Things students say that break my heart Part 2

This is a post I wrote for ELT Knowledge a month ago.

Click here for Part 3 of the series.

Photo from ELTpics by @vale360


The learners who come to our classroom are most likely to have been students before at some point in their lives, and therefore have observed and evaluated other teaching professionals in action, formulating their own views of how learning should take place. After all, the average student would have spent around 13,000 hours in direct contact with their classroom teachers by the time they finish high school (Lortie, 1975).

Such a phenomenon, known as ‘The Apprenticeship of Observation’, suggests that most students watch their teachers ‘frontstage and centre’, like an audience watching a play, and are not privy to the thought processes and the justifications for the classroom decisions that the teacher makes (ibid).

Although, the Apprenticeship of Observation is often a term used in teacher training to describe teachers who teach the way they have been taught, I believe that it also clearly demonstrates why students often have fixed views about the language learning process and the reasons behind their expectations of themselves and their teachers.

The learner’s views on learning and teaching would without doubt also be influenced by cultural conventions and expectations as education systems round the world differ. Some might place more focus on information transmission and memorisation, while others might place focus on the importance of analysis and exploration. Education cultures and conventions aside, the 13,000 hours of contact with teachers of course also include the observation of how subjects other than languages are taught. A lack of understanding of the processes of language acquisition might lead them to think that learning a language is like learning Mathematics or Chemistry, and therefore, end up judging their own abilities and their progress too harshly.

In my last blogpost, I wrote about four things that students say that break my heart, and looked into the probable reasons behind these statements, in an attempt to better understand and help students be aware of language learning processes.

In this blogpost, I hope to look at a few more heartbreakers, and explore the things we can say to help students understand the reasons for the classroom decisions that their teachers make.


Photo from ELTpics by @JosetteLB


What they say: I can’t produce the language my teacher has taught me even after we’ve practised it in class.

What’s really happening: The learner is thinking of language acquisition as a linear process, not unlike the way we’d practise the use of a mathematical equation until we can solve mathematical problems with ease. The typical PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) lesson shape seen in many coursebooks and classrooms seems to cement the idea that language can be broken down into pieces which are then presented, learnt, practised and incorporated in the brain, ready to be produced.

We did the first conditional today. Now, you’ll practise it, and go forth and use it. Because tomorrow we’re doing the second conditional.  So you’d better be ready.’

Is that what learners think their teachers are thinking?

Perhaps the last ‘P’ (Produce), by nature of its label, has had a lot of bad press.

Perhaps we don’t really expect learners to master and produce the language point by the end of the lesson.

Then why is the final section of every chapter in Face-to-Face called ‘Get ready…Get it right’?

It is no wonder that the student thinks that they are expected to readily assimilate and use a language point covered in class that day, even though most language acquisition theories would tell you that that just isn’t how the brain works.


What they say: Everyone in the class is better than me.

What’s happening: In a communicative classroom, not only the teacher is in a ‘frontstage and centre’ position. Some students, especially the more outgoing and chatty ones, often get to be under the spotlight, and spoken fluency is often the quality that gets held up as being most celebrated, and therefore most desirable. From the point of view of the shy or less extroverted students, this might seem an impossible goal to try and achieve.

But spoken fluency is not the be all and end all. Students need to be made aware that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some strengths are simply get more ‘air time’ in a communicative classroom than others.

While some students might not be good at speaking confidently and fluently in open class, their language abilities in other areas such as their communicative competence in smaller groups or pairs, their lexico-grammatical range and/or accuracy, their written fluency or their cultural sensitivity, might prove to be better.


In pairs, discuss…


What they say: Why do I want to talk in pairs/groups? I don’t want to learn my partner’s mistakes. I want to talk to the teacher/a native speaker.

What’s really happening: The student here is focused only on the end product (the bits of language he/she might acquire from talking to their partner) and the cognitive functions that will have been developed (e.g. a brain that can think in English, or use certain lexico-grammatical items with ease).

Yet, it is a focus on the process (and not the end product) that would aid language acquisition.

Pair/group work provides conditions that are conducive to the language learning process, and it is through the dynamic interactions and collaborations with other students that one activates the skills of meaning negotiation (paraphrasing, meaning clarification, and drawing upon all the lexico-grammatical resources that are available to communicate effectively).

There is plenty of theory to back this up. While Long (1996) was the one who articulated the Interaction Hypothesis, saying that interaction and communication are key to language acquisition, Krashen (1985) stated that the comprehensible input could be more effective when meaning negotiation is being practised. But it is probably Vygotsky (1978) who first suggested, in his theories of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), that such organised learning could speed up cognitive development through interaction and socialization, and help provide the scaffolding that facilitates language acquisition.

So, to these learners, I say:
Lots of scientific (soft science, nevertheless) research has proven that you can still improve in your English, whether you are practising your English with your partner or your teacher.

When you are trying to explain what you mean to your partner, language learning is happening.


What they say: I wrote my email by looking at a writing sample and copying the phrases. I think I am cheating.

