Are All Student Errors Worth Correcting?

Are All Student Errors Worth Correcting?

Many of us seem to believe that all student errors should be corrected. One common argument is that if we don’t correct their mistakes, students will think that their language is already good and continue to use the incorrect language in speaking and writing.

Another equally common argument is that we are duty-bound to correct student errors and feel that we have not done a good job if we leave any errors uncorrected.

What does the professional literature on error correction say about the nature of errors and how they can best be corrected?

There are two opposing camps. One camp claims that error correction is not useful and does not result in meaningful improvement. The other camp on the other hand insists that when appropriately done it can help students improve their language skills.

Most experienced language teachers that I have met however tend to go for the claim that errors need to be corrected. But they are unsure in terms of how how much or how little their correction should be. I discuss below three types of error correction.

Comprehensive Error Correction. Comprehensive often means teachers giving very extensive and unfocussed corrections. In other words, they correct all errors that they can spot in students’ speech or writing. They do this probably because they think that

  • its their job to correct all student errors
  • students will notice and learn from their errors
  • students are not capable of correcting their errors
  • if left uncorrected, these errors will become ‘fossilized’ and negatively affect students’ language development

Selective Error Correction. Instead of correcting all errors, teachers selectively correct some of the errors that students made. The thinking behind this approach is that there is no point in correcting all student errors, for two reasons. First, too much correction will only damage students’ confidence and motivation. Second, too much correction may result in students not wanting to do the follow up work of revising their work. But what does ‘selective’ actually mean? Are there guidelines for doing selective correction?

Research suggests that the selection can be based on the following:

  • When the errors interfere with the intended meaning of the text
  • When the errors are ‘treatable’, i.e., errors that can easily be explained by simple rules (e.g., subject-verb agreement). Untreatable errors (errors that can’t be explained by simple rules, e.g., word choice, idiomatic expresssions) should be left uncorrected.
  • When the errors involve the use of culturally or socially inappropriate language (e.g., swear words)
  • When the errors are related to the main teaching points of the day. For example, when teaching narrative texts, the incorrect use of the past tense should be corrected.

Minimal Error Correction. Minimal here means only a small number of errors are corrected. In addition, teachers simply indicate the corrections using familiar abbreviations such as Sp for spelling, S-V for subject verb agreement etc. This might work with the more advanced students as they are usually more than able to self-correct their mistakes.

Which of these would work best in your teaching context?

Further reading
Lee, I. (2013). Research into practice: Written corrective feedback. Language Teaching46(1), 108-119 .

More links on writing and correction 

More reading

Introducing Task-Based Language Teaching

Inspirational Stories from the English Language Classrooms


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