TEFL Program - Testing Correcting

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Error and Feedback




1. Types of Error

2. Reasons for Error

3. Feedback for Spoken Activities

4. Feedback for Written Activities



1. Types of Error


Think about it...


Look at the following groups of errors. What type of error are the learners making ?


Group A


  1. I live in Milan for three years
  2. I want to become teacher
  3. Before to go there, we must …


Group B

  1.  Have you seen all the /bibʊl / ?
  2.  It isn’t  /ne’sesәri/
  3. Please sit over there


Group C


  1. In our school we introduced this year a very important system
  2. I go often to my village


Group D


  1. I want to remember you that …
  2. I forgot my book at home
  3. Do you prefer black or white tea?


Group E


  1. I am responsible for developping software
  2. During my work, I often speak english
  3. I have lost a little, brown, dog


Group F


  1. Good morning, dear colleagues …
  2. A : How do I get to the market?

B : Go straight on and then turn left please

  1. (Receptionist to client) Sit down.


Group G


  1. (From an essay on the industrial revolution) Anyway, working in a factory was really uncomfortable
  2. The advantages and disadvantages of flying

                   It has several disadvantages. Firstly, ….






There are many types of error. Here we have ...


Group A : Grammatical errors.  In (1) the wrong verb form has been chosen, in (2) the indefinite article is missing and in (39 the speaker has chosen the wrong construction  - after, before and –ing form verb can be used, or a Subject-verb construction, but not the infinitive.

Group B :  Pronunciation errors. In (1) the speaker has used the wrong sound –  a /b/ sound rather than a /p/; in (2) the stress has been place on the second, rather than the first syllable; and in (3) the falling intonation on “please” and “there” would make the sentence sound like an abrupt command rather than the polite request which was intended.

Group C :  Word order errors. Here the speakers have placed the adverbial expressions in the wrong position.

Group D :  Lexical errors – the wrong word has been used.

Group E :  Spelling, capitalisation and punctuation errors.

Group F :   Errors of appropriacy. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with them, but we just don’t address people as “dear...”,  add “please” when giving directions, or use  “Sit down” as a polite request.

Group G : Style and discourse errors. “Anyway” is part of spoken, rather than written English, while in English texts, a paragraph will always start with the repetition of the topic, rather than a pronoun – even when, as here, the person or thing referred to is apparent.






Choose a text which one of your learners has written. Classify the errors under the sort of headings given above. Which ones, if any, make it most difficult to understand what the writer is trying to say? 


  1. Reasons for Error


Think about it ..


Why might a learner make the errors in these groups?


Group A


  1. He is the man who I saw him yesterday (Arabic speaker)
  2. I have seen a good film last Friday. (French speaker)
  3. I eat rice yesterday (Thai speaker)


Group B


  1. Yesterday I goed to the shops and I buyed some apples
  2. He had no words to express his gratefulness
  3. Do you can play tennis?



Group C


(Intermediate students during a warm-up discussion in pairs)

  1.  I saw a nice sweater and I buy it
  2.  My brother live in the town


Group D



                S : Where  Rangani lives?


  1. T : Do you read much?

                 S : Yes, I read much.





One of the most common reasons for error is interference from the learner’s first language  (or other languages spoken). All the examples in Group A are like this. Arabic includes pronouns in relative clauses, French uses the auxiliary verb have plus the past participle to refer to past events, and Thai usually makes no change to the verb for the past.  It’s not only grammar that will be affected – all of the types of error we looked at in the previous section might be caused by first language interference. For example, the learner who pronounced people as /bibʊl/ may have been an Arabic speaker. In Arabic an initial /p/ sound is not aspirated as it is in English (ie there is no puff of air released when the sound is made) and so to us, the Arab learner’s /p/ sounds like a /b/.   All this means that you need to find out as much as possible about your learners’ language in order to understand the errors they make and know what you need to explain.


However, first language interference is not the only reason for error. The errors in Group B, are different – they are errors of overgeneralisation of a rule. The learners know that past verbs can be formed by adding –ed to the infinitive, that nouns can be formed from adjectives by adding –ness, and that Do is often used to form questions. They are simply applying the rule where, unfortunately, it can’t be used. However, notice that these errors show that the learners have learnt something, and that what they say remains totally comprehensible – they just need to find out more about the limitations of the rules they are using.


The errors in Group C probably aren’t “errors” at all – but slips, or “mistakes”.  Learners at this level undoubtedly know the rules involved here – the past form of buy  and the use of the third person singular –s on present simple verbs. But the forms haven’t yet become so familiar that their production is automatic (technically we would say that they have been learnt but not yet acquired). And when trying to speak spontaneously, the level of communicative challenge of the task can sometimes be too great, and something – usually accuracy - has to go.


