oral correction: it’s complicated

oral correctionFew teaching techniques in ESL / EFL are as difficult to master as effective, sensitive, principled and systematic oral correction.

I remember working fairly closely with Donald Freeman back in the mid 90s and, in common with all my colleagues at the time, I was in awe of the man’s deep understanding of learning processes and his talent for helping us, mere mortals, to see language learning in a completely new light. Of all his teachings, it was perhaps the principle of intervention through observation that has had the greatest impact on my work and this connects interestingly with oral correction, as I will explain. 

Intervention through observation in language learning means, among other things, that we must allow ourselves to be sidetracked by the sheer unpredictability of an English lesson and learn how to work with what is there.

Working with what is there means making the best possible use of all those unforeseen classroom events that stubbornly refuse to leave us alone so we can get on with our teaching the way we had planned to. This is extremely difficult to do. It takes the right sort of awareness, attitude and a certain amount of teaching experience.

But “what does all that have to do with oral correction?”, you must be wondering.

The more I see teachers grappling with error correction, especially oral correction, the more I convince myself that:

1. The kind of oral correction that maybe matters the most is the one that’s most difficult to pull off in class and;
2. This kind of oral correction is difficult precisely because it depends on our ability to work with what is there.

Let me explain.

It’s easy to correct a gap-fill exercise. The student says “afraid of go” and you tactfully remind her that “of” requires an “ing” and that’s it. Oral correction in drills is relatively easy, too. We provide an example and a prompt, which students respond to in a certain way. If they don’t, we correct them. Period. 

But what about the oral correction that needs to take place during discussions, simulations and role-plays, in which students are producing extended discourse and conveying the meanings they want to convey? What about oral correction during the usual “how was your weekend” beginning-of-lesson chats? What about things like “someone have a pen to borrow me?”, which will keep surfacing, over and over, despite your best efforts? What’s the best oral correction policy in those cases?

It seems plausible to me that when a student receives feedback on what he or she’s actually trying to say (as opposed to a drill or a gap-fill), oral correction is more likely to stick. This means that I tend to disagree with those who claim that, in free(r) communication, errors should generally be overlooked or dealt with en passant at a later stage in the lesson.

But how can oral correction help students think about language while they’re focused on meaning?

Here comes the tricky part.

Correcting students midsentence might be pointless, since people’s brains can’t usually process meaning and form at the same time. Oral correction at the end of the sentence might lessen processing load, but it might also disrupt the flow of whatever is under way in class. Not correcting at all is a dangerous alternative, which could lead to fossilization, depending on the student and on the error. Delayed oral correction, which many teachers usually regard as the ideal compromise, is perhaps not as effective as it’s often been made out to be – more details coming up soon.

I have deliberately modalized all the sentences above to make the point that when it comes to oral correction in language learning (especially during meaning-focused work), there’s no right or wrong, nor are there any ready-made recipes that we can rely on. So, a question like “someone have a pen to borrow me?” may or may not go uncorrected depending on the student in question, the recurrence of the error, the likelihood that it will be made again (and again) and so on and so forth.

What we should bear in mind, I believe, is that the learning potential of corrective feedback far outweighs the real but sometimes overestimated risk of inhibition and embarrassment usually associated with oral correction. Recognizing and tapping into the learning potential of an unexpected classroom event is critically important, but it depends on the teacher’s ability – and willingness – to work with what is there.

Thanks for reading.

Enjoyed this post on oral correction? You might also like feedback on writing.


  1. I've been struggling with error correction and still don't know what's best…
    What do you think about the 'post-it' correction (the one where you hand over a little note to the student with a mistake to be corrected or maybe providing a word they need)?

  2. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Vivi I've used the post-it technique with varying degrees of success. It depends on how well you know the group and how much mutual trust you've been able to build.
    Besides me, I think you're the only person I know who's ever used this.

