Correct me , please!

One of our responsibilities as teachers is to help students to overcome their mistakes. Error correction is key to learning but not any correction will be effective. In this entry I’d like to reflect on how to help students improve in a supportive and effective way.

The first thing I’d like to say is that in order to correct our students we need to take notes during the lesson. This way we can give the students more accurate feedback and we can take these notes into consideration for future lessons. To be able to take notes the teacher first needs a notebook!

Two important questions to ask ourselves when discussing error correction are what needs correcting and when to correct.

Do we correct every mistake students make? Probably not.

Do we correct students on the spot? Probably not always.

In order to answer these questions it might help to look at the difference between content and surface errors.

Surface and content errors in oral and written communication

Content errors break communication down. These errors get in the way and interlocutors can feel lost when they can’t follow the conversation or understand the messages in  the written text.

On the other hand, surface errors don’t impede communication. They are small mistakes that don’t get in the way as interlocutors understand each other and communication still flows.

Oral correction

We should probably correct students on the spot when they make content errors. If we can’t follow their speech we might need to let them know. Also, if students are practising the target language and they make a mistake we should also correct them right away. Some steps we could take:

  • Self-correction: ask them to rephrase what they’ve just said. Many times students are able to correct their own mistakes.

  • Peer-correction: get the rest of the students to correct the mistake. Students usually feel better being corrected by their peers than by the teacher.

  • Teacher correction: you correct the mistake orally or on the board.

  • No correction: if you think it’s not relevant you might just want to ignore the mistake.

If students make a surface error I suggest taking notes and having a correction slot later on or the following class. Students can make quite a lot of small mistakes that they can easily correct when they are highlighted.

Content errors

Surface errors

When to correct

On the spot

At the end of the activity

At the end of class

As a warmer the following class

How to correct




Have a correction slot when you can give highlight good language they used and also some mistakes they made

Written correction


Students will also make mistakes when they produce written texts. If students make simple mistakes we can just highlight them without offering the correct version. However, if we don’t think the students can correct the mistakes themselves we might want to write the correct version so that they can compare the two. In any case, ideally we would ask the students to correct the mistakes and rewrite their text so that they can upgrade their language.

It's important not only to point out problems but to also praise good language and to also comment on what the students have written. I usually start off by making a general comment like Thanks María for this letter. Greece sounds like a wonderful place to go on holiday. I haven't been there yet but I'd like to go after reading your letter!

Then I'd numer some things in the letter and write something below about each number:

1. Here I'd use the present perfect.

2. Good use of the past continuous!

Some teachers also like to use a code so that they students know what type of mistake it is. Eg.

Gr - grammar

Sp - spelling

P - punctuation

Voc - vocabulary

Prep - preposition



  • Mistakes are important: I’ve had discussions with students about the role of mistakes in learning. I usually give them examples of mistakes famous people have made. Mistakes are part of learning. The biggest mistake is not to learn from our mistakes.

  • In order to correct students’ mistakes, we need to record them. I suggest always having a notebook where we can takes notes. We can record good language, vocabulary students need, mistakes and any other issue that needs refining.  

  • Feedback: when giving students feedback it’s a good idea to highlight good language as well as mistakes. If we focus only on their mistakes only it can be demotivating.

  • Having a correction slot as part of your routine is essential. It’s especially important for students who are preparing for an exam.

  • Students expect correction: I’ve had complaints from adult students because their teacher didn’t correct them and they felt they were not learning.

  • There are some good books on “typical B2 mistakes”. These books work around the most common mistakes students make at certain levels.

  • It might help students if they have a correction section in their notebooks where they take notes of the mistakes that come up in class. If a student makes a mistakes, more students are likely to make the same mistake.

  • Common mistakes poster: as a reminder we can have a poster with the language the students usually have problems with. I suggest writing the correct version rather than the mistakes themselves as they might remember just the mistakes if they see them on the poster all the time.

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