6 Great Ways to Help ESL Students Achieve Self-Correction

6 Great Ways to Help ESL Students Achieve Self-Correction

Claudia Pesce
by Claudia Pesce 78,502 views

As ESL teachers, there are tons of activities we can plan.

There are several factors in the classroom setting that we can control. But we can’t control the number of mistakes our students make. And we all know that sometimes mistakes can really hinder the flow of the lesson and even cause delays. Mistakes also affect students’ self-esteem and their ability to communicate. So, how can we correct mistakes in a way that is less threatening? Self-correction comes to the rescue!

Why Students Should Learn to Self-Correct

  • It trains them to listen to themselves. Too many students rush through answers without even taking a few seconds to gather their thoughts.
  • It helps them take responsibility for their learning. The teacher is not there to correct them all the time, and the teacher can’t correct every single mistake.
  • It helps students gain a better awareness of the language. They’re not just spewing things in English. They really “get it”.
  • It makes students more autonomous in their learning. They become increasingly less dependent on the teacher as they learn to self-correct.
  • It boosts confidence. When a teacher corrects a student, this mistake is singled out. The more a teacher corrects someone, the more aware they are of their mistakes – their confidence suffers. But by self-correcting, the student is taking charge; corrections are less obtrusive.
  • It allows students to gauge their own problem areas. Some might come to realize they always make verb tense mistakes. Others might see they need to improve their vocabulary and word choice.

Apply These 6 Ways to Encourage Self-Correction

  1. 1

    Playing Dumb

    This is by far the easiest and my favorite way to get a student to self-correct (and it might be your favorite too if you like “acting” for students). The technique goes something like this. Say a student incorrectly uses a verb in the past tense and says, “Yesterday I leaved the school at 5 pm”. All you need to do is say, “Sorry?” or “What was that?” or “Come again?” Making a face that expresses your confusion is a great help! The student will be forced to repeat what he/she said and in most cases they correct their mistake the second time around. If the student fails to notice the problem, try further encouragement: You said you did what at 5pm? You …..what?

  2. 2

    Write It Down

    If the “playing dumb” strategy doesn’t work write the sentence down on the board. You can go about this in two ways:

    • Write the sentence down as it was said by the student and ask him/her to find the mistake.
    • Write the sentence down and leave a blank where the mistake was made. Ask the student to fill in the blank correctly.
  3. 3

    The Corrections Card

    Most ESL teachers know that it is not convenient to interrupt and correct students during a performance activity like a presentation or any kind of speech. So how do we get them to self-correct their mistakes? The approach is similar to the above, but for performance activities, we’ll call it The Corrections Card (notice I’m not calling it The Mistakes Card – corrections are positive, mistakes are negative). While the student is giving his/her presentation, jot down the mistakes they make on a little note pad. When they’re done, congratulate them on their presentation and highlight any of the positive points (great use of vocabulary!) then tell the student you’re going to bring out The Corrections Card. Draw a big rectangle in the board and write down the mistakes. You may ask them to find the mistake in a particular sentence or have them fill in a blank with the correct word.

  4. 4


    The problem with teacher corrections is that we need to interrupt the student. A much more unobtrusive way of bringing their attention to a mistake is to use a signal. For example, when students speak but fail to use the verb in past, I simply wave my hand backward or point to the back with my thumb. Students automatically switch to the past tense. You can develop different signals for different types of mistakes like finger counting for word order.

  5. 5

    The Red Flag

    Use a red flag (or any colored flag) to literally flag mistakes. This technique is more useful for drilling or intensive grammar practice, but less so for performance activities.

  6. 6

    In Writing

    Have you ever stopped to consider how a student feels when you hand back their creative writing assignment covered in red ink? Probably not very good. Try this instead. Correct some of the mistakes yourself, but choose others for self-correction. For example, if the goal of the writing assignment is to write about an event in the past, correct all of the mistakes that are not related to the past tense, like spelling or prepositions. Make a note on the margin that states the number of mistakes they’ve made, which they need to correct. See if they find them all.

Sometimes, we are too quick to correct.

We jump in the middle of the conversation and interrupt the student. We cut a discussion short. By fostering self-correction, the student stands to gain a lot more than they stand to lose.

Do you use self-correction in your ESL classroom? What’s your approach?

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