Recently my teenaged daughter was watching as I corrected student papers.
“Mom,” she exclaimed. “That’s wrong. It’s ‘she goes to school,’ not ‘she go.’”
“Yes,” I replied. “I know that.”
“Well, aren’t you going to do something about it?”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Well, mark it, of course!”
I then showed her where I had indeed marked the same error, earlier in the paper, before the five or six other instances. “I still think you should mark the others,” Shoshana said.
“And what good do you think that would do? Will it make the student learn English faster?”
“How will it make the student feel?” I asked. “How would it make you feel if a paper that you wrote in Spanish came back covered with red ink?”
“I can’t write anything this long in Spanish,” was her reply.
“But the couple of sentences you do write are correct, I guess.” At least that was true of my experiences in second language learning: I have a limited range of what I could say or write in French or Russian, but the little I can produce is precise due to the meticulous correction of my attentive teachers.
Although a small incident, the conversation highlights a number of misconceptions about correcting error in second language writing (and speaking, for that matter): that every error should be corrected, no matter the situation and no matter how small; that correcting error somehow results in improved language production, and that the learner’s emotional response to correction doesn’t matter. All three assumptions are incorrect, in my experience, leading to the principles of error correction I have developed.
Principles of Error Correction in Speech and Writing
Consider the situation.
Is the language situation an informal situation or formal one? Is the student speaking extemporaneously or writing a first draft, or has she had time to plan and reflect? Who are the participants in the situation—other students or the larger community, for example? All of these considerations matter in deciding if it’s appropriate or not to correct student error. Even native speakers, actually, sometimes make mistakes like subject/verb agreement errors when engaged in spontaneous speech in an informal situation. It’s just that nobody really notices their errors. We tend to be more attuned to the errors students and nonnative speakers make as we’re looking for them; we assume native speakers “know better” and won’t make errors.
Focus on language as communication.
What is the purpose of language: to show how correct and elegant we can be in our production, or is it to communicate a specific message? Unless you are a poet, for example, whose business is the beauty of language, and for whom the main purpose might be its beauty, the ultimate goal of language is most cases is to get across a specific message. If the student has achieved that, his production is probably “good enough,” in most cases.
Focus on purpose of correction.
Why do we correct student error? Is it to show our expertise, to show the student her errors so she’ll learn from them? To demonstrate our editing skills? To show we know more than our students? In most cases, of course, the purpose of correction is to help the student revise her writing or improve her fluency and accent. In order to do this, correction should be limited and focused on specific points for improvement: for example, verb tenses or intonation patterns. If every error is noted, it becomes too overwhelming for the student to begin to know where to improve.
Focus on larger, or global, errors.
Which errors should be corrected? Should all student errors be marked? If they are mistakes, the instructor should point them out, shouldn’t she? Again, we should go back here to the purpose of correction. If the purpose is to help students improve production, then correction should be limited to one or two areas for students to focus on which are important to overall comprehensibility: the student’s pattern of run-on sentences, for example, or stress patterns, not a single misspelling or mispronunciation. Isolated issues of misspelling and mispronunciation usually do not detract from overall comprehensibility (if this were the case, most native speakers of English would on occasion lapse into incoherence); rather, the instructor should look for the global problems—problems in verb tense switch, for example, usually effect overall comprehensibility of a message.
Focus on patterns of errors.
In addition to considering the seriousness of an error, the instructor should consider the frequency of the error. If the student has a concern with almost always omitting articles (“a,” “an,” and “the”), this is a problem that should be addressed because omitted articles are distracting from the overall message and can affect overall comprehensibility of the writing.
Are all errors even worth the time and trouble to correct? For example, prepositions in English, especially the more abstract ones that don’t refer to a literal place, are very difficult to teach as they are idiomatic and dialectal: for example, in American English I “come around” to see a friend; in British English I “come round.” Is it “go down” the street or “go up” the street? They mean the same thing. And if a nonnative speaker mixed up these expressions, I probably wouldn’t notice, much less be confused. So considering the difficulty in learning prepositions, and the overall unimportance of them, it probably is not worth the time investment to learn them. This also goes for trying to “correct” specific nonnative English speech sounds, like the non-English trilled “r.” It is all right in most cases, unless the student is training to be a spy, to retain some nonnative “accent” in both speech and writing.
Teach students how to self-correct.
Finally, it’s usually not enough for the instructor to just show where the errors are. The student also must know how to correct them, so the instructor should demonstrate for the student how to do this—how to check that the verbs agree with the subject, for example—rather than just making the correction herself, from which the student learns nothing. It is, of course, ultimately the goal for the student to use English independently, which means monitoring and correcting his own language production.
Consider student affect.
Last but really not least, student affect, emotional response, has to be taken into consideration. A paper that comes back covered in red ink accompanied by the instructor’s biting comments at the end—we’ve all probably experienced something like this at some point—may very well result in the student giving up, which is, of course, not the goal. The goal is for students to move forward, improving from the place they are. This involves carefully weighing what comments and marks on papers will mean to students how they will be affected by them. Do they know what subject-verb agreement means? Have I taught that yet? Do they know how to correct it? What are the positive aspects of the students’ speech and language production that I can mention and which they can build on while working on their weaker spots? Marking papers and giving feedback does really involve addressing many aspects of student need.
Correcting student error is a sensitive issue that most instructors would probably rather not do. However, through considering such issues as overall comprehensibility and goals of correction, the instructor can turn the potentially negative exercise of giving corrective feedback into a positive learning experience.
What do you think about correcting student errors?
What are some methods you use?