BE A ‘MISTAKE MANAGER’, Alias Ways of ‘Error Correction’

/ New to ELT, Teachers

Just one word before we start

When I was a teacher trainee, I was trained among others in ‘error correction’. Recently, I came across a synonym, which I personally find a bit sophisticated: ‘mistake management’. Things might be reinvented and renamed, we are still speaking about our good old ‘error correction’. It is, however, important to distinguish between mistake and error.

While errors occur due to lack of knowledge of the correct form (students haven’t been introduced to the structure, so they use an other familiar one instead), mistakes are inaccurate use of previously taught language due to lack of concentration or other physical and psychological circumstances (nervousness, distraction, tiredness, etc). Having said that, the name ‘error correction’ is inaccurate if we check on mistakes. Errors (inaccuracy in structures, which haven’t been taught) should be dealt with in a subtile way: the teacher can repeat the inaccurate utterance in the correct form or they might even ignore it, in order not to confuse students. On the other hand, mistakes, ergo inaccuracy in theoretically familiar structures, should be ‘managed’. One point to ‘mistake management’.

Mistakes are good if not ignored

Students make mistakes and these help teachers understand what they have to teach or revise with the class. However, some (mainly younger) teachers feel as if they would lack respect to their students if they corrected them. So they always give positive immediate feedback (‘Great’, ‘Very good’, ‘Excellent’), ignoring mistakes.

Needless to say, error correction makes a teacher and above all, it helps students grow. So let us take a look at some ways of how to correct mistakes.

There are two main types of mistake correction: immediate and delayed.

Immediate correction: Teacher corrects mistakes right after the incorrect utterance by interrupting the student.

This type of mistake management is possible in accuracy exercises, where using the target language correctly is the aim of the activity. In fluency exercises, continuous interruption may cause reduced concentration on content and lead to frustration in students. Here is a list of the most common types of immediate mistake correction:

Rephrasing: The teacher, in this case, does not give any chance to the student to correct their mistakes, but simply repeats the utterance with the correct form. Students might even repeat the corrected sentence/phrase, however, they are unlikely to remember the correct form in the long run.

Non-verbal signals: using yellow cards, knocking on the desk/board, rising one hand or any other ways of non-verbal signals indicates to the student that they have made a mistake. So the student can go back and rephrase the sentence. Obviously, the student might not understand what the mistake was and might need more support.

Interrogative intonation: The teacher repeats the sentence/phrase with the mistake and an interrogative intonation. This way the student knows that there was something incorrect in the utterance and has the chance to correct it.

Using metalanguage: The teacher can explicitly ask for correct grammar (e.g. ‘Yesterday I have met my best friend’. Teacher: ‘Can we use present perfect with ‘yesterday’?’. This way of correction is possible where students are familiar with linguistic terms, like ‘present perfect’.

Asking for repetition: The teacher can simply ask the student to repeat the last sentence giving this way a hint that there was a mistake (‘Pardon’, ‘Go again’, ‘Repeat it, please’, ‘How was it?’, etc.).

Asking for peer-correction: The teacher might ask the other students to correct the mistake, in an open class discussion or calling someone else’s name. This might involve the other class members and encourage them to listen to their peers, however, it might make the student, who made the mistake, feel embarrassed and intimidated. It is recommended to ask first the students themselves to correct their own mistakes and only if they cannot, can the teacher turn to the other students.

Writing the incorrect utterance onto the whiteboard: While the student is speaking, the teacher can write some incorrect utterances onto the whiteboard and ask for correction afterward. Nevertheless, this might interrupt the student in their flow of thinking and they might stop talking and go back to the point where the mistake was made.

Delayed mistake correction: We speak about delayed mistake correction when the teacher does not interrupt the student speaking, but writes down the most relevant or repeated mistakes and keeps these notes for a future moment: right after the exercise, at the end of the lesson, in the next lesson or latest in the next revision lesson. This is an efficient way of error correction in fluency exercises, where the aim of the exercise is to let students speak freely even with mistakes in order to accelerate their flow of speech.
The teacher might collect examples for mistakes while correcting written assignments and discuss these with the students instead of simply correcting them.


How to…

However, teachers need to think through how they provide feedback on these mistakes. Here are some ways of how to correct mistakes in a delayed section:

1. You are the teacher: The teacher types up what the students wrote or said or a part of it (can be done after recording students) or makes a list of incorrect utterances and gives a copy of this handout to the students. The mistakes can be highlighted (e.g. underlined or put in another colour), or even labelled (GR for grammar, V for vocab, SP for spelling, etc., but don’t forget to introduce your students to these abbreviations). The students are asked then to correct the mistakes: individually, in pairs or in small groups.

