One of the most troublesome issues I’ve found in teaching English as a Second Language is addressing mistakes in word form. By “word form,” as I’m using it here, I mean mistakes in choosing the correct “part of speech”: using the verb form for the adjective, for example, or putting a noun ending on a verb.
For example, a common error in word form is “She was succeeded” instead of “She was successful” or “She succeeded,” using the past participle verb where the adjective is needed. These errors in word form can seem particularly egregious, as they really mark someone as a nonnative speaker and are difficult to teach. There are several causes for and methods to address errors in word form.
5 Reasons for Errors in Word Form
First Language Influence
One reason for problems with word form is the influence the student’s first language: directly translating a word form and sentence construction that is correct in the first language but not in second language. One common word form error that seems to occur for students from a number of different language background that are Latin-based is in the use of the word “advice”—students almost invariably write it in the plural form, “advices,” which is not correct in English as it’s a “non-count” noun—we don’t count two or three “advices” although we may count pieces of advice.
Lack of Familiarity with the Word
Sometimes the problem is simple lack of familiarity with the word and the contexts it may appear in and forms it can take. The “she was succeeded” example above is a common error and fits this pattern of not having enough familiarity with the word to know what structures it appears in.
Not Analyzing the Rule
Students who have lived in the United States for years still write “Unite State,” dropping off the word endings of both words. This is due to a couple of causes. One is not really having analyzed the name—anyone familiar at all with the United States would be aware that there are fifty states, plural, but because students may have learned the name before any study of English at all, they may have learned it incorrectly, and now, out of habit, write it the wrong way without analyzing it. Similarly, many students who have lived in the United States for years continue to write sentences like “She visit her home country every year,” even if they know, on an intellectual basis, the correct “—s” ending for third person singular but continue to drop it out of long habit.
Lack of Familiarity with Structures Associated with the Word
Some words almost always occur in the passive voice; others in the passive. A noun clause almost always is followed by a verb, and so forth. Many students write “She was succeeded” because they have not learned that “succeed” is an active verb, not passive, so “she succeeded” is correct.
Not Hearing and Dropping Word Endings
Returning to the example of the correct form of “the United States,” students who have lived in the United States for years still write it “Unite State,” dropping off the endings of both words. Besides just having not learned the correct form to begin with, a final, and probably largest issue, and concern with word endings in general, is just not hearing them: the name of the country does in fact sound like, in rapid speech, “Unite State,” so unless you are familiar with the written form already, you may think that is how it also should be written. Similarly, many students who have lived in the United States for years continue to write sentences like “She visit her home country every year,” dropping the third person singular ending because the ending is not very noticeable in rapid speech.
4 Ways to Address Errors in Word Form
Call Attention to Errors
A beginning method of correcting and self-editing for word form errors is to be aware of them in the first place. If the student has been writing “Unite State” and “I got several advices from him” for years, and not been corrected, then she will probably continue to write them that way as she thinks they are the correct form. The instructor may correct it directly on the student’s paper by circling it, writing the correct form, and/or marking “wf” for “word form error.” Teachers should also write common word form errors on the board and then correct them, explaining the correction. Finally, teachers should help the individual student in seeing her own most frequent patterns of mistakes—does she typically drop off word endings? Incorrectly use the passive voice? Use the wrong participle of a verb? Students must have some understanding of correct forms and their own most frequent errors in order to self-edit.
Teach Parts of Speech and Typical Endings
Student also should learn the “regular” word form rules: regular past tense verbs take an “ed” ending, plural is “s” or “es” ending; many abstract nouns end in “ment,” adjectives in “ous” and “ful/full” and so forth. Knowing these forms, students will then see that “She succeeded” or “She was successful” are correct, not “she was succeeded.” They can then go back and check their papers for the correct parts of speech.
Teach Structures Individual Words Typically Occur In
Words are usually used along with the typical structures they occur in. A good example of this is the sentence “I was born in (California).” The verb in this phrase (was born) is actually a passive verb. The active voice of that verb produces the sentence “My mother bore me in California,” which approaches the ridiculous—we all know that mothers bear children, so the passive voice is more appropriate, and the structure is learned in the passive as that is how it is almost always used. Words that should also be taught in the structures they occur in are “get” phrases (to get sick, to get lost, to get excited, etc.) and “make” phrases (make dinner, make the bed) and “take” phrases (take a test, take a break). If students learn these phrases as one structure, they will be more fluent, less likely to make a mistake in word forms, and have less need to search for the correct word. They will also have fewer errors to go back and edit for and will be more able to make corrections by looking for “get” and “take” phrases and checking them for correctness.
Emphasize Going Back and Proofreading Work at Least Once
Strong papers are almost never produced in one draft, even for experienced writers. Teach students the habit of going back and checking their work at least once before turning in, deliberately checking for their own most frequent errors, which may be word endings, part of speech, the correct use of passive voice, and so forth.
Teaching editing for correct word form usage is one of the biggest challenges of an English/ESL teacher.
It requires first teaching students the correct word forms: the correct use of passive voice, what structures words typically occur in, which word endings are correct, and what words typically go together. Having the knowledge, however, is not enough. Students also must know what their typical errors are in word form use and then apply the rules to correct the errors. However, by calling attention to typical errors and teaching the forms words often take and the structures they occur in, students can begin to self-edit for word forms.
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