Home > Learners, My thoughts on ELT > Misplaced students in EFL classrooms

Misplaced students in EFL classrooms

I’ve already had my share of complaints and I also heard lots of teachers complaining about students who are in their classes but cannot follow what is being taught. If you teach English as a Foreign Language, you’re likely to relate to the case of the misplaced student. This is what usually happens: the student enrols in a language institute and genuinely believes that whatever the schools and its teachers say is the absolute truth. After three or four years, teachers talk about this particular student in the teachers’ room. “How come he came this far in the course? He should go back at least three levels,” says his current teacher. “I agree with you. He was already a very weak student in my class, but he managed to pass the test,” says one of his former teachers, a statement which is agreed on by most teachers in the room.

Phew! This means all we have to do is blame standardised testing and we’re all good. But this, to me, is like taking the back seat instead of taking the bull by the horns. If we, teachers, bear in mind the best interest of our students, we’ll make sure we tell them when they’re not making progress instead of playing the role of the nice guy and not saying anything. And the sooner this happens, the better.

I subscribe to the theory (if there’s such a theory) that one of the most important things in a classroom is rapport. Building up good rapport with students is paramount if teachers are looking for success. If you’ve established good rapport with your learners, they are naturally inclined to trust you and take your word for everything you say. Here lies the biggest problem – they’ll take your word (or lack of it) for being able to communicate successfully. If your students make mistakes (pronunciation, grammar and/or vocabulary) and you don’t correct them, they’ll all believe there’s nothing wrong with what they’re saying. And once they learn you haven’t been careful about your teaching, all that rapport that’s been built crumbles. Either that or other teachers will have a big headache when trying to correct fossilised mistakes.

I’ve had the chance, and still have, to work with students who are studying English in two different settings – in a regular classroom in which they use grammar translation and all they need to learn is how to read texts and everything is done in L1, and in language institutes where teachers work with the four skills. It’s occurred more than once for students to come to me to ask something another teacher had said simply because his or her trust in that teacher is broken. And it all happened after they said something they’ve always said, but this time they were corrected. “But I’ve always said it like that and no one has ever corrected me,” the poor student says. And this is true for many semesters, until a conscientious teacher gets that student.

I think I am fortunate enough so as to work with lots of conscientious teachers who realise their students can’t progress as long as they stop making such mistakes. However, these same teachers sometimes fail to correct a student in his or her very first classes in the belief that it wouldn’t be good for the student to be corrected all the time – we’re afraid this student will refrain from speaking again as everything he or she says is wrong. I don’t personally agree with that. Error correction is tricky, and, if done improperly, it might hinder students’ production. Hence, the need to develop the art of listening to your students and learning what works and, most importantly, how to talk to your students is to be sought by all teachers.

Finally, if teachers understand the value of correction from the very beginning, learners might try harder and avoid making mistakes that will, in the future, label them as misplaced. In most cases, it’s not the student’s fault, but ours. We may even have the best of intentions when focussing on the affective side, but this is bound to cause major problems in the future. If you accept the i + 1 and ZPD theories, you can’t expect to start correcting basic mistakes when students reach the advanced part of the course. It’ll save you and other teachers a lot of time in the future, and your students won’t waste as much time and money either.

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  1. May 11, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    overcorrecting does lead to students not wanting to speak. I have seen this in my own classes but also when I moved to France and was taking French myself, and I didn’t want to speak nor my classmates after overcorrection. There has to be something to it since most people who have taken language classes say about the same thing. Is correcting every error every time necessary?

    • May 11, 2010 at 8:31 pm

      Hi Owen,

      I believe we cant go for extremes. Overcorrection is just as bad as no correction. For instance, if teachers let students say things as, “Have four boys in the classroom” and do not point out that this is wrong and it should be, “There are four boys in the classroom,” and, moreover, if the teacher doesn’t make a point of telling this to learners, they might end up putting themselves in an embarrassing situation.
      Error treatment is a delicate area in ELT, but I think getting to know your learners and finding out about their personality helps immensely when you have to correct them. No one likes to be corrected, but depending on how it’s done, we just don’t mind. If teachers can actually show learners they’re concerned about how they’ll come across in the real world, chances are they won’t feel threatened.
      In an attempt to answer your question, it’s not about correcting every little thing all the time. But if students have been exposed to something that’s important, teachers should stress that right after that’s been “taught”.
      Would you agree with this?

      Thanks for your comment! :)

  2. May 12, 2010 at 8:09 am

    You’re absolutely right – I’ve come across similar situations many times, especially at some of the language school I taught. I’ve also felt surprised to hear some of my fellow teachers in similar situations “objectify” their students like this. Such conversations and comments sound like having been made by someone working at an assembly line.

    So often a student ceased to be taken as a personality and evaluated in very general, simplifying, not to mention degrading terms.

    Such comments, in my experience, very often come from the mouths of teachers who consider “the book” as an unquestionable, unalterable authority that needs to be taught in equaly paced and evenly distributed segments, one after another.

    I’ve always cringed when I came across such systematic nonsense.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    Marian

  3. May 12, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Just to add, when it comes to correction, the feedback needs to be very focused and “tailored” to each learner for it to be truly effective. This can’t be done applying the same “meter” to all learners. Apart from deciding when, what and how to correct, it’s always important to assess the personality of the learner, although it probably is the most difficut part of our job.

    • May 12, 2010 at 8:34 pm

      Hi Marian,

      It really is sad to see some “teachers” objectifying students. We should learn to look inwards before we start putting the blame on other things. I agree with everything you said, and would even add a thing or two. For instance, sometimes teachers are not willing to do research or even to study for a lesson as they believe they already know all there is to know and really can’t take criticism. It’s sad to see so many of these in a profession that strives to form life-long learners.

      And the correction bit is also what I think. The better you know your learners, the easier it is for you to correct without offending. Error correction is, indeed, a tricky thing in our profession.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Henrick

  4. May 13, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Amen on that one. God, I used to get upset when I had misplaced students in my classes. It’s always a combination of terrible exams that don’t indicate anything useful and money-grubby schools’ desires to take more money by simply passing anyone and everyone as long as they pay. At my last school I would always have serious talk with the students about moving down levels or not passing, but most Turkish students think it’s more important to pass the level than to actually learn anything. I always thought it was odd, but often the certificate is more important than the ability for students’ careers.

    Also on the error thing. I don’t know if it’s something about the way the CELTA is done these days, but I have seen so many teachers that actually never correct students or do so rarely. It’s odd. I don’t know how they expect the students to learn and then you get them in your advanced class and they never use articles or prepositions or whatever.

    Both issues you mentioned are two of my big frustrations. Cool post.

    • May 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

      Hi Nick,

      It’s definitely one of the most frustrating things in a classroom. Ad it’s a very delicate situation as well. How do you tell a student who’s been studying in the same institution for 4 years that he shouldn’t be at that level? Heck, if I were that student my first thought would be, “but according to your assessment, I was able to reach this level? It’s not my fault!”
      Thank you for sharing the get-a-certificate way of thinking. Apparently, this is also true in Brazil. It doesn’t matter if you can’t really speak the language (or do maths, for that matter); all I want is a certificate to put on my CV. This is one of the reasons I think the current educational system is doomed in the near future. Companies and employers are learning that it’s not the paper that counts, it’s actually what you can do that counts.
      I don’t think we should correct students as much as they want us to (especially adults, as they usually say they’d like to be corrected all the time), but I definitely don’t think we should simply let things go by unnoticed. Just to mention one example, we worked with a coursebook here that explicitly taught students about the correct intonation pattern for information questions and yes/no questions. The teacher would work with that on that lesson, but then it’s just as if that had never been taught and there are no corrections in subsequent lessons. Needless to say, students would just forget that there is such a pattern to be followed. In my opinion, if that’s the case, we might as well not teach that altogether.

      Cheers,

      Henrick

  5. May 17, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    I think another contributory factor in the ‘misplaced’ student is unfortunately a money concern. In China small private schools who live on getting 7 or 8 students in a class are averse to turning away students (money) who don’t quite fit with the level of the class.
    For example, in the schools I have worked in if a new class is being started at Elementary level with 7 students but there is an inquiry from a Beginner student (and the Beginner course won’t start for another month or two) the staff, paid on commission, will crowbar that student into the Elementary classroom. It’s then on the teacher to get that student up to standard. This is a dangerous practice, as the teacher is either forced to pay added attention to the student, lower the level of the teaching to the middle ground, or ignore the student and risk isolating the him or her from the school and English learning.
    I can hear people saying, ‘Just tell the staff,’ but the staff need the money, the school needs the money, and the student wants the lessons. “Just tell the student,’ causes it’s own problems – a lack of faith in the teacher, a negative view of the uncoordinated ‘company’, a loss of ‘face’. So, when the course is over the student believes that they will move up a level with the rest of the class… god forbid they should re-take.
    In attempting to resolve the problem at a recent school I insisted that a placement test be issued to all new students – but even this has had little influence, the student tells the school what standard they are, who are we to turn away money in this economic climate. Unfortunate, but from my view quite true.

    • May 18, 2010 at 4:07 pm

      Hi Tim,

      Unfortunately, the situation you’ve described seems to be true of most classroom in most language institutes around the world. Usually, the big language institutes are run by business people who don’t know squat about education. However, as they do know a lot about how to make money, they change education into business, turn it into something massive – and ‘massify’ learning as well – which then means that smaller, educators-run schools have a hard time competing against.
      In most cases, misplaced students are not only there due to teachers’ carelessness in their teaching. Much on the contrary, I feel that it is because the staff doesn’t care about their students learning that teachers eventually give in instead of risking losing their jobs.
      I’m literally shocked to hear that there are schools where the learners say where they should be. I’ve never worked in such a place, fortunately. Placement tests are the norm here.

      Thanks for the comments! :)

  6. May 23, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Misplaced student and the student who doesn’t follow the course, or has some problems with it, are two different things. If students advance to the next level, it means they had the sufficient amount of knowledge. What is the problem then? The problem is that not everybody has the same abilities. Some are good at reading, some at writing, some have a perfect memory for grammar and some speak well. Students who pass the final test (grammatically they’re ok) but they can’t produce orally are the most common object of complaints.
    The question that bugs me for a long time is: do all people who passed the driving test, drive well? If they don’t, is it because they weren’t studying properly, or because they simply don’t have the ability to drive? Do you know what I mean?

    • May 24, 2010 at 11:21 am

      Hi Agata,

      Some interesting comments. I agree with you when you say that there are learners who are better at grammar than listening, for example. The problem, in my view, is when teachers and institutes lower their standards or choose to overlook certain difficulties because students might simply cancel if they fail the course. I don’t know if you face this kind of situation there, but many of the candidates applying for a teaching position complain that this is what happened in some of the schools they used to work or were still currently working. However, what I find a big issue is the fact that these teachers seem to forget that most of the times they’re the ones who choose to pass a student who had not achieved the necessary proficiency for that particular level in the (mis)belief that it is “none of their business”. And what should we do about students who complain that they can’t produce orally when most students who seek an English class these days is mainly looking for improving their oral skills? It seems that the more we know about SLA the hardest it is to strike some balance. :)

      Oh, and I have to make a comment about the driving tests. In my opinion, it’s not that people can’t drive, it’s just that the standard is so low, that most people don’t feel like they need to go through the necessary effort of learning how to drive to get their licenses. Perhaps this is also the case with our educational system these days, huh?!

      Love reading your comments, btw! :D

    • May 24, 2010 at 11:21 am

      Hi Agata,

      Some interesting comments. I agree with you when you say that there are learners who are better at grammar than listening, for example. The problem, in my view, is when teachers and institutes lower their standards or choose to overlook certain difficulties because students might simply cancel if they fail the course. I don’t know if you face this kind of situation there, but many of the candidates applying for a teaching position complain that this is what happened in some of the schools they used to work or were still currently working. However, what I find a big issue is the fact that these teachers seem to forget that most of the times they’re the ones who choose to pass a student who had not achieved the necessary proficiency for that particular level in the (mis)belief that it is “none of their business”. And what should we do about students who complain that they can’t produce orally when most students who seek an English class these days is mainly looking for improving their oral skills? It seems that the more we know about SLA the hardest it is to strike some balance. :)

      Oh, and I have to make a comment about the driving tests. In my opinion, it’s not that people can’t drive, it’s just that the standard is so low, that most people don’t feel like they need to go through the necessary effort of learning how to drive to get their licenses. Perhaps this is also the case with our educational system these days, huh?!

      Love reading your comments, btw! :D

      • May 26, 2010 at 8:04 am

        I know what you mean by students cancelling the course simply because they fail. Actually we had a great meeting about this a week ago. Lots of students passed from one level to another with very low grade and they became a problem.
        How does it happen? First of all there may be a case of misplaced students who struggle to get from one level to another. Sometimes placement test isn’t conducted well and it happens. I told my teachers – in case of a doubt it’s better to place student lower than higher. It seems to work for now.
        Other case is – students who started from the first level and following the course haven’t made much progress. This case is much more complicated, as reasons for low performance may be various. For example: unmotivated learner, unqualified (or also unmotivated) teacher, method that doesn’t work well for a particular student or wrong reasons for being in the classroom (students forced by their parents to study English).
        School as a company faces a difficult dilemma: to pass weak students in order to keep a client, or to fail them to keep high level of school.
        I’m in favour of the latter one. What guarantees popularity of a language school and good flow of students nowadays is the quality. However there are still people who look at the problem considering short term success (read: full house at the moment). This short term result in long term period may turn to be a disaster and cause a great loss of students just because clients would avoid a school with a low level fame.
        What do you do to keep the level high in your institute?
        Now as for driving tests – I believe (not sure, though) they have a good level. My intention was to compare learning English to driving. Everybody can do it making some effort, but not everybody is able to feel comfortable with it and produce very well. So the question is: do we all have the ability to learn English? Maybe some people will never be able to learn?
        Somebody I know said:”There are no bad learners, there are bad teachers”. I completely disagree with it. What do you think?

      • May 26, 2010 at 9:51 am

        It seems to me we’re on the same page on this matter. There are many different reasons for misplacement, and we need to make sure we do whatever we can to lower the number of misplaced students. I’ve had some problems with situations in which students also had a narrow pass and then their teachers said they didn’t think the students should have passed. This is really annoying to me as teachers are partially (or mainly?) responsible for the situation. I guess I’d spot the same problems and reasons you have in your comments: lack of motivation on the teacher’s or the student’s part, problem with the method and the wrong reason to study the language. I’d add one more thing to the list: teacher’s desire to please and fear of not being liked. Not only as a DoS, but also as a colleague, I’ve heard teachers saying they would do whatever they could to give a student a high mark because otherwise students would hate them.

        The problem is that some teachers forget their job is to assess, to to “give” grades. If we believe in the assessment of the place we’re working at, we should make sure we are fair when assessing our learners. If we think there’s something wrong, we should gather some data and talk to the people in charge about changes.
        I’m also in favour of “failing” students who were unable to get to the level they were supposed to. Actually, if we think about it, when a student enrolls in a school, there’s an agreement which is made. The school is supposed to take the student to a certain level, and the student is supposed to do his share of the work – study, do homework, come to classes, etc. If a student doesn’t do his or her share and still manages to pass, there’s no need for such an agreement. As you well said, and I totally agree, it’s the quality of instruction that guarantees the popularity of a language school (or any kind of school). But it takes time and a lot of work to create such a reputation. We’ve been sticking to that here. I still remember that on our very first semester about 50% of students in a beginners class failed. We were a tad shocked, but then we could connect the dots. Parents had been informed of all students’ absences, their performance throughout the whole semester, and suggestions had been made for improvement. As we had all that documented, it wasn’t difficult to show parents that it wasn’t the school’s fault. Besides, we later found out that all students who could not pass were also having major difficulties in their regular school and had failed 8 out of 13 subjects. And, just the same, they weren’t doing their homework, coming to remedial classes, bringing their books to class or even paying attention in class. If the school doesn’t fail this kind of students, what message are we sending as educators?

        Keeping the level high is one of the main difficulties, but I think the best place to start is by investing in teachers. It’s not the tools or anything else that matter. If teachers are not resourceful and knowledgeable, the level is bound to plummet. The core relationship in any classroom is always between the teacher and the learners, not matter what you may have there. It’s the teacher who is going to pick and choose according to his or her students’ needs. Hence, we try to keep a good programme of teacher education and development here. What about you?

        On to the next question… and I think some people just won’t be comfortable with speaking a foreign language. I even think that we are all capable of learning, but it may be harder for some people. And the big question is whether it’ll be worth the effort to learn a foreign language or not. Sometimes things are so difficult for us that we “give up” based on the kind of reward we expect to obtain from it. I’d say motivation is key in this regard. Would you agree with me?

        I guess you can see that I totally agree with you. There are definitely bad learners. I find it to be a romantic and idealised view this one of learners always being willing to learn and waiting for teachers to come to class and dazzle them with their knowledge. Some learners simply couldn’t care less. It’s always been like that throughout human history – teenagers will always be teenagers, and they’ll turn out just fine. We did, didn’t we?

  7. Lísel
    September 20, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    What the teacher needs to have when it comes to correcting students is nothing but COMMON SENSE. Teachers should learn from experience that neither lenience nor overcorrection will lead his/her students to success. A sensible teacher will know when to correct.
    I myself correct pronunciation which I believe will most likely lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication. I don’t want my students to say , for instance, that they have “ship” on their farm. However, I will not attempt to make a Brazilian or French native speaker try to sound like an American or English native!

    • September 24, 2010 at 12:24 am

      Hi Lísel,

      Wise, wise words! If only we could count on common sense all the time, things would be much easier. Just like balance in the classroom, or sensible teachers. The main problem, if you ask me, lies in poor standards and acceptance of what shouldn’t be accepted because the teacher is too lazy (or simply not knowledgeable enough) to correct – sounds too pessimistic to be true, but I’m sure you know this happens.

      I don’t think we should try to force RP or Standard American Pronunciation upon our learners. However, if they ask for it, or if they need to sound as close as possible to native-speaking English, teachers should be able to provide them with such.

      Cheers! :)

      Cheers!

  1. May 11, 2010 at 8:33 pm
  2. May 14, 2010 at 12:22 pm

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