Things students say that break my heart

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

Click here for part two of this post.

 

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Learning a language is hard work and requires copious amounts of patience and determination. Its process is a complex one that, despite prevailing research into SLA (Second Language Acquisition) and Psycholinguistics, most still struggle to fully understand.

Yet many have fixed ideas about the language learning process and judge themselves harshly when it comes to their language experiences and expectations.

Undoubtedly, learning to speak a foreign language is an emotional experience that at times can be daunting and make one feel like a child, void of control over the simplest forms of communication.

And such emotions can be overwhelming at times.

I have heard different learners say similar things prompted by such emotions, and I feel for them each and every time. And perhaps the best thing is to understand why they are saying these things, and to make them better aware of the processes involved.

Here are some of the heart-breakers:

What they say: I feel stupid when I have to think and hesitate when I answer a question.

What’s really happening: When asked questions like ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Where are you from?’, students are less likely to hesitate when answering. That’s only because they have been asked these questions a million times and no longer need to think before they answer. This also means that there is no thinking or complicated mental process needed to formulate these answers. The needed language has already been learnt and no more language learning is taking place.

When students have to think and hesitate, this indicates that they are finding ways to construct the sentence by drawing on all the lexicogrammatical and discoursal resources they have, paraphrasing, looking for synonyms and antonyms, making use of cohesive devices and trying anything to get their meaning across. Complex mental processes are activated while meaning negotiation and accuracy and fluency practice are being carried out.

I love it when students hum and haw. That’s language acquisition happening right before your eyes!

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What they say: I feel embarrassed and insecure when I have to speak English in front of native speakers.

What’s really happening: Native speakers are often seen as target role models that students would like to emulate, and this no doubt comes from the fact that people traditionally learnt foreign languages in order to speak to native speakers and to get to know the target culture.

But in an era where English is now the lingua franca, and more and more are learning the language to further their career prospects and to travel, the target interlocutors and target culture are no longer simply those from the UK and the US.

Furthermore, the fact that one is biologically a native speaker is no guarantee of their abilities to speak eloquently or write clearly, and definitely no indication of adeptness at effective communication with other non-native speakers. In fact, it is not uncommon to find UK businesses employing trainers to give their British employees English workshops so as to enable them to successfully communicate in a global environment.

Alternatively, students might say the above because they have had a bad encounter with a rude or impatient native speaker. If this was the case, I just tell them this: They can’t sympathise with your position because you speak two languages (or more), and they probably speak one. You should feel sorry for them.

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What they say: My last teacher said ‘I need more grammar’.

What’s really happening: There is a traditional belief, rooted in the tradition of the way Latin and Greek were taught, whereby learning a language was equated to the learning of grammar. One could even go so far as to argue that with most European languages, morphology and verb inflections make up the foundations on which the languages are based. While vocabulary acquisition has always been thought to be a simplistic matter of memorization, the ability to string the lexis into a syntactically correct and coherent sentence is a mental process that few understand.

So, telling a student ‘You need more grammar’ is more like saying ‘You need to know more about the English language’.

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What they say: I felt like I was improving at first, but now I feel like I am deteriorating.

What’s really happening: For students on an intensive course, what might be happening is that they started out feeling motivated and were taking on all the learning opportunities offered to them, and therefore felt like they were improving.

However, this also means that they have started to notice the gaps in their knowledge and become more aware of their mistakes and the things they can’t do. Unlike before the course, the student is now paying extra attention to his/her language use and feeling self-conscious about it. This naturally leads to a feeling that they are deteriorating.

In actual fact, they are improving.

Because awareness is the mother of all progress.

For students on a long-term programme, this issue might simply be a lack of motivation and a feeling that they would never arrive at their destination.

The novelty of learning a new language has worn off and ‘Mid-Int-initis’ has set in. Their improvement curve seems to have stagnated. And there is still so much more they don’t know.

