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Chapter 9

Chapter 9

Errors, Correction and Remedial Work

The last four chapters have been concerned with good teaching and effective learning. But however good the teaching and however effective the learning, there will always be a place for remedial work of one kind or another because it is beyond the capacity of a human being to absorb perfectly and retain indefinitely everything he is presented with. Hence, from one point of view, every learner needs remedial teaching after the first lesson. It is unfortunately not uncommon to find a student who is quite incapable of using the present simple tense accurately at the end of the first year of English, even though it has been one of the main teaching points. Before considering what can be done about this sort of situation, it is worth looking first at some of the possible reasons for error.

Poor teaching is of course one culprit. But very often there are circumstances quite beyond the teacher’s control which produce a remedial situation. The syllabus, for example, is usually not within the control of most ordinary teachers. Some older courses follow a ‘linear’ progression from one teaching point to the next. First, for instance, the present simple tense is taught quite exhaustively. That is ‘done’, and the class moves on, without a backward glance, to the past simple, and so on. In this way, over the years, the syllabus covers in some depth all the major structural points. The difficulty is that the students get indigestion from doing too much of one thing all together, and that once a topic is finished, it is only incidentally referred to and practised later.

Of course, many courses take care to build in the regular repetition of lexical and structural material, thereby reinforcing the original learning and increasing the students’ exposure to it in new contexts. Regular revision of this kind is a very important means of preventing a serious remedial situation. Several course books provide periodic revision tests to make sure that the material thus far presented has been assimilated. The ‘spiral syllabus’ is another means of ensuring that good teaching and effective learning achieve the right results. The idea here is that only one or two aspects of the present simple are introduced and practised before moving on to another topic. But the teaching plan comes back round to the present simple fairly shortly and the original structures are reinforced, then extended. Similarly with the second topic. After a while the present simple is reintroduced for the third time, reinforced and extended. And so on for all the structures, notions and lexis in the syllabus.

Another important factor which can produce poor learning and a potential remedial situation is the many choices of materials to teach from. They must not only be constructed on sound educational and linguistic principles but also be suitable for the age groups of the students and suitable for the part of the world they are to be used in. There is little point in using a course designed for teens and twenties who are learning in Europe (with all the presuppositions this entails of a modern sophisticated life style in big cities), with an older age group in a developing country. Many courses are not well suited to the less developed part of the world for the very reason that they are culturally bound to Western Europe.

Apart from the syllabus, the materials and the teacher, another potential source of trouble is the learner himself. Even with optimal conditions, there will still be room for remedial work as there is no such thing as perfect learning. Clearly it is inevitable that learners do make errors. But is this a good or bad thing? At first sight it appears self-evident that errors are a very bad thing and signal a breakdown in the teaching and learning situation. Certainly this was the accepted view for many years. Behaviourist psychologists in particular emphasised the importance of massive manipulative practice of the language, often in a rather mechanical fashion, to ensure correctness. The drills were structured in such a way that it was difficult for the student to make many mistakes. Hence he heard only good models and was encouraged by producing acceptable English sentences all the time.

More recently, the mentalists have put forward a different view of errors, which has gained wide acceptance. The argument in its strong form runs that a learner must make errors as an unavoidable and necessary part of the learning process, so errors are not the bad thing once thought but visible proof that learning is taking place. As the student learns a new language, very often he does not know how to express what he wants to say. So he makes a guess on the basis of his knowledge of his mother tongue and of what he knows of the foreign language. The process is one of hypothesis formulation and refinement, as the student develops a growing competence in the language he is learning. He moves from ignorance to mastery of the language through transitional stages, and the errors he makes are to be seen as a sign that learning is taking place.

Errors will always be made, and have direct implications for remedial work because they are by their nature systematic infringements of the normal rules of the language. The teacher needs to plan his remedial treatment of them into the syllabus for the coming weeks and months. Quite different are the minor errors of speech or writing which everybody makes—native speakers as much as non-natives. Spoken language, for instance, is punctuated by pauses, unfinished sentences, slips of the tongue and so on. The unedited transcript on p. 68 is a good example of this. These lapses would quickly be put right if pointed out. They call for on-the-spot correction rather than remedial work.

The insight that errors are a natural and important part of the learning process itself, and do not all come from mother tongue interference, is very important. It has long been known that learners from very diverse linguistic backgrounds almost universally have difficulty with certain things, whether they existed or not in their mother tongue. For instance, nearly all second language learners—like children learning their mother tongue—produce forms like ‘he musted do it yesterday’, ‘he throwed the ball’, ‘five womans’, etc., at some stage. The problem here is that they generalise a rule they know (the past tense is formed by adding -ed; plural forms have an -s at the end) to apply to all cases. The restrictions on the application of the rule have not been learnt.

