To receive regular information about new issues:

Subscribe to englisp

Click to join IATET

Click to join IATET

Click to join MedicalESL

Click to join MedicalESL




Business English, Professional English, Legal English, Medical English, Academic English etc.
Online peer-reviewed Journal for Teachers

English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World)

English for Specific Purposes World

ISSN 1682-3257

English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World) Home    Information   ESP Encyclopaedia    Resources    Contacts


Galina Kavaliauskienė

Law University of Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania

You never correct a mistake, you always correct a person

Michael Lewis


Learning a foreign language is a slow and gradual process, during which mistakes are to be expected in all stages of learning. Mistakes do not disappear of their own accord, contrary to what some language learners and teachers believe. Fear of making mistakes prevents learners from being receptive and responsive.

Overcoming learners fear is an essential element of successful learning. It necessitates creating a friendly and supportive atmosphere in language classrooms, encouraging cooperation between learners through peer or small group work and employing various language learning techniques. Furthermore, the learner-friendly ways of rectifying mistakes are fateful for overcoming learners intimidation.

Language teaching practitioners usually assume an active role in error rectification. Learners, as a rule, prefer being passive, avoid taking responsibility for their own learning and depend upon teachers too much. Such approach is inefficient basically because learners are not involved in perceiving and correcting their errors. This is particularly true about so called fossilized (i.e. acquired stereotypes) errors which keep appearing habitually.

State-of-the-art viewpoint of learner-centeredness and developing learner autonomy suggests that in some settings learners self-correction of errors might be more beneficial for language learning than teachers correction. This assumption has neither been confirmed nor disproved in the relevant literature.

This paper examines the research data on how learners perceive teachers correction and learners self-correction. The findings provide some insights into the role of self-correction in mitigating or even eradicating learner fear of mistakes, facilitating process of learning by developing language awareness and encouraging learner autonomy in learning English for Specific Purposes (ESP).


Making mistakes is a natural process of learning and must be considered as part of cognition. The nature of mistakes that occur in learning foreign languages is thought to be causedeither by the interference of the mother tongue or developmental reasons, and are part of the students interlanguage ( Harmer, 2001:99). Mistakes are often a sign of learning and must be viewed positively. It is essential for language teachers to remember a well known fact that learnability varies from person to person and all language learning is based on continual exposure, hypothesizing and, even with the correct hypothesis, testing and reinforcing the ideas behind them (Bartram & Walton, 1991:97).

In our previous investigation of learners difficulties in using ESP (Janulevičienė, Kavaliauskienė, 2003:70), 72% of learners (out of 60 respondents) mentioned fear of mistakes as the impediment, or even the stumbling-block, to learning language: for 45% of students fear is of average importance, while for the rest 27% fear of errors is the uppermost difficulty.

Each language teacher must consider carefully when, what and how to correct. Correction of oral performance is carried out differently than correction of written work. Whatever kind of error rectification teachers conduct, they are advised to keep in mind Michael Lewiss message You never correct a mistake, you always correct a person (quoted in Bartram & Walton, 1991:93).

Supposedly, there are three reasons why the active involvement of students in the process of dealing with mistakes is important. Firstly, it stimulates active learning; secondly, it induces cooperative atmosphere, and thirdly, it develops independent learners (Bartram & Walton, 1991:81).

According to Jeremy Harmer (, correction is a very subtle matter. Gentle re-formulation is often useful, when the student has a chance of correcting himself in passing, and the best time to correct is as late as possible. Moreover, in accordance with this source, teachers have the problem of dominating students, and therefore such correction can be counter-productive. Correction is done appropriately if it is supportive, offers insights and does not interrupt language learning / acquiring opportunities.

Language teachers agree that error correction is an essential condition for successful acquisition of a foreign language, although they are at variance on ways of conducting it. Reconciliation of viewpoints might be secured by turning to self-correction.

Self-correction seems to be more practicable in written rather than in verbal work, although some learners are capable of self-correction in oral presentations. The prevailing opinion among a number of practitioners is that the primary teachers task in initiating self-correction in written work is to indicate the mistakes, but not to correct them. There are various ways of indicating mistakes. The indication can be performed either by underlining errors, coding them (T for a wrong tense, SP for a wrong spelling, WO for a wrong word order) or just ticking the erroneous line.

Preliminary training in self-correction is important for raising learners awareness for ways of spotting mistakes. Self-correction of ones written work may be carried out either individually or in pairs but only if students prefer peer cooperation. However, in my opinion, students definitely need training in rectifying mistakes independently, i.e. without teachers interference. Left to their own devices learners might be overwhelmed or frustrated by task intricacy. Learners ability to notice errors without teachers aid would be a qualitative leap to conscious cognition.

