making and using the error sheets

For many years, while I was teaching writing to advanced ESL students, I "collected" errors from writing assignments and used them to make instructional materials I called "error sheets." My basic method was as follows: In correcting writing assignments, I marked certain sentences (or groups of sentences) that contained errors of grammar, punctuation, or vocabulary. When I'd finished correcting the assignment, I typed out ten to twenty of these "items" and edited them. (The purpose of the editing was create "items" that contained one or more easily identifiable and discussable mistakes, but which otherwise were clear and correct.) In the classroom, after the assignment had been returned, copies of the error sheet were given to the students who were asked to find the errors and correct them. Sometimes they worked in groups, sometimes alone. When ten to twenty minutes had been spent in that way, the students were asked to describe the errors they had found, either verbally or by writing correct versions on the blackboard. Then I corrected their corrections, answered questions, and, when it seemed appropriate, used the errors as a "lead-in" for a review of one or more grammatical points. Sometimes, instead of using the sort of "open" grammar sheet just described, I used a "closed" version in which four words or phrases were underlined. One and only one of these underlined segments contained a grammatical error, and the students' task was to find it and draw a circle around it. This style of error sheet — similar to the one used in error correction questions on the TOEFL — makes the sheets more usable for quizzes and and for quickly corrected homework assignments; however, it detracts somewhat from their value as a teaching tool.

the origins of the error-sheet method

The grammar sheets have their source in the frustration I felt when I was first teaching "composition" to advanced, academically-oriented ESL students. I found that although my students' speaking, reading, and listening skills were generally good, their writing was filled with errors. And I found, moreover, that a high proportion of these errors were elementary. They made "simple" mistakes with articles, with third-person s-morphemes, with the passive voice and — most frustrating of all — with basic sentence punctuation

the theory behind the error sheets

I came to feel that because my students were making so many basic mistakes, and because they were repeating those mistakes over and over again, the sort of grammar curriculum normally used in classes like mine had serious shortcomings. That kind of curriculum typically focuses on higher-level grammatical topics such as unreal conditionals, the correct use of conjuncts, or the subtleties of the verb tense system. It is also organized in a "linear" way: a particular topic is taken up, dealt with thoroughly, and then left behind not to be returned to except, perhaps, for an occasional review.

The problem with this approach, I believe, is that it is based on the idea of imparting new information — whereas effective ESL writing instruction should be mainly aimed at developing the habit of putting old information into practice. In other words, I felt that my students didn't need more knowledge as much as they needed to learn to apply the knowledge they already had. It was in the hopes of providing that sort of practice that I began using the error sheets in the classroom.

Of course the material that appeared in the error sheets was not all elementary. A wide variety of advanced topics naturally "came up" — complex but important points home of lexis and verb complementation, for example. One "extra" advantage of this method is that, along with the elementary problems, many "small" but significant points are also covered — ones that almost certainly would never be touched on even in a very serious and advanced linear-style curriculum. But most importantly, the error sheets always contained a few examples of the "old" elementary problems with such things as non-count nouns, modal auxiliaries, and run-on sentences. After I began teaching in this way, my students were being regularly reminded these boring, but crucial points.

If they are used simply as "reminders," however, the error sheets will not work very well. To be really effective, they have to be regarded as a way of providing necessary practice in the detection and correction of elementary mistakes. That is why it is so important for students to work individually or in groups before the errors are discussed by the teacher. The final goal, of course, is not to teach students to detect mistakes made by other students but to teach them to find errors in their own writing. It's never easy, though, to look "objectively" and "critically," at something you have done yourself — and this sort of "looking" is perhaps most difficult of all when it comes to something you've written yourself. It seemed to me, when I first began using this method, that error sheets were a step in the right direction. And now, many years later, it still seems to me that that is so. The idea is that first you learn to find and correct the mistakes in other students' writing and then, as your ability increases and becomes more and more habitual, you naturally begin looking more objectively at your own writing.

In summary, there are two theoretical ideas behind "the grammar sheet method": Regular use of the sheets ensures

(1) that students are regularly reminded of the fact that they are still making many elementary errors
(2) that they will develop the habit of applying their knowledge of elementary grammar to their own writing


Justifying a teaching method with a plausible "theory," as I have tried to do above, is one thing; putting the theory to work in a real classroom is something else. If I were asked whether, over the years, I improved my students' writing more by using error sheets than I would have if I'd stuck to a more traditional approach, I suppose the only really honest answer would be, "I don't know." But having said that, I would go on to say, first, that common sense indicates the method would be helpful. I would add that I adopted the error-sheet method in the first place because the traditional method was clearly not working. I'd also mention that some of the most invigorating and enjoyable classroom sessions I ever had were the general discussions that followed individual and group work on the error sheets and, finally, I'd mention that my own knowledge of English grammar was greatly increased by working with the sheets.


