Have you heard the term “canned essay?”
I remember learning about them in my foreign language testing methods class back in grad school. We were talking about standardized testing. My professor, who wrote test questions for the TOEFL and scored essays for them, told us about “Seoul in the Springtime,” a canned essay that he had encountered multiple times while scoring essays.
What test takers would do, he said, was memorize an essay about, you guessed it, Seoul in spring. Since the TOEFL scored based on mechanic and not content, all those test takers had to do to achieve a successful score was write a sentence or two connecting the essay question to essay they had memorized. As long as they mentioned the essay question in their answer, the essay was considered legitimate. It was an ingenious way to work an imperfect system.
Still, this strategy seemed a bit extreme to me, and I wondered why people would subvert the very system set up to make sure would be successful. In other words, why pass the essay portion of the test when doing so would only set them up for failure in the future?
When I was teaching at an international school in East Asia, I encountered something similar. At the end of the school year, students who wished to enter the school the following fall had to pass an English assessment. Students who passed were put in mainstream classes, regardless of their first language. Students who did not pass were either turned away from the school or placed in an ESL classroom.
I had a student in my ESL class that year whose little sister desperately wanted to get into the school’s kindergarten class the following fall. If her English skills were anything like her sister’s, they would not be enough to get her into the mainstream class. She had studied with an English tutor to prepare for the assessment, but I’m not sure exactly what that tutor taught her. It seemed like the bulk of their studies were memorizing canned answers for the assessment.
On the day of the assessments, I was outside the classroom where the testing was taking place. When the first student emerged after their assessment with the kindergarten teacher, I watched the tutor pounce on the unknown child, asking what questions they had to answer during the assessment.
Once the tutor had her answer, she went directly to her student and told her which of the memorized answers she would have to recite to past the assessment.
According to the Kindergarten teacher, this happened every year during new student assessments. Every year she ended up with kids in her class that spoke no English even though they were able to pass the assessment the previous spring. And every year she found herself in the same position. How would she teach these kids who were in over their heads when it came to English?
You may find yourself in a similar situation, whether it is because of false assessment results or because a student in your class excels at one aspect of English such as reading and cannot perform in another, such as speaking.
It’s not impossible to have a good class and even help your student succeed even when their skills aren’t where they should be to meet the needs of the curriculum. Here are some ways to make the best of a tough situation for everyone.
4 Ideas to Help Your Students When the Parents Are the Real Challenge
Remember It Is Not the Child’s Fault
When parents push their children beyond the child’s abilities, everyone ends up in a tough spot. It’s tough for you the teacher because you have a child in your class that is not capable of doing the work you have planned or what the curriculum dictates. The child suffers because they are in over their heads. They often can’t follow what is happening in class and they feel like a failure because they cannot do the work. On top of that, they feel the pressure to please their parents, and are put in a situation where that is nearly impossible. And though we might be tempted to think of the parents as the bad guy, they do want the best for their children, and they think that pushing their child into a challenging situation will only serve that child well in the long run. The situation isn’t a good one, but it’s done, so the best thing you can do is accept it and move forward with a good attitude and refuse to play the blame game.
Don’t Expect Unreasonable Things of the Child
If your student has tested into your class and isn’t actually capable of the work, don’t expect it of the student. Know that your student will not be able to complete the same material as the other members of your class. Use strategies to help that student as best as you can.
Don’t Dumb down Class
You might be tempted to lower the standards of your class to compensate for the struggling student. Don’t. It is not fair to the other members of your class who really have the skills necessary for success. Don’t short change them because not everyone in class can do the work. Keep your standards high and continue to push your more advanced students to reach for their lofty goals.
Do Scaffold as Necessary
Usually when we talk about scaffolding, we are referring to ESL students in a mainstream class. When you have a student who is significantly behind the other members of your class, regardless of the fluency level of those other members, use scaffolding to help the student succeed. Give them more time, more direction, and more assistance. You’ll have to be more aware of what they need to be successful at the same tasks the rest of your class must complete, and then meet those needs.
Remember that little girl who tried to get into the kindergarten class by giving canned answers for her assessment?
She made it into the class. Not because her skills were up to par but because she performed appropriately during the assessment. Or perhaps I should say she gave a good performance. The good news in her case is that she was young enough to pick up on English without much trying. I don’t know how she fared in the long run, but I do know one thing. Her teacher accepted the situation, made the best of it, and refused to cast blame on anyone. I’m sure it made the school year better for everyone, and I’m also sure it wasn’t the last time she had to have such a flexible attitude.
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