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How to Correct Errors as EFL or ESL Teachers

Andrew is a TEFL graduate and has recently taught classes in the UK. A keen traveller and article writer, he has also tutored 1:1 abroad.

1:1 feedback is always worth the time

1:1 feedback is always worth the time

Correcting Students' Mistakes in Your ESL Class

As a teacher, you'll have to correct your students when they make errors and mistakes. Correction is really important and can't be ignored. A teacher who fails to do so risks being thought of as unprofessional and lazy—I'm sure you wouldn't want that to happen!

It's a question of balance. Students know they need help in order to learn; teachers have to get to know their students and not be too heavy-handed when it comes to individual mistakes.

This article will help you to choose when and how to correct, what approaches to take, and why the timing is vital.

I provide some useful extra tips, plus a couple of videos to guide you through the ins and outs of correcting errors.

My Approach to Individual Errors

In my class, I prefer to correct on the spot but am very sensitive to a student's ability and standing within the group. In speaking, I offer a recast (see below) if the student makes a mistake and only take notes if mistakes are repeated.

  • I can then use these notes, if needs be, to create individual targets.

I find small group work to be beneficial as it allows me time to focus 1:1 in real time if necessary.

With written work, I use a priority system and correct basic errors first, such as grammar, syntax, and sentence structure. I use a black pen, never red! I'll correct spelling too of course, but I won't make such an issue out of it until the basics are learned.


ESL Error Correction: Speaking and Listening

Being human means we all make mistakes. ESL students are no exception, so it's up to you as the teacher to be an active listener and correct mistakes whenever they're made. There are two basic approaches:

  • To interrupt and discreetly correct in real time, on the spot.
  • To avoid interruptions, make notes, and correct when the lesson ends.

Most ESL teachers prefer to correct as mistakes arise and deal with them immediately, but taking notes, especially in small group work, can be a viable alternative.

Students should ideally learn from their mistakes. As the teacher, it's up to you to make them aware of errors without undermining their confidence.

Make sure you read through these five tips. They'll help you focus on correction.

5 Tips for Oral Correction

1. Try not to use negative correction—using a sharp "No, you're wrong," for example, or a silent shake of the head—could cause resentment and increase shyness.

2. Think about the ability of individual students you're about to correct and match your correction accordingly.

3. Don't overdo it! Too much correction could undermine your other good teaching work. If you constantly correct, the flow of the class will suffer, and your students may be reluctant to speak and won't want to participate.

4. Aim for a balance between student interaction and correction. You need to keep your students active and enthusiastic, but you must correct thoroughly where appropriate.

5. Keep your 'antennae' on full alert and be prepared to adjust the way you correct in real time. Make mental or actual notes to help you feedback during or at the end of class.

Recasts or Shadow Corrections

In speaking, a recast is a corrected answer given by the teacher to a student who has made an error. The teacher effectively repeats what the student has said but in a corrected form. This is popular amongst students because it's a quick and encouraging way to highlight mistakes.

For example:

Example 1

Teacher: What did you do yesterday afternoon?

Student: We go to shopping yesterday.

Teacher: Oh, you went shopping yesterday afternoon.

Example 2

Teacher: Why is the boy in the picture looking sad?

Student: He don't have friends.

Teacher: Because he doesn't have any friends, that's right.

Small Group Correction

From time to time, it's a good idea to split the class into small groups and get them to work for 10–15 minutes on a given text with questions.

You could then visit each group as an active listener and give feedback on their answers and interaction.

  • Highlight two things the group did really well.
  • Focus on a written error.
  • Point out an error during the conversation (pronunciation, sentence structure and so on).

Recording the Session

Some teachers choose to record speaking sessions/conversation classes and make notes of any mistakes from this. They then hand out these mistakes, written down, with corrected versions to individuals the following day.

This method, whilst encouraging fluency, involves a lot of extra work and is probably only worthwhile with a small class size.

Writing: Major and Minor Mistakes to Correct

When correcting written work, it's better to focus on major mistakes first, that way you won't overwhelm a student with too much red ink!! Plus, give full explanations and corrected versions—that's common sense—so the student knows and understands where they went wrong.

