Is There A Right Way To Deal With Errors In Second And Foreign Language Learning?

Error correction

Errors and error correction has been one of the hottest areas in second/ foreign language learning and teaching and in first language acquisition as well. It has been a very sensitive and controversial issue because teachers’ and learners’ attitudes towards error and error correction differ depending on the teaching/ learning approach they adopt. Some of the early observational research in second language classroom examined teachers’ responses to learners’ errors. This focus follows logically from the shift in emphasis from contrastive analysis to error analysis. Actually, this shift has changed the entire look to errors and it has influenced the teachers’ and the researchers’ attitudes towards errors to a very great extent. According to Ellis (1985), the most significant contribution of error analysis lies in its success in elevating the status of errors from undesirability to that of a guide to the inner working of the language learning process. So, errors are viewed as evidence of the learner’s active contribution to second/foreign language learning rather than as a sign of learner’s inability to manage the new language as many teachers view it. In this paper, I will highlight the significance of errors in second/foreign language learning. I will also draw some attention to both teachers’ and students’ attitudes towards errors and error correction since these attitudes have a great impact on the entire learning process. Finally, I will explain in details some recommended techniques for error correction.

1. The significance of errors in second/foreign language acquisition

Language learning is not so much a question of acquiring a set of automatic habits, but rather a process of discovering the underlying rules, categories and systems of choice in the language by some sort of processing by the learner of the data of the language presented to him by the teacher (Corder, 1973). In order for this discovery to take place, learners have to go through several stages and processes. One of the most important factors included in almost all the stages and processes of language learning is error making. In fact, making errors is something inevitable in language learning and it is a very clear sign that language learner is actually developing and internalizing the rules of the language.

Whilst the nature and quality of errors a learner makes provides no direct measure of his knowledge of the language, it is probably the most important source of information about the nature of his knowledge. From the study of the learner’s errors, we are able to infer the nature of his knowledge at that point in his learning and discover what he still has to learn. By describing and classifying his errors in linguistic terms, we build up a picture of the features of the language which are causing him learning problems. A learner’s errors, then, provide evidence of the system of the language that he is using at a particular point in the course. They are significant to the teacher, in that they tell him if he undertakes a systematic analysis, how far towards the goal the learner has progressed and, consequently, what remains for him to learn (Corder, 1981). Learner’s errors also provide to researchers evidence of how language is learnt and acquired, what strategies or procedures the learner is employing in his discovery of the language. In fact, errors are indispensable to the learner himself, because we can regard the making of errors as a device the learner uses in order to learn. It is a way the learner utilizes to test his hypotheses about the nature of the language he is learning. The incorrect utterances of a child learning his mother tongue are regarded as being evidence that he is in the process of acquiring language and indeed, for those who attempt to describe his knowledge of the language at any point in its development, it is the ‘errors’ which provide the important evidence. The making of errors is therefore, a strategy employed by both children acquiring their mother tongue and by those learning a second language (ibid).

In actual fact, Teachers can make significant and practical use of error analysis and description as errors provide teachers with feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching materials and their teaching techniques. They also show teachers what parts of the syllabus they have been following have been inadequately learnt or taught and need further attention. Moreover, errors enable teachers to decide whether they can move on to the next item they have been working on and they provide the information for designing a remedial syllabus or a programme of reteaching (Corder, 1973). Therefore, errors that learners make are major elements in the feedback system of the process of language teaching and learning. It is on the basis of the information the teacher gets from errors that he varies his teaching procedures and materials, the pace of the progress, and the amount of practice which he plans at any point of time. For this reason, Corder suggests that teachers should be able not only to detect and describe errors linguistically but also understand the psychological reasons for their occurrence. He also suggests that for teacher, being aware of the diagnosis and treatment skills of errors is fundamental as it would help them understand why and how they can interfere to help their students.

In conclusion, teachers should try to understand and learn more about the way a learner learns because it is only then that they can adapt themselves to his needs rather than impose upon him their preconception of how he ought to learn, and when he ought to learn it (Corder, 1981). They should also be aware of the significance of errors in second/foreign language learning and they should look at them as a sign of development and progress in student’s learning rather than as a sign of failure and inability to learn.

