ written work.

Correcting written work
As per my previous post, it’s important not to correct every error you see when marking students’ written work. Think about your student’s level: what mistakes might they be able to correct themselves? What should they be looking to correct at this level? Also remember to praise good work, and good efforts; and, if appropriate, it’s a good idea to respond personally to the work – were there any interesting ideas mentioned? What did you like about it? Write a sentence or two to let your students know! It’s also important to look for words and expressions your students could have used when reading their written work: by noting (some of) these, you can help your student build their vocabulary, especially if they incorporate some of your suggestions in their subsequent draft(s).

Immediate v delayed correction
If you have set up a writing activity, you can monitor your students as they work and give advice and corrections there and then. Personally, I avoid making corrections if my students are in mid-flow, as I find it activates their more critical turns of mind and stops their creativity. However, it seems useful to give such feedback as they reach the end of a writing task, or have reached a pause in between creative bursts.

If the writing was for homework, or if you collect your students’ work at the end of a writing activity, you can give delayed correction. Rather than laboriously work through each of your students’ texts, writing corrections in full and leaving feedback, a quicker and better option might be to use symbols to make corrections, as in those on the corrections sheet I often use with upper-intermediate + students, below. Make sure your students have a copy of the corrections sheet as well! Apart from saving you time, using symbols for correction stops you from simply rewriting your students’ sentences, thus forcing them to think about the mistakes they have made and attempt their own corrections.

Homework Correction Key

You can also give delayed correction in class: either give your students their work back, with symbols to show mistakes, and ask them to work in pairs to discuss how they would change their texts, and to make those changes – or, with higher levels (say, good intermediate and above), simply ask your students to swap papers and check the work in front of them for spelling, grammar, punctuation and/or vocabulary errors. Make sure you ask them to note anything they like about the work – either the language or the ideas within it – and that they share this with their partner when they are ready to give feedback. Remember that you can help your students here, and look at the text again afterwards.

When you have finished giving feedback, it will generally be very useful for your students to rewrite their text, incorporating the changes they and you have made. This could be done for homework, or you could even put your students into groups and ask them to pool their ideas and write a group text on the same theme, in class. Again, you should monitor and help your students with this activity.

Other ways of giving delayed correction to written work
If you have time, and if your students’ texts are short, you could rewrite them, making them sound natural for you. Give back their own versions and yours and ask them to look through the two texts, underlining any differences and then discussing with a partner why the changes might have been made.

You could also type up various good/mistaken sentences from your students’ work, all on one piece of paper, and then, in the next class or the next day, try one of the activities in Way 1 of giving delayed correction, above.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my friend Tim McLeish for reminding me of the importance of listening for what your students could have said as much as what they did say when preparing for delayed correction; and thanks to David Riddell, whose book Teach Yourself Teaching English As A Foreign Language reminded me of some error correction basics for this article, and which helped me enormously when I first started teaching back in 2006.

One thought on “Correcting written work in the ESL classroom

  1. Hello,
    I was wondering, what do you do when you decide that you are going to hang out the written homework and they are mistakes, but they are minor? Do you still correct them and then hang it out ? or you leave it ??

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