Recent experimental evidence suggests that even in adult learners where the mother tongue system is deeply entrenched and transfer errors are at their peak, still only a minority of errors are attributable to mother tongue interference. In the case of children, errors attributable solely to interference represent a tiny percentage of all errors committed.

It was a widespread belief until recently that contrastive analysis (comparing the learner’s mother tongue with the target language) would predict the difficulties a learner would encounter and so enable the teacher to concentrate on them and avoid them. Recent findings, plus observation in the classroom, that all predicted errors did not in fact prove to be difficulties have led to the conclusion that contrasting the learner’s mother tongue with English is primarily useful as an explanatory rather than predictive procedure. It is one of the possible causes for error which the teacher must consider, not a basis on which stands all his teaching.

In short, it is clear from this brief discussion that the learner brings with him one source of error: his mother tongue. Even more importantly, the learning process itself is the source of other errors. The most sensible course of action, with present knowledge, for the teacher is to reject the extreme positions—on one hand that errors are wrong and must be avoided at all costs by very carefully controlled drilling; on the other that incorrect forms are necessary, even vital, and so should be actively planned into the teaching process—and attempt to blend the best features from both approaches into his error correction. The rest of this chapter suggests some practical procedures for dealing with errors.

The first stage is to establish what the error is. The basic question to ask is whether what the learner intended to state is the same as the normal understanding of what he actually said or wrote. He may have wanted to communicate the idea that John entered the room, but his actual words were ‘John came to the room’. This is a superficially well-formed sentence. It would, however, give the listener a slightly different impression than the speaker intended, since to come to somewhere need not necessarily imply that the person actually entered. He may, but he may not. The speaker’s intention was to convey the meaning that the person actually entered the room. The imprecise use of prepositions, although giving a plausible interpretation, caused the speaker to misrepresent his actual meaning. Very often the teacher in a case like this senses something is wrong. It is of course much easier where there is a clearly erroneous sentence such as ‘John entered into the room’. In either circumstance, the teacher can ask questions directly in an attempt to discover the learner’s original intention. Also there are elicitation techniques available (translation, or multiple-choice tests, for example) to enable the teacher to isolate more exactly the specific error.

The second stage is to establish the possible sources of the error, to explain why it happened. It is important to do this as a full knowledge of the causes of an error enables the teacher to work out a more effective teaching strategy to deal with it. The main reasons for error were given earlier in this chapter: poor materials, bad teaching, errors from the learning process, and mother tongue interference. The last two factors are of most immediate practical use, since it is extremely difficult to identify errors which are solely attributable to the teaching and materials. If a French adult, for instance, said ‘John entered into the room’, it would be sensible to consider first the possibility of interference from ‘Jean est entrĂ© dans la salle’.

It is not enough simply to have located the error and analysed its cause. The third step is to decide how serious the mistake is. The more serious the mistake, generally speaking, the higher priority it should have in remedial work. An obvious approach is to look at the error in linguistic terms and see what rules are broken. As a general principle, errors in the overall structure of sentences are more important than errors affecting parts of sentences, though there is no general agreement about a scale of error gravity. As a rough guide it has recently been suggested that the error-types considered most serious are: transformations, tense, concord, case, negation, articles, order, lexical errors.

There is the further possibility of looking at a mistake in terms of its tolerability in the eyes of native speakers rather than its linguistic correctness. It is very probable that native speakers will tolerate lexical errors far more than grammatical ones. But even within the area of the grammatical, there is some uncertainty about what is acceptable and what is not. It is very common to hear native speakers come out with:
‘It’s me.’
‘He does it better than me.’
‘He didn’t do nothing wrong.’
          ‘We was going to the City when…’
The educated native speaker would probably show more and more unease as he heard a student produce these forms, since he would not accept a non-native speaker using what he would probably consider in the last two cases at least to be sub-standard English. For similar reasons, it is necessary to teach something close to RP pronunciation, not a strong Geordie, London or West Country accent. The last three would certainly be inappropriate for the learner in all but the most exceptional circumstances, even though they are widely used in England. So it is important to consider the social tolerability of errors as well as the degree to which they transgress the linguistic rules.

As a prior step to deciding on a remedial teaching strategy, it is best to relate the error to the system of English and to its use, allocating it to a level of the linguistic system (spelling, morphology, syntax or lexis) or deciding if the problem is the inappropriacy of a correct linguistic form in a communicative situation, e.g. register. A systematic knowledge of English grammar is vital here. For example, there is a misuse of a preposition in the following extract from a written composition: ‘The family were playing happily together on the beach with a ball. Father threw it very gently at his young son, who in turn threw it at his mother.’

