The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 7 – Correcting Students’ Mistakes

Where to timetable the input session on ‘Correction and Dealing with Student Errors’ is a tricky one and often reflects the trainer’s beliefs about teacher training and teaching.

Some trainers leave it till Week 3, preferring to focus on lesson structures where the target language is presented and then practice of that target language is given.

This could be based on the belief that language lessons should take on an input-output structure where teachers aim to teach a particular pre-decided lexico-grammatical item.

Or this could be based on the belief that teacher trainees on a CELTA are not ready to handle the clarification and correction of language that emerges from student output as they are new to the profession, and are better off having the chance to research and prepare to present a language item.

Of course, there is also the fact that the CELTA criteria expects trainees to articulate the aims of the lesson (e.g. By the end of the lesson, students will have been introduced to and given practice of the use of the present perfect for life experiences in the context of talking about countries they have been to) and show through the stages and procedure of their lesson plan how they are going to go about achieving that aim.

This naturally suggests that the other CELTA criteria regarding the ability to clarify meaning, form and pronunciation of language in Teaching Practice refers mainly to the clarification of the target language stated in the lesson aims.

Hence, in order to best equip teachers to deal with Teaching Practice, the first two weeks of input are often spent understanding the input-output lesson shapes like Present-Practice-Produce and ‘Language from a Text’, and demonstrating how to systematically clarify MFP in such lessons.

Being a Dogmetician, and a believer in the importance dealing with emergent language, I decided to deliver my input session on correction on Day 6 (Week 2, Day 1). After all, if it’s going to be difficult for trainees, they might as well start getting practice of it as soon as possible.

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Let us first start by looking at some sentences spoken by my students.

Decide where the mistake lies, whether it is a problem with lexis, grammar, pronunciation or usage, and why you think this mistake was made.

How would you correct the mistake?

Here are some examples:

1)   She want some tea.

2)   He saw a dream about winning the Olympics yesterday.

3)   I am not agree with you.

4)   I lied down on my bed when I got home.

5)   He seed a film at the cinema last week.

6)   I read a new about Team GB’s gold medals this morning.

7)   If I am you, I will go home.

8)   Last month, I had seen this film.

(1) is a grammatical issue where the student has dropped the third person ‘s’ in ‘wants’. A seemingly simple grammar rule to remember, new teachers are often surprised to find fairly advanced students of English still making this mistake. This is often not because the student is unaware of the rule, but simply forgot. If repeated often, the mistake becomes habitual (or in some literature, ‘fossilized’).

Not surprisingly, the third person ‘s’ is a late acquisition item even among children who speak English as a first language. This could be due to the similarity in the pronunciation of ‘want’ and ‘wants’, and the fact that there is hardly any impact on meaning if the ‘s’ is dropped.

Although (2) is a mistake with lexis and collocation, while (3) is a grammatical mistake, they both are a result of L1 interference, i.e. translation from the student’s first language has caused the mistake. The speaker of sentence (2) is Japanese and the collocation ‘to see a dream’, instead of ‘to have a dream’ is the norm in the Japanese language. Sentence (3) is a mistakes typically made by Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French speakers, as ‘agree’ is an adjective, as in ‘Estoy de acuerdo’, ‘Sono d’accordo’ or ‘Je suis d’accord’.

Number (4) and (5) feature the same grammatical mistake of using the regular verb past tense ending ‘-ed’ with an irregular verb.

However, the student who said (4) simply did not know the past simple of the irregular verb ‘lie’ and might have confused it with the regular verb ‘to lie’ (as in ‘not to tell the truth’).

The elementary student who said sentence (5) had been able to say ‘I saw’ previously. But when taught the rules for forming the past simple of regular verbs, the eager student over-applied the rules to the irregular verbs as well. As first glance, it might seem like the student has deteriorated. In actual fact, he/she was experimenting with a rule that was taught.

And without experimentation, there can be no language learning.

Sentence (6) also features an over-application of a rule. The student understood that plural nouns often take an ‘s’ in English, e.g. one medal, two medals. The student also knew the word ‘news’ and has assumed that it was a noun in the plural form. He then deduced that one piece of news must be ‘a new’. Very clever!

Sentence number (7) sees the first conditional, instead of the second conditional being used. This could be due to several possible reasons : (a) the student hasn’t had enough practice of the structure and isn’t ready to produce it, (b) the student forgot (c) the student has never come across this structure or hasn’t been taught it (d) the student was taught this in class but misunderstood the teacher and thought that ‘If I were you’ referred to a past time.