Particular stress has been laid upon teachers feedback at the end of error self-correction activity. Thorough feedback is crucial and must be performed in a way to have a long-term positive effect on students ability to monitor their own performance (Bartram & Walton, 1991:95).

To the best of my knowledge, there is no extensive research on learners attitudes to self- / peer-correction. According to the recently published research paper (Stapa, 2003), only 36% of learners would not mind having their written work corrected by peers, while a vast majority of 64% are against peer-correction. As far as self-correction is concerned, 28% of respondents would not mind correcting their own work, while 72% would mind rectifying their own mistakes.

Surprisingly, learners of ESP face difficulties that cause concern and include grammar and vocabulary (Kavaliauskiene, 2003). Grammar mistakes and inadequate vocabulary aggravate the quality of students written work and oral presentations. Generally speaking, self-correction of written work is easier for students than self-correction of oral presentations, because the former is less threatening to learners, and the latter requires note-taking due to shorter memory spans of retaining utterances.


The challenging goals of this research have been to analyse learners errors in written and verbal performance and suggest effective means for mitigating or even eradicating learners fear of mistakes and mistakes themselves.

The ways of gathering relevant information included questionnaires or surveys. It is essential to emphasize that inquiries were always anonymous. This allows to assume that collected data are unprejudiced.

There were 43 respondents to the poll on correction and self-correction. The respondents were the day-time second-year students at the Law University of Lithuania, who had had 110 hours of ESP instruction so far. It was of interest to find out students general attitudes to language teachers correction, which learners were used to at school, and attitudes to novel experience of self-correction of written and oral work, which students have encountered for the first time at University.

The first part of research touches upon the data obtained through survey limited to the points posed by Jeremy Harmer in his Correction Survey (, which was concerned with written assignments. The second part of research deals with the data on attitudes to correction of verbal performance.

The respondents usually wrote their assignments in class. The assignments included compositions, summaries, grammar and vocabulary tests. Teacher checked written assignments and ticked each repairable line in the margins of individual work. After the written assignments were returned to the students, learners performed the task of self-correction either individually or in pairs, in accordance with their preferences. Teachers role consisted of providing assistance (if / when needed) and feedback at the end of each self-correction session. At some stages of remedial work a few learners asked for teachers guidance, but on the whole a majority were content with working on their own.

The survey contained two major statements with multiple choice suggestions:

v     Teachers correction of oral / written work is:

1) necessary2) unnecessary3) pleasant4) unpleasant5) effective6) ineffective 7) implies

teachers domination8) offends & de-motivates students.

v     Learners (peers) self-correction of oral / written work is:

1) necessary2) unnecessary3) pleasant4) unpleasant5) effective6) ineffective 7) implies learners independence 8) undermines teachers domination.

Some of the findings are depicted in the bar chart 1 below, which shows comparison of learners attitudes to teachers correction vs. learners self-correction. Pink bars depict respondents views on teachers correction, and yellow bars on self-correction.

It can be seen that 79% of respondents think teachers correction is necessary, and 33% of respondents support learners self-correction (first set of bars). None of respondents think teachers correction is unnecessary, and 7% - self-correction is unnecessary ( second set of bars). For some undefined reasons, the rest of students failed to respond: 21% - about teachers correction, and 60% - about self-correction, respectively.

Responses on learners feelings about teachers correction and learners self-correction are shown in the bar chart 2. Yellow bars depict responses on teachers correction, and blue bars on self-correction. Respondents reacted to the first two questions unwillingly - the great majority ignored answering them. Only 12% think correction is pleasant, and 2% - unpleasant (two sets of bars in chart 2). Teachers correction, which implies his/her domination, and learners self-correction, which implies their domination, get approximately the same score 16% versus 14% (the third set of bars). However issue of learners acquired independence over self-correction gains 30% (the fourth set of bars) over 0% scored for teachers independence over correction. This finding is particularly significant as it shows that almost third of respondents back learner autonomy.

The investigation of responses on verbal correction produced qualitatively divergent opinions. Data are presented in the bar chart 3.

As it can be seen in the chart 3, 80% of respondents support teachers correction (violet bar in the first set of bars) and 60% - peers correction (purple bar in the first set of bars). It means that part of respondents support both types of rectification of mistakes total response exceeds 100%. 30% of learners prefer to be corrected immediately (violet bar in the second set of bars), and 40% - back subsequent correction, i.e. at the end of the activity (purple bar in the second set of bars). 10% of respondents want to be corrected in private (violet column the last one in the chart 3). The rest 20% (not shown) neither express their opinion on how they wish to be corrected nor mention any options of self-correction.

