The teaching of vocabulary:
FAQ: Do we need vocabulary books? Most are so very tedious.
A: No you don’t; in fact, research shows that most vocabulary books have very little educational value. Besides, if any material goes down like a lead bullet, carrying on with it is, quite simply, a suicide mission. Let’s face it; people don’t take kindly to having things rammed down their throats. Ask any toddlerJ This is true for 18 year olds as well. I, personally, never use them with the exception of short vocabulary games as time fillers or just for fun.
FAQ: How about teaching vocabulary then? They need vocabulary and they don’t read.
A: I am firmly in favor of teaching vocabulary; how can one not be? Words are the building blocks of the language. I just don’t believe in yanking them out of the proverbial wall and dealing with them in isolation. Why not examine them as a part of the architecture? It’s much easier to appreciate them, grasp the delicate shades of meaning and how they fit into the structure. It is easier for students to remember as well. So exploit the reading and listening you do. Don’t attack the sentences with tweezers, pick out a word or two and place them under an electron microscope. A word of warning: dissecting is an addiction teachers are prone to; the rest of humanity would beg to disagree
FAQ: That’s all very well but shouldn’t students keep track of words? And isn’t that done better by a book?
A: Some need to keep track of words others don’t. I am all for letting students decide. I am in favor of letting them discover what works best for them. Giving responsibility will, contrary to popular perception, guarantee more work and cooperation than you being a helicopter- teacher and hovering. We’ve got to stop holding their hands at some point. Some students will remember through sheer volume of reading. If you recall, we do one long meaty reading everyday and we have a theme based approach that ensures repetition. Tie in the essay task as well and Bob’s your uncle’s live in lover; job done. What I am saying basically is that with a GOOD reading program, you don’t need a vocabulary book.
FAQ: What if the reading program is ropey? What then?
A: Simple; you deal with the reading program pronto as the vocabulary book won’t work. Try it if you don’t believe me.
FAQ: How can one make the learning of vocabulary interesting? The minute you put the word on the board with its noun form, adjective form and the like, students start groaning.
A: You’ve answered yourself; the fact that students start groaning is a dead give- away. They are not going to learn or remember. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink; they will sit by the trough but never a drop will pass their lips. They will keep looking at their watches and will be relieved to be shot of you and the vocabulary at the end of the hour. I take my old economics teacher Prof. Demir Demirgil (see paper posted on this blog) as an example and put a lot of thought into how I will present the words. I tell bizarre stories, give colorful examples and really act when teaching vocabulary. You can’t teach at all with stage fright so get out there and take center stage; tell them stories they will never forget. The words will get stored away in their long term memories along with the play acting. Being cultured, well read and uninhibited all help.
FAQ: They learn all these words but can’t use them in writing. How can we get the students to use the words?
A: Of course they can’t. These are different levels of learning. Recognition is one thing, knowing the word really well so that you grasp it almost automatically is another. You need repeated exposure to a word over a period of time- and by this I don’t mean days – for a word to pop out on tap when writing. Writing, as a skill, will always lag behind and follow reading. Think of yourselves; do you use all the words you recognize in reading, in writing? Can you? Why should the kids be different just because they are students? Have a heart!
FAQ: We do all this vocabulary in the book in class and students still do badly on the test. Why is that?
A: This is due to the difference in terms of intellectual challenge… The exercises in the book we are currently using are not very taxing intellectually – they are sentence based or multiple choice. The test, on the other hand, is a coherent text or a series of paragraphs which need to be filled in with the relevant words; a far more cognitively challenging task. Let me give you another example: imagine you are testing students’ knowledge of European geography; the students have, under your guidance, spent their time studying out of their text book. On the test, however, you present them with a map of Europe. Do you see what I mean? The problem is due to a mismatch between the test and the material. Either the test is multiple choice or sentence based, or the students get practice in “fill in the text” type exercises. Problems of mismatch of this kind are very common testing mistakes.
F.A.Q: What about testing vocabulary; how should one go about that?
