Student Correction During Class - How and When?

Teacher and students in classroom during lesson
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A crucial issue for any teacher is when and how to correct students' English mistakes. Of course, there are a number of types of corrections that teachers are expected to make during the course of any given class. Here are the main types of mistakes that need to be corrected:

  • Grammatical mistakes (mistakes of verb tenses, ​preposition use, etc.)
  • Vocabulary mistakes (incorrect collocations, idiomatic phrase usage, etc.)
  • Pronunciation mistakes (errors in basic pronunciation, errors in word stressing in sentences, errors in rhythm and pitch)
  • Written mistakes (grammar, spelling and vocabulary choice mistakes in written work)

The main issue at hand during oral work is whether or not to correct students as the make mistakes. Mistakes may be numerous and in various areas (grammar, vocabulary choice, pronunciation of both words and correct stressing in sentences). On the other hand, correction of written work boils down to how much correction should be done. In other words, should teachers correct every single mistake, or, should they give a value judgment and correct only major mistakes?

Mistakes Made During Discussions and Activities

With oral mistakes made during class discussions, there are basically two schools of thought: 1) Correct often and thoroughly 2) Let students make mistakes. Sometimes, teachers refine the choice by choosing to let beginners make many mistakes while correcting advanced students often.

However, many teachers are taking a third route these days. This third route might be called 'selective correction'. In this case, the teacher decides to correct only certain errors. Which errors will be corrected is usually decided by the objectives of the lesson, or the specific exercise that is being done at that moment.

In other words, if students are focusing on simple past irregular forms, then only mistakes in those forms are corrected (i.e., goed, thinked, etc.). Other mistakes, such as mistakes in a future form, or mistakes of collocations (for example: I made my homework) are ignored.

Finally, many teachers also choose to correct students after the fact. Teachers take notes on common mistakes that students make. During the follow-up correction session, the teacher then presents common mistakes made so that all can benefit from an analysis of which mistakes were made and why.

Written Mistakes

There are three basic approaches to correcting written work: 1) Correct each mistake 2) Give a general impression marking 3) Underline mistakes and / or give clues to the type of mistakes made and then let students correct the work themselves.

What's all the Fuss About?

There are two main points to this issue:

If I allow students to make mistakes, I will reinforce the errors they are making.

Many teachers feel that if they do not correct mistakes immediately, they will be helping reinforce incorrect language production skills. This point of view is also reinforced by students who often expect teachers to continually correct them during class.

The failure to do so will often create suspicion on the part of the students.

If I don't allow students to make mistakes, I will take away from the natural learning process required to achieve competency and, eventually, fluency.

Learning a language is a long process during which a learner will inevitably make many, many mistakes. In other words, we take a myriad of tiny steps going from not speaking a language to being fluent in the language. In the opinion of many teachers, students who are continually corrected become inhibited and cease to participate. This results in the exact opposite of what the teacher is trying to produce - the use of English to communicate.

Why Correction is Necessary

Correction is necessary. The argument that students just need to use the language and the rest will come by itself seems rather weak.

Students come to us to teach them. If they only want conversation, they will probably inform us - or, they might just go to a chat room on the Internet. Obviously, students need to be corrected as part of the learning experience. However, students also need to be encouraged to use the language. It is true that correcting students while they are trying their best to use the language can often discourage them. The most satisfactory solution of all is to make correction an activity. Correction can be used as a follow-up to any given class activity. However, correction sessions can be used as a valid activity in and of themselves. In other words, teachers can set up an activity during which each mistake (or a specific type of mistake) will be corrected. Students know that the activity is going to focus on correction and accept that fact. However, these activities should be kept in balance with other, more free-form, activities which give students the opportunity to express themselves without having to worry about being corrected every other word.

Finally, other techniques should be used to make correction not only part of the lesson but also a more effective learning tool for the students. These techniques include:

  • Deferring correction to the end of an activity
  • Taking notes on typical mistakes made by many students
  • Correcting only one type of error
  • Giving students clues to the type of error they are making (in written work) but allowing them to correct the mistakes themselves
  • Asking other students to remark on mistakes made and then explain the rules by themselves. A great technique for getting 'teacher pets' listening instead of answering each question themselves. However, use this with caution!

Correction is not an 'either / or' issue. Correction needs to take place and is expected and desired by students. However, the manner in which teachers correct students plays a vital role in whether students become confident in their usage or become intimidated. Correcting students as a group, in correction sessions, at the end of activities, and letting them correct their own mistakes all help in encouraging students to use English rather than to worry about making too many mistakes.