logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Mistakes: slips and errors


We all make mistakes


Slip or error?

Traditionally in English Language Teaching, we make a distinction between two types of mistake: an error and a slip.  Errors are caused by a lack of language knowledge or communication strategies and slips are caused by tiredness, inattention or just having too much to think about at the time.
For example, two of the following are just slips which can be ignored (unless they persist) but three are real errors that may need us to do something constructive in the classroom.  (All of them are real, noted in the classroom, by the way.)
Can you identify which is which?  Click here when you have an answer.

  1. He go fishing every Sunday (advanced learner talking about his father)
  2. There are stone stairs down to the beach (low-level learner describing a picture)
  3. The house's roof is blow off (intermediate learner summarising a newspaper report about something which happened last week)
  4. The car won't starting because something is wrong with the engine (intermediate-level learner explaining a problem)
  5. Please give that me (upper-intermediate learner asking a classmate to pass a pen)

two views

Two views of error

With which of the following do you have the most sympathy?
Click here for some comments when you have an answer.

View 1: errors made by students are evidence that something has gone wrong in the teaching-learning process.
View 2: making errors is a natural part of learning a language and should be viewed positively as an opportunity to help the learner.


How do the different views change how we handle error?

Well, how might they?  Think for a moment and then click here.


This is a key concept and describes where the learners' current language mastery stands on a scale from knowing nothing of the target language to complete mastery.  Diagrammatically, it can be pictured like this:


It is, of course, crucial to know where a learner's interlanguage currently is.  There are three reasons (at least) for this.  Can you come up with them?  Click when you've made a note (or at least thought about it!).


Handling error in the classroom

The following assumes that you are closer to those that hold view 2 than view 1.

There are three main steps:


This may sound obvious.  After all, we all know when something is wrong, don't we?
Usually, yes but there are two sorts of error we need to be aware of where it isn't so clear:

Receptive error
We can make a mistake in understanding what we read or hear so it is important that we have ways in the classroom to find out whether something has been adequately understood or not.  To do that, we ask questions or make sure the language has a clear context so we can judge.
Covert error
If, for example, a student says, "She has been to London.", how do we know if it is right or wrong?  The form looks and sounds OK but the learner might have meant, "She went to London." or "She has gone to London." and that's another reason we need a clear context for all the language we practise in the classroom.


Can you think of any reasons why students may make errors?
Click here when you have thought of something.

Step 3: REMEDY

Here is where teachers need to think on their feet.  There are questions to ask whenever you hear an error.  What might these be?
Click here when you have thought of some ways to handle error.

Related guides
how learning happens for the guide to some major theories of learning
feedback to see how the type feedback which is given can affect how error is handled
the in-service guide for a more technical and fuller guide to error

Click here for a test in this area.