Error Analysis

Error Analysis

ELT Concept #15 – Error Analysis

Azrifah Binte Zakaria

What is it?

Error Analysis is an approach to analyzing learners’ errors in order to understand what types of errors learners make and at what stage of learning a language learners make particular types of errors. Selinker (1972) called this in-between stage of language acquisition ‘interlanguage’ (in Lightbrown & Spada, 2013 p.43).

Error Analysis arose out of the inadequacies of Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis in accounting for learners’ errors. Unlike Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis, which attributes errors to L1 transfer, Error Analysis is descriptive and does not attribute causes for language errors solely to learners’ L1 . There are numerous other factors that can cause learners to produce incorrect language. The target language itself, for example, can be a source of students’ errors. Examples of these intra-lingual errors include “I cannot to go” and “They were go yesterday”.

Why is it important?

Although Error Analysis does not explain why learners make the errors they do, Error Analysis is important as it helps us understand what the common errors students make are and the stages at which they acquire certain syntactic structures. Therefore, as teachers, we should not unreasonably expect our students to acquire something they are not ready for. Additionally, based on an understanding of Error Analysis, we can tweak our teaching to suit the level at which our students are at. An understanding of what language features fossilize can also help us to prevent fossilization at the outset.

My Reflection

Despite Error Analysis showing that there are some common errors learners make regardless of their L1, the idea of L1 transfer is persistent. In Singapore, the idea of subtractive bilingualism is very much present. The decades of the Speak Good English Movement have left its impact on Singaporean students, despite a recent emphasis on code-switching (as opposed to zero-tolerance for Singlish).

Errors are not seen as the process of student learning, as Error Analysis shows – of developmental sequence, but are due to ‘bad English’ or the influence of Singlish or the various mother tongues. Good English is seen to be an American or British variety – for example, when told to speak formally in class, students often adopt an American accent.

As a teacher, I find that it is a fine balance between correcting students’ errors and trying to get them to the standard that is expected of them as set out in the syllabus. This is especially so as I taught struggling students – Normal (Academic) students. Many of them do not get the kind of input their Express stream counterparts get and, for these students, learning English is rather like learning English as a Second Language.

Upon reflection, I realize that the errors they make are much like the developmental sequence found by Error Analysis.  For example, my students had a lot of trouble with the possessive ‘s, as reflected in “most studies [that] showed a higher degree of accuracy for plural –s than for possessive ‘s” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013, p. 46).

They also had problems with the third singular –s. These features are last on Krashen’s (1982) summary of second language grammatical morpheme acquisition sequence (in Lightbrown & Spada, 2013, p.47). This clearly points to the stage that my students were at. Moving forward, knowing this means that I can take steps to target these errors more systematically, so that I can help my students to the next stage of language acquisition.


Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. M. (2013). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ELT Concept #14 – Academic Collocation

Academic Collocations

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