For example, if someone's work has poor grammar and spelling, correct the grammar first and don't make a big issue out of an odd letter misplaced here and there.

Keep an eye on the spelling over time and correct only when the grammatical mistakes have been eliminated.

Common Sense Correction

  • Have your students write on alternate lines in their notebooks, leaving space for any corrections.
  • Use simple language to correct so your student can easily understand. Give examples of best practice as backup, if necessary.
  • Give feedback to students 1:1, explaining corrections.

3 Ways to Correct Written Class Work

  1. Self-correction: Each student gets to correct their own work.
  2. Student to student: Each student gets to correct another student's work.
  3. Teacher and student: The teacher corrects the work 1:1 with the student.

Self-correction can create trust within the group but should only be encouraged when you know your group really well. Most students prefer the teacher to correct their work on a 1:1 basis. Try to make time for quality feedback during the lesson so that each student gains the benefit of your close attention.

Fossil Cards

When a student continually makes the same mistakes—which become fossilized—a good idea is to introduce fossil cards.

These can be plain cards which students keep on their desks as the lesson progresses. If they make the same old errors, then get them to make a note for future reference. And remind them to write down the correct version too!

This way they'll have an instant snapshot of specific issues they need to work on.

You could then give small targets to individuals to help them break bad habits.


Feedback at the end of the lesson is a good time to clarify any error corrections you've made during class. Encourage your students to ask questions and try to get to the bottom of any queries and confusion.

© 2014 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 01, 2014:

Thank you for the visit PegCole17. Correction is something I found quite difficult to handle as a student especially when it was in front of the class so I'm aware of my stance and situation when correcting my students.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on October 01, 2014:

These are practical and useful tips in any classroom situation. I admire your patience and tenacity in teaching and your gentle ways of guiding the students. I agree with Annart in not using red pen for corrections on written papers. I recall young students teasing classmates about the "big red F" written on tests when students failed a test.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on May 02, 2014:

Yes Victoria, I know exactly what you mean with the nails on a chalk board sensation. My two sons, now 'grown up' thankfully, came out with all kinds of strange English when they were in the teenage phase! I would try and correct them - being a natural diplomat - but it didn't always work! I think they appreciate my attempts now they're a bit older and wiser.

Thank you for the visit and comment.

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on May 01, 2014:

Great tips! It's never good to embarrass a student when they make a mistake, so your approaches are right on. I even use them with my native speaking English friends, especially with the don't/doesn't or with saw/seen. "I seen" is like nails on a chalkboard to me, so I respond with "Oh, you saw it?" :-)

I teach English but always thought it would be neat to teach ESL. I think the state requires another certification for that, but I'm not sure exactly. I might look into it.

Great hub!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 20, 2014:

Thank you for the visit and comment cclitgirl, very much appreciated. Yes, you hit on the key point with correction - do not undermine a student's confidence! Finding a smart way to correct whilst maintaining learning is a valuable skill to have!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on April 20, 2014:

Good write up about error correction. I'm a Spanish teacher and this is something I deal with every day. You're right: it comes down to balance. I sometimes correct on the spot - but do it in a way that I'm sure not to embarrass my student. More often, I use writing to help them "solidify" a skill and peer groups to teach each other and model correct form. Thanks for this! Voted up and shared. :)

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on March 18, 2014:

Thank you for the visit and useful comments Ann! I especially like the 'better way to say that' bit which encourages alternatives and helps bring out the best in students. I think there is an art to correcting which develops over time. Not too much red ink - I remember lots of that stuff from my schooldays!

Ann Carr from SW England on March 18, 2014:

Interesting and useful ideas. I personally prefer the repeated answer with the correction; it's subtle but makes the point well and, as you say, the students like it.

With written work, I never correct in red ink because it overwhelms the student's work on the page. I use blue or green, or both, using a colour 'hierarchy' with which the students are familiar.

It's a fun job and student interaction teaches them much. I find the question, 'Is there an even better way to say that?' makes them think hard and produces good results.

Great hub! Ann