A: Of course vocabulary should be tested but as for selecting words and sticking them in sentences or texts; I am on the fence about that one. I would much prefer asking students to guess the meanings of words in reading passages or provide synonyms for them. Students could also be given a synonym and asked to find a word with that meaning in the text (see The Gossip Paradox on this blog). All this is possible on the condition that there are contextual clues naturally. One must remember that every reading test, every essay task and every listening exercise is also a vocabulary test. It is with this in mind that the vocabulary section has been taken out of the current version of the TOEFL. So keep up with the times mateJ
For more on the teaching of vocabulary, check the relevant papers on this blog.
F.A.Q: Students never want to do homework; how can one get them to cooperate?
A: That’s one big topic. The first thing we need to discuss is whether homework is necessary and my answer to that is yes; homework is necessary in the vast majority of cases. However, not everyone needs to do the same amount of homework. I would just let students decide; with some guidance of course.
F.A.Q: If you let them decide they’d never do anything!
A: Oh I don’t agree with that at all. The problem stems from what you assign as homework: does the homework you assign involve revision and extra practice, or over-spill from the lesson; you know that stuff you didn’t get round to or just didn’t want to do? Maybe because it was, well, dull?
F.A.Q: We all do that sometimes!
A: We shouldn’t though… The classroom is where the learning takes place and after hours is when revision takes place. A rule of thumb: if you think something is too tedious to do in class or if its benefits are dubious, never assign it as homework. Don’t do it; just leave it. The damage done by one piece of soul destroying homework is far more serious. They won’t do the good stuff either.
F.A.Q: That’s all very well but not all homework is interesting. How do you get students to buckle down and do the tedious stuff like grammar exercises for instance?
A: What I usually do is put my cards on the table. I make no bones about admitting that it certainly isn’t going to be a ball; a visit to the dentist more like. Then I explain why they need to do it like I would to an equal. The next bit is very important: tell them that they can skip certain exercises. Clearly indicate which ones and give a plausible reason. This, nine times out of ten, will do the trick.
F.A.Q: Most homework is deadly you can’t keep doing that; they’ll twig.
A: That’s where you are wrong! Only a small percentage is. If this is not the case, you are doing something wrong and you need to rethink your strategy. Most teachers will put a lot of effort into planning their lessons but not nearly so much into the homework they assign. Get creative! You’ll reap the benefits I promise; cross my heart! They already equate homework with torture; show them they are wrong.
F.A.Q: If you were to select one piece of homework, what would it be?
A: That’s easy enough; reading. It incorporates the grammar, the vocabulary, the syntax, the reasoning… in short, everything. Only go for the right kind of reading homework. Nothing is really and truly going to get learnt if students don’t read after all.
For more on homework, check out the relevant papers
Classroom management or maintaining discipline
F.A.Q: How do you get students to cooperate and do as they are told?
A: You’ve got to look the part for starters; tights, leggings, low-cut tops, see-through blouses, very tight trousers – you know, the kind you pour yourself into and can only zip up standing –are all out in my view. Take what you’ve got on; forget to get dressed this morning?
F.A.Q: You don’t have to be a prude to teach. I have the figure for that stuff; if you’ve got it, you need to flaunt it.
A: That depends on where you are heading; are you on the pull or trying to teach? Before you jump down my throat, in your spare time, you can dress like Dr. Frank N. Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show for all I care; just not in class.
F.A.Q: That’s a little harsh. Can’t you at least feel good about how you look?
A: Teaching is like any job in the private sector or state department for that matter; if you want to command respect, rule one states you must look the part. What image do you want to put across; that of a sexy, attractive young woman or that of a person with knowledge and skills the students don’t have, plus the know-how to teach it to them? If you saunter into class dressed to the nines, the latter will fall by the way side. They’ll be slobbering and ogling at your tits! Don’t forget, we’re talking about 18 year-old boys, the older ones aren’t much better as you probably know very well, but don’t forget they were much worse when they were younger! It’s the same everywhere.
F.A.Q: You are talking to me as if I were a tart! I love what I am doing.
A: I am sure you do and no insult intended. But do you want students to go home and fantasize about how good you looked in that mini skirt and slinky little top or think about what you actually said. And another thing: don’t expect to be close in age to them, dress exactly like them AND command discipline… Come on, you KNOW it makes sense… Remember when you were a student; did you automatically listen to someone just because he/she was called “the teacher”? Exactly. You have to work to have authority; you can’t just waltz in and assume you’ll have it…
F.A.Q: All right, what does one wear then? If you are going to say suits, forget it.