(1) extra effort is required by both teachers and students

Error sheets do involve quite a lot of work — for both teachers and students. From the teacher's point of view, there's the effort of collecting the errors in the first place, typing them, editing them, and making copies. On top of that, it's necessary to prepare by making notes of some sort so you know you'll be able to identify the errors and explain them clearly when you're in front of your students. And then there's the mental energy required to keep thinking enthusiastically and sharply during the whole classroom session. (Some of this work can be escaped by using a ready-made error sheet, but then the errors won't be as well matched to your students' problems as they would be if you used a sheet made from errors you collected while marking your students' last writing assignment.) For the students too, error sheets require require much more work than do traditional grammar exercises. In the first place, faced with ordinary-looking sentences and knowing only that, somewhere, some kind of error is to be found and corrected, students have no choice but to think. Second, in group work and in participating in the general discussion, they have to make the effort required to understand both the questions and comments of their fellow students and the explanations of their teacher. Moreover, if they want to take full advantage of the session, they have to be courageous and confident enough to ask questions themselves.

(2) interest in grammar - and respect for its value - is required

Most people — and therefore most teachers and students — find grammar an unattractive subject. Perhaps we dislike thinking about this subject just because linguistic structure is embedded in us so deeply and "unconsciously." In any case, there is widespread resistance to grammar, even in the ESL world. Sometimes this resistance becomes so strong it could accurately be described as "revulsion" or even "hatred." This hostility is even more common in ESL teachers than in ESL students. Students may not like grammar but, still, they generally believe that the more grammar they know, the better their English will be. Teachers on the other hand often think that explicit discussion of grammar in the classroom is a waste of time or even damaging.

Grammar-sheet work will have little appeal to teachers who are "against grammar." They will probably continue either to ignore it completely or to teach it by assigning, explaining, and correcting ready-made exercises from text books. Still, I hope that some teachers who have been influenced by the widespread hostility to explicit grammar teaching but who have misgivings about this attitude will be encouraged by the grammar-sheet material on to experiment with a method which, although challenging, is also stimulating and illuminating for both teachers and students. And there is one fact that anyone who is tempted to experiment with this method but hesitant to do so should consider: the standard rationalization of the hostility — that ESL students learn grammar best by "picking up" it in a natural, "unconscious" way — certainly is not true when it comes to writing. ESL students may learn to speak grammatically just by listening to a lot of English and, perhaps by being "drilled" and corrected in a casual, non-theoretical way, but they do not learn to write grammatically in this "automatic" manner. In fact, as I explained above, the grammar-sheet method originated in response to the fact that elementary errors are frustratingly common and persistent in the writing of otherwise advanced ESL students. It seems to me, therefore, that the grammar sheet method is worth using if it brings about even a small reduction in the number of such errors.

(3) knowledge of grammar is required

There is another, connected, reason why ESL teachers so often avoid grammar or teach it only in a conventional way, relying on straight-forward published materials. The error-sheet method is demanding because it requires teachers to think about grammar "independently" — in other words to think about it without specific guidance from an authoritative source. Even if they are using a carefully prepared sheet with a thorough and clear "key," when they are working with individual students, and during the general discussion, teachers will inevitably come up against questions they have not anticipated — and questions they cannot answer. This is partly because the sentences on the sheets are not the "artificial" products of a materials writer focussing on a particular grammatical point; they are the real statements of real English users and, therefore, much "richer" in their grammatical content. The unanswerable questions are inevitable because they are the result of asking the students to think independently about real English sentences.

Often, ESL teachers do not know enough grammar to confidently face the questions that will arise in a typical error-sheet session. One reason for this is that the teachers of ESL teachers — the faculty of "TESL programs" in colleges, universities, and private institutions — often do not have a deep knowledge of grammar themselves; their students therefore go into their first classrooms without the ability to teach grammar in an "explicit" and "independent" way. Another reason is that developing a real understanding of even the most basic grammatical concepts requires more than mere study. Even the best TESL training — and the best intentions — are not enough to produce the sort of understanding of basic grammatical concepts that is required for really independent teaching. That takes a lot of practice in actually applying the concepts in a variety of situations.

