High Value vs Low Value

25 Mar

Low Value

I want to relate a teaching story I heard from a coworker. Actually, I’ve heard it many times, as he used to tell this story to our new recruits during every orientation session. My ORI partner and I still use it but it’s been modified as we don’t have his flair for it because it still serves a useful purpose.

I had the opportunity to go and view a local Chinese teacher’s English class. The students were well-behaved, they sat up straight and they eagerly participated in the lesson. The teacher was giving a lesson on fruits and vegetables, and she asked one student, ‘do you like apples?’  The student sat up straight and proudly answered,  ‘Yes!’

The teacher smiled, nodded and praised him. Then she asked another student a similar question – ‘Do you like strawberries?’

The student shook her head and said, ‘No, I don’t.’

The teacher clapped her hands, everyone oohed and ahhed and they all smiled because they were learning English! And it was complete and utter bull****.

A little harsh, but the sentiment is essentially correct. And just before I explain why (unless you’ve already guessed), I’ll follow that up with another of his stories he also used to illustrate the problem:

I was watching one of our foreign teachers in her classroom. There was a page in the text book that had pictures of magical items – a crystal ball, a magic wand, a wizards hat, etc. They were numbered, and below them were blank spaces in which to write the names from the word bank. The teacher gave them some time to fill it in, and then asked one of her students, ‘Which one is the wizards hat?’ The student paused, and looked at his book in confusion, so she prompted him, putting her hands on her head to help him out. “Wizards hat? Which one is the wizards hat?’

The student chewed his lip and finally uttered, ‘…three?’

The teacher cheered and clapped and exclaimed, ‘Yes! Number three is the wizards hat! Great job!’

Did any of you out there following along at home figure out what was wrong with these sentences?

To understand, let me explain something about Chinese classrooms. Chinese English lessons are full of vocabulary lists that need to be memorized, sentences patterns parroted, and grammar points to be translated. The teachers are not teaching their students to use the language – that is not their priority. Their job is to prepare their students for tests, and the tests they must pass are all based on memorization.

Chinese students are not pushed very hard, despite what you might think. The teachers are constantly answer-feeding – that is, they ask a question and then immediately follow up with the answer before anyone has time to begin to formulate a guess. They are pushed to remember,  NOT to use.

Let’s refer back to the first story. The reason my former colleague called it bull**** was because they were accepting the lowest possible value in an answer. Yes or No. It’s not rocket science, no thought is involved, and you have a 50% chance of getting the right answer. Except in this case, it’s 100% because the teacher was asking an opinion question – ‘Do you like…’. The student may have no idea what this odd word ‘strawberry is’, but they’ve memorized that the correct answer to a ‘Do you like’ question is either an yes or a no. Their personal preferences mean nothing to them – only getting the smile from the teacher that says yes, they’ve answered correctly.

Your typical low-value answers are:

Yes / No.

Yes I do / No I don’t.

Yes I like / No I don’t like.

Yes I can / No I can’t.

Yes I do / No I don’t.

These have literally no value whatsoever. The student may not have any clue about the vocabulary but they are trained to listen for those key words and formulate a canned response consisting of as few words as humanly possible.

High Value

High value answers are answers that show the student’s comprehension. Full and complete sentences are what you’re going for if you want to teach for ability, which should be the goal of every ESL/EFL teacher (I will expand on that in more detail later). We don’t care about knowledge. They can get knowledge from anywhere – books, the internet. What we need to do is give them the tools to USE the language, and we start by not accepting crap answers in the form of 3 words or less.

Let’s try the above question from that local teacher again, only this time, we’ll substitute a high-value answer.

Teacher: “Do you like strawberries?”

Student: “No, I don’t like strawberries.”

They get one point for the yes/no. They get 1 point for reversing ‘I’ for ‘you’. They one point for using a contraction. They get one point for using the vocabulary word (strawberries). They get one point for a grammatically correct sentence (words in proper sentence structure).  A 5 point answer, versus the 1 point they’d get for simply answering ‘yes’.

Let’s try another one:

Teacher: “Can dogs fly?”

Student 1: “No.”  <– 1 point.

Student 2: “No, dogs can’t fly.”

Point for ‘no’. Point for using the vocab word ‘dogs’. Point for negative (can’t) AND point for the contraction. Point for the other vocab word ‘fly’. Nice full sentence – yup, another point. A beautiful 6 point answer.

Now to address the other story… do me a favor. Go back up, re-read that second story, and count how many times the teacher said the vocab word ‘wizard hat’. Go on – I’ll wait.

Back already? I’ll give you a hint: the teacher said the vocab word 4 times. Four.  How many times did the student say the vocab words?


In teaching, we have this thing called the 80×20 rule. This is where the students speak 80% of the time, and the teacher speaks 20%. In the above example, we have this completely reversed. There are full sentences involved, but the only one saying them is the teacher.  The teacher asked a question and yes, the student did show comprehension by correctly identifying number three as the word in question, but the sum total of his verbal efforts was to say the word ‘three’.

I have news for you – he didn’t need practice saying the word ‘three’. Numbers are one of the first things every child learns here in Shanghai – either in kindergarten or in grade 1. This was a grade 3 class – I guarantee you he already knew his numbers.

The proper thing to do here would be to prompt the student for that full sentence, high-value answer:

The wizards hat is number 3.

Immediately followed by some macro-micro responses – but that would be the subject of a future post. 😀

So when you’re teaching your students, remember that those short sentences do no one any good. Get those full sentences, insist on those full sentences – and if you don’t know how to do that?

Check back for my next post. ^__^

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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


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