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Mistakes, Correction and Remedial work

Created on: 21-May-2009 14:37 by Nick Dawson - Last Modified:  31-Mar-2010 16:24 by fba

Mistakes, Correction and Remedial work

Introduction: the Teacher’s Role

Many teachers, past and present, have seen their main classroom function as being an identifier and corrector of errors. Indeed, the whole process of teaching was seen as being the gradual elimination of student error.

Today, attitudes are different. As the main language informant in the classroom, teachers see their role in identifying errors and enabling students to make their own corrections.

Changing attitudes to Mistakes

Mistakes and Correction, the superb book by Julian Edge, published by Longman and now, sadly, out of print, reflected a dramatic alteration in teachers’ attitudes to mistakes and the process of correction.

If Julian had been writing his book 100 years ago, he might have called his book Crime and Punishment. At that time, student errors were crimes, seen as:

o       a failure to produce correct language

o       evidence that the student was not ‘paying attention’ when the correct form was taught – and therefore evidence that the student did not respect the authority of the teacher

o       evidence that the student was not concentrating during the language production process – proving that the student is careless and therefore not a good learner (or a good person).

100 years ago, the teacher’s response to this crime was to

o       punish the student with harsh words, physical violence, denial of breaktime, and often a sentence of 100 lines to be written out.

o       humiliate the student, in front of the class, as both a further punishment and as a warning to other students that they should not make the same mistake.

Although these practises must now seem very old-fashioned, some of our underlying attitudes to students’ errors may have been retained.

From Crime and Punishment to Mistakes and Correction

By the middle of the last century attitudes had changed in both the school classroom and general society. In society, Crimes had become less criminal and were being seen as societal failures. Punishment was less penal and more concerned with reforming, helping and re-educating criminals.

In the classroom, student errors were seen as a student’s failure to understand (possibly due to insufficient or inappropriate teaching). Newer correction techniques were not focussed on punishment but on re-education.

Newer attitudes to correction included some new ideas:

o       focus on the language error, not on the student who made it.

o       students learn nothing from public humiliation, in fact they become de-motivated.

o       mistakes are potential learning steps – students who don’t make mistakes, don’t make those learning steps and don’t develop

o       correction should be elicited from the student who made the error, or another student in the class, rather than being given by the teacher. Mistakes are learning steps for the students. If the teacher supplies the answers, the students don’t do any work, don’t think and don’t learn.

o       after the correct form has been found, it is reinforced by writing notes and/or oral repetition.

Progress Aims

Our teaching aims are defined in terms of individual progress. We are not so concerned with class progress. Our aim is that Adam and Sylvia are better now than they were two weeks ago. The motto which we teach and repeat with our students is:

Every day,

In every way,

I’m getting

Better and Better!


Julian Edge shows two types of error: language mistakes and communication mistakes

Peter:  How long are you here for?

Ali:      Four months.

Peter:  What! You are already here since four months?

Ali:      No, no, I am come yesterday.

Peter: Oh yesterday.

Ali:      No, no, last week. I mean, I came last week.

In the dialogue above, the most serious error is Peter’s first question How long are you here for?

What he really meant to ask was “How long have you been here?”

His use of the wrong question form led to the communication breakdown which follows. It is interesting that his error, is actually linguistically correct – the trouble is, it does not mean what he intended to mean.

Julian Edge described three types of mistake:

  • a slip, which is just a minor mistake from poor concentration.
  • an error, which is when a student has not understood or learned something which has been taught.
  • an attempt, which is when a student tries to communicate an idea which is beyond the limits of the language which has been studied at that stage.

As Julian pointed out,

Slips are unavoidable and usually do not matter very much except in exams.

Errors are important because more teaching, or remedial teaching is required.

Attempts are very welcome because they show the students are trying to stretch their communicative ability.

Remedial work

Who needs remedial work? Everyone!

Everyone needs remedial work, failing students, to help with their learning problems, successful students, to maximise their potential.

Remedial work is not punishment

Students should never get the impression that remedial work is punishment for ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ students.

How to organise remedial work

Make remedial work a student responsibility. Try to make the whole class as good as the best student.

1.       Individualised homework (to deal with personal or group problems)

2.       Student>student teaching (to deal with personal or group problems)

Whole class remedial work

In the famous words of Confucius, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. What Confucius failed to mention was “I try to teach someone else and I understand even better.” 

Peer-to-peer teaching is very effective, helping both the teacher and the learner. And students often learn better from someone their own age who speaks their language, than from an adult teacher. 

1.       Grammar days: students, in groups, prepare ‘presentations’ on grammatical areas, with quizzes, games, songs pictures and written exercises.

2.       Skills: Study skills training organised by students giving presentations and eliciting ideas from the whole class.

Accuracy Training

1.       Set up editing pairs – students who check each other’s work.

2.       Set up editing groups – who check shared writing or speaking texts produced by other groups.


Mistakes are a natural part of learning and something which teachers should celebrate because

  • mistakes indicate that students are stretching their communicative skills.
  • mistakes are learning steps towards greater mastery
  • mistakes are opportunities to learn something new.

Remedial work is similarly a natural part of learning. Remedial work can be a communal experience exploiting peer-to-peer teaching.

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