A: Suits are good of course but not a must. Look professional, I would. Remember, you want them to be focusing on you as the teacher and not you as a woman. What’s more the same applies to men. Heavens, in the private sector even sandals are a no-no. No toes in other words.
F.A.Q: Clothes aren’t the whole story though, what else?
A: Age helps. As you get older you automatically move out of their circle. Another thing that comes with age is classroom presence; absolutely essential I think. We’ve turned many a young would be teacher away telling them to gain some experience and come back in three or four years. What we meant was they didn’t have classroom presence.
F.A.Q: Charming! So I just wait until I am old and grey.
A: That’s not what I meant. Classroom presence develops with experience and obviously age but there is lots you can do to command respect here and now.
F.A.Q: Like what? How do you get students to respect you?
A: You earn their respect; it is not automatic. It never is. The correct attire will give you a head start but that is it. The wrong attire will set you back from which point you will have to claw your way back. The first ten minutes is crucial: students will know at once how well you know your subject, how confident you are, whether you are scared of them or enjoy being there; in short, everything. They will learn very quickly how far they can push you and which buttons to press. If you fail this initial test, you’ve had it pretty much. So rule number two is being very, very well prepared; so much so that you can handle the topic even in a trance. If you pass, they will never attempt to push your buttons and you will have gained a lot of respect.
F.A.Q: Do you mean to say everything is done and dusted within the first ten minutes?
A: Oh no; not by any means, but the first ten minutes are vital. You have got to keep up the performance: be well prepared everyday and more importantly, have a really good syllabus the virtues of which they will buy into. You are setting out to do a job together; they are not going to follow you if they feel what you are asking of them doesn’t make sense. Before you say anything, students are excellent judges of good material and a good program and will behave like lambs if they buy into it all. Many a well meaning and dedicated teacher has come unstuck due to a crappy program I assure you. Never do what you don’t believe in, because if YOU don’t believe in something, you will never be able to sell it to the students. Enthusiasm is infectious.
F.A.Q: Let me just see if I have got this right: you need to dress like for any decent workplace and don’t get to cut corners just because you are teaching, you need the perfect syllabus, you need to persuade the students it is the perfect syllabus and always be well prepared.
A: In a nut shell, yes; that about covers it. I most cases that is… There will always be those who will want to push the boundaries though, and you need to know how to handle them. That’s the next test and remember, “THEY” will be watching to see how you fare.
F.A.Q: The rule breakers! Oh golly yes. What do I do about them?
A: The rule of thumb is do not get into altercations. Lay down the ground rules at the beginning and stick to them like glue. I, for example, explain that at uni. I don’t consider it my duty to make them study or police them individually in any way but that I do need to make sure that the classroom atmosphere is conducive to work. This means that if anyone doesn’t write the essay with the others or chooses not to do the reading task while the others are cracking on, I don’t give a hoot. They can put down their heads and sleep for all I care but snoring is out. I tell them plainly that my duty is to assign homework to enable them to revise but it is their duty to get it checked. I also tell them that if they choose not to do the work, it means less work for me too. They have to learn that the world can be a harsh place and that nobody is going to molly coddle them outside the home and not even there at their age. I state this calmly, matter-of-factly, if the need arises.
F.A.Q: What do you mean “if the need arises”? Doesn’t it arise?
A: Quite frankly, it shouldn’t and nine times out of ten, it won’t if you follow the rules we discussed earlier. Nobody is going to get rowdy if they have interesting stuff going on. So keep them interested, expectant and focused. You are the leading lady or man, you wrote the lines, the whole play in most cases. See that they join in and if there is trouble, look to yourself; not to them. They are your team; you’ve got to work with them; only you may need to alter your tactics. What I mean is, if you are having consistent discipline problems, there are other underlying issues; usually concerning you and how you are doing the job. Sorry… It is the truth.
F.A.Q: Grades work as an incentive. One can always dock points.
