Understanding Language Errors and Giving Helpful Feedback


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Correcting errors in a way that is helpful for learners is always a difficult job for teachers. Sometimes, we are not sure that our learners learn from these corrections either, which makes it seem like our efforts are fruitless. Moreover, it may at times seem like that there is no appropriate or systematic way to target errors, as our learners are constantly changing and developing. In light of an expressions-based approach (here), I would like to re-examine different ways we can look at errors, and offer different ways to perform error correction. In this article, I will mostly be talking from a teaching of writing perspective, but this discussion can be applied to speaking as well.


What is an Error?

The Expressive Error

An expressive error is when a speaker expresses an idea in an inappropriate way. Inappropriate here means that it is not an acceptable way in a certain context to certain people. That is, errors are based on convention. This may seem like a long-winded definition, but it is still important because nothing in-and-of-itself is an error; people decide. Indeed, I try to get away from saying error or mistake and call them inappropriate instead, but in the classroom, such nuance usually does not serve much of a purpose because learners understand terminology like ‘mistakes’ and ‘errors’.

(Actually, I believe it does once learners become more aware of language, but that is a topic for another day.)


Now, let’s look at an example to illustrate:

1) I want a massage from you as soon as possible.


Are there any errors in this utterance? Most people would answer no here. As I have said in previous articles, though, we have to consider the ideas that learners want to express as the basis of all our decision making, including when we correct errors.  That is, we have to be in a position to best understand what the learner is trying to say. As this is one sentence, out-of-context, we simply cannot tell if there are errors or not.


Take a look at this example:


2) Please tell me as soon as you finish the work. I need to know right away! You can contact me by phone if you want. In any case, I want a massage from you as soon as possible.


Context does wonders, doesn’t it? Now, can you tell me if there are errors in this utterances? Yes, massage is inappropriate. The learner probably wanted to say message. But, perhaps they thought that massage was the correct way to express it. Thus, this learner is using an inappropriate expression to express his idea. Error!


No Real Difference Between Vocabulary vs. Grammatical Errors

If you have read my other articles, you have probably witnessed me trying to make a case that there is no real difference between vocabulary and grammar (even though I admit, there are some convincing arguments in Cognitive Linguistics). But in essence, all language forms are used to express an idea, whether they have been traditionally considered to be ‘vocabulary’ or ‘grammar’. Thus, in terms of errors, all so-called ‘grammatical’ errors are basically the same as a ‘vocabulary’ error.


Consider now the following examples:

1) I have seen Batman v. Superman.

2) I saw Batman v. Superman.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Batman v. Superman’ is a title of a movie.

Now, mistakes can exist in either of those utterances, depending on the idea the learner is trying to express. If the learner is trying to emphasize the idea of when an event took place, then sentence #2 would be more appropriate. If the learner was trying to emphasize his experience, then sentence #1 would be more appropriate.

If the learner is trying to express the idea of something he has experienced and chooses #2, he has chosen the wrong form to express the idea. Essentially, this is exactly the same type of error with the learner who uses ‘massage’ to express the idea behind ‘message’– they are both choosing an inappropriate form to express an idea.

Of course, why they chose the inappropriate form is another story, but I think it is important to first recognize that all errors are fundamentally an inappropriate choice for a certain idea in a certain context.

By positing ideas as primary, we can help learners really figure out which forms to choose more easily. If they have trouble with a certain expression, whether it be grammatical or vocabulary, try to understand the idea that expression is conveying, and work with the learner to help them choose it naturally.


Syntactic Errors – Another type?

There are, however, different types of errors, but, as I have argued above, there is no reason to classify them between vocabulary (words) and grammar. Basically, I have divided these types into two main categories:

  1. An expressive error: choosing the wrong formulation to express an idea. (massage vs. message)
  2. Syntax: putting an idea in the wrong place when we express it. (I yesterday went to the mall vs. I went to the mall yesterday.)

To be honest, I cannot really say these two are mutually exclusive though, because certain ways to express an idea involve the manipulation of syntax. What are traditionally known as phrasal verbs, for example, might fit into this category. However, the premise remains: there is an idea that a learner wants to express and this idea may be expressed by a phrasal verb. Learners still have to choose the right formulation, just like when they want to express an idea that may be expressed by a single word. It may just be harder to formulate certain expressions compared to others.

Now, let us move on to actual error treatment.


Error Treatment

The Principle: Ideas Are Primary

If we are concerned with how learners express ideas when looking for errors, we are no longer just looking for misspelled words, or preposition errors, or what not. We have to always keep in mind that we are looking for ideas that are inappropriately expressed. Of course, right? But, it is easy to forget this, and go through a paper, mark some article errors, circle some spelling mistakes, cross things out, and write alternatives. Or if you give them feedback by summarizing, you write things like, “Work on your articles,” or, “You misuse certain prepositions a lot.” And, even after four weeks of constant correction, they still are not improving their ‘article’ problems! Or, so it seems…

Instead of focusing on these ‘smaller parts’ of language then, focus on where the idea is located and expressed, and try to bring this to the learner’s attention. Let’s take a look at the following excerpt. This one is from of my learners (thank you for your permission!):


The first striking problem caused by overpopulation is lack of available schools. Supplying not enough teachers and schools establishes a situation to decrease the learning capacity if students. Lower capability to learn may take a job away from them and induce to be a robbery to survive from a hard society. Thus, overpopulation can be a social issue.