The error lies in the preposition at instead of to. This is a semantic rather than grammatical mistake, since the preposition at with verbs of action carries an idea of aggressiveness which is totally foreign to the context. An explicit awareness of the meaning of prepositions will allow the teacher to isolate the main feature of the error and plan his teaching in such a way as to make these differences clear to the learner.

Cases of inappropriacy of correct linguistic forms call for a sensitivity to language in use. An instance of this is found in the following extract from a dialogue. The task for an advanced group was to write a dialogue between a Company Director and his manager who had not come to work.

Company Director: Hello. This is Dr Robinson. I would like to speak to Mr Garrard, please, on a matter of great urgency. Is he available? Mrs Garrard: OK, hang on. I’ll get him.

Clearly the student had heard the expression ‘hang on’ but had not realised it is informal in style. The problem posed for the teacher is that of teaching the appropriate use of forms in their social context.
The last step after establishing the area of error is its correction. It hardly needs stating that the teacher must tread very cautiously—everyone knows the feeling when a piece of written work comes back covered with red ink, and many students complain bitterly of their teacher correcting their speech so often that they no longer dare open their mouth. For even the best intentioned teacher, there is no easy way to know how much to correct or how often. It is perhaps best to consider this in relation to two factors: the sensitivity of the student and the nature of the task. Some people are always going to support correction (often construed as ‘criticism’) less well than others. What a student will accept is very variable, and clearly the teacher must exercise his personal judgment.
Secondly, some exercises call for very different techniques in correction, and these must not be used in the wrong place. When listening for accurate pronunciation of sounds and supra-segmentals, it is legitimate to pick up even quite small deviations from the norm, and do this fairly regularly. It will be clear to the student that this intensive listening, production and correction procedure can only be maximally helpful when there is precise and regular review of his efforts. But this technique would be quite inappropriate where the aim of the exercise was oral fluency, for instance. To stop a student giving a two minute impromptu talk because of a wrong pronunciation of a phoneme, even repeated mispronunciation of it, would be quite at variance with the goal of practising fluent and confident delivery. In this case it would be much better to make a note of all errors (phonetic, grammatical and lexical) and deal with them at the end. Too many mistakes might suggest that it was the wrong task in the first place, for no exercise should be so difficult that it produces more incorrect than correct utterances.

But apart from this, the teacher must decide first the gravity of the errors committed in relation to the particular aim in view, as mentioned earlier, then whether to deal with the most important immediately or later. Immediate feedback is extremely valuable to a student. This often follows the pattern of the teacher pointing out the mistake, explaining what is wrong, and attempting on the spot to give some extra practice. There is nothing wrong with explanations of mistakes, particularly with adults, but it is much more effective when followed by extra practice. As this is not always easy to provide on the spur of the moment, another strategy is to postpone some items to another date and, after adequate preparation, make a teaching point of them in another lesson.

Immediate feedback is possible with regard to written as well as oral work, for this is exactly what the teacher provides as he moves round the class supervising his pupils’ work in the written stages of the lesson. A more integrated approach comes when the class’s books or papers are collected in by the teacher. As mentioned before, it is always best to avoid seas of red ink over the page, perhaps by means of a technique found successful by many teachers over the years. Instead of simply writing in the correct version and telling the student to think about it, an alternative is to put single code letters in the margin (a simple and self-evident code is essential: T—tense mistake; P—preposition mistake; V—vocabulary (word) mistake; etc.). This procedure has the advantage of much reducing the red ink, and forcing the student to think out the error himself and provide his own corrected version. The teacher can incorporate the main, general mistakes in his next teaching lesson, and work towards a ‘fair copy’ version with the whole class for comparison with their own efforts.

It is by no means necessary or advisable, however, that all the correction should come from the teacher. In written or oral work, students should be responsible in the first instance for their own mistakes. Written work must always be read through and carefully checked before handing in. In the case mentioned above, immediately after a two minute impromptu talk the student himself can say what he feels he has said wrong. This is very good for developing an awareness of one’s own errors, and the faculty for selfcriticism is a useful one to have in later years when one no longer attends English classes.

Correction might also come from another source apart from the student himself and the teacher. The other members of the group can correct both written and oral work. It is possible, for instance, for the better students to work with the weaker ones in pairs, and for them to suggest improvements and corrections. Group work provides another alternative— many groups will willingly discuss the members’ written work and suggest better phrasing and different structures where appropriate. The teacher can go round checking, or be called in where there is doubt in the group. In oral work, a class can be trained to listen closely for mistakes in a talk, and should be given the chance to discuss them with the speaker and teacher afterwards. This produces a discriminating ear, and has the added advantage of making everyone listen closely if they may soon be called on to analyse the errors! Using other members of the group obviously has to be handled sensitively by the teacher, as an aggressive and critical spirit in any member of the class can be very damaging.