A: Very bad idea… Never use grades as a weapon. You see what happens is they don’t learn nearly as much or as well as when they study because they want to. Teaching is one tough job; you can’t just sit on your hands and tell the students to cooperate or else. Don’t complain about discipline problems if you can’t be bothered to teach properly.
F.A.Q: Grades are the universally accepted way to get people to work!
A: Nope; sorry… Don’t agree one bit. I sell them my syllabus; I give the sales pitch my all and the vast majority of students will buy into it. Then I tell them that they will in fact get very few points for doing the work I ask them to do but it doesn’t matter, they are on board. They cooperate like lambs because they believe in what I am doing and how I am doing it. You must admit this is much more satisfying for the teacher too; it is this feeling that we work for, not bees and honey. If we cared about money, we’d be doing something else. Check out my paper on homework on this blog for details.
F.A.Q: You have kept talking about a good syllabus. How do you design a good syllabus?
A: That’s one big topic and I need my beauty sleep so let’s meet up again soon to discuss that. Bye for now...
F.A.Q: So who is best qualified to design the syllabus?
A: Do you really need to ask?
F.A.Q: A specialist in E.L.T?
A: That would be one way of putting it.
F.A.Q: What would be another way of putting it then smart ass?
A: The class teacher of course; who else? Who knows the students and their needs better than the teacher? Who is on hand to make alterations to the program at the drop of a hat? Who is down in the trenches working with the team? Who else is so well qualified to design the syllabus as the teacher? And there is really no need to gape at me; what did you think I was going to say?
F.A.Q: Well, in most of the prep schools of universities there is a special committee whose only responsibility is to design the syllabus. Are you going to say they all have it wrong?
A: What is ideal is not the only reason for adopting certain policies; there are a host of practical considerations too. For instance, in an institution as large and as diverse as ours, a central “planning department” of sorts is unavoidable if you want some form of uniformity. You want to give students an equal chance on the central exam at the end of the year so you need to make the system “teacher proof” and “accident proof”. The risk is too great.
F.A.Q: I don’t believe you just said that. What does that make us?
A: Keep your hair on. Look at this from the admin’s point of view; they don’t really have a choice. It is the accepted way of providing a valid, reliable program but that does not mean the teacher shouldn’t use his/ her initiative in how the program is implemented. It is impossible to avoid preparing material for the reasons stated above. The teacher is on hand to respond at once and it makes sense that she/he does – rather than wait for things to filter through the curriculum committee that is. Remember what I said at the beginning: the current widely used system is not ideal, it is not the best but there is no other way to handle large numbers.
F.A.Q: You said large numbers; what if small numbers of students are involved? Say four or five classes?
A: Then it is possible for the four or five teachers to work as a group preparing the syllabus and the material as a team. It is also perfectly feasible that they respond to problems as they arise. But what is possible for small numbers is not possible in institutions such as ours. However, the admin needs to keep the pitfalls involved in this system well in mind.
F.A.Q: And do what? Have curriculum designers teach full time as well?
A: If you did that, you would never be able to find anyone to do the job in the current climate. There are compromises though: a lot of schools will not keep teachers out of class for more than a year for instance as the longer they are out of class, the more cut off they become from the realities of the classroom. Another possible solution is to oblige curriculum designers to sit in and observe classes on a regular basis every week. One way or another, they need first hand information. They can’t truly grasp what the teacher is ranting about unless they feel the heat themselves.
F.A.Q: How can they possibly find the time to do that? They are rushed off their feet.
A: Yeah; with clerical work! Remove that and hey presto, you have time. What schools like ours need most urgently are well trained executive secretaries with good English and reasonably high I.Q’s. Most curriculum designers in institutions like ours are bogged down with secretarial work a trained monkey could do leaving little time for what matters: preparing material, providing knowhow and observing classes. It is soul destroying. Imagine an ideal scenario where all this is delegated; I bet it would free up two thirds of the week!
F.A.Q: So let me get this straight: the ideal scenario is for the teacher to design the syllabus but we can’t do this due to practical considerations; it is necessary for curriculum committee members to have first hand information about how the syllabus and material are going down – by teaching or observing classes – but this not possible due to the secretarial work they need to do and curriculum committee members should not be allowed to vegetate in an office for too long.
