Error Correction in Speaking – The Fun Way

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In the following video, Herbert Puchta looks at a fun way of correcting one of the most fequently occuring errors in German EFL classrooms: the missing third person singular -s in the simple present tense (as in: he *want more juice).

German teachers of English as a foreign language are regularly confronted with learners’ utterances like ”*He go to  school”‘, etc. – although the German 3rd person requires a suffigated form as well: ”Er geht in die Schule”. In fact, the German inflectional system for the simple present tense is far more complex than the English, which only requires a suffix -s in the third person singular. To cope with this problem, German teachers very often use a ‘slogan’ that makes the underlying SV-agreement explicit: ”He, she, it, dass -s muss mit.” (He, she, it, the -s must fit.) (roughly translated). But this is not really effective. Student learn the slogan by heart, but continue to produce the error. I was wondering how this can be explained (failure in morph rule-learning; or in rote memory / mental lexicon; or in teaching practices; or …?). Any ideas and suggestions?

Here are some expert views on this (via The Linguist List / the  world’s largest online linguistic ressource):


“I suppose perhaps it is natural that when you come to English from a more highly conjugated language like German, the overall impression is ”forget about verb endings”, and one goes too far and forgets even what English has got – a case of overgeneralizing, which is a very usual kind of learning error.”

Prof. G.R. Sampson MA PhD MBCS (Professor of Natural Language Computing; School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences; University of Sussex)


“I dont know what kind of a fancy Education College label one might want to hang on this but there is no alternative in learning inflectional morphemes of another – or of one’s own for that matter – language other than practice. One can understand it systematically and intellectually but that’s like understanding how a piano works. It doesn’t mean you can play Poulenc. – For English there is the added fact that it is only in the third person singular that the agreement-tense suffix occurs. It’s  he/she/it write-s versus everybody else write. Moreover, it probably doesn’t help that in nouns, an -s suffix is plural rather than singular.

Joseph F Foster (Associate Professor of Anthropology &Director of Undergraduate Studies; University of Cincinnati, Ohio)


“The problem for learners of English, native or not, is that, as you point out, the only inflection that occurs in the present tense for most English verbs is the one for the 3rd person singular. It turns out that this language situation is actually more complex for the learner than one in which all persons and number have a unique inflection. Researchers investigating language acquisition have found that for languages in which inflections always appear, native-speaking children make no errors, but for a language such as English, learning the one exception to the ”no inflection” rule turns out to be difficult from a cognitive linguistic perspective. I am certain that the same problem exists for people learning English as a second or foreign language.

Marilyn N. Silva (Professor/Chair; Department of English; California State University, Hayward).


7 responses to “Error Correction in Speaking – The Fun Way

  1. Pingback: Error Correction in Speaking – The Fun Way « Foreign Language … « Internet Cafe Solution

  2. I think the “expert views” explain the problem very well. From personal experience I agree. I never had any problems with French or German (mother tongue) conjugations, but in English the 3rd person Sg. ‘s’ is really an exception that is easy to forget.
    Personally I believe, that in a lot of dialects of American English this inflection is already lost. As if the people are reaching the conclusion that it is stupid to get rid of all inflections except the 3rd person Sg. one – as if a linguistic shift had stopped shortly before it was completed. I wonder if this trend continues and if in 20 years nobody will use the -s inflection any longer?
    Reading fiction on the internet – even by native speakers – the -s is frequently left out even in written English as well.

  3. @Anna
    That is an interesting observation you made.
    I could imagine that abbreviated forms of language as used in short message communication (SMS) via mobile phones and in web2.0 applications such as social community platforms with chat facilities, blogs and the likes only foster neglect of proper grammar and syntax (contribute to the problem) in favour of meaning and speed of delivery.
    Nevertheless I think this only applies to yet a small group of people. As a matter of fact those people simplifying their language do appear to be the ones who become more visible (or noticeable) on the internet, just like people who are introducing a new fashion.

  4. @Pascal
    I agree this might just be a rare phenomenon of a few people, however most of the writers of fiction are people that have been to college, often even teachers, or students that are going to college.
    The missing s should be seen in a different context than other forms of abbreviation, because the missing s appears in actual narratives and not just in rapid communication of the web2.0 type; other forms of abbreviations are far more seldom in these novel-like texts.

  5. Many advanced ESL learners usually have the third person singular correct (with -s) when they produce the word on paper. However, when they speak, the -s is often dropped. Later I realized that the letter “s” is often silent in some of my learners’ first languages. For example, in French, the letter “s” is often silent when it is at the end of a word. Hence, some learners may not have problems conjugating the verbs, but they are applying the pronunciation rules from their first languages to a different language.

  6. Dear Annet,
    thank you very much for your comment! So, what do you actually do to cope with this problem? I’m very interested in getting to know how you go about it in everyday classroom practice.

  7. I agree with Annet about learners’ reasons for dropping the ‘s’ in the third person. I think the best way to eliminate errors is to demand regular repetition until the learner ceases to make the mistake. Limited classroom time normally forbids this, but an easy solution is to set speaking tasks as homework. The students who make the mistake could be set a series of sentences to say, along with an audio stimulus, such as
    ‘He goes to school, he works hard, plays hard, and comes home tired’
    If any students continue to make the same mistake, the teacher keeps setting the work again, emphasising the correct pronunciation in the audio stimulus, until they get it right.

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