Number one for English language teachers

Methodology: fossilized errors

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced

Suggestions to help students overcome fossilized errors.


How can students overcome fossilized errors? By the time they get to upper-intermediate/advanced level, their functionality is adequate for their purposes specially when dealing with other non-native English language speakers so they are reluctant to sacrifice fluency at the expense of accuracy. I guess this latter is an attitude problem so how can I as a teacher convince them to value accuracy?

Liz Denham

If there were a simple answer to this question, we’d probably all be out of a job!  For a start, fossilization – almost by definition – implies the end of the road. If a tree is fossilized there is no bringing it back to life. Likewise, if a non-standard language form becomes fixed, it is fossilized, and there is no way of rescuing it. In a study done in 1986 on 80 students at a Jordanian University with an average of 11 years’ instruction behind them, the researcher identified a number of persistent errors such as deletion of the verb to be, use of past simple instead of present simple, etc. He found that neither error correction nor explicit grammatical explanation had any effect on these errors “thus reinforcing the view that certain error types are not susceptible to de-fossilization”. 

That’s the bad news. Now for the good news. All language learners fossilize at some point – that is to say their 'interlanguage' stabilizes at a point short of native-speaker proficiency. Some fossilize around about beginner level; others make it to advanced – but eventually there is a trade-off between the effort that would be required to top up the system, and their current degree of satisfaction at their communicative effectiveness. Unlike mountaineers, most language learners settle for the view from Base Camp 1.

So, your learners are not behaving atypically, or perversely, or bloody-mindedly. Especially since, as you say, they can achieve their communicative purposes to the satisfaction of themselves and their interlocutors.  If however, you feel they could or should “value accuracy” more – perhaps because they may want to sit an external exam – they will only do this if the motivation comes from within.  That is, they have to want to de-fossilize.  Or, rather, to “restructure their internal grammar”. And there seem to be at least two reasons why anyone should want to make the effort to do this kind of mental spring-cleaning.

One is social: a learner living in an English-speaking culture, for example, might want to stop sounding like a foreigner and be motivated, therefore, to push their interlanguage as far as possible up the native-like beach. But, as you imply, your learners are probably not going to use their English with many native-speakers, and very few will be planning to integrate into an English-speaking culture. So much for socialization as a de-fossilizer.

The other motivation is simply intelligibility. If the learner gets consistent messages that they are unintelligible, they may take steps (consciously or unconsciously) to move their interlanguage along a step or two. This is where the teacher can be useful.  The teacher can demonstrate that the differences between, say, the past simple and the present simple – which the learner may be consistently ignoring because the context makes it clear what the time reference is -  really matter. One way of doing this is acting dumb: Teacher: What do you do every day? Student: I went to work. Teacher: You went to work every day? You mean you stopped? You got the sack? You’ve retired already! Wow, lucky you! etc. The learner will soon get sick of this kind of response. They will either leave the class or do something about their verb tenses.  Giving learners clear messages about their intelligibility – even if it means pretending you don’t understand – may act as way of tripping the fossilization switch.

Other ways of doing this involve exercises which have been called grammar interpretation exercises, and which draw attention to otherwise unnoticed, and often unnoticeable, distinctions in the grammar. I describe these at some length in my book Uncovering Grammar.

Of course, the best way of treating fossilization is to pre-empt it, or nip it in the bud.  Showing that you value accuracy, right from day one, but not to the point that you inhibit their communicativeness, may help. Little nudges and corrections while they’re in full flow; taking notes on errors for later feedback, are all ways of what Peter Skehan has called “keeping the learner in the right state of anxiety”.

But in the end you have to ask yourself – and they have to ask themselves – is it worth it? Life is too short to aim for perfection. The view from half-way up may be just fine. 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • You didn't actually give many ideas about how to correct fossilisation, you only assumed that most students wouldn't care about it. My students come to me because they want to improve their English accuracy as well as fluency but many of them have been learning for a long time and their mistakes have been there for almost as long.. any more ideas for students who know they make mistakes, even may know what mistakes they make, but don't know what to do about them? Thanks.

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  • Yes, forcing students to ransack their IL for the correct form by feigning incomprehension is the best way to kick them upstairs and out of fossilization (or to prime them for new language they didn't know they needed).

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