A: Couldn’t have put it better myself!
F.A.Q: Common sense would dictate that such a system would cause problems.
A: When it’s good it’s very very good; when it’s bad it’s horrid as someone once said. There can be some pretty serious problems.
F.A.Q: Such as what?
A: Being cut off from reality is never a good thing. Picture your average curriculum committee member: he is closeted away in an office facing a computer screen designing a program, which should be a very hands-on business, by remote control. The activity is transformed into an intellectual challenge rather than a practical problem; he plans a procedure, devises the means to implement it and well, that’s it; he should then go and try it out himself but he can’t. The program and the material are his brainchild who he gave birth to, nurtured, protected, embellished and then sent out into the wide world; i.e., the classrooms. He hovers in the background ready to defend, to the death, his beloved syllabus, and like all new parents, he is completely and utterly biased. He cannot brook any criticism however mildly couched. Emotions run high and tempers soar. The result? Well, you know what the result is: teachers complain that the curriculum guy has his head buried in the sand and that you can scream until you are blue in the face but he won’t listen. The curriculum guy complains that the teachers don’t understand what he is trying to do and don’t know how to teach. Privately, he feels it would be ideal if he could clone himself get rid of the teachers all together but he doesn’t say so. He sees the teachers as another obstacle he has to overcome to reach the students. This goes on for a while; there is strong language, heated “debates” and one day he snaps: he marches into the head’s office and resigns. Then the cycle begins all over again with some new players.
F.A.Q: This is just too absurd. Why is this allowed to continue?
A: Because the real problems are never tackled. Remember what we spoke about earlier?
F.A.Q: I would have thought a class teacher who was designing his own syllabus and preparing his own material would feel pretty strongly too.
A: The fondness the teacher feels for what he produces is a more measured feeling; there is nothing like the obsessive love the curriculum guy feels. The reason is obvious: the teacher’s main concern is the class, who he has focused all his attention on, and the material and the program are just means to an end. In the case of the curriculum guy however, well, the program and the material are his all; they define him, he sinks or swims with it all, or so he feels. Any criticism leveled at it is leveled at him personally; or so he feels. The teacher, on the other hand, produces a plan and the means to implement it and the following day, marches into class with it. There are almost always at least a few hitches which the teacher sees along with the students or when a problem arises. He then makes the necessary correction and files the material away. Visits to counselors or lost sleep don’t come into it. These things happen. The following year, he might encounter a previously unforeseen problem with that same material but that is also corrected and no sleep is lost over the whole exercise. This healthy attitude is only possible if the person who designs the syllabus has firsthand experience of how it works in class; be it by actually teaching or listening in.
F.A.Q: Changes should be pretty hard to implement in that case.
A: Yes and no. On the one hand you have the curriculum guy who clings tenaciously to a book, for instance, and won’t let go of it come hell or high water; on the other hand, you have the curriculum guy who starts making nonsensical change after nonsensical change in a blind panic and wreaking the program. There are those curriculum people who will listen, observe and implement changes as the need arises too of course. You mustn’t imagine language schools as large dysfunctional families. We are only discussing what can go wrong and why. There are those curriculum guys who are in regular contact with the teachers, who listen and take on board suggestions. Out of all the give and take, the best possible program emerges. But as I said, on the condition that people listen to eachother.
F.A.Q: OK, so for better or for worse this is the system but what are some of the pitfalls of syllabus design?
A: First of all, you have to determine the starting point correctly. If it is an intermediate level program, what level are the students at the start of the academic year. Same for a pre intermediate program…
F.A.Q: I would have thought that would be pretty easy.
A: You would think so; but it isn’t. Couple a mistake with the “it’s my baby syndrome” and you have trouble. If the book or material is too hard, the problem is solved relatively fast but if it is too easy, everyone is in for a bumpy ride. You must remember that our curriculum guy has put a lot of man hours into the program which he feels holds together very well and does what it is supposed to do. Giving up on step one brings down the whole deck of cards. This is why he is, most certainly, not going to do that in a hurry. Teachers will rant and rave; the curriculum guy will either go to ground or rant and rave too until finally, teachers give up and go and do their own thing. All this can be avoided so very simply by just sticking the curriculum guy in class to observe on a regular basis because then he would reach the same conclusions as our teacher did a little while back and make the necessary changes.
