7 reasons why (traditional) Error Correction does not work


Most secondary school MFL teachers correct their student writers’ mistakes. But does error correction (henceforth EC) ACTUALLY enhance L2-writing proficiency development? A large number of scholars who espouse Cognitive theories of L2-acquisition (e.g. McLaughlin, 1987; Johnson, 1988, 1996), the vast majority of teachers (Applebee, 1984; Zamel, 1985) and most L2-learners (Ferris and Hedgcock, 1998) think so. However, many language educators working in the Nativist paradigm oppose this view. Believing that L2-acquisition is an unconscious process, which cannot be significantly altered by grammar instruction, some of them have even called for a ban on EC from the L2-writing classroom (Krashen, 1984; Leki, 1990; Truscott, 1996). In the absence of conclusive evidence that EC does enhance L2-learner writing proficiency, the debate over whether errors should be corrected or ignored is still ongoing.

In what follows I shall focus on this controversy by listing and succinctly discuss the main reasons why EC, as it is traditionally carried out in MFL classrooms, does not ‘work’, based on the research evidence and the specialised literature I reviewed. But first, let us take a look at what I mean by EC.

1. Main  approaches to Error Correction

In my examination of the L2-writing literature I have identified six approaches to feedback on grammatical, lexical and orthographical accuracy. It must be pointed out that these techniques are not mutually exclusive and very often two or more of them are used synergistically. The approaches identified include:

(1) Indirect Correction

This term, coined by Hendrickson (1978) refers to the practice of alerting the learners to the presence of errors, asking them to identify and self-correct them. The rationale for this approach is based on the observation that a substantial proportion of learner errors are self-correctable if some form of cueing (highlighting, coding, etc.) is used to alert the writers to their presence (Makino, 1993; Lee, 1997; Frantzen and Rissell, 1987).

(2) Direct Correction

In this approach the teacher informs the learners of the presence of an error providing a correct alternative. It is the most widely employed form of EC and the vast majority of the EC studies conducted to-date has investigated its effects.

(3) Rule explanation

In this approach learners are provided with an explanation of the rule broken (where applicable). The explanation usually comes in the form of an annotation. In some approaches, the learner obtains feedback as part of a one-to-one conference (e.g. Process Writing). The aim of this technique is to help the learner restructure his/her cognitive patterns in order to prevent a given mistake from re-occurring.

(4) Peer Feedback

This technique is often used in Process Writing instruction to improve the content and rhetorical features of learner output. Learners usually work in groups, one student reading his/her own or another classmate’s essays while the rest of the group asks for clarifications about the text or makes suggestions as to possible ways of improving it. Peer-feedback focusing only on grammatical and lexical accuracy usually takes the following form: learners are provided with Indirect Correction and are asked to correct the mistakes highlighted/underlined with the help of other students (e.g. Macaro, 2001).

(5) Reformulation

This method, devised by Cohen (1990), involves having a native or near-native L2-speaker re-write the learners’ composition so that the text sounds not only correct but also more native-like. The learner is then asked to compare the two versions in order to identify the differences and notice features in the native-like one, which he may want to incorporate in his/her future production.

(6) Editing Instruction

Some L2-educators have supplemented the above techniques with various forms of Editing Instruction. One approach involves the learners in editing practice using other-writer texts (e.g. essays) containing errors. This technique is often integrated with grammar instruction.  In another approach to Editing Instruction, learners are provided with a teacher-generated checklist of common errors to look out for in editing their written output (Coleman, 1998). Some authors (e.g. Ferris and Hedgcock, 1998) suggest personalizing this process by asking the learners to keep a record of the number and type of mistakes they make in each piece of written work, logging them down in Error Charts. A third approach, Explicit Learner Training (e.g. Conti, 2004) purports to improve students’ performance in any L2-task or skill by modelling editing strategies, which may enhance their L2-processing efficiency. Generally, learners are first made aware of their problems in learning or task-performance; they are then shown a range of strategies that may help them; finally they receive instruction and extensive practice in such strategies.

