Delayed Error Correction: A Springboard for Teaching
Ethan Mansur holds the Delta and an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. He currently teaches at International House Madrid, where he takes an active interest in professional development. He also does materials development for the Spanish Ministry of Education. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Students, bless them, never compliment you on methodology. They never say, “Wow, I really like that new group dynamic you tried out today.” However, there is one exception in my experience: delayed error correction. More than a few times over the years I’ve had students come up to me after class and say how much they liked how I listened and took notes while they were speaking, and then put them up on the board later and discussed them.
The fact that students actually seem to like this way of getting feedback would perhaps be enough to justify it. But it has lots of other advantages, too. For example, delayed correction helps avoid interrupting students during fluency practice, when they are more focused on self expression than accuracy. By waiting until later, the teacher has more time to reflect on how to correct an error—or, indeed, if it’s worth correcting at all. When the errors are up on the board, students have the opportunity to self-correct. The corrections are also a bit more anonymous. Finally, by focusing on the errors that the students make that day in class, the lesson becomes more personalized, more tailored to that individual group. In fact, many of the errors I address during this lesson stage tend to be the type of fossilized error that might go overlooked if I focused exclusively on the target language or skill that I aimed to teach that day.
As you can see, I’m a big fan of delayed error correction. The one issue I have with it, though, is the name itself. This technique is, or at least should be, about more than simply correcting errors. In addition to language that is just plain wrong, I make sure to take notes on language that is technically correct but sounds a bit off. Then I can elicit or teach a more natural way of expressing that idea. Even more importantly, I listen for good language to praise. This is something that I don’t think we teachers do enough of. The classroom is a safe space where students can come and try out new language and ideally get feedback on it. So when students come out with those unexpectedly appropriate lexical items they picked up in a TV series or on Twitter, we need to praise them so the they will be motivated to keep using this language. It can also lead to students learning from each other, something which we should always encourage. For the above reasons, I like to think of myself doing delayed feedback instead of delayed error correction, though it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
One thing that is curiously absent from the discussion of this correction technique in the numerous books and articles written on it is how it can provide a springboard for teaching. This has also been also true in classes I’ve observed. It seems that most teachers feel it’s enough to correct (or praise) language and then simply move on. This is a shame, in my opinion, because I find that some of the most interesting and effective teaching I do happens after a piece of language is corrected. Let me give you an example. My students often say, “I am agree.” A classic fossilized error. But once I elicit or give the correction, that’s when the teaching really starts. I then elicit adverbs that collocate with agree: totally, completely. What about other ways of expressing agreement? That’s true. You’re right. Etc. By the way, completely and totally also collocate with disagree, but would it be polite to say “I totally disagree?” Probably not. How can we disagree more politely? I see what you mean but . . . Now, to practice, write down three statements related to lesson topic for your classmates to express agreement or disagreement on.
In the example above, we can see how one fossilized error can lead to a mini lesson on agreeing and disagreeing. Of course, not every correction holds this type of potential, but once you get into the habit you’ll see opportunities for expansion everywhere. A pronunciation error can lead to a quick brainstorm of words with the same phoneme, which can then be practiced in sentences written by students. An error with the present perfect can lead to a mini review of a specific rule, after which the teacher can ask students questions containing the grammar point—or better yet, students create questions to ask each other. Synonyms and antonyms can be explored. Formality. Context. Collocation. When you think about it, most language that ends up on the board during a delayed error correction stage can be can built on or personalized, and then practiced in some way or another.
To wrap up, here are few tips based on my experience of using delayed error correction in class:
- Give yourself enough time! At least five minutes, but better fifteen.
- If you don’t have time to finish your notes, write them up for next class.
- Provide context when you board the language, or it can be much harder to correct/discuss.
- Include pronunciation—this is a particularly good time to raise awareness.
- This language can become part of the course—review it, especially the errors they keep making.
- Get students to record persistent errors in their notebooks, perhaps in columns with the error on one side and the correction on the other.
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