On Language Learning: Stubborn Learners

 

Teaching English can fall into routine. To get through a long semester, there is a marathon mentality where the teacher simply pushes through work. He gets a rhythm, sections of the book get covered, assessments completed and a cycle repeats. The students have to follow along, and like dedicated athletes, they don’t protest. They get stronger in the habits the teacher sets for them.  Athough consistent, it may not be a recipe for winning. While your running may not fall apart, the analogy does once you realize that teaching children is nothing at all like running a puny 26 kilometer.

A teacher is more like a doctor treating a patient. Sometime you are in sports medicine helping a star athlete rehabititate a side-lining injury. Sometimes you are a chiropractor helping the patient make adjustments they cannot do alone. Other times, the situation is trickier where the patient doesn’t exactly make it easy for you to figure out what is wrong. But sometimes you test them in a special way, breaking from habit, and everything becomes much clearer—shockingly clear.

 

I have been working with a class of 17 year-olds over the past two months. I quickly realized that they are a low performing class.  I learned to prepare smaller chunks of material and give them more time to practice it. I understood that they have never built a strong foundation in English and have a hard time speaking, learning, and being motivated. I have dealt with students like this before.

My coteacher was quite pleased with my style and the boss feIt opptimistic that I could work with these students. This is because I had quickly learned how to get through lessons without depending on student involvement, which has the tendency of gumming up the lesson when the students don't perform well.  We reviewed simple dialogues and I had them work with many partners. I drilled phonetics from their test books. I diagramed grammar on the blackboard and walked them through grammar translation exercises. 

Students who had always come late--looking as if they sleepwalked to class after their afternoon nap--started coming earlier.  They looked more lively. I felt that I was getting somewhere. I never gave homework but rather I reviewed the homework that the co-teacher gave them. I saw some progress. But each week brought new challenges. I could never be sure from week to week how the lesson would go.

The syllabus had to be rewritten by the co-teacher, Ms. Vy, and myself. We had a schedule and we followed it faithfully. But teaching is really about getting the students to do work, engage English, internalize it and be able to practice it. It is as if a doctor is showing a patient how to prepare his special food to take with his special medicine. Improvement in health will happen once the patience follows the doctor’s instructions. Maybe even by personalizing a routine. Otherwise, no matter how accurate the remedy, the patient ultimately determines how well he heals.

So I should not have been surprised when I showed the students a TED video and learned that they not only don’t understand English but (asside from some specific controlled activities) they are completely disengaged and unable to follow any lesson material at all.

I played the video from youtube so that they could read the accompanying Vietnamese subtitles as they listened. I played a short section of the video, which covered a single line of thinking, about 2 minutes. Then pausing it for class feedback. I wanted the students to summarize the idea in English. Silence. I played it again and got the same response. I played it again and pleaing with them I told them to retell the information in Vietnamese. This time choppy, mumbled, half statements from only one or two students which I knew could not have been more than a single sentence from the video. I checked to see if they could read the Vietnamese. They could. 

 

I brought in the headmaster and one of the head office workers to translate. I then learned that the students didn’t answer me because they couldn’t remember what they had just seen. The headmaster politely argued that the students have only studied grammar and could not speak. I told her that I had asked them to speak in Vietnemese and that I let them watch this section of the video three times. She tried to spin the situation in a way for me to be understanding of the students. Knowing the futility of being critical of the students in this situation, I assured her that I was calling upon her for help.

She suggested that I have them write down their thoughts first. That might have been a good idea but I knew that they write the ideas in English. We came up with the idea of having them first write in Vietnamese and then work together to translate the text.

I framed the activity in a way so that I was asking them to help me understand what the TED talk discussed. I told them that I do not want them to think of me as an English teacher anymore. They should just think of me as a teacher. The ideas in the TED talk are that important that learning them in English or in Vietnamese was the same as long as they learned them. I believe that if they understand the meaning of the ideas, they would have some knowledge worth having. And as a teacher, sharing knowledge, whether practical or inspiring is an important outcome. I said that but with a footnote. Competence in English means that you can access a world of knowledge because English is the international language for sharing ideas. I want them to be part of that. 

I later showed them a few minutes of video from TED ED, a subsidiary of TED which has 5 minute stop motion videos done artisitcally on dry erase boards. This topics was about how computer games can actually make you smarter. It is extremely visually interesting and the fast paced, idea dense speech is stimulating for a native speaker, like me, but overwhelming for low-level learners, like my students. This series does not have Vietnamese subtitles. I showed it to them briefly and saw how they lit up at the animation. Their interest in the video only matched by their inability to understand what was being said.  

I set the timer for three minutes and let them write. I could not judge the content, as I cannot read Vietnamese, but I could judge their word count. Obviously those with more to say filled up more space and therefore must have had remembered more. Others couldn’t think of anything to say. I chose one paper, had a classmate read it in Vietnamese, and then posed the question to the class: Who can tell me what this is about? Talking in a foreign language about what you think is much harder than summarizing and interpreting written text from your native language. The responses were better. 

I showed the students another section of the video—another bite-sized section. I had them write for another three minutes and continued the pattern. The overall response was a little better. A large portion of my frustration washes away as I see them make these little improvements.

 

As people, we all walk around and seem normal. But in the classoom I see students who have crippled ability and in need of physical therapy for their minds.  I need to teach them that improved memory is a goal for learning. I have to show them how to improve their memory as they learn. Simply speaking and functioning in English is not the goal. They have to build communication skills like addressing their peers in class by using their names and asking them quesions—both genders. They need to follow along and if they cannot comprehend something because they cannot hear or cannot see, they need to position themselves to see and hear. They also need to manage their life so that they can arrive to class at the appointed time. These would all be great outcomes from class that means they are ready for life. No amount of English fluency can compensate for those deficiencies.