ESL Error Correction: A How-To Guide

Can you open the light?error

Someone has robbed my car!

Error correction in ESL is one area beginner teachers often think isn’t too difficult. “I know the language. If students get something wrong I’ll just tell them.”
Now if you are reading this there’s a good chance you are a native or near-native speaker of English. I would wager that you already spotted the above mistakes straight away. These are typical mistakes that ESL speakers make when using English.
As an ESL teacher, or any teacher for that matter, correcting students isn’t particularly difficult, but, and it’s a big but, students don’t learn when you just correct them! Within five minutes, they will have forgotten the correction and will make the same mistake again.
Well, what should be done then? You should always give your students another way when correcting them and also a simple way to remember how to get it right and not make the same mistake again.


A Mistake or an Error?

Before correcting a student, you should first evaluate whether they made a mistake or an error. What’s the difference I hear you ask?
Well, an error is an ingrained bad habit. An error is something that students will do every time they say or use a certain piece of language. The above sentences are examples of errors. Students have learnt something the wrong way, but believe it to be correct or they just misremember specific language, phrases or grammar.
A mistake, on the other hand, is a slip of the tongue. It’s when a student says or writes something incorrectly without realizing it, but in actuality if they had realized they would know it’s incorrect. A good example would be when you accidentally call someone by the wrong name. You know their name, but you just made a slip of the tongue.

Which One to Correct?

Now the difference is known, which one should be corrected? You don’t want to overcorrect your students or they will lose confidence and fluency, but at the same time you’ll not want them to continue getting the language wrong.
As a general rule, It’s good to correct an error, but let a mistake slide. If you notice many students making the same error then plan a future lesson around it.

How to correct ESL studentsHow to Correct

Now you know when to correct your students, do you remember above when I wrote you should always give your students a simple way to remember what is correct, so they don’t make the error again? Let’s take our example from above.

Can you open the light?

Obviously the correct way to phrase it is, “Can you turn on the light?” So, first of all we have to ask ourselves, why the student made this mistake? In this case there’s a good chance that the student has the same word in their native language for open and turn on. So, how do I help the student not make this error again and correctly use open and turn on (and close and turn off too). In this case I would gesture and demonstrate that open (and close) is a physical action and turn on (and turn off) are for things that use electricity. If you’ve made that clear the student shouldn’t make that error again as it’s very easy to distinguish objects that use or don’t use electricity, even for similar items. e.g. You open a book, but you turn on a Kindle.
So in your next class or even with non-native friends see if you can spot the mistakes versus errors and think about in which simple way you can give them something to grasp that will let them not make that mistake again.
How would you correct the second example from above. “Someone robbed my car.” Let me know or share your ESL error correction experiences in the comments below.
Happy “Teejing”

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May 1, 2015

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