F.A.Q: The problem does get dealt with though…
A: In the short term certainly but in the long term most certainly not. You see any curriculum guy worth his salt will have foreseen a steady pace throughout the year which will be reflected in his action plan. If the starting point is too easy, everything else will be too. So the whole thing goes belly-up. If one is lucky and the curriculum guy has his action plan progressing in fits and starts, you know with little bursts of energy, the situation will right itself. What comes later will be just right. Don’t bank on that though; it doesn’t happen too often.
F.A.Q: How would you go about determining the starting point then? I presume you are going to tell me whether I ask you or not.
A: Well, first of all I would check to see what was used in previous years and stick to that level and pace. If there were problems with the level, if it was considered too low for instance, I would up it a tiny bit. I would leave the past program as it was removing pieces of material and supplementing stuff that would do the same job better. Preserving the backbone of the program, guards against major mistakes. Otherwise, you could upset the whole applecart and we don’t want that. Overzealous young rookies have done that in the past with devastating results. I, personally, would never ever start from scratch unless I arrived on the scene with a tried and tested syllabus which I knew worked. Since that doesn’t happen very often, the former approach is safer. Plus of course, the curriculum guy is so bogged down with paper work that he can’t devote nearly as much time as he’d like to actually preparing material. He soon discovers this and frets about it constantly. Snide remarks from teachers that he is sitting on his hands don’t help either. So my advice is take it slowly; revolutions can backfire.
F.A.Q: You are assuming that the past program was reasonably good and the previous curriculum guy just left because he missed teaching. What if it was crappy?
A: If I were the admin., I would try and get a really experienced teacher to man the post and cut him plenty of slack. If I were the poor sod to get landed with the job, I would hit the drawing board. A whole program is never bad; there are always bad bits. The general philosophy and the pace always need to be determined first. Learning objectives need to be determined, lesson plans need to be made and finally the material that will do the job needs to be slotted in. In my experience, it is this latter stage that creates the most problems. Most long standing institutions have the rest in place. They may not be actually written down but they are there nevertheless.
F.A.Q: Isn’t that the easiest bit? Teaching English has become such big business.
A: Finding the ideal course book, reading book, grammar exercise book is every curriculum guy’s dream. What every curriculum guy has yet to learn is that often, the ideal book, which is best suited to his needs, will only come into existence if he sits and writes it. It is NOT out there. Yet he never gives up; he scours bookshelves, websites and stores. Every now and again, he feels he has finally found that elusive book but more often than not, he hasn’t. If, for a brief moment, he feels he has reached Nirvana, he will stick to that book like glue, and prising it away from the program will require a lot of effort, I can tell you. The best case scenario is finding a book that comes close, but even that needs to be supplemented. If a course runs on one book, it is rarely a good one. You can’t blame the curriculum guy: he has piles of paper work, is working to a deadline, he may not even want to be there, he may have suddenly realized he has bitten off more than he can chew, he may be very new to teaching, or to the level he is planning for, he may have suddenly realized to his horror that writing new material doesn’t come easily to him, he may be lacking the confidence to strike out on his own. He has a mammoth task to do whichever way you look at it.
F.A.Q: How would you go about selecting the right man for the post then?
A: I would select the person with the right skills for the job like any other, and like for any other job, I would require proof of competence. The ideal person would need to have some years of experience under his belt, he would need to be able to prove that he could actually write questions for a reading text he finds or writes, he must be able to write grammar, vocabulary and listening exercises – again I would require written proof. He would also need to have thought about the current syllabus and material, and have ideas of his own about the changes that need to be made. I would discuss the changes he envisions with him and if he could sell them to me, the job would be his. I hope you now realize why we are facing our current predicaments. It is very hard indeed to find the right men for the job; when you do, you can’t persuade them to put their shoulder to the wheel and there are no incentives you can offer them. You are obliged to take on whoever will agree to do the job; no questions asked, and are left with all the problems we’ve been discussing.
