TEFL Correction techniques: a grey area

One of the greatest dilemmas facing the English as a Foreign Language teacher today is when, how and what to correct in terms of errors or mistakes made by their students (?Correcting Students,? 1). It is an area of teaching theory that lacks a specific principle. There are no hard and fast rules about correction techniques in EFL; the approach taken will differ according to the situation. However, there are some general, agreed upon principles that describe the dynamics that occur within the sphere of correction.

As correction techniques are a grey area, let?s look at what?s at the black and white ends of the spectrum in reference to how often one should correct a student. For example, the ?black? extreme might be to focus only on accuracy, and correct everything a student utters. The ?white? extreme, on the other hand, would be to focus solely on fluency and correct nothing. While some may take one of these extreme stances, most educators would opine that falling somewhere in the grey area is the most useful philosophy, but exactly where will depend on the teaching situation. A teaching situation will be made up of a number of variables. First, the teaching methodology used may take a specific approach to correction: more or less often, in a certain way, or only for certain types of mistakes or errors, and this may change within the lesson itself. The next variable would be the level of the students being taught. If it were a class of beginners, one would correct differently than if it were a class of more advanced students. One of the most nebulous variables is each student?s individual personality and method of learning. A student with a high level of confidence, a risk-taker and an auditory leaner should be treated worlds differently than one who learns visually and passively, and who would rather not offer up their thoughts. If not corrected in the appropriate manner, the teacher risks damaging the student?s confidence (Simon Mumford and Steve Darn, 1). As one can infer, teaching situations can differ markedly. We shall use the ESA (Engage, Study, Activate) methodology of teaching to illustrate the depth of these variables. ESA correction techniques vary according to the stage of the lesson. During the Engage stage, correction is avoided, as the focus is solely on fluency. The Study phase, however, pinpoints accuracy, and corrections are made for all mistakes and errors. While in the Activate stage, corrections are only made for mistakes or errors that directly affect comprehension or deal with the targeted teaching point. Another dynamic of ESA teaching is that correction techniques are used within a hierarchy: self-correction is held above peer-correction, and peer-correction is used before teacher correction. This philosophy holds self-correction as the most effective method, since it results in student uptake. Students are less likely to repeat a mistake or error later on if they have self- corrected with uptake the first time. It?s as if the path to the correct formation has been forged in the learner?s mind, and simply must be taken again the next time. The opposite of self-correction is teacher-correction, or a recast. Roy Lyster, a professor at McGill University is of the opinion that "Recasts effectively provide students with correct models but do not push them in their output. If there is uptake after a recast-and this happens after only 18 percent of the recasts-the uptake can only be a learner?s repetition of the teacher?s recast.? (Roy Lyster, 3) Between a recast and self-correction lies peer-correction, which may not be as effective as self-correction, but is inherently better than a recast because at least other students have considered the error and have possibly experienced uptake.

As we can see, correction techniques in the EFL field are not outlined by any one specific principle; they are dependent on the teaching situation. That being said, a teacher should take from the general tenets of correction theory some guidelines for developing a correction philosophy that works for them. Teachers of EFL should be adaptable to any of the possible teaching situations, and should know what techniques to use in each one.

Author: Susan Muller

Date of post: 2007-01-08