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Monday, March 30, 2009

Should all errors made by foreign language learners be corrected at any cost?

Should all errors made by foreign language learners be corrected at any cost?
(Overcorrection should be avoided at any cost)

Error correction may prove to be a difficult task to language teachers because it involves decision-making about what to correct, when to correct, how to correct and how much to correct. Several approaches to correcting student errors have been suggested. One of them holds that all errors made by learners should be corrected at any cost. On the surface, this approach seems to be of much benefit to students. However, a close examination will reveal that this approach to error correction will do students more harm than good.

The first reason that teachers will undermine students’ confidence if they correct student mistakes all the time. It is not difficult to realize the demotivating effect of this overcorrection. Perhaps there is nothing more disconcerting or intimidating to students than to be interrupted every time they make a mistake in oral practice. Distracted and discouraged in this way, they may forget what they intend to say or feel that they will never be able to say anything right. The damage that over written correction does to students is no less serious. Most students will feel a sense of failure or defeat when they see their piece of written work covered with red corrections and comments from the teacher. Only very few well-motivated students will not lose heart in this case. Thus the teacher’s over emphasis on accuracy at the expense of fluency or comprehensibility has a detrimental effect on students indeed. It goes against the principle of language teaching that part of the teacher’s job is to support and encourage students, not to discourage or demotivate them.

The second reason is that overcorrection fails to focus students on genuine errors. Apparently, teachers who tend to overcorrect think that all incorrect forms produced by learners are dangerous and need to be fixed. However, their indiscriminate treatment of student errors may backfire because students may not understand what is worth correcting. There are many kinds of errors or mistakes and if all the errors or mistakes are picked up and dealt with, students will assume that they are of equal importance. In reality, some of the inaccuracies produced by learners are just unfortunate mistakes resulting from mere confusion, from lapses of memory, from slips of the tongue or the pen, etc. Given time and help or guidance form the teacher and friends, learners can remedy these mistakes themselves. In contrast, genuine errors reflect students’ lack of knowledge about the target language. For example, they do not know what the correct form or word should be or they believe that what they are saying or writing is correct. In other words, these errors are clear indications of problem areas to students and as such they should be addressed immediately if teachers do not want them to persist and hinder learning in the long run.

The last and also the most important reason is that teachers who are in favor of constant error correction fail to realize that mistakes are a natural and important part of learning. If teachers insist on putting right anything incorrect in students’ oral and written communication, they will over time reinforce the false belief that mistakes of any type are something to be feared and should be avoided at any cost. However, in so doing, they ignore a very basic fact that even native speakers, those who are supposed to have a good, if not perfect, command of the language, make mistakes all the time. The main reason is that communication, oral or written, is a complex activity. To process the language people have to simultaneously make use of several language systems such as syntax, lexis, phonology. They also need to draw on their communicative competence to use the language appropriately. It is understandable why any instance of using the target language is quite challenging to learners. It is therefore quite unrealistic to ask learners’ speech or written work to be faultless. So teachers have to be open to the fact that mistakes made by learners are natural and inevitable. What is more important, not all mistakes are regrettable and should be condemned; they have a role to play too. As an expert in language teaching puts it, mistakes are sometimes “healthy proof that learning is taking place”. It may sound strange but it is true. A telling example can be found when students are adventurous enough to experiment with the structure or the word or the sound they have just learned instead of sticking to the safe old one. In this case the students’ brave attempt should be encouraged rather than thwarted.

In summary, error correction is an area in which teachers can offer direct service to students. However, they will do their students a grave disservice if they insist on overcorrection. The implication for foreign language teaching is that remedial work done by the teacher should highlight important mistakes to encourage students to use the correct form to improve their performance. Moreover, teachers should be sensitive enough to tolerate some errors, especially those that are evidence of learning taking place. Such an attitude to errors on the part of the teacher will have positive effects on students the most important of which is to boost their confidence and overcome their fear of making mistakes.

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