This year I get to teach 6 hours a week of a structural syllabus linked up to a series of short texts about Earth Day, sugarcane growing in Okinawa, and the Alabama bus boycott. Each of the short texts helps (?) highlight a key grammar point while also working hard to confuse or bore even the most dedicated student. Now I don’t want to just spend an entire post complaining about course materials. A recent blog post on reflecting vs. complaining from Michael Griffin has me wanting to jump from complaining into something a little more productive. But please, someone tell me how ‘environmental’, ‘many other things’, ‘overpopulation’, ‘serious’, ‘hunger’, and ‘get together’ got selected as key vocabulary to teach a remedial 1st year high school English class for students who, for the most part, did not attend junior high school.
Still, I’m trying to see the whole experience as a way to stretch myself as a teacher. I mean, how often will I get the chance to teach present simple tense, the interrogative form, and negative sentence construction all within a fifty minutes lesson? I even spent an hour the other day teaching a series of grammar points to an empty classroom because my use of whiteboard space had the logical flow of a maze from a mouse and cheese experiment. In a way, I even had kind of a good time plowing through three discreet grammar points as my voice echoed off the walls.
The other activities I run are based on the Baddeley’s ‘retrieval practice effect’ or the fact that, “the very act of recalling something facilitates its subsequent recall,” as long as the item is in fact successfully recalled (Ellis, 1995). So the activities need to require some effort at recall, but failure means just a bunch of wasted time. Some relatively successful activities included laying a strip of thin paper over each student’s book and having them read the text, cloze tests, and C-tests (in which letters of words, as opposed to entire words, are removed from the text).
At last count, my students have read the text about Earth Day a total of 17 times in class and even the handful of upper level students still seem pretty engaged. But I was starting to run out of ideas for opening activities. Luckily, Rachel Roberts, on her blog elt-resourceful has had a series of posts on reading that are just chock full of good ideas. So the other day I spent the first five minutes of class trying out the read-for-one-minute-