Error Correction – Different Shades of Red, Yellow, Blue and Green

Error correction may be extremely strenuous for both learners and teachers if it is not dealt with caution. Some people tend to downgrade it whilst others find it a necessary condition for language acquisition on the grounds that grammatical and lexical competences can increase the rate at which learners develop.

Corder (1967) found out that language learners produced errors that were both systematic and creative in nature. He mentions systematic errors (more evident in ESL/EFL learning) and nonsystematic errors (more evident in one’s native language).

Attempts are caused by a genuine lack of knowledge. Learners try to communicate through the language they either lack in or is new to them. Mistakes are inaccuracies caused by the learners’ not activating what they have been exposed to. Correction may happen yet via some sort of guidance. Errors are repetitive imperfections which refuse to go away even though attention has been drawn to and correction has taken place oftentimes. To that matter, they seem more significant as they occur on the grammatical, lexical and phonological fronts and should be a target of analysis and improvement. Slips, in turn, will occur in either processes, be it native or nonnative learning and most flaws stem from distraction, physical and emotional distress. These ones are entitled to self-correction. Variations are not treated as errors by some linguistics as they may vary in terms of structures, spelling, lexis and pronunciation and still get the intended meaning. British English will differ from American when it comes to spelling. American English will differ from Australian when one considers pronunciation. It is fair to say, then, it is not wrong to use one particular American lexical item putting on an Australian accent.

That said, it is my belief that errors are significant in a number of ways, but fundamentally to: a) the teacher, as they show a student’s progress as well as the strategies used to that end; b) to the learner, as they can be more analytical and judgmental of their competence and, eventually, learn from their own imperfections.

My experience has shown me that the response to errors will fundamentally depend on what level of communication breakdown they constitute. A new feature acquired by a learner will require new adjustments and treatments. When providing feedback, one should bear in mind the aim an activity has. Being it either accuracy or fluency oriented the corrective feedback may take place on the spot or delayed. Evidently, under no circumstances must overcorrection interfere in the learning process.

Oral activities might be more demanding on the teacher since they require constant monitoring and, above all, listening to learners. In my view, pronunciation should technically be corrected on the stop to avoid dragging the communication down. There are instances, though, it is wise to wait and later draw attention to whatever has cropped up in the task.

As for Writing, in a perfect world, we would like our students to take their marked compositions home and carefully scour the correction. Unfortunately, most students only check to see how much “red” is on the paper and then file it away. As a solution, a colour-correction code we use at CISJDR has proved to be an aid to learning; that is, when marking our learners’ written
work we have standardised the following colour scheme: red (communication breakdown), yellow (attention needed), blue (item provided) and green (good to go). Not only does it focus on what needs attention but on what is working fine.

The sentence ‘’I live in SJDR since 2010’’ will require different treatments according to the level: an attempt (at A2), a mistake (at B1), a slip (occasionally produced at B2) and an error (systematically produced at C1). Hence, language imperfections need to be flagged, provided and penalized, e.g.: an attempt by A2-student (provided) will be yellow to a B1-student (flagged) but red to a C2-student (penalised).

I have been marking papers online for some time now and this game-like toing and froing has proved to be a lot more effective than the paper versions for a number of reasons:

a) It provides technical training – tools for self-correction
b) correction is faster, generating fast response
c) it is thought-provoking – critical thinking
d) it allows room for proof-reading/editing
e) learners capitalize on peer analysis, criticism, modelling and learning
f) it reduces the amount of paper teachers carry around
g) writing tasks can be stored and revisited
h) ‘our careful written’ corrections do not get wasted.

As I see it, error correction is a powerful tool for bringing up the best in language analysis but motivation is also at risk, if the feedback rules are too stringent. Feedback should be sensitive, efficient and effective to help learners get past interlanguage or the plateau level they get stuck to. It is vitally important to define the communicative dimensions (fluency and accuracy) involving the teaching-learning process. Identifying such dimensions will generate a clear cut idea to correct the imperfections without curbing learners´ motivation levels.


Baxter, A. Evaluating Your Students. Richmond Publishing, 1997

Corder, S. P. The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 5, 160-170, 1967

Hall, N., Shepheard, J. The Anti-grammar Grammar Book – A Teacher’s Resource Book of discovery activities for grammar teaching. Longman, 1993

Roy Lyster, Kazuya Saito and Masatoshi Sato (2013). Oral corrective feedback in second language classrooms. Language Teaching, 46, pp 1-40 doi: 10.1017/S0261444812000365

Seligson, P. Helping Students To Speak. Richmond Publishing, 1997

Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. /

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