The Internet TESL Journal

Empowering English Teachers to Grapple with Errors in Grammar

Caroline Mei Lin Ho
mlcho [at]
Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)


This paper focuses on a systematic, step-by step approach to empower teachers of English to analyse grammatical errors in children's writing. It draws on a recently introduced pre-service module for first year trainee teachers in Singapore. It aims to provide a practical guide in developing teachers' skills in identifying and classifying students' errors, and in explaining grammatical rules. Ultimately, it is hoped teachers will be better able to help students understand their errors in grammar and the grammar rules involved.


The study of English grammar is considered 'an important aspect in the learning of English' (MOE 2001: 64) in Singapore. One of the aims of the English Language (EL) syllabus by the Ministry of Education is to enable pupils to 'speak, write and make presentations in internationally acceptable English that is grammatical, fluent and appropriate for purpose, audience, context and culture' (ibid: 3). Teachers' 'knowledge of grammar and how it functions' is acknowledged to contribute to 'effective language use' (ibid: 6).

This paper draws on a recently introduced pre-service teacher training module in Singapore for first year trainee teachers. The course aims at developing trainee teachers' skills in analyzing problems in grammar in primary pupils' writing. The module builds on trainees' knowledge of English grammar covered in an earlier course and enables them to apply this knowledge to an examination of children's writing.

Place of Error Analysis in Language Teaching

Ever since Corder (1967) highlighted the importance of considering errors in the language learning process, there has been a shift in emphasis towards an understanding of the problems learners face in their study of a language. Errors are indispensable to learners since the making of errors can be regarded as 'a device the learner uses in order to learn' (Selinker 1992:150). Research has provided empirical evidence pointing to emphasis on learners' errors as an effective means of improving grammatical accuracy (White et al, 1991; Carroll and Swain, 1993; Trahey and White, 1993). Indeed, as Carter (1997:35) notes, 'Knowing more about how grammar works is to understand more about how grammar is used and misused'. There is a need for students to recognise the significance of errors which occur in their writing, to fully grasp and understand the nature of the errors made. This requires English language teachers to be better equipped, more sensitive and aware of the difficulties students face with regard to grammar.

This article distinguishes 'mistakes' from 'errors' where the former refers to unsystematic errors of learners as opposed to the systematic errors of learners from which we are able to reconstruct their knowledge of the language to date (Corder, 1978). The underlying assumption is that students' errors made in grammar are systematic and classifiable. Attention to error type and an understanding of the violation or misuse of specific grammar rules offers teachers a means of helping students deal with language and usage problems. Then only can students be sensitized to specific problems they may have, and to recognize and remedy these problems.

An Approach for Error Identification and Analysis

A 3-step approach designed by the author is adopted to enable identification and analysis of students' errors. The following outlines the steps involved with the use of a table (Appendix 1):

1. Where is the problem? - Identification of error

Write out sentence containing the error. Underline/Highlight word/phrase/clause which shows the error. Use caret ^ to indicate omissions (if any).

2. What is the type of problem? - Definition and classification of error

a) State type of error
(eg Part of speech : eg Verb, Article, Noun, Adjective, Adverb, Preposition).

b) Classify error type
(eg Omission, Over-generalisation, Wrong combination).

Error identified Definition of error type Classification of error type
He are hungry. Verb Wrong combination of subject and verb.

3. How can you explain the problem? - Explanation of rule and exemplification

a) State the grammar rule which has been violated.
(eg. Singular subject 'He' must take a singular verb 'is'.)

b) Give correct form to show contrast with inappropriate/deviated form.

c) Give Examples Showing the Rule in Action

Guiding Teachers in Adopting the Approach

To aid teachers in defining the error type, a list of suggested terms was provided:

Definition of Error Type

The term 'Sentence structure' was included for errors pertaining to sentence construction, for example, if a sentence is incomplete or fragmented: The classification of error type was narrowed to the use of the following terms (Appendix 2 for examples): Where the explanation of rules is concerned, trainees are taught to state the rules clearly and simply. The following are examples:

Applying the Approach to Sample Errors in Students' Writing

The following examples illustrate the use of the approach to deal with various errors in grammar:
Identification of error Definition and error classification Explanation of rule
We put all the equipments on the beach. Noun

Unnecessary insertion of plural marker -s 

'Equipment' is uncountable noun and does not require the plural marker -s:

'We put all the equipment on the beach.'

A large number of people is sick. Verb

Wrong combination of subject and verb 

'A large number' refers to more than one person, ie plural subject, and requires plural verb 'are': 'A large number are sick'.
I would appreciate ^ if you could help me.  Verb

Omission of direct object

'Appreciate'is a transitive verb and therefore needs an object 'it':

'I would appreciate it if you could help me. 

He is owing me ten dollars. Verb

Inappropriate verb construction

'Owe' is a stative verb and does not require the -ing participle:

He owes me ten dollars. 

