Error Analysis

Brief Overview

This is a brief overview of error analysis for the reader to understand the main points. Readers are encouraged to study more in-depth to gain a full appreciation of error analysis. At the end are guiding questions for the educator to contemplate instruction and error analysis.

Error analysis has had a long history as far as second language learning is concerned. Individuals have always been interested in why errors were made, but in the early years before WWII there was not a drive for deep research. Also, with behaviorism coming to the forefront, interest in error analysis began to wane as errors were seen as improperly formed habits or interference from the native language.

However, as contrastive analysis began to crumble and the mentalist movement started gaining momentum, the emphasis transferred from the grammatical structure of language to the underlying rules governing language. Error analysis again emerged into scientific thought and fixated on two elements of the error produced: 1. what was the error? 2. why was it made?

Stephen Pit Corder is credited with reviving the interest in error analysis with publishing several articles and providing a basis for research. Corder created five procedures to analyzing errors (Saville-Troike 2006):

1. Collect samples of learner language

Data is collected over a period of time and compared.

2. Identification of errors

What kind of errors are they? A difference is made between an error and mistake. An error is where the language learner does not possess the knowledge of the correct usage. A mistake is where the language learner possesses the knowledge, but has a lapse in memory. An example of a mistake is when a learner, who knows the distinction between men and women and pronouns, uses the pronoun ‘she’ when referring to a man.

3.Description of errors

Once the mistakes are eliminated from the errors, what classification is the error? Is it language level (structural- phonology, etc…), general linguistic (passive sentences, etc…) or specific linguistic elements (nouns, articles, etc…)

4. Explanation of errors

Why was the error made?

  • Interlingual (between two languages): the error could be interference from first language to the second language
  • Intralingual (within the language): the error could be developmental which shows a gap in knowledge of the rule.

5. Evaluation of errors

How serious are the errors? Does it cause a lack of understanding?

These procedural steps would later spawn the interlanguage hypothesis by Larry Selinker, which asserts the language learner will occupy a limbo state between the rules of the native language and target language being learned. For now, interlanguage hypothesis will be left alone as it is an extremely deep concept that warrants its own article and study.


Error analysis was extremely helpful in progressing research to delve deeper into understanding the errors language learners made. It has been a useful approach that has generated a lot of research. However, it is not without its faults (Saville-Troike 2006). First, how does one accurately classify errors? Some errors may be first language interference or an overgeneralization of a second language rule. Second, as the second language learner increases in level, the ability to avoid problematic structures becomes more common. Last, errors alone can not provide details on what the learner actually knows.

How Not to Use

  • Error analysis is not a tool of judgment- it is a tool for helping. For example, a student may look straight ahead and not answer a question requiring the past tense. This may lead the educator to think the student is lower level and needs to be re-taught the past tense, but in reality, the student may have recently been studying the present perfect and the additional information has him unsure of how to respond.

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Strategies for Use

  • Writing is best: Writing classes are custom built for error analysis. Especially for large classes, the educator can collect a lot of data to analyze. Writing is a production skill where students have time to arrange their output and can clearly show areas of incomplete knowledge. For example, after the first writing assignment the educator may realize that half the students do not understand capitalization rules, so capitalization may be incorporated later. However, receptive skills such as listening and reading will be difficult to assess errors as the root of those errors are not easily observable.

Find out more information on how to use error analysis in our online SLA course. Get information and discounts on our course HERE.

Final Thoughts

Error analysis can be a great tool in a writing class as there is a chance to collect errors on a large scale and document them. Speaking classes may not offer ample opportunity to fully assess errors, but logging errors, physically or mentally, will provide the educator a chance to formulate beliefs and strategies to deal with these errors. Also, depending on whether the class focuses on accuracy or fluency, errors will have varying degrees of importance. Error analysis can show glimpses into the mind of the student, but the errors do not always reveal the source of the problem. The educator has to be careful of assuming why the error happened. What is important is the error is happening and how the educator can present the correct usage in a manner that helps the student correct it.


Saville-Troike, M. (2006). Introducing second language acquisition. (pp. 39-40). New york: Cambridge University Press.