Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Hardest Kind of Student

So I'm gonna lay out a scenario for you all that may be very familiar to some.

You get a new student. This student tells you she's paid for 2 (or more!) years of English classes, and that she actually studied with (and "finished") the textbook you use in your classes.

You test out this student's English. She can hardly understand anything you say, and her English is in pretty bad shape. Think Google Translate meets a slow type-to-speech machine. It's absolutely not her fault. She's a pretty smart person, successful in her career, etc. She's just had horrible teachers and has been ripped off for the last two years.

She doesn't want to start over in a basic class, partly because she doesn't want to "redo" everything in general ("but I've already taken basic English classes, teacher!"), but also because, in her case, she's already used the basic textbook. (She just happened to have a teacher who waltzed through it and apparently didn't actually teach her anything.)

You decide to offer a sort of "basic revision course" for her, which you don't usually do.

OK... I'm gonna switch out of the second person.

So I offered this particular student this sort of review course, which in my case means just using all the material I've prepared to accompany the textbooks I use.  (With other students, I would simply insist that they start over w/ the basic book.) She said she already studied with the textbook, so I figured that she'd be familiar with the grammar, controlled vocabulary, etc, so the reviews would mostly be ways to help her speak with the stuff she'd already learned or at least seen.

Unfortunately, this review course idea isn't working out, for 3 reasons: (1) She didn't really learn anything in her previous classes, so there isn't much reviewing going on -- there's a lot of me teaching her things for the first time, but without the controlled activities of the book; (2) her Brazilian English has been fossilized, so even though I tell her 5 times that she can't say "I live near from the shopping" and should instead say "I live close to the mall," she still says it, because that's the way she's always said it and no one ever corrected her and now it's habit; and (3) she would ideally like to be focusing on English for her job in scientific research, so she keeps trying to write about it as homework, but she's absolutely not at that level yet.

I don't want to lose her as a student, but I can tell she's not really enjoying things because it's just me correcting her a lot and the lessons aren't very cohesive without a book. I personally don't want to reinvent the wheel for myself for this one student. I'm not going to buy a new basic book from a different publisher and make new material to go with it. Besides, I don't even know if just starting over with a different basic book is even the best solution.

What do you fellow teachers do with students like these? Unfortunately, there are so many. They've had bad teachers for so long that it's harder to teach them than it is to teach someone who's never studied English. They get all mixed up. It's harder for them to "write over" what they learned before. There's also the psychological weight they have to deal with: (1) they spent so much time and money on English in the past, and for nothing; (2) they have been speaking wrong all this time when they thought they were getting by decently, and now they feel embarrassed and stupid; (3) they have to keep track of what they learned before and what they're learning now and what's right and what's wrong, and that's hard, and after a while, they start to get really discouraged.

I feel really bad for these kinds of students and I want to help them, but I don't know what to do. 

What do you guys do? Even if you don't teach, feel free to share some ideas, or just some horror stories, or whatever.

9 comments:

  1. I had two similar cases at the school I worked at in SP.

    These two friends came in on a level 7, which is pretty advanced (they have 9 levels, and the last is conversation and writing only), and they knew absolutely nothing. They couldn't understand a thing, let alone speak.

    It was painful to watch as they tried really hard to follow class. They were really frustrated that they had spent so much time on English classes and still weren't able to understand the most basic commands.

    I talked to them and told them, honestly, that some teachers are just bad. I guess you have to.

    We tried having them watch different classes, at different levels, and that helped them make their final decision. One of them at least, the other would take none of it.

    So, since I'm talking about a classroom setting here and things are different in a class, I guess what I'm saying is that you should talk to her, and offer her a class at a level you think she can follow. Then, give her another class at the level she thinks she's at, and let her see the difference.

    Talk to her in clear Portuguese, sometimes you have to be as straightforward as possible, even if it means that you're not at your nicest.

    Tell her that for what she wants her English needs to be better than it's now, and that she needs it for something as complex as scientific research she needs more than a Inglês meia-boca.

    I don't know if you've tried this approach yet, but being a little harsh, aka completely honest, with my students has helped in the past.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In this kind of situation I am usually painfully honest. Tell her that there is going to be a lot of correcting because she has been taking "classes" for 2 yrs. Print out ready made lessons from the internet that cover what is she unwilling to do out of the book. And if she insists on writing about her work, be ruthless in corrections. Go over every single one. She'll pick it up

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm not sure this is something we can automatically assume is due to bad teachers/teaching. While I am quite sure that some of it is, I also believe part of it may be attributable to individual issues such as learning problems, different needs, slower paces, and just plain old wishful thinking (if I attend class everyday, I will learn English by osmosis). I think those who've had bad teachers and those with other problems are easily discernable from one another very early on. One I can help, the other not so much (at least not with my skill set).

