As Errors Go By…

14 08 2012

Recent discussions on error correction on the iTDi blog and the Braz-TESOL Conference last month have sparked my desire to contribute to this debate by revisiting a pilot research my colleague Lúcia Santos and I conducted in our institution in 2004. I hope it will shed some light into the discussion.

The study culminated in the talk As Time Goes By: Corrective Feedback in the EFL Classroom , given in the 2004 Braz-TESOL Conference in Belo Horizonte, then in the 2005 TESOL Convention in San Antonio, and also about three or four times in our institution, where it has had a great impact on how corrective feedback has been done since then.

Our hypothesis at the time was that our advanced students’ oral production was not in keeping with their level because teachers might not be providing sufficient corrective feedback. Thus, we set out to investigate:

a) How corrective feedback was used in the classroom;

b) How students were responding to it;

c) What types of corrective feedback teachers were using;

d) If students were perceiving that they were being corrected;

e) If the teachers knew their students’ preferred types of corrective


To this end, we observed 11 groups of advanced students, using a grid where we marked the mistakes made by students and the type of corrective feedback (Lyster and Ranta, 1997) used by the teacher, if any, during a fifty-minute observation, in whole-class interactions (it would have been impossible for us to monitor all the group and pair work).

We also distributed questionnaires to teachers and students in 30 groups, to obtain a larger sample.  We chose the advanced level because, while in other levels one can claim that the focus on developing fluency should be greater, it is in the advanced level that students have the last chance to brush up their English in order to use it for higher-stakes academic and professional purposes. After all, a learner who only wants to communicate fluently and get their message across might not even be interested in advanced studies of the language.

If you don’t have time for reading or don’t care about the details of the study itself and the methodology used, you can skip this next part and go straight to the conclusions at the end, in bold. Otherwise, here it is:

Not surprisingly, given our hypothesis, out of the 62 errors we identified in our observations, 41 were not corrected at all. For the remaining 21, 11 were corrected by way of explicit correction, six by elicitation, and four by recasts. We were happy and sad at the same time. On the one hand, most errors had just gone by; on the other, when errors were treated, the most effective types of corrective feedback strategies were used (Lyster and Ranta, 1997).

As mentioned, besides the observations, we also administered questionnaires to students and their teachers. Our first question to students was whether they would like to have their spoken errors corrected by the teacher. An astounding 95.8% answered:

Then we asked students how frequently they perceived that errors were being corrected in their classroom: 49.6% said somewhat frequently; 30% said frequently; 7.8% said very frequently. Only 10.7% responded that it was rarely and 0.02% said there was no correction at all. Conversely, 16% of the teachers reported to correct errors very frequently; 50% reported doing it frequently; and 33% stated they did it somewhat frequently. When asked whether they wanted more or less corrective feedback, 68% of the students responded that they wanted more. They were asking for more! They wanted guidance, direction.

We also compared each group’s response to the teacher’s in order to determine if there was a convergence or divergence in this perception of the frequency of feedback provided, concluding that there was a convergence in 11 of the cases and a divergence in 13 (some teachers had two or three advanced groups, so we considered them as one). This made us wonder why some teachers thought they were providing a good amount of corrective feedback to their students, while these same students didn’t really think so or perhaps perceive so. But then we realized that perceptions of frequency can vary depending on expectations. For example, if a student wants all errors to be corrected and they are indeed treated 80% of the time, they might still think that it’s not frequent enough, while the teacher might find it so. After all, if there’s something that seems to be unanimous among us is that we shouldn’t correct all errors made by all students all the time!

When asked their preferred form of feedback, most students selected metalinguistic feedback, followed by repetition. For each type, we gave a clear example rather than the technical terminology. Teachers, on the other hand, demonstrated a more balanced approach, even though elicitation and recasts ranked higher on their list. Metalinguistic feedback, the students’ favorite, was marked by 13 of the 24 teachers who answered the questionnaire.

We also asked teachers to summarize their approach to corrective feedback and, triangulating the data, we noticed a certain tendency:  students  whose teachers had a more fluency-focused approach stated they wanted more corrective feedback, while in the case of teachers who reported using a more balanced approach, there were more students demonstrating satisfaction with the amount of feedback provided.

Delving into the subject, we asked students what types of feedback they thought their teachers used the most. The vast majority of students (143) said the most common type of corrective feedback provided by their teachers was recasts, followed by repetition (84), metalinguistic feedback (80), elicitation (52), explicit correction (38), and clarification request (17). Teachers, on the other hand, reported using a balanced approach and resorting to all types of feedback, elicitation being the most marked option (19), followed by recasts (17), explicit correction (15), clarification request (14), metalinguistic feedback (13) and repetition (11). The relative discrepancy in the teachers’ stated feedback preference and the students’ perceived feedback practices puzzled us and led to the following questions and reflections:

–          Why did so many students report that recasts were the most common type when neither did the teachers report such a great preference for them, nor did our observations corroborate such response? Could it be that every time the teacher repeated what they or a classmate said, the student thought it was some sort of correction when, in some cases, the teacher could just be reacting to the message rather than the form?

