Does error correction help?

One change I implemented after the enriching and rejuvenating ACTFL 2016 conference was to eliminate ORAL error correction from my teacher behaviors.   Over 12 years ago, I abandoned a grammar-focused, textbook driven French curriculum in favor of one rich in comprehensible input. The evidence documented by rigorous research and first-person testimonies at the time convinced me to make the switch.

That redirection significantly improved my results.  Receiving rich comprehensible input (CI), student proficiency shot up and produced more satisfaction for THEM!  They started speaking without inhibition once they had acquired enough language through focused listening. Research shows that a language system develops slowly in one’s brain, fed from the input that one understands.  The L2 (2nd language) that emerges reflects the language system forming in the brain.

Producing oral language IS risky. And we want it to come forth naturally, not under compulsion. Think about the speech that spontaneously spills out of a small child as she or he grows up with mom and dad.

In Boston, Doctors Van Patten and Krashen gave the first seminar I attended after the keynote. Both are researchers in Second Language Acquisition.  Bill Van Patten also teaches Spanish at the University of Michigan.  Somewhere in their talks, one or both mentioned the harmful effect on a student when a teacher corrects what they are saying.

Why do Second Language (L2) teachers do this?  It’s a natural reflex.  In fact, I have to stifle my desire around adults who converse about the merits of a classroom with ‘less students’.  I want to shout, ‘FEWER students’!

Leaving this negative reaction aside, are there any documented positive effects on future speech when a teacher responds with a correction?

None, according to research!  Furthermore, when a student communicates a message in spoken L2, he or she wants the teacher and/or class to KNOW something.  When I correct the student’s French not only have I interrupted his message delivery, which is rude in any other environment, I also am broadcasting the message:

  •  “Speaking French in Madame Cochrane’s classroom is risky!  She’ll point out my errors in front of my peers and I’ll look dumb!”

“But how else are students going to learn?” you might object.

It won’t be through error correction.  The only remedy is to pour on rich, meaningful and comprehensible input that is communicative.

Since the November conference, I have succeeded in catching myself MOST of the time, just before I correct a student’s spoken message.  It’s a habit worth breaking, for sure.   And yesterday while waiting for an appointment I started a new chapter in a textbook on SLA (Second Language Acquisition).  The topic was ‘output’.

For further professional development, I’m currently working my way through Dr. Bill Van Patten’s textbook, From Input to Output.  While discussing the research on output, Van Patten shared a more effective way to deal with errors:


He reproduced a snippet of conversation between two friends, a native speaker and an English-language learner.

Native Speaker: Where’s Bob?

Learner: He on vacation

NS:  He‘s on vacation?

Learner: Yes, he‘s on vacation.

Because no new information occupied the L2 learner’s mind, his brain cells were available to notice the native speaker’s difference in his reply.  But did you see that the native speaker did not explicitly ‘correct’ his friend?  He communicated via correct input, confirming that he understood the message. In essence, if we want to refine/improve a student’s output, the only effective means is through INPUT!

Even though this is my 25th year teaching French and German, I feel I have a lot to refine.  I’m grateful to my school for investing resources in sending eight L2 teachers to attend the Boston conference.  I enjoy working on my craft – the art of teaching a second language.


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