What do we mean by communicative challenge? Think what’s actually involved in speaking spontaneously in a foreign language. You have to listen to and understand what’s being said, think about what you want to reply, and work out how to say it in the foreign language all in real time. Add to that the fact that you may feel slightly nervous about speaking in front of others, and the combination of difficulty and stress will lead you to make mistakes even with language that you really “know”.  You need to expect that your learners will make these sorts of mistakes with language, even if you feel they have “seen it a hundred times” and “should” know it. In fact they do – try asking them to correct their own mistake. They’ll be able to do so in a way that is impossible with a real “error” – inaccuracy caused by lack of knowledge or misunderstanding of the rule, as in group B


The errors in Group D are what might be called “teacher induced errors” . The way the teacher formulates the prompt leads the learner into the error. Think about this when you’re trying to elicit responses. In these three cases, the teacher could have avoided the problem by changing the prompt :


  1. T : Where does Nimthaki live?

S : She lives in Damana

T : Ok. Ask Neeja about Rangani.


  1. T : Do you read a lot?

S : Yes, I read a lot.



  1. Feedback for Spoken Activities



Think about it ....


  1. Why use the term Feedback and not Correction? What’s the difference?


  1. Imagine  you  are teaching the use of  Be + Ving for future arrangements and  are conducting or monitoring the following activities. The learners make the errors/mistakes indicated.  Would you give feedback? Why or why not? If yes, when and how?





2.  The students are in pairs doing a controlled practice information gap activity. The T. is monitoring and overhears a S. say : He’s go to Bamako next week.


3.  The students are in pairs doing a controlled practice information gap activity. The T. is monitoring and overhears several Ss. say : He’s go to Bamako next week.


4.  In a freer activity later in the class the T. hears a S. say : He’s go to Bamako next week


5.  In the same activity the teacher overhears : He’s going to Bamako for see a friend.


6.  In the same activity the teacher overhears : His friend lives in Bamako for many years. He’s a teacher.


7.  In the next lesson one of the students says, in front of the class : I’m not here next lesson. I go to Bamako.





Correction has a punitive sound – as if the teacher is waiting to criticise what is “wrong” with the learner’s performance. Feedback changes the emphasis. It no longer suggests negative evaluative, but  a) allows for positive comments about what the learners got right as well as what they got wrong, and b) implies that the information is given to improve performance, not just to criticise it. So how might feedback be given in the situations in (b) ?


Situations 1-3 take place during the part of the lesson where learners are focusing specifically on the new language, and are “trying it out” for the first time. Here accuracy is important. If there are errors at this stage, it suggests they haven’t fully understood the teacher’s presentation of the language, and it may need to be re-explained. If a lot of learners are making the same error, as in (3), then the teacher may want to stop the activity, and explain again. If it’s just one or two learners, then individual help can be given. For example, in (1) and (2) the teacher might repeat the correct form and ask the learner to try again – or ask another student to try and then come back to the student who made the original error.


The inaccuracy in (4) may be caused by what we referred to in the last section as the “communicative challenge” of the task.  As the mistake involves the target language, it needs to be dealt with – but not necessarily on the spot. The teacher may decide to wait and see whether s/he hears the learner using the form correctly later in the activity. If not, after the activity, the mistake can be written on the board along with several others (all anonymous, so as not to make anyone feel personally criticised) and the learners can be asked to correct them, with explanation being given if necessary.


(5) and (6) are slightly different, as they do not involve the target language for the lesson. However, there are also differences between them. (5) is something that the learners may already know, and is in any case a “small” and easily explainable error. It might therefore be worth focusing on it in the same way as for (4).  (6) on the other hand involves a large area of grammar which the learners have never met. To try and explain it at this point would only cause confusion – it should therefore be ignored. On the other hand, if previously you had been working on the use of the article with professions, you might choose to write up He is a teacher ü,  remind the learners of what they had worked on recently, and praise them for remembering.


(7) is different again. Here the learner is not taking part in a practice activity, but is genuinely trying to communicate with the teacher. Here overt correction would be inappropriate, but ignoring the mistake could confuse other learners who thought it was wrong but didn’t understand why the teacher didn’t react. You might therefore choose to respond authentically to what was said, but to include a reformulation of the mistake :


S : I’m not here next lesson. I go to Bamako.

T : Wow, how exciting. Listen everyone, Moussa is going to Bamako. Are you going for long, Moussa? Why are you going? 





Keep a teaching diary focusing on error for the next week. As you teach, note down some of the inaccuracies you overheard and how you dealt with them. Then later, review them. In retrospect, what do you think caused them? What would have been alternative ways of dealing with them? Are you happy with the way you chose, or would you do it differently another time?



4.  Feedback for written activities


Think about it...


When you look at a piece of written work, it’s often all too easy to see the weaknesses but to ignore the strengths. And we can all probably remember being demotivated by getting a piece of written work back covered in red pen marks. But that’s correction, not feedback. When you’re marking you need to give feedback on both strengths and weaknesses, and to mark the text in such a way that learners are not overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of errors, but can concentrate on improving a limited number of key areas.