Of course, we can see there are errors here because we understand the context, and to a certain extent, understand what ideas the learner is trying to express. Now, here is a version where I just simply correct it for him in an explicit manner.


The first striking problem caused by overpopulation is  a lack of available schools. Supplying not  Not supplying enough teachers and schools establishes a situation to  that decreases the learning capacity if of students. Lower capability to learn may take a job  jobs away from them and induce cause them to be a robbery robber to survive from in the society. Thus, overpopulation can be a social issue.


After, perhaps he learns, or perhaps he doesn’t. If he can map the correct forms to the correct ideas, he does. Why not help him? If we find the idea behind each error, and find a way for him to focus on it, he can save these expressions and learn from them.


The first striking problem caused by overpopulation is  a lack of available schools. Supplying not  Not supplying enough teachers and schools establishes a situation to  that decreases the learning capacity if of students. Lower capability to learn may take a job  jobs away from them and induce cause them to be a robbery robber to survive from in the society. Thus, overpopulation can be a social issue.


Here is what I want you to notice — I do not simply just put an article and tell him that he has an article problem. In fact, I don’t even believe that the article missing in the expression ‘a lack of X’ is an article problem at all.  Rather, he was missing part of the expression that was conveying a particular idea.  Now, they can save a lack of X as an expression and learn to use it next time.

Will all his article problems disappear? Of course not — there are many expressions that have articles. But, he will be able to express this idea correctly in the future if he learns it. In essence, learners fix how they say individual ideas. And overtime, through practice and usage, they will be able to express more ideas appropriately.

This type of approach is very useful for articles, prepositions, and other ‘small parts’ of language.  In fact, I believe articles are very easy. The articles that are used to indicate something specific or non-specific are actually fairly easy to learn, but may take some practice. The ones that learners usually have trouble with exist within expressions. This is especially true of the zero article, because these are almost always purely expressions. Take for example the mistake above with the expression society.  Other expressions like these are lovehate, and the government. See this article for a comparison of these types of ideas across different languages.

Now, of course, I can’t underline everything; not all ideas are multi-word expressions, and not all ideas are so easy to underline. For example, there are agreement issues, which are basically expressive errors (incorrect formulation). You can still point these out, though. With ones I do not underline, I might take time to explain why I change them, with the goal of explaining the idea behind the errors. For example, I corrected a job to jobs because we use plural forms to express generalizations. Or, I can say that a robber is a person and robbery is the action.  However, again, idea is primary.


Approaches to Consider

1. Implicit or Explicit?

Implicit error treatment is largely considered to be when the teacher points out an error and leaves the learner to correct it. How do you make this choice? This is where your understanding of the learners come in. If they are more apt to notice errors and learn better with implicit correction and trying to correct it themselves, then an implicit approach is a great way.

Personally, as a language learner, I hate implicit approaches to corrections because I just end up wasting time searching for things or guessing, even though the teacher could have just been nice and told me how to formulate an idea correctly. I just want to know the right answer, so I know how to express an idea right away. Then, I can take note of it, practice it, and move on. Here, I know myself as a learner.

However, for my learners, I do tend to go from more explicit approaches to implicit approaches. In the beginning, I use the explicit approaches to train them to find expressions. As a course goes on, I use implicit approaches because they do not pay attention to my feedback otherwise. However, this to me is more of an attention issue.

What is important, though, is that they understand they are trying to find correct ways to express ideas. In the beginning, I explicitly correct it for them. I might take time to highlight the expressions for them, and might even write down ones I think are useful at the end of a document so that they have notes of it. As time moves on, I slowly transfer this responsibility to them. By the end of our time together, I find myself just pointing out the mistakes so they can figure it out themselves.


2. Correct everything or correct partially?

Again, this is another situation where I prefer something different than what I actually do in class, because I have different results in class. As a learner, I prefer that everything is corrected. There are a few reasons for this. First, if it is not corrected, then in my mind, I register it as a correct expression.  Second, I like taking all the corrections, writing them down appropriately after finding the ideas I want to express, and rehearsing them.

In class though, I do not correct everything. First, it is very time consuming as a teacher, and realistically, you only have so much time. Second, learners do not seem to absorb everything. On the surface, it might seem that they are correcting what you are doing if you are making them write a second draft, for example. But, if they themselves are not concentrating on what they want to express and start mindlessly ‘fixing their grammar’, then perhaps I am offering too many corrections. Rather, I try to focus and highlight common errors, or ones that really obstruct their messages, helping them use well-formed expressions.  I then offer a comment telling them to focus on these. As time passes, what common errors occur and what obstructs their messages change, and the total number of these decrease.

Again, an understanding of how your learners operate, and how much they can notice is vital here.


What are some creative ways you deal with errors? Tell us by leaving a comment below.


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