Teaching Matters: Correcting Error in the Classroom

Teaching Matters: Correcting Error in the Classroom

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”

-Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE), Ancient Greek philosopher

What are “good mistakes?” How can we – as teachers of English – encourage students to make more of them? When can we use error as an opportunity to increase students’ confidence in their speech?

Recently, we’ve stumbled onto an excellent resource titled You, The Super Teacher: How-to Guides, Lesson Ideas, Print and Go Activities and More. Available from the online, teacher-centric resource library BusyTeacher.org, You, The Super Teacher offers many pieces of practical advice for teachers of English as a foreign or second language.

One of our favorite segments, “Being Wrong is the Best Thing: 8 Methods for Error Correction,” highlights several strategies English teachers can use to create an atmosphere where students “learn by doing.” Here are my favorite talking points/suggestions.

“It’s not a mistake…it’s a learning opportunity.”

Fluency “is so closely tied to confidence” for learners of English – or anyone studying a second or foreign language for that matter. Far too many ESL students, especially in countries that heavily rely on – and sometimes worship – standardized exams, are reluctant in experimenting with English. That said, when addressing error in the classroom you may find that singling out individual students increases this aversion to participating and prevent others from speaking up.

Instead, as Super Teacher recommends, use individual error as a class-wide teaching opportunity. This approach not only promotes topical discussion in-class, but can also be used as an impromptu listening/speaking combination activity. Summarize ‘good mistakes’ after the discussion in a general grammar review. You can return to previously overlooked, almost inevitable errors such as article errors and countable/uncountable in a general wrap up. Gently remind students that words like ‘homework’, ‘advice’, ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ remain uncountable.

“Ask, Don’t Tell”

As I’ve mentioned many times, my personal educational philosophy has been that the more you ask, the more you know, and the more you know, the more you share.

Likewise, when pointing out speaking mistakes it’s often better to frame the correction as a question. The article recommends repeating the error back to the student, changing your inflection to indicate an ask. The student, by retracing their steps, self-corrects and is less likely to make the same mistake again. This technique can often work. If the student makes several mistakes at once, address each according to priority.

That said, it is crucial to let the student finish speaking FIRST. Correcting an in-progress speech may decrease confidence and make way for further error.

Blame the sentence, not the student

Similar to using “I feel” statements when addressing conflict, placing blame is best avoided by using passive voice. For example, “The sentence was missing a particle” is a much gentler critique than “You missed a particle.” It allows students to reflect on the issue without feeling at fault.

Remember, communication matters more than grammar. Keeping focused on the clear meaning of the student’s statement can also mean temporarily overlooking a minor error like confusing “much” and “many,” or a wrong article use. Meaning matters most. Keep the discussion or conversation moving forward.

How do you address grammatical errors in the English classroom? Which methods have had the most positive response from your students? Let us know!

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