>On the TESL-L mailing list, a teacher asked the question below about error correction. As it seems to be something we’re interested in, I’m including my reply. – dk
“I,m an English teacher in China. I’m teaching 2 classes with 56 students each. When I teach writing, I’ll use differnt methods to encourage my students to write about their own ideas. To my joy, they like writing very much though it is hard work. However, I find it very difficult for me to correct their errors. I know fluency is more important, but it dosn’t mean we can ignore accuracy. Error correcting will take lots of time and energy, and the students don’t want to see their composition after I correect errors. Is there anybody who can help me use a kind of more efficient method?”
This is a common problem faced by many writing teachers. We could say it is even a trap because teachers feel obligated to this idea of correcting everything.
TRUSCOTT & ERROR CORRECTION
John Truscott famously or infamously, depending on what side of the debate you are standing on, has brought up research indicating that grammar correction doesn’t really help students at all. So, generally speaking, all time spent at correcting is time wasted.
Truscott is in the same vein of English learning as Krashen. Indeed, Krashen has referred to Truscott’s research. In this direction of English learning it is understood that students learn from indirect ways of teaching, things like Extensive Reading, that the students will absorb the language through massive exposure to it at a difficulty level of i+1.
After studying Truscott’s paper, and even organizing a virtual seminar for him on the TEFL-China list where we interviewed him for a week, I began to pay closer attention to how my students responded to corrections.
Personally, from observing my students carefully, I’ve seen that my students do respond to some corrections.
But to be effective in this area, we have to understand some things first.
Our students cannot have a lesson, or even a correction, and simply “know” it. They only begin to know it. All learning in an area as complex as language takes a lot of time and repetition.
Choose your targets. Don’t try to correct everything. Correct what you think will be easiest for them to learn, that they are ready to learn. Remember, it is more like teaching a baby how to walk than teaching the fine points of running to an Olympic athlete. Teach only what can be learned or you are wasting your time and frustrating your student.
When you read over the papers, understand that this is the whole class speaking to you. Through their errors they are telling you what they need to be taught. In this way you can respond and give your class exactly what they need.
Group the corrections. Choose the Top 5 errors the students were making in their papers and show them how to do it correctly. Of course, some students may have not made those errors on the paper they submitted to you. But if they didn’t make this error this time they may make it next time so teach it to all of them. Even if they know, more or less, how not to make that error, such instruction will strengthen their understanding. As mentioned before, students begin to know something and slowly understand it better and better.
Do your own research. If you want to see how responsive the students are to correction, after you have taught them the 5 main errors and how to avoid them, ask the students to return their papers to you and ask them to rewrite the assignment. Collect those papers and check them. You’ll find that most of them will not repeat those errors, that they have learned from the correction. About two weeks or a month later, ask them to write the very same assignment yet again. You will find that a lot of the students will not make the same errors although many may have forgotten your correction lesson and are slipping again.
HASTE MAKES WASTE
Beware of the hurried writer. This guy really wastes so much teacher time. He’s the guy who forgot the homework and before the homework is to be handed in just dashes off a quick paper. He makes a lot of mistakes that, if he took his time, he would not have made. He knows they are errors but they were errors made in haste. But he doesn’t mind and he wants his paper to be corrected. The problem is, it takes your precious time to read his paper and deal with these errors. I refuse to check any papers unless the student has made it as perfect as he possibly can. Only then can I really help a student with what he doesn’t know. Check the paper for really basic errors, simple words misspelled, obvious grammar mistakes. If you find such things, hand the paper back to the student and tell him to correct it himself until he thinks it is perfect. If you find someone hastily finishing a writing assignment make sure you don’t accept it. If he doesn’t have time to try to write it well, you don’t have time to try to correct it.
Also, see his webpage at his university:
Here you’ll find the grammar paper plus lots of other aspects of his research into correction.
This is a group of about 900 English teachers in China or involved with teaching Chinese students. If you are a teacher in China you certainly would benefit from joining this list.