ELTeaching Tip: don’t overvalue error correction

ELTeaching Tip: don’t overvalue error correction

When we learn our first language, we are bound to commit errors, and research has shown that second language students go through similar developmental sequences. While error correction doesn’t appear to affect these in a significant way, students’ errors are useful because they help give teachers some insight into where a student is in her development.

Providing the right kind of feedback to students’ language is one of the most important roles of a teacher, and it’s one of the areas in which we are unlikely to be overtaken by A.I.s at any time in the near future, for to be effective the feedback needs to take account not only of the student’s stage of language development, but also of the type of error and personality factors. Is the student alert and receptive? Would implicit correction (recasting the student’s utterance) work best on this occasion? Is the error just a slip, and the student might therefore be able to self-correct? Will the student benefit right at this point?

Despite a lot of scepticism about the value of error correction, it’s likely that it can be useful under the right circumstances. Students benefit particularly from negative evidence about grammar or vocabulary – where they are trying something out and they need to be told that a particular word combination or structure doesn’t work. This negative evidence is sometimes not available in the natural input. Teachers can help with persistent, fossilised errors and “false friends” where the L1 provides a misleading cue. As well as simply correcting, teachers can help students say things better by upgrading and extending student’s explicit knowledge of language, suggesting more complex grammatical forms or a broader range of lexis and idiomatic expressions.

Teachers don’t always have time to consider the above factors too closely, and therefore much correction is likely to be random and probably less than effective as a result. We know that acquisition is a gradual process, after all, and that repeated exposure is needed for words to be learned. Correction may come at the wrong time, or just not be perceived as useful by the student. If delivered insensitively, it may be rejected for affective reasons. I think it’s good to retain some scepticism about the value of correction.

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