Error Correction: keeping an ‘Error Diary’

What did my tutors at the CELTA course tell me about correcting mistakes?

Think about the type of task the students are doing – they said – if it’s controlled practice, use this array of techniques to correct them. Otherwise, resort to delayed error correction which usually comprises collecting and writing on the board sentences with mistakes and those with examples of successful use of target language. Students are aspired to discuss the sentences and ponder their own use of structures/grammar/whatever is being learned.

What usually happens after error correction is that the information on students’ mistakes vanishes completely from their minds as quickly as from the board and they pretty often make them again (yes, a bit of exaggeration to paint the picture brightly). They appear to be relieved of these errors after making them several times more. And it’s true for me as a learner as well. The fact that I understand my mistake doesn’t mean I won’t make it again. I may well forget that this is my weakness and ignore the idea of stopping myself to think how to say correctly what I’m going to say. Even if I know rules I neglect them unintentionally because while uttering an idea I concentrate on meaning more than on form, as I guess most people do.

I questioned myself what should be done to extend the work on errors so that the way from ‘I always make mistakes with this’ to ‘oh, I just say it as I’m used to saying and it’s almost always (let’s be realists) correct’ as quick and short as possible.

After questioning myself I questioned my DoS and here is a couple of her suggestions tailored and moulded to serve my aims and fit my style.

First of all, I change the process of conducting delayed error correction. We don’t just say what is correct, what is not and why. If a sentence is not correct students briefly explain why (they are able to do it by this stage of a lesson) and, having done that, they make their own examples of the very same structure personalizing the sentence. Let me provide you with a slightly simplified example.

‘He have been to London’ is the sentence on the board.

  • Is this sentence correct?
  • Why?
  • Because he – has.
  • Does everyone agree?
  • Yeeeees
  • Now each of you makes a sentence with this structure about students in our group.
  • Mary has been to Egypt.
  • Peter has been to Paris.
  • Karin has been to America.

I wholeheartedly believe that thus students link the rule to something more tangible, which is also strengthened by mechanical repetition and creates a correct language wont.

Next trick is actually the essence of this post. After doing this super controlled correction-practice exercise, instead of simply erasing everything from the board my students and I write the sentences with mistakes in special ‘Error Diary’.

Why do I need it?

It’s pretty obvious – I keep a record of all students’ mistakes to:

  • See the most frequent mistakes
  • See the flaws in my teaching as some mistakes indicate what I haven’t explained something properly or what I have forgotten to draw students’ attention to
  • Use the sentences for further tests and revision games and exercises
  • Monitor which mistakes have fielded as a history and which are being strong and resistant requiring more work and attention
  • Have a good source of language to analyse for a particular group in case I happen to see some interesting particularities in terms of language acquisition (unfortunately, I have never seen any so far)

Why do my students need it?

  • They have a record of their own mistakes with their own weaknesses underlined and analysed by themselves
  • They can always refer to this diary like to a rule because it’s even more useful than a rule since it represents personalized and analysed use of language which once was difficult for them (or more than once)
  • They have an opportunity to see how I work with their mistakes later on. I don’t invent vague sentences which sometimes lack context and have no connection with my students. I use their own sentences, about themselves and the students see it and, as I was said, they feel my personal involvement and attention to their learning process.
  • Students use their notes to make test-type tasks for each other as a means of revision of material. I believe this is a way of processing and understanding the language that can’t be overestimated.

Now it’s high time I told you about the results I have noticed after using ‘Error Diaries’.

  • When we have collected a set of sentences (let’s say 20) and all work with errors is done (discussion, using in my exercises, students’ tests) I make a final speaking revision task intentionally to check the same mistakes. If mistakes aren’t made this time, I cross them out. Having done so with 4 sets of mistakes I have all of them crossed out with exception of one or two after each revision.
  • Students hardly ever make them again in free speaking activities.
  • Students feel more responsible for their own learning and appear to be more conscious.
  • Students say they feel learning process and their progress better.

I would like to underline and assure you that it doesn’t take as much time as it may seem. If it’s in a form of a game, it’s used as a warmer at the beginning of a lesson or at the end when we have a spare minute. If it’s an exercise they have devised themselves, I usually check it and hand out to a different person as a home task. The final revision activity is usually combined with another speaking activity so that it follows logically.

I want to encourage you to try this extended means of error correction if you have never done it and reap the results. Let me know your opinion on this idea anyway.