ERRORS_ CORRECT THEM OR NO?!
By:Azimeh Najafi Sayyar
Farzanegan Pre-University Center
One of the most frequent questions asked by teachers is: “When, where and how should I correct the learners’ errors?”
Error correction is regarded as one of the most crucial aspects of classroom management that needs considerable skill and a careful policy on the part of the teacher. And for learners, error correction is part of the process of recognizing their errors and having confidence to try again in speaking abilities.
Recently, there has been a debate about the significance of error correction in the classroom. Some argue that since in acquiring the mother tongue, a child hardly takes notice of parental correction, and since adults follow a similar process in learning a second or foreign language, correction by teacher is of dubious value. On the contrary, many believe that error correction is an expected role for the teacher in foreign language situations where there’s little exposure to English.
Then there’s the question: “Which errors are to be corrected and how?” This is probably the hardest question to answer. A way of dealing with errors is to decide which of them hamper communication.
This essay is going to discuss the importance of errors, error correction, self-correction, the role of the teacher in correcting errors, and the different techniques of correcting errors.
This article indicates that the correction of errors is an important issue in the foreign or second language learning situations. And the best way to do this in the language classrooms is self-correction by the students themselves.
One of the questions that confuses most teachers is why students keep on making the same mistakes even when their mistakes have been continuously pointed out to them. However, not all mistakes are the same; some of them seem to be deeply ‘fossilized’, yet others are easily corrected by students themselves. Of a more crucial value is this question: “ When and how should we, teachers, correct students’ mistakes? Is it always necessary to do this, or do we have to ‘choose’ among mistakes?”
Not only for new teachers but also for those who have taught English long, there’s a tendency for either over-correcting or under-correcting learners’ mistakes. Making the right decision is often something that requires time and training. Another problem is how to make corrections.
To decide whether it is our job to correct the learners’ errors or just ignore them, it is essential to know about different kinds of mistakes and errors. Researchers have different ideas about the kinds of errors and mistakes students make and the treatment of them as well. Though ‘mistake’ and ‘error’ are often used interchangeably, language professionals know that there are major differences between the two terms. According to Rueckert “…a mistake is typically thought of as a ‘slip’. Native English speakers and non-native English speakers alike can make mistakes, which can then be self-corrected. An error, on the other hand, reflects the competence of the learner.(Brown, 2000)” . Unlike mistakes, errors can not be self-corrected without help. Errors are the result of a gap between the knowledge of a competent adult native speaker and the non-native speaker. When errors are made by the learners in the classroom, it’s a good opportunity to change that into a teaching moment.
Harmer (2001,p.99) gives a classification of mistakes provided by Julian Edge. According to this classification, we can divide mistakes into three broad categories: ‘slips’ (mistakes which students can correct themselves once the mistake has been pointed out to them), ‘errors’ (mistakes which the students cannot correct themselves and therefore need explanation), and ‘attempts’(that is when a student tries to say something but does not yet know the correct way of saying it.(Edge, 1989:chapter 2). Of these kinds, it is the category of ‘errors’ which most concerns teachers.
It is generally believed that there are two sources for the errors which most students make at different learning stages:
L1 interference: Students who learn English either as a second or foreign language already have a deep knowledge of their mother tongue. Consequently, when they learn a new language, there are often confusions which lead to errors in the learners’ use of English. This error making can be at different levels such as sounds, grammar, or word usage.
Developmental errors: Linguists and researchers in child language acquisition are aware of the phenomenon of ‘over-generalization’. In fact, the child starts to ‘over-generalize’ a new rule that has been already learnt. According to Harmer (2001), a good example is ‘Daddy goed’ and ‘Theycomed’, so the child makes mistakes with things that he/she knew before. Foreign language students also make the same kind of ‘developmental’ errors. Errors like’ Reza is more stronger than his brother’ where using ‘more’ for comparatives is over-generalized and then mixed up with the rule that he/she has already learnt. Errors of this type are part of a natural acquisition process.
Brown (2001,p.290) gives a description of errors by James Hendrickson (1980). According to him, teachers should try to distinguish the difference between ‘global’ and ‘local’ errors. Once a person learning English wanted to describe an old hotel in Europe and said, “There is a French widowin every bedroom.” We can easily recognize the local error here, which creates a humorous situation. Or “I like kitchen and rice very much.” Hendrickson recommends that local errors usually don’t need correction since the message is obvious and correction might interrupt the learner in the process of productive communication. Global errors, on the other hand, need to be treated in some way because the message may otherwise remain unclear. “ The different city is another one in the another two” is a sentence that would surely need to be corrected. Many utterances are not clearly global or local, and it’s difficult to decide for correction feedback. Therefore, local errors can sometimes be ignored for the sake of keeping a flow of communication. Global errors often call for some type of treatment.
Most students learning a foreign language bring with them the idea that the new language will behave like their mother tongue. If their language forms questions by inversion, it is easy to assume that this will be true in the new language they are learning. “Interference” means that structural mistakes are inevitable. There are also words which look or sound similar in the two languages, but have very different meanings. A Persian student may say,” I cooked the alarm watch to get up at 6:00 in the morning.” So confusion is inevitable, too. It is very important for the teacher to understand that mistakes are inevitable and a naturalpart of the learning process. It is also essential for the teacher to transmit this attitude to students. The student who is afraid of mistakes and remains silent during the class hour will learn comparatively little.
