Some time ago, I wrote about some mistakes teachers make and their negative effects on their students’ progress. Let’s take a look at other examples, shall we?
English only from day one
This is scary for beginners. When we acquire our mother tongue, we spend a long, silent period, until we are able to utter the first words. However, this silent period is an active one: the child is going through unconscious, unplanned learning. Although they cannot produce the first words, they are paying attention to language happening around them.
When absolute beginners go to an English class for the first time, they are expected to listen to the teacher speaking in English all the time and even produce some sentences in English (in their first contact with the new language). This is simply not reasonable at all. No wonder some students will drop out before the end of the first semester.
Do not confuse beginning with elementary learners, to whom this approach might be suitable. Beginning students may only know isolated words (if at all), they are not able to put them together to make sentences, and their teacher wants to instruct them on the verb to be (which just goes to show that they don’t know anything yet) in English! There would be so much language in the explanation outside the students’ grasp that they would feel overwhelmed rather than enchanted.
In a few words: most teachers are instructed to use English only from day one just to make a good impression on the students, but the result may be the quite the opposite to what is expected, students dropping out.
Testing the four skills in exams
Students do not need to be tested on all the skills (reading, writing, listening), at the same time in an exam. Some of the skills will take longer for students to master. Listening is an important example. It is very hard for beginning students to understand even the simplest sounds. If doing away with listening is not permitted at all, at least try to keep it as simple as possible. Writing is also a big problem: students will inevitably try to write things that are outside their competence at beginning level and will use their mother tongue as a cane, producing wrong sentences. This would not be much of a problem if students did not begin to rely heavily on what is called “interlanguage”, that is to say, a stage in which they mix structures from their mother tongue with the new language they are learning. If this process goes on for too long, students will end up producing some sort of pidgin English.
If the school where you work gives you freedom to devise your own exams, feel comfortable to test separate skills on different occasions. This will help lower students’ anxiety.
Overcorrection in compositions
If you want beginning learners to write, you have to minimize the anxiety caused by the errors marked in their compositions. Students feel really frightened when teachers return their writing with so many corrections. Of course some students and their parents will expect you to correct everything. There are two alternatives: you should tell them you are interested in focusing on what they are able to do with the material they have just been taught. If they adventure outside this range and make mistakes, these will be ignored for the time being and worked on later. You can also give students personal correction: their compositions should be corrected while they watch you doing this. You can explain orally the mistakes that are attributable to students wandering away from the content taught. Writing notes at the side of their composition sheet could be time-consuming and some mistakes would be very difficult to explain in writing. Just in time: make sure you explain your correction method to parents, otherwise they may think you are being neglectful of your students’ mistakes.
You may encourage your students to try to memorize meanings through some sort of association to avoid translating, but it is not necessary to make them think translation is a curse. If students rely exclusively on it, of course this may have a negative impact. But do not be mistaken: translation, if used cautiously, has a role in foreign language teaching. The series of books called Headway (Oxford University Press) contain exercises in which students are encouraged to translate English sentences into their mother tongue. It all comes down to using it adequately.
Taking too long to return written material
If you want your students to trust you, you’d better be able to meet deadlines. Even the most mischievous students will expect you to do your duty. If you are not good with deadlines, always try to return their material as soon as you can, otherwise they will feel cheated when you tell them off for turning in their homework late.
Ignoring weaker students
When you invite students to take part more actively in classroom activities, some students may feel embarrassed and will reluctantly refuse to participate. It is ok to accept this behavior sometimes, but teachers are making a mistake if the next time there is an activity they exclude shy students and choose the more extroverted ones instead. Invite the shy student to take part once more. Again, he or she may try refuse to partake, after all you had allowed it before. Accept it once more, but make sure you talk to them later, in private, if necessary, and make it clear you want them to participate as this is part of the evaluation process. In extreme cases shier students may feel utterly terrified, but if you don’t do that, they will also think you are neglecting them. Make an effort to engage them with a gentle push.
You “overteach” when you repeat an explanation without being asked to by students, or when you go into too many small details. As teachers we feel anxious to provide too much information because we think our students don’t have them, that is to say, we assume beforehand they don’t have some of the information we feel we should share, even to the point of being nitpicking. Tell students they will help to dictate the class rhythm, too. You will gladly move on to other topics or activities if they do not have any doubts. Be careful, though: students may not show they have doubts out of shyness. In that case you will have to use your sensibility to know when to go into further details. At any rate, it is always advisable to keep it straight to the point, especially with young learners. “Overteaching” may convey the idea that you are treating your students as if they were not intelligent. Don’t always assume your students don’t understand your explanations. If they don’t, encourage them to show this themselves.
Well, I hope this article has been instructive for you! See you our next post!
For supplementary exercises (units 31 to 35) to my book! (downloadable, free of charge)
Refresher Vocabulary & Grammar Tests For Advanced Proficiency Exams with Answers by Ricardo Madureira, Disal Editora.