Seizing the moment: when to correct students’ spoken language

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Assuming you believe that there is some value in teacher corrections (see my last post), the next question might be when to correct.

In my initial teacher training, I was taught that the teacher should correct during stages which focus on accuracy, and not interrupt while students are producing language in a ‘fluency’ stage (though you could note down errors to focus on in a group feedback stage at the end of the lesson).

Broadly speaking, I still think that’s good advice, but, as we have moved away from very rigidly PPP lessons, with clear stages which first focus on accuracy/controlled practice and then have a final fluency or free speaking stage, it has become harder to always judge exactly where the focus is at any given moment. And, anyway, is it always a ‘no-no’ to correct during a fluency stage?

I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer as to when to correct, but here are some factors I think are worth considering, in no particular order. You might have some more, or vehemently disagree. If so, please do comment.

1 Is it actually an error (something they haven’t yet properly understood or assimilated) or just a slip of the tongue? You might wait and see if it appears again.

2  Is the error quick and easy to correct, or to get the student to correct? If it will require a lot of explanation, maybe the student isn’t ready for it yet, or it might not be worth taking them and the class off topic (though see point 6).

3 Is the error something which the class is currently focusing on? If you have been looking at, say, past simple irregular endings, and the error is one of the verbs you looked at earlier, then correcting (or eliciting correction) might be useful for everyone, even if it’s in a nominally ‘fluency’ stage.

4 Is the error something that really impacts on communication? If no-one can understand what they are trying to say, or they are likely to completely misunderstand, then it probably needs dealing with- either immediately or later.

5 Is the error something that a lot of students habitually make, or are likely to make- will the correction be generally useful for the class?

6 Following on from that point, if a lot of students are making similar mistakes, it might be better not to correct them immediately and, instead, plan a new lesson around the area of difficulty, or, if you’re confident about it, change the direction of the lesson in order to focus on that point.

7 Finally, consider how this particular student is likely to react to being corrected. If they are shy or don’t usually speak out, you might decide to let something go in order not to knock their confidence.

In my next post, I’ll look more at how to correct, including who can make the correction and some different techniques for correction.


Filed under Correction, Speaking, Teaching methodology

12 Responses to Seizing the moment: when to correct students’ spoken language

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  2. Great post, a lot of food for thought. One problem I find in groups is that sometimes when I decide not to correct, another student notices the error and corrects it or calls you out on not correcting it!

  3. Great lesson. I loved the topic.

  4. Thank you for a very concise and thoughtful post. I agree with the statements mentioned and I would like to emphasize that it’s better not to set rigid rules. I have learned a bit and keep learning when to correct, when to give a sign for self-correction or when to let a mistake be. Each time it may be very different and now I mostly rely on my feelings judging whether it is suitable or not to interrupt a student. I strongly agree with point 7 and it is one of the major factors for me since I’ve had some negative experience concerning seemingly suitable correction regarding the type of the mistake and the type of activity but I disregarded student’s dispositions and her being risk-aversive. That made her shy and silent for some months and I have been working hard to encourage her to speak up. It was such a waste of time. I believe her communicative skills would have benefited much more even if she spoke with a lot of mistakes.
    Another thing is already mentioned by covkate. It happens sometimes and it’s great if students understand that you don’t correct everything but they usually say that they want to hear only correct language so I should correct them all the time. Thus I’m trying to strike the balance. Could you, if possible, dwell on this situation. It’s been one of my concerns so far and I hardly know how to manage it.


    • Hi Kate,

      Thanks for commenting. Students have been saying this to me ever since I started teaching. I think the notion that students should only ever hear or speak correct English goes back to the ideas of Behaviourism. It was supposedly superseded by the communicative approach(es), but yet many students still expect/ask for constant correction, or refuse to work in pairs because they will hear incorrect language. I have some sympathy, actually, because I think we do pick up a certain amount from what we hear, and if mistakes aren’t corrected, we may assume they are correct. However, language learning is not the linear, step by step process that the Behaviourist approach assumed, and even if we do pick up a ‘bad habit’ or two along the way, that can also be part of the learning process, leading to a big ‘aha’ moment later down the line when we realise the mistake we have been making, and when we’re ready to absorb the language into our own store.

      In practical terms, I think being explicit about why we don’t correct everything can help, especially if students know that there will be an error correction slot at the end (or in the middle) of fluency work, when you will focus on accuracy. With reference to the needs of individuals, I have sometimes asked students to choose red, orange or green stickers to indicate how much they want to be corrected, and, very often, those who chose red (for lots of correction) choose differently next time, as they realise how much it can get in the way of communication to be constantly interrupted.

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  6. Rachel, at the end of the post you wrote: “In my next post, I’ll look more at how to correct, including who can make the correction and some different techniques for correction”…but but but! For the life of me, I can’t find the 3rd post on correction here! Did you ever write it? If so, many many thanks in advance for pointing it out to me. Did I mention this is one of my favorite ELT sites on earth? Thanks for everything you do. 🙂

  7. faranak mohammadkhani

    I believe this article helped me a lot as far as “when exactly to correct” is my sometimes trouble! There are different ideas about correction and your ideas totally make sense to me, think I’ve found most of my answers here!
    Thanks a bunch!

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