Writing Lesson (cont.) – Tailor-made Error Correction

In my recent post about a descriptive writing lesson, I made a brief mention of error correction. I didn’t go into much detail as it was nothing fancy - I just wrote out some sentences I had spotted in their notebooks and elicited the corrections. However, I found that error correction is another thing my kids were not used to and it seems they have rarely, if at all, focused on it much before. I wanted to see how much they had retained from that brief review so I set up an error correction lesson for the next week’s activity.

There are error correction activities in their coursebooks but they are full of mistakes my students never really make and so aren’t of much use. Seeing as I had noted down several errors for each class I decided to put it all to use by making error strewn paragraphs for each class based on their own mistakes. If most of the students in a class had written about a monster, I wrote my own paragraph about a monster with their errors sprinkled in; if most of them had written about famous people, I described a famous person, again with their own structural, vocabulary and spelling errors added in.

360276843_ca6450f0afImage courtesy of doobybrain on Flickr

I put this all on display on the projector together with a picture of said monster/celebrity and read out my paragraph asking the students what they thought of it. “Very bad,” most of them said. “Very bad English.” I asked them to reflect on that comment – was it really that bad? Did you understand what I said? That was the first point I wanted to make – these mistakes don’t make your writing ‘bad’ or impede your ability to communicate. They are a natural part of learning and the aim of our lesson was to try to raise our awareness of them.

I then set them to work in groups of 3 or 4 with a printed copy of the paragraph. They were to identify the mistakes and rewrite the sentences with corrections. Group work was an important part of the lesson as most of the kids would have been unable to identify all of the mistakes on their own. However, in groups, they bounce ideas of each other, check and confirm suspected errors and engage in a process of negotiating the right answer. This was a typical exchange:

Student A: “He is play basketball. Is it wrong?”
Student B: “Yes, not ‘is’. Cross it out.”
Student C: “But it’s still wrong! He plays.”
Student A: “Are you sure?”
Student B: “He’s right. I play… but he plays, she plays with an –s.”

I think such exchanges are powerful learning moments. If I had stood at the board and corrected it, most of the class either wouldn’t have listened or wouldn’t have processed it. Even if I’d called on a student to correct it, the same would have happened. Like this, working together, they discuss the language and try to explain themselves. In these cases, each member of the group listens and tries to process the information. Of course, I had to intervene a couple of times when they were going through this process to inadvertently insert an error into a perfectly good sentence but on the whole, they engaged in the activity as in the example above.

Once they had finished or nearly finished, we brought it all together as I displayed the incorrect text on the projector and called the groups up one at a time to make alterations. I used typewith.me for this so the changes they made were highlighted in a different author colour. This made it clearer for them to check their corrections against the ones on the screen. The great thing was, in most classes, I didn’t have to do anything at this point. They made the corrections themselves and collectively reached conclusions on disputed errors. By the end of the class, we had the fully corrected text on the screen. This was great for raising their awareness of not only mistakes but the grammar and structures used as well as they really had to dig deep at points to reach agreement as a group. This is an activity we’ll definitely be revisiting soon.


  1. Great post Dave!

    I agree with you 100%: error correction is something that has to be done tailor-made. Of course there are mistakes that are common within each specific level, but groups/STs have their own difficulties and each culture also brings an extra set of commom mistakes.

    And I really enjoyed how you did it with your group. Very colaborative, student-centered, Sts constructing their own learning. I especially liked how you used the activity to raise the learners' awareness to the difference between lack of accuracy X effective communication and to the learning opportunity mistakes are.

    Keep sharing! Will definitely use this in class. :-)

  2. Hi David,
    I am an ESL teacher (lower elementary school) and am trying to find meaningful and useful ways to help classroom teachers and students (95% ESL). I am going to share this strategy with teachers as we begin to implement the Writer's Workshop model.

  3. Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

    Cecilia - those were my two main goals: collaborative, student-centred correction and an awareness of the difference between a production error and a communication problem. All too often, error correction exercises just turn into a list of wrong sentences to be re-written and forgotten. This really gets their brains working!

    Meg - I'm glad you have found my experience of use. Please do come back to let me know how they workshop was recieved!

  4. wow, that feeds in well to a speaking into writing idea I have for part of a Masters module I'm on to do with observations, can I adapt your idea?


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