2. Let’s turn it into a competition: The exercise above can be turned into a game. The teacher can choose some sentences with mistakes (or even rewrite sentences containing the most relevant and/or typical mistakes) and prepare a game. Some of the most successful ideas are:
Cross & Noughts: The teacher divides the class into two teams, pick and number nine sentences and transfer these numbers (in order or randomly) in a 3×3 Cross & Noughts template (students can do this on their own). The teams try to get one of the nine fields in turns, by giving the right correction to the sentences. If one team fails correcting a sentence, the other team gets the chance. In case nobody gets it right, the teacher decides if restart the game or pick another sentence. The winner team is which gets 3 crosses or nought in a row or diagonal. The game is even more exciting if there are more sentences and students can play different times.
Jeopardy: the sentences are written on cards and given different values (e.g. 50, 100, 200 euro). Their value is marked on the back of the card. The cards can be placed onto the board and the two teams pick a card based on their value. If they can correct the sentence, they get the points, if not, the other team has a go. At the end, teams add up their points and the winner can be announced (even awarded).
Mistake auction: Students (individually, in pairs or small groups) are given money (e.g. 1000 euro) they can spend in this auction. After they worked themselves through the mistakes, the teacher asks for bids for each sentence. There is usually a minimum of 50 euro for a bid and students might want to risk more if they are sure they can correct the mistake. Who offers the highest bid, can propose a correction. If correct, the student/team gets the money, if incorrect, they lose the sum. The game has two targets: who ‘earns’ the highest sum, but also who gets the most sentences correct.
Mistake goal: In this game the teacher draws a soccer field onto the whiteboard and places five dots students need to walk from one goal to the other (one central, 2-2 in the left and right halves) + 1-1 dot in the goals. The students in two teams need to ‘move the ball’ on this field from the centre to the goal of the other team, correcting the sentences on the worksheet (one position, one sentence). If they make a mistake, the other team can have a go and move back the ball, then continue scoring until they get a goal or the other team gets the ball back, etc. This game is really good with soccer-fan students.
Catch me if you can (Ludo): You might want to use this traditional boardgame with your students. They play it exactly as described in the game rules, throwing the dice, but before they move, they need to correct the next sentence on the worksheet. If they can correct it, they move forward the number of fields they scored with the dice, but if they can’t provide a correction, they have to move the same number of fields backwards! Students can play in pairs (you need to prepare then a board for each pair and have enough dice), in small groups or on one big board in two teams all together.

3. Or keep them quiet, but active: If you don’t want to conduct games or have to work with a big class, you might want to consider these ways of feedback:
Parallel texts: This exercise needs a bit more preparation and is suitable for mistakes in one specific field (a grammar point or vocabulary field), e.g. simple past vs present perfect, false friends, etc. The teacher prepares two versions of the typed up text or list of sentences, and hides the mistakes on either of the worksheets. The students, this way, have two versions of the same sentence. They need to compare their sentences and decide which is the correct version and why. There is a listening/pronunciation exercise hidden: ask your students to read out loud their sentences and not to show their sheets to their partners. In this way, one has to pronunce the words properly, while the other student needs to listen closely. After some time students spend correcting the sentences in pairs, you need to go through the answers in an open class session.
Pick the incorrect sentence: This is a quick low-preparation exercise that can be done at the beginning of every lesson. The teacher writes 3 sentences onto the whiteboard: two correct ones and one sentence with a typical mistake/typical mistakes. The students need to find which sentence contains incorrect language individually or in pairs. The whole class can then discuss the answers together or the teacher can quickly reveal the correct answer.
Pick a card: Finally, you can write the incorrect utterances on index cards (preparing enough sets) and make students work in pairs. They draw a card, try to correct the sentence, if they can they can keep the card and pick another one until they get the corrections right. If they make a mistake in the correction, their partner gets a chance or the card itself (however, in this latter case, they don’t get the correction). The aim of the game is to collect as many cards as possible.

Think twice

There are two important things to consider when doing delayed feedback sessions:
1. Think it through: plan
– what mistakes you want to deal with (less is more, don’t include all mistakes, pick the most relevant/typical ones),
– which sentences to write or rewrite (students should not feel embarrassed about their mistakes, so if necessary, change the sentence, leave only the incorrect part, so that students cannot recognize who produced it),
– how many worksheets, sets of cards, dice, etc. you need to prepare,
– in what social forms your students will work (individually, in pairs, in small groups or in open class) and even
– what the winner(s) get(s).

2. Always provide the correct answers: make sure that the students have it clear what the mistake was and why and how to say it correctly. This means: go through the correct answers in an open class feedback at the end if necessary or give students a second worksheet with the corrections.

Finally, if you want to guarantee that your students maintain the info, go back to typical mistakes regularly in different forms and ways and help students recall, remember and recognize a mistake, in order to avoid it in future.


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