Immediate or Delayed Error Correction? Fix learners’ mistakes

Visible Learning

By Gabriel Clark

Let’s start this article with a bit of well-grounded research.

According to John Hattie’s epic meta-study on factors that impact learning the most, Visible Learning, providing feedback to your students is one of the most effective things you can do as a teacher. Let’s apply this logic to error correction…But how to do it?

There are a few common issues when it comes to error correction:
– We don’t like stopping our students’ flow mid-sentence.
– We don’t want long and boring error correction sessions.

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OK. I feel your pain. Let’s deal with this in stages ….

First of all, it’s important to bear in mind the difference between errors and mistakes. An error is when the student produces incorrect language, largely because of lack of knowledge.
 A mistake is an accident, a slip of the tongue. We all do it – even in our first language.

This system aims to deal with both errors and mistakes – or as I prefer to call them “knowledge issues” (errors) and “performance issues” (mistakes).

1. Make notes of incorrect sentences.

While the class is involved in a speaking task, don’t just monitor. Go one step further by documenting the incorrect language they’re using – make notes of the mistakes they make.
You might need to decide which ones are worth writing down and which ones aren’t. If only one student is making a particular type of mistake, then don’t worry about it, but if it’s an issue that most of the class has, then go for it.
NOTE: With higher-level learners, you may want to write down mistakes less often and start writing “upgradable” sentences – sentences the students make that are technically correct, but could sound more natural.

2. Chalk ‘em up! Write them on the board (and play a game).

Divide the class into two (or more) teams. Get them to choose their team names, and write up the sentences onto the board.
Tell the students to look at the sentences, try to find out what’s wrong with them, and “fix” them.
Get each team to write what they think is the correct form for each sentence on a piece of paper.
Write their answers on the board and award points to the team with the correct answer.

3. Work out which are knowledge issues and which are performance issues.

If the teams can answer the question easily, then it’s probably a performance issue. You don’t need to spend time on this, but make a mental note of these for error correction later.
 If the teams have issues with the mistake, then this is probably a knowledge issue, in which case, pause the game! You’ll need to spend a little time teaching the language feature here. Don’t go into detail, but just get the students aware of it and perhaps able to produce a few examples of it. You WILL be coming back to this in a later lesson when they make the same mistake again and it reappears on the board during error correction. Then continue with the game.

4. Consolidate these issues over time.

Next time you hear a student make a mistake, ask yourself “Did we cover this in previous error correction?” If the answer is “yes,” then it’s a performance issue, and that’s the time for immediate error correction. Just let your student know they’ve slipped up. (I usually say, “Can you just say that sentence again?”) They’ll pick up on your cues and hopefully, start self-correcting.

If the answer is “no,” then it’s probably a knowledge issue. In which case, write it down and save it for the next error correction session. The trick to this approach is “a little over a long time” rather than “everything all at once.”

Learning a language, like learning anything, requires a lot of repetition.

We can’t just teach the present perfect one day and expect our students to be using it immediately.

This technique works best when you use it with the same class over a prolonged period of time. This way, they’ll be reminded of each language issue in low intensity over a longer period of time, as opposed to all at once.

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