    The first student that came to me with a problem like this (she had been studying for years and thought she was intermediate, but really she was basicand just couldn't understand why), I really wanted to help. I bent over backwards and did all I could to both not bruise her ego and reach her in a way that was meaningful and relevant to her, but, in the end, I failed. Everything I said fell on deaf ears and I realized she might have had a learning problem, which I was not equiped to handle.

    If the student is unwilling or unable to learn, unless you can really grasp their learning style and possible issues and tailor special classes for them (which still doesn't guarantee it will work), it might prove to be an exercise in frustration for both parties. If students have barely any language skills and insist they be placed in higher levels or refuse to do the work they have to do, I think we do them a disservice by not being straight with them. They don't really want to learn English. They want justification for all the money and time they've spent. It doesn't work like that.

    If they want a skill (eg. speak English), it doesn't matter whether they've spent 5 years in a classroom or finished a basic level course. They either have a certain skill level or they don't. No one gets a driver's license until they have passed the driving test. There's no way the DMV or Detran will issue a license because someone is frustrated and claims to have studied for so long or think their skills are much better than they actually are.

    I would be really upront with this student and let her know that she needs to redo the entire basic level and that until she has mastered that, she has no foundation to build upon for the next levels. It doesn't even make sense for her to want to do that. And I don't think it benefits her for you to present a basic course as anything other than what it is. She needs to know where she is and what she needs to do. You can make it fun and meaningful for her, but she will have to do the work. She's an individual and each person has their own particular pace and difficulties, but I have a feeling this will be more trouble than it's worth. You might become another teacher who pretends to teach and she'll go on giving you money and pretending to learn. This needs to be addressed carefully, but honestly, and your expectations need to be very clear.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm not sure this is something we can automatically assume is due to bad teachers/teaching. While I am quite sure that some of it is, I also believe part of it may be attributable to individual issues such as learning problems, different needs, slower paces, and just plain old wishful thinking (if I attend class everyday, I will learn English by osmosis). I think those who've had bad teachers and those with other problems are easily discernable from one another very early on. One I can help, the other not so much (at least not with my skill set).

    The first student that came to me with a problem like this (she had been studying for years and thought she was intermediate, but really she was basicand just couldn't understand why), I really wanted to help. I bent over backwards and did all I could to both not bruise her ego and reach her in a way that was meaningful and relevant to her, but, in the end, I failed. Everything I said fell on deaf ears and I realized she might have had a learning problem, which I was not equiped to handle.

    If the student is unwilling or unable to learn, unless you can really grasp their learning style and possible issues and tailor special classes for them (which still doesn't guarantee it will work), it might prove to be an exercise in frustration for both parties. If students have barely any language skills and insist they be placed in higher levels or refuse to do the work they have to do, I think we do them a disservice by not being straight with them. They don't really want to learn English. They want justification for all the money and time they've spent. It doesn't work like that.

    If they want a skill (eg. speak English), it doesn't matter whether they've spent 5 years in a classroom or finished a basic level course. They either have a certain skill level or they don't. No one gets a driver's license until they have passed the driving test. There's no way the DMV or Detran will issue a license because someone is frustrated and claims to have studied for so long or think their skills are much better than they actually are.

    I would be really upront with this student and let her know that she needs to redo the entire basic level and that until she has mastered that, she has no foundation to build upon for the next levels. It doesn't even make sense for her to want to do that. And I don't think it benefits her for you to present a basic course as anything other than what it is. She needs to know where she is and what she needs to do. You can make it fun and meaningful for her, but she will have to do the work. She's an individual and each person has their own particular pace and difficulties, but I have a feeling this will be more trouble than it's worth. You might become another teacher who pretends to teach and she'll go on giving you money and pretending to learn. This needs to be addressed carefully, but honestly, and your expectations need to be very clear.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm not sure this is something we can automatically assume is due to bad teachers/teaching. While I am quite sure that some of it is, I also believe part of it may be attributable to individual issues such as learning problems, different needs, slower paces, and just plain old wishful thinking (if I attend class everyday, I will learn English by osmosis). I think those who've had bad teachers and those with other problems are easily discernable from one another very early on. One I can help, the other not so much (at least not with my skill set).