Sentence (8) is another example of a student experimenting with the tenses they have learnt and perhaps going a little overboard with it, and overcomplicating the sentence. The past simple would have sufficed.

Photo by @pigletruth from

To sum up, here’s why students make mistakes

  • They forgot.
  • It’s a habit.
  • L1 interference
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of practice
  • Not ready to produce it
  • Misunderstanding the teacher
  • Over-application of a rule
  • Experimentation

But students want to have their mistakes pointed out and corrected. Many of them feel that this is what they are paying the teacher to do.

A director of studies once told me that the most common student complaint they got was that their teachers were not correcting them enough.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

But can we correct every mistake we hear?

That would not only disrupt fluency to the point where real communication would be made nearly impossible, but would also affect the student’s confidence.

Instead, deal with issues that are

  • Affecting meaning and interfering with communication;
  • Recurring mistakes;
  • Mistakes made by several members of the class;
  • Mistakes made concerning the target language that you focused on in this lesson or in previous lessons.
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What are some different ways we can correct a mistake in class?


(1) Reformulation/Recasting

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “Oh? You went to the cinema yesterday?”

This involves the teacher simply repeating the student’s sentence back in the correct form. In some arenas, a distinction is drawn between ‘reformulation’ and ‘recasting’, with a suggestion that ‘reformulation’ is when this is done as in a delayed language feedback slot.

However, I find such terminology unhelpful to my trainees and choose to use the term ‘reformulation’ both for on-the-spot and delayed correction.

(2) Elicit by indicating there’s been an error

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “I go?” (with raised eyebrows and rising intonation)

This works with students who already have been exposed to the language point but have simply either forgotten or have made the mistake a habit.

If students are unable to self-correct, elicit from the other students in the class.

(3) Explicitly tell students what the mistake is

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “ Yesterday is the past but ‘go’ is the present tense. What’s the past tense of ‘go’?”


or even more explicitly,

Teacher: “Yesterday is the past but ‘go’ is the present tense. So we should say ‘I went to the cinema yesterday.”


Other ways of correcting include using

  • finger highlighting,
  • identifying the type of error e.g. ‘tense?’ or ‘preposition?’
  • gestures to indicate word order,
  • using the board and writing up the phonemic script,
  • clapping out the stress pattern of a word or sentence, etc.
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Delayed Language Feedback (Delayed Correction)

After an activity is over and feedback on content has been conducted, language feedback can be conducted.

In one-to-one lessons, it could be helpful to have a sheet of paper divided into two section – ‘What you said’ and ‘What you could have said’. During the spoken interaction, I write on this sheet frantically. In delayed language feedback, I cover the side that says ‘What you could have said’ and get the student to self-correct. I then gradually reveal my reformulations.

In a class, I would write the sentences containing student errors on the board. I would then put students into pairs to correct the sentences. The person who made the error remains anonymous, but every so often, students giggle and admit that the sentence came from them.

After giving students ample time to discuss the sentences, I elicit the self-corrections from them in open class and we learn from the mistakes together.

If you still use OHP projectors, you could write the sentences straight onto the acetate when monitoring, and flash it up on the wall during delayed language feedback. This would save you time writing it up on the board, but this means that you have to pick the sentences you’d like to focus on as you hear them.

Photo by @pigletruth from

Rather than an input-output model, a focus on error correction earlier on emphasizes the fact that learning is not linear, and that some of the best learning takes place when the teacher helps the students to notice the gap in their knowledge and how it could affect communication.

It might not be easy, but just like language learning, the more one practises dealing with language errors and emergent language, the better one is bound to get at it.

After all, why do we encourage our learners to make mistakes, yet feel like we have to protect our teacher trainees from making them?

As James Joyce said, ‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery.’

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

7 thoughts on “The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 7 – Correcting Students’ Mistakes”

  1. Of course, Joyce also said “Whosaw the jackery at handgripper thisa breast?”… 😉

    But Joyce, beyond his moments of articstic obtuseness, was also a Berlitz teacher, and so probably practised a combination of recasting (your option 1) followed by an reattempt by the learner, eschewing any form of discussion about the nature of the error (“we train; we don’t explain” is a famous Berlitz tenet).

    And this might actually have some form of impact – behaviourist as it appears – as research seems to suggest that raw recasting leaves little to no dent on the morpho-syntactic aspect of a learner’s interlanguage – they tend to overlook it as corrective input as such (Penny Ur has the comparative study references, but sadly I don’t right now).

    These days I tend to favour fairly explicit focusing of learners attention on parts of their utterance with sufficient support to help them either make a reattempt (if it was a slip) or create a clear context for the provision of new language.

