Jane Birkenhead, March 18 2024

How to Correct Fossilized Errors

You know those errors that you make when you speak English? 

I'm talking about repeated errors - those errors that you keep making over and over again. Even though you know they are wrong, you just can't seem to stop yourself making them. They drive you crazy and make you wonder if you'll ever be able to speak English fluently. 

These kinds of errors are called fossilized errors.

In some situations, learners may not wish to correct their fossilized errors. Perhaps they can be understood well enough and see no need to change. But for TOEFL or IELTS students, especially those who need advanced speaking scores, it's important to try to remove as much fossilization as possible, especially where it relates to grammatical errors.

There are thousands of research papers written by linguists and language teachers debating the best ways of correcting fossilized errors. However, I like to keep things simple and in my lessons, use an approach to correction that's focused on each student's needs.

What Exactly is a Fossilized Error? 

A fossilized error is an error that a language learner repeats over and over again. It becomes part of their ingrained speech and they continue to make the error.

Here are some examples of fossilized errors from my students:

*I was waiting for train. (Russian speaker) 
* She said is too late to apply. (Spanish speaker)
* I going to France next year. (Arabic speaker)
(The * symbol means the sentence is grammatically incorrect.)

I've added the student's native language because many fossilized errors are a result of first language interference. Students find it helpful to know they are not alone in making these errors!

Also, as a language teacher, I know which fossilized errors are associated with which language. In a new student's first lessons, I listen carefully for them very carefully. My strategy is to identify them early in the lesson package so we can start working on them sooner.

How to Correct Fossilized Errors

I use the following 5 steps to help students correct fossilized errors.

STEP 1. Identification 

First I analyze a selection of speaking and writing responses and look for clusters of errors. I ignore one-off errors (for the purposes of this exercise) and concentrate on repeated errors. 

If you are a student, you may want to get a fluent English speaker, with an eye for detail, to help you with this step.

I review the errors I've discovered with my students, and together we make a plan identifying the ones we're going to work on first.

STEP 2. Correction

The next step is to correct the fossilized errors you have found. Again, if you are at all unsure about the corrections to make, ask a fluent English speaker to help you. It's really important you get this stage right.

If you don't understand the reason for the error (why it is considered wrong in English) or you don't understand the correction, then find out more. It's much easier to learn something when you fully understand it.

If you're working with a teacher, they will have access to resources to help you with this stage.

STEP 3. Practice

The third step of this process is to practice using the corrections. 

The first three stages of this process are quite straightforward and are probably something you've already tried. 
Now, from step 4,  the hard (but effective!) work really starts.

STEP 4. Repetition

You must repeat your corrections many, many times before they become automatic. 

Learning happens more effectively if you repeat your corrections in short bursts several times during the day. Don't save them for a long study session that you do just once a day. That won't help your brain to accept the correction.

Put your correction flashcards in different places -> round your house, in your car, at your workplace. When you can, spend 2 minutes actively focusing on the error.

Try to do this several times during the day. And keep doing it. If you make a mistake, don't worry and don't give up. Keep practicing.

STEP 5. Reinforcement

This is the step that makes the biggest difference in correcting fossilized errors and it's the role I perform most for my students. 

In every lesson, and for every piece of homework, I listen or read carefully to spot any errors. If I see a fossilized error that we're trying to correct, then I give feedback and suggest follow up exercises to help with practice, repetition and reinforcement

"You were so patient with me and you never gave up. Maybe you repeated to me like 1 million times that I don’t have to put a double subject." 
Irma, nurse, final TOEFL speaking score = 28

Why are Fossilized Errors so Frustrating?

There isn’t a mystery about knowing what to do about correcting fossilized errors, but the hard part is to keep doing it consistently. Correcting a fossilized error is like breaking a bad habit. You have to work hard and be consistent to break it, and this adds to the frustration.

In the five steps above, the most important steps are repetition and reinforcement.  The reason these errors are so frustrating is that most students don't repeat the corrections enough and don't receive consistent reinforcement. That means they revert to making the errors as soon as they stop focusing on them.

You need someone with an eye for detail to apply the reinforcement for you or you need to be very disciplined to do it yourself. That means always being told (or being aware of) when you make an error, being given feedback to correct it and then making sure that you do by repeating the correction

This feedback loop, applied consistently, will help you to eliminate your errors. 

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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