One of the main dilemmas for teachers giving conversation groups is error correction. It’s always tricky to know when and if to correct students and how to go about it.

The danger of over-correcting is that students will lose motivation and you may even destroy the flow of the class or the activity by butting in and correcting every single mistake. The other extreme is to let the conversation flow and not to correct any mistakes. There are times when this is appropriate but most students do want to have some of their mistakes corrected as it gives them a basis for improvement.

So, the question is; When and how should you correct your students?

Every teacher will have different views on this and different ways of correcting their students and it’s a case of finding out what both you and your students feel comfortable with. I would like to offer several ideas of how to go about it.

Ask the students how they want to be corrected

  • This sounds obvious but it can be easily overlooked. Talk to your students about error correction and to find out from them how they like to be corrected. Often students have clear ideas about how they would like you to correct them. With large groups you may have to go with the majority, but if you have a small group you can cater for individual needs.
  • One way to give students a choice on how much they want to be corrected in a particular class or activity is for them to make a traffic light to put on their desk. A strip of card with three circles (one red, one orange and one green) folded into a triangle with a bit of sellotape does the trick. Students point the circle towards you to indicate whether or not they want correction:

            o Red = don’t correct me at all (they may have had a rough day or be tired!)
            o Orange = correct things which are really important or things I should know.
            o Green = correct as much as you can, please.

Are you working on accuracy or fluency?

  • Before you begin an activity, bear in mind whether you are concentrating on accuracy or fluency. For a class discussion for example, fluency would be appropriate. The important thing is that students are expressing themselves and thinking on their feet. However if students have had time to prepare a role-play and are then going to perform it you may want to encourage accuracy. Be clear of the aims of the task and make sure students are aware of what you expect from them. Don’t present an activity as a fluency task and then pick them up on every single mistake.

Self correction / Peer correction

  • The first port of call when correcting can be the students themselves. Students can often correct themselves when they realise they’ve made a mistake. Sometimes the mistake is simply a ‘slip’ and they are aware of the correct version. Give students a chance, and time, to correct themselves. Often by just raising your eyebrows or repeating the mistake students will know what you mean and back track to correct the error themselves. Some teachers create all sorts of hand signals to indicate the type of error. Pointing behind you is a classic to indicate to students that they should have used a past tense. If these work for you and your students, go ahead and create your own correction indicators.
  • Students can also correct one another. Peer correction often helps to create a positive class atmosphere as students realise you are not the only source of error correction and they can learn a lot from one another.

Correction slots

  • One way to focus on students’ mistakes is to take ‘time out’ of an activity and look at mistakes as a group. When students are doing a speaking task in pairs or groups I often monitor the students and listen in on what they’re saying. Students will get used to you hovering around them although if it’s not your usual monitoring style they may wonder what you’re up to at first! I make a note of the mistakes that I hear; whether they are pronunciation, grammatical or lexical. I collect a selection of their errors and then stop the activity. I write a selection of the mistakes on the board and ask students to correct them. If students are working in pairs and you have a left over student, why not assign them the role of assistant teacher? They can have a notebook and pen and make notes of mistakes they hear. If they do their job well they could even run the correction slot with their mistakes instead of you. Usually most of the mistakes can by corrected by the students themselves.

On the spot correction

  • Correcting mistakes the second they are made has the advantage that you don’t have to bring the activity to a stop as is the case with a correction slot. Students often appreciate instant correction. Think about what type of activity it is before deciding whether or not it’s appropriate to correct on the spot. You don’t want to destroy the flow of the task by butting in. Students can also be responsible for on the spot correction if they are encouraged to pick up on each other’s mistakes.

New mistakes or the same old ones?

  • I always remind students that if they are always making new mistakes it’s okay. New mistakes are usually a sign that they are exploring new uses of language or experimenting with new vocabulary but if they are always repeating the same mistakes it’s not such a good sign! By noting their mistakes students have a record of their progress and can avoid repeating the same mistakes time and time again. It’s a good idea to have a set space in their notebooks to write down their errors and the correct version. One way of doing it is to divide a page into three columns:
It depends of the weatherIt depends on the weatherNot the same as in Spanish
I've lived in Barcelon since six yearsI've lived in Barcelona for six years

Since - for points in time

For - For periods 

  • Sometimes it’s a good idea to have little tests based on the classic mistakes students make in class. It encourages students to look over their notes and try to learn from them.



  • Whichever way you go about correcting your students, try to keep the experience positive for the learner. Being corrected constantly can be a really de-motivating, as every language learner knows. As you are listening out for your students’ errors, make sure you also listen out for really good uses of language and highlight these to the group too. In the case of language learning I really do believe the classic saying, ‘you learn from your mistakes’.

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By Jo Budden
First published in 2008