Alternatives To Spoken Error Correction

Alex Case
Other ways to improve accuracy for the many times when simple correction of oral errors isn’t the best way.

Correction of spoken errors usually starts with a teacher picking out examples of students pronouncing things in ways that might be difficult to understand, getting the grammar wrong, or using an incorrect word or expression. The teacher then tells the students what they should have said instead or helps them work it out for themselves. Correction can be done by interrupting the student while they are speaking, waiting until they pause (e.g. the end of a sentence), waiting until the whole speaking task is finished or at the end of the whole class. Teachers often write the errors on the board and get students to correct them, but they could also give students individual error correction, e.g. filling in a feedback form to be given to each student after they finish their presentations in front of the class. Other ways of correcting spoken errors include students recording themselves and correcting their own errors, students correcting each other, and students trying to spot errors in a recording or transcript of someone else speaking.

Even though it is still a fairly controversial area, most people nowadays agree that error correction can have positive effects if done in the right ways. Those people almost certainly include your students, because all over the world more error correction is one of the most common requests from people studying English. It is always worth thinking about alternatives to error correction, however, because:

  • Error correction can interfere with students’ fluency
  • Even if it works, that doesn’t necessarily mean for everyone nor for every kind of language and skill
  • There are a limited number of error correction techniques and they can quickly get boring for students and teachers
  • Students need time and space to fully absorb the correction you have already given them, and an obvious way of giving them that subconscious reflection time is to do something different for a while

With my own classes, the first point above is the biggest factor, with students lacking confidence and fluency much more than accuracy – and in fact using more complex language also being more of a priority than reducing the number of errors for most. What is more, it is usually the people who ask for most correction who most lack fluency! The rest of this article will relate some ideas I have had to tackle these issues while also allowing students to feel that they are improving their speaking rather than just speaking.

Classroom Alternatives To Spoken Error Correction

The most obvious way of helping students to say the right thing without correcting them when they say the wrong thing is simply to give them correct language that they could use. This is a particularly good replacement for correction of their errors when you have students who are very self-conscious when they see or hear their own errors. This can be arranged simply by trying to elicit good language onto the board rather than writing up wrong language, e.g. “What tense did we study that we often use with yet?” if someone said “I heard about it but I don’t go there yet”. Alternatively, you can try to predict what problems they are likely to have and give them or elicit better language first. For example, if you can make up a list of Spanglish/ Franglais/ Konglish/ etc problems, before each lesson you can search for things in that list that is related to the language point of the day (e.g. clothes vocabulary) and then present the correct versions of those things before the speaking or writing task. The potential downside of this approach is that students might not pay as much attention to the language if you don’t link it to making mistakes (but if you tell them they are corrections of typical error of people who speak their language they might get just as self-conscious as if you had just done error correction). One way round this is to give them the correct forms after the speaking task and ask them to make an effort to use those forms when they do the same or a similar task with a different partner – similar to giving students a model answer after a written task and asking them to steal good language for a second draft of their answer.

Actually giving model answers is another possible approach, one that is probably at least as useful for speaking as it is for writing.

Some researchers recommend that rather than correcting students, teachers simply repeat back what the students have said with more accurate and complex language. It is difficult to imagine often doing this, though, as it will interfere with fluency and real communication even more than error correction and is about the most patronizing thing you could possibly do with adults. You can make more of an activity around this idea, however. A very nice one is something I call Chain Stories which is similar to the whispering game Chinese Whispers. Students tell different stories to each other, then pass on the story they just heard to someone else. After between three and six stages the stories are told back to the original storytellers, who then correct any information that is wrong. The reformulation of the language will happen both by some of the students improving on the story as they tell it and in the final correction of the story stage. You can also add more of this by asking students to repeat the story back to the person they hear it from to check they have understood before they move on to tell the next person. The teacher can also get involved as a participant, or you could correct everyone (including the original storyteller) in the final stage. There is also a similar teacher-led activity called Dictogloss/ Grammar Dictation, in which the teacher reads out a story a few times and students work together to construct a version of what they just heard. It is also possible to get teachers retelling students’ own statements and stories for the whole class to guess who is being spoken about.

Three other language learning techniques which should have some effect on accuracy are lots of reading and listening to get a feel for the language, lots of controlled speaking practice so that they get used to producing a form, and memorization. Alternatively, you could still give them correction but mix it up with other kinds of feedback on their speaking such as praise and suggestions for more complex ways to say the same thing. A related technique is to stop them thinking about grammar too much by making corrections also about formality, intonation, collocations, etc. You could also give relevant correction without interfering with their fluency and confidence too much by setting related writing tasks and correcting that instead of their spoken output.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.