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


Much has been written regarding error correction-everything from direct prescriptive approaches to humanistic techniques which often avoid overt correction altogether. While there's no hard evidence that aggressive correcting leads to positive results any more than a hands-off approach does, a couple of general observations can be made. Error correction in the real world certainly is not as controlled as in traditional classrooms. Speakers who don't understand each other use rhetorical devices, such as paraphrasing and asking for clarification, to negotiate meaning and, hence, avoid directly confronting errors. These devices often come into play when a speaker makes global errors, those which affect comprehension. Local (minor) errors are often simply ignored. Second, most classroom teachers recognize that direct intervention is often ineffective and serves only to hamper communication, yet they are uncomfortable simply observing student error without taking action.

A Common Sense Approach

A common sense approach to treating error proceeds in stages (Investigation, Isolation, Explanation, Demonstration, Experimentation, Learning-Acquisition), and is minimally disruptive to both the flow of the lesson and student motivation.

Investigation (which also could be called assessment, exploration, discovery) engages the student in some form of communication to assess the general language level and the nature of language problems. This engagement could be a dictation, question-answer session, written paragraph, brief interview, or any other short activity.

Errors are then isolated for subsequent treatment. Isolated errors are classified along two lines: global-local, mistake-error. Global errors can be defined as those that affect comprehension, while local errors, though linguistically non- or sub-standard, do not break down communication. Mistakes are idiosyncratic, careless, and inconsistent, while errors actually involve language that has not been acquired or has been incorrectly acquired. Non-acquired or incorrectly acquired language that interferes with comprehension is, logically, the most urgent priority.

In the explanation stage, the teacher describes the error--this not only alerts the student that an error has been identified and is about to be treated, but also describes where the problem is occurring (ex: syntax, morphology, semantics, phonology, appropriacy) and what the problem involves (ex: incorrect production of a phoneme, misuse of a preposition, incorrect word use, overgeneralization of a verb, misuse of register/style).

The teacher will then demonstrate (or model) correct usage. The techniques in this stage will vary from teacher to teacher. Pronunciation problems could be addressed utilizing minimal pairs and points of articulation, while grammar correction could be handled by contrasting the unacceptable form with the acceptable form, making the transformations on a blackboard or overhead projector. Morphology and syntax problems most often involve developmental errors, such as the overgeneralization of L2 verb rules (ex: buyed instead of bought); however, contrastive, or negative transfer errors, while most often found at the phonological level, can also be seen in morphology and syntax when major differences exist between the native and target language morphological/syntax systems. Semantic problems occur at all levels, usually in the areas of usage and collocation. Appropriacy is later-acquired, and can be treated as a cultural, as well as a language, issue.

With exposure to the demonstration of correct form/usage/pronunciation, the student is now ready to embark on experimentation. This stage involves the trial use in communicative activities and/or real communication. Unlike traditional correction, where the student is drilled until the correct form is internalized, experimentation makes no short-term time demands on the student. The student attempts to correctly use the language in a real communicative environment, which may last an indeterminate period of time. The experimentation stage mimics a humanistic approach to correction, which places students in a low-pressure second language environment, hoping they will self-correct, avoiding intensive/direct correction techniques, which the humanists consider emotionally counter-productive. The difference here is that experimentation is encouraged to take place in a real world or communicative language situation where natural correction (ex: echoing, asking for clarification) can take place and re-focus the student on correct language.

Arrival at the final stage-learning/acquisition-is unpredictable. Students may learn quickly, then have to re-learn later, or learn later and have to re-learn periodically for the rest of their lives. Students could immediately acquire the language or (permanently) acquire it at some future time. Some students may never acquire the language, but this simply mirrors other correction approaches, and L2 learning in general, where people learn at different speeds and achieve different levels.


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?"
http://www.mitre.org/work/tech_papers/tech_papers_00/reeder_question /index.html

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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