  3. I wonder how I should let students know that they've made some mistakes: from one point – they could feel frustrated and embarrassed by being corrected while speaking. On the contrary, they could be fossilized by "get by so why bother" syndrome. Would you share your point with me on this issue?

  4. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    I'm writing an article on error correction. It'll probably be published soon. Are you writing from Brazil?

  5. When I had classes with Seth Lindstromberg he used a similar technique to the post-it one. He would hand out small bits of paper (with mistakes) while we were talking in pairs/groups. I have tried to emulate this but, quite frankly, I wasn't very successful.

    The thing I like about putting mistakes on the board and having students to think about it is that often students repeat the mistake but then say "oh, I did it again, you had just told us about it". Am I mistaken to believe that noticing your own mistake is a step in the direction of not making it again?

  6. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Ricardo, noticing the mistake is a step, of course, but 1- it might not be enough and 2 – very often students see the wrong stuff on the board and truly don't remember saying that. Well, next month I want to write about the pros and cons of delayed correction, so I don't want to go into much detail. What worries me is that some teachers ONLY use delayed correction in class and this kind of blind adherence is rarely a good thing.

  7. Luiz, I'm from Russia 😉
    I'm happy to realize that I could read your mind and predict what you're working on right now 😉

    Looking forward to reading a new article on error correction.

  8. Silas Ferreira says:

    When my students are in a group discussion and I spot a mistake I 1- tell THE GROUP the right way to say that, or 2- try to take notes of all the mistakes all Ss make, which is very difficult fo listen to everybody sometimes, or 3- I take notes of teh mistakes and have some sort of class correction on the board after the dicussion.
    I sometimes don't even correct, after all they are communicating.

  9. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Hi Silas!
    Thanks for stopping by!
    The technique you're describing (delayed correction) does have a number of advantages. It is, by far, the easiest way to provide some sort of feedback without disrupting the flow of whatever activity students are engaged in. Delayed correction seems have acquired, however, orthodoxy status and this is what worries me. Relatively few people stop and think about the potential disadvantages of delayed feedback. Can you think of one or two?

  10. Silas Ferreira says:

    Delayed Correction: Disadvantages!
    I didn't need so much time to think of that because I'm writing this post after having finished an Advanced class.
    Well, I do think there are some drawbacks in the delayed correction technique: 1- Ss WON'T remember having said anything wrong because they, sometimes, don't recall the vocabulary used. And 2- maybe the Ss keep the conversation going for so long (which is a great pleasure for me) and I simply forget or don't have time to show them their mistakes IN A FRIENDLY WAY.
    Nevertheless, I tend to correct SOME Ss on the spot, if, and only if that does not hinders communication. What do you think?

  11. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    That's a very valid point, Silas. Stay tuned for more.

  12. Silas Ferreira says:

    Sth I also do in the first month of classes, is to write C or S next to the Ss names. C for Challenge and S for Support. So I give the Ss the right amount of challenge or support and also try to have them move from being supported to start to like and overcome challenges.
    This technique I leart from my dearest friend José Luis Morales.

  13. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    What a great idea! Can I write a post about it?

  14. Silas Ferreira says:

    For sure!! Who am I to say u cant write a post about it!! kaka
    Just dont forget to mention JLM, ok. And me, as if i deserved…
    I can send to your email the podcasts I got from him. 😉

  15. La�s Casagrande says:

    "I tend to disagree with those who claim that, in free(r) communication, errors should generally be overlooked or dealt with en passant at a later stage in the lesson." I do tend to disagree with it too… Two years ago I worked for a socio-constructivist school in which the teachers used to teach according to that approach… and they used to explain that students "don't need to be corrected because when they were, it would be a negative reinforcement of the mistake"… the question I could never stop thinking about was "but when are they going to learn the correct way to say that?"… a question that teachers couldn't bearly stand… what a pitty, isn't it?
    I love your posts! I'm happy I could find you blog! Thanks a lot!

  16. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Hello, Laís! Welcome aboard! Out of curiosity: was that a language school?
    Thanks for your kind words!

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