Helping Students Address Errors

This guide addresses error pattern analysis to help students with editing and proofreading their own papers. Most often, you'll use this technique with speakers/writers of English as a second language, but you can use the techniques with any students who have multiple errors in a paper they need to edit. Depending on the student (native speaker or non-native speaker, experienced or inexperienced writer), you'll need to adapt how you use the results of your analysis.

The analysis itself is fairly straightforward and falls into distinct stages:

Finally! Working with the student

  • Evaluate the student's ability to recognize the most disruptive error
  • Start with basic explanations and move to error correction
  • Important Caveat
  • Teaching Tips

Initial Error Marking

Error pattern analysis starts with the teacher or editor identifying errors.

  1. If at all possible, make a photocopy of the piece of writing. You need to have a copy you can mark up, and it's disconcerting for writers to see all the markings you'll make as you get started with the analysis.
  2. Read through a paragraph or a page without marking anything just to get a feel for the number and range of errors. Depending on the number, decide if you can mark all errors in one pass or if you'll need multiple passes.
  3. Go through the first paragraph slowly, marking as many errors as you can find. Ignore stylistic choices but note word choices that are wrong. Ditto with punctuation.

Try a sample. Keep working with a sample through all the steps we outline in the module.

Checking Error Marking

  1. Go back through paragraph 1 looking for additional errors. You will almost certainly find one or two. If you find more than that, assume that you'll have work in multiple passes to identify all the errors.
  2. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the next paragraph.
  3. Now that you're sure about how many passes through the text you'll need to spot all the errors, continue to mark all the errors you can find through at least two full pages of the text.

Work with the sample again until you feel comfortable with steps 1-6.

Clustering Errors into Patterns

  1. Take quick stock of the kinds of errors that you've found. Cluster errors into groups--word choice, sentence punctuation (fragments, comma splices, run-ons), sentence structure (sentence appears to start in one direction and ends up somewhere else), agreement, reference, modification (misplaced words and phrases), internal punctuation (comma use, dashes, apostrophes), spelling, idiomatic lapses, missing or misused articles.
  2. Read through the remaining text to see if you spot new kinds of errors and mark those. Don't mark exhaustively any of the categories you've already identified.

Ranking Errors to Edit

Now comes the tricky part--moving from grossly identifying error into setting up a plan to teach students how to edit for those errors. My rule of thumb is to start with the errors that are most confusing or distracting for readers--sentence punctuation, subject-verb agreement, and garbled sentence structure. Especially with native speakers who are inexperienced or basic writers, these are most likely to be the errors that mark them as ineffective writers. Native speakers trying to impress readers with a big vocabulary are most likely to have word-choice and spelling errors, but they may also misuse semicolons; of these, the word-choice and sentence-punctuation errors are the most significant. For non-native speakers, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and article errors are typically the most noticeable and distracting.

Even though you may have a pet peeve about a particular kind of error, try to put that aside to focus on the errors that most readers will find disruptive of communication. Those are the errors to start with.

  1. Go back through the paper and rank the errors in terms of their disruptiveness. At this point, it's often useful to make lists on a second sheet of paper or to work with a grid that will help you organize the errors you spot.

Don't forget to try this step with your sample paper.

View Sample Categories

Highlighting a particular error

  1. Now highlight one particular kind of error. Maybe mark sentence-punctuation errors with yellow highlighter and subject-verb agreement errors with blue. Don't worry about all the various ways that students create, say, sentence completion problems at this step because you'll do that later. You're looking for large categories of errors now to try to assess the kinds of explanations you'll need to start with to help students learn to edit for the errors they make.

Be sure to work with the sample on this step.

Determining patterns of errors

  1. Once you've got one or two categories of the most disruptive errors highlighted, look to see if there are any patterns within these types of errors. For example, you may notice that the student uses coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so) interchangeably with conjunctive adverbs (therefore, then, however, etc.). They aren't interchangeable in formal, edited American English, but explaining the difference to students is fairly easy. One entire sub-category of error might disappear with a two-minute explanation. Similarly, perhaps all the subject-verb agreement errors occur when the student is trying to avoid "he" or "she" as the subject of the sentence. By trying to avoid an apparently sexist usage, the student keeps shifting from "he" to "they," and the verbs don't always reflect a singular or plural subject. Giving the student 20 seconds of advice about changing the entire passage to plural forms (just use "they" throughout) may fix the problem.

Two notes:

  • If you're working with a native speaker, you probably can't use words like "conjunctive adverb." Instead, list the kinds of words that fall into a category. Similarly, don't talk about first and third person or you'll see the student's eyes glaze over. Talk about "everyone...he" as opposed to "all the students...they" to get the point across about first v. third person reference and agreement issues.
  • If you're working with a non-native speaker, you can use grammatical terminology if you're comfortable with it, but be sure you're using it accurately. Don't use formal terminology unless you're absolutely sure you know what the terms mean, and don't apologize if you don't want to use it. Just explain that it's clearest for both of you if you use specific examples, like listing several connecting words of the same category--however, then, therefore--rather than relying on more abstract terminology.

Second level ranking of errors

  1. If you spot patterns within the categories, note how many different kinds of errors there are within the category. You may find as many as five or six sub-categories of error within some of the more inclusive, larger categories like sentence-punctuation errors.
  2. Note an example that illustrates each of the sub-categories you think you want to take up with the student.
  3. Rank the sub-categories in some order, most likely how you can use one explanation to build up for a second sub-category. For example, if the writer uses all connecting words in the same way, you will probably need to start by explaining the different kinds of connectives in English sentences. Then you can build--eventually--to your explanation of when to use semicolons with certain kinds of connecting words.

Finally! Working with the student

Finally, you get to move from error pattern analysis per se into teaching strategies for editing. Again, some simple rules of thumb will get you started with this process, but you'll want to shape your entire approach on the student's individual situation.

Evaluate the Student's Ability to Recognize the Most Disruptive Error

  1. Make sure you have an example of the most disruptive error and of the first sub-category from which you want to build your explanations. Ask the student to read the sentence to see if he can spot any problem. (You'll want to do a bit of diagnosing at this stage to find out what the student knows and how negative his attitudes are toward editing.) Sometimes, students, especially native speakers, are more likely to "hear" a problem than see it, so be sure to have these students read sentences aloud.
    1. If the student can tell you how to fix the problem, have him do that and then go to the next example of the same sub-category of error. If the student can correctly identify and edit this example and one more, the problem is most likely to be one of monitoring for the error, not of misunderstanding the grammatical and conventional uses of written English. Ask the student how he ordinarily proofreads and suggest that he make a separate proofreading pass looking for this type of error.
    2. Even if the student can correctly identify the first sub-category of error, don't assume that all the sub-categories will be equally obvious to the student. Go through at least one example for every sub-category of the kind of error before you move on to the next kind of error.

Start with Basic Explanations and Move to Error Eorrection

  1. If the student can't identify the problem, mis-identifies some other problem in the sentence as the major problem, or just looks blank, you'll need to start with some basic explanations and work your way toward more complexity over time.
  2. After you've explained the problem, show the student how to edit to correct the first sentence. Ask the student to identify the error and edit the second example of the same type of error. (If the student still can't fix the error, try another variation of your explanation and work with more examples.) As soon as the student can fix two or three errors in a row, have her fix one more with you watching. Then ask her to fix the remaining sentences with the same type of error in the two-page sample you marked. If the student can do those without your intervention, have the student look for additional errors of the same type in the next page or so of the text.
  3. When the student is confident of both finding and fixing errors of this sub-type, move to the next sub-type.

Important Caveat

As you can imagine, for students with multiple, serious errors, this approach is time-consuming and can feel extremely tedious. But our goal is to help writers do this editing on their own, not to do it for them, and this approach is just about the only way to help them learn to edit the common errors they make in their own writing. Most classroom explanations of grammar and editing fail to teach much, if anything, because students don't see those errors in their own sentences.

Teaching Tips

  • Limit what you try to cover in one session. Explaining one big category is plenty to cover in a session. Or if you are working with a student who has four sub-types of sentence-punctuation errors, you might be able to cover two, but probably not more than that. Make sure he understands that working through all the categories could take several weeks.
  • Keep checking on what the student understands and can do. Ask the student to explain the concept back to you in her own words. Ask the student to write a new sentence using the concept correctly. Don't just assume that she has understood everything you've said, because she may be pattern-matching on the wrong pattern as she edits sentences. Although students will often balk at it, work hard to get them to explain to you in detail what they're thinking as they're editing after they seem to have the concept under control.
  • Only if a student needs more practice after you've gone through all the examples of a type of error in his paper should you turn to the handouts or textbooks for exercises when you're doing this type of teaching. Students are often much more proficient at spotting errors in texts they haven't written and will miss exactly the same problem in their own papers time and again.
  • ESL students will be especially frustrated by their non-idiomatic use of language. You'll get frustrated too because native speakers often can't articulate why our idioms are the way they are. Warn especially those students who struggle with article usage and idiomatic phrasing that they may need an editor until they become more experienced at listening and reading so that they can intuit idiomatic levels of language.
  • If you have an ESL student who's struggling with articles and tense endings, don't be afraid to admit when you've reached the limit of your explanations. Sometimes students need to hear similar explanations in slightly different language from another tutor, teacher, or editor before they'll understand the point. Sometimes I just punt and send the student to an ESL program for a more expert explanation.


Kate Kiefer. (2018). Helping Students Address Errors. The WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from Originally developed for Writing@CSU (