Colin Barnett offers suggestions for effective error correction and language improvement in one-to-one classes.


"I teach one-to-one at various levels, but the biggest problem I have is with error correction (especially during conversation). Is there a structured way to go about this so that the student gets something out of class (than just talking in English)?''What do you do during one-to-one classes? I bring in interesting materials to discuss, but I wish I could do more (like grammar and increasing vocab) to really make my students feel like they've made some progress.''With advanced students, I know they're using the level of English which enables them to communicate without making mistakes. But I feel I should make them go beyond that. With lower levels, jeez! They make so many mistakes, I don't know where to stop them and elaborate...''I'm really at a loss at times. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated."

Several years ago I was in a fast food restaurant in London. As a teacher I couldn’t help but notice a one-to-one session taking place. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. A teacher and a student sitting down chatting – where were the paper cut-ups, PPP and photocopies that were key ingredients during my CELTA training? They were just talking!

Just talking is, after all, fluency practice. There comes a time, though, when we need or want to go beyond 'just talking' in conversations. Whether the need or the want is our own or the learner's is a topic for another day. In this article, though, you’ll find out or be reminded of:

  • Two ways to develop and extend a learner's competence during conversations
  • Several ways to develop, extend and help learn expressions, vocabulary and structures after the conversation
  • Two ways of modelling anglophone active listening skills

Giving corrections either during or after a conversation in a one-to-one situation is useful. There are, of course, different ways of going about it. Correction is only one filter we can use to help develop our learners. Williams and Burden in Psychology for Language Teachers talk about 'informational feedback', or feedback that provides opportunities to develop. Having the objective of feedback as a filter offers more options:

  • Increasing motivation
  • Increasing accuracy
  • Extending repertoire

Providing feedback allows us to give the learner more than 'just talking'. The interesting part is how we can provide feedback both during and after conversations.

Keep talking and using your active listening skills

"Good listening" we are told "is vital in spoken interactions … and goes beyond understanding words and key points… Active listening includes the non-verbal physical expressions, gestures and movements, and verbal ‘back channeling’ devices … Active listening also involves paraphrasing and summarizing."
(Developments in English for Specific Purposes p.106).

Using verbal active-listening skills in one-to-one situations can be a huge boon. In addition to letting the speaker know they have been heard and understood it also allows us to teach new language and offer corrections. Paraphrasing what the learner said is similar to reformulating. Back-channelling or echoing in a slightly modified version what the learner has just said can be seen as recasting.

Say the same things in other words – Paraphrasing

Offering corrections can be quite difficult, particularly if the learner is quite proficient. Paraphrasing or reformulating, on the other hand, gives us the possibility to teach or at least remind of alternative ways of expressing something while encouraging the learner to keep talking. I often flag up paraphrases/reformulation during conversations with the expression in other words. For example:

Teacher: How was the meeting you went to?

Jean-Luc: It was cancelled. The guy I was supposed to meet was a bit sick.

Teacher: Oh dear. So in other words he was bit under the weather, was he?

Jean-Luc: You mean he was a bit sick?

Teacher: Yes, that’s right…

l find that some learners can interpret all comments from the teacher during the conversations as corrections. Flagging up the paraphrase with the expression in other words gets round this problem and merely informs that learner that what you are saying is a paraphrase not a correction.

My next step is to note what the learner originally said on the Language Improvement Sheet (see below).

Repeat what was said as a question but in a correct way – Recasting

Echoing what was said but in a correct way is a gentle way to offer corrections during a conversation while still encouraging the development of the discourse. I flag up modified echoes/recasts with the word So and question tag, e.g.

Ariane: I had a good weekend. I am going to Paris to an exposition.

Teacher: So you went to Paris for an exhibition, did you?

Ariane: Yes, but it was snowy.

Here the correction was offered and it was up to Ariane whether to use it immediately or not. My next step is to get a record of what the learner said by noting it on the Language Improvement Sheet for later practise. I explain at the beginning of each conversation that I’ll be taking notes so that the learner can concentrate on talking. I did have one student, though, who was a fantastic multi-tasker and could take part in the conversation and note down (and employ) new or improved language. I just had to be present and use active-listening skills.

Language Improvement Sheet

At its simplest the Language Improvement Sheet (see attachment at the bottom of the page) is little more than a sheet of paper with a record of bits of language that popped up during the conversation. I usually group these in two broad categories:

  • Things to keep saying and their variationsExamples for improvement
  • Paraphrases get grouped into the first category and modified echos/recasts in the second group.

