Mistakes, errors and when to correct


I once met a teacher who said all her students’ mistakes were her responsibility so she had to correct everything!!

Some students will ask to be corrected but then not be too pleased when you do. Others may not want to be corrected but will want to know where they are going wrong. Happily though, most students really appreciate appropriate correction.

The first thing to consider is what a mistake or error is. Some people define a mistake as something you do by accident, something that just doesn’t come out right. Errors on the other hand can be seen as incorrect English that are not accidents but rather come from a lack of knowledge or understanding. It seems from this that teachers should be focussing on errors rather than simple mistakes.

However, when it comes to speaking (and in some cases writing) native speakers make a large number of supposed mistakes and errors so we need to be careful not to be too demanding about correct speaking!

The errors that students make can be grammatical, lexical, to do with pronunciation and very often cultural.

Some issues to consider:

Grammar and lexical errors

  • can often be noted down and dealt with later
  • student can be asked try again
  • reformulation may be necessary

Pronunciation errors

  • can often be worked on at the time of making
  • teacher can use gesture to indicate intonation and stress patterns (rather than interrupting verbally)

Cultural inappropriateness

  • can be difficult to explain
  • student may be resisitant to changing
  • may involve style eg directness
  • may involve gesture and body language

At the beginning of the course it is often helpful to raise the issue of correction and to return to it a few days later to see if the student is happy with what you are doing.

Very few people enjoy being corrected (remember school!!) so you should try to make it as positive an experience as possible and if you can to include praise for what has been done well. Before giving your own opinion on student performance, it is sometimes very effective to ask your student if they would do it differently second time round. Self-correction is much easier to take.

However there are times when you need to give a model of correct use (eg for sentence intonation). If you are giving a student a model for them to copy, then do give feedback on their attempt. You may need to model something several times before your student’s attempt is satisfactory. Used when appropriate, this technique can be very good for highlighting an area of English that really needs to improve.

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2 Responses to Mistakes, errors and when to correct


  1. Christine-O says:

    Currently I have a really lovely young French student who is very ambitious and hard working. She wants me to correct EVERYTHING that needs correction – particularly in her oral work. We do an oral practice session almost every day, where she summarises a newspaper article and says what she thinks about the situation. We record it on her ipad and then go through it frame by frame, correcting pronunciation, misuse of idioms, and tenses. We can both see that she has made great strides in her oral work as a result of this approach.. However, I am reluctant to correct absolutely everything that needs correcting because I don’t want to depress or discourage her. On the other hand, I don’t want her to feel that I wasn’t paying enough attention to notice every mistake. I have tried negotiating with her about this and tend to spend some time each day focusing on a particular type of error, rather than every single mistake – is this the right approach or should I do as she asks and give her everything in one session, risking information overload?


    • IanBarker says:

      Christine, I think your approach sounds like a suitable compromise but you could try correcting more and see how she likes it. Your student may have a big appetite for accuracy.

      However, I suspect that if you did in fact correct everything (whatever that means!), teaching and learning might become a bit hard going and awkward.

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