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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach Early Childhood Literacy

Using Error Analysis in Reading Instruction
Miriam Bissu

Recently I read the following headline in the newspaper: "The Deer Are Winning: An ever-growing herd of bucks and does is chewing its way across the Island." (New York Times, Long Island Section, Jan. 4, 2004). The headline made no sense to me. When I re-read the headline, I saw that I had misread bucks to be ducks and had mispronounced does. I read it as does (duz), rather than the plural of doe with a long o meaning a female deer.

As a teacher of beginning reading, I found myself analyzing the error out of habit. Here are some of the things I learned from my error that are useful in teaching reading:

  1. I noticed the error because the grammar and syntax were incorrect the way I was reading it.
  2. I was attending to the text and making sense of what I was reading.
  3. I misread bucks because ducks is such a familiar word that I didn't notice the initial consonant was a b and not a d.
  4. I misread bucks because the reference to Long Island made me think of ducks.
  5. I didn't pay any attention to the title of the article which referred to deer and should have caused me to anticipate the words bucks and does.

My error analysis caused me to think about what makes a good reader. One very important attribute of a good reader is attending to the text and making sense of it, i.e., reading for meaning. Students who do this are usually able to catch their own miscues and errors.

How can we teach students to read for meaning?
A simple way is to have students re-tell the most important elements of a story following read aloud or shared reading. Re-telling allows students to demonstrate that they were paying attention to the text and gaining meaning from it. It also helps them decide which details are important and which are not.

How can we teach students to catch their own errors?
In mini-lessons the teacher should model asking, "Does this make sense?"
The lesson could begin with the teacher pointing out that everyone makes errors, and that the important thing is hearing your own errors and trying to fix them. The teacher could use a shared text to demonstrate this. Pause periodically to check for accuracy by asking, "Does this make sense?" Students should be encouraged to explain their answers to the group.

Once students are accustomed to asking themselves this question, the teacher can provide some mini-lessons demonstrating how to go back to the beginning of the sentence to re-read and correct errors. With young students the teacher should use enlarged text to demonstrate tracing the words back to the capital letter that begins each sentence. After the sentence is read again pause to determine if it makes sense.

Mini-lessons can be a discussion about how the reader corrected the error. Other students could be invited to join in the discussion about how they figured out the word. Some questions to ask might be:

  • What was in the text that was helpful?
  • Were there any pictures that helped?
  • Did the title help?
  • What letters did you notice this time around?
  • Were there any context clues?
  • Could you use configuration clues to help?
  • Did any prior knowledge help?
  • Did the sentence sound right? (Grammar and syntax)

It is useful to students to reflect on what caused them to make an error. A chart with questions like these could be compiled with the students to help fix the learning. The students could be encouraged to refer to the chart for help in the future.

I would also recommend the teacher lead a dialog during a guided reading lesson. The teacher might pose some of the following questions:

"I noticed that you stopped reading. Why?"
"How did you figure out the correct word?"
"What helped you to figure out the word was ____?"
"What happened when you tried the correct word? Did it make more sense?"
"How can you be sure you read it correctly this time?"

A dialog shaped by these questions makes students think through and articulate the strategies they are using. When they verbalize them they serve as role models for other students who are not doing this yet. The dialog gives other students in the group some insight into specific behaviors that will help them become better readers. With the student's consent you might also want to use his/her real life experience to demonstrate self-correction strategies with the class at the end of guided reading or in a future mini-lesson.

Attending to text and correcting one's errors are important skills that make one a good reader. I hope the ideas presented will be useful in teaching your students these important reading skills.


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