    As great minds think alike, I’m actually working on a post for my upcoming trainees about dealing with language post-task, which they’ll be doing (I hope) during their first TP, and this is a useful counterpoint to that. So if it’s OK with you, I’ll share your link for this with them.

    Amazed you are finding time for this while MCTing a CELTA. Hut ab!, as they say in Germany!

    1. Hi Anthony,
      That was a super quick comment!
      Very honoured that you want to use my post…so please go ahead!
      Would love to hear about how you are getting your trainees with deal with language post-task.
      We’ve been spending most of this week looking at language, and today, I timetabled in another slot for practice of MFP clarification.
      Seems like practice is key as the trainees are now starting to gain confidence to clarify language in TP now.

      Looking forward to more tips from you! I love your blog!


  2. Another fantastic post. I have almost all my TT sessions sorted now thanks to you.

    I remember back in the day having my first upper-int class and thinking “be Jesus, these kids are good”. They weren’t THAT good really but far better than the ones on the CELTA. I was concerned about how to correct them and some were a bit cocky and just shook it off as criticism. Then when I got an Adv class I understood that good really meant approaching native speaker level and not just a fake one students can end up in after so many years of schooling.

    This class had good students but many who didn’t like being corrected. I’ve seen this many times in various situations. Some students just take it as an attack. I know some are just not use to correction/being told they’re wrong or just having a teacher who engages them. Some do get a bit arrogant too but a large number, in my opinion, don’t see language learning as fixing problems.They see it as attending class, absorbing whatever, doing some exercises then next next next. No revision, fixing problems, no.

    Of course, I’ve had teachers who went the opposite way and said “we’re not moving on until everyone can do …”.

    I had one German kid who just refused to accept that one of his constructions was wrong, even with proof. He said his favourite teacher had taught it to him and that was that. This made me realise how sensitive such engrained errors can be. Perhaps he encoded the information wrong but when we have to retrieve it, reformulate it and then stick it back in his memory it’s a tricky one as tat knowledge has personal meaning and is attached to his feelings for the teacher.

    Outside of a typical EFL classroom of high fee paying students eager to learn and happy to get corrected, how would you advise we approach corrections?

    1. Hi Phil,
      Some interesting points you make there…
      Part of the reason why I spend all of week 1 and some of week 2 getting trainees to create rapport with students, personalise their lessons, ask real questions and promote genuine classroom interaction, is that I believe that the classroom atmosphere and the dynamics of the teacher-learners relationship would affect how the learners feel about being corrected and being taught…

      Aside from Krashen’s affective filter theory and all that, there’s also the simple fact that if I feel that my teacher is on my side and genuinely wants the best for me and wants me to get better, I would be more willing to listen to the corrections and less likely to get defensive.
      I think it’s all in the attitude and the way the correction is being done.

      Eliciting is often also key because we’re giving the learners a chance to self-correct.
      And I often avoid definitive phrases like ‘That is WRONG!’

      Instead, I say things like ‘That’s not quite how we say it in English.’
      ‘I’m afraid the meaning is not very clear that way.’

      Sometimes, if meaning is communicated despite the inaccuracy, I even say,
      ‘That’s really creative! That’s not how we normally say it in English, but I really like that expression!’

      After all, often when a native speaker is inventive with language and departs from the norm, we say he’s creative.
      When a non-native speaker does the same, we say it’s a mistake.



      1. I like it.

        I’ve had a few French kids who love swearing, it is part of the culture here after all. But in English it doesn’t sound as natural. My responses have usually been soft at the beginning like “that is not appropriate” and “we don’t swear in this class” but later as I get to know them and have had ‘the chat’ etc I have to be strict with a “NO!”. I’ve tried serious warnings but these students do it to push my buttons I think or to try to look cool. They don’t want to be corrected. Yes, maybe they are trying to do what they do in French ie say Sh@t a lot and other related ‘bad words’ but it’s not what’s accepted in class, any class. Now when it gets to serious exclamations of “mother…” I have to put my foot down. In younger contexts I’d send them out, even in a language school but at uni it would just be a mail to a co-ordinator and a possible ‘why can’t you handle your own students’ response.

        Any helpful tips of CELTA guru?

  3. You wrote:
    “But students want to have their mistakes pointed out and corrected. Many of them feel that this is what they are paying the teacher to do.”

    I feel that with students at school and adults. What is the point of trying if it doesn’t matter one bit whether there are errors or not?

    Excellent post, one to be saved and reread. This is an issue that is very close to my heart. Students feel they matter more when there is error correction (done in the right, supportive atmosphere, of course!).


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