–          Could students be confusing repetition as a drilling technique rather than a corrective feedback one? Teachers clearly showed little preference for it, while it came in second on students’ list.

–          The type of feedback selected by most teachers was elicitation; on the other hand, only 52 students marked elicitation as their teacher’s most used strategy. Could it be that they don’t always perceive when elicitation is used for corrective purposes as opposed to prompting purposes?

Anyhow, with all the limitations and discrepancies in our pilot study, here are some conclusions that have helped us reflect on the topic and reshape some of our teaching since then:

  • Teachers were not providing enough corrective feedback to  students, a least from the students’ perspective.
  • Teachers tend to use more indirect ways of correction.
  • Students tend to prefer more student-generated correction.
  • Many times students don’t notice if the teacher is correcting them or how the teacher is correcting them.
  • Advanced students want and need corrective feedback. Many teachers have reported correcting their students’ pronunciation of “ed” in regular verbs or certain word choices such as “depend of” (rather than “on”) and students reacting by saying, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before!”
  •  In a strategy training and learner autonomy perspective, it might be beneficial to discuss this topic with your students and even use a questionnaire asking whether they want their errors to be corrected and how. While it’s virtually impossible for the teacher to remember each student’s preference, it will give them an idea of the group’s general preferences
  • Teachers should steer clear from recasts. They are definitely confusing to students as corrective feedback, as Lyster and Ranta (1997) have pointed out.


Again, we are talking about ADVANCED-LEVEL STUDENTS. We are not talking about students who are initiating their studies and need to feel comfortable with the language first, or who still need to lower their affective filters. We are not talking about how fluency should come before accuracy in initial stages of language learning. We are talking about students’ LAST CHANCE. We are talking about EMPOWERING them to surpass the uncountable gatekeepers they will encounter – proficiency tests, job interviews, college-application  essays, to name a few. One might say,  “Who cares if they say ‘depend of’ instead of ‘depend on’? They’re getting their message across anyway!” Well, THEY might care. Someone else out there who’s going to make decisions about their English might care.  My suggestion: AT LEAST ASK THE STUDENTS!


Leaving language instruction at an intuitive and ‘mystical’ level of ‘natural language acquisition’ may be easy for the teacher and may make some students feel good, but it leads to disempowerment. (Grabe, 2002:279)


Free images courtesy of


Grabe, W. (2002). Dilemmas for the Development of Second Language Reading Abilities. In J. C. Richards and W. A. Renandya (Eds). Methodology in Language Teaching – An Anthology of Current Practice.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lyster, R. and Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation or form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 10/1: 37-61.



9 responses

14 08 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Dear Isabela,
What a fascinating study – just the kind that more teachers and supervisors ought to carry out in their own teaching contexts.
I, too, am puzzled by some teachers’ reluctance to provide corrective feedback which is more principled, ongoing, systematic and, above all, guilt-free.
You see, I think over the last 20 or 30 years teachers have been fed so many half-truths, half-baked ideas and sweeping generalizations that, to a certain extent, we’re all to blame for the set of phenomena Scrivener is now referring to as “low demand teaching.”
I mean, how many times have we heard / said “The lesson was too teacher-centered”, “Your teacher talking time is too high”, “Students should never be interrupted while trying to communicate” without paying enough attention to the idiosyncrasies of each classroom / lesson? True, some teachers do speak too much, but there’s more to the teacher’s verbal behavior than just talking time. True, interrupting students (especially mid-sentence) may be counter productive, but so is letting them make the same mistake throughout the entire activity, when one single correction could do the trick. True, some teachers tend to teach in lockstep a little more than they should, but isn’t too much laissez-faire just as harmful?
I think it’s high time we stopped and looked at ALL the dogmas from the communicate era with far, far more critical eyes. A study like this is a perfect example of what we need right now, I think.
Um beijo.

18 08 2012

I agree with you 100%. The communicative era has led to a lot of generalizations and half-baked ideas about teaching and learning English. I’m totally into demand-high teaching, but, as you mentioned, not going back to the teacher as the deliverer of information and the student the passive recipient. That’s not it. But nicely leading the student along the way, showing when they’re right or wrong, when they need to change directions, when they need to reformulate their sentences is the teacher’s job and it is what most students expect. I adhere to Lightbown and Spada’s model of focusing on form within a communicative context, and meaning always coming before form, The problem is convincing teachers that it’s what students need, too. I’m a very linear and analytical thinker, which is good sometimes and bad in others, so I need facts, data, evidence. That’s why Lucia and I decided to do this study. We needed to show our teachers the facts, not just try to convince them of our opinions. It’s too bad I don’t have as much time now as I did then to do these types of studies. I want to improve the methodology of this research and expand it. Thank you for your support. Let’s keep the conversation going!

