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#EFLproblems – Learners noticing and correcting their own mistakes




Corrections on textWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Mark Armstrong’s blog comment regarding the challenge of helping students to self-correct their own writing. Verissimo Toste from the Professional Development Team discusses how to encourage self-correction.

I don’t know if this is my greatest challenge but I would like to see my children self-correct more when they are writing. It’s a shame to see the same kind of errors popping up again and again. Sometimes it’s L1 interference, sometimes it’s just children being children. I do for a fact, though, know that they know better. I don’t want to cover their written work with red markings but I don’t want them to continue repeating errors either. Any ideas?”

Mark brings up an interesting problem: students correcting their own writing. Or rather, not correcting their own writing. Although I will focus my ideas for younger learners, I think many of them can be adapted for older students.

Mistakes are natural

First, let me focus on an important point – mistakes are natural, they are part of learning. They are an important part of learning. Get this message across to your students. I usually ask my students to talk to their parents about the “mistakes” they made when they were young and learning their first language. This generates a fun discussion in class, usually leading to difficulties in learning to ride a bike or learning to swim. The important point in the end is that learning involves making mistakes. If they aren’t making mistakes, then maybe they are not really learning anything new.

Mistakes are part of learning

Having established an environment in the classroom where mistakes are natural, it is now important for the teachers to consider what mistakes they expect their students to be able to correct. My first consideration is, “If a student were to look at the mistake again, would they notice it?” Then, I consider, “If other students were to look at the mistake, would they notice it?” It’s important to understand what students are expected to correct. For this, I have my students practice. I give them a text or a selection of sentences with mistakes made by students in other classes, maybe even previous years. I tell them how many mistakes there are and give them time to find them. They indicate the mistakes by underlining them. I walk around, look at their work, and tell them how many actual mistakes they have found.

Then, I put students into pairs or small groups of no more than 4. I ask them to compare their work with one another. At this point, students come up with a list of the mistakes they all have found. This may add up to 10, but it usually doesn’t. Together they look for the mistakes they have missed. They discuss these as a group and come to a consensus as a group. They must agree on a list of 10 mistakes. Once again, I walk around and tell them the number of mistakes they have found.

This activity, which I may do once a month if necessary, helps my students notice the language, since the mistakes I choose are related to the language they have learnt or are learning. The activity also helps to make mistakes part of learning, reinforcing the discussion we had previously. More importantly, however, the activity creates a need for the teacher to help. The next time I do the activity, I underline where the mistakes are and ask them to correct them. I follow the same steps, going from working individually to small groups. This type of activity helps students develop their language noticing skills. Students not only learn to become aware of their mistakes, they also begin to learn how to avoid them.

Mistakes are there to be corrected

At this point students are ready to begin correcting their own work. However, why should they do this? Why correct? If students are writing, then I suggest that their writing be “published”, displayed, shared with others. This could be a simple poster displayed in the classroom or a text on a school blog. If they are writing a story or a poem, these can be made into a book. The important point is that others will see their work. This will give them a reason to correct. It will also help them to accept the teacher’s role as a facilitator, helping them to improve their work.

The next step in this process is for students to understand the idea of writing a first draft; that what they write the first time is not final. Equally important, they need to accept that it is not the teacher’s job to correct what they themselves can avoid. Students write their first draft in class and then take it home to check for mistakes. It is important for them to write their texts first in class and then to look at them again at home. Students may not notice mistakes immediately after writing them. This becomes clearer when they look at their texts again after some time has passed. For classes that are reluctant to do this, I collect their first draft and give it back to them two days later for homework.

Having looked at their own texts, I ask them to share these texts with other students in the class. At this point students work in pairs or small groups, suggesting possible mistakes to each other.  Taking the suggestions into consideration, they write the second draft of their texts. These they give to me. Depending on how confident my students are, I correct only those mistakes I feel the student will not be able to. The others I simply indicate it is a mistake by underlining it. At this point, students should be able to write their final draft, which they will share with others in the class.

In closing…

One final thought on this process. In some classes, and with parental permission, I have asked my students to write their work on Word and then to send it to me via email. I do this for a few reasons. One, they slowly learn to use the spellchecker and to react to that information. Two, they are more accepting of correcting mistakes as they don’t need to write all of the text again. Three, not needing to write all of the text helps them to focus on correcting the mistakes and avoiding them later. Finally, it makes use of their computer for classwork, a skill they will need later in their academic life.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting young learners involved, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 20 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for our next blog posts:

08 January 2014 – Teaching monolingual vs multi-lingual classes
22 January 2014 –  Teaching students over 50 years old


  1. These are some really great ideas and I’ll definately try some of them in my classes. I also think checking students’ papers with a different colour than red is helpful. They don’t feel so bad about their mistakes.

  2. Well you definitely gave me a lot to think about! Thanks so much for writing this insightful blog entry.

  3. […] want to say a big (and very belated) thanks to Verissimo Toste for so unexpectedly writing such a great blog post at OUP’s Global ELT […]

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