It is understandable but unfortunate if a lack of knowledge leads to a neglect of grammar — or to an unwillingness to experiment with an unconventional method. I'm hoping that, by putting grammar sheets on and by writing these comments, I'll encourage at least a few ESL teachers to overcome their distaste for grammar and their nervousness about exposing themselves to difficult questions. I am sure that teachers who do make a serious attempt to use this method will find that as a result of working with grammar sheets, they will soon know much more grammar than they did previously. They will also find that their ability to explain grammar clearly will quickly improve. (I am speaking from experience here!)

NOTE: One thing that might help anyone who feels inhibited by a lack of grammatical knowledge is the pdf version of "Complex Sentences" available on I put this text together in the mid-nineties; it's based on notes I wrote for an "advanced grammar" course I was teaching at the time. Despite the title, there is a lot of basic material in the first two chapters — along with many exercises, all of which have answer keys.)

(4) non-native speaking teachers should not be troubled by their limitations

Non-native speaking teachers are, perhaps, particularly vulnerable to uneasiness about the independent thinking that the grammar sheets require. This is unfortunate. It is true that non-native speakers will rarely have the intuitive sense of semantic nuance that native speakers naturally possess; and it is also true that when they are using the error-sheet method there will inevitably be times at which that sense of nuance would be required for a completely satisfactory discussion of an item on a sheet. But non-native-speaking teachers should not let that prevent them from taking advantage of the error sheet method. For one thing, non-native speakers should be encouraged by the fact that they often have better explicit knowledge of basic grammar than the average native-speaking teacher does. In the second place, they should keep in mind that, they will almost always be able to find the answer to a particular question by looking in a dictionary or by consulting a native speaker.

(5) intellectual modesty is required

No matter how much grammar any teacher knows, no matter how much preparation they do, no matter how much experience they have in using error sheets, there will be times when they are at a loss for an answer and even worse, times when they are confidently explaining a particular point only to be stopped short by the sudden realization that they are confused. The only positive way to deal with this problem is to develop a sense of intellectual modesty — and to readily admit when faced with this sort of embarrassment that you've suddenly realized that you don't understand something as well as you thought you did. An open admission of ignorance or confusion is much less likely to lead to trouble in the classroom than is a clumsy attempt to conceal ignorance. Such confessions should of course always be accompanied by a promise to come back with an answer; if such promises are conscientiously kept, the result will no doubt be to more than gain back any respect and affection lost by the original admissions. (And once in a while — when faced with this sort of embarrassment — it would be a good idea to take advantage of the opportunity to make a small "speech" about how grammatical theory and terminology always fall short of the linguistic reality they try to describe.)


An important part of the original motivation for was the idea of publishing my collection of error sheets there. However, since work began in October 2004, other aspects of the project have always seemed more urgent — and have always turned out to be more time consuming than I imagined they would be. Even now, with so many other sorts of essential work remaining to be done, I feel it would be a mistake to devote very large amounts of time to the "sheets." I do feel, though, that the time has definitely come to start putting some of this material on the site — if for no other reason than that I fear if I don't begin now, I never will. So I'm beginning by publishing these notes and Error Sheet #1. The sheet is linked to a "key" on which a corrected version is given. Of course, there will almost always be more than one "correct version" of any of the items on an error sheet — and sometimes there will a great many. I realize that this "open-endedness" means that with the sheets and the key alone, many ESL teachers will still hesitate to experiment with the method because they will be nervous about whether or not they will be able to identify and explain the errors clearly and accurately. I will try to go some way toward solving that problem by supplementing the basic error-sheet/key combination in two ways: (1) with a "long key" in which a full explanation of all the errors is provided. The grammatical terms used in this key would be linked to their definitions in the "Grammar Glossary." (2) a "closed version" of the error sheet of the sort described above. In this version, each of the items would be edited so that it contained one and only one error. The word or phrase embodying that error would be underlined along with four other words or phrases and the students' task would simply be to find the mistake. I don't know how much these supplements will do to encourage teachers to experiment with error sheets — but I certainly hope they will be useful to some. The problem is that they will take time to produce; writing the long keys in particular may turn out to be extremely time-consuming. I am determined to make the effort though: I think the error-sheet method is beneficial for advanced ESL students who want to improve their writing — and I think it would be unfortunate if it were not more widely used just because teachers were nervous about giving explanations and answering questions. So it seems worthwhile to post some of the sheets here and to do so in a way that will reduce that nervousness as much as possible.

fl, January 15, 2007

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