Error correction in one-to-one lessons

Error correction is something I have been thinking a lot about recently. This was partly motivated by Luiz Otávios plenary (which I wrote about here), but also because I have been observing lessons every week as a Celta tutor in training.

I have previously written about error correction in conversation lessons here and more in general here, so today I’m going to tackle it from the perspective of one-to-one lessons.

Earlier this year there was a link going around on Facebook showing how a teacher organized his notes for one-to-one lessons. I haven’t been able to find it, but I work in a very similar way, which was first introduced to me many years ago by Damian Williams (who has recently written about teaching private students).

I divide a blank sheet of paper into three. On the left, which is the biggest space, I write down new language. On the top right hand side, I write the grammar and vocabulary mistakes while I use the bottom right hand side for pronunciation.


I think it’s a good idea to include phonetic symbols when working with pronunciation in general, but particularly so in one-to-one lessons. You don’t always need to transcribe the whole word. It’s often the case where students struggle with one consonant cluster or a specific vowel sound.

In the example above my student had problems pronouncing the /ks/ sound and it appeared in two words during a 60-minute lesson. What I do is: as the student is talking about something, I write down the word(s) he or she had problems with. Once they have finished their train of thought, I point to the word and say: “can you tell me how to pronounce this word?” This allows me to check whether the student knows the pronunciation of the word in isolation. If so, the mistake might have been a slip.

However, if they mispronounce the word again, I write the phonetic symbol and show how it should be pronounced. I get them to repeat the word in isolation and then to rephrase what they had said previously (sometimes they don’t remember it, so I either help them or get them to make a new sentence).

I believe getting students to rephrase or repeat what they had said is crucial. you don’t want your student to nod to your correction and then move along to something else. Make sure you give him or her the chance to say the word correctly again and in context.


Besides correcting students, it is also important to give them feedback on things they do well. Notice the green ticks next to words or sentences in the picture above. They indicate things this particular students does well (use actually and in hindsight, pronounce because and culture).

There are still corrections going on, naturally, but striking a balance between positive and negative feedback is likely to encourage your students to keep studying and not let them feel demotivated.


Finally, I’d like to mention fossilized mistakes. The above student has problems using how when she means as/because. Likewise, she often says exactly when she should say exact. These are mistakes that were identified early and that we have already talked about.

Now when they come up again during our conversations, I make a face or raise a finger mid-sentence to point out that the mistake is being made and to get the student to self-correct. She is usually able to, but when she isn’t, we talk about it again at the end of the activity. I think it’s important to draw the student’s attention to the fact that they keep making the same mistake. In the long run they start self-correcting on their own and (hopefully) make the fossilized mistake less often.

Thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “Error correction in one-to-one lessons

  1. Very useful! Thanks. Really liked the divisions. Will definitely give it a try.
    I agree with you on the importance of also noting down samples of good lgg use or at least attempts to use the new language. Firstly because it’s always good to offer some encouragement, but also because if we only take notes of their mistakes, they might associate ‘the teacher is taking endless notes while I’m speaking’ with ‘Everything I’m saying must be wrong’.
    I sometimes use these notes as a warm-up in the following lesson.


    • I think using them as a warmer in the next lesson makes a lot of sense, Rafael. I’m planning a follow-up on this post to talk about what else I do with these notes. It should be coming next week.


  2. Pingback: Using phonemic symbols with (one-to-one) students | ricardo barros elt

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