2. Reasons why Error Correction does not work

2.1 The acquisition of a grammatical structure is a complex and gradual process, not a sudden discovery prompted by teacher correction

In his case against Grammar Correction Truscott (1996) noted that, in spite of being intuitively appealing, the notion that IL development can occur as a result of a mere transfer of information from teacher to learner is flawed for the following reasons. Firstly, most current L2-acquisition theories assert that IL development involves extremely complex learning processes; thus, assuming that a structure may be acquired by ‘learning’ the teacher’s correction presupposes an over simplistic view of L2-acquisition. Secondly, Truscott (1996) cites evidence indicating that there is a pre-determined order in which the human brain acquires L2-structures; this entails that if a student is corrected on a point for which s/he is not ready the correction will simply be wasted.

Research evidence does support Truscott’s assertion that learners do not acquire an L2-item instantaneously as a result of a sudden ‘revelation’ triggered by correction (e.g. Pienemann, 1984). However, as the proponents of the Noticing Hypothesis have asserted, L2-acquisition is often triggered by the awareness of a mismatch between the input and their current IL (Schmidt and Frota, 1986). Thus, EC may play an important role by bringing into learner focal awareness a flawed IL item which would otherwise go completely unnoticed.

Many authors (e.g. Ferris, 1999; Doughty, 1991; James, 1998) believe that EC can contribute to L2-development, based on evidence indicating that Explicit Formal Instruction (EFI) has a positive impact on IL development (Pica, 1985; Ellis, 1990; Fotos, 1993; De Keyser 1994; James, 1998). One important argument they invoke in support of EC is the danger of error automatisation/fossilization. As discussed in the previous blog, in the absence of negative cognitive feedback an erroneous form may become proceduralised according to the power law of practice.

2.2 EC produces intellectual knowledge not useful in editing

Krashen (1981) posited that, although consciously learnt, grammar knowledge cannot be ‘acquired’ (i.e. become available subconsciously), it might still be useful in monitoring L2-output. This notion was refuted by Truscott (1996) who cited three studies in support of his position: Gass (1983), Sorace (1985), Greene and Hecht (1992). In particular, he emphasized the importance of Greene and Hecht’s (1992) finding that ‘students who could not state a rule or who stated a wrong rule for nine common English errors they were asked to correct were nonetheless able to make a proper correction in most cases’ (Truscott, 1996: 349).

Many scholars (e.g. Krashen, 1981, 1984; Ellis, 1990; Johnson, 1996; James, 1998) believe that knowledge acquired through grammar instruction can be useful in the process of monitoring. Ellis (1990), for instance, asserted that grammar teaching can enhance accuracy in careful, planned speech production. I share this view based on my personal experience as an L2-, L3- and L4-writer. Moreover, in a study of learner writing strategies in which I took part as a researcher assistant (Macaro, 2001), I observed that learners did use grammar knowledge successfully to edit.

2.3 Teacher corrections are often inconsistent and unhelpful

Cohen and Robbins (1976), Zamel (1985) and Cohen and Cavalcanti (1990) found that teacher written responses to L2-compositions are often unhelpful because they are difficult to understand (Zamel, 1985; Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990), lack consistency (and are often arbitrary and idiosyncratic (Hedgcock and Lefkowitz, 1992; Zamel, 1985); furthermore, teachers often fail to notice errors (Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990) or misinterpret learner intended meaning providing the wrong correction (Cohen and Robbins, 1976). However, rather than prompting us to stop correcting, these findings simply indicate that some teachers do not practice EC properly.

2.4 L2-learner cognitive response to teacher feedback is not conducive to learning

The issues undermining EC efficacy discussed in 3.3 above are compounded by the problems identified by Cohen (1987), Cohen and Cavalcanti (1990) and Conti (2004) with L2-learner feedback-handling strategies. In their surveys of MFL and EFL students they found that their respondents were very superficial in their approach to teacher corrections. The vast majority simply made a mental note of the corrections and very few incorporated them in their rewrites. Furthermore, many of them did not know how to handle teacher feedback as it was. This, too, is a very serious issue, which has enormous implications for MFL teachers. As I discussed in previous blogs, I believe that the phenomena reported by Cohen (1987), Cohen and Cavalcanti (1990)  and Conti (2004) are the main cause for the ineffectiveness of traditional forms of EC since, as Information Processing theories of learning posit, without ‘deep processing’ no target items of information can be successfully learnt (Eysenck and Keane 1995).

