Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Teaching Students How to Learn

I am sure we have all encountered one in our teaching careers: the student who just doesn't seem to learn and cannot make the progress they should. He or she is the one who is always in the class, but just never sees to get what is going on and never seems to get any better. Months into his or her course and he or she still answers in monosyllabic utterances and cannot form even the basic tenses. For example:
"What did you do this weekend Philippe?"
"I beach."

For many students like this, the lack of progress simply cannot be put down to a lack of effort. I used the name Philippe above because it reminded me of a student I encountered in France. He came to class religiously and worked really hard at his English, but his progress never got any faster than glacial. It was a really upsetting station for everyone. He was frustrated and unhappy at his lack of progress and my teaching team were unhappy at being unable to fix the problems he was facing. This begs the question: Why had it all gone so wrong?

I believe the reason that Phil and a lot of other students really struggle to make progress is not about learning English. Rather, I believe it is about learning how to learn. Phil was a classic example because he had started to learn in state school where he was taught in large classes with some pretty antiquated methodologies. Because of this, he had some really bad language-learning habits that he found difficult/impossible to break. For example:

  • He translated every last word from English into French before he tried to speak. As a consequence his fluency was awful and by the time he had flicked between languages, the conversation or the activity had passed him by.
  • He fixated on grammar. Everything was about forming and conjugating verbs. He felt that if he knew go/went/gone or eat/ate/eaten he was mastering the language. He spent hours memorising stuff like this. But, he never actually practised using them in conversation and, thus, found himself making repeated mistakes whenever he actually needed to speak and to use them.
  • He wanted to take notes constantly. Every class he attended he would pull out a leather notebook and begin scrawling for the full hour. He spent so much time writing things down in French that he had no chance to speak English.

The issue with Phil was not his work-ethic or even his ability to speak English. It was his study habits. He thought he was doing things to make progress when, in fact, he was doing the exact opposite. This brings us to the main point of this blog entry. It is not just a teacher's job to teach the student the language; it is also the teacher's job to show the students the best habits to do that.

Obviously, the exact details of this will change depending on the course. I encountered Phil whilst working for Wall Street English where there was a great focus on conversational English and communication. Had I been teaching in a university where there was to be an exam afterwards, I would have changed my policy and ideas on note-taking for example.

A colleague of mine also raised a really interesting point recently about the way we approach classes and our use of learning techniques. He said to me:
Paul, have you noticed how strange it is that schools everywhere focus on technique and preparation for exams like IELTS and TOEIC, but not so much for real-life conversation”.

I thought his analysis was excellent. I cannot count the hours during which I have drilled students on skim and scan techniques for IELTS or I have talked about different techniques for mastering the section 7 in the TOEIC – I even have my own blog for TOEIC skills and there are countless sites dedicated to IELTS. But, many schools do not do so much for normal English conversation and communication. It was something I began to do in my last role in France. When I explained to students that I was not there to teach them English but to teach them learning skills instead, many of them looked at me like I was an alien! However, the class took off and many students made great progress. I believe this is an area that s currently tragically overlooked. We need to teach students how to learn.

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