Giving immediate correction to ESL students’ spoken errors

In my last post, I wrote that I normally focus on errors which are:

  • common to several learners; or
  • repeated (by one or more students); and
  • either involve language our students should already be familiar with; or
  • are at a level just beyond that of our students (to help them expand their range of vocabulary or enhance their grammatical competence a little).

Over the next few posts, I’ll go into a little more detail about when might be a good idea to correct students’ mistakes, and look at some different ways of correcting them. Hopefully, these notes will be of some use to less experienced teachers or those who have yet to get a CELTA or equivalent qualification.

When might we shy away from correcting student errors?
I’ve listed some possible answers below. Whilst you look through them, you might want to ask yourself which you consider to be good reasons not to correct.

  • when the teacher’s involvement would interrupt the flow of a group activity or pairwork
  • when correcting the error is significantly beyond the student’s current capabilities in English, or involves a grasp of the language they are not yet close to achieving
  • when the error was a slip of the tongue
  • when your student’s mistake shows they don’t understand a language point you have planned to work on another day
  • when the focus of the lesson is on listening or reading comprehension, not on accuracy in spoken English
  • when the error is fossilised, your student is aware of the problem, and drawing attention to it would only frustrate them
  • because correcting spoken English just doesn’t seem right
  • because we are worried that correcting a student’s spoken errors in front of their peers will knock their confidence
  • when we lack confidence in our own grammatical knowledge and competence, and fear being found out
  • because we are tired that day and don’t want to take on the responsibility of correction

Obviously the last two reasons seem more like excuses. Native teachers who worry that their explicit knowledge of English isn’t up to scratch are probably more concerned about saying why a student’s utterance is an error than that they won’t notice the mistake in the first place; and it’s important to realise that (1) you often don’t have to say why something is wrong, as long as you help your students improve (see below); and (2) your explicit knowledge of English grammar will dramatically increase even just by reading through the grammar explanations in your students’ coursebooks. Discovering that you may well not be required to provide an explanation for an error should reduce stress, and this should make it less worrying to give correction even if you’re tired. Non-native teachers often have a great deal of know-how (both of the structure of English and of methods that helped them learn the language) which they can share with their students; they can also help their students conduct their own investigations into what is and isn’t natural English, when they are not sure.

Returning to the list, my hunch is the vague sense that it isn’t nice to correct mistakes often rests on a fear of damaging students’ confidence, or adversely affecting the relationship between teacher and students; yet, in my experience, those who test their hypotheses and give correction a try almost certainly find the opposite is true. Most students seem glad of correction, as long as it is constructive and considerately given; and it is difficult to see how a student can learn a language if they are not given the chance to learn from their mistakes. The other points on the list seem like good reasons – there are many times in a lesson when there is no need to give correction, or even when it would be inappropriate to do so.

When might it be good not to accompany a correction with an explanation of why the original sentence is ungrammatical or unnatural-sounding?

  • When the explanation unnecessarily slows down the lesson
  • when it involves more sophisticated language use than your students are ready for
  • when the explanation is irrelevant to the lesson’s shape and flow
  • when there is, or seems to be, no good structural reason why a sentence sounds wrong, other than that we don’t happen to say it (“he was at trouble” rather than “in trouble”, “she was having a roll” instead of “she was on a roll”, etc)
  • when there is no common agreement as to the reason why something is wrong
  • when we just don’t know, or can’t remember, why something is a mistake (in which case a good and obvious thing to do is simply to tell our students we’ll look it up and tell them in their next English lesson, make a note of the error, and then actually do this)

