A web site for the developing language teacher

Teaching Tips 97

Looking for causes..
Becoming systematic
Primacy & recency


Looking for

Last week we had a quick look at the systematic nature of errors. This week we take it bit deeper by looking at some sources of learner errors. Have a look at the following sentences from 'Discover English' by Bolitho & Tomlinson (Macmillan ELT). Have a think about what the problem is & what caused the error.

a. My father is a fisher.

b. I am seeing a lion in that cage.

c. She’s beautiful, isn’t it?

d. He has gone there this morning.

e. Will you borrow me your car?

f. He has robbed all my money.

g. I rang up so I booked the tickets.

h. He was wounded in the car crash.

When looking at errors we can divide them into 'interlingual errors' - those that occur between English & the mother tongue, & 'intralingual errors' - those that occur within the language being learned. Amongst the causes of the above are mother tongue interference, overgeneralisation, early learning, interference from items within English - cross association & false analogy. Errors might not only have one of the causes, there could be two or more causes operating at the same time.

It is this knowledge of the causes that help us to help the learner, as when we realise what the problem is we are in a better position to decide what to do about it. The action we take can depend on a lot of different variables; is the error frequent or not, is it important for communication or not, is it taking place in a controlled or lesser controlled activity & is it an individual problem or widespread amongst the group......

We'll look at how to go about actually dealing with the errors in a future Tip.

'Discover English' by Rod Bolitho, Brian Tomlinson (Macmillan ELT) is an excellent teacher awareness book, well worth having on the bookshelf to pick up now & again & work through the tasks.
To buy the book from
To buy the book from

This is what the authors say of the above errors:

a. fisherman

- False analogy with baker, farmer, etc.

- Overgeneralization that in English agent nouns are formed by adding -er to the simple form of the verb.

b. can see

- Overgeneralization that the present continuous is always used when reference is being made to a continuous action in the present.

- Overteaching/overlearning of the present continuous as a result of intensive drilling of the tense in association with now situations.

- Chronology, i.e. the tense was the first learned and is now dominant.

c. isn’t she?

- Interference from a mother tongue which has a fixed question-tag form (e.g. n ‘est-ce pas?).

- Ignorance of the rules of question-tag formation in English.

d. went

- Failure to distinguish between the present perfect = indefinite past and the simple past definite past.

- L1 interference (i.e. interference from a mother tongue which does not make the distinction between definite and indefinite past).

- Overlearning of present perfect = recent past.

e. lend

- L1 interference (i.e. from a language which has the same lexical item as the equivalent of both lend and borrow).

-confusion from learning both items at the same time.

f. has stolen

- L1 interference (i.e. from a language that has the same lexical item as the equivalent of both steal and rob).

- confusion from learning both items at the same time.

g. so that I could book

- Confusion with so + V = result.

h. injured

- Overgeneralization of the reference of wounded.

- L1 interference (i.e. from a language which has one lexical item as the equivalent of both wound and injure).

Back to the contents

Becoming systematic

It's Limerick Day on May 12th, the birthday of Edward Lear, the inventor of the limerick, so for classroom ideas, see the Teaching Tip ' There once was an English teacher':

This week, a quick look at error analysis, or to put a less negative tack on the area, performance analysis. S. Pit. Corder wrote an influential book called 'Error Analysis & Interlanguage' (OUP 1981) & within this talks of three stages in error making. These are:

1. Pre-systematic errors - errors that appear because the student is guessing, the rules haven't been looked at & she is attempting something above her level. Typically, very low level students, when trying the talk about the past, use the present simple with past time references; 'Yesterday I go to the cinema.' This risk-taking is certainly something we want our students to attempt.

2. Systematic errors - errors where the student has got the wrong end of the stick, there is a rule but the wrong one. The student can justify this choice & the teacher can see why it is happening. An example would be a Spanish student using 'used to' in the present as the verb 'soler' in Spanish can be used in both the past & present. In English we would use the present simple with 'usually'. There is clearly an element of the pre-systematic here as the full rule hasn't been looked at or taken on board, there being an element of having a go with what she has got.

3. Post-systematic errors - errors that come about in fluency practice & when you point out to the student that there is a problem, the student is able to self-correct. The 'rule' hasn't yet become 'proceduralised knowledge' i.e. it hasn't become part of the automatic arsenal of language at the student's disposal.

A student might also be set back to the pre-systematic stage with the introduction of new aspects of language. As new language is incorporated, the student needs to restructure what she already knows.

This is one way of looking at errors, & provides an awareness of why the error is being made before we can go on to correct it. This approach looks a little deeper at the causes of the errors, & helps us to discriminate what to correct, than simply correcting everything.

Back to the contents

Primary & recency effect

Primacy & recency

Before reading on, have a look at the Tip: 'Before I forget... ' & do the memory task.

There we talk about strategies for remembering lexis. Did you find that you could remember the words at the beginning & end of the list better than the ones in the middle? This recall of the beginning is called the 'primacy effect' & recalling the ending is called the 'recency effect'.

This not only relates to lexical lists but lessons as a whole. Students apparently remember what happens at the beginning of a lesson & especially what happens at the end. It is very revealing to ask your students at the end of a lesson what they have covered, as more often than not they find it difficult to remember what they were doing half an hour ago! Here are a few ideas that take the primacy & recency effects into account in our lessons:

- Give breaks within lessons. This provides more opportunities for primacy & recency effects to take place. A break could range from a 5 minute chat with elementary students in their mother tongue to varying the pace of the lesson so that the challenge & mental effort is balanced throughout the lesson.

- Recap. Put your lesson 'menu' on the board at the beginning of the lesson. eg.

1. Vocab
2. Reading
3. Grammar focus
4. Practice
5. Speaking

The students could copy it down as a general record of the lesson. Don't worry about not getting through it all - sometimes you won't - but it provides valuable signposting for the students. As you progress through the lesson, at the end of each stage point to the menu & recap the stages you have covered. At the end of the lesson, recap all that has been covered.

- Mark the stages of the lesson clearly, so that the students know that a stage is finishing & another starting, & not running one into another creating one long stage.

- Plan carefully when the 'important' bit comes in the lesson eg the presentation stage, alerting all to the particular stage.

- Use different ways to help recall, for example, by adding in visual aids whenever possible. A couple of pictures to go with a vocabulary brainstorm, not only helps the students get into the area but also helps them remember the stage. Making it all interesting clearly helps recall; Interesting materials & relevant language.

So put a smile on your students' faces when they leave the lesson by helping them recall the whole lesson rather than the last activity you did.

Back to the contents

To the Past Teaching Tips

Back to the top

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2016© Developing