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A Common Sense Approach to Treating
Error in L2 Learners
by Steve Schackne
- 2


The six-stage process treating error is a common sense approach which avoids both the monotony and stress of intense audio-lingual classrooms, and the disengaged approach of humanists, who often view classroom pressure as a barrier to learning. In addition, the common sense approach is less artificial and yields results as good as or better than traditional error correction.

Key Terms

Acquired language: the term referring to language that is permanently learned or internalized
Appropriacy: the appropriate use of language in different circumstances
Audio-lingual: the traditional approach to language learning which stresses habit formation through repetition
Collocation: the condition of words naturally occurring together; ex: [take medicine], not [*eat medicine]
Copula: the verb, <to be>
Echoing: a correction technique in which the teacher repeats what the student has just said, using a questioning intonation
Global errors: errors which hamper comprehension
Humanistic: language teaching approach which emphasizes human development and positive feelings
L1: first language or native language
L2: second language or language being learned; often called target language
Learning: as opposed to acquisition, the conscious knowledge of a language rule, but inability to correctly use it consistently
Local errors: errors which do not hamper comprehension
Minimal pairs: contrasting words that differ in only one sound; ex: [pat, bat]
Mistake: inconsistent fault which is the result of carelessness rather than lack of knowledge
Morphology: study of word formation and interpretation
Negative transfer: the incorrect transfer of a language element from L1 to L2; ex: [Yo tengo diez anosà*I have ten years]
Overgeneralization: overly broad application of a rule; ex: [*falled instead of fell]
Phonology: study of language sound systems
Points of articulation: places in the oral cavity, nasal cavity, and pharynx where sounds are produced
Prescriptive (grammar): grammar that states linguistic facts in terms of how they should be
Semantics: study of meaning
Syntax: study of rules and categories of sentence formation

Example 1

Investigation: A general assessment of student speaking level is undertaken using a short interview to discover personal information about a student.

Isolation: During the interview the student is unable to produce the voiceless inter-dental fricative the 'th' sound as in 'think', consistently replacing it with the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/. Teacher classifies it as a potentially global error since there is a phonemic distinction between the two sounds.

Explanation: Teacher explains the error-the 'th' is non-occurring in the student's native language, so the student has little chance to hear it or produce it. Teacher establishes a minimal pair set to check on the student's ability to discriminate between the two sounds.

Demonstration: Once the student is able to discriminate between phonemes (sounds), teacher demonstrates, through points of articulation, how to produce the sound-tongue between teeth, air passing through oral cavity, no vocal chord vibration.

Experimentation: Student then attempts to correct error via communicative activities and/or real communication. Teacher uses echoing to correct repeated error ex: [S: This is a sick book, T: Yes, that's a thick book]

Learning/Acquisition Result: After two months the student has learned the /?/ phoneme, but has not acquired it, occasionally producing correct form, occasionally producing /s/ form.

Example 2

Investigation: A general assessment of student writing level is undertaken using a short paragraph in which the student is asked to describe her family.

Isolation: Subsequent reading of the paragraph reveals structural-word use error in stating ages:
[*He/she has # years].

Explanation: Teacher explains the error-it is a negative transfer from the student's native language, which states languages using (Subject pronoun)à(have/has)à(age) structure.

Demonstration: Teacher demonstrates correct form--
(Subject)>>(Copula)>>(Age + "years old")
--on the board using both proper noun (names) and pronoun forms.

Experimentation: Student attempts to correct through short oral and written descriptions of classmates, where [age] is one required descriptive feature.

Learning/Acquisition Result: Within a month the student acquired the correct language structure.

Worthwhile Reading

Donald, Rolf. "Error Correction1"

Donald, Rolf. "Error Correction2"

Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman, 1991-2000, pp. 68-70

Norrish, J. Language Learners and their Errors, Macmillan Press, 1983

Reeder, Florence. "Could You Repeat the Question?"

Schackne, Steve. "Language Teaching Research-In the Literature, but Not Always in the Classroom," in Journal of Language and Linguistics, 2002.

Swan, Michael and Bernard Smith, Eds. Learner English, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Warden, Clyde. "PC Evaluation & Impact on EFL Errors"


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning.
He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau. His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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