TEFL helping students correct their fossilised errors

Fossilised errors – a mistake that a student learning a foreign language makes constantly without knowing that they are making an error in the target language.
The L2 error has become a habit, so it is extremely difficult to correct the mistake.

*He love football (never putting an ‘s’ on a 1st person singular present simple sentence)
*Yes, I can to do it (following a modal verb with a full infinitive)

How are fossilised errors formed?

As a student learns more and more English and is constantly acquiring more and more knowledge, the emphasis of learning can often be centred on ‘the new’. The implication being that unless you are facing something new in every learning session and adding to your existing knowledge with a new item, then it is not a progression in the language continuum.
If this is the teacher’s or learner’s attitude, then basic errors can get left behind in this thirst for new knowledge, when it would have been better to cement the foundations, rather than building on incorrect output.
A learner could be producing an habitual mistake because nobody has ever corrected them when the error appears.
A teacher may unconciously reinforce an error by not correcting someone in a group class who has made the same, or similar, error and the learner may have taken that as confirmation that the error was actually correct English.
Probably the most common reason though is L1 inteference. False friends from mother tongue influence are perhaps the most stubborn fossilised errors that exist, e.g. when a German speaker says “Oh, that guy is really special”, meaning in literal German, “That guy is weird”, whereas in English the opposite meaning is understood.


Regardless of how the fossilised error was formed (there can be various reasons), how does an English teacher ‘reconstruct’ the (usually) grammar, lexical or pronunciation error?


A successful example of fossilised error correction

Recently, I was teaching a female student one-to-one in exam preparation for the CAE exam. She had previously failed the exam, but it was difficult to understand why (as I had not met her before) as she had a very high level of written English.

After 2 sessions, it was clear that amongst her excellent writing of the language, she also had several fossilised errors in speaking that were mistakes you would expect from a beginner or pre-intermediate.

For example, she would often mix up ‘he’ and ‘she’ when referring to the wrong gender – this was monther tongue inteference from Hungarian.
She would also omit to use the ‘s’ of 1st person singluar present simple.

Another curious habitual error was to say ‘a lots of…(singular noun)’, when the correct version would be ‘a lot of… (plural noun)’ or ‘lots of…(plural noun)’
For example, she would say…
* a lots of book
She peppered her speech with this phrase, so it was a high-occurence error

I dealt with this error in the following manner…
– Stopped the student mid-sentence when the error occured (not normally my preferrred method of error correction, so this was to highlight the importance of correcting this issue)
– Explained the incorrect grammar with examples of the correct version
– Repeated the above twice and told the student that she needed to get really angry/pissed off at this mistake, so that she would never say it again
– Set a homework (that the student had to send me a daily email every day for 1 week, including weekends, at 6pm every night when she finished work) that contained 2 sentences commenting on something from her day that contained ‘a lot of….(plural noun)’
In the first few days’ homework emails, she sent me sentences such as…
1. Today, I bought a lot of interesting books.
2. This morning, I received a lot of unexpected emails
3. This week was awful and exhausting. I had a lot of stressful things to do

– At the weekend, I adapted the activity to allow sentences that were about anything (as the ‘today sentences’ were getting a bit boring to read, so they were also probably boring for the student to produce, too). So then, she sent sentences like…

1. Last year I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, I was fascinated by the permanent exhibitions, there were a lot of remarkable artworks.
2. There is a vintage shop, not so far from my apartment, where you can find a lot of cool dresses.
3. As far as I know, Hemingway was an extremely prolific author; besides his novels he wrote a lot of essays and articles.

The student commented in the following week’s lesson that she had actually enjoyed the homework because it made her think about the error, but it wasn’t too long a task everyday to make it tedious.

She also said that during the day, she was thinking about the stuff she was doing at work and how she could turn it into a ‘a lot of…plural noun’ sentence.

So, I thought this was a great success as a homework, as it motivated the student to think in correct English, during her normal daytime activity.

The result was that during the next month of lessons, the student said the error only twice more (previously, she was making the mistake 3 times per lesson on average) and she immediately self-corrected… with a knowing smile.

She also passed the CAE exam at the end of our lessons with the highest grade for her speaking! 🙂


How can an English teacher correct fossilised errors?

1. Just deal with correcting one error at a time.
2. Clearly explain what the error is
3. Ask the student for several examples of the correct version
4. Focus on the error 100% so that it is patently obvious to the learner that this is a mistake that should be eliminated.


Continuing Professional Development Session – Correcting Fossilised Errors

On THURSDAY 28.01.2016 at Saint George International in Central London, there will be an evening CPD session for Teachers of English as a foreign language entitled, “How to Help Students Overcome Fossilised errors”
The talk begins at 6:30 pm and costs £5 to attend (there are drinks and snacks provided)

To book your place at the workshop, contact: Simon Liu or Melissa Corlett on – cpd@stgeorges.co.uk

Bren Brennan

About Bren Brennan

Bren initially trained here at SGI and then joined the staff in 2005. Since 2006, he has taught abroad in Budapest, Berlin and now at Mondragon University in Spain. He returns to teach at SGI London every summer and completed the SGI Trinity DipTESOL in 2011. He also regularly writes posts for students here.
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2 Responses to TEFL helping students correct their fossilised errors

  1. Collette says:

    Thanks for that, we come across these habits quite often. I think this is a great when you are alone with the student but what about in a group? I have a student who is hardworking and enthusiastic but, when she speaks, she has a lot of bad habits. When I correct her, this makes her very uncomfortable in front of her classmates. I’ve explained to her that I’m not criticising her and she agrees that I should correct her but I can still feel her discomfort and I think that this is counter productive. Any advice?

    • Bren Brennan Bren Brennan says:

      Hi Collette,
      Thanks for stopping by.
      I think your situation requires speaking to the student just for a few mins after class and maybe explain her fossilised error (do one at a time if she has many) and follow the proceudre in the blog above. Get her to send you sentences every day.
      Alternatively, you could do a 10 minute activity for the whole class which covers this error, so as not to isolate/single out your student
      I will do another blog on “Error Correction without embarrasing students” next week, so pop back for that, but in the meantime, this older blog, “Anxiety over error correction in oral work” may interest you…

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