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Correcting written work

Can you remember how you felt as a learner when your teacher returned a piece of written work?
Many learners say they want to have all their mistakes corrected, and some teachers still believe it
is a good thing to correct every mistake, but it can be very discouraging to see your work covered
in red marks, with corrections written in between the lines, and a single word at the end, or maybe
just a tick.
The key question for teachers to ask themselves is what students learn from this kind of total
correction. The answer is probably very little. If everything is corrected, learners will probably look
over their work without thinking enough about any individual mistakes. Even if they do pay more
attention to the corrections, this method does not involve them in any kind of learning process –
they simply look at the corrections and their teachers hope this means that they will not make the
same mistakes again.


Alternative methods for correcting written work
Selective correction
With this method the teacher still gives corrections, but focuses on one or two areas that
are relevant to what learners are learning at that particular time (e.g. verb tenses, the use of
prepositions) while ignoring other mistakes. The learners are told in advance what the correction
focus will be, which should make them think more carefully about this area when they are writing.

One way of getting learners to take a more active part in the correction process is just to indicate
where there are mistakes, leaving learners to think about what is wrong with what they have
written and correct it themselves. The ‘signpost’ can be a mark in the margin, indicating that there
is a mistake in a particular line (or two marks if there are two separate mistakes in one line), or the
mistake can be underlined, giving the learner a precise indication of where the mistake is. Again, it
may be more helpful to the learner not to signpost every mistake, but to focus on repeated ones in
language they have already learnt.

A correction code
Another method that involves learners and makes them think about how they can correct their
own work is the use of a ‘correction code’. This is a set of letters and symbols which make it clear
what kind of mistake has been made. For this method to work well, it is important to keep the
number of symbols to a minimum and for all the learners in the class to know the code. If two
colleagues are teaching the same class, they also need to agree on a common code to avoid any
In the box below there is an example of a correction code. It is only an example – you may prefer
to use more or fewer symbols, or to create some of your own. The important thing is that learners
are absolutely clear about what each of the symbols means.
Correction code
g = grammar
p = punctuation
= vocabulary (wrong word)
prep. = preposition
= I don’t understand what you have written. Please explain.
Sp = spelling
w.o. = word order
= wrong verb tense
= wrong form
= number / agreement (singular vs. plural)
= something missing
= not necessary

Cambridge University Press 2011

learners need to understand why they have made the mistake and how to put it right. which might be because of first language interference? Or is it the result of the learner being ambitious and attempting to find a way of expressing something which is beyond his or her current level? If this is the case. It also shows the teacher what the learners are able to do and what still remains difficult or unknown. Instead of just receiving corrections. i. to teach again or revise the language which is causing problems. Again. They exchange their written work and attempt to correct each other’s work. make their own corrections (perhaps using a different coloured pen) and return their work to the teacher. or at least think about. The teacher now has to check the corrections. as learners will often not be able to provide appropriate corrections. Learners then continue to correct their own work. or are unable to correct this language themselves. learners attempt to discover the problems. the teacher introduces an extra stage of learning. The teacher may prefer to focus on just some of these so as not to overload the learners. However. the kind of mistake they have made. A correction code also means that rather than correcting every mistake. Remedial teaching If learners repeatedly make the same mistakes in language which they have already been taught.Correcting written work With both signposting and a correction code. feedback would take place in a one-to-one tutorial session. the teacher needs to think about whether or not the learner will be able to self-correct it. the teacher has to build in an extra checking stage. Cambridge University Press 2011 . ■■ Managing self-correction of written work in the classroom Individual self-correction Here. the teacher can concentrate on the remaining mistakes. the learners have to go through a process of reconsidering what they have written. either individually or in pairs or small groups. They need feedback from the teacher – some kind of explanation of the particular language point and perhaps one or two examples to show them how the language should work. This gives the learner the opportunity to reflect on their mistakes and make improvements to their writing. learners have to identify. Ideally.e. learners work in pairs or small groups. the best response from the teacher may be to use these mistakes as the basis for planning remedial teaching in future lessons. Is it just a careless mistake that could be made by a native speaker? In this case it may not even be necessary to point it out. Peer correction For peer correction. Or is it a mistake that is repeated throughout. the teacher selects several common mistakes made by the learners and highlights them on the board for the whole class. as with individual selfcorrection. but with a large class this may not be practical. and feedback can take the form of written notes at the end of the learner’s work. This is useful because we remember things much better when we have to make an effort to find the answers ourselves. Rather than just getting corrections. Whole-class correction In this technique. and correct their own work. and give the learner feedback on anything that is still wrong or that the learner has been unable to improve. the teacher has to think about why the learner has made a mistake and whether to highlight everything. ■■ Dealing with mistakes that learners cannot correct themselves Teacher feedback Once the learners have corrected as much as they can.