If this is the case, perhaps it is time to review their goals. Set specific performance-related mini-goals that could be met in shorter time frames and flag up the fact that no one knows everything and every word in a language. It is being able to do the things one wants to do with the language that counts.
Besides, we know that embracing the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. And we as teachers are at liberty to make that journey all the more enjoyable.

Perhaps hearing students say these things might break my heart, but if I can give them the confidence to never need to say them again, I’d consider my job half done, don’t you think?

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10 Things Teachers Should Never Forget

My flatmate recently decided to sign up for Spanish beginner classes and his experiences on it shed light on the language learning processes that students go through, and reminded me of certain basics that perhaps might have got buried within our discussions of methodology and language teaching. Basics that might have been taken for granted in our quest to get learners communicating and using the languge in this era of
communicative approaches.

But first of all, a little learner profiling.

My flatmate (Let’s call him Rod) is British, in his 40s, and has never learnt a foreign language. Nor has he ever been taught English grammar when he was back at school. His wishes to study French in Secondary school were squashed when he was told that he was ‘too stupid to learn a foreign language’. Those words inevitably still have an effect on him,
as he continues to think that the ability to learn a language is connected to an intelligence that he didn’t think he had. Upon encountering lots of expert speakers of English as a foreign language in London, he started wondering if he too could expand his view of the world through learning a foreign language himself, and attempted to study some Spanish since it’s one of the most widely spoken modern languages in the world.

The Spanish learning experience was filled with lots of frustration and anger and by lesson 3, he decided he dreaded every classroom minute too much to contiue. I spoke to him throughout the experience, and remembered the importance of the following:

1. Meeting new classmates can be a scary experience.

We teachers know the feeling of trepidation when meeting a new class for the first time, especially back when we were new to teaching. That feeling must be a 100 times more intense for students who have never been in a language class before. While sussing out the different characters in the classroom, Rod also knew his classmates were making
judgements on him, and for someone who didn’t like performing or being the class clown, the short getting-to-know-you activities were really more about not showing up oneself as an idiot.

2. Having the teacher chat away in a foreign language is confusing and intimidating.

This myth that the teacher should never use the learners’ L1s and should only speak in the language being learnt really needs debunking. When Grammar Translation methods became the common evil, we swung so far towards the other end that we have forgotten the usefulness and inevitability of translation. Useful because it can make the understanding of language explanations and instructions so much more straightforward and clearer. Inevitable because learners (especially beginners) will translate what
they hear into their own langugage anyway, whether this takes place vocally in class or in their own minds. But most importantly, having some L1 being used makes the learner feel secure and more confident. For beginner Rod who could not even say ‘How are you?’ in Spanish, having to sit uncomfortably while the teacher yabber on in what could have been gibberish for all he cares was not at all confidence-building.

3. It can be even more difficult for people who are confident in their own language.

Perhaps it has to do with an ability to be tolerant of ambiguity. For the high-flier who has been confident in his own language and secure in his predictable surroundings for over 40 years, being plunged into an environment where everything is confusing, unpredictable and incomprehensible is a nightmare. This is compounded by the fact that he has never been in a language classroom and does not know what to expect.

4. Being nominated to answer questions is also scary.

Added to the feeling of being lost, getting pulled up to answer when you didn’t even understand the question can be extremely intimidating. Then there is a feeling that the whole class thinks you are a useless git who really shouldn’t be there slowing the class down. I understand the need for nominating students in open class stages, but there’s a fine balance between giving shy students an opportunity to speak up and putting
someone on the spot. This leads me to my next point.

5. Fostering a cohesive and friendly classroom atmosphere is crucial.

The leader of a group or manager of a department often serves as a sort of ‘energetic antenna’ for their team. They set the atmostphere and in a way, allows the forging of relationships amongst the team members. Think back to a time when you experienced a change of management and how that impacted on group morale, on how members of staff related to one another, and on the general staffroom atmostphere.

In similar ways, the teacher serves as the ‘energetic antenna’ of the class, and if your students get along marvellously, gossiping, joking, sharing personal stories, whether it be in their L1 or the L2, you should definitely take some of the credit for that. In contrast, if
students spend their classroom time sitting in silence, afraid of being judged by their fellow classmates, it’s time to put language aims aside and do some team-building.

