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TKT Module 1: Background to language learning
The role of error




Everybody makes mistake and pobody's nerfect.


Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • slips and errors
  • teacher-induced error
  • interlanguage
  • developmental errors
  • productive error: syntactical, phonological, register and style
  • receptive error
  • covert error
  • concept checking questions
  • recognising errors
  • explaining error: ignorance, over-generalisation, L1 interference (grammar, lexis and style)
  • dealing with errors

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.

There are guides on this site which will tell you more about errors.  Here we will only discuss what you need for TKT.


Slip or error?

We make a distinction between two types of mistake: an error and a slip.

  1. Errors are caused by a lack of language knowledge or communication strategies
  2. 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 two 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' ability is on a scale from knowing nothing of the target language to complete control.  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, because we are focused on productive errors: the errors learners make when speaking or writing.  For example:

  1. I go often to the cinema
    This is an error in the syntax or structure so we call it a syntactical error.  It should be I often go to the cinema.
  2. He journeys to London every morning
    Here the learner has chosen the wrong word so it's a lexical error.  It should be He travels / goes to London every morning.
  3. I crossed the Channel on a sheep.
    Here the learner has not confused the meaning of ship and sheep but has failed to pronounce the word correctly.  It's a phonological error.  The learner means ship not sheep.
  4. The criminal was punished to four years
    Here the learner doesn't know the legal verb to sentence so it's a register error.  The correct version would be The criminal was sentenced to four years.
  5. (To a waiter in a restaurant) Excuse me, sir!
    This is not how we address a waiter so it's a stylistic error.  Just Excuse me would be enough.
    Note: Cambridge uses no distinction in TKT between style and register so this error and the previous one would not be distinct.  You can go to the guide on this site for information in this area.

But there are two sorts of error we need to be aware of where the situation is not 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.  This is a concept checking routine.
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.  We also need to ask concept-checking questions such as When?, Where is she now? etc.


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.

self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A short matching task
Test 2 A 5-item, multiple-choice test on handling error

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to the differences between first and second language learning.