More on Error Correction

I am a strange language learner. Unlike most people, I like to be corrected directly and explicitly—I learn best this way. I explain this with my perfectionist nature and the high expectations I have for myself; in other words, a situation in which I make a linguistic mistake produces an emotional discomfort and displeasure—almost disappointment—with my performance self. So due to the conflict between my critical self and my performance self, I am able to better notice, process the information, and eventually store this episode in my memory. The remembrance of the emotional displeasure makes me consciously aware of the corrected error and thus facilitates my learning. So, frankly, I appreciate the affective filter, which in cases of negative feedback works the opposite way for me.

What I was trying to say by providing this example is that we can’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to error correction, or any aspects of pedagogy for that matter. But as I was reading Truscott’s (1996) article, I noticed quite a few generalizations that he made about negative effects of error correction, about students’ reactions to teachers’ markings, and eventually about students’ learning. The following statement is a case in point: “Those who do follow the teacher’s advice may well cease to do so as soon as they stop writing for that particular teacher, possibly as a conscious decision or possibly because the advice is forgotten once that teacher is no longer there to remind them” (p. 349). My immediate reaction was: “How do we know?” Truscott only speculates that this might be the case, but this assumption s not empirically verified.

I would certainly agree that in a writing class, there needs to be a space for rhetorical issues, topic development, organization, and so on. But I also believe that accuracy is just another component of writing in a second language, especially when students are learning to write, and as such, it cannot be dismissed. I would never turn my composition class into a grammar class, but if I notice that a student struggles with language, I think that I am in the position to help him or her write more accurately. And some mistakes just need to be pointed out! For example, if I notice that a certain word is misspelled on a regular basis, so it looks like another word (e.g., weird-wired), I would definitely point this out because I know the student is not aware of the mistake he or she makes. Some mistakes that we are afraid to correct because we are afraid of hurting students’ feelings can be even more painful and embarrassing in the future—when students face the real world.

Having said that, I learned from my teaching experience that error correction is a complicated and perhaps even delicate issue, and various factors come into play when teachers deal with error correction—either oral or written. Some of these factors are

  • the relationship between the teacher and the student,
  • teacher’s credibility,
  • student’s language ego and motivation,
  • the way correction is delivered, and
  • the goal of a writing class.

When it comes to individual writing classes and teaching contexts, I sometimes get a feeling that the phenomenon L2 writing is defined somewhat narrowly, especially in conversations happening in universities—among graduate students/future teachers. L2 writing should not only be talked about in relation to first-year composition classes. But L2 writing classes in many EFL contexts and even in intensive English programs are in fact language classes. And in those courses, students learn how to write in English and they learn how to use English to express their ideas. In other words, they are working on their language, so not drawing their attention to language issues would be absurd.

And what about beginning learners? What about students who take business English classes to learn how to compose an appropriate letter of complaint, or a cover letter, or other important genres in written business communication? Accuracy is crucial in those cases, no less important than content. Not helping these students with grammar is doing them a disservice. So, when Truscott (1999) concludes by saying that teachers need to compare both cases—for and against correction—and “decide which is stronger” (p. 121), I’d agree, but that they should also consider the contexts in which they are teaching, the purposes of the class they are teaching, and the goals of the students they are teaching.

What are your thoughts on error correction?


Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language learning46(2), 327–369.

Truscott, J. (1999). The case for “The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes”: A response to Ferris. Journal of Second Language Writing, 8(2), 111–122.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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One Response to More on Error Correction

  1. Great topic for discussion. This is a tricky one. I remember after about 5 years of teaching a business student he asked me why I’d never corrected him. It got me thinking, and now I correct whenever I can. I never correct when a student is speaking on their own in front of the class, unless I have a good raport with them. I often write down common errors and deal with it on a class basis. With regards to writing, I normally have a focus for each piece, be it grammar or vocabulary and focus on that. I generally make a comment on most accuracy mistakes though. I do quite a bit on pronunciation correction too.

    Thanks for the input.


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