Mistakes Are Good – use student errors to guide instruction

Student errors can provide teachers with great information on what remediation path to take.However, in our ever-so-busy school days, teachers often mark work and hand it back without taking the time to do an error analysis. I will always remember the day a Grade 4 teacher arrived at my door with a student’s math test in hand and a request – “can you take ‘Sally’ and teach her how to subtract – she got every question wrong!” When I looked at ‘Sally’s’ test, I had to agree – she did get every subtraction question wrong. But, when I looked at each question, I saw that ‘Sally’ knew perfectly well how to subtract – she was even able to re-group across 0’s. What ‘Sally’ didn’t know was her subtraction facts – every question had numerous fact errors. This quick error analysis allowed me to start ‘Sally’ on a touch number subtraction program and we saw immediate improvements in her subtraction skills.

As a Learning Assistance Teacher, I regularly assessed students’ letter sound knowledge. One thing I learned very early on was the importance of recording the errors the student would make when identifying letter sounds or words, rather than simply marking it wrong. I could then go back and analyze the errors to see what the specific problems were and what needed to be done to correct them. For example, if a child didn’t know the sound for ‘b’ (identified by a ‘-‘ on the record form) then ‘b’ would go on the list of sounds to be re-taught. However, if the error showed as a ‘d’ on the record form, then it indicated a b/d reversal problem that needed to be addressed. I once assessed a group of young children on letter sound recognition. When I went back and looked at the errors being made, I noticed a pattern – most of them identified /e/ as the sound for ‘f’, ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘s’, and ‘x’. I puzzled over that for a while and suddenly realized that they were all using the name of the letter to help them with the sound, and all those letter names start with the /e/ sound! Had I simply marked the letters as ‘wrong’, I would not have been able to identify and remediate that problem.

Error analysis is especially beneficial in spelling. When marking students’ written work,
watch for error patterns. Do they regularly misspell basic sight words? Do they miss the
second vowel in long vowel combinations? Do they omit the second sound of an initial
blend? Do they confuse /e/ and /i/ or other short vowels? Are there letter reversal
errors? Are word endings a problem? Is fine motor a concern? If a child can’t control
his/her pencil well, an ‘r’ can easily turn into an ‘n’ and vice versa. Each of these error
patterns points the way to specific remediation activities to correct the errors and
support student learning.
When listening to children oral read, I recommend photocopying the page of text and
recording the actual errors. Again, patterns will often emerge – difficulty with sight
words, short/long vowel sounds, multi-syllable words, irregular vowel sounds, speech issues,
The information gathered from error analysis can guide teachers in planning whole class
lessons, small group review lessons, individual packages for home practice or perhaps a
need to refer a student for extra support. This will take more time but you will
appreciate the benefits down the road. Initially, I would suggest you select perhaps four
students of concern and actually record their errors as you are marking. Divide a piece of
paper into 4 quadrants (or use file cards . . . or whatever works for you) and record errors
you see/hear. Once into the habit of doing this, it will become second-nature.
Let your students know that mistakes are OK! Tell them how their errors help you to help
them! And . . . let them catch you making the occasional mistake!