Cremated Coffee and Ax-Girlfriends: The Mysteries of Error and Error Correction

Students say the funniest things.

“Do you want your coffee cremated?”

“My sister is having three cats.”

“My relationship with my ax-girlfriend was very painful.”

“When I was six I went to primate school.”

“The cat was hungry because we forgot to eat him.”

And teachers do the funniest things to correct them.

One teacher keeps a large plastic snake in her desk. When the students forget the third person s, she pulls out her snake, whirls it above her head, and says “sssssssssssssssssssssssss”.

The latest teaching tool. Image from

The latest teaching tool. Image from












Another class kept making errors with prepositions. The teacher labeled the walls (AT, ON, IN), moved the tables and chairs, and got his students to run to the correct wall according to what he said. If he said “2 o’clock”, they ran to the AT wall; if he said “Monday”, they ran to the ON wall.

Another teacher, after her online student kept making mistakes with of, copied and pasted fifty emails (that’s not a typo) and asked her student to highlight all the examples of of so he would see how it’s used correctly. The student attempted the task but died of boredom before he could finish.

Error correction. Does it work? And are there any good ways to do it that don’t involve plastic toys, humiliation, exhaustion, or death?

Student Expectations

Let’s start with the student. Some students say they want to be corrected every time they make an error. Try doing this for five minutes. They’ll be miserable and you’ll be exhausted. The teacher needs to find a balance between helping the classroom community function happily, i.e. without constant correction, and fulfilling students’ expectations that they’re being monitored.

Interlanguage and fossilization

The other aspect to constant correction is that it ignores a simple fact: errors are an inevitable part of language learning. They are evidence of learners attempting to activate L2. While experimenting, students produce an intermediate form of language that typically falls between their native and target languages. This is called interlanguage. It’s the equivalent of those transitional hominids in evolutionary biology, like Australopithecus, that were somewhere between our ape ancestors and bipedal humans. Interlanguage is somewhere between L1 and the target language.

Fossilization occurs when interlanguage becomes permanent. Image from

Fossilization occurs when interlanguage becomes permanent. Image from

And while we’re on the subject of evolutionary biology, we should mention fossilization. Fossilization occurs when a student is no longer developing in proficiency and her errors become a permanent part of her language repertoire. These days fossilization is being replaced as a concept by stabilization, a more positive term, but either way it’s usually associated with automatized errors – errors the student doesn’t know are errors and which she produces regularly and consistently.

Student makes an error; teacher makes a decision

When a student errs, teachers decide on at least four things. Is it really an error or just a slip of the tongue? What type of error is it (grammar, pronunciation, etc.)? Is the error worth correcting? How should it be corrected?

1. Is it an error?

Errors and mistakes are different. Errors occur when a student doesn’t know the rule/vocabulary and uses a non-standard form instead. Mistakes are performance problems, sometimes known as slips. They may be caused by tiredness or lack of concentration, as when an Advanced student forgets third person s. She undoubtedly knows the rule, but forgets it momentarily.

2. What type of error is it?

On hearing an error, teachers mentally categorize it. Many errors are caused by first language interference; others by students simply not knowing enough vocabulary or grammar. Other errors appear to be caused by one thing but aren’t. I once had a German student who wrote “The house had no ear conditioning.” This looks like a spelling error, but it was connected to her Germanic pronunciation of air.

3. Is the error worth correcting?

If the activity is accuracy-focused, we should correct errors. If the purpose is fluency, then we may ignore an error or write it down for later. Only when a conversation stalls, and speaking partners are forced to negotiate meaning, might we interrupt a fluency activity to make a correction.

4. How to correct (and who corrects)?

Students must be made aware of the standard form but not made to feel stupid or self-conscious by the intervention. Here are several common techniques:

Explicit correction is when we say something like “No, you can’t say ‘I have 20 years old’. We say ‘I’m 20 years old.'” Sometimes explicit correction includes metalinguistic terms: “You have to use the Present Perfect there.”

A recast is when we repeat the student’s words but include the correction. Student: “He from Spain.” Teacher: “Oh, he’s from Spain.”

We may use a request for clarification: “Can you explain what you mean by that?”

We may also solicit the correct form from the student or other students. Student: “Yesterday I go to town”. Teacher: “Can you try that again? What’s the past of go?”

All of these techniques are useful, but the best form of correction is self-correction. It’s always more memorable for the student when he or she works it out for herself.

The Last Word

Error correction is a tricky area. Krashen and Terrell recommend no error correction at all. David Willis says it’s a waste of time. But a host of other researchers say it’s necessary, in part for psychological reasons (“I’m being listened to and someone cares if I make a mistake.”).

But maybe we’re on the wrong track altogether. Maybe instead of using the c word (correction), we should just use the f word. Feedback. So, after a speaking task the teacher points out really good examples of language use – phrases, idioms, verb constructions the students used – as well as useful phrases the students could have used; and attempts at language use that weren’t quite right.

And finally, we must remember not to get disheartened if the students don’t appear to learn from their mistakes. Why? Because the effects of teaching are always delayed. I remember a conversation with a student some years ago:

Student: I’ve went to the Tate Gallery yesterday.

Me (teacher): Oh, great. You went to the Tate Gallery.

Student: Yes, I’ve went to the Tate Gallery.

Me: What did you think?

Student: It was fantastic. Tomorrow I am go to the National Gallery.

Me: Ah, you’re going to the National Gallery?

Student: Yes, I am go tomorrow.

And off he went, happy to have communicated his meaning and totally oblivious to my attempts at correction.



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