Red Ink: How to Correct ESL Errors

Do you like being told you are wrong? Do you enjoy telling others they are wrong?

The former question is easier to answer than the latter. And let’s be real: No one likes being told they are wrong.

This immutable truth makes error correction one of the most sensitive aspects of teaching a foreign language. Error correction is complicit in producing a considerable amount of anxiety for teachers and students alike. Obviously, some mistakes deserve more attention than others and some deserve no attention at all.

Confidence is king in the realm of language learning. Teachers should strive to correct errors in a way that is constructive, concise, and encouraging. Methods for achieving this aim include providing instant, delayed, and batched feedback. In all three of these methods, timing is the key component.

Any mission without an objective will end in failure. Therefore, a teacher must tailor an error correction approach which enhances the likelihood of meeting the defined objective of the exercise. This sounds self-evident, but many teachers get it wrong.

For instance, if accuracy is the primary objective in an exercise, instant feedback immediately becomes more appropriate. On the other hand, delayed feedback is more fitting in an exercise where fluency, which could be defined as ease of expression, is the primary objective. Furthermore, waiting to correct mistakes until the end of an exercise, which I call batching, allows the teacher to address problems collectively while taking the attention away from students whom are easily intimidated by the prospect of being wrong.

If you were a student, would you prefer being told you are wrong, or would you prefer being nudged toward the right answer in a constructive way?

The answer is obvious: a teacher who promotes self-correction and learner independence is the most effective practitioner. Take this step towards mastery and apply these tenets in your work.

Now we move on to the second question, which I believe requires further examination. Do people enjoy telling others they are wrong?

Context should be considered in this question. For instance, a teacher may be hesitant, as I believe they should be, to correct a student because any misstep could impede rather than enhance the cognitive process. However, I am sure there have been many occasions where you have basked in the opportunity to correct someone with whom you do not agree. This is evident in the widespread trolling that occurs on social networks and comment sections across the internet.

It seems fairly obvious that this form of error correction rarely influences someone to change their opinion; mainly because emotions run high and the writer’s objective is rarely tailored to persuade the other party effectively. Whether or not you argue on FaceBook and Twitter is irrelevant. But if you and I are similar, we both struggle with ineffective error correction in a much more intimate component of life: our relationships.

Join me in my next post about mindfulness in how we correct errors in our friendships and other, more intimate relationships.


Note to readers: This is my first post and I would appreciate any constructive error correction in my style of writing. I also encourage teachers to comment on ESL-based posts to foster an open system of information that is useful for those looking to improve their skills. Thank you!

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