F.A.Q: You would think teachers could be more sympathetic sometimes
A: True but you must remember they are the ones who have to walk into class and implement the program, and if they like neither the material nor the program, tempers get a little frayed. It is the teachers who have to face the students, whom they care about, and they start getting desperate. It is all very well for the dinosaurs but the newbies? But as I said earlier, there are steps the admin can take to make the job easier.
F.A.Q: To go back to something you said earlier: slotting in the material. I suppose you go for reading material whose vocabulary level they are comfortable with.
A: Comfortable? What a strange adjective to use in this context. I can say at once that all the reading in a given week is not the same level because the purposes are different. Reading which is used to contextualize grammar needs to present no lexical challenge to enable the student to focus on one thing: the grammar. For the rest, the rule of thumb is that it should be challenging, which means it should be tough enough to be interesting. Simple stuff causes students to lose interest; difficult stuff causes them to give up in despair. The level should be just difficult enough; rather like baby bear’s porridge in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. As he is reading, the student should be able to guess some words from context, he should need to look up certain key words but there should remain another little group of words which he doesn’t know but are not essential for understanding that section of the text. These words he should just leave. Learning to disregard unimportant words is a key reading skill which students need to learn early on as they will be reading texts which are a wee bit too hard for years to come and also because reading always goes ahead of grammar and active vocabulary. Egging students on is always better than holding them back.
F.A.Q: Let me see if I have got this right: are you telling me that the reading needs to be a little too hard?
A: Yes, pretty much… You should imagine the students trying to reach a shelf which they can only access by standing on tip toe. Even then, that jar at the back might elude them. Attaining this flexibility is the most essential skill of an eight month reading program that aims to prepare students for their freshman year. Time is limited, the task extremely difficult but the students are young and bright so there is only one course of action: onwards and upwards at a brisk trot.
F.A.Q: Don’t students get put off if they can’t understand the text completely?
A: They would if we didn’t do our utmost to provide reading material with a wow factor, with umph if you like. Curiosity is a powerful force. You build it up before they start reading and feed it as you work through a text. So if you know what you are doing, students won’t even notice the text is too hard and will learn a whole lot of stuff into the bargain. Strategy; that’s what it all boils down to but all teachers are professionals and can be very devious for a good causeJ Besides, preventing students from stretching themselves has all manner of disadvantages.
F.A.Q: Such as?
A: Well, students rapidly lose interest and boredom sets in. That blazé attitude spills over into other lessons and classroom behavior too; it leads to discipline problems in other words. Students lose respect for the lesson, the teacher and eventually stop learning. Even in the most easygoing program, there are things that students can learn so it is the students who ultimately suffer. This kind of thing is very damaging indeed as I am sure I don’t need to tell you. No experienced teacher would allow himself to be landed in such a pretty pickle. When things reach this stage, the damage is often too far gone unless they are a very special group of students and/ or adult learners.
F.A.Q: One last thing, how about sources?
A: Oh a good variety most definitely; magazines, newspapers, the internet, textbooks… the lot. This is the current view and if you were to look at most current text books, you would see plenty of proof. This is something I have believed and practiced for years with excellent results.
F.A.Q: To move onto something completely different, how about pace?
A: Well, more often than not, the pace is determined by outside factors over which the curriculum guy has no control; like an exam that students have to sit at a specific time. So the finish line is predetermined but so is the starting point as students enter the program at a specific date. All this means that unless there is some miracle, the pace is set, and all our man has to do is devise the program that will get students across that said finish line in the specified time. There is bugger all our man can do about it if you get my drift.
F.A.Q: Don’t the students levels come into it? What if they need more time? Not everyone learns at the same pace.
A: By level if you mean whether they are beginner or intermediate, of course it is a factor. Students are assigned to classes accordingly. However, if you mean what I think you mean, the answer is no; if you can’t keep up, you fall by the way side. Especially in institutions like ours, everyone works to tight deadlines and lagging behind is not tolerated .But that is life unfortunately…
F.A.Q: And writing material?
A: What is this; twenty questions? I thought we were just having a chat. Hit the library or do some research or read my papers. I have a novel I need to get back to…
To be continued...