The student who understands that learning involves making mistakes is more likely to make progress. It is, therefore, crucial that teachers transmit to students the idea that making mistakes is an essential part of the language learning process, and definitely not something to be feared. According to Brown (1993: 204) human learning is basically a process that involves making mistakes. In fact, any kind of learning involves mistakes. The first mistakes of learning are giant ones. Learning to swim, to play tennis, to type, or to read, all involve a process in which success comes by profiting from mistakes, by using mistakes to get feedback from the environment and to make new attempts. We can say that language learning is like any other human learning. Children learning L1 make countless “mistakes”, so do learners who attempt to learn a second or foreign language. Many of the mistakes children make are often logical in the limited linguistic system. Yet, by carefully processing feedback from others, these children slowly but certainly learn to produce acceptable speech in their mother tongue. Learning a second or foreign language is a process that is like L1 language learning in its trial-and-error nature. Certainly, learners make mistakes in acquiring another language, and in fact, even impede the process if they don’t make those errors.
Researchers and teachers of foreign languages realize that errors and mistakes need to be analyzed carefully, since they are possibly the keys to the process of second or foreign language acquisition. As Corder (1967: 167) (cited in Brown(1993: 205)) notes:
A learner’s errors …are significant in[that] they provide
to the researcher evidence of how language is learned
or acquired , what strategies or procedures the learner
is employing in the discovering of the language…
It’s important to distinguish errors from mistakes. A mistake, according to Brown (1993:205), is either a random guess or a ‘slip’. In fact, it is a failure to use a familiar system correctly. In this case, all people make mistakes, in both mother and foreign language situations. Native speakers are normally able to recognize and correct such ‘lapses’ or mistakes which are the result of some sort of imperfection in producing speech, not in competence. These occur in second or foreign language speech, too. Such mistakes must be carefully distinguished from errors of a foreign or second language learner. Dulay and Burt (1972)(cited in Brown(1993:205) refer to errors as ‘goofs’- “an error…for which no blame is implied.” Described in another way, an error is a “noticeable deviation from the adult grammar of a native speaker.” If a learner of English asks, “Does John can sing?”, he has committed an error, most likely not a mistake. Of course, it’s not always possible to make a distinction between an error and a mistake. If a learner, on one or two occasions, says, “John cans sing”, but on other occasions says, “John can sing”, it is difficult to determine whether ‘cans’ is a mistake or an error.
The fact that learners make errors, and that errors can be observed, analyzed, and classified has led to the study of learners’ errors; called ‘error analysis’. Errors arise from several possible general sources: inter-lingual errors of interference from the native language, intra-lingual errors within the target language, the sociolinguistic context of communication, psycholinguistic or cognitive strategies and also affective variables. Brown (1993:210) also mentions global and local errors. According to him, global errors hinder communication; they prevent the hearer from comprehending the message. For example, “Well, it’s a great hurry around”, in any context, is difficult or impossible to interpret. Local errors, on the contrary, do not prevent the message from being comprehended, usually because there is only a minor variation of one item of a sentence, letting the hearer or reader make an accurate guess about the meaning. ‘a shoes’, for example, is a local error.
According to Harmer (1998:62), all students make mistakes at various stages of language learning. It’s a part of the natural process they are going through and happens for different reasons. First of all, the students’ own language may get in the way. This is most obvious with ‘false friends’_ words that look or sound the same but mean something different_ such as ‘push and cook’ in English, which are sometimes mixed up with the two words ‘pooshidan and kook kardan’ in Persian. Sometimes Persian students use them instead of ‘put on and adjust a clock’. Grammatical considerations interfere, too: Persian students frequently have trouble with article or preposition usage. Some examples are: ‘I enjoyed from the party.’ ‘I used from the telephone.’ ‘I telephoned to my friend.’ ‘What happened for you?’ where the verbs ‘enjoy, use, and telephone’ need no preposition and ‘happen’ is used with the preposition ‘to’.
There’s another category of source of errors which a number of people call ‘developmental errors’. As it was mentioned previously, and according to Harmer (1998:62), this is the result of conscious or subconscious processing to over-generalize a rule, such as when a student says, “ I must to go”. Whatever the reason for ‘getting it wrong’, it is essential for the teacher to realize that all students make mistakes as a natural and useful way of learning the language. By working out when and why things have gone wrong, they learn more about the language they are studying.
Error analysis has provided teachers and researchers with insights into the main problems which learners seem to have with English. It can bring about identifying errors in understanding or producing the new language, determining which ones are important (those that cause serious confusion or offence), treating the source of important errors and trying to eliminate such errors.
Penny Ur (1996:85) says that language teachers usually perceive a mistake intuitively: something sounds or looks ‘wrong’. It may actually interfere with successful communication or produce a slight feeling of discomfort in the reader or hearer. We have to be careful, however, not to define as mistakes slightly deviant forms which may not accord with some grammar_ book prescriptions, but are quite acceptable to competent or native speakers of the language. If we present new structures carefully and give plenty of varied practice in using them, we may hope that our students make relatively few mistakes. But some mistakes will inevitably appear. Ur (1996) believes that “mistakes may be seen as an integral and natural part of learning: a symptom of the learner’s progress through an ‘inter-language’ towards a closer and closer approximation to the target language.” Some would say that it is not necessary to correct all; as the learner advances, mistakes will disappear on their own. Even if you think_ as most learners do_ that grammar mistakes need to be corrected, it is important to relate to them not as a sign of inadequacy (i.e. you have failed to teach something well or the student has failed to learn it), but rather as a means to advance teaching and learning.
Ur (p. 86) also believes that mistakes can be of great importance for the teacher to facilitate learning process. Mistakes are important for the following reasons:
A) As a guide for the presentation and practice of new structures: If you know that a certain structure is particularly difficult to produce without mistakes, you will try to invest more time and effort next time you present it. Learners who like to think analytically may appreciate your sharing the problem with them frankly even at the earliest stages.
B) As a guide for correction: It is possible to correct every single mistake in learners’ oral or written work; but then they may be unable to cope with the sheer quantity of information. It is probably better to be selective: to concentrate on the important errors, and direct the learners’ attention towards them only.