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Concourse 2

Mistakes: slips and errors – an essential guide


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


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!).


Different kinds of error

Errors come in a range of flavours.

think Task
Here are six spoken errors (real ones), two each of the three main sorts, made by learners of English.  Can you say what is wrong and have a stab at describing the sorts of error that have been made?  You'll need three categories for the six errors.
Click here when you have done that.
  1. I have done a mistake
  2. She comes frequently late
  3. I hopped I would see you
  4. Please close the light
  5. Please seat here
  6. Can you look my bags after, please?


Spotting the error

Not exemplified above are two further important categories of error:

  1. Interpretive error / receptive error
    This refers to the fact that learners may feel that they have understood something but have, in fact, not fully grasped what they hear or read or have, so to speak, got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
    We can all 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.
    Here are two examples:
    1.     Q: How long are you staying?
          A: I came last Friday

      In this exchange, the second speaker has interpreted the question as:
          How long have you been here?
      because in many languages, the question
          How long are you here?
      means just that.
    2. Text:
          John has had the shopping done
          Q: Who did the shopping?
          A: John
      In this, the learners has misinterpreted what is called a causative structure.  That structure signals that the subject did not do the action, someone else did.
      Because the structure looks very similar to
          John has done the shopping
      the misinterpretation is understandable (and forgiveable).
  2. 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.
        She has gone to London.
    and that's another reason we need a clear context for all the language we practise in the classroom.
    To get at the sense of what the learner meant, we need to ask some questions:
        Is she in London now?
        When did she go?
        Is she travelling now?


Explaining the error

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

The next step is, of course, knowing how to remedy the error.  For that, there is a separate guide to correcting learners linked below.

Related guides
correcting learners for what to do next
how learning happens for the guide to some major theories of learning
feedback to see how the type of 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.