“To correct or not correct – that is the question!”
Whether or not correction is required depends not only on our attitude towards correction but also on the nature of the error to be corrected. Errors sometimes occur despite learner understanding and proficiency – few of us would feel the need to correct such slips. On the other hand, there are repetitive errors or mistakes which indicate poor understanding or complete misunderstanding and may need to be corrected overtly and fast
Whether correction is required or not will also depend on the nature of the activity. Conventional wisdom suggests that errors in activities focusing on accuracy of form or sound such as drilling and repetition require consistent, constant and immediate correction for the learner to be reminded that accuracy is an important ingredient of effective language use. Conversely, few teachers would feel the need to interrupt learners in fluency activities such as group-work or role-play (unless the error in question had a profound effect on overall meaning) preferring instead to keep a record of the errors made and discussing them at the end of the activity.
There is the argument that the most effective correction is the correction that the learners make themselves. Instantaneous teacher correction does not help learners spot the errors they make or encourage them to work out the correct form for themselves. To encourage self-correction, error-marking is widely advocated. In error-marking (of which correction codes in written work are probably the best-known example), several criteria such as wrong word, bad spelling, wrong tense etc are used to point out the existence of errors and encourage learner reformulation or if this should fail peer-correction. Though not without its advantages, error-marking can in itself lead to more error and confusion particularly when the learner contribution in question has more than one error forcing the teacher to mark several errors with ever-more complicated and obscure coding (e.g. John use a different word and think carefully about the time).
Though few of us would question the need for correction, there are those teachers that see any correction as demotivating for learners if unaccompanied by positive feedback. What defines good correction is not the treatment of the error but the learner himself. In correcting written work, the use of correction codes, explanation of mistakes and marking will often create the impression that the learner’s writing has been analysed and not read. For learners to see any benefit in correction, they need to be made aware of how far they have traveled and not just how far they have to go. Correction thus needs to pay qualitative attention to learner strengths and achievements as well as their weaknesses. Beginning your correction with “Good but …” simply prefaces bad news giving the learner little or nothing to smile about or look forward to. Correction needs to be balanced with compliments.