2. Teachers’ and learners’ attitudes towards errors and error correction

Teachers and students have different attitudes toward errors and error correction. Teachers as Pit Corder remarks, are more concerned with how to deal with errors than with what causes them. Some of them think “ if we were to achieve a perfect teaching method the errors would never be committed in the first place, and that therefore the occurrence of errors is merely a sign of the present inadequacy of our teaching techniques” (Corder, 1967). Thus, such teachers try very hard to prevent their students from making errors by continuous correction which they believe, would help students recognize their errors and not repeat them again. They have been trained to correct faulty student responses quickly and consistently for grammatical or pronunciation errors assuming that correct learning will result. On the other hand, some other teachers believe that communication in the foreign language may be actively discouraged by the instructor who insists upon correction and grammatical accuracy. These teachers support their opinion by the fact that recent linguistic data supports the thesis that overt correction is unnecessary and, indeed, inadvisable (Holley & King, 1974). They also believe that continuous correction can raise learners’ level of anxiety, and that this impedes learning (Krashan, 1982).

Just like teachers, some students like correction and like to be corrected every now and then because they believe that continuous correction would improve the language they are learning. Cathcart and Olsen (1979) show that students want their oral errors to be corrected. In a complementary study on EL2 student writers, Leki (1991) likewise finds that 100 per cent of these wanted all their written errors corrected. On the other hand, some students find continuous correction very annoying, distracting and discouraging as well. They do not mind being corrected if the error is really serious but they hate it when the teacher corrects them every time they make an error. They do not like being corrected when they are speaking and some of them would even stop interacting or participating in the class activities just because they do not want to be corrected. Due to these different attitudes, both teachers and students should adopt a reasonable approach that would handle the problem of errors effectively and would suit their preferences in learning and teaching.

3. Recommended policies that teachers should have towards errors

In the previous sections, we have seen the significance of errors in second/foreign language. We have also been exposed to some of the learners’ and teachers’ attitudes towards error and error correction. In this section however, the focus will be placed on some of the recommended techniques for error correction. These techniques are meant to help teachers eliminate the problem of error making and to help them as well to provide their students with effective strategies to overcome this problem. In order for teachers to be able to handle and solve the problem of error making, they should:

A. Consider the students’ preferences

It is very clear that individual students differ from each other in their attitudes towards errors and error correction. Before starting the process of correcting and in order to ensure that students are receptive to error treatment, it is necessary to find out their preferences and attitudes towards correction and feedback. Being aware of these preferences and attitudes will help teachers to choose the appropriate way of correction and will help them as well to best serve their learners’ needs. Teachers can get to know these preferences at the very beginning stage (the first lesson), by distributing a questionnaire or a survey on their students (Fantozzi, 1998). These questionnaires should include statements and questions that are carefully prepared to get the learners’ attitudes towards correction and feedback. Based on the findings of the questionnaires, teachers can then choose the suitable correcting strategy or they may even decide to use more than one strategy at a time according to their learners’ demands. These kinds of questionnaires could be used at later stages as well to plan remedial work and to modify the teaching techniques (McKeating, 1981).

B. Be consistent while correcting errors

Teachers should be consistent while correcting their students’ errors. They should not correct an error in a specific occasion and ignore it in another because this can easily confuse the students. Allwright (1988) has discussed the confusion that can be created by inconsistency in error correction. He gives an example of classroom talk in which a teacher corrects an error made by one of his students but ignores the same error when made by another student. Allwright shows that this way of correcting raises so many questions in the students’ minds and confuses them to a great extent. Therefore, teachers need not only to think about the effect of correction on the student being corrected, but also its effect on the whole class or group who might process the feedback. Finally and in order for a policy of error treatment to be successful, it must be applied consistently by teachers.

C. Know what errors to correct and when

Teachers should not correct errors randomly; they should rather correct them systematically. They should concentrate on global errors that hinder communication. If  a mistake is likely to hinder comprehension or lead students into further errors, then it should be corrected. Teachers should as well treat those errors which are regularly repeated by students and also they should attend to those they consider to be the most serious. They should not correct every now and then in a way that affects learners’ confidence or conveys a bad impression about error correction. Teachers should be able to differentiate between mistakes and errors here. Mistakes can probably be self-corrected if the learner’s attention is drawn to them. With errors, ” the teacher must decide whether an indication of error is likely to provide useful feedback which can help the individual and others in the class to progress in their understanding of the language” (Hedge, 2000:289). Another important aspect that should be taken into account is the context in which the error has occurred. Being aware of the context leads teachers either to correct immediately when an error is made, postpone the correction until the end of the activity or ignore the error. With regard to fluency activities (a context where the focus is on fluency), the usual advice is to delay feedback until the end of the activity so as to avoid interrupting the student’s flow of speech. While in a pronunciation activity (a context where focus is on accuracy), learners should be stopped immediately when they make a mistake, otherwise they will continue repeating defective language, which is pointless. Teachers should be eclectic with regard to what error to correct and when should it be corrected and they should consider the nature of the activity (context) being undertaken.

