Some of the "executive" decisions to be taken by teachers include the when, what, where, how, why and even who to correct, many of which overlap, and with each aspect involving many nuances, including whether the mistakes made refer to pronunciation, grammar, syntax or even non-standard use of language.
One particularly important factor to take into account when correcting mistakes is that these are rarely individual or unique to a particular student, but rather induced by first language interference and therefore common to most, if not all speakers of that language. In a monolingual class most mistakes should therefore be pointed out to the whole class rather than correcting the individual student. Even in multilingual classes, many of the mistakes will be the result of the idiosyncrasies of English and equally common to all the students.
Some students gauge a teacher's skills depending on how often they correct mistakes. Such students may have a tolerance level of mistakes which is much lower than that of their teacher, and they may therefore be under the impression that if the teacher hasn’t corrected something it’s because he or she wasn’t paying close enough attention to what was being said. Trying to compensate by being especially vigilant with a particularly critical student may lead to said student feeling "picked upon".
There are, however, studies that suggest there is little point in trying to correct certain mistakes, as students need to find their own time to make a correct use of the target language.
In line with Stephen Krashen's views on helping students overcome the affective filter, the teacher should maintain the balance between activities with an analytical content and those with a global content which help the students conceptualize and to make extrapolations and controlled generalisations. In the above-mentioned non-threatening and relaxed environment, it is important that students are aware of the 3 Ns – that is, they should be made to realise that all the mistakes they make are Normal, Natural and Necessary to their own and their classmates' learning process, regardless of whether the teacher corrects them or not.
Correction is obviously necessary because:
- The student may not know that he or she has made an error and it is the teacher's job to help them to understand the problem. This may especially be the case in self-taught students who are sometimes highly fluent but also highly inaccurate.
- The student may suspect they have made a mistake but have taken a shot anyway. If no correction is forthcoming they may assume they have guessed correctly.
- Students assume that correction is one of the teacher's tasks and, if it does not occur, may become concerned.
It may be useful to point out to students that many of the mistakes they make are, in fact, typical mistakes brought on by mother tongue influence/interference and, as such, inevitable - until they have learnt the correct form, once and for all.
In the case of a student who repeatedly makes the same mistake, it might be interesting to point out that particular mistake as his/her bugbear, which is often sufficient for that student to make an effort to avoid that particular mistake in the future.
What to correct
A very large number of mistakes that crop up are mere "slips of the tongue" or absent-mindedness – a case in point is the 3rd person singular -s, which every student from beginner level onward knows perfectly well – in theory – and repeatedly and inevitably “forgets”. Arguably, those kinds of “mistakes” should be corrected only if they hinder communication or if they occur too often. The teacher should however make sure that the student is at least aware that these slips are being made, as many students are genuinely surprised when they are told that they make this slip.
Teachers will also have to make decisions about what written mistakes to correct. Correcting every single error in a piece written by a lower intermediate student might be both time-consuming for the teacher and counter-productive for the student. On the other hand, a teacher helping an executive write a formal letter to a British company might want to help the student to produce something which is word-perfect.
Nevertheless, whatever level of correction is decided upon it is always better to encourage the student to identify their own mistakes. For instance a teacher might use a code individually indicating errors of vocabulary, grammar or spelling and then ask the student to find the correct form.
When to correct
Many teachers feel that it is probably best not to correct spoken mistakes the moment that a student makes them. We presumably want our students to speak fluently and stopping their flow repeatability in order to remind them not to pronounce the "l" in "walk" or to include the third person "s" is probably a poor way to do this. It may be better to simply make a list of the students' mistakes or slips and then review them all together.
Alternatively, the teacher may wish to make a simple gesture such as pointing over their shoulder to indicate the past. This will often cause a student to pause, review what they have said, and come up with a corrected version. Such self-correction is more fruitful than an explicit correction.
How to correct
In general, the teacher should not provide the correct answer unless the student clearly does not know it, in which case the teacher's role is to elicit it, either from the "culprit" or from the rest of the class.
In the case of written mistakes, the teacher should flag the mistake and leave it to the students themselves to identify it. In some cases the teacher may wish to point out the type of mistake, i.e. adjective, verb, pronunciation, register, and so on.
Who to correct
In the same way that each student has a unique level of linguistic competence, each student also reacts differently to being corrected. Some prefer to be corrected at all times, others do not respond to corrections at all.
Students may initially dislike being corrected by classmates, and the teacher may wish to introduce this activity little by little over several weeks.
- Students can be given prepared texts with a certain number of deliberate mistakes for them to correct. It's often useful to let them know how many mistakes there are. They should compare versions in pairs or as a group before presenting their corrected version to the teacher. Types of mistakes can include spelling (including homophones), grammar, register and so on. Spellcheckers fail miserably in this kind of activity and students might find it useful to practice proofreading.
- A variation of the above exercise is to prepare a text with mistakes in the verbs only, or adjectives, etc., depending on students' levels, goals, and so on.
- One could, of course, have all the students correct one of their colleague's texts. Unfortunately this runs the risk of inhibiting the class or embarrassing the individual student. Nevertheless, if you are lucky you may have a local "English language" publication which can inadvertently serve as a source for interesting common mistakes. Such texts can be used in open class without the worry of embarrassing an individual student.