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TKT Core Module 3: Teachers' and learners' language in the classroom
Categorising learners' mistakes

Will you tell him or shall I?

If you have followed the course for Module 1 of the TKT, you already know quite a lot about errors and slips.  The TKT syllabus uses the word 'mistake' for both of these but we will make a distinction:


Key concepts in this guide

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

  • slip vs. error
  • types of error:
    • receptive and productive
    • individual and group
    • overt and covert
    • referential
    • syntactical
    • phonological
    • interpretive
    • stylistic
    • generic
    • communicative
  • skills 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.


What sorts or errors do learners make?

Productive or Receptive error

error 2 When a learner says or writes something that is wrong, it is easy to see because it is a productive error.
However, if a learner does not properly understand what he or she reads or hears it may not be easy for us to know because it is a receptive error.
To find out if there is a receptive error, it is important to test whether understanding has really happened.

Individual or Group error

error 4 If all or most learners in the class are making the same mistake, it's called a group error.
Group errors are more important than individual errors and call for teaching not just correcting.

Is it obvious?

error 5 Covert errors occur when, for example, a student says
I have been to London – is that right?
You can't tell, of course, without finding out what the student actually wants to say.
If the learner produces
I have been to London yesterday
then the error is overt and you can decide whether and how to deal with it.

What sort of error is it?

types of error
This part needs explaining a little:
referential or lexical errors
This simply means that the learner has chosen the wrong word.  For example: I opened the pack of chocolate instead of I opened the bar of chocolate.
syntactical errors
are sometimes called grammatical errors.  It means something is wrong with the structure.  For example: He will coming next Thursday.  Spelling, form and punctuation errors are also in the category.
phonological errors
are, rather obviously, errors in pronunciation.  If a learners says I leave in France instead of I live in France (using /liːv/ instead of /lɪv/) we have a phonological error.
interpretive errors
are errors in understanding what is meant.  For example, if I say Do you have the time? and you reply Yes, thank you., you have not interpreted my meaning clearly (I want to know what time it is now!).
stylistic errors
These are sometimes called pragmatic or social errors.  If, for example, someone goes to the ticket office and says You, give me a ticket for London! we have a stylistic error because that is unacceptably direct in English (and many languages).
think Task 1: What kinds of errors are these and why do you think they happened?
Think about each one and then click on eye open for some ideas.
Error Type and possible reason
Everyone in my class says What means ... not What does ... mean?
eye open
  • This is a group error.
  • It is possibly caused by ignorance of the structure but may be happening because the learners are not being corrected.
Mary said I go to London on Thursday but she didn't mean every Thursday, I think
eye open
  • This is possibly a covert error.  We need to ask her a question or two to find out what she meant.
  • If it is an error, it's syntactical.
He came by boot
eye open
  • This looks like a phonological error.  The meaning was probably He came by boat.
  • It's a productive error.
A: How long are you staying?
B: I have been here two hours.
eye open
  • This is a receptive error because A is referring to the future not the past up to now and B has not understood that.
  • It's a syntactic error in not understanding the use of the present progressive to talk about future arrangements.
It's a big, Chinese, beautiful vase
eye open
  • Productive, syntactical error in adjective ordering.
There's a dustbin under the desk.
eye open
  • The speaker means litter bin or just bin.  It's a productive referential error.


Skills errors

Learners can also make mistakes when practising or using skills but they can usually be categorised in the same ways when they are receptive errors.
However, not ordering a letter or a report in the right way can be called a generic error and not being able to get your meaning clear can be called a communicative 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

There are two practice tests.

Test 1 A matching task
Test 2 What is the error?

Now you can return to the Module 3 index: arrow
or go on to the next guide which is to classroom management.