D. Encourage students to use self-correction and discovery techniques

Correcting errors should not always be the responsibility of teachers. Teachers should train their students to correct their own errors and should give them the chance to do so. Actually, there are so many ways to help students correct themselves. While correcting writing for instance, teachers can use some correcting codes to indicate to students that there is an error instead of directly giving them the correction (e.g. writing the letter ‘T’ to indicate that the tense being used is wrong). Of course, these correcting codes should have been explained to students in advance and students should be familiar with them.  I have been using this technique with my students and it has proven to be extremely successful. An example of this coding system is given in Hedge (2000:319). Teachers could also encourage students to use discovery techniques. For instance, if a student makes an error while speaking, the teacher could say: “Excuse me?” , “Sorry, could you repeat that again?” or he could repeat the student’s sentence and stress the error to indicate that it is not correct. By doing this, the student will try to correct himself and as a result, would be more confident when dealing with errors and less dependent on the teacher. Actually, there is lots of evidence that a self-discovery approach reduces the likelihood of students becoming dependent on external assistance. Nunan & Lamb (1996:76) strongly recommend the use of “Correction methods which encourage purposeful learners’ involvement by allowing opportunities to self-correct or analyze the errors facilitate learning”.

E. Try to make use of peer correction

On one hand, a possible disadvantage of peer correction is that it deprives the student of the opportunity to correct the error him/herself. Moreover, some students do not mind being corrected by the teacher but they hate to be corrected by their peers. However, there is evidence that error correction by peers may be more likely to lead to learning. Block (1996: 170) suggests that “…it would appear that teacher-generated discourse is less memorable than learner-generated discourse”. However, if teachers are intending to use this technique, they should bear in mind that it should be carefully pre-planned in advance in order for it to be successful.

F. Prepare for remedial work

Some remedial work can be done by correcting mistakes more or less as they occur during the course of teaching. Sometimes, teachers need to prepare a planned remedial work in order to help their students overcome the problem of error making. In order for teachers to prepare a successful remedial work, they should select, work and concentrate on specific errors. The selection of those errors should be based on the frequency of errors, their overall effects on learner’s performance, their effects on intelligibility and ‘people who matter’ (e.g. teachers), whether or not there is a chance of success in eliminating the error and whether the error is genuine or frequent lapse (McKeating,1981:239). It is very important for teachers to be selective here, to deal with a few problems thoroughly rather than try to deal superficially with everything at once. This kind of remedial work is very useful because it helps students focus on some of their specific areas of weakness and it helps them as well to gradually overcome their problems in those areas.

G. Use a wide range of feedback types

In order for feedback to work, there must be a need or desire on the part of learners to attend to their errors, which assumes that they recognize that their performance is flawed. Teachers can create the desire in students to accept and appreciate feedback by using variety or wide range of it. Using the same type of feedback every time could be boring and may lead students to lose interest in finding out  the reasons for their errors. In actual fact, there are several interesting types of feedback that could be easily used by teachers while correcting errors. Diane and Barbara (1998) suggest the following types of corrective feedback:

1) Explicit correction:clearly indicating that the students answer was incorrect and providing the answer.

2) Recast:directly indicating that the student’s answer was incorrect, the teacher implicitly reformulates the student’s error, or provides the correction.

3) Clarification:by using phrases like “Excuse me?” or “I don’t understand”, the teacher indicates that the message has not been understood or that the student’s answer contained some kind of mistake and repetition or reformulation is required.

4) Metalinguistic clues:without providing the correct form, the teacher poses questions or provides comments or information related to the formation of the student’s answer.

5) Elicitation:the teacher directly elicits the correct form from the student by asking questions, by pausing to allow the student to complete the teacher’s utterance (e.g.” It’s a..) or by asking student to reformulate the answer (e.g. “say that again”).

6) Repetition:The teacher repeats the student’s error and adjusts intonation to draw student’s attention to it.

In conclusion, teachers should be interested in finding what types of error treatments encourage learner’s self-repair. In other words, what types of corrective feedback lead students to correct their own errors with an eye toward grammatical accuracy and lexical precision within a meaningful communicative context. I strongly advocate the view that knowledge of the difficulties in learning a foreign language and a consideration of the possible causes of errors should lead teachers to develop an attitude which is sympathetic and helpful but non-permissive (McKeating, 1981). Sympathetic and helpful, because if students know that their teacher has such an attitude, they should not be so worried about error avoidance that their fluency is unduly impaired. Non-permissive, because it is an important part of a teacher’s job to help students to eliminate errors, and they can not eliminate errors which they do not know they are making.


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Block, D. A window on the classroom: classroom events viewed from different angles, in Bailey & Nunan (1996): 168 – 194

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Nunan, D. & Lamb, C. (1996). The Self-Directed Teacher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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