Role of Error in Learning


What is the role of error?

Mistakes learners make are divided into errors or slips.

Error: 
It happens when learners try to say something that is beyond their language ability. Usually, learners cannot correct errors themselves because they do not know what is wrong.

Slip: 
It is a result of tiredness, worry or other temporary emotion or circumstance. It can be corrected by learners once they realise they have made them.

Why learners make errors?

The two reasons why learners make errors: 1) influence of their native language or mother tongue 2) unconsciously working out or organising their language.

So errors are an integral and a natural part of language learning. Correction may help learners here only when they are ready for it, i.e. they are at the right stage in their individual learning process.

There are three main ways of helping learners:

1)   Expose learners to lots of interesting language at the right level.

2)   Encourage the learners to use the language with other people.

3)   Help the learners to focus their attention on the forms of language.

Note: Sometimes the errors do not disappear but get strengthened and the learner does not stop making errors for a long time. This happens because the learners find no reason to improve their language or due to lack of motivation to improve their level of accuracy.


Key Concepts

1)     1.  A teacher should know whether, when and how to correct learners.

2)     2. A teacher should not expect immediate learning as learning is gradual and errors are       part of it.

3)     3. A teacher should know the difference between an error and a slip and must be able to     recognize it.

4)     4. Prompting from the teacher is one way of correcting a slip

5)     5. A teacher should first give learners an opportunity to improve their confidence and  fluency and not go about correcting learners’ errors.

6)     6. A teacher should be able to identify which error prevents proper communication and     correct accordingly.

7)     7.  A teacher should be aware of the different learning styles of the learners and then         decide  on how and when to correct.

8)     8.  A teacher should help learners realize their errors and should encourage them to ask       for help.

9)     9.  Errors are useful not only to the learners but also to the teacher. They help the teacher see how well the learners have learnt something and what kind of help they may need.

Many language teachers and learners blame L1 transfer for a majority of their problems with L2 grammar. For example, many Indian learners will tell you that English is hard to learn because the SVO word order is different than the SOV word order used in Indian languages. New learners studying English in India do make word order errors such as ‘He ice cream like’ or ‘I school go’ but as learners advance these types of errors are quickly outnumbered by errors from different sources.

One common type of learner error is the natural order error, a missing grammatical morpheme. Natural order errors are made by all learners in a predictable order. Taking the ice cream example above and correcting the word order gives you ‘He like ice cream’. The missing –s for the third person singular is a very common natural order error and is made by all learners, from novice to advanced. In the natural order of English morpheme acquisition, third person singular –s is one of the last morphemes mastered by learners.

This natural order is important if we are to have realistic expectations of our learners. I once had a colleague telling me how disappointed he was with his introduction to writing class. He had spent all week teaching them subject verb agreement and then assessed their first writing assignment based on how well they performed with subject verb agreement. The learners didn’t perform well. Errors such as ‘My friend know me so well’ were frequent.

The learners were novice high or intermediate low and they performed exactly how someone with knowledge of the natural order of English morpheme acquisition would expect. They won’t be ready for third person singular –s until they are far more advanced. That doesn’t mean they can’t get the grammar right in a big test or some other meaningless measurement of knowledge about grammar. It means that when using the language to write or speak they have to make errors with the third person singular s morpheme.

So, English teachers need to do a little research. Understanding the morphemes that your learners are ready for will help you know what to expect from and how to assess your learners.


There are three basic types of error correction:

1. Teacher correction: The teacher corrects the student.

2. Self correction: The teacher indicates the student has made a mistake or error (usually by repeating in a quizzical tone) and gives the student an opportunity to self-correct.

3. Peer correction: The teacher asks other students to correct the mistake or error.

A decision to correct or not is based on many factors: the most important criteria is whether the activity you are doing is for accuracy or fluency.

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