As an early career teacher I was advised to correct most pupil mistakes in their work. One piece of advice I received concerning spelling mistakes was to write the correct word for the student and then have them write it out three times, even if the mistake was made through a lapse of concentration or sheer laziness. I often found that I was writing out several spellings for each piece of work and naturally this increased with groups that had greater weaknesses in literacy. Needless to say, their spelling never improved much.

As I’ve become more a more informed teacher, I now know that this is not the best way of doing things. Arguably, what is more impactful is to point out the mistake but have the student make the correction for themselves. Feedback, in this context, becomes more nudging as opposed to instructional.

Don’t bail the student out and rob them of the chance of taking ownership of their learning and making self-corrections.

Consider when you were learning to drive. After the first few lessons you would have learned how to apply adequate pressure on the brake and accelerator. However, there were times when you were a little foot heavy, even after several lessons. Imagine your instructor stopping the car, telling you to switch sides and then taking your place in the driver’s seat to correct your mistake. Sounds ridiculous, right? Every time a teacher steps in to correct a mistake, we are in effect doing this and denying the student the opportunity to solve the problem and become more reflective.

Having thought about the nature of mistakes, now consider student errors. The difference between errors and mistakes is that error is done through lack of knowledge, skill or a combination of both. To use the driving analogy, if you were unable to parallel park and kept hitting the pavement, this would be erroneous. Your lack of know-how would result in a skill deficit. It would then be pertinent for your instructor to show you exactly how you should perform this manoeuvre. Being left to figure this out on your own could exacerbate the error and leave you floundering at the wheel. The instructor’s feedback would need to be more didactic and instructional. Student error in the classroom needs to be treated as such. This could come through the following to name a few: re-teaching, telling the pupil the right way, or writing a comment in the exercise book.

Mistakes should be owned by students. Errors should be corrected by others.

As you go about your teaching, carefully identify where students are making mistakes or errors and allow this to dictate the kind of feedback you give. Ask yourself ‘is this an error or a mistake?’ and then intervene accordingly.