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Effective Ways to Correct Speech Errors

By Cindy A., Instructional Coordinator, Global LT Language Department

Every teacher has to determine how to best deal with their students’ speech errors, especially with those students who make a great deal of mistakes. If teachers had to correct every single mistake, language learners wouldn’t open their mouths for fear of being wrong. Or, on the opposite end, if teachers don’t correct mistakes enough, students will have a harder time speaking fluently; their speech will be full of errors, making them difficult to understand. So, what should teachers do? Learn what to correct and what to ignore (for now), and learn the most effective methods for getting students to start correcting their own errors.    

Error Types: What to Address, What to Ignore

Linguists who study second language acquisition (SLA) have determined that there are two main types of speech errors: performance errors (called mistakes in SLA) and competence errors (these are known solely as errors). A performance error is when a student says something incorrect due to a slip of the tongue. Even native speakers make these types of mistakes for various reasons, but especially when tired, stressed, ill or inebriated. However, people generally catch themselves after making a slip of the tongue and correct themselves. These slips are to be ignored.

Competence errors are those that come from a lack of knowledge or interference from the first language. Sometimes these errors can be ignored too, as long as they don’t create a misunderstanding between the speaker and listener. However, don’t ignore competence errors when they are relevant to what you are teaching at the moment. For example, if you are working on using the present tense, correct any errors that the student makes in regards to that verb tense, even if you understood what was meant.

Ignore errors that the student makes due to a grammar structure he or she hasn’t learned yet. Or, if you feel it’s important not to ignore, do a quick, explicit correction where you tell the student there is an error, supply the corrected form, write it down so the student can see it, and have the student repeat the corrected form aloud. Even better if he or she writes it down so that the corrected form gets internalized. Explain that this (whatever the grammar aspect is) is going to come up again in the future, but this level hasn’t been reached yet. 

Focus most on correcting competence errors that impair comprehension and those that occur frequently. When correcting your students, it’s best not to interrupt them. Let them finish what they want to say, then provide the corrective feedback. Again, you will have to filter the errors and deem what to correct and what to ignore, especially if your student provided you with a long dialogue.

Methods for Correction

Metalinguistic: The teacher says something specific about the language or the language rules, without giving the correction. For example, if a student learning English didn’t form a present tense statement the correct way, the teacher might say, “That’s not the correct tense,” or “That’s not how to use the present tense.”   

Elicitation: The teacher will elicit a response from a student by bringing attention to the error and say something like, “That’s not how we say that. Can you try again?” Or, a teacher can ask a student to complete a sentence like, “It’s a ...”  

Clarification: The teacher says “Excuse me” or “I don’t understand” to indicate what the student said wasn’t understood. Then the student should then try to self correct.
Gesture: The teacher gives a predetermined hand signal or facial expression, like raising an eyebrow, or simply nods her head to indicate “no.” The gesture that the student will be looking for will be discussed before lessons start. Once the teacher gives the signal, the student will try to self correct.   

A Word of Caution: Culture

One thing to take into consideration that SLA researchers typically don’t here is culture. The way you correct, the way your student wants to be corrected or reacts to corrections, is impacted by culture. Will your student blanch about getting such a direct correction as those suggestions above? Or, will your student get annoyed if you are not direct enough? The best way to combat this is to have a discussion with your student about how you will correct, what you won’t and why.     

The Take Away

There are more methods out there, but the pattern of effectiveness SLA researchers have found is this: Bring awareness to the error and prompt the student to self correct. If the student can’t fix the error, provide the correction and discuss why his or her utterance is wrong. If your student still makes the same mistake after being corrected many more times, then he or she is not ready to acquire that bit of grammar, word meaning or phonological rule just yet and needs more practice. In this instance, errors are signs of areas that need further work. Be patient, provide more practice and keep correcting.



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