Discover 7 Ways Language Teachers Correct Mistakes and Find Your Ideal One
Choose the right error correction technique for optimal learning
You want your teacher to correct your language mistakes when you’re speaking. This is what I wanted too as a learner of English.
But how exactly do you want them to do this? Which error correction techniques should they use to help you best?
I’m a trained language teacher and know several ways to correct mistakes. I’ll show you how these work and how you can discover the most effective for you.
7 ways teachers correct mistakes
Teachers correct mistakes using 7 main forms of error correction. These are divided into 2 categories: Reformulation and Prompts.
When teachers use reformulation techniques, they provide you with corrections either implicitly or explicitly. 4 techniques fall into this category.
The teacher reformulates what you say using correct language without giving you explanations.
Here’s an example:
You: “I *didn’t have fight* my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegan!”
Teacher: “Oh, you didn’t fight your way to the top of the food chain for that, I see. So you love meat, uh?”
The teacher clearly tells you what mistake you made.
You: “You’re the *worse* teacher I’ve ever had in my life!”
Teacher: “Aww thank you! But that’s wrong. You should say: ‘You’re the WORST teacher’.”
Explicit correction with metalinguistic feedback
The teacher corrects your mistake by using technical grammar terms.
You: “*Why people* in the USA order double cheeseburgers, large fries but a Diet Coke?”
Teacher: “Remember to use the auxiliary before the subject when making a question. Why DO people in the USA order double cheeseburgers, large fries but a Diet Coke?”
When teachers use prompts, they don’t provide the correction directly but help you correct your mistakes by yourself.
Asking for clarification
The teacher asks you to clarify what you said.
You: “*Yesterday I’ll study* to become a robber.”
Teacher: “I don’t quite understand. Did you study yesterday or are you going to do it in the future?”
The teacher asks you questions to help you correct your mistake.
You: “My partner’s armpits often *stinks* of rotten garlic!”
Teacher: “Is ‘armpits’ singular or plural?”
Teacher: “So my partner’s armpits…”
Teacher: “Yep, well done.”
The teacher repeats your sentence pointing out there’s something wrong with it.
You: sigh “Nostalgia is *no* what it used to be.”
Teacher: “Nostalgia is NO what it used to be…?” (The teacher stresses ‘no’ by saying it with rising intonation, using hand gestures, or making facial expressions to indicate there’s a mistake.)
The teacher gives you a clue to help you correct the mistake.
You: “Can I has a week off from English class?”
Teacher: “Has? First person?”
Which technique is the most effective?
I’ve read a few research papers, academic articles, and books on error correction (you’ll find some at the bottom of this page). I can confidently state that no one technique can be considered universally more effective than others.
One study found that reformulations are more effective than prompts, while another study revealed the opposite. A third study showed there’s no difference (Tran, 2017). Language researchers are still debating on this matter but there’s evidence that all these strategies work well.
This is why teachers are often advised to use a variety of techniques. If they do that, they’ll have done their job.
But what about you? What technique would help you best? Clearly, there must be one or more of these techniques that are more suitable to your learning style than others. Discover these so you can get the most out of your private language classes.
Here’s how to do it.
Finding what works for you
Step 1: Now that you know more about error correction, ask your teacher to correct your mistakes using only one specific technique.
Step 2: Notice if the technique works for you. Use these questions to help you:
- How comfortable do you feel when your teacher corrects your mistakes using the technique? For example, if you asked to be corrected through explicit correction, do you find it useful when your teacher stops you to correct a mistake? Or would you prefer simple reformulation so the conversation keeps flowing?
- Can you remember the correction a couple of days after the lesson?
- Do you keep making the same mistake even after you’ve been corrected several times through the technique?
- Does the technique affect your speaking confidence? For example, do you feel more self-conscious if your teacher corrects you through explicit correction?
- What’s your gut feeling about the technique? Do you find it helpful?
Step 3: After a couple of lessons, ask your teacher to use a different technique. Keep noticing and reflecting on how well you respond to it.
Step 4: Once you’ve found a suitable one, ask your teacher to use that technique as often as possible.
You have the right to decide how much correction your teacher should give you. Some students want every single mistake to be corrected, while others prefer to have conversations that feel natural with little or no correction.
Never ask for total correction. It’s useless. In my experience, correcting every single mistake has never helped anyone. In fact, it slows the lesson down, overwhelms the learner, and turns the conversation into a long chat about grammar — yuck!
And if you tend to worry about every word you say because you’re still too afraid of making mistakes, then the most effective form of correction may even be no correction at all.
So my final advice is this: work with your teacher to help you figure out how much correction would be most helpful for you according to your current situation and language goals.
I hope this is helpful.
References and further reading
- Tran, T. (2017). Fundamental questions regarding oral corrective feedback. Modern English Teacher, 26/4, pp.21–24
- Correction: A Positive Approach to Language Mistakes
- Giving Feedback on Speaking