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ESL Coaching Techniques: Error Correction

Coaching Techniques: Error Correction

A really important skill for ESL coaches is error correction. There is a fine balance needed to maintain lesson flow and develop student’s confidence. It is easy to tip this balance, and the results are disastrous for your students. Over-correction will result in students losing confidence and then always speaking hesitantly, often “stuttering” and always looking to the teacher for confirmation. Under-correction will result in students developing bad habits and not learning proper grammar, forms, usage; eventually decreasing communicative ability.

The first step is learning whether to correct or not. A key to developing this skill is to understand the difference between ‘errors’ and ‘mistakes’ (TESOL and TEFL courses focus a lot on this differentiation). A mistake is a slip up: you know the correct thing to say, but by accident said the wrong thing. Often mistakes result in fun statements and students can get a kick out of them. Mistakes are not critical to correct. If you identify that it was a simple mistake, let it go. If it is repeated too often, it has become an error. Errors are when the student does not know the correct form, term, or usage. Errors need to be corrected for students to develop their skills and to avoid developing bad habits.

Once an error has been identified, coaches need to consider the type of error and how best to deal with it.

Jim Scrivener1 (1994) writes:

  1. Decide what kind of error has been made (grammatical? pronunciation? etc.).
  2. Decide whether to deal with it (is it useful to correct it?).
  3. Decide when to deal with it (now? end of the activity? later?).
  4. Decide who will correct (teacher? student self-correction? other students?).
  5. Decide on an appropriate technique to indicate that an error has occurred or to enable the correction.

To make the decisions above, we must hone our skills. The bigger our knowledge base, the easier to make these decisions, the better we can deal with them. Some suggested error correction techniques are explained below.

On the Spot (Selective)

On the spot can be dangerous to your students’ confidence. Do so with caution and not too often, and choose an appropriate technique that doesn’t slow down the pace too much. Be careful not to ‘jump’ on one student for making a mistake.

  • Echo the Error: Quick and easy, be an echo to your student’s error.
  • Ask for Repetition: Just say “please repeat” or “please say that again”.
  • Repeat up to the Error: Echo up to the error; let it hang for students to finish...
  • Ask a Question: Highlight student’s error by asking a question that will expose the error.
  • Provide Options: Without stopping the flow of the lesson, write options on the board.
  • Gestures: Especially useful with phrasal verb and preposition mistakes.
  • Write on the Whiteboard, Underline: The standard whiteboard technique. Highlight the error with an underline

Delayed Error Correction (After)

At an appropriate stop in the lesson, do some error correction. A good place to do this is at the end of a section, practice, or activity (error correction makes a nice transition between parts of the lesson). Don’t make student’s feel bad about their errors; they often don’t know the correct thing to say. Instead of saying “You said ~”, say “I heard ~” or just simply write the error(s) on the board. When possible, change the sentence for anonymity; we don’t want to embarrass students.

  • Echo the Error: “I heard ~”
  • Ask for Reformulation (questions): Can you change this question to get the same answer?
  • Repeat up to the Error: good for vocabulary errors, write the sentence on the board up to the error, have students finish the sentence. This can be done with all students, thus re-enforcing the correct form to be used by hearing several variations.
  • Ask a Question: Good for concept checks and getting students to repeat a section where they made an error, simply ask them a question that will bring up the error. The question can be directed at any student or all students.
  • Repetition of the Correct Answer: Once the error has been corrected, have students repeat the correct answer. This technique works best with low-level students or when the error seems to have become a bad habit.
  • Provide Options: Write the error on the board and provide several options. Have students choose the option they think is best.
  • Use a Visual Aid: Draw a timeline, pie chart, picture or other visual aide on the board to help students to understand the error. Have them self-correct.
  • Write on the Whiteboard, Underline: The standard whiteboard technique. Highlight the error with an underline.
  • Highlight the Issue: Rather than bringing up a specific error, when you notice repeated errors of the same type, highlight this issue and discuss. If necessary, mark students’ files and teach the appropriate curriculum item as soon as possible.

Other Technique Notes

Here are a few other notes to help you develop your error correction techniques.

Anonymous Error Correction: With delayed error correction, try to make the correction anonymous. For a grammar mistake, try changing the nouns so that the sentence is unidentifiable by students but still helps them learn their mistake. For example: if a student said “Yesterday, I go to Kyoto,” change it to “Last week, I go to Daimaru.” Also, say “I heard…,” rather than, “Mr. Suzuki said….” This anonymity will help students feel more confident by not highlighting a specific student’s mistake in front of peers. All students will benefit from this consideration as all students will be curious to fix the mistake, not knowing who made it originally.

Self Correction: As much as possible try to encourage self-correction. If students can fix their own mistake, it shows that they understand and allows them to feel more confident in their knowledge. Confident self-correction habits lead to students depending less on others (i.e. their coach) and thus speaking more freely, knowing if they make a mistake they can correct it themselves. They will become more confident speaking outside of the classroom, which is the true goal of ESL education.

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Peer Correction: Above we saw numerous techniques which allow students to work together to correct errors and avoid individual error correction. Coaches should further encourage students to correct each other (peer correction). Peer correction will increase student talk time and also increase student interaction. This is particularly easy to do with homework and written work but can be done on the spot and with delayed correction on the board.

Final Note

Error correction is only one of many important skills all good coaches must develop. Remember to keep a pleasant lesson pace: over-correcting will result in stop and start lessons and students will lose confidence, under-correcting may result in students developing bad habits which take time and energy to correct. Good luck!

I practice what I preach at my school, Smith's School of English in Ohtsu City, Japan (スミス英会話大津校). If you are interested in owning your own English school in Japan, click here. I'd be happy to help you get started as an ESL teacher and business owner.

Do you know other error correction techniques? Got some advice for coaches to help them develop their error correction skills? Please add them in the comments box below. Thanks!

Citation Note

  • 1Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford, U.K.: Macmillan Heinemann English Language Teaching.


Mozhgan on April 23, 2012:

Really useful!thanks a sea!

on June 28, 2010:

Thanks a lot ! really generous of you.

Bathtubber (author) on December 11, 2008:

It's a very fulfilling career choice: students come in with very real hopes and dreams and it's the greatest feeling to help them achieve them. I would highly recommend ESL coaching as a rewarding and stress free job. B

Ray Saunders from Raleigh on December 11, 2008:

Interesting...I thought about doing ESL at one point. I've been reconsidering lately and I may do that in the future.

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