On Language Learning: When Students are not at Grade Level

Background

After having spent three years in China, I was prepared to leave. I was fed up with passive-aggressive colleagues. I was disgusted by the environment. I knew I could take my talents and go elsewhere. I was sick of students with a hateful view of America and who had an inability to communicate in English despite over a decade of having studied the language. But something made me stay. Up until that point, 2007, I had not worked with young learners. But in the spring of 2008, a colleague left and the high school was short a foreign teacher. Us foreign teachers were used to attract students in a test taking program which was sold to the students as an alternative to their national college entrance exams. Students who could not compete with their classmates but could pay had a chance to study abroad if only they could pass certain exams. The belief was that they could succeed overseas and be successful in ways that their education at home failed them. So these classes were filled with a mix of incredibly bright students who really wanted to go abroad and with students who were incredibly dull but had parents of means. Because we lost one of our foreign teachers, the school could not support more students in the program. They opted to farm us out to the nearby primary school in our free time. There we spent a couple mornings a week partnering with the Chinese teachers and teaching classes to students for 45 minutes.

Young Learners

The teachers at the primary school were much friendlier, appeared healthier, and radiated a beauty that I was happy to collaborate with. Although the next six years were not without turbulence, I would spend the next six years working with young learners. 

 Young learners have energy which no textbook is fully designed for. A good teacher makes the topic come alive. I found that this style suited me perfectly. I remember thinking at the time that I had more active classes, was more appreciated, and could apply more energy to the work. With young learners in a once a week class, the teaching material never needed to be very complicated as long as the teacher can turn the materials into activities in interesting ways. On the spot inspiration helped turn lessons into great activities which the students enthusiastically looked forward to. For a brief moment, in a small community, I was famous.

May 2011 in Yichang China.

 Over that first year at the Foreign Language Primary School in Yichang, 2008-2009, I taught every class in the school once a week. Their remaining 4 weekly lessons were taught by a Chinese teachers. That teacher and I shared materials and they knew what I was doing with the classes. I knew what they were doing. At the end of each term I gave each student a speaking test. I wrote an answer sheet that I filled in. All I had to do was circle or check boxes.  It would have otherwise been impossible to listen intently to students and then write meaningful (legible) notes in order to figure out a grade. My marking sheet gave me a clear idea about who said what and to what degree. I did not lead students in their answers. I tried to be as objective towards them as possible. Slow students were victim of my countdown. As soon as I asked the question I slowly counted from 5 to 1 in my head. Even if they claimed that they couldn't hear my answer the question, I would simply check a box and move on. I was brutal in my objectivity. Running the tests in another way would have taken too long and would have been mentally exhausting for me. I was not coaching them. I was testing them.

What I found out during the first term was really interesting. Of the 36 students in each grade 1 classes, 80% of the class got a near perfect score. In my 5 classes of grade one,  about only 5 of 6 students got left behind.

In my grade 6 classes, I followed the same procedure. I marked the grading sheet as I asked the students questions. I was not chatty with them. Nor was I subjective with the marking based on how I felt about a particular student. Some students who I was rooting for failed. Others surprised me. I was seeing how accurately they could respond to questions and material that we had covered in class. What I found was that only 20% of the students could pass the test with a high mark. Considering that the test was based only on class material, this was disappointing.

Term after term (2008-2012) resulted in similar findings.  I knew why this was happening. Memorizing is hard and the students' ability to memorize broke under the strain of a bulk of material. I would have been easier for them to translate the ideas they thought about in Chinese into English. I kept following my procedure even when the school stopped asking my for the test results.

Training Centers

Of course there were 6th graders who spoke extremely well--20% in each class. What was there secret? Training centers. I knew this because I taught them at training centers in the evenings and weekends. Whether parents really wanted to give their children a competitive edge or just something constructive to do after school, Chinese children spend a lot of time in after school programs. Weekends were long. In addition to 9 AM classes I always taught from 6 PM until 8 PM on Saturday night. Some classes went from 7 PM until 9 PM on Saturday night. There was a group of student I had worked with for many years--from kindergarten until 4th grade. By the time they were 9 years old, our schedule changed from two hour-long classes a week to two hours once a week--from 6 PM to 8 PM on Sunday night. It took many weeks before they got used to that. Nine year olds are tired on Sunday night. Each lesson was a refresher of the previous lesson as they simply could not remember much from week to week in addition to all of their other studying. It seemed counterproductive. I couldn't change that schedule.

 

Another reason why 80% of a class cannot learn to produce language is because the stigma of making errors. Students should be producing language long before they have been introduced to all of the grammar. Being wrong in one instance shows exactly what you don't know. This should not be seen as a sign of weakness. For example. if you teach the past tense, students will start saying I went to the park. How wonderful would it be for the teacher to hear students say I don't went to the park? To be wrong in this case shows the teacher that the student's ability to express himself stretches beyond his knowledge of grammar. He may continue making the mistake but it won't be long before I catch him correcting his own mistakes and then not making the mistake at all. I never saw this in China. To be wrong in a Chinese school lowers your school marks which sends a student into a ditch where they are out of reach of elite schools. It is like a sport where everyone is doping or taking steroids therefore everyone has to in order to compete.

