I had a really disastrous semester earlier this year.
I inherited a group of students of a very low level, and all from the same country. I thought, ‘No problem!’ I’d handled large, elementary-level, mono-lingual classes before. After five months together, though, I began to worry that I couldn’t really see any improvement, at least by the measure that I principally use: the ability to spontaneously produce accurate and descriptive English.
The lack of achievement seemed to be true across the board: vocabulary stayed at a low level with little color or nuance; pronunciation problems became hard-coded and stubborn, rather than gradually melting away; spoken grammar, in particular, was a real problem, with students rejecting the idea of conjugating tenses and using time expressions instead; note-taking remained pretty poor and dictionary use was nearly unheard of.
I have to admit, I began to despair. What could I be doing so wrong in my classes as to have failed to help the students overcome these basic difficulties? We worked on every one of their problems in short, targeted modules of twenty or thirty minutes, aimed at raising awareness and encouraging self-correction, but the following week, we were right back at square one. I spent 5 months encouraging the use of modal verbs, but still received answers such as, “I will maybe go movies tonight,” and, “Remember his books, maybe was better”. Frankly, I was losing it.
Then, following a meeting with my colleagues to figure out what on Earth was going on, we hit on the genesis of the whole problem: Absolutely no practice was happening.
We came to find that, irrespective of time and effort expended in the classroom, it was the students’ personal time which governed their rate of progress and the growth of their skills. Once they left the classroom, they immediately switched back to L1, and stayed in their home language (and therefore, almost inevitably, their own cultural) environment until they next walked into the classroom. This was made worse by their housing situation – they lived in L1 groups which never spoke any English, despite residing in a major US city – and worse still by some of my colleagues’ permitting L1 in the classroom. I emphasize this because I did not blame the students for their poor progress; I blamed the environment we had created for them, and also certain preconditioned learning styles with which they arrived at the school and which proved a major barrier to improvement.
6 Steps to Ensuring Great Practice
Help students to get rid of bad habits
Check in often with your students and find out what kind of practice they’ve been doing. This was very revealing in the case of the class I struggled with earlier this year. I found that students were simply writing down the new word ten times, or repeating it out loud, by itself; others were merely listening to their electronic dictionary pronouncing the word without doing either! Once we recognize the habits our students already have, we can steer them towards better methods.
I set homework which includes vocabulary practice in sentences. Students sometimes take some convincing that the extra work of producing a new sentence, just to practice one new word, is worthwhile. Realistic sentence practice, though, is a great boost to retention and fluency, as the student has created a situation in which the word is needed; the next time, they might well produce the word spontaneously, and then we’ll be making real progress.
Other good habits include:
- Saying every new word a few times - not for memorization, but for pronunciation, simply to get comfortable with making that particular string of sounds. Isolate the tricky sounds and practice them individually, then practice the whole word. The teacher can help by drilling the pronunciation, so that the word has been formed and spoken before the students leave the classroom.
- Writing down all new vocabulary in a book specifically for that purpose, and practice each difficult, new word after each class.
- Guessing from context before (or instead of) reaching for a dictionary whenever a new word comes up. The dictionary should be a way to confirm the students’ assumptions and get a clear definition, but it shouldn’t ubiquitously be the first port of call
A Reminder of the Realities
I tried a couple of methods to encourage my students to realize that a language needs practice, like any other skill. Persuading them to view their work in terms of skills acquisition, and not simply the gaining of ‘knowledge’ was an important early step.
I played them a YouTube video of the legendary Russian pianist Evgeniy Kissin playing a dazzling masterpiece. They were impressed, of course, despite not being huge fans of classical music. I asked how Kissin had, from nothing, become able to perform with such ease something so obviously difficult. Everyone knew the answer: practice. It was also recognized that, had Kissin not practiced regularly and at length, he would never have become the globe-trotting virtuoso he is today. Establishing this critical causal link, however rudimentary it may seem, is usefully illustrative for your students.