I don't know why are we taught this. Subject-verb order

Misordering/Inversion of subject and verb

Subject-verb inversion (why are we taught) in the interrogative but inversion ruled out in the form of statement (why we are):

I don't know why we are taught this.

While she was talking. The phone rang. Sentence structure

Incomplete/fragmented clause. 

The subordinate clause 'While she was talking' is dependent on a main clause and cannot stand on its own. Thus, 'While she was talking, the phone rang' is a complete sentence.

Knowledge of grammatical terms such as 'countable/uncountable nouns', 'transitive /intransitive verbs', 'stative/dynamic verbs', 'main / subordinate clause' enabled trainees to begin describing and discussing the errors identified. Introduction to basic concepts and terminology required in a study of English grammar provided the foundation needed before attempting to identify and analyse errors.

The classification of error type was facilitated by the use of broad terms such as 'omission', 'over-generalization', 'unnecessary insertion' which acted as prompts in guiding trainees to explain the nature of the errors identified, and to examine closely the error in the context of the child's text. Trainees commented that the use of these leading prompts gave them the confidence to begin talking about the errors identified and provided them a sharper focus in analyzing the errors. What this approach essentially provided was the metalanguage to enable teachers to explain and describe the nature of errors identified, and also to sharpen their analytical skills in a closer examination of grammatical problems in children's writing.

Impact on Trainee Teachers

Trainee teachers, in being sensitized to the grammatical problems evident in children's writing, generally welcomed the close attention to the specifics of identifying, analyzing and explaining involved. Among the positive responses of trainees in evaluating the course at the end of the module are the following-- Among the suggestions for improvement were requests for more time and practice to work on more samples of texts in order to apply the approach of error identification, classification and explanation to other types of texts written by children.

The Way Ahead

More time and practice given to trainees in analyzing texts using the approach suggested would polish up their analytical skills and build their confidence in explaining and describing the specifics of what is involved in less than perfect grammatical constructions in children's writing. The need to constantly monitor trainees' own understanding of specific concepts and rules involved in grammar is also not to be overlooked. Until trainees themselves are clear as to what grammatical features are in play and how these affect the comprehensibility or otherwise of students' texts, there is little value in progressing to the next stage of discussing and explaining the interplay of various grammatical features, let alone the rules involved. It was also found that having trainees deliberately examine and articulate what contributes to grammatically flawless constructions by children from time to time rather than only problematic examples provided a useful contrast whereby major differences and key flaws in the use and misuse of specific grammatical features can be highlighted and made more explicit.

The careful attention and close textual analysis of the types of problems children face in constructing texts essentially works towards resituating grammar within the context of textual production rather than having grammar focused at the individual level of isolated, discrete item-testing. Grammatical concepts are taught by providing students adequate definitions, diverse examples and non-examples carefully discussed in the context of the children's own use of language. The approach offers an opportunity of exploiting the grammars students have internalized as a way of teaching the grammar of standard English through the examination of error type, frequency and patterns in problems which surface from students' own work.

Students, when given the responsibility of finding, diagnosing, and correcting their own errors and those of their peers, will find patterns that can focus and simplify their efforts at overcoming those errors. Essentially, attention to analysis of students' errors may be more effective when individualized. There is a need for teachers to balance this with whole-class instruction in grammar and usage within the curriculum.

Concluding Remarks

The approach discussed in this paper offers a means of empowering teachers to help students with problems in grammar evident in their writing. It is acknowledged that the attempt to simplify and categorise errors neatly for learners may overlook what is essentially a complex system with overlapping areas and fuzzy boundaries. A need remains to further revise and adapt over time the approach to accommodate more complex nature of errors. Nevertheless, the systematic, methodical textual analysis is beneficial as it focuses attention on not only the type and nature of error made but also attempts to understand the violation or misappropriating of specific grammar rules on the part of the student. Indeed, as Carter (1997: 34) reminds us, 'Language in the classroom is not to be encountered wholly by unconscious, implicit and indirect means' but there is also the need to 'see through language in a systematic way and to use language discriminatingly'.

A return to examining children's writing as opposed to textbook explanations of grammatical concepts which would presumably be clear to students only if they already know the concepts can prove beneficial. Student-directed approach focuses on their specific needs and problem areas or weaknesses. The texts generated provide the basis of the existing grammatical knowledge (or lack of it) possessed by young learners of the language. Teachers can be empowered to unlock this pool of knowledge when they are sufficiently sensitized to and made aware of the problems students have in their writing. This consciousness-raising is vital to building teachers' language awareness of the difficulties faced by the children they are teaching. Exploring problems in grammar in relation to children's writing essentially reinforces the importance of studying grammar not in isolation but in its location 'in use and in its creation of contextual meanings' (Carter 1997: 30) which is ultimately more needs-oriented, problem-focused and learner-centred.

Appendix 1

Table for Analysis

Identification of error  Definition and error classification Explanation of rule

Appendix 2

Classification of Error Type

This list provides samples of suggested classifications of error type:


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 3, March 2003