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More than English

October 25, 2008

Hello again.

This summer I taught a student who reminded me how much more we have to teach than the language. He was a in a category of learner I have met frequently: self-taught ...

...with many ingrained errors. We would have a lesson and he would manage the controlled exercises reasonably well. But when it came to free practice he seemed unable to apply what he had been taught and reverted to the flawed structures he used habitually.

It seemed he needed to be taught some very basic learning skills but first I asked myself why he seemed unable to make the connection between his lessons and the language he actually used. Two things occurred to me. On the whole people could understand him. It was irritating to listen to his mistakes but he was usually able to make himself understood. Thus by his standards, his English was effective and he had no strong motivation to change. But I think also he was unable to place confidence in his teachers: he had managed so far and suddenly his knowledge was challenged.

This experience taught me that we can never be complacent about the scope of our teaching. We have to teach real listening skills, by which I mean ensuring that students have heard, understood and can apply what they heave heard. All too often students participate in a game that they play by the rules in the classroom but outside they get back to reality and leave it all behind them. Then we have to teach learners to be able to analyse their own performance and recognise their errors. This can only be done in the classroom because, if they are effective outside, they will not look for their mistakes. I do a lot of audio-recording, as this is quick and simple, and let the students listen to their English and see if they can spot the problems.

Then we have to inspire their confidence. It struck me that often we know a lot about our students but they know next to nothing about us. It is useful to tell them how much experience you have, the kinds of students you have successfully taught.

And when you feel you are making some progress in these areas, start to get tough. Don’t let a single error go unchallenged. Give them a daily error to work on and say you expect to see progress by the next lesson. I’m not over punctilious about errors, after all native speakers make plenty. But if a student is simply refusing to replace bad English with good, then it’s time to crack the whip!

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  1. Edward Purchla Says:


    I taught English in Beijing from 2002-2003 and now am looking to teach in Tokyo, Hong Kong or perhaps Beijing again. Any information, leads, would be very appreciated. Thanks.

    Ed Purchla

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