Error Correction: What? When? How?

Hello colleagues, One of the important issues all teachers of language learners face routinely is how to handle "error" correction. We need to consider WHAT errors to correct, WHEN to correct errors and HOW we should do so. What are your thoughts about how to handle offering feedback to English learners on their speech? 

Here's a LINK TO A FASCINATING (brief) VIDEO shared by the SABES C&I PD center of ESOL instructor Diane Worth from Ludlow, MA, focused on how she handles correcting speaking errors -- focused both on grammar and pronunciation. 

Looking forward to a robust discussion on this essential aspect of language teaching!

[Thanks to SABES and Diane Worth for sharing this video!]

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP



For me, the key to deciding WHAT to correct is making sure that I have a strong sense of the objectives in any given lesson or activity.  I generally limit corrections to the focus of the activity.  For example, if we're doing a conversation activity that focuses on speaking fluency and expressing ideas clearly, then I limit my corrections to things that seems to be interfering with understanding among group members.  This usually takes the form of a suggestion.  "I think you want to say ______ is that right?" Then I ask the student to try out the new word or phrase that I have suggested.

In the case of student writing, again, I try to focus on the purpose of the assignment first.  If students are writing a summary of an article, is there a clear synopsis of the main ideas present in their writing?  I often have students at very different levels, so I also have a hierarchy of corrections that I give.  Some students may only receive corrections at the first level, which focuses on intelligibility of ideas and complete sentences.  Other students might be ready for corrections related to verb tense and punctuation.  And finally others might be ready to receive feedback on word choice, transitions, and finer points of grammar and mechanics.

I currently teach a low beginning ESOL class and like Jessica, I try to focus my error correction on the lesson objectives. For example, if one of our lesson objectives is to orally describe health symptoms,  then I might correct a learner's pronunciation of the word ache by using a simple recast.

Additionally, I find that error correction will happen naturally when there is an obvious communication breakdown or misunderstanding. If someone in the class doesn't understand a classmate's comment, we will take time to work together to figure it out. Sometimes students will support and correct each other. Other times, a student will show me a picture of what they were trying to say. After students have solved the communication breakdown, I am able to provide the correct form on the whiteboard. While this might not be tied to our objectives, this is a valuable learning moment for the class. 

Thank you, Silvia and Jessica, It makes good sense to provide feedback related to the objectives of a lesson. We also can find ways to take advantage of teachable moments such as you described, Silvia.

Along those lines, I recall a workshop I attended many years ago where the presenter talked about a way to offer feedback when engaged in a one-on-one conversation with a learner. Of course, interrupting learners to offer feedback would usually not be best practice. The presenter suggested that it can sometimes be helpful -- assuming we are confident a learner is ready for the feedback -- to say, "Here's how we would usually say that...."  

What do you see as the pros and cons of offering feedback using this technique?

Cheers, Susan


Hi All,

One method I used was when we were just talking or chatting at the beginning and end of class, I did no error correction. I wanted students to feel the comfort of just talking and being understood. Frankly, some errors don't really matter, do they? If they say: "My son, he sick, he home today." I understand, we understand. If I were to jump into error correction, the student may not continue to talk and we may miss an important followup. Where I was more prescriptive was when were covering a specific grammar or vocabulary. I wanted them to practice using the form correctly. The students knew that would be a time for correction. Did they remember it exactly the next day? Not always so we review, correct, and practice again.

One approach I take is to start a new session with a conversation about error correction.  I tell the students that they have a choice with how I correct errors.  I demonstrate different approaches and ask them if they want a direct, noticing approach, re-phrase, etc.   We practice how I may correct them.  I tell them that they will learn better if I show them where their error is, how they can improve or how they can identify or  resolve a problem themselves.  We talk about how it feels to be corrected and that making mistakes is good.  Learning a language requires taking chances, trial and error, etc. 

I'm judicious when it actually comes time for error correction in accuracy activities so that students aren't overwhelmed and the affective filter comes into play.   I correct during fluency exercises when communication breaks down. 

I'm still experimenting with how to achieve the maximum correction efforts with pronunciation in the small amount of time I can dedicate to it.  For example, I give weekly spelling tests.  For homework this past week, I assigned the reading and spelling of those words.  They read and spelled in a WhatsApp voice message to me privately.   (That happened after in-class, pair spelling practice, identification of part of speech,  identifying word stress, sentence creation, etc.).   It takes little out-of-class time and boosts student confidence in a huge way,   As for my time, listening to one minute or less of spelling/pronunciation is minor.   We get to word-level pronunciation with this approach but not beyond.     




Ellen Clore-Patron

Instructor, Adult ESL

Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP)


Hello Ellen and all, There is so much I like about what you shared here, Ellen. First of all, I love the idea of talking explicitly with learners up front about the options for correcting errors. I have always had learners who asked, "Please, teacher, correct all my mistakes." Of course, correcting all so-called mistakes would not be practical, and your point about the affective filter and learner confidence is critical.

Using audio recordings is a powerful way to give learners practice. When I've done this, I learned that students will record themselves over and over and over until they are satisfied before sending their audio file to me. Doing so gives them a lot of great practice. 

Allegra, you ask a relevant question about whether so-called errors actually matter when/if learners are able to communicate despite what me might consider mistakes. I'd love to hear members thoughts on this question.

This is a great discussion. Let's hear more!

Cheers, Susan