Implicit vs. Explicit Error Correction in Language Instruction

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will discuss the correction of errors in language instruction. Correcting these errors can be explicit or implicit. We will explore what that means and how to use both methods effectively to improve language learning.

Say 'Mama!'

Baby Melody is learning to talk. All the adults and other children she talks to or overhears are constantly teaching her new words and correcting her baby talk so that she can learn how to communicate effectively. Most people are not deliberately teaching babies like Melody to speak; she just learns by carefully listening and repeating messages. As she receives corrective feedback, her language improves.

Usually babies learn language implicitly by copying the language use they see and hear.
baby on phone

This ongoing cycle of language use and error correction helps her learn how to communicate verbally. Once we are no longer babies immersed in a world of language, learning to speak a language often seems more difficult. Some of the same strategies used naturally with Melody can be used to help older children learn a new language.

Implicit Error Correction

Implicit error correction is implied by restating the mistake correctly, rather than the correction being overtly stated or explained. If you recast the misspoken phrase into correct use, you will implicitly correct the error. Students generally internalize this correction for future use, often incorporating the correction immediately by repeating the corrected version.

While learning English verb tenses, Miguel said, ''I gone to get some ice cream.'' The teacher repeated back, ''Oh, you went to get some ice cream. What flavor?'' Implicit error correction is implied by restating the mistake correctly, rather than the correction being overtly stated or explained.

Implicit error correction is often the most immediate form of feedback, so be mindful to use it in the least invasive ways. Correcting someone by repeating back to them the correct word usage should only be done minimally and when it solves problems of misunderstanding. Otherwise, it can undermine confidence in new language learners.

Explicit Error Correction

Explicit error correction is clearly explained using deliberate, corrective feedback and is more often used for written language development. For example, a teacher correcting grammar and diction in a writing assignment has an opportunity to explain what was incorrect and why another choice would be more accurate.

Giving explicit feedback on writing samples should be clearly stated, relevant and necessary.
correcting writing errors

In the above example, when Miguel said, ''I gone to get some ice cream.'' The teacher repeated back, ''I went to get some ice-cream. This story needs the past tense verb.'' This is an explicit error correction, because in addition to restating the mistake correctly, the teacher also overtly explains the grammar rule behind the correction.

Explicit error correction often relies on using a metalinguistic approach that describes the specific vocabulary or grammar rule that was violated with a specific error. Such explicit error correction is difficult to use well in conversation without too much interruption, often resulting in derailing the speaker's train of thought.

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