The Correct Way to Fix Student Errors in EFL

 Your mission – should you accept it – is to teach students studying English as a Foreign Language (EFL) how to say things correctly.

But when they make a mistake, what’s a good English teacher to do?

The how and the when of correcting classroom errors is troublesome for most teachers. Correcting too much is bad, but so is correcting too little. What should be corrected? And when in the class should you do it?

The balance needs to be struck between giving students important constructive criticism and over-correcting them to the point they think twice (or maybe three times) before opening their mouths to participate in class.

Experts Say…

Studies have shown that you’ll improve your students’ English if you focus on these three kinds of mistakes in class:

1. High frequency errors

2. Stigmatizing errors

3. Errors that block meaning or confuse the listener

From my experience, I would offer another kind of mistake that should be caught in class:

4. Errors in using the lesson’s target language.

Great, so that’s what a teacher should be on the lookout for in class. But when should the student be told that they’ve made a mistake? And how can the teacher do it gently and efficiently?

These questions are harder to answer.  Evidence on this is inconclusive, but research seems to show that to effectively error-correct a teacher should:

1. When hearing a mistake, speak the corrected statement

2. Listen for mistakes and do a general review of them at the end of the activity segment

3. Encourage peer correction

4. Correct the student yourself (but use this less than the other three ways)

Fluency vs. Accuracy—Creating a Balance

EFL teachers need to watch their students carefully to juggle the importance of speaking quickly and smoothly (i.e. fluency) with the necessity of using correct grammar and syntax (i.e. accuracy.).

Usually teachers will observe a give-and-take between these two concepts. If a student strives too hard to be accurate, they will probably lose on fluency. On the other hand, if they prioritize speed of speech too much, they’ll end up babbling something that sounds like English—but follows no rules at all.

If teachers are on the alert to how, when and what student mistakes occur in the classroom, they can balance fluency and accuracy.  It’s not always easy, but here’s a rule of thumb to help:  In a speaking or a conversation class, focus on fluency. But in a writing class, you should focus on accuracy.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Think carefully about different ways you can correct student errors. This is such an important part of your lesson, you may think about putting it in your lesson plan.

TED’s Tips™ #2: When you correct student mistakes in class, think about the students’ skill level and educational history before you take action.

If the students’ experiences are in an environment where they have been often chastised or publicly shown their errors, then they will often be hesitant to speak and you as the teacher will need to focus on fluency. But if they come from a string of more liberal classrooms, then you might have to roll up your sleeves on accuracy.

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