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