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Misplaced students in EFL classrooms

May 11, 2010 18 comments

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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