We currently have 145 articles in the Teacher's Handbook See the Full list

How to Properly Correct Students’ Mistakes

Maureen St. George

Should you correct a student’s mistakes? Well, that depends on you, the student, the level, the class… basically, everything. But if and when you do, there are some things to keep in mind to avoid embarrassment, keep the flow of the class and make sure the student(s) learn from their mistakes.

Correct Not Incorrect

Getting Started
The first thing to consider is in what context the students are making mistakes. If your classroom schedule goes from a closed exercise to subsequently more independent activities, it’s best to correct the student as much as possible at the beginning, and then let them talk freely for the last part. During the free talk time, the teacher can take notes on any mistakes the students make and then go over those quickly during the last few minutes of class. Teachers can just tell the students what happened, but a more participatory way is to jog their memory and the student can fill in what he/she said and then correct themselves.

What to Pay Attention to
It’s also important to consider the vibe of the class. If shy students are beginning to gain confidence and speak more, they may react badly to being corrected. It may be best to ignore small mistakes until they gain more confidence. Similarly, if the conversation is flowing effortlessly, the teacher should take a backseat. If a student says something like, “I didn’t went,” it’s not necessary to stop a spirited conversation just to correct something that still gets the main point across. Some students may put a huge value on speaking with correct grammar at all times, and fear that they will not be understood if they make a mistake. Native English speakers make mistakes all the time and it rarely results in a breakdown of communication. Correcting every last thing may reinforce reluctance to speak if they aren’t totally sure it’s correct.

If shy students are beginning to gain confidence and speak more, they may react badly to being corrected. It may be best to ignore small mistakes until they gain more confidence.

How to Correct the Student
Depending on what’s best for the class, teachers have several options for correction. One way is to take notes and at the end of the exercise, go over the mistakes and have students correct them. Another way is to develop a ‘tell’ that students will notice and know they’ve just made a mistake. It can be something like putting your hand out, palm up, raising an eyebrow or something of the like. In some scenarios, it’s best to correct immediately, like when giving examples for a new concept or grammar concept. Letting mistakes slip through at the beginning means they’ll pop up later, possibly in a worse state. Pronunciation also requires vigilant correction, which can be monitored through heavy repetition.

As for writing assignments, it’s important to focus on correcting the content as much as the grammar. One way to extend the assignment is to point out one or two mistakes that happen repeatedly and have the students correct them and turn in the assignment again. If there are a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes, it’s best to focus on the ones that are closest to the subject at hand and leave the rest for another time.

To spare students’ feelings, it’s best to walk around the room and correct students at their desk rather than in front of the whole class. Students absolutely deserve to be corrected; this is part of the deal to improve their English, after all. But doing it quietly at their desks or after class may be best until the class grows more comfortable with each other or the student’s confidence grows. If there’s a glaring problem with something they just said, it may be necessary to correct it and just ignore any other minor mistakes.

What about you? How do you take on students’ mistakes?

About the author

Maureen is a US-born, Hong Kong-based freelance editor and writer who has taught ESL all over the world. Traveling is her main hobby, and there's nothing she enjoys more than having a carefully planned trip go completely awry.