Giving delayed correction in the ESL classroom

In my last post, I discussed when and how you might want to give immediate correction to your students’ spoken errors in class. Below, I look at some different ways of giving delayed correction.

Giving delayed correction
Way 1: boarding errors and good sentences
The commonest way of giving delayed correction seems to be to (1) set up a speaking activity in such a way that you can easily move between the different groups of students; (2) unobtrusively monitor your students’ spoken language, writing down good sentences you hear and others which sound wrong or unnatural; (3) board the sentences; and (4) when the speaking activity has finished, invite your students (in pairs or small groups) to decide together which sentences need to be changed and how to change them. After a few minutes, go through the sentences with your class, eliciting corrections and drilling as necessary.

One potential problem with this approach is that, if you keep giving error correction in this way, the process quickly becomes stale. You can vary your feedback in various ways:

  1. by turning delayed feedback into a competition
  2. As long as your students don’t take it too seriously, this can be a good way of enlivening the feedback task. You could number each of the sentences and call out the numbers randomly, inviting students from different groups to shout “yes!” if they want to either correct it or confirm it’s already correct. 1 point for a good answer, -1 for an incorrect one.

  3. by betting on sentences
  4. In between lessons, type up and print out the sentences in a table like the one below. In your next class, divide your students into small groups or pairs, allocate each group an imaginary £1,000 and ask them to work through the sentences, correcting mistakes or ticking good sentences. Make sure they bet a certain amount of their money on each of their corrected or ticked sentences, and that they “spend” the entire £1,000. Explain that, for each sentence they get right (either successfully correct or tick if it was already correct), they will win double what they bet; if they are wrong, they lose what they bet. Ask the groups to swap papers, then go through the sentences with the class, eliciting corrections as necessary and ensuring your students tot up the money won and lost as the feedback proceeds. The group with the most money at the end is the winner (you may want to give them a small prize, like a paperclip or a sweet). I find giving feedback in this way helps certain classes (especially younger teenagers) focus more on error correction, and get more involved with uncovering various acceptable versions of the same sentence.

    Feedback - ESL Sentence Correction

  5. by setting up a sentence auction
  6. As above, divide your students into groups and allocate each an imaginary sum of money. This time, board the total each group has, as you’ll need to keep track of how much they’re spending. Ask your students to decide in their groups which sentences need to be changed and which are OK, but not to tell any other group. Then ask them to decide together which sentences they want to “buy” and how much to spend on each one. Finally, assume the role of an auctioneer, soliciting offers from each group until a sentence is “sold”. Board how much the winning group spent on each sentence and subtract this from their total money (also on the board). Finally, elicit corrections from each group: if they are correct, they get to keep their sentence, otherwise it becomes yours. The group with the most sentences at the end is the winner.

  7. as a mingling exercise
  8. Write each sentence onto a different scrap of paper, then give each student a different sentence. Ask them to mingle and help each other correct mistakes and decide which sentences are well-formed. Finally, go through the sentences together as a class, boarding and drilling as necessary.

  9. as a group discussion
  10. As above, write each sentence onto a different scrap of paper. Divide your class into small groups and give a roughly equal number of sentences to each; then ask your groups to correct mistakes and tick well-formed sentences (they can write on the paper). They can then swap papers with another group and check to see if they want to make any other changes, then either form new groups and discuss any changes or simply swap papers again and repeat. The last stage is whole-class feedback, wherein you go through the sentences and elicit various possible corrections to them. This can be a good way of eliciting different correct formulations of the same idea, although it can also be overkill.

  11. as a dictation exercise
  12. Dictate the sentences you’ve written down, telling your students that some of the sentences you’ll say will be wrong and asking them only to write what they think is the correct version. They can then check their sentences with a partner, and then you can elicit their corrections and board and discuss them. An advantage here is that there is less chance of reinforcing errors; you are also inviting all of your students to use their own linguistic resources to judge when a mistake has been made and how to correct it, as well as testing their listening skills and ensuring they have a written record of the corrected sentences.