Abolishing EC on the grounds that L2-learners do not pay sufficient attention to it is problematic since a number of surveys have consistently confirmed that learners do want to be corrected (Cohen 1987; Ferris 1995a; Hedgcock & Lefkowitz, 1992; Radecki & Swales, 1988). Thus, the absence of any form of EC could frustrate students to the point that it might interfere with their motivation and confidence in the writing class ‘particularly when grading rubrics and writing proficiency examination results tell them that their language errors could prevent them from achieving their educational and professional goals’ (Ferris, 1999: 8). Thus, instead of doing away with corrections teachers may have to find ways to involve the learners more actively and positively in the feedback-handling process. This is exactly what Conti’s (2004) Self-monitoring Programme purported to do.

2.5 EC can have a detrimental effect on learner motivation

Another criticism is that EC can undermine student motivation (Krashen, 1981; Truscott, 1996). This view rests on the assumption that learning is most effective when students are relaxed and confident and enjoying their learning. The use of correction, it is argued, encourages exactly the opposite condition, causing learners anxiety and stress. Macintyre and Gardner (1994) found a negative correlation between language anxiety and foreign language writing proficiency. James (1998), however, reports finding by Brown (1977) that EC can lead to Facilitative Anxiety, which motivates students to achieve. James (1998) suggests an alternative and equally plausible hypothesis to Krashen’s (1981) Affective Filter Hypothesis:

an optimal level of affect in the form of ‘arousal’ is necessary for

learning to take place. After all, consciousness, awareness and

any form of noticing of language is a sign of taking note, or arousal,

and these are all thought to be beneficial. (James, 1998: 194)

2.6 In spite of many corrections learners will make the same mistakes over and over again

Truscott (1996) makes the point that the phenomenon of the resurgence of errors that have been corrected a great many times constitutes evidence that EC is ineffective. Based on Skill AcquisitionTheory, though, the obvious reply to Truscott is that automatised errors will tend to re-occur unless the corrective treatment does something more than simply informing the learners of the correct rule. In fact, as studies like Makino (1993) and Lee’s (1997) have shown, L2-student writers have the ability to self-correct a large number of their mistakes. However, as discussed in previous blogs, learners often fail to detect such errors due to processing inefficiency or superficial editing.

Thus, what the phenomenon noted by Truscott (1996) tells us is not that EC cannot work, but rather that teachers need to re-train the learners in the use of those structures through extensive practice and/or train them in monitoring those structures more carefully in written and possibly oral production. Johnson (1996) suggests an interesting approach to routinised processing efficiency errors. He suggests that for such mistakes to be eradicated four things are needed:

a. The desire or need to eradicate the mistake. It is likely that a number of mistakes do not get eradicated simply because students know they can get by without eradicating them

b. A model of the correct form being used in the Real Operating Conditions under which the mistake was made

c. A realization by students that their performance was flawed

d. An opportunity to re-practice in Real Operating Conditions

(Johnson 1996: 123)

Traditional approaches mostly cater for point ‘b’ and ‘c’ and occasionally for ‘d’. However, as far as ‘c’ is concerned, the use of selective correction and the superficial attitudes to feedback identified by Cohen (1987) would suggest that often students do not realize all of the instances on which their performance is flawed. The main issue, though, is that most traditional approaches fall short of bringing about learner intentionality to eradicate errors from processing failure which refer to less semantically salient features. This is a serious limitation of most EC techniques because, such errors being less likely to impinge on effective communication, learners may not have enough motivation to do something about them.

2.7 There is no conclusive empirical evidence that EC can be effective

This is the most powerful argument against grammar correction since none of the relatively few studies conducted to-date has provided conclusive evidence that EC can significantly reduce grammatical, lexical and orthographical errors or enhance the development of L2-proficiency. The body of evidence in favour of EC’s effectiveness is still fragmented and not strong enough to make any valid and generalizable claims. What is evident from research is that the advantages one gets from traditional correction practices are not significant enough to justify the effort.