What options do we have when correcting spoken English?
Our first choice is when to correct: either there and then (immediate correction) or after a speaking activity has finished (delayed correction). On teacher training courses, we’re often told that immediate correction is best during activities that focus on accuracy of spoken production (for example, practice using the present perfect to talk about events in your life up til now), while we should delay correction if focussing on oral fluency. This seems a good general rule of thumb, but there are some caveats. It often seems that accuracy- and fluency-work go hand in hand (in the example above, your students’ talk about events in their life appears naturally to invite questions and conversation from their partners) and, if your students seem to understand what each other means, and if an interruption would stem the flow of useful conversation, it might still be better to note down errors for whole-class feedback after the activity’s end, perhaps then reprising the activity with different partners for further practice. Sometimes, you may want only to offer immediate correction to students who are addressing you, either individually or in or after a whole-class discussion. Even then, so as not to overwhelm your students, demotivate them, or upset the focus of the class, you may want only to immediately correct:

  • pronunciation errors;
  • mistakes in the target language (say, we’ve been looking at uses of the past perfect, and a student makes an error related to these uses in conversation with other students or with me); or
  • errors which make it difficult for me to understand what the student means.

Otherwise, you can note down the mistakes you hear for feedback later on.

Is there a structure to giving immediate correction?
The standard blueprint seems to be: (1) see if the student can correct their own mistake; (2) invite other students to try and correct it; and only if neither succeeds, (3) correct the mistake yourself, at which point you might want to write the corrected sentence on the board for reinforcement, and even drill it if necessary. Again, there are reservations – before you read on, you might want to consider what these could be.

Some problems with the above structure are:

  1. timing
  2. It is generally a lot quicker just to give the correction yourself.

  3. student expectations
  4. In many (most?) learning cultures, the language teacher is expected to tell their students not just that they have gone wrong and where the mistake is, but also to correct it for them.

  5. student inaccuracy and the danger of reinforcing errors
  6. Your students may get their correction wrong, which could lead to confusion or even reinforcement of the incorrect sentence in your students’ minds.

  7. performance pressure
  8. If your students are not comfortable with each other, or if they find the classroom interactions stressful, the act of giving correction (or of being publicly corrected) may be a high-pressure one for them, which could be demotivating as well as lead to further inaccuracies. However, the activities here and here should help overcome this problem.

But the advantages of this student –> peers –> teacher structure of error correction are clear, as are the disadvantages of the teacher simply correcting any mistakes they hear: by encouraging your students to self-correct or to correct each other, you are inviting them to monitor their own language, to think for themselves and become more independent language users, and to use and trust in their existing linguistic resources. Sometimes this is not so important (for instance, when you’re in conversation with a student at the start of a lesson, as you wait for late arrivals); however, in general, I suggest it will be important to your students’ development both inside and outside the classroom to encourage a reflective, critical, experimental and confident attitude to their second language development, and hopefully more generally.

When and how can we give immediate correction?

If we want to involve our students in the correction process, we need to show they have made a mistake; we may also need to indicate where in the sentence the mistake was made, and perhaps what kind of mistake it is. Some common ways you can signal these things are:

  • through facial expression
  • by gesturing a student to stop speaking for a moment
  • by a question (“what was that?”, “sorry?”, …)
  • by echoing what the student said, with an upward inflection where the problem is
  • by repeating the student’s sentence only up until the mistake was made
  • through a verbal gapfill (you echo what they said, but pause or say “mmmm” where they have made a mistake)
  • by pointing out the type of mistake they have made (“third person singular?”)
  • by using prompt words (“tense?”, “preposition?”)
  • using a finger for each word in the incorrect sentence, saying each word and showing which finger corresponds to the error
  • if it’s a pronunciation mistake, through pointing to the correct phoneme on the phonetic chart and saying the mistake with rising intonation (“I sailed on asheep?”)
  • by showing, with your fingers, that two words in the sentence are the wrong way round

Vary the way you give immediate correction to keep it fresh, and remember not to try and correct every spoken error you hear.

In my next post, I’ll focus on giving delayed correction and explain a few different ways you can do this. In the final post in this short series, I’ll look at how and when to correct written errors.

4 thoughts on “Giving immediate correction to ESL students’ spoken errors

  1. Thank you for your posts, they’re really useful for one of my projects on my DipTESOL. You mention some activities to help with performance pressure, but the links don’t work. Is there a way of accessing these activities?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.