Way 2: focussing on building lexis
Some advantages of the methods of giving delayed correction, above, are that the language is authentic (it comes from your students), the activity is student-focussed (because you are helping them correct their errors), you are encouraging them (to an extent) to rely on their own lexical and grammatical resources, and you are helping to extend those resources through whole-class feedback at the end. You are also encouraging your class to work together in a positive way, hopefully strengthening the ties between them and increasing their confidence in one another.

Some disadvantages with Way 1 are: the sentences can be disorganised (though perhaps you could group them together into different kinds as you board them – prepositions, articles, tense, etc.); the incorrect sentences may reinforce students’ errors (the likelihood of this is debatable, however, and if you dictate the sentences you will lower the chances of error-reinforcement); your students may recognise their mistakes, which could demotivate them (again, whether this would happen depends on your students’ personalities and expectations); and, by focussing on language your students have already produced, you may not be extending their grammatical knowledge or lexis.

Another approach to delayed error correction, which attempts to avoid the above pitfalls, turns delayed feedback into a gapfill activity. As you monitor your students’ spoken language, listen out for what they could have said as much as what they did say. For example, consider the following sentences, from an advanced level English class:

  1. I went to Camden market on Saturday.
  2. I was reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It’s really good.
  3. I had a really nice dinner with my friend.

There’s nothing wrong with these sentences; however, they are not very linguistically adventurous; and advanced students could do a lot more with the language.
One way of encouraging experimentation and linguistic invention would be to set the feedback up as a gapfill – board or dictate the following sentences (agreeing beforehand some verbal marker for “_______” with your students):

  1. I strolled/ wandered _______ Camden market on Saturday.
  2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a great read. I couldn’t put it _______!
  3. I had a _______ dinner with my friend last night.

Your students could then work in pairs or on their own to fill in the gaps as best they can, then compare in larger groups before getting feedback from the whole class. Note that the final gapfill could be either positive or negative. If you board the sentences with gaps, you might want to indicate that a positive adjective is missing (e.g., with a “+” below the gap); however, leaving the gap unmarked could be more fun, and allows for more possibilities.

As above, you could organise these sentences into kinds before you dictate or board them: for example, prepositions and adverbs (“she came down to see me”, “at last, we set off“, etc.), fixed- or semi-fixed expressions (“[subject + form of ‘have’] a whale of a time” or “a/an absolute/total/complete mess”), and so on.

What could be the advantages of this approach? As above, the sentences are focussed on your students and what they want to do with the language, and you are testing their existing linguistic resources and strengthening class bonds by asking them to work together to complete the sentences. However, by turning the delayed feedback into a gapfill based on what your students could have said (as well as by boarding corrected versions of their mistaken sentences, with gaps where the mistakes would go), you are also helping them extend their lexical range; you also make it less likely that students will recognise that they made an error while expressing an idea, so your focus stays positive (which can itself be motivating).

What to do after you’ve given correction?
There is little point in giving delayed correction unless your students (1) note down the corrected or new language; and (2) use it.

You could recycle the language in various ways. Some potential activities are: repeating the speaking activity with a new partner or group, this time asking your students to incorporate some of the boarded or noted language in their answers; using your sentences to make questions (you could ask your students to do this, or you could do it yourself) or personalise the sentences for your students (e.g., “write down what you think is the best place in London to stroll around; write the name of a book you couldn’t put down; write down the time when you had the best/worst meal of your life. Now tell your partner about what you wrote, saying why you wrote it”); setting a writing or role-play task whereby your students have to incorporate 5 or so expressions from the board into their work in a natural way. If you don’t have time to do this in class, you could set a writing (or conversational) task for homework, asking your students to use some of the corrected or new sentences in their work.

In the final post in this brief series, I’ll consider how we might correct our students’ written work.

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.

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