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Part I: Correction Strategies
Imagine this scenario: Your lesson today is on daily routines using simple present tense. You explain how the verbs are conjugated and give numerous examples. You have students read a story about one person’s weekly schedule. To check comprehension of the story, you ask, “What time does John get up?” Your student responds, “He get up at 8:00,” leaving the –s off the verb. What do you do?
Errors are a natural part of language learning. They show us where learners are in their language development. Learners can make errors for many reasons. Perhaps they haven’t been taught, or acquired, a particular language form yet. Maybe learners have learned the form, but make errors due to anxiety. Or they could just be so excited to share their ideas that they don’t pay attention to their language.
These moments when learners produce errors are an opportunity for teachers to provide them with corrective feedback. Providing appropriate feedback, though, can be difficult. We have to analyze the kind of error that was made, make a decision whether or not to address the error, and if so, determine which corrective feedback strategy to use—all in a few seconds! In this post, and the next, I will cover a range of corrective feedback strategies and the different factors to consider when deciding which strategy to use.
Continuum of Corrective Feedback Strategies
Corrective feedback can be defined as any time a teacher, or more proficient speaker, indicates in some way to a learner that there is an error in their speech or writing. Corrective feedback has a vital role in the second language acquisition process. Learners receive language input from teachers, from textbooks, from the media and other sources, about what the target language looks and sounds like. In other words, this input shows learners what is possible in a language. However, when learners are struggling to express their own ideas, they also need feedback on what is not possible in a language. With corrective feedback, learners can notice forms more easily, compare their language production with the target language, and see how their production is the same, or different, from the target.
As I noted, there is a wide range of feedback strategies that a teacher might use. What you see below is a continuum that runs from direct corrective feedback strategies on the left to indirect strategies on the right. With the direct corrective feedback strategies, you provide more information to the learner about the location of their error, the nature of the error, and the correct form to use. As you move along the continuum towards the indirect strategies, you provide less information to the learner and, instead, allow them to think about what they said or wrote, and how they could correct the error themselves.
Let’s review the corrective feedback strategies, starting with the direct strategies.
Explicit correction involves telling the learner there is an error and providing the correct form. For example, if a learner says, “I eated a cookie,” you might respond, “We can’t say ‘eated.’ We say ‘ate’. I ate a cookie.”
Another option is to give the learner a choice between two statements. One of the choices is what the learner said, and the other choice is the correct form. So again, if our learner said, “I eated a cookie,” you would say, “Eated or ate? You eated a cookie? Or you ate a cookie?” Most learners will realize that the second option is the correct one!
Moving along on the continuum, metalinguistic feedback means giving the learner a clue, some explanation about the error, but without actually telling them the correct form. This explanation may employ grammar terms or concepts that your learner has been studying. For instance, if your learner says, “I ate too much cookies,” metalinguistic feedback would be responding with something like, “Cookies are count nouns. We use ‘much’ with noncount nouns. What do we use with count nouns? What would we say for cookies?” This allows the learner to think back on that lesson, to remember count and noncount nouns, and to self-correct. If they don’t self-correct, then you will need to use one of the direct strategies like offering a choice or providing explicit correction. Metalinguistic feedback is more suitable for older children, teenagers, or adults who are familiar with grammar terms.
The next set of strategies, elicitation strategies, are used to prompt the learner to self-correct. These are divided into two columns. The column on the left lists strategies that highlight the location of the error for the learner. The learner knows where they made the error, and they can self-correct from there. For example, the teacher may use visual cues to show the location or kind of error to the learner. If the error was made in writing, the teacher can physically point to the error. If it is a spoken error, the teacher may hold up their hand and use their fingers to indicate the location of the error, repeating the sentence with one word per finger, as in the picture below.
Here, the teacher would emphasize the word “much” and the ring finger, as this is where the error is located.
Another way to indicate to the learner that they’ve made an error and its location, is to repeat what they’ve said, stopping right before the error, as in “I ate too . . .?”, prompting the learner to fill in the blank. Using a rising intonation and a questioning look on your face helps, too!
The elicitation techniques in the right column are more indirect in that they only tell the learner that an error exists. One way to do this is by saying “That’s not quite right” or “Try again.” Another way is to repeat what the learner has said using rising intonation to show that you are questioning what the learner has said. Both strategies prompt the learner to rethink what they have said and to self-correct.
You can also indicate that an error exists by using hand signals like “time out” or pointing to your head as if you were thinking. Of course, learners need to understand that this signal means they’ve made an error. Initially, you might want to pair the signal with a more explicit form of corrective feedback, or tell learners that you are going to use a particular signal and what the signal means. It’s also important to use the signal consistently so that learners are familiar with it and know how to react when they see it.
As we progress towards the indirect end of our continuum, another common corrective feedback strategy is the use of recasts. A recast is when the teacher repeats all or part of the learner’s utterance but models the correct form. With recasts the teacher does not necessarily emphasize or highlight the form; rather, they use the form in a natural way as part of the conversation. Again, if our learner says, “I ate too much cookies,” the teacher might recast with “You ate too many cookies! How many did you eat?”
In studies on corrective feedback, recasts are one of the most commonly used forms because they do occur so naturally. Even in communication outside of the classroom, proficient speakers provide recasts for language learners. An issue with recasts, though, is that learners don’t always notice them. They may think you are responding to the content of their message and not realize you are modeling the correct language for them.
A final form of corrective feedback on the indirect end of our continuum is the clarification request. Learners will also encounter these in real-life conversations. “What did you say?” and “Can you repeat that?” are examples of clarification requests. When these requests are made, learners will be prompted to modify their speech to make themselves understood.
Teachers frequently use a combination of corrective feedback strategies to treat one error. We may start out with an indirect strategy, and if the learner doesn’t self-correct, we may move on to a more direct strategy. In my next post, I will elaborate on factors that influence a teacher’s choice of corrective feedback strategy in different scenarios.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our blogs on Top Strategies for Positive Corrective Feedback: Part 2 and Supplementary Tools
This Teaching Essentials Blog Series looks at some tools-of-the-trade for online ESL instruction. In it, we explore a few key concepts and dive into what makes them indispensable to our teachers.
Dr. Nikki Ashcraft has worked in the field of teaching English to speakers of other languages for over 25 years. She has taught ESL, EFL, EAP, ESP, and every other acronym! She has taught English and trained teachers in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Check out her book, Lesson Planning (2014), published by TESOL Press.