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Personal learning strategies

April 27, 2009

Hello again,
Every so often I meet a situation for which no experience or training has fully prepared me. This was the case recently when I was teaching a woman who was so consumed by anxiety to learn quickly that she was making no progress at all. The main problem ...

...lay in the fact that, as she had come to the UK, I really wanted to help her use the opportunity to speak and listen. But, as soon as I played listening passages, she almost froze with fear and insisted she should have the text in front of her in order to help her understand. Similarly, if I tried to engage her in a guided but not scripted conversation, she gave up after the fist exchange.

Of course, as she was here for only a short time and I didn’t want her to feel it was all too much, I gave in and let her have the texts as a crutch. The result was not encouraging. By reading, she reinforced her pronunciation errors and she was also trying to translate word by word as she went along. Her inability to use effective learning strategies arose, I believe, from the fact that since leaving school, she was mainly self-taught from rather antiquated text books. But it did present me with a real challenge. I also realised that she needed individual learning strategies rather than any standard approach.

We worked out a system by which we studied the texts before doing the activities and this allowed me to explain the pronunciation issues as well as some conversational features that puzzled her. This worked for the time I was teaching her but I then had to think about advising her in continuing self study. I suggested she should join a virtual classroom as she would have an opportunity to speak and listen but beyond that I didn’t feel very confident in giving her advice. It made me aware of how poor teaching and learning experiences really hinder students and that it is very hard to undo the habits they have picked up.

One of the most intransigent is the belief that a word for word translation is possible in all situations. To give an example, I discovered that she didn’t know the most basic telephone phrases such as ‘hold on’ or ‘hang up’. She went scuttling for her dictionary and then seemed very puzzled by what she found. It took a long time and lot of her anxiety to understand that we use set phrases on the telephone that may be totally different in another language. When the penny dropped, she realised how her own approach had prevented her from grasping something very simple.

I came away from the experience aware that individual students often pose quite original challenges to our methods.

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