Conversational drilling

Once you have a record of examples there are, of course, many things to do with it:

  • Give it to the learner to see if they can give the variation/improvement by themselves.
  • Test the learner: "You said …… Can you remember what I said?"
  • Ask the learner to dictate the variations or improvements to you and you note on the back of the sheet. The learner can then note corrections and check with the 'key' (on the back).
  • Create a recording of the Language Improvement Sheet. For the variations, you or the learner can say the original followed by a long enough pause for the variation to be said/thought, followed by the variation itself. For the improvements, a possibility might be to get the learner to translate the improved version into their language and record the translation, followed by a pause, then the target language version of the improvement.

Further oral practice can be achieved using a conversational drill process. An example might be useful here:

Teacher: How was the meeting you went to?

Jean-Luc: It was cancelled. The guy I was supposed to meet was a bit sick.

Teacher: Oh dear. So in other words, he was a bit under the weather, was he?

Jean-Luc: You mean he was a bit sick?

Teacher: Yes, that’s right… (teacher notes expression on the sheet) OK, thank you. I enjoyed that conversation and I understood everything you said. Let’s go over some of the things we wrote down. You said that the guy you were supposed to meet was a bit sick. Do you remember the other expression I used? No? OK… Just answer my questions. This guy: he wasn’t sick or he was sick?

Jean-Luc: He was sick.

Teacher: OK, so he was sick OR, in other words, he was a bit under the weather? Was he a bit under the weather?

Jean-Luc: Yes, he was.

Teacher: He was what?J

ean-Luc: A bit under the weather.

Teacher: And who was a bit under the weather?

Jean-Luc: This guy was.Teacher: This guy was what?

Jean-Luc: He was a bit under the weather.

Teacher: So why didn’t you meet this guy?

Jean-Luc: He was a bit under the weather.

Teacher: So, when was the last time you were a bit under the weather?

Conversational drill

  1. Outframe – State your intention and that you understand that the activity is not wholly communicative as both of you know the answers to most of the questions. Get agreement that the activity is to help the learner really get their tongue around the new language.
  2. Remind them of the original – Draw attention to the original utterance. Allow the learner to recall the alternative if they can.
  3. Check intended meaning – Ask an either/or question – using the positive/ negative verbs ("You met the manager or you didn’t meet the manager?") or expression/opposite expression (e.g. "The manager came or the manager left?").
  4. (Re-)Introduce the new phrase – Use the structure "So you like giving presentations OR you’re keen on giving presentations?" It’s important to emphasise the OR to indicate that what follows is a near synonym.
  5. Get agreement on new phrase – Ask a yes/no question using the new phrase. This models the language further.
  6. Check meaning and elicit the new phrase – Ask an either/or type question. Ask the same question again if the learner needs to clean up the pronunciation, is missing a word, etc.
  7. Elicit the new phrase again - try using a Who...? question
  8. Elicit the new phrase without modelling the language – A question like 'What can you tell me about…?' usually does this.
  9. Extend content – Asking WH-questions such as 'When was the last time you…?' can draw this out.

It helps to sort out the 'need to knows' from the 'nice to knows' when doing this exercise so that you can give restricted practice in the essential/most useful language.

Conclusion: Structured feedback in a nutshell…

What I have suggested is that using feedback rather than just correction offers more choices. It can help motivate, inform and develop learners. Moreover, by using verbal active listening strategies not only can we model what good listeners do – in Anglophone cultures, at least – but we can give learners an experience of partaking in meaningful dialogue as well as experience new/improved language in their own meaningful contexts. This can be done by use of flagged up paraphrase and/or recasting.

Using a Language Improvement Sheet serves as a record of language encountered. It can also serve a basis for informational feedback. The Language Improvement Sheet can be followed up in a variety of ways, such as conversational drilling to give restricted oral practice of language met during the conversation. The sheet also acts as a product that the learner can take away.

Thinking back to that teacher in the fast food restaurant – there may have been much more method to their (what seemed to me as) madness.


Developments in English for Specific Purposes: A Multi-disciplinary Approach (Cambridge Language Teaching Library): Tony Dudley-Evans, Maggie Jo St. John.

Psychology for Language Teachers: A Social Constructivist Approach (Cambridge Language Teaching Library), Marion Williams, Robert L. Burden.


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