What’s happening: The natural instinct of a learner is to go ‘bottom-up’ and attempt to understand individual words strung together to form phrases and sentences, both when reading and listening. We spend time ‘activating their schema’ by doing lead-ins and prediction tasks, we get them to notice collocations, we provide opportunities for skimming and scanning before any reading for detailed understanding…and we do all this in hope that they will process texts in a top-down fashion. But how much of this do we apply to productive activities like writing?

Evidently, the terms ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processing are often applied to receptive skills like listening or reading, but using each and every word as individual building blocks to form sentences in production can also be taken to be a ‘bottom-up’ strategy. The Lexical Approach (1993) gives legitimacy to a grammaticalised lexis where phrases, both fixed and semi-fixed, and language chunks are seen as not only valid, but an effective way of producing language.

Perhaps what’s most important for the teacher is to let students in on how decisions are made in the classroom, inviting them to see what happens ‘backstage’. What’s important is not just the setting up the classroom activities themselves, but showing learners how these are judicious decisions based on sound reasoning, rather than going about in a mysterious ‘teacher-knows-best’ kind of way.

Perhaps then, students, as the Apprentices of Observation, would be better able to understand the approaches they can take to learn more effectively.



Krashen, S.D. (1985), The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, New York: Longman

Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach.

Long, M. (1996) “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition”. In Ritchie, William; Bhatia, Tej. Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 413–468.

Lortie, D. (1975) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. London: University of Chicago Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

7 thoughts on “Things students say that break my heart Part 2”

  1. RE: What they say: I wrote my email by looking at a writing sample and copying the phrases. I think I am cheating.

    I thought I would add my perceptions about what else could be going on here:

    1. These learners are fearful of making mistakes and prefer to minimise that possibility. So they have not learnt the value of mistakes and/or have not learnt to overcome their fears, even though at one level they recognise the inadequacy of the practice they are pursuing.

    2. They lack confidence in their own writing. This comes from inappropriate learning practices ( could also say teaching practices! 🙂 ) that built their knowledge but not their ability to apply it in the here and now. And they don’t have the fortitude to dispense with this practice.

    3. They have been taught that this is the way to learn ( and in some countries, this practice is actually encouraged..OMG!) but inwardly they know this is not the way to learn.

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment, Andrew.

      From your comment, I’m guessing that you think that copying phrases if not the way to learn and that it is inappropriate.
      If that’s the case, I’m afraid you might have misunderstood my post…

      I’m in fact advocating that we get learners to notice lexical chunks more and ‘copy’ those fixed and semi-fixed phrases when practising writing, instead of building sentence from a word-by-word process.

      Language takes place in chunks and learners who are more used to a method of teaching that features the study of grammar as the centre of language learning might not realise that learning phrases, collocations, expressions that are used in different genres of writing is actually a totally legitimate way of learning…and therefore end up feeling guilty for ‘copying’.


      1. My apologies Chia (I hope I got that right! 🙂 ) for thinking I was critically commenting on what you were saying. I can honestly say that there was not a hint of that in me when I decided to comment. I just thought I would add reasons, from my experience both as a learner and as a teacher, about what else could be going on for the learner. Nothing more, nothing less.

        I am in fact quite relaxed about the issue of “copying” and what you are saying. There is certainly a place for learning (chunks) from what others say and write. Now I am writing about that, I must say that I have become a little uneasy about the word “copy” though.

        I can copy a picture for example. And that remains a copy. In some way it has become mine because I had the skills to copy it but really, in another way, it never really becomes mine. But when I take note of what someone else has said and written (and understand it) and use it as my own in the right place and situation, it actually does ( or at least can) become truly mine. Much like when we learn any part of language; we take it on board and integrate into who we are and so it becomes “ours” – something that the word “copying” does not suggest. So I would be more comfortable with a phrase like “appropriate it”, rather than “copy”.

        What do you think?


        1. Hi Andrew,
          Don’t apologise. This is a platform for discussion and for airing our views on the issues brought up. No point just writing a blogpost that everyone agrees with, right? That’ll just be lots of patting ourselves on the back…but where’s the learning in that? : )

          I think you’re absolutely right in saying that the word ‘copying’ carries with it a lot of negative connotations, and that further emphasises the student’s misunderstanding of the language learning process. She clearly saw the learning of chunks and phrases as ‘copying’ and therefore felt guilty about it (This is a real student of mine, btw). She was taught at school that language is all about grammar, and individual pieces of vocabulary gets slot in to the correct tenses and structures. Forming sentences to her was about stringing words one by one.
          So a lot of the discussion between me and the student was really convincing her that she wasn’t ‘copying’ but just learning the suitable vocabulary that would be used in these situations/genres.

          I suppose ‘to appropriate the phrase’ does sound more positive than ‘to copy the phrase’…but how about simply ‘learning the phrase’?


        2. Yep, “learning the phrase” was where I got to in my thinking about it as I was writing the last comment. I included the other as a way of transitioning from “copying”.

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