It has been assumed so far that the teacher himself will deal with an individual’s errors with the whole group listening in. As a general principle it is best to avoid this where the error is not common to a sizeable proportion of those present. It quickly leads to boredom in the rest when the teacher goes on at length about the mistakes which just one person has committed, with the whole group sitting idly by. Individual correction is therefore necessary, but this is obviously very difficult in most teaching situations where a class may number thirty or forty students. It may be necessary on occasions, however, when the pupil himself needs personal attention and explanation, or when one person has not grasped a point and the rest of the class has moved on. In these circumstances, this can be done whilst the rest of the class is busy with some other work. Alternatively, there is scope for individualised work. Work cards can be made on different grammatical topics and lexical sets. Exercises can be set from standard textbooks, or from a series such as English Language Units (Longman), which deals with major points of grammar. These units have an accompanying tape which can be used on the classroom taperecorder with earphones, or in the language laboratory. An extensive tape library is very valuable for individual remedial work.

When dealing with the errors of the whole class, it is generally best to present the remedial point to a class as a part of the normal teaching plan, almost as though it were a new item and not something that has been taught unsuccessfully once. It would be integrated into the syllabus, and hardly remarked upon if the class were used to the ‘spiral’ approach mentioned earlier. In this case, however, it is vital to be different and varied in the re-presentation of the material. Classes quickly get bored. Variety is equally important in the practice and production stages.

Freshness of approach and variety are especially important when dealing with the ‘Remedial Class’ in the narrow sense. Remedial classes are formed when the standard of a minority of students in the regular classes is so far removed from that of the majority that it seems better to create a class especially for their particular needs. Failed students in an examination—the Cambridge First Certificate, for example—are often put in a group apart from the normal courses to prepare them for the re-sit. Motivation is the key to remedial groups like these, and this is largely dependent on the sensitive handling of the teacher. One very useful technique is to change totally the whole approach. Rather than go back over the same book in the same way and hope that a double dose of the same medicine will cure the problem, it is advisable at the very least to use a different textbook.

Better still is to choose a course written on entirely different principles. When a remedial class has failed at a structural course in which grammatical criteria are paramount in ordering the material for presentation, they will accept a reworking of familiar material if it is organised in a nonstructural way. A notional syllabus looks first at the uses to which language is put in communication, and attempts to isolate different semantic notions—how to persuade people to do things, how to express intentions, how to complain and so forth. These notions may be expressed in simple language or complex grammatical patterns, but linguistic factors of this type are of secondary importance. A quite different type of course like this is useful for remedial classes because of its novelty and because its functional goals are readily identified and achieved. In a notional course, particularly when used for remedial classes, there is no long slow build-up to establish a necessary grammatical base before any meaningful communication is possible, and notional teaching makes for strong motivation with its emphasis on communication in practical situations. Such visible signs of success are very valuable to motivate the remedial student. Members of remedial classes are very sensitive to failure, for obvious reasons. An understanding of this is an essential quality in their teacher, since a dismissive, condemnatory attitude will only have very negative results. Patience is another virtue greatly needed, since one’s best efforts often seem to produce nothing but the same errors yet once more. Progress is often slow. There are cases where it is almost non-existent, since some people are endowed with a great desire and willingness to learn English, but apparently limited ability to do so. It is also possible that people may have a natural languagelearning ceiling beyond which they cannot go. It is best for the teacher gently but firmly to discourage them from continuing—yet another delicate task for the remedial teacher to perform! The demands are great on teachers concerned with error correction, but there are compensatory rewards in seeing one’s charges grasp a point at last which seemed totally beyond them or in receiving their evident gratitude for one’s efforts. It is all part of the job’s satisfaction.

Suggestions for further reading
From a theoretical point of view:
S.P.Corder, Introducing Applied Linguistics, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, chapter II.
S.P.Corder, ‘Learner language and teacher talk’, AVLJ 16, 1, 1978, pp. 5–13.
J.A.Norrish, Language Learners and their Errors, Macmillan, 1983.
J.C.Richards (ed.), Error Analysis, Longman, 1974.
At practical level, there is much good advice in:
J.A.Bright and G.P.McGregor, Teaching English as a Second Language, Longman, 1970.
M.K.Burt and C.Kiparsny, The Gooficon, A Repair Manual for English, Newbury House, 1972.
P.Hubbard et al., A Training Course for TEFL, Oxford University Press, chapter 4.

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