Look at the following text, written by an elementary learner. She was asked to write a description of her family :


  1. What strengths can you identify in the text?
  2. And what weaknesses?
  3. How would you mark the text so as to bring these areas to the learner’s attention and help her improve them?



My family.

I have got one sister, many cousins and two nephews. I haven't  parents, uncles or aunt, all they dead.
My sister  is Linadi,  she's fifty four and she's teacher. My nephews are
Satow and Tahi;  Satow is doctor, hi's  twenty four.  Tahi is private
policeman,  hi's twenty nine.  Satow  have  got the  girl
freind,  her neme's  Chakori.  Satow lives in Baram,  the others live in
My more  important cousins are Nabitha and Sabral,  Nabitha lives in
Atra, she's sixty,  Sabrang lives in Nandi, she's fourty  four and she's 
secretary in a public  school.






a. Strengths


1. Task Achievement  : The learner gives a clear and easily comprehensible account of her family, including personal details of the type an elementary learner might be expected to be able to express – ie  their ages, professions and where they live. Although the text is brief a picture of “real people” emerges.


2. Organisation : The text is well organised. It is logically paragraphed and moves from the general to the specific :

Para 1 - a general overview of the family Para 2 – specific details of her sister and her family

Para 3 – specific details of her cousins.

This makes it easy to read and follow.


3. Lexical range : Good range of lexis in the fields of family relationships and of jobs. Where she does not know the exact term, she is able to use the language at her disposal to approximate – eg private policeman (presumably meaning security guard). This means she is able to communicate her ideas even though at a low level.


b. Weaknesses


1.Punctuation and spelling

- constant misuse of commas to divide main clauses rather than full stops or co-ordination with and.  Eg : Nabitha lives in Atra, she's sixty,  ... 

Also, one example of a misused semi-colon.

- systematic mis-spelling of he (as hi); mis-spelling of other elementary lexis – neme, freind, fourty.

These errors spoil the impact of a text which, given the level, is otherwise, well written.


2. Grammatical accuracy

- confusion over use of have as main verb (and cannot therefore form a question) and use of have got where have is the auxiliary (and therefore can) : I haven't  parents

- systematic lack of definite article before jobs : ... and she’s teacher

Again, these errors spoil the impact of a text which, given the level, is otherwise, well written.


c. Giving feedback


Notice here that there are actually more strengths (and important ones) than weaknesses. But that may not have been your first impression – things like effective organisation and task achievement are easy to overlook. However, it’s important that when giving feedback, the learner is credited for these. When discussing testing we talked about marking by criteria – the same might happen here. If this was the final version, the learner might be given a mark and comments like :


Task achievement : 5/5  - You  gave appropriate and interesting  information about your family.

Organisation : 5/5 – Tour text was well organised and logically paragraphed.

Vocabulary : 5/5 You used vocabulary related to the family and jobs effectively.

Grammar : 2/5. Some of your verbs were correct, but there were a lot of other grammatical mistakes. You need to improve this area.

Spelling, punctuation and capitalisation : 1/5 – Again, a lot of problems here and you need to work on this area.


Total : 18/25 



But is it necessary to give the mark at this point? Feedback implies helping the learner improve their work – not just evaluating it. The positive comments given tell the learner that s/he’s on the right track, but the negative ones aren’t really much help. However, if the mark is not given until the learner has had the chance to work on the problem areas and resubmit, the whole process becomes more useful. Here are some ideas about how this might be done.


  • If a lot of learners have the same problem – eg punctuation, organisation,  or the lack of articles before professions -the area might need to be retaught. After reteaching, the texts can then be given back to the learners who can be asked to check and correct their work before resubmitting.


  • For areas where some of the learners are strong and others weak, such as grammar, punctuation or spelling, the texts can be corrected using a code - eg Sp.x = spelling mistake; +Art. = article needed; VFx = wrong verb form; Px = wrong punctuation. Learners can then be grouped in weak/strong pairs and asked to correct the mistakes indicated in their two texts. The weaker learner will benefit from the help of the stronger, while the stronger student will improve his/her ability to proof-read and self-correct before submission. Obviously, errors made because they concern an area which has not yet been taught cannot be corrected in this way


  • If dictionaries are available, they can be distributed and learners can be asked to check and correct the spelling mistakes (again indicated by Sp.x) indicated in the text. Or they can do the same for grammar mistakes by checking with the grammar summaries in their textbook.



In this way, it is only when the texts have been improved and resubmitted that the final grades are given. But by this time the number of problems remaining should be minimal, and the emphasis throughout the process is placed on learning and not on evaluation.




Look again at the piece of writing that you analysed before, for types of errors. Now look at it from the point of view of major strengths and weaknesses. What feedback could you give the learner about his/her strengths? If you chose just one weakness to give feedback on, what would it be and why? How would you formulate the feedback so that you are not just “telling” the learners the correct answer, but are helping them to work on the problems actively and to discover the answers for themselves?


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