Correcting students
Corrections in GAFL instruction

Corrections in GAFL instruction: Empathy is a must!
Corrections in GAFL instruction: Empathy is a must! | Photo: The Power of Forever Photography © iStockphoto

Very few subjects cause as many headaches for GAFL (German as a foreign language) teachers like the topic of correcting students in class. There appears to be no universal solution, particularly because there are so many factors that influence when and how a student should be corrected.

It isn’t just children who have difficulty understanding why they are being corrected and how they should integrate those corrections. During lessons, teachers are continually confronted with student errors that need to be quickly analyzed, addressed and then corrected. In short, it is easy to make a correction on paper, but making corrections in class, particularly if the relationship is less than comfortable, can lead to stressful situations for both students and instructors. If the chemistry in the classroom is good, however, corrections are often much more readily accepted for what they are: a response to something incorrect that the instructor needed to address, especially since errors are often a sign of progress. Friction between teachers and students occurs not due to the students being corrected but due to the way they are being corrected. Empathy is a must, especially if the student is unsure of his/her skills when speaking. “The desire to say something can easily be spoiled when a correction is made,” explains Martina Liedke, linguist and foreign-language teacher at the Institut für Deutsch als Fremdsprache, part of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

Types of corrections

If people are interrupted when talking about their hobbies, they will often stop talking about them in the future. In his dissertation, The effect of verbal corrections on foreign language learning in classrooms, Klaus Blex refers to interruptions as the most unloved type of corrections. Students prefer to be corrected at the end of the sentence, not too long after the mistake was made. Explicit corrections during grammar exercises, such as “You need the dative case here”, are typically accepted readily. Students are also happy if they get the chance to correct themselves, such as when the teacher repeats, “You go to the movies yesterday?” On the other hand, if the instructor includes the correction when repeating the sentence but does not refer directly to the mistake, students tend to not like it. This type of rephrasing with changed intonation (“You go to the movies yesterday?) is as unpopular among students as the metalinguistic preventive corrections like, “Think about the genitive!”

The crux of the matter, however, is that, of all things, these undesirable types of corrections produce the best results when learning grammar and verbage. “Then again, it’s not exactly the most motivating thing to use methods that students don’t like,” adds Dr. Liedke. So, perhaps teachers should use facial expressions and gestures that we can relate to because they are familiar to us from everyday native language, and which inspire self-correction, despite the fact that in 50 percent of the attempts it doesn’t work? Well, only if we keep in mind the preferences of students over the success rates of the various methods of correction, then experimentation and a healthy understanding of people is very much the way forward.

Student wishes

The fact is, however, that adult students in particular want to be corrected. If corrections are left out, for example in the interest of having a smooth conversation, the teacher will be looking at some confused faces. Student surveys have shown that pupils appreciate a “conclusive discussion, a summary and written corrections”, emphasizes Liedke. Taking 10 minutes after every class to address corrections not only satisfies student expectations, but also is highly effective. For beginners, this phase can be omitted in order to avoid overwhelming them with information. Clearly communicated lessons, for example, will eliminate the need to overcorrect. If the perfect tense is in the lesson plan, students and teachers should focus exclusively on mistakes made when creating the past participle.

Corrections from fellow students tend to remove hierarchical structures and can promote learning in a harmonious class environment by assigning roles such as “students as teachers”. Checking homework, for example, can help students familiarize themselves with making mutual corrections. In the classroom, student A can make a suggestion that student B can then make accordingly. The advanced version of this puts even more responsibility on the students, for instance if one student becomes the “Reviser of the day” and collects the corrections, which are then discussed by the group.


Still, teachers need to keep in mind that even with the most benevolent, well-meant corrections, the ultimate motivation for students is success. The question of whether we place sufficient value on being “correct” is worth asking here. For those making corrections, it must be asked whether recognition and critique are balanced. “Good, but…” is sometimes not enough. Often, it is best to praise without condition, for example, “Very nicely said”, or some other accolades that get the learning process moving. Creativity is king here, provided it works for both sides. Remaining flexible and being willing to revise your own methods for making corrections is not always a universal recipe for success, but it is a good strategy for dealing with this decidedly complex topic.