3. Conclusion

As I concluded in my previous post ‘Why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing (not the traditional way at least)’, traditional forms of error correction, considering the ratio ‘time spent to learning gains’, are ineffective ways of providing feedback. For corrective intervention to work, it must:

– Effectively focus learners on the importance of form and bring it firmly into their focal awareness;

– Enhance the ways in which the learners handle feedback and get them to process teacher corrections ‘deeply’, using approaches that are more conducive to learning;

– Increase their error related self-knowledge (i.e. the knowledge of what their most common errors are);

– Enhance their editing strategies through learner training and extensive practice;

– Personalize remedial learning and engages them in a long-term of self-monitoring process whereby they set out to eradicate the errors they know they make through independent study, extensive practice and careful editing.

Corrective intervention of the kind just outlined can, as my study (Conti,2004) and other research has indicated (e.g. Lalande, 1988; Ferris, 1995; Macaro, 2001), impact writing accuracy. However, it is a laborious and time-consuming process.


Six things I do in every foreign language lesson I teach


In response to my very controversial blog ‘Six useless things foreign language teachers do’ many of my readers have asked me to point out the ‘good’ things about a language lesson, rather than criticize the ‘bad’ ones.

I am not going to respond by listing the obvious features of a good lesson which scores of educators and researchers have already pointed out and discussed to death. Rather, I am going to focus on 6 things that in my opinion are crucial to the success of an effective language lesson and that in 25 years of teaching and classroom based research I have not seen enough of.

  1. Systematic recycling of the target material – This is the most obvious element of a good lesson. One sees teachers do it fairly systematically with beginner to pre-intermediate students when dealing with simple vocabulary and grammar (adjectives to describe personality ; daily routine ; jobs ; etc.) ; but when teachers (and textbooks) deal with more advanced vocabulary and more advanced learners (GCSE and beyond) this happens less often. Teachers do stick to the topic-in-hand but do not necessarily recycle the same pool of words/lexical phrases systematically throughout the lessons. Consequently, students’ retention of the target vocabulary is often inadequate. For any lesson purporting to teach new vocabulary to be successful, the lexical content must be planned carefully and each target word/phrase should be recycled five to eight times through a balance of receptive and productive tasks. My website’s concept (www.language-gym.com) is based on this principle.
  1. ‘Pre-’ is everything – Before involving students in any cognitive and linguistically challenging tasks, teachers must enhance their chances to succeed in and learn from them as much as possible. This entails finding ways to ease the cognitive load the learners are likely to experience during those challenging tasks by ‘prepping’ them. Hence, before engaging them in a challenging reading task or watching a video including a fair number of unfamiliar words, students should be given plenty of opportunities to practise those words through a wide range of activities prior to the reading/viewing. The same applies to challenging speaking tasks involving spontaneous or pseudo-spontaneous speech ; the students should be prepared for them through a series of activities which are highly structured to start with and become increasingly less controlled. Pre-task preparation is crucial in enhancing the learning potential of more challenging and complex activities.
  1. Regular (structured and spontaneous) learner to learner interaction and minimum teacher talk – A lesson where students interact with each other in the target language is always a pleasure to observe. And if the students have been prepared adequately for the oral task through a range of pre-communicative activities aimed at equipping them with the vocabulary and the structures necessary to cope with it, learning will indeed happen. Oral activities involving ‘filling’ an information gap should feature regularly in MFL lessons – I set myself as a target to have at least a quarter of each lesson of mine devoted to oral interaction involving negotiation of meaning every day – unless the focus of the lesson does not allow it.
  1. Horizontal before vertical progression – This is related to the concept of recycling developed in point 1, as by horizontal progression I mean the systematic consolidation of the target material, be it grammar structures or vocabulary. My point here is that teachers should not necessarily always aim at progression from a level of challenge to a higher one unless they have evidence – not just a hunch – that the students are actually ready. Often teachers are so eager to achieve  by the end of a lesson an ambitious linguistic goal they set for their learners, that they are not prepared to step back and renounce that ‘higher-order goal’ for a ‘lower-order’ one even though several students in the class may still need a lot of consolidation. Language learning occurs along two major dimensions, the acquisition of intellectual knowledge about the target language system (declarative knowledge) and the acquisition of control over performance in the target language under real operating conditions (see my article on cognitive control). Horizontal progression concerns itself with the more important of the two dimensions, proceduralization ; vertical progression, when happening to soon (e.g. in the same lesson) creates declarative knowledge. This is why horizontal progression should always take priority in language learning.
  1. Extensive receptive practice before production – this is pivotal, as comprehensible reading and listening input provide valuable linguistic modelling ; the target structures and vocabulary should be recycled extensively and systematically in the context of several receptive learning tasks before the students use them productively in speaking and writing. Narrow listening and narrow reading can come in very handy in this respect (see my article on this).
  1. Preventing the ‘so-what ?’ effect – tactics must be implemented to ensure that every step of the way, in any given lesson, students are aware of what the purpose of every activity staged is – how it is going to enhance their acquisition of the target language, how it is relevant to their life and academic goals, etc. I usually start doing this from the beginning of the lesson, on introducing the new topic / sub-topic , by asking them how they think my learning intentions are going to impact their learning, in their opinion.

