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How to Correct Your Online Students

Critique and correction make most of us uncomfortable. It can be triggering and, if not handled appropriately, can cause us to clam up or shut down.

Naturally, mistake correction is a large component of effective learning when mastering a language. As an educator, you have the responsibility and privilege of navigating this delicate process with your students.

Let’s take a few moments to consider how we can do this best.

Student correction needs to be an individual process

The mistakes students make in classes fall on a broad spectrum. Yes, there are some central issues, mostly related to the usual suspects of tenses, conditionals and pronunciation, but many times I have found that the mistakes made surprise me.

For example, some of my higher-level students who are able to hold complex conversations and express themselves accurately, almost always score disproportionately lower on formal grammar assessments, despite their higher command of spoken English.

Paradoxically, I have also found that my lower-level students, who regularly pause during conversations and ask for a lot of help with vocabulary and expression, often score higher on formal grammar assessments in relation to their speaking abilities.

What does this say about how to handle their mistakes?

To me, the answer is that each student needs to be examined individually through a multifaceted scope combining previous English studies, previous study environment, personality type, learning style and language abilities in their mother tongue; this paints a personal map of the student to guide you as their teacher.

Types of mistakes made by students

Through teaching ESL, one comes to realize that there is a very important and basic distinction to draw upon with regard to comprehending what students are saying – one that divides students into two categories:

In the first group, we find students who make mistakes that largely hinder understanding on the part of the listener. The types of mistakes they make are so blatant that their meaning is lost and communication fails.

The second group makes mistakes too, sometimes just as many as the first group, but the difference is that despite the mistakes they make, their meaning remains clear and effective communication still takes place.

Put more simply, there are either students who make mistakes to the point of hindering understanding on the part of the listener or there are students who make mistakes yet, to the listener, the meaning remains clear, despite the student’s mistakes.

In my experience, students arrive to their first class falling very clearly on one side of this distinction; there is no real grey area here. In addition to looking at each student’s individual map, where they fall on this distinction too is key in discerning how to approach mistake correction.

When to systematically correct students (in a coherent way)

When it comes to students who speak readily and express themselves with a large measure of confidence, yet still make lots of mistakes in grammar, or large amounts of mistakes that do not hinder meaning and comprehension, I find it is best to take the approach of correcting as much as possible.

However, there should still be a systematic way of carving a route through the corrections.

For instance, it is pointless to begin correcting mistakes in tenses without first correcting mistakes in the misuse of verb types. Pay attention to the types of mistakes they are making and find the lowest grammatical starting point.

Relentlessly correct mistakes in that area until the knowledge is absorbed and then move upward to the next systematic problem area.

How to deal with deeply rooted and internalized errors

Understanding this becomes more apparent when you consider how these students have arrived at being able to speak confidently and readily whilst still making many mistakes, sometimes foundational mistakes.

For several of these students I have found that they had been studying English for a good few years, either directly through classes given by inadequately trained teachers or indirectly due to environmental demands such as international work environments and due to this, they have repeated and internalized a vast variety of errors and bad habits with regard to their English language use.

The beauty of this group of students is that their confidence is already there, and they are therefore psychologically prepared for intense correction.

The challenge here is to undo the incorrect English that has been reinforced over the course of many, many years. It requires energetic correction and absolutely no spoon-feeding.

Your goal here is to remind the students of what they already know. If you reinforce their trust in themselves, they will realize how much more they can absorb and enjoy.

How to correct sensitive students who lack confidence

As for students who perhaps have a good or not-so-good grammatical grasp, but who most importantly are far from confident speakers, one must be more careful.

Psychologically, these students are typically far more sensitive to critique than the first group. Again, systematic correction is important here too but one must be slower, more encouraging and gentler.

Correcting every single mistake they make (unless they have a robust and secure personality) can cause effective learning to slow down and, in rare situations, halt. Show the student that you are alongside them, not above them, and that you are not judging their present shortcomings. Building confidence is key here!

When and when not to allow students to translate between their home language and English

Another point that burns bright with regard to our two-way distinction discussed earlier, is how you as a teacher guide language translation.

For the group who are weaker in confidence and English knowledge, translating back and forth between their home language and English is beneficial.

All teachers have seen that sudden, distant look that comes over a student’s face when they retract into their own minds and mumble translations back and forth to themselves while gazing just off from the camera. Let them. This aids in building a foundational frame for them to push themselves up.

The same is not true for the second group of more full-bodied speakers who can communicate successfully yet still pepper their sentences with numerous errors.

Whilst innocent translation of vocabulary is necessary, over-dependence on translating sentence structures between languages will eventually hold this level of student back.

They become trapped by the confines of their home language structures, not letting go of what they know as correct, and struggle to tap into the objectivity needed to internalize multilingual fluency; in short, they become rigid.

This rigidity can decelerate further learning greatly and it is at this point where many students with high potential for fluency subconsciously begin to resign themselves to the I’m not good at English, it’s too difficult mentality.

Yes, there are parallels between languages that help scaffold learning but there comes a time in the learning journey where each language needs its own primary shape and respect in the minds of learners if that language is to be mastered.


The rabbit hole of mistake correction goes far deeper than this but, at least for the moment on this blog post, we will leave it there.

The most important takeaway here is to remember that correcting all mistakes is the eventual goal, just make sure you craft a systematic approach to the journey and remember to view each student within their own subjective gaze in order to gauge how to pace the corrections along the way.


This article was written by Ashleigh Spence, an online English teacher at Break Into English. Ashleigh is based in South Africa and has been a teacher since 2013, she has lived in three different countries since then. Her passions include philosophy, psychology, fitness, meditation, and creative expression. Ashleigh loves helping people learn English because she believes communication is pointless without comprehension.