What is your goal, as a teacher?
Some teachers would automatically blurt out something noble, like helping the next generation, or helping their students’ blossom into a sane, functioning and contributing member of society. It was with great relish that my colleague – I’ll call him Seamus – cut the teacher off in their tracks and said with a great sense of finality, “No.”
For myself, I had assumed that my job was to teach them English. To my surprise, Seamus told me I was wrong as well. “Okay,” I said, still smarting a tad from being told with such conviction that I was wrong, dead wrong. “So what am I supposed to be doing?”
“You are supposed to give them the tools needed to use English,” came the calm reply.
I looked back at my colleague–slash–mentor and murmured in awe, “Oh.” Pause. “So what does that mean?” I was completely clueless.
In my last post I mentioned a Chinese English teacher insisting on short form answers and how it was wrong. Not really, actually – I didn’t make that entirely clear. It’s completely wrong for us to do. Watching them make what we perceive as a mistake just grates on us and we as native speakers then squirm in our chairs and think how we could do it better.
No, we can’t. And what the Chinese teacher is doing isn’t wrong, full-stop – it’s just different. And it’s something we can’t copy, because then we’d be neglecting our duty – which is to give them the tools they need to speak English.
What is the goal of the Chinese teacher? A Chinese English teacher will give out lists of vocabulary words, and insist that the students memorize page after page of sentence structures. She will ask them to recite from memory entire passages out of books, and drill them in repeating grammar exercises over and over again.
Foreign teachers will look at that and think, ‘wow, that lady is doing it wrong.’ Actually, no she’s not. She’s not teaching for ability, she’s teaching for knowledge. She’s prepping them to pass one of the many tests Chinese students must take and pass if they want to get ahead in life. Her class is about memorization because the tests are all written tests, and it’s all based on memory.
As a foreign English teacher, your goal should be to get them to use what they already know. Chinese students have an amazing vocabulary locked away in those brilliant heads of theirs – they just don’t always know how to use it. Same for reading – they can read passages, sound out words fairly easily and with the aid of their little dictionaries, they can get through unfamiliar passages with ease. But once you ask them to speak out loud using those words, now you get silence – and some teachers are quick to dub these students as being unwilling or unable to learn English.
What we should all be doing is teaching for ability – giving them what they need to respond in English. And we start by stopping the use of knowledge-based questions. For example, please answer the question below:
Is my sister’s middle name Taylor?
I know some of you are looking at that question and thinking, ‘what the heck? How should I know if her sister’s middle name is Taylor? I can’t answer that question! I have to guess!’
Yup. But guess what? Non-English speakers – unless you get a batch of really animated and advanced kids – aren’t going to try and guess. Their first, last and only answer is going to be ‘I don’t know’, which doesn’t get them to practice anything. This is an example of a knowledge-based question. If you don’t have the knowledge, you can’t answer the question.
So the first thing we have to do is change that knowledge-based question into an ability-based question, and we do it in two steps.
1. We turn it into a yes or no question:
–> Is my sister’s middle name Taylor?
2. We either nod or shake our heads, depending on what the answer is.
Some things in life are universal. Nodding your head means ‘Yes’ or positive in North American. Shaking it from side to side means ‘No’ or negative. The same rules apply in China. So by asking a yes or no based question while nodding or shaking our heads – in this case, I’m shaking my head to indicate ‘no’ – we give the student the tools to answer the question.
Teacher: “No, what?”
Student: “No, you sister middle name not Taylor.
Teacher: *verbal correct* “No, your sister’s middle name isn’t Taylor.”
Student: “No, your sister’s middle name isn’t Taylor.”
Teacher: “Is my sister’s middle name Taylor?”
Class: “No, your sister’s middle name isn’t Taylor.”
Ah-hah – see what I did there? A verbal correct AND I got the whole class to take advantage of that great, full-sentence, 5-point answer. A simple shake of the head – like Mojito, the bobble-headed dog from The Losers – and the student magically has the confidence to answer the question.
Give it a shot!