15 08 2012
Marco Rodrigo Alves Ferreira

Outstanding!!! Another highly useful text!! Thank you!! I teach online (through Skype) and many of my students are advanced… I sometimes feel ambivalent about correcting them… It is hard to decide exactly when and how often to do it … There are two voices competing for attention in the back of my mind: one telling me not to interrupt communication, specially not to destroy their self-esteem…. and the other telling me that if I don’t correct, very little will change or improve in their verbal behavior…Most of my students are European and Russian and they often have to do job interviews in English to apply for jobs in multinational companies. They get very anxious during those interviews, so I have often felt that I must preserve their self-esteem, I must not undermine the perception they have of themselves as good English speakers. On the other hand, I must enable them to perform well and accurately in a business environment where the stakes are extremely high, where decisions to hire are made largely according to the impression they cause on their prospective employers during such interviews. This situation forces me to walk a very fine line between preserving fluency (preserving students’ self-confidence) and promoting accuracy. I have read various texts on ELT over the years, I’ve been teaching for 28 years, and most of the advice from the experts, over the years, has been highly contradictory… Your text has put things into perspective! I particularly liked your explanation of the different importance of the affective filter in the context of teaching lower level and advanced level students. That is a clear, objective marker to disambiguate between these two very different teaching situations!! Reading that has given me a deep insight! I think our profession needs more clear and objective markers like the one you have provided here. I feel liberated to correct more often now! I really feel less ambivalent!! Thank you. Marco Rodrigo A. Ferreira.

18 08 2012

Hi, Marco. I understand your feeling of ambivalence and I feel the same way, too. I would never correct students all the time, in all situations. I just feel that sometimes we correct them too little and in ineffective manners that don’t lead to uptake. There is indeed a fine line between making students feel comfortable about their English and about taking risks and providing them the corrective feedback they need in order to advance in their proficiency. The differentiation between lower levels and advanced levels is certainly relevant in guiding teachers to make the right decisions about corrective feedback. I also believe that the learner’s individual characteristics should also be considered. For some, being corrected will not jeopardize their confidence; on the contrary, it might actually boost it. For others, it can be a true turn-off. Thus, knowing our students is certainly essential. I’m very happy that you enjoyed reading this post and gained insights from it. It’s very rewarding to know there are colleagues out there reflecting about their teaching and having these types of conversations with me. Thank you so much for your interest and feedback. Let’s keep this conversation going!

18 08 2012
Marco Rodrigo Alves Ferreira

Thank you for the feedback Isabela! Learner’s individual characteristics are another very point to consider. I agree with that 100%. I am grateful to you for reminding me of that. I have already started implementing some changes in my lessons after reading your text and the results have been very positive indeed! I have increased the amount of corrections with my advanced level students and that has enabled me to feel more comfortable about making more corrections… This feeling has also led me to correct my lower level students a bit more… I am feeling that they can handle it well. This has really improved the quality of my lessons. Online teaching (skype lessons) is a very competitive environment! I have to compete with teachers from all over the world and every improvement I can make counts a lot! Your texts have really helped me. I like the way you analyze teaching situations down to their particular components. It helps me to sift through all the different data I get from ELT books. I also believe the texts in your blog will add up to a book one day which will stand among the best publications in ELT in the world. You have a very special talent. Thank you once more for all the helpful information. You blog has taken up a major role in my teacher development process.

18 08 2012

Thank you so much, Marco. I’m really honored. I started my blog so I could express some of my thoughts, research and experience teaching English and doing teacher development, and reading this from such a qualified and informed professional like you really flatters me and encourages me to keep on writing. I’ve never taught via skype. It must be really challenging and I admire those who master this skill. Congratulations. You seem to be highly sensitive to our students’ needs and contexts, and this certainly makes you stand out from the crowd out there. Once again, thank you so much for taking your time to read what I have to say and also adding very relevant thoughts to the discussion!

19 08 2012
Marco Rodrigo Alves Ferreira

Thank you Isabela. I have derived a great sense of recognition and validation from your feedback. I feel genuinely happy about it! Thank you.

19 03 2014
Henry W. Grant

Hi Isabela. I only discovered your blog a few days ago. Since error correction fascinates me too I was lured into your post. It was great to read the CTJ findings. Thanks for sharing.

19 03 2014

Glad you liked this post, Henry. Though the study was done ten years ago, I think it is still very relevant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: