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Li & Chan (1999) Helping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors

Helping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors
Helping teachers correct structural
lexical English errors1
David C.S. Li & Alice Y.W. Chan
City University of Hong Kong
This paper appeals for corpus-based
research with the ultimate
objective of helping local ESL teachers deliver pedagogically
feedback to their students. One intermediate goal is to
establish an error taxonomy, which is best organized by following
approach which incorporates both structural and lexical errors. A fairly
review of local research on ESL errors suggests that the
to date are fragmented,
little useful pedagogical
insight to ESL teachers and students. A partial taxonomy of Chinese
Interlanguage (Yip, 1995)errors basedon the authors’ observationsand
available data is suggested. Two examples are provided to illustrate
how a teacher can use corrective
feedback constituted
by a set of
sound procedures to help learners self-monitor
their own
written English output.
In the face of frequent lamentations from various public sectors reported
in the media about Hong Kong students’ declining English language
standards, there is an urgent need to explore effective means to help local ESL
learners improve their English proficiency, especially in writing (Li, 1999).
This paper appeals for corpus-based empirical research with a view to
establishing a taxonomy of local ESL learner errors as a basis for better
understanding the nature of ESL learning difficulties and experimenting with
ways to help learners overcome recurrent errors. Research has shown that not
all errors are amenable to teacher correction, that some errors are more easily
corrected than others (e.g., ‘although . . . but’ vs. misuse of articles or tenses),
and that ESL teachers’ error-correction efforts do not always pay off (Ellis,
1994; James, 1998). Still, after consulting a body of recent literature on error
analysis, crosslinguistic influence (or transfer) and second language
1 An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the International Language in Education
Conference ‘98. Hong Kong Institute of Education, December 17-19, 1998. We would like to
thank the four anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. They are not responsible for
any inadequacies that remain.
D. C. S. Li &A. Y. W. Chan
vocabulary acquisition, we believe that something can be done to help local
ESL teachers to better understand a subset of errors which are more or less
amenable to teacher correction, and to deliver effective error-correction
feedback to their own students collectively.
There are two main reasons why we are appealing for research to help
local ESL teachers deliver sound, effective error-correction feedback in class.
The first reason is that there is an obvious need for it. As is well-known, the
written English output of both secondary and tertiary students in Hong Kong
tends to be fraught with proficiency problems. Many teachers of English are
under great pressure, especially from school principals and panel chairs, to
correct student errors, with the tacit assumption that the correction will be
noticed by the learner and subsequently make a difference in the learner’s ESL
competence. There is, however, substantial empirical research evidence
showing that this assumption is not always warranted. Subject-verb agreement
is one notorious example. Despite it having been pointed out by their teachers
through error-correction feedback, many ESL learners continue to have this
problem in free writing. While we recognize that not all errors can be removed
through the teacher’s correction, we believe that a systematic description of
common structural and lexical errors, together with clear pedagogical
information and instructions for the ESL teacher as to how these errors can be
effectively corrected, has a good potential for helping learners self-monitor,
cope with and eventually overcome at least some persistent errors more
efficiently and effectively.
The second reason has to do with renewed interests in error analysis in
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research. The two paradigms in SLA
research: contrastive analysis (CA) and error analysis (EA), which were much
discredited during the 1970s and early 1980s have recently been revitalized
following significant works in the past decade, notably by James, 1998;
Kellerman (1995); Kellerman & Sharwood-Smith (1986); Odlin (1989).
Many of the basic premises of CA, be it the strong or the weak version, have
been refined, with its focus and purpose shifted from predicting learner
difficulties and errors to accounting for the complex processes of transfer,
which may be positive or negative depending on the outcome of learning. The
shift in emphasis has given rise to a new name for the paradigm:
crosslinguistic influence. EA, being a post-hoc analytical instrument with all
its methodological limitations, remains a useful means to uncover some of the
cognitive, linguistic, and pragmatic complexities involved in SLA (James,
Helping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors
In spite of Kellerman’s (1995) remark, that “the ascription of errors to a
particular source does not take us very far, since it is well-known that
structural comparisons of two languages are uncertain correlates of learner
behavior” (p. 125), we believe that, at least in the Hong Kong language
situation, establishing an empirically based taxonomy of typical learner errors
is somehow one preliminary and crucial step towards a better understanding of
the cognitive and psycholinguistic mechanisms at work in the ESL learning
process (cf. International Corpus of Learner English (ICLE) in Granger, 1993,
1998a, b). Without an understanding of such mechanisms, teachers may not be
aware of the ‘gravity’ of learner errors and therefore will be ill-advised or
unsure as to how best to help their students improve their language accuracy
(James, 1998). At the same time, reliable information about typical structural
and vocabulary learning problems at different proficiency levels can stimulate
ESL researchers, syllabus designers and curriculum writers to anticipate
learning problems, focus their remedial efforts, and to try out error-correction
activities and consolidating exercises.
Though there exist quite a few local publications on the common ESL
errors of local students (see literature review below), they contain little or no
pedagogically viable information on effective error correction for teacherusers. There is thus a need for local ESL researchers to:
identify salient error types commonly found among Hong Kong Chinese
students with a view to establishing a taxonomy of common structural and
lexical errors at three more or less discrete proficiency levels: elementary,
intermediate and advanced;
delimit a subset of high-frequency errors and explore pedagogically sound
methods and techniques to overcome them; and
design and experiment with error-correction instructions and activities to
help teachers and learners overcome those ESL learning difficulties
To help local ESL teachers deliver pedagogically sound and viable errorcorrection feedback, we believe an empirical, data-driven taxonomy based on
well-defined, high-frequency structural and lexical errors is a necessary
2 Pronunciation problems and inaccuracies are no less important, but they entail considerably
more complex remedial efforts and methodologies, which are beyond the much more tangible goal
of improving local ESL learners’ accuracy in written English--a goal which we believe should be
among the top priorities in local ESL research.
D. C. S. Li & A. Y. W. Chan
In the rest of this paper, we will discuss the merits of establishing two
complementary taxonomies of errors: a structure-based taxonomy and a wordbased taxonomy. This is followed by a fairly comprehensive literature review
of Hong Kong-based scholarly publications on error analysis and handbooks
on common errors designed for popular consumption. We will then present a
partial taxonomy of ‘Chinese Interlanguage’ (CIL) (Yip, 1995) based on our
own observations to date. The paper will end with two examples to illustrate
how pedagogically sound error-correction feedback can be proceduralized for
convenient reference of ESL teachers, with a view to facilitating the delivery
of quality collective feedback.
Two areas of focus: Structural
anomalies and misuse of words
It is well-known that errors are indicative of the learners’ interlanguage
(Selinker, 1974), representing systematic deviations from the norms of the
target language in the language learning process. When the error is wholly
attributable to the learner’s mother tongue, it is said to be the result of L1
interference, hence ‘interlingual’ error. On the other hand, if the error may be
shown to be caused by problems acquiring the target language itself, it is
usually considered as a developmental, or ‘intralingual’ error (Richards,
1974b). More often than not, however, the errors made along the learner’s
interlanguage continuum are due to a complex interplay between both L1- and
L2-related factors. While the identification of the source(s) and cause(s) of an
error may or may not be of much help in ridding the anomaly in question, we
believe that establishing two complementary taxonomies--a taxonomy of
structural errors supported by a taxonomy of lexical errors-has a greater
potential (than using either taxonomy alone) for helping target users appreciate
how the error may be overcome.
Error types and teachability
Since our primary objective is error correction, we will first focus on
those error types which are morpho-syntactically well-defined and which are
amenable to error correction in terms of ‘teachability’, which refers to the ease
with which a given error type can be clearly explained and understood (cf.
‘scale of processability’, Pienemann, 1985; see also James 1998, p. 245). The
higher the degree of teachability of a given error type, the easier it would be to
formulate and proceduralize pedagogically sound error-correction instruction
to overcome that error, and vice versa. We postulate that a given error type
Helping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors
may be situated along a teachability continuum, with lexical and structural
errors being more amenable to correction, whereas ‘hard-core’ grammatical
errors such as misuse of tenses and articles are less likely to be quickly
corrected without the ESL teacher giving detailed explanations supported by
contextualized exemplification. It is not at all straightforward, for example,
how ESL learners whose interlanguage generates erroneous sentences such as
He is teacher may be enlightened on the correct and proper use of the
indefinite article ‘a’ or ‘an’. Likewise, the proper use of tenses in English such
as the subtle distinction between present perfect and simple past is not easy to
grasp or explain. Our initial attention is therefore directed to lexical and
structural errors which are more amenable to teacher correction, and the
relative ease with which they can be corrected is to be assessed on an
experimental basis. As for the choice between written and spoken English
data, the former is clearly more manageable, and so we think that establishing
a corpus of written English errors commonly found among local ESL learners
of three more or less discrete proficiency levels will be a reasonably feasible
intermediate goal. The insights thus derived, we believe, may subsequently
inform and sharpen up the focus of the target interlanguage structures and
lexis in speech.
There has been a fair amount of published research on Hong Kongspecific learner errors. However, compared with the availability of numerous
handbooks on common errors intended largely for ‘popular consumption’,
empirical research on errors made by Chinese ESL learners and pedagogically
oriented error-correction materials are scanty. Yip (1995) is one notable
exception. Drawing on insights from both Universal Grammar and language
typology, Yip (1995) is a systematic study of Chinese interlanguage (GIL)---a
relatively stable grammar which has its own properties and internal logic but
which falls short of target language norms. Her study is based on mainly
production data-written compositions, oral reports, casual conversations-of
20 Chinese ESL learners (10 intermediate and 10 advanced learners) mostly
from Taiwan, who were typically recent arrivals in the United States.
Grammaticality judgement questionnaires were also used to tap into the
grammatical competence of the learners’ interlanguage. Four CIL structures
were studied in detail:
D. C. S. Li & A. Y. W. Chan
(a) ‘pseudo-passives’ (e.g., *Erhu can play like this, Yip, 1995, p. 97)3
(b) ‘ergative constructions’ (e.g., *The World War III will be happened, Yip,
1995, p. 129)
(c) ‘pseudo-tough movement’ (e.g., *I am difficult to learn English, Yip,
1995, p.153), and
(d) ‘existential pseudo-relatives’ (e.g., *There were many passengers died in
the accident).
While pseudo-passives and existential pseudo-relatives refer to faulty
constructions which are more appropriately expressed using a passive (e.g.,
Erhu can be played like this) and relative structure (e.g., There were many
passengers who died in the accident), respectively, sentences with pseudotough movement as in (c) refer to constructions which cannot be expressed
using the tough-movement structure such as English is difficult to learn.
Ergative constructions, on the other hand, involve the inappropriate
passivization of ergative verbs which can be used both transitively and
intransitively, including the passivization of verbs which should only be used
Among the key findings in Yip (1995) are the observations that both
transfer from L1 and universal developmental features in language acquisition
are attested, and that the degree of learnability of a target language hinges on
and may be explained by systematic structural contrasts between L1 and L2.
While a significant contribution to the literature on interlanguage research in
SLA, Yip (1995) makes it clear that pedagogical implications will not be
discussed in her study. Although the erroneous constructions she scrutinized
were largely derived from a study of Mandarin-speaking ESL learners, our
own observations suggest that her data was comparable to syntactically
deviant constructions made by Cantonese-speaking ESL learners in Hong
Apart from Yip (1995), to our knowledge CIL has not yet been subjected
to large-scale, systematic investigation. In those studies which do involve CIL,
errors are typically based on limited data (e.g., Jones, 1980; Lay, 1975;
Rutherford, 1983) or they are secondary in focus in many theoretical studies in
SLA (e.g., Schachter, 1974). Consequently, little is known about how Chinese
ESL learners, especially adults, acquire English and other foreign languages in
3 The use of ‘*’ in front of an example sentence means that the sentence is ungrammatical, while
the use of ‘?' suggests that the sentence is stylistically inappropriate.
SHelping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors
Chinese communities (see Wong, 1988, for a critical if somewhat dated review
of selected research concerning the learning difficulties of English by Chinese
speakers). The comparative lack of research in SLA involving Chinese
learners is all the more marked given the fact that native speakers of Chinese
make up the largest group of ESL learners today (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996). There
is thus a need to investigate systematically how Chinese learners acquire
English, what difficulties they encounter, and what errors they make at
different stages of the learning process. In addition to the practical objective of
helping ESL teachers deliver quality error-correction feedback, it is believed
that research on Hong Kong-specific CIL will inform SLA theories by filling
some information gaps that involve the acquisition of English by learners from
a typologically distant L1 background such as Cantonese.
Misuse of words
Apart from rule-governed structural anomalies, many of the accuracy
problems may be explained by substandard mastery of content words,
especially verbs, nouns and adjectives, in that order. Research in the past two
decades has shown that second language vocabulary plays a much more
important role than was previously thought to be the case, and therefore
should not be disregarded (e.g., Carter & McCarthy, 1991; Coady & Huckin,
1997; Huckin et al., 1993; Nation, 1990; Richards, 1976). In particular,
research has shown that accuracy of language use may be significantly
improved with the mastery of the correct usage of the vocabulary item. It is in
this sense that Gairns & Redman (1986) speak of the ‘grammar of
vocabulary’. Typical examples include the misuse of verb transitivity or
confusion between noun and verb forms (e.g., *to emphasise on something,
*to discuss about something), preposition (e.g., *to walk under the sun), or
plural form of an uncountable noun (e.g., *we need more informations and
equipments). This insight helps justify why for local ESL teachers, curriculum
writers and syllabus designers, a separate, pedagogically sound word-based
taxonomy will be a useful complement to the conventional structure-based
A survey of a number of relevant works on ESL errors, error analysis and
crosslinguistic influence involving Hong Kong Chinese learners shows that
these works fall into two main types: (a) scholarly work appearing in journal
articles, and (b) books on common errors. Most scholarly work in these areas
appears in publications of academic departments of local universities, while
specialist volumes on common errors are meant to be for reference of local
D. C. S. Li & A. Y. W. Chan
learners and teachers of English who make up the main target readers. Below
we will briefly review these two types of literature.
Review of local research on ESL errors
Brief review of scholarly work on ESL errors in Hong Kong
Perhaps the most conspicuous attempt to explore local ESL errors
systematically and to assess their impact on teaching and learning is to be
found in the second special issue of Institute of Language in Education
Journal (ILEJ) edited by David Bunton and Christopher Green (1991). It
contains seven papers covering a wide range of related issues, from Bunton’s
(1991) study assessing the distinctiveness of Hong Kong-specific errors vis-avis errors obtained in an international error sample (Heaton & Turton, 1987),
to Green’s ( 199lb) survey of teachers’ perceptions of ‘error gravity’, which
has a direct bearing on the grading of student compositions. Bunton’s (1991)
findings show that only 108 (or 26.7 percent) of the 404 Hong Kong errors as
stated in his (1989) book are actually represented in the international sample,
suggesting that the majority of the errors are distinct to Hong Kong Chinese
ESL learners, of which the clearest examples are the lexical misselection,
semantic mismatch and inappropriate collocation. Many other structural errors
are compared in his study.
Four other studies in the ILEJ volume make reference to local ESL errors.
Newbrook (1991b) critiques a number of locally produced ‘guides to English
usage’ (see below), most of which were written by Hong Kong Chinese. Chan
(1991) analyses errors involving the misuse of transitive verbs and passive
construction found in 156 compositions of Form 6 students, and concludes that
these two types of errors are probably due to negative transfer from
Cantonese. Sung (1991) adopts a cross-sectional design to elicit written
English output from 30 students of varying proficiency levels. The results
seem to lend support to the hypotheses that (a) typological transfer of topiccomment structure so commonly found in Chinese varieties is attested,
especially those with lower proficiency of English, and (b) learners with
higher proficiency levels tend to produce sentences with subject-predicate
structure in accordance with norms of standard English, suggesting an
interlanguage continuum along which the topic-comment structure gradually
gives way to the more normative subject-predicate structure of English as the
learner progresses to a higher proficiency level.
Helping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors
The last of the four studies (Webster & Lam, 1991) in the abovementioned ILEJ volume is a follow-up study of Webster et al. (1987). Based
on written work by students, interviews with students and a questionnaire
survey with ESL teachers at the British Council, Webster et al. (1987) present
local ESL errors at various levels: from morphology, lexis, syntax to
discourse. In Webster & Lam (199l), some of these issues are clarified and
extended, and a few misused verbs such as suggest, help, change and send are
included. Of theoretical interest in these two papers is that the authors attribute
the errors, though not exclusively, to mother-tongue influence (cf. Chan, 199 1;
Sung, 1991), including the slightly odd warning found ubiquitously in public
blaces apparently translated from Chinese: When there is afire, do not use the
lift, where the use of when in standard English, according to the authors,
would suggest that a tire, or even several fires, will take place at some
inspecified time later (Webster & Lam, 1991, pp. 36f).
Elsewhere, Newbrook (1988) explores typical errors in relative clauses.
Yip & Matthews (199 1) present evidence of Hong Kong learners’ avoidance
difficulties using-relative
clauses, especially when oblique or
genitive is involved. Green (1991a) examines the overuse of topic-comment
tructure in Hong Kong Chinese learners’ English which is cited as evidence
of typological transfer, resulting in ‘discourse accent’, or ‘unnecessary topiccomment structure’ as we prefer to call it (e.g., For those staff who acted as
enior ones, they earn more salary, p. 55; cf. ‘periphrastic topic construction’,
Yip, 1995; see also Rutherford, 1983). Comparing ‘Hong Kong English’ with
Singapore English, Budge (1989) attributes Hong Kong students’ failure to
mark plural nouns with [s] in writing partly to Cantonese phonology, that is,
the fact that Cantonese has no final [s] or final consonant clusters. The same
reasonprobably accounts for the systematic omission of plural marking for
English words ending with alveolar fricatives, as in many waitress and waiters
p. 12).
Lee (1990) addresses pedagogical issues such as when to correct learner
errorsand what types of errors should receive priority attention of the ESL
reacher.Based on oral classroom data, Lee (1990) discusses different levels of
errors,their relative teachability, and the need for corrective treatment in cases
where ‘error gravity’ is high, as when intelligibility or communicability is at
take (i.e., ‘global’ instead of ‘local’ errors). She also expresses doubt about
he desirability of correcting high-frequency errors and argues that, other
mingsbeing equal, it is error type rather than error token that matters. Further,
he queries the practicality of the general advice that errors which stigmatize
he learner should be corrected. In her view, this advice may not be easy to
D. C. S. Li & A. Y. W. Chan
follow since it is not immediately clear which error is stigmatized by which
type(s) of native speakers.
More recently, there are a few corpus-based projects of ESL errors
involving Chinese learners. Granger et al. (1994) report work in progress on
their ICLE project (International Corpus of Learner English) involving
learner errors from nine L1 backgrounds, including Chinese. From each of the
nine sources, a computerized one-million-word corpus comprising written data
of five different learner varieties will be created. Learner profile will be
carefully controlled‘ to ensure comparability. Native-speaker language output
will be used as baseline data for comparison. Data will be processed
rigorously in five stages: encoding, markup, word-category tagging, parsing
and coding. In the same volume as Granger et al. (1994), McNeill (1994) gives
a progress report of the development of a ‘Hong Kong corpus of lexical errors
in spontaneous speech’ obtained from spontaneous conversations. He points
out the pedagogical limitations of using concordancing to study learner errors
in a corpus, especially with regard to second language vocabulary acquisition
and argues that, in terms of insights into the nature of learner difficulties or
explanations as to why errors occurred in the first place, it does not seem
fruitful to compare the correct English of native speakers’ base-line data with
L2 learner errors in a corpus.
The brief review of scholarly work on Hong Kong-specific ESL errors
above suggests that work in this area remains fragmented and limited in scope.
From both the practical point of view of providing useful suggestions for
making pedagogically sound error-correction instruction, as well as the
theoretical perspective of enlightening the international research community
on Hong Kong CIL-specific crosslinguistic influence and interlanguage
research, there is clearly a need for a large-scale, systematic study of Hong
Kong-based learner errors with a view to yielding empirical findings in order
to (a) establish taxonomies of errors with regard to different proficiency levels,
(b) design and experiment with remedial materials continually with a view to
helping learners overcome recurrent ESL errors, and (c) report findings to the
international research community about universal as well as unique features of
Hong Kong CIL.
Brief review of handbooks on common errors
In addition to scholarly research findings on ESL errors in Hong Kong
mentioned above, there exist quite a few book-length descriptions of common
Helping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors
errors targeting learners and teachers of English as a second language, serving
primarily as reference books or handbooks (e.g., Boyle & Boyle, 1991;
Bunton, 1989, 1994; Edge, 1989; Heaton & Turton, 1987; Jenkins, 1990;
Newbrook, 199la; Tse, 1990; Turton, 1990; Yiu, 1992) though some of which
are open to criticisms ranging from inaccurate descriptive content to
inadequate proofreading (Newbrook, 1991b). All of these handbooks aim at
raising the reader’s awareness to common lexical problems. One interesting
feature is that sometimes the corresponding Chinese vocabulary items or
structures are invoked for comparison in the explanation of the possible origin
of the errors, suggesting that from the authors’ perspective, knowledge of
Chinese may have been the cause, at least partly, behind the error in question.
With the exception of Tse (1990) and Yiu (1992), all the other works are
written in English. Many of these handbooks on common errors have been
reprinted once or twice, suggesting that there is a sizeable market for them. In
the absence of any reader survey, however, it remains unclear how they are
actually used and how useful they are perceived by readers, especially ESL
learners eager to improve their English proficiency. These handbooks
constitute one body of potentially useful reference and resource for researchers
when designing remedial activities to tackle specific structural and lexical
Though some of these popular handbooks (e.g., Boyle & Boyle, 1991;
Bunton 1994) show a sensitivity to learner needs and either adopt a thematic
approach to organise the materials such as telephoning, sport, meals and
restaurants (e.g., Turton 1990; Bunton 1994) or specify the typical context or
register of the errors in question (e.g., spoken English errors, Boyle & Boyle,
1991; social English errors, Bunton, 1994), most of them have a common
feature in their design: Problematic words are listed alphabetically like the
entries of a dictionary.44 The following are examples of lexical errors
presented under relevant lexical entries:
(1) *He emphasised on the importance of planning. (Bunton, 1989, p. 24,
(2) *We spent almost two hours discussing about the course. (Heaton &
Turton, 1987, p. 67, “discuss”)
(3) *The manager objects my plan. (Bunton, 1989, p. 51, “object")
4 Jenkins (1990)
Instead of listing
words (elsewhere
and complicated)
and Turton (1990) have a slightly different presentation of problematic words.
words alphabetically like the entries of a dictionary, pairs of frequently confused
also known as ‘synforms’, e.g., human and humane) or synonyms (e.g., complex
are juxtaposed and their respective proper usages clarified.
D. C. S. Li & A. Y. W. Chan
(4) *Can you borrow me your bike? (Newbrook, 1991a, vol. 2, p. 19,
“borrow and lend”)
(5) *I’ve got to eat my medicine every night. (Boyle & Boyle, 1991, p. 76,
(6) *The wages in Taiwan are very cheap. (Heaton & Turton, 1987, p. 46,
(7) *He was complemented on doing a good job. (Heaton & Turton, 1987, p.
51, “complement”)
The above errors are lexical as they concern the transitivity pattern of words
(1-3), the misselection of words due to wrong collocation (4-6), and
misspelling of words (7), etc. It may be argued that these lexical errors are best
described under their relevant lexical entries, as learners can check the correct
usage by a rapid look-up of the entries. These handbooks, thus, are designed
very much like dictionaries, serving the purpose of easily accessible selflearning tools for learners, as well as useful references for teachers. However,
it can be seen that some lexical entries contain, or conceal within them,
embedded structural problems. For example:
(8) *Since it was raining, so we didn’t go on the picnic. (Bunton, 1989, p. 66,
(9) * Although it is only a small town, but it is very popular with tourists.
(1) (Turton, 1990, p. 17, “although and but”)
(10) *The accident was happened at 4:10 p.m. (Bunton, 1989, p. 36,
(11) *Jimmy often avoids to wash his hair. (Bunton, 1989, p. 8, “avoid”)
(12) *His mother didn’t let him watching television for a whole month.
(2) (Heaton & Turton, 1987, p. 135, “let”)
(13)*I am very difficult to go there. (Bunton, 1989, p. 22, “difficult”)
(14) *He both lost his money and his passport. (Tin-ton. 1990, p. 40, “both...
and.. .“)
From these examples, it seems clear that more than mere lexical problems
is involved, for they concern the redundant use of conjunctions (8-9), ergative
constructions (10), the choice of verb forms in phase and causative structures
(11-12, cf. Lock, 1996), pseudo-tough movement (13), and parallelism (14),
all of which are more appropriately described as structural problems. There is
of course no harm indexing the structural problem in question by making a
lexical entry based on the high-frequency exponent of the misused structure,
as in the case of difficult in (13), but for fuller information it would be useful if
the embedded structural anomaly (say, ‘pseudo-tough movement’) is cross-
teachers correct structural
and lexical
adjectives, especially easy, hard, difficult, necessary, common, suitable,
convenient, inconvenient, possible, probable, impossible and improbable (cf.
Collins Cobuild English Grammar 1990). Later, when students’ grasp of the
correct structure has been largely consolidated, the teacher may discuss
grammatically well-formed sentences as in (54) and (55) below, which bear
structural resemblance to deviant examples such as (5 1) above:
(54) Joe is not easy to convince.
(55) This problem is difficult to solve.
While (54) and (55) mean essentially the same as their respective counterparts
headed by ‘It’ as shown in (56) and (57) below:
(56) It is not easy to convince Joe.
(57) It is difficult to solve this problem.
the teacher may point out that the sentence structure in (54) and (55) is
grammatically well-formed because the covert (implicit) object of the nonfinite verb (i.e. convince, solve) is the same as the overt (explicit) subject of
the sentence (i.e. Joe, This problem). When this condition obtains, the
sentence is grammatically well-formed. To ensure that students grasp this
subtle distinction, the teacher may test them by asking them whether there is
anything wrong with sentences such as the following:
(58) *We are difficult to let you stay here overnight.
(59) Your father is not easy to deal with.
Students who have understood the rule should be able to point out that (58) is
wrong and should be rewritten as “It is difficult for us to...“, whereas (59) is
perfectly acceptable. Similarly, the ‘independent clause as subject’ problem as
in (60):
(60) *Snoopy is leaving makes us all very happy.
may be redressed by asking students to identify the subject of ‘makes us all
very happy’, to which students are most likely to respond ‘Snoopy is leaving’.
At this point the teacher can help students visualize the subject status of these
four words by using square brackets as follows:
(61) *[ Snoopy is leaving ] makes us all very happy.
D. C. S. Li & A. Y. W. Chan
Next, the teacher may remind students that the subject itself cannot be a
complete sentence (or ‘independent clause' in grammatical jargon), which is
exactly the case of ‘Snoopy is leaving’. To correct the longer problem
sentence, students should convert the independent clause into a dependent
(nominal) clause headed by ‘that’ (62) a noun phrase like ‘the fact’ with a
post-modifying finite clause ‘that Snoopy is leaving’ (63), or a gerundial
phrase (64) as in the following:
(62) [ That Snoopy is leaving ] makes us all very happy.
(63) [ The fact that Snoopy is leaving ] makes us all very happy.
(64) [ Snoopy’s leaving ] makes us all very happy.
Given that the misuse of an independent clause as the subject of a longer
clause is a common error even among advanced ESL learners, it is believed
that the effective correction of this error will markedly contribute to enhancing
the learner’s ESL competence.
Though Yip (1995) invokes, in her study of CIL structures, a learnabilityunlearnability continuum and suggests that some interlanguage structures are
probably ‘unlearnable’ to most, if not all, learners coming from a typologically
distant L1 background such as Chinese, we believe that the two structures
discussed above can actually be learned given the right choice of
pedagogically sound techniques.
After reviewing a representative body of research on error analysis and
crosslinguistic influence, this article appeals for large-scale, corpus-based
research on Hong Kong-specific learner errors, with the ultimate objective of
helping ESL teachers deliver quality error-correction feedback to their
students collectively. One intermediate goal of top priority is to establish two
complementary taxonomies of errors. This is because, to be maximally useful
and informative to the reader-user, a conventional taxonomy of structural
anomalies should be complemented by a word-based taxonomy of lexical
problems. After being consolidated, all the errors in the two taxonomies
should subsequently be cross-referenced where appropriate, and fed into one
single volume and/or electronic database for users’ convenient reference. TWO
partial taxonomies based on available data were presented for exemplification,
and the awareness-raising correction procedures of two erroneous structures
were given for illustration. When establishing the two taxonomies, care should
Helping teachers correct structural and lexical English errors
be taken to ensure that all structural and lexical anomalies be descriptively
adequate, illustrated with typical examples and their corrections and, where
appropriate, furnished with possible reasons contributing to their formation.
Detailed error-correction procedures of a subset of more or less
‘teachable’ structural anomalies, after being empirically tried out and fieldtested taking into account the learner’s proficiency level, should be written in
a user-friendly manner, best separately listed and probably best presented in
A-4 sheets coated or laminated in plastic in anticipation of durable use. It is
important to field-test the error-correction procedures and to allow the test
results to feed back into the design of the procedures, for this will help ensure
that the proceduralized awareness-raising error-correction feedback be
pedagogically sound, effective and user-friendly.
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