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Home > Community > Main Blog Page > Blog Post

Not All Errors are Equal

In his recent blog, Richard Ashelford asked what the problem was with asking for accuracy when your students are writing.

It’s a good question and the short answer is ‘nothing’.

But the long answer is much more interesting. Not all inaccuracies are equal and each different type needs a different response from you as the tutor.

 

Types of inaccuracies 

Julian Edge, in his book “Mistakes and Correction”, breaks down inaccuracies to three broad categories:

Slips – the learner can correct these once they are aware of them. It could be the learner had cognitive overload, was careless or just missed something.

Errors – they need an explanation of why something isn’t correct. Some knowledge is missing and needs to be provided for the student to understand and correct their mistake.

Attempts – the learner has tried something new without knowing the ‘right’ way to do it.

So let’s take a look at how to approach these three types of inaccuracies in your tutoring sessions.

 

How to deal with them

Slips

We all make silly mistakes when writing. I know I do! Slips are hard to correct because they are hard to spot.

But they are also very common.

Think about what strategies you have developed to catch these little hiccups in your own writing. The crafting and editing process, checking and proofreading. You may need to explain to your learner why we do this, that you expect them to proofread their own work, and that you make sure you budget time for this in your lesson plan. If you can make proofreading/editing a habit, it’ll serve your students well through school, university and beyond.

Errors

These are the meat and potatoes of your tutoring sessions: identifying gaps in your learners’ knowledge and helping to fill them in.

But there are a number of ways to approach this. Scott Thornbury, in his wonderful book “Beyond the Sentence”,  identifies ‘guided self-editing’ as the traditional method for correcting errors. This is where a tutor marks a text with ‘gr’ or ‘sp’ to show the type of error and the learner then makes corrections as they can. 

Of more use in a tutoring session, perhaps, is ‘conferencing‘ where you sit down with the learner to go through the text and discuss errors and improvements. This is a much richer experience for your student, and it provides much more feedback that can be folded back into your future lesson planning.

Attempts

These are magic!

These are your learners reaching beyond their knowledge and into the unknown as they make an attempt to write something that they don’t know how to write. Catch the moment and you will have some magical learning time as you explore the new ideas raised, or as you scaffold and framework your students towards the new language they are reaching for. 

 

How much is too much? 

So as you can see, not all inaccuracies are equal and each type gives rise to a different kind of learning moment that you can make use of.

It’s tempting to try and correct every inaccuracy in a text, but remember that students have finite cognitive resources to process your feedback. A targeted approach, i.e. choosing one type of error to concentrate on, can be more beneficial than a “got to correct them all” approach. We are often writing to a deadline on a time constraint, so picking which errors to correct with limited time is a useful skill. 

 

Above all, be kind when working with your students’ inaccuracies.

Grammar, punctuation, spelling and using complex sentences come easily to some, and much harder to others. Language and identity are so closely bound up that a good understanding of issues surrounding the type of English that gets taught in schools, that is “Standard English”, will be of great use to you. More on that next time…

Dave Harris
Dave has been teaching and tutoring for over 15 years. After training as a TEFL teacher, he went into tutoring TEFL, Business English, Academic English, Text Analysis and more in London, Beijing and Stockholm. A great believer in removing blocks to learning, and training students with the soft skills they need to be successful lifelong learners. Dave ran a tutoring company for 8 years before going part-time to look after his daughter. He works at QT as a Course Facilitator and Administrator.

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