8 tips to enhance foreign language learners’ editing skills in essay writing


The following are eight editing strategies that can enhance the accuracy of foreign language learners’ written output. I tested their effectiveness in the context of my PhD study and the results were remarkable. For reasons of space I am only focusing on the strategies themselves and not on the instructional framework I used to model and ‘teach’ them. Teachers may elect to try them separately, or synergistically – which is the way I did.

  1. Raise student awareness of the differences between reading and proof-reading

A fundamental mistake made by students when they edit their essays is to ‘read’ the essay they wrote rather than ‘proof-read’ it. The two processes are different in that ‘reading’ focuses Working Memory’s attentional system on meaning, whereas ‘proof-reading’ focuses it on the surface level of the text (grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc.). Hence, when a foreign language learner is proof-reading by reading his/her text aloud or by sub-vocalizing, he/she is less likely to spot surface level errors (e.g grammar or spelling), especially those that are less obvious or less salient.

Consequently, if we want to enhance our students’ editing effectiveness we must raise their awareness of the differences between the two processes. Learners should be trained to focus solely on the ‘mechanics’ of the text when checking surface level accuracy whilst dealing with meaning in separate reviewing sessions.

  1. Task-related metacognitive knowledge

In making our student writers more effective editors, one of the greatest challenges is to enhance their task-related metacognition, which involves, amongst other things, knowing what their most common pitfalls are at all level of the texts, including surface level accuracy.

Higly metacognizant writers know what mistakes they make and before handing in/publishing a written piece they will look out for the mistakes they are more likely to make. For instance, I know that when I type-write an essay I often omit the ‘s’ at the end of words, write ‘of instead of ’or’, occasionally spell ‘than’ ‘then’ and omit copulas (‘is’ or ‘are’). Hence, I always scan my blogs or essays looking for errors with these words before publishing. I also know that I need to go through my drafts several times if I want to spot all of the mistakes.

In my PhD study I found that the vast majority of L2-students lack this kind of self-knowledge. Many of them do think they know the mistakes they make ; but when you ask them to list them, their accounts always differ substantially from reality. The lists they often provide is more likely to include the grammar items they found difficult to learn in lessons rather than the actual mistakes they make in writing. And even when they do get it right they provide very broad categories (e.g. verbs) which are not very helpful when proofreading.

This entails that when editing their essays many L2 students lack an important source of help. Hence, teachers who want to enhance their student’s editing effectiveness may have to bring their most common errors into their focal awareness in as much detail as possible whilst enhancing their knowledge of the grammar rules that those erros refer to.

The technique I used in my PhD study to achieve this was quite complex and laborious ; however, a simpler yet effective way to address this issue would be to ask the students to log their main errors systematically on receiving each essay (not too many) and label them according to the categories they refer to (e.g. word-order, adjectival agreement, irregular adjective) ; count and note down the errors made in each category ; research and explain the rule broken (when they don’t know it) and work out a memory strategy (e.g. a mnemonic) which may help prevent the error or facilitate recall of that rule in the editing of the next essay. If this process is carried out week in week out, it is likely to enhance their awareness of the mistakes they normally make.

  1. Selective monitoring

Selective monitoring entails focusing on one major error category at a time in the editing phases of essay writing. So, one may go through one’s essay the first time looking for noun-to-adjective agreement mistakes ; the second round, focusing on errors with a specific tense ; the third round searching for word order issues, etc.

