What causes ESL students to make speaking and writing errors?

Students make several different kinds of mistake when speaking or writing. These could be:

  • lexical (vocabulary errors, in which I would include problems with prepositions)
  • grammatical (problems with structure or form, misuse of articles)
  • problems of appropriacy (the language is correct, but inappropriate in context – perhaps too formal, or too rude).

When speaking, students may also make pronunciation errors (unconnected speech, failing to distinguish between long and short sounds, etc.). When writing, there may also be problems with spelling, punctuation, textual cohesion and structure (such as in newspaper articles, essays or stories), and layout (for example, of formal letters to British companies, or CVs).

We can separate these errors into two basic categories:

  • those caused by lack of understanding (your student cannot correct their mistake, even if they look back at their notes or coursebook); and
  • performative errors (in feedback, your student can self-correct, perhaps with a little prompting from others – they know the language, they just forgot to use it, for whatever reason).

But what causes these errors, and what can you do about them? Let’s look at both categories a little more closely.

1. Errors caused by lack of understanding – symptom: you cannot elicit a correction from your student.

Some possible causes:

  • The student is not ready to produce the linguistic construction at their level. For example, beginning students unable to correctly formulate a sentence with the past perfect. Signs: you cannot elicit a correction from your student, and this is not due to translation mistakes (see below). Correcting errors of this kind would usually be a frustrating and largely pointless exercise, for you and your student.
  • The language is too new. You have just taught some new construction and your students are failing to produce it accurately. This suggests you should either re-teach the construction or allow your students to do some more controlled practice in pairs, looking at the rules or patterns you have given and discussing which answers are correct, before you move on to freer production work.
  • Over-generalisation. For instance, you recently taught “going to” for future arrangements and overhear a student say “I’m going to live in London when I stop work” (“I’d like to” or “I want to” might be better here). By all means, point out the limits of “going to” in describing future plans, but don’t worry: you can’t teach all future forms at once; and this kind of developmental error can be ironed out over time.
  • Bad models. Your students will hear “incorrect” English all the time – from the TV, in conversation, from some non-native English teachers, from adverts (for example, “less emissions” in the new Fiat advert on British TV) and, of course, from native speakers. You may wish to correct your students when they make these kinds of mistakes (for example, you’ve just taught when we use “fewer”, or their meaning is unclear). However, if it is obvious what they mean, or if the “incorrect” form seems to be becoming part of the language (“I’m loving it”), you may wish to ignore it, or highlight potential difficulties with the construction and move on.
  • First language interference. These could be grammatical (for example, your Japanese student says, “I went to cinema yesterday” [Japanese does not have articles]), vocabulary errors (a German student who asks to borrow your “handy” instead of “(mobile) phone”), pronunciation mistakes (“ship” and “sheep” for Romance language speakers is a famous example), punctuation errors (e.g.,when we use semi-colons in English), or problems of register (such as a Portuguese student being over-effusive in a formal business letter). These errors tend to take much effort to erase, and often may never be fully overcome. How much this matters is up for debate.

2. Performative errors – symptom: your student, or the class as a whole, can correct their mistake in feedback.

Some possible causes:

  • Slips of the tongue. Sometimes a word or sentence just comes out wrong. Normally, a student will correct themselves when they make this kind of error, but they might not notice it. It is only worth picking up on if you are not sure whether it is a fossilised mistake (see below), or a genuine linguistic confusion, rather than just a blip.
  • Performance pressure. Many students are nervous about talking in public, or speaking or writing in a foreign language. This can lead to error. You can minimise the chances of this happening, and encourage enjoyment in using English, through more pairwork, through activities designed to “break the ice” and bring students together (I have some examples here and here), by playing background music the students find relaxing during conversational activities, by personalising writing activities and praising your students’ work, and so on.
  • Forgetfulness. You taught some language to do with preparing a meal yesterday, and now some of your students don’t seem to remember half of it. This is not necessarily a problem: it would be unrealistic to expect your students to remember everything you teach them! If your students are regularly forgetting a lot of the vocabulary you teach them, it might be worthwhile devoting lesson time to discussing memorisation techniques, vocabulary book organisation, and how best (and how often) to review new language items. You should also consider your own approach to vocabulary teaching: are you recycling the language enough (in his book, How To Teach Vocabulary, Scott Thornbury suggests students need to reuse linguistic items at least 6 or 7 times, in different contexts, for them to have a good chance of “sticking”)? Are you helping make the vocabulary items memorable (such as by encouraging your students to make strong audio-visual mental images to go with them)? Are you presenting too much new vocabulary (the average person can only remember 6 or 7 discrete items at a time)? Is your new language personalised and contextualised (therefore making it easier to remember)?
  • Tiredness. It’s much more difficult to recall language items when you’re half-asleep, or exhausted after a long day. Make allowances for your students; and, if it’s a regular problem, I suggest discussing the situation with them and finding out if there’s anything they (or you) can do to alleviate this quite common problem.
  • Fossilisation. Through habit, a student repeatedly makes a particular mistake no matter how often you correct them. This becomes a particularly noticeable problem with intermediate students onwards and is often immensely frustrating for them: the mistake is associated with lower-level learners; the student can immediately correct it; and yet they keep making it when speaking or writing, as soon as they relax into conversation or what they’re writing about. Behavioural conditioning seems to be the best way to go about overcoming fossilised mistakes – for instance, you might draw an “S” on the palm of your hand, which you wave at a high-level student every time they omit third person -s from their verbs (make sure you get their agreement to do this beforehand!). However, this kind of error is often deeply ingrained and it can take a lot of time (perhaps eternity) to sort out. With this type of mistake, as long as the student is aware of it, it’s usually best not to draw too much attention to it, but to work at the problem gradually and in a relaxed, gentle way.

We have seen a number of kinds of mistake students make, and I have suggested some ways of approaching them. But in the chaos of a classroom, with a number of students (perhaps from different countries) all speaking at once, there are only so many errors it would be possible or useful to pick up on. So when should we correct our students’ errors, and which errors should we choose to concentrate on in class?

I always listen or look for errors which are:

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

In my next blog post, I’ll go into this in more detail, suggesting various approaches to giving immediate and delayed error correction in class. I’ll share a few different handouts I’ve used with my own students, as well as a method of giving delayed correction which I’ve found really helps my students expand their vocabularies and grammatical knowledge in an organised and useful way.

8 thoughts on “What causes ESL students to make speaking and writing errors?

  1. This blog is really helpful for me in my course…i really appreciate your work .
    have blessed life.
    Hina (pk)

  2. Hi Simon! this is really good…it helped me a lot…thanks! :)
    i am doing my thesis on whether native speakers of English are better EFL teachers than non- native speakers or not..can you write something about this? would be really helpful!


  3. this article really helped me a lot in writting my assignments for PGD TEFL course.
    thank you sir.

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.