    The first student that came to me with a problem like this (she had been studying for years and thought she was intermediate, but really she was basicand just couldn't understand why), I really wanted to help. I bent over backwards and did all I could to both not bruise her ego and reach her in a way that was meaningful and relevant to her, but, in the end, I failed. Everything I said fell on deaf ears and I realized she might have had a learning problem, which I was not equiped to handle.

    If the student is unwilling or unable to learn, unless you can really grasp their learning style and possible issues and tailor special classes for them (which still doesn't guarantee it will work), it might prove to be an exercise in frustration for both parties. If students have barely any language skills and insist they be placed in higher levels or refuse to do the work they have to do, I think we do them a disservice by not being straight with them. They don't really want to learn English. They want justification for all the money and time they've spent. It doesn't work like that.

    If they want a skill (eg. speak English), it doesn't matter whether they've spent 5 years in a classroom or finished a basic level course. They either have a certain skill level or they don't. No one gets a driver's license until they have passed the driving test. There's no way the DMV or Detran will issue a license because someone is frustrated and claims to have studied for so long or think their skills are much better than they actually are.

    I would be really upront with this student and let her know that she needs to redo the entire basic level and that until she has mastered that, she has no foundation to build upon for the next levels. It doesn't even make sense for her to want to do that. And I don't think it benefits her for you to present a basic course as anything other than what it is. She needs to know where she is and what she needs to do. You can make it fun and meaningful for her, but she will have to do the work. She's an individual and each person has their own particular pace and difficulties, but I have a feeling this will be more trouble than it's worth. You might become another teacher who pretends to teach and she'll go on giving you money and pretending to learn. This needs to be addressed carefully, but honestly, and your expectations need to be very clear.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Regarding Samia's answer: when I taught at a famous and money hungry school, I also had a few basic students who were in the conversation (highest) level. These students had no business there, but I was instructed to not say anything because they were the ones who wanted to be there and refused to go back to basic classes. They said they would "stop studying English" at the school if the school didn't accomodate them. So they passed every level by issuing these threats. They had money and wanted to play pretend. The school was more than happy to indulge them. I cannot imagine how discouraged and out-of-place they felt, seeing as they were in an advanced conversation class yet couldn't complete a simple sentence. It was painful to watch (and incredibly disruptive to class flow - with other students seriously questioning the school's ethics and reputation). These were otherwise very smart and successful people. It was, honestly, self-humiliation at its worse. But at least they could tell their bosses and friends they were attending advanced level English classes. I still wonder what would happen if they ever had to use their "advanced English" in spoken or written form.

    I think a lot of people want a certificate of some sort, enrollment in higher levels, not to learn English, but to add to their cv's. I wonder if they ever really have to use it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Last week my sister had a test for going to a new English school. We praticed converstion the day before. Oh boy, she speaks English SO badly. Poor sister of mine! I don't mean that I speak a lot better than she does. In her old school she would be in the last level next semester. In the new school she will be in the last level two or three years from now.
    Her teacher said that she knows a lot of words, however she doesn't know how to speak.

    She was not sad at all. She is loving the idea of really learning things that she doesn't know yet, even though she should have learnt them a few years ago.

    About me, let's be plain: I've never liked most of my English teachers. I knew way more than they did and they just hated me, I am talking about the ones I didn't like. Once a teacher said to me that the word "awesome" doesn't exist. Really? Wasn't she an "awesome" teacher for telling me that I make words up? Two teachers I had will be in the bottom of my heart forever. They really knew what they were doing and I miss them! Too bad I can't study in the school they teach anymore. And since I started reading your blog I don't have the desire to go to any school again. You have taught me so many things Danielle, you have no idea. Including the fact that my teachers were real morons and I was not doing any bad for hating them. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't teach adults, and I don't teach English as a foreign langauge, but I can relate. My frustration level rises in these situations because it seems that you are going in circles. I don't have any good advice for you, but I do have empathy. I think Rachel's advice is the best -- be brutally honest and correct, correct, practice, correce, and then practice some more.

    ReplyDelete
  9. haha, Érica. I'm glad I'm teaching you that it's OK to hate people...? hehehehe

    I ended up using all of your advice and convincing this student to use a different basic book that I have. It'll be a little more work for me because I don't have extra activities prepared to go with this book, but it shouldn't be too hard to modify the ones I already do have. Plus, this student happens to pay through Pay Pal, which goes into my American bank account and makes my student loan payment every month.

    Worth the extra work!

    ReplyDelete

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