Correction Policy – In Search of the Optimum

By David Mann

Have you noticed that when we advertise ourselves as language schools we have a habit of using superlatives and absolutes? Our school offers the “perfect” language experience and the “best” environment for learning; our school is dedicated to “excellence”. Our teachers are “passionate” about teaching… You know the kind of language I mean. Then you look a little further down the page and, inevitably, you see things like “flexible enrolment”, which can, if clumsily handled, be the very antithesis of excellence.

The fact is, realistically speaking, the perfect language experience doesn’t exist, and what we really strive for is an optimum solution to a difficult problem. Learning a language is hard. Teaching it is also hard. Add to that a shifting population of students turning up every Monday and different students leaving every Friday and you can have a real puzzle on your hands. Go too far down the fun-and-larks route and you end up not really addressing the knotty language points that your students need to face and they make no progress; go too far down the serious route to grammatical perfection and your class becomes tedious and unmotivating.


I like to have a question on the student feedback form which asks students what they thought of the teacher. I’m used to a 5-point scale in every school I’ve worked for and I avidly await results, hoping for a 5 every time. I get my fair share, but there are always disappointments, and here in Japan, where students are well known for hiding their true feelings until the end, there are occasional unpleasant surprises. We all want to be loved after all. We had one teacher on an intensive course whose students marked 6 on that row. Heaven knows what he was doing in there! The trouble is that some features of an English course don’t lend themselves to this treatment. Level, for one. A student can’t meaningfully say that the level of the class is “excellent”. All they can say is whether it’s too low, too high or just right. So, when I was DOS I worked hard to include questions that were of this nature on our feedback forms. One key question that I focused on was about correction policy.

Engineering Better Correction Policies

During one British Council inspection where I was DOS, the inspector noticed that teachers were doing a reasonably good job of correcting their students, but suggested that we should put some effort into learning how to “nudge” students towards the correct form. It was such a nice idea and he articulated clearly what I had been striving for in my own teaching. You can’t just ignore all mistakes and you can’t correct every tiny detail; there’s a happy medium in between, and this idea of “nudging” appealed to me. I consciously tried to incorporate it into my teaching and encouraged the other teachers to do likewise.

Fast forward a few years and I was facing another inspection in another school. At that school, we had weekly (I realise now what a luxury that was) teacher development meetings during the winter months when things were reasonably quiet. I dedicated a couple of meetings to correction policy. We looked at the Islamabad technique from Earl Stevick’s A Way and Ways. We broadened that out and considered the whole “counselling response” approach – staying within the speaker’s reality and only reflecting what the speaker said, but reflecting with more accurate English than the speaker used. We also looked at fancy tricks like giving students traffic lights. Each student would change the traffic light to red when they didn’t want to be corrected, amber when they wanted a bit of correction… I think you’ve got the idea – I’m afraid I never really took to the idea. We also thought about where benign neglect might be appropriate and where an aggressive 100% correction policy might sometimes work. I started doing careful statistics on our feedback and added lovely little Excel-generated charts to my reports to Head Office. Sure enough, the chart showing the results of feedback about correction policy started to show a satisfyingly high percentage of “just right” and nicely low percentages of “too much” and “not enough”. During the inspection that year, one of the inspectors didn’t really notice the teachers’ correction policy, but the other inspector, Nic Underhill, did and made a point of commenting on how he had witnessed a wide range of very appropriate correction methods throughout the whole school. I was bursting with pride! I recently tracked Nic Underhill down and he said that “focusing on correction remains a major weakness for many teachers” and that teachers should give “targeted and limited feedback that is appropriate to that student at that time to allow him/her to take their next step.”

In this field, we shouldn’t always be striving for “excellence” and “perfection”. Often what we’re trying to find is the middle ground.

Written by David Mann for July 2013
David Mann has 30 years’ experience in TEFL, both as a teacher (General, ESP and EAP) and a Director of Studies in Spain, Britain and Japan. He has been an ESP and EAP instructor for Nippon Steel & Sumikin Intercom, Inc in Japan for the last 15 years, working with scientists, engineers and business people from major companies and top universities in Japan. He has also delivered successful IT courses on database and web application design through the auspices of the Japanese Association of Overseas Training Scholarships (AOTS) in Yokohama to IT professionals from all over Asia.

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