Error Treatment: Not Straightforward Shock!

This is a thorny issue for many of us and will be part of an INSET I’m giving this weekend.

We all have our favourite error treatments/corrections (I’m going to stick to treatment seeing as there’s no guarantee it will stick, no matter what technique one uses).

There was a post by Gianfranco Conti titled 6 Useless Things Language Teachers Do. It was criticized by Geoff Jordan for laying claim to being research based but ignoring quite a bit of research.

I am not an expert but a cursory bit of reading (see below) and a webinar with Scott Thornbury lead me to the probably flawed theory that:

Types of language teaching context  and activity can be put on a spectrum going from Linguistic to Content. Grammar translation and  rule-based teaching would be at the Linguistic side of this spectrum; immersion and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) would be at the Content side. Task-Based Teaching would be toward the Content side when the focus is communication, and moving closer to the Linguistic side during Focus on Form activities.

Non-intrusive linguistic error treatment is less likely to be noticed, the closer one gets to the Content side, (as with Lyster & Ranta [1997]) and more likely on the Linguistic side.

Multimodal (i.e. not just spoken) forms of non-intrusive error treatment may be more likely taken up, e.g. spoken recasts supported by a written recast on a slip of paper.

There is also the research pointing to acquisition sequences that are impervious to teaching. So, if learners aren’t taking on correction after a few goes, you might leave it. It might need more time to process than you have until the end of the lesson or your learner just might not be ready for it at their current language development stage.

So, what should we do?

Think about your learners. I don’t know them, you do. Are they resistant to correction? You might do some work with them on the errors they are almost right with because low-hanging fruit might lead them to more motivation to solve other errors. Are they going to get annoyed if you interrupt and cue self-correction all the time? Then perhaps you recast (or not) and then work on the error in the next stage of the lesson. Are they going to think you’re confirming meaning? Maybe try a different way of correction.

At the end of the day we all have anxieties about whether we’re doing the best thing. I think as long as we’re trying to pay attention to what we’re doing, have good reasons for doing it then good is good enough.

If you disagree or have more to add, I’d love to hear it.


Lyster, R., & Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 37-66.

Further Reading

Allwright, D. & Bailey, K. (1991) Focus on the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.

Long, M. H. (2007) Problems in SLA. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lai, C and Zhao, Y. (2006) Noticing and Text-Based Chat. Language Learning & Technology. Vol.10, No.3, September 2006, pp. 102-120

11 thoughts on “Error Treatment: Not Straightforward Shock!

  1. First off, “Think about your learners. I don’t know them, you do.” <– this was very, very refreshing to read.

    Thanks for this post. I've been thinking about error treatment/correction/feedback whatever a lot recently. I read the back and forth between Mackey and Lyster ("The case against the cast against recasts", etc.) with interest, and like you, I don't want to cast off any technique out of hand (a la Conti)..

    In an upcoming presentation my colleague and I suggest, among other things, building a 'partnership' with your learners to 'tailor' your error correction approach to your own classroom. Why the hell not? Let us stop wringing our hands and find out what our learners expect and desire first. Of course we're not slave to their whims, but if that voice is absent something important is simply missing, in my opinion.

    Also, considering how focusing on error treatment/language feedback in your classroom benefits YOU as a teacher in terms of a source for developing your language awareness for teaching, satisfying many students' image of a professional teacher, and of course gaining direct feedback into specific learners' progress and weaker areas. If you don't plan to give direct feedback on your learners' language, you probably aren't giving much feedback on your learners' language, and if you're not you're not giving much feedback on your learners' language, you probably aren't paying sufficient attention to your learners' language. So…perhaps nevermind the finer points of which technique to use, the specific role of error feedback in acquisition, etc. etc. – there's a case to pay attention and be proactive in this area DESPITE everything.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks Matthew. Negative feedback is a big thing for learners and I think probably the main thing I’ve learned from besides input.

    I only saw the first two lines before. Clearly not a tech teacher.


  3. If you actually read my article – below – which is totally research based, you woud actually see that either your reading of my post was rushed or my English was not clear enough. I never said you should not correct; I said you should not correct the way it is traditionally done because it is unlikely to result in deep processing of negative feedback and therefore is less likely to result in uptake:


    1. Dr. Conti,

      I did read the post in question and it was the dismissal of recasts in particular that made me question your work.

