How do you deal with fossilized errors and help students improve their accuracy? #ELTchat Summary 23/02/2011

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How do you deal with fossilized errors and help students improve their accuracy? #ELTchat Summary 23/02/2011

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Many thanks for tidying up and organising the comments made in the tweets as it was an especially difficult day for Twitter, for Tweetdeck as well as for our transcript aggregator!


#ELTchat 23rd February 12pm

by Michelle Worgan

This afternoon’s #ELTchat was on a topic that I thought would be a difficult one to discuss. Before the chat began I tweeted that I wasn’t sure that I had much to say on the topic and would maybe just lurk in the background. Fortunately, everybody else’s comments inspired me and I managed to join in! You can now find the transcript here.

The question was: 


How do you deal with fossilized errors and help students improve their accuracy?


We started off by discussing what is meant by “fossilized errors”. Some made the distinction between an error, a mistake and a slip and it was mentioned that fossilized errors could actually be either of the first two. Errors were not limited to grammar and pronunciation, although these seem to be the most common types.

What are fossilized errors?


•    A mistake that students know is wrong but keep making.
•    An error from force of habit which students no longer know they are making.
•    Something that students learnt wrong and now need to change.
•    An error that students can correct when focused but still make on their own.
•    A mistake that recurrs despite constant correction.
•    An error based in L1 interference that is made by many speakers.
•    Mistakes that teachers may not “hear” after a number of years teaching in a particular      context (and therefore do not correct).
•    A mistake that has been repeated so that it sounds right to the learner.


Some specific errors common to students from different countries were mentioned, such as the use of “I have 20 years” to talk about age.  We also came to the conclusion that young learners did not have fossilized errors – yet!


We tried to come up with ideas about why errors become fossilized. What actually causes fossilization?


•    Fossilization is due to L1 interference and is a natural feature of interlanguage      development.
•    Lack of correction.
•    The connection between interlanguage and errors.
•    Lack of motion (the reason for other types of fossilization).
•    Method of instruction.
•    Errors that come from previous stages of learning (especially with older students).
•    Linear modes of instruction increase the chance of fossilization.
•    When students realise they can make a mistake and be understood, it can become      fossilized.
•    Biological, social-affective, cultural, pedagogical, cognitive and environmental perspectives      of a language can lead to fossilized errors.
•    Lack of motivation to correct oneself.
•    Lack of noticing and discovery and too much presentation, meaning students don’t own the      language.
•    Lack of learner autonomy – reliance on correction by teacher.


The conversation then turned to how important it is to do something about fossilized errors. Here are some of the more popular ideas, many of them questions to think more about and we didn’t have time to go into too much detail during the chat.


•    Do fossilized errors lead to international English? If so, is there anything wrong with      making these errors?
•    If students communicate meaning, are fossilized errors important?
•    Students love being corrected and prefer teachers that do so.
•    It is impossible to correct everything – deal with what affects meaning most.
•    Self-correction should be fostered.
•    Students should reflect on and play with their mistakes.
•    Correcting every error can be demotivating.
•    Focus on common and impeding errors.


There seemed to be a mixed opinion of how important it is to get rid of fossilized errors. Some chatters thought that communication was the main goal, especially when speaking, therefore as long as the listener could understand what the speaker wanted to communicate, there wasn’t too much of a problem. Others thought that accuracy was very important and that all errors should be corrected, not just those that impede communication. Everybody agreed that the teaching context was important in this question, and that different situations require different levels of accuracy.


So how can we deal with fossilized errors in an effective way? Some great ideas were shared in this part of the discussion, and I’m looking forward to trying some of them out!


Practical Ideas:

•    Recording students – you could play the recording, ask for general impression, give them      the tapescript, have them correct their own or peer’s errors – lots of possibilities here!
•    Have students self correct and peer correct, which is more effective than teacher      correction.
•    Say: “Whaaaaat? That’s not English. No one in the UK is going to understand what that      means.”
•    Playing games with individual mistakes or common errors.
•    Focus on one error at a time, stopping students and having them correct it before moving      on.
•    Writing slows down and takes a snapshot of how learners really feel the language works. Better noticing opportunities.
•    Give students a funny look when they make a fossilized error – they will realise something      is wrong and correct themselves (not to be tried with new or very shy students!)
•    Prevention is more significant than defossilization (an apple a day…)
•    Discover and clarify why and how errors occur.
•    Personalized “fossil” diaries where students record their particular errors.
•    Focus on fossilized errors at the end of an activity.
•    Keep a “fossil” dictionary.
•    Say “I don’t understand what you’re saying”.
•    Dictations using common errors.
•    Ask students to vary their fluency/accuracy during speaking tasks.
•    Write answers/problems on the board to discuss as a class.
•    Error diaries – students observe themselves out of class and report back on their usage.
•    Have a wiki – each student has their own page for errors.
•    Don’t correct individual students on the spot, but save errors for class correction at the      end.
•    Students must be invested in correcting the error.
•    Soundcloud, Voicethread, Voxopop etc to record students. They could listen to themselves      and choose good things they have said or errors they have made.
•    Motivate students to experiment with language.
•    Ask some students to be monitors and write down what they hear during speaking      activities.
•    Use fossil journals in pairs – each student tries to get their partner to make the errors in      their journal.
•    Use humour to point out errors e.g. “I talk to the phone”, act out talking to your phone!
•    Recording students can make students more careful – karaoke effect.
•    Take a fun/playful approach to error correction.
•     Ask students to actually make mistakes for short periods to help master the      accuracy/fluency control.
•    Drills
•    Explain the consequences of mistakes, especially embarrassing ones.
•    Students as teachers – note down errors for constructive feedback in groups.
•    Laughing at our own mistakes can work wonders.
•    Grammar auctions.
•    Bring in a guest (who ideally doesn’t speak L1) for students to interview. They may not      understand the “fossils”.
•    Have students mimic different accents (this cuts down on inhibitions that cause mistakes).
•    Snakes and ladders or other games.
•    Mixing correct and incorrect sentences on the board and asking students to spot those with errors.


Lots of thing to think about and some interesting techniques to try out.
I hope this summary is useful and gives you some new ideas about how to deal with fossilized errors. I’ll end with a couple of tweets that I particularly liked about the topic of fossilization in general:


“We all must agree that life is too short to aim for perfection! Teach your students how to be critical and they themselves will realize their errors.”


“I’m optimistic about it too! I don’t see fossilization as a sort of massive failing. It is something to approach head on.”








6 Responses

  1. Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for this insightful primer of the causes and possible responses/solutions to fossilized errors!

    While I tend to lean heavily toward videotaping as a vital first step so the students can see their own errors with their own eyes and ears, you have detailed many practical steps that can and should follow. I’ve found that having students transcribe their presentations – and correcting the errors they have found – is a powerful technique. I often decide to emphasize two or three “good mistakes” /fossilized errors per recording to avoid overwhelming the student. Your list has also given me some additional tools to use in the classroom. Thanks!

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