Invite your class to come up with their own examples of someone who has put in long, focused hours and achieved a tremendous ability. The same point can be made by watching a talented sportsman, or an interview with a great writer, or someone who seems to be a savant, with an incredible memory, but who simply practiced remembering things until they became uncommonly good at it.
Keep a Record
I’ve found that students are beginning to lose respect for paper.
Ten years ago, it was routine to find all of the semester’s handouts and notes carefully arranged in a labeled binder. Nowadays, I’m seeing more and more scattered, incoherent notes, and dog-earned handouts scrunched forlornly at the bottom of schoolbags.
Normally, I’d try to fight such changes, but here I think acceptance might work better; ours is a digital age, and the students are digital operators. So, when it comes to keeping a record of what they have achieved, that record must also be digital.
Encourage your students to make weekly recordings of themselves reading a paragraph, or just conversing in English with others. A month later, listening to the recording will reveal a change in accent, or an embarrassing mistake, which the student can compare to their contemporary skills set. With luck – and consistent practice – the student will see some improvement.
Consistency is Key
Many young people are inexperienced in goal-setting and time management. Creating a simple Excel spreadsheet to track their work is a good way to bring some structure to what is often a very disjointed learning style. Daily requirements for speaking, listening, reading and writing are articulated, and can be enjoyably checked off once completed. Repeatedly emphasizing the importance of making this practice a daily ritual might well make the difference between a useful habituation and its patchy, unsatisfactory opposite. There’s a good maxim for this:
Once You’ve Done It Forty Times, It’s a Habit.
I believe this is true for almost anything: smoking, meditating, practicing, getting up early, you name it.
Of special importance here are reading and writing, for me, the two skills which are most de-emphasized by 21st century students’ learning styles. A daily commitment to reading a few pages, or a chapter, of a book, and to writing a short journal entry or part of a blog article, is a healthy way to address these important issues.
Synonyms, Antonyms and Collocations
Learning the meaning and spelling of a word is only part of the journey. I always encourage students to write synonyms and antonyms as part of their practice; apart from being useful vocabulary review in its own right, linking the word into a family of similar words provides yet greater contextualization, and obliges the students to consider aspects such as the relative strengths of adjectives (is ‘exhausted’ stronger than ‘tired’, or ‘worn out’?), or the relative register of two verbs (which is more formal, ‘jot down’ or ‘note’?)
The Danger of One-Word Answers
Sometimes, all we’re looking for is a confirmation that the students know what’s going on. This leads, more often for new teachers than for veterans, to dangerous and misleading situations where the teacher asks, ‘Do you understand?’
This habit is discussed elsewhere on Busyteacher.org, but I’ll add my voice if I may: please never ask this question. You almost certainly won’t get a true answer, it’s an ineffective way of checking understanding, and saying ‘yes’ in a big group is hardly what we mean by production.
Here’s a classroom example of avoiding the ‘Do You Understand?’ issue and requiring genuine production. This was a multilingual class whom I knew very well.
Teacher: OK, so how’s the weather this morning? Student 1: Cold. Teacher: Really, Zhang? Maybe try for more than one word? Students: [Laughter; this is a theme in my classroom and they’ve heard it many times before] Student 1: Today is cold. Teacher: Did you hear that, guys? A sentence! Student 2: With a verb! Teacher: Indeed so, Mr. Gao. What a wonderful thing that was. Now, how was the weather last night, when you got home? Student 3: Not so cold. Student 4: Little cold. Teacher: Well, I’ve got three words, then two. Let’s go nuts. Who’s got four? Student 2: It was a little cold last night. Teacher: Heavens above, it’s a miracle! Seven words! I can barely count that high! Students: [Laughter]
The teacher made a joke of it, but there is the underlying theme: short utterances are unlikely to convey what you truly mean, don’t really help the person you’re speaking with, and offer an artificially truncated view of your language skills. It may seem as though I’m making fun of my class, but they understand why I do it, both through having seen this method before, and through being aware of my obsession with full sentences and complete answers. I leave them in no doubt that:
Production is Practice
Practice means production.
I hope that your own students come to this realization, and associate the learning of a language with the producing of it.