Not only does it become hard to identify students strengths and weaknesses but students do not value studying beyond that bottom line to become bigger, faster, and stronger in an incredibly narrow sense. Students do not value expressing ideas and so there is no way to practice the language that they had learned.  By the time they are teenagers, oral English classes for high school students become preparation for high stakes tests where they learn to decode trick questions or they become remedial. It was not uncommon to see classes of 10 year old students outperform classes of 16 year old students.

So what can you do with a class of 16 year olds who have been brought up to avoid errors at the expense of acquiring the ability to use the language they have learned for over 10 years? Or better yet, how do you teach them that English learning is for communicating, not a series of obstacles for college entrance?

Teaching Teenagers who are not at Grade Level

I had stopped working with Chinese teens in 2008 and had no interest in looking back. But in Vietnam, I couldn't limit myself like that anymore. Although polite, Vietnamese teenagers are reluctant to speak in class.  Having recognized a lot of similarities, I knew I could develop some strategies for overcoming their reluctance to speak.

No matter what the EFL topic is, the goal nearly always includes maximizing students' language production. Filling out homework sheets and taking tests does not lead to language fluency. The class has to be designed in a way that utilizes the whole class in a way that can not be replicated in a tutoring session or a homework activity.

Working with teens once a week for 90 minutes:

  • I can narrow the topic and expect that we only get through a small about of material.
  • I have to limit the instruction to short and simple phrases
  • I have to give the students lots of time to practice before I call on individuals
  • There has to be a social element to the activity
  • There needs to be a procedure in which I simply substitute new material in but keep the procedure the same.
  • I make a deal with them. I will not give them homework if they give me 100% during class.
  • I need to be strict. They need to know that I am less like them and more like a parent.
  • That is why I learn all of their Vietnamese names. In other words, I know what their parents call them. In the beginning this lets them know that I can refer them to the headmistress and their Vietnamese teacher with ease. There is no confusion about who is who if we all refer to the same student by the same name. But more importantly, I call them by their name.

All of this works because, despite appearances, students want to learn. Sure they seem like they want to get away with not studying too hard but they really want a teacher who believes in his method and can show the students that the method will work. They are not yawning to spite me. They are yawning because they are in some state before being fully awake.

Material and Method

The standard text is unnecessarily complex with too much variety that makes it impossible to form a simple method which I can repeat. I much rather supply my own materials. Since I do not require homework, there is no need to print out copies for the students. I use the site www.rong-chang.com.

The homepage has many links to different archives. I often use the English Level 1 section which has 50-word essays which cover many daily life topics. The essays have audio files too. In this example I use a file from the daily life dialogue section. I have used these often in class and the students are familiar with my methods. I have gone so far as to ask them which they prefer to do. Having materials on hand and caring about the students' opinions empowers them by letting them know that their choices are important in this process.

Step-By-Step

1. Briefly talk about the topic.

2. Have them ready their notebooks and pens

3. Instruct them to listen but NOT to take any notes

4. Listen for a second time and have them write down anything they can

5. Look over their notebooks with their partner to compare notes

6. Listen again and write more notes followed by discussing again

7. Share as a class and piece together the dialogue on the blackboard.

 

8. Have the class stand up and find a partner, practicing the exchange. Have them switch partners a few times. I call the activity the "Cocktail Party," as I expect them to mingle with their classmates rather than just cling to their friends. Sometimes I specifically tell boys to partner with girls and girls to not shy away from the boys. It is important to learn to be comfortable and interact with the opposite sex in mature, productive, and respectful ways. Students are not given many chances to do this in their daily school life.

 

 

9. The last stage is to call on students to come to the front of the room to perform the dialogue without reading from their papers. There is always a layer of anxiety when speaking in front of people. I hope we can eliminate the fear of speaking. Having given every student many chances to speak, I hope the students are more confident in their abilities and not feel challenged by this final step in the task. All of the work we have done up until now has prepared students to perform the dialogue with ease.

I want them to find the work easy. I want them to stop judging class as either easy or difficult. Too often they are challenged with difficult, boring exercises which do not require them to think very much. Thinking is fun and interacting with different people is fun. Interacting and thinking is what language allows us to do. Therefore learning a foreign language should be one of the most fun things in the world.

On a weekend afternoon, teenagers should expect to come to a learning center to have fun. Fun can be misunderstood to mean playing games. The above activity shows how learning English helps make students socialize. Using English doesn't require students to recall the most complicated grammar and vocabulary. It requires them to relate with one another. This is not a method for preparing students for exams. But then a 90 minute class once a week is not going to prepare students for much of anything in the short term.

But this style of teaching reminds students that whatever they learn will be useful after they succeed in their exams. It helps them keep the bigger picture of their English studies in mind.

So far these students manage to study only two texts per class. My goal for them is to study at least three texts in a 90 minute class. For that to happen, they will have to warm up to the lesson quicker. They will have to work a little faster. They will have to become more fluent. This is the goal.