To Correct or Not To Correct… That is the ESL Question!

Colleagues teaching English as a Second Language—my specialty—often ask me "Should we correct our students or should we not infer when they are finally speaking?"

My answer is simple, "Yes, we should always correct our students. We owe that to them. They have the right to know if what they are saying is correct." I believe that by correcting them in an ESL course, we will help them to avoid embarrassment and even humiliation later on. So it is well worth it.

The best way to correct

Of course, you have to find a way to correct your students so they are not bothered by your intervention. Ideally, they should repeat your corrections immediately, as they go along, thus improving their speaking skills. Better still they should also have some trace of their mistakes to avoid them in the future.

Students can be put off at the beginning when their teacher picks up all their mistakes—especially if the latter are numerous. I also caution teachers against correcting students speaking in front of the whole class—at least in the beginning. This can unnerve them and they will undoubtedly not be able to say the sentence correctly even when corrected. On the other hand, pair work or group work can be the ideal time to walk around the room and discreetly rectify any mistakes the students are making.

Informing students about correcting methods

To avoid encountering opposition or creating embarrassment, I explain to the students at the beginning of a course that I work like a machine, i.e., I react immediately to a mistake and correct it orally. They should realize that I am simply doing my job, and I am in no way judging them as a person or condemning their ideas. I am merely helping them to reformulate in English that is correct what they are trying to say. I also tell them that if I say nothing, it means their English is correct, and this is gratifying to them. Once they understand the purpose and the method I use, they welcome corrections.

Correcting in one-to-one sessions

I do a lot of tutorials, one-to-one sessions, where students give presentations on a topic of their choice. Students really enjoy these sessions alone with the teacher (during lab) since there is no peer pressure and they are free to choose the topics that really interest them. Some students will at first respond to my correcting by saying "sorry" and then continuing. I stop them and say, "You don’t need to say ‘sorry’. Just reformulate the phrase correctly to show me you have understood the correction." Usually, they will make the same mistake once or twice again, but then suddenly the third time they will say the expression correctly… with a big smile!

Leaving a written trace

When I have tutorials, I not only correct orally what the student is saying, but I also write down the “incorrect phrasing” followed by the acceptable phrasing or pronunciation, as the case may be. At the end of the tutorial, I hand the corrections to the student, who will add the corrections at the bottom of his/her typed outline before submitting the finalized work to the Web Disk or printing it out to place it in their private portfolio. Some students have really amazed me by designing beautiful tables with all the mistakes underlined and the correct formulations highlighted. Others have even added personal advice that I gave them such as “I shouldn’t keep turning my pencil with my fingers, even if I feel nervous.”

A trick I use

The trick to oral corrections is the technique I call "under your breath correcting". While the student is speaking, I intervene very discreetly like an interpreter, almost whispering the correct usage. And I never explain the correction. Most of the time the student knows why he or she made the mistake—it just came out the wrong way. There is no need to insist on the explanation. Once the students have started speaking quite fluently, I correct them all the time—even if they are speaking in front of all the others giving a formal presentation as they do after about 14 two-hour sessions. At this point, the mistakes tend to be rare, because the students have been training in the audio language lab and because they have followed the instructions on the worksheets (in the booklets) and are using the structures (i.e. chunks of language) that we require.

Why I correct

I always say to myself, "Why should the students who are listening to their classmates be exposed to English that is incorrect?" I believe that students can learn just as much by listening to other students speaking correct English as by listening to me or to a recording. For this reason, we help students before they perform by giving them lengthy instructions and lists of expressions they should use. We correct all the materials they plan to show their classmates during the talk or use for the workshop. If they wish, I even verify the "scripts" they prepare of what they plan to say.

Mistakes become fewer in number

After about thirty hours of intensive class and lab work and another thirty hours spent on written and oral assignments, their English is vastly improved. In fact, with this sort of training and correcting, their English just gets better and better. Mistakes become fewer in number and less serious. As a result, I seldom have to intervene while they are giving their talks in front of the class. Most of the time I am silent, so they are full of smiles—they know their English is correct! I can see the personal satisfaction on their faces. They are beaming with self-confidence and self-esteem. So ’"o correct or not to correct" is no longer a question in my mind.

Marianne Raynaud


Much more advice of this kind and all the teaching materials used in the course can be found in the NEW EDITION of QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book Version on a DVD or as a DOWNLOAD. There is even a Kindle version of the book on Amazon available for €3.99.

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