      Most MFL classrooms are not immersion/CLIL, therefore a recast may be noticed because learners are focused on language. Lack of attention to learner language is a different kettle of fish.

      Your setting is your setting, mine is mine. I think that all teachers, unless novices, know their learners or have an idea of their learners’ cultures and know whether they will annoy them, resulting in no uptake, or relax them and thus raise the probability (and it is only that – a mere probability) that uptake may occur.


      1. Sure, Marc. I do see your point and I did enjoy your post. On the other hand, my point about recast is that just like you would do with a flashcard when you are teaching vocabulary, you would have to show the flashcard several times in order to get the word learnt; by the same token, for recasts to be effective they need to occur several times to be learnt. Also, information lingers in working memory for a few seconds only, hence, unless the student is given considerable time and contextual cues to consolidate such information, it will be lost. My point is that negative feedback should be given, but it is better given after the conversation has happened – so that the flow is not interrupted – during a slot of the lesson dedicated to feedback on the mistakes/errors noticed by the instructor. Also, do not forget that the research I quoted by Havranek points out the most corrections by recasts referred to insignificant mistakes (due mostly to processing inefficiency – not declarative knowledge). Cheers.


      2. I’m familiar with that research but I would say that when recasts are used for – perhaps -inconsequential slips, they leave more room for the intrusive forms of correction that might be necessary.

        I think we tend to play ratios in the classroom: “I’ve let them get away with lazy pronunciation twice, I’m jumping in with this ‘because/so’ error.” for right or wrong.

        The decision-making process in error correction is huge, takes practice and takes, as I say, knowledge about the people in the classroom.

        Thanks for your comments.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Marc,

    Nearly everything I did in class could be described loosely as “error correction”. My objective for my students was that they leave the class making fewer mistakes than at the start and expressing themselves with a wider range of English in terms of register and style.

    I wrote loosely as “error correction” because I found it useful to distinguish between “errors” – what the observer hears or sees is an “error”; what the speaker/writer does to create an error is to make a “mistake”.

    Any English speaker can notice errors and correct them simply by saying “It’s not X it’s Y.” No need to be a teacher to do this.

    Errors corrected in this way usually continue to be made by students because they do not give them any insight into what they are MIS-taking nor why they’re doing so.

    The role of a teacher is to do what is necessary to give students that insight. It’s not easy to know how to do this because mistakes are invisible and inaudible. I based my interventions on a theory of how human beings learn but the theory didn’t tell me exactly what to do in each case. I had to learn each technique by trial and error and paying attention to how students reacted. I don’t mean whether or not they “liked” what I proposed, but whether their English improved. With a lot of help from my students, I eventually built up a repertoire of dozens of different ways of drawing students attention to their mistakes.

    I’ve noticed on many EFL forums and blogs, that teachers say they hesitate to correct for fear of embarrassing students or hurting their feelings. I think this is partly due to humiliating experiences most of us underwent at school when made to feel stupid because we’d made a mistake. It usually took less than an hour for students to realise that that that was not “the name of the game” in my classroom. On the contrary, students who made mistakes were particularly appreciated – the more the merrier.

    Another reason that teachers refrain from correcting, is that it is considered rude to correct other people in public. As far as I know, this is true in all cultures. Following the conventions for politeness facilitates social interaction. But classrooms have pedagogical objectives and therefore different cultural rules are appropriate.


    Social aside: Hope your weekend’s going fine. Sure it is!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very, very comprehensive reply, Glenys.

      I’ve not often had problems with my learners thinking I was overly critical but I do know some teachers who have. I think a smile and a good deskside manner are essential and not everyone has that when they start out, nor do they have it all the time.

      You’re right about teaching non-deviant form. Just getting the learners to the next rung can be done so many ways but they still need the energy and motivation to keep climbing up the ladder.

      The short reply is of course. Agree, yeah, learners, think, empathy, learners.

      My weekend would be better without INSET and insomnia but tomorrow I’m going to a cherry blossom festival so it’s not at all bad. I hope you, too, are splendid. Thanks a lot!


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