Meanwhile, continuously encouraging students to make mistakes everyone can learn from, praising students openly for good language that everyone can imitate, asserting that students are not expected to produce new language instantly, and sharing the odd classroom in-joke could do wonders for boosting confidence and motivation.

6. Clear instructions is the first step to a successful task.

Being a beginner at Spanish and having the instructions to class and homework tasks written in Spanish and not properly clarified was nothing short of frustrating. In addition, there is also being unfamiliar with the kind of language tasks that we teachers take for granted.

Here’s a typical example: Rod was given a ‘jumbled words’ task as homework, and
although the Spanish instructions stated that he should unjumble the letters to
make words, he had never encountered such a task before, and proceeded to check
the list of words given in a dictionary. They, of course, weren’t really words as such, and when he couldn’t find ‘afec’ (cafe) or ‘uqaotn’ (quanto) after searching through all the online dictionaries and translators, he lost heart and decided that he was indeed too stupid to complete the simple task. (I never understood the point of these unjumble-the-letters exercises anyway. What is it supposed to practise?)

We stress time and again on teacher training courses that trainees should ask ICQs (instruction checking questions) and do a demo or example when setting up tasks, but some are still embarrassed when doing so, worried that they might come across condescending to learners. But such instruction checking procedures are necessary for learners who might be too shy to ask or who were momentarily distracted (it is impossible to be 100% attentive in the classroom all of the time) so that they are able to follow
what is going on. Perhaps the issue of sounding condescending has more to do with the tone of voice and the paralinguistic features used when checking those instructions.

And for beginner/elementary learners or learners new to the language classroom, what’s the harm of delivering instructions in their L1 alongside the L2 instructions?

7a. Jumping from context to context, exercise to exercise can be highly confusing.

7b. We are not here to transmit information. Pick judiciously.

Sounds almost common-sensical to us language teachers but in our attempts to ‘cover the syllabus’, ‘transmit’ as much information as possible during the short classroom time we have and justify the huge amounts of money our students are paying for the course , are we sometimes guilty of doing the above?

In Rod’s first 2-hour lesson, he was introduced to making introductions (How are you? I’m fine, thank you. What’s your name? My name is Rod. Where are you from? I’m from Britain. What’s your surname? My surname is Smith. How do you spell it? S-M-I-T-H) which led them to learning the Spanish alphabet and then the masculine and feminine singular and plural names of countries and nationalities. Rod had never encountered the concept of masculine and feminine nouns but there was simply no time for the teacher to
explain.

In Rod’s second 2-hour lesson, the teacher looked at a whole range of classroom language (How do you say it in Spanish? How do you write it in Spanish? Can you repeat it? I don’t remember. I don’t understand. Louder please. Slower please. I don’t know. – Rod made sure he remembered the last one so that he could give it as an answer whenever
nominated) before going through about 10 lexical items to do with food and drink, and then 8 useful phrases used in a waiter-customer dialogue in a cafe. The lesson ended with learning the numbers 1-20 in Spanish.

In Rod’s third lesson, the teacher plunged right into saying the numbers (1 to 100!), asking for the time (it’s quarter past, it’s half past, it’s twenty to, it’s 27 minutes past), doing some
pairwork/roleplay regarding asking for the time at a train station, learning nearly 20 verbs and how to conjugate them, then doing a guided discovery task labelling the different parts of the Spanish verb (La Raiz, La Terminacion, Verbo Infinitivo, Verbo Reflexivo, Verbo Conjugado, Verbo Regular, Verbo Irregular…) For someone who did not even know what a verb was, every second of the lesson did nothing but confirm his suspicions that he was indeed not cut out for learning a language. By the end of this lesson. Rod had lost the will
to live.

…And 7 c. We can only guide learners to discover what they are ready to discover.

8. Every learner in the class is different and some having more difficulty following does not mean they are less capable.