Interestingly, in the earlier investigation of 60 learners attitudes to verbal correction (Kavaliauskienė, 2003:3, question 4), the results are slightly different: the same number of learners (88%) favour either teachers or peers correction: 44% - immediately, in front of everybody, and 44% later, at the end of the activity, while 12% prefer to be corrected by teacher later but in private.

These results on verbal correction both in this and above mentioned researchare rather contradictory immediate correction of verbal performance will undoubtedly lead to break-up of communication and is impractical. Learners seem to be unaware of inevitable interruption of communication which will be caused by correction of mistakes. On the other hand, correction by peers at the end of activity that is followed by teachers feedback is likely to be beneficial.

As it has already been mentioned, all the above presented data were obtained from learners questionnaires or surveys. In elucidating individual attitudes, however, interviews with learners have been of primary importance by providing insights into students perceptions of learning process through trial and error. During weekly counselling sessions nearly half of the learners claimed that correcting written errors in pairs helped them identify mistakes easier, develop a more positive attitude towards mistakes as an indication of learning and, to some extent, overcome fear of making mistakes in the future. Another interesting point mentioned by learners is that self-correction helps increase awareness of how language works, which, in turn, helps eradicate common errors. None of these things have been mentioned in respondents surveys.

All-in-all, respondents maintain that they expect and want to have their mistakes corrected by teacher, but agree that it is hard to get rid of the habit of making the same mistake over and over again because of the earlier formed stereotypes. Some students state that they are afraid of being laughed at or offended if teacher corrects their work / performance in class and comments on it. This opinion is in accordance with Harmers views (, who remarks that none of the respondents want to see any written harsh comments. It also concurs with the notion that written annotations on student paper generally fail to improve student writing Leki (1994:63). None of the interviewed respondents like having their work graded. The same fact was reported in preceding paper with a different sample of respondents (Kavaliauskienė, 2003:3, question 6). This finding coincides with the standpoint described by Leki (1994:62): if there is a grade on a paper, students read the grade and simply discard the paper, often in disgust at the injustice of receiving a low mark. Thus, the main concern that learners have in common is the grade they receive. Moreover, respondents stated their performance would be better, if they were not afraid of being graded. Some of the learners proposed a motion for teacher to administer more non-graded assignments. Apparently, the fear of mistakes is virtually a fear of getting a poor grade and losing face. Therefore, employing various ways of boosting learners self-esteem might help mitigate their fear of mistakes.Summing up, it is not a bad idea to stop writing grades on the written assignment.Such practice might encourage some learners to do better in the future and would not discourage them from perfecting language skills. For teachers, it is sufficient to make a note about learners performance in their notebooks, and underline or tick in margins of written work what is incorrect. Using an environmentally friendly colour of marker (green or blue) is pleasant to the eye (and to the heart, too!).Eventually, what is of superior importance in language learning is progress and efforts that learner makes, and the outcome is never immediate.


The data obtained in this research on correction and self-correction of written work show that:

o       79% of respondents claim that teachers correction is necessary and 84% think it is effective;

o       33% of learners agree that self-correction is necessary and 77% - that it is effective;

o       30% of students agree that self-correction implies their independence;

o       developing language awareness is an important outcome of self-correction;

o       fear of making errors is rather upheld by fear of being graded and/or downgraded and losing face.

The data obtained in this research on teachers and peers correction of verbal performance show that:

o       80% of respondents are in favor of teachers and peers correction;

o       30% prefer immediate and 40% - subsequent correction at the end of activity;

o       immediate correction is unworkable it prevents communication.


Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. 2001. Pearson Education Ltd.

Harmer, J. To Correct or Not to Correct?

Bartram, M. and Walton, R. Correction. 1991. Language Teaching Publications.

Janulevičienė, V. andKavaliauskienė, G.ESP Issues: Integration of Learner Self-Assessment into Formal and Informal Assessment Scheme. Tiltai, 1(22), 2003. pp.67 72. Periodical Journal Published by Klaipeda University.

Kavaliauskienė, G. English for Specific Purposes: Learners Preferences and Attitudes.

Journal of Language and Learning, Vol. 1, No 1, 2003. pp. 14 23. 1/kavaliauskiene learn1 1.html

Leki, I. Coaching from the Margins: Issues in Written Response. In Second Language

Writing. Edited by B. Kroll. 1994. Cambridge University Press.


English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World) Home    Information    Contents    ESP Encyclopaedia    Resources    Contacts

free counters


Copyright 2002-2012 TransEarl Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.