  1. Looking out for ‘tricky contexts’

Some linguistic contexts pose more challenges to the novice-to-intermediate writer than others and are consequently more likely to cause them to err. For instance, in my PhD study I identified long sentences loaded with adjectives and including more than one tense as contexts where most of my students made several mistakes. But ultimately, any context which requires the learner, in the transcribing phase of sentence production (i.e. when ideas are translated into words), to apply grammar rules and lexis one he/she has not fully automatised is more likely to cause errors ; this is because the challenging structure(s) will absorb most of the attentional resources causing less salient features to go unheeded – unless, that is, one makes a conscious effort to focus on them. Obviously, the more the problematic grammar structures one is required to handle are, the greater the chances to err.

In my study I also found out that when the students write fairly long essays, they are more likely to make mistakes with more challenging sentences and structures towards the end of their piece, possibly because they are more tired, less motivated (e.g. ‘I just want to get over and done with it’) or are running out of time (e.g. when writing under exam constraints).

  1. Focus on word-endings

As already discussed in a previous blog, the anglo-saxon brain is wired to focus on the beginning of words, hence teachers should endeavour to focus their L1 English learners of French or Spanish on word ending accuracy. In the same blog I also explained why agreement mistakes pose challenges to our students’s cognitive processing both during editing and language production.

My old French teacher used a very effective strategy to enhance our chances of spotting and fix this kind of errors ; he made us ‘track down’ for each adjective or verb in our essays the noun or pronoun it referred to by using our pencil/pen ; once identified it, we would check if the ending applied was correct and tick it to show him we had checked it. This was a very effective way to scaffold checking for agreement mistakes ; I often use it during 1 : 1 conferences with less accurate writers and occasionally with groups of motivated novice students, but not with all of my classes, as some learners do find it tedious.

  1. Sense monitoring by back-translation

Back-translation can be useful as an editing technique, when used properly. One of the uses is to check that what one has written makes sense in the students’ mother tongue. In my study, when learners back-translated slowly, word for word, they were more likely to spot word omissions – especially omissions of copula (e.g. ‘is’ or ‘are’)- , wrong use of tenses and, generally, intelligibility issues.

  1. Error Checklists

Error checklists are often used in many MFL classrooms. I have used them myself with varying success. In my study and classroom experience, though, they worked best when the checklists were not entirely imposed by the teacher but included items chosen by the learners themselves based on the error-logging process mentioned in point 2, above. Their ownership of the process, according to my students, seems to enhance their intentionality to eradicate error.

  1. ‘Editing successes’ log

This is a worksheet that the teacher gives the student after looking through the essay and identifying the presence of a number of mistakes across various categories. S/he will then give back the essay to the student alerting him/her to the presence of X number of mistakes in it pertaining to specific categories; the students is then charged with the task of spotting and correcting as many of them  as possible whilst logging each mistake and correction on the worksheet as homework.

In conclusion, these are some of the strategies that teachers may model to their students in an attempt to enhance their ability to effectively edit the surface level accuracy of their essays or narrative writing. For the above strategies to be acquired by the learners it will not be enough to just present them to the students, model their use and give them a one-off practice session. Students need extensive practice in the execution of these strategies and this practice must be scaffolded by reminders to use the strategies and supported by regular teacher feedback. These reminders can be as simple as worksheet or google docs with 5 or 6 key questions that they have to answer very concisely , such as :

  • Have you read through the essay checking meaning only ? How many times ?
  • Have you read through the essay checking grammar accuracy only ? How many times ?
  • Have you checked the following items ?

-noun/pronoun to adjective agreement

– subject to verb agreement


Scaffolding and teacher feedback are the most crucial aspects of the process.

Before teachers even start the editing instruction process, it may be useful to focus the students on the importance of accuracy and provide them with a solid rationale as to why you are modelling the target strategies to them. In strong communicative approaches or in contexts where accuracy is not in the students’ focal awareness, in the initial phases of the training teachers may have to work harder on hammering home why certain categories of mistakes can be particularly detrimental to the effectiveness of communication and may need to be focused on. The ultimate goal ought to be to forge competent autonomous editors able to transfer the above strategies not only from one semantic context to another but also across languages.