Rod’s class was made up of about 6 students. One was Italian, another two spoke French and another had learnt Spanish before. Having knowledge of the Romance languages had a huge influence on how easy it was to follow the grammatical explanations in class, but also the language learning experiences the other students had also helped them understand what language learning entailed. Rod’s idea of language learning had been a very bottom-up one where he needed to understand every word of a phrase before feeling
comfortable in using it. When encountering ‘Como te llamas? Me llamo Rod’ he instinctively seeked to understand which part of the phrase was ‘what’, which part was ‘are’, which part was ‘you’ and why ‘called’ was different in both phrases. The Lexical Approach may state that language is learnt in chunks and we should not encourage learners to string individual words together to create meaning, but perhaps our knowledge about Second Language Acquistion and the language learning process needs to be made explicitly clearer to learners instead of carrying on about tasks in a mysterious ’I-know-why-this-is-good-for-you-even-if-you-don’t’ sort of way.

When I tried to comfort Rod, he exclaimed, ‘Telling me the others have a headstart over me is not going to make me feel any better in class when I am stumped by the teacher’s questions. I still feel like an idiot.’

I don’t believe in pitching the class to the lowest common denominator, but a better understanding of each learners’ background and the obstacles that face them in the learning process is key to providing the ‘+1′ for every single student of the class. Although ‘acknowledging students’ previous language learning experiences’ is a phrase found in both CELTA and DELTA criterias, how much attention do we give to it on teacher training
courses?

9. Just because some of the students understand (while the others sit in silence) is not a green light for the teacher to move on.

Along the same lines as the above point, the teacher tended to ask the taboo question ‘Do you understand?’ and the Italian student would cheerily nod away and/or shout ‘yes’. The teacher took this to mean that the whole class was now ready to move on to the next
exercise/language point/context. Many might not insist the teacher spends more time clarifying because they might (a) think they understand but they don’t, or (b) are too shy/embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. Admitting such a thing requires bravery and a large dose of self-awareness, and should be met with patience and encouragement. Of course, a relaxed and non-judgemental classroom atmosphere can also lower inhibitions and allow students to voice their feelings of confusion more openly (see point number 5).

10. Repetition Repetition Repetition (Drilling is not just about pronunciation)

I’ve left this for last because I’m so passionate about this that I could dedicate a whole blog post to this point alone. We all know the importance of repetition but in practice, we sometimes worry that repeated drills could be boring for the students and too reminiscent of the Direct Method. I am unashamed to admit that I came from the Callan School of
English, where drilling was the only method of teaching. Although I am a strong believer that one single methology should not dominate one’s teaching, I have taken away lots of good drilling practices that I still use in my classroom today. I have found drilling to be necessary in helping learners get used to getting their tongues round the language and absolutely useful in terms of aiding memory and retention.

Rod’s teacher simply provided lists after lists of lexis and 1 or 2 controlled practice exercises of the language (like the jumbled-word exercise) and never offered the chance or time for the learners to actually learn them. And learners were never explicitly told that it can take up to 25 encounters with a new piece of lexis before feeling even remotely
confident in trying it out in spoken production. Repeated drills interjected throughout the lesson could have reinforced the idea that learners are not expected to remember or produce the language after just the first encounter. And to teachers who think it’s boring, I would say, it’s probably boring for you, the expert user of the language, but not for the learner. Pacey and snappy drills can be really invigorating and confidence-building.

Of course, drills are not the only way to get students repeating. Creative recycling activities like ‘Back to Board’, ‘Charades’, ‘Board Rush’, ‘Language Auction’ etc can all be used to increase the number of encounters learners have with previously taught language items. I
spend one of every three hour class I take purely on recycling activities, and the incidental language that goes up on my board every day is no longer incidental, but part of my learners’ lexicon.

I have indeed noticed that the length of this post is looking more like a dissertation than a blog and I hope Rod feels slightly more vindicated having his point of view heard and understood, albeit vicariously. But most importantly, I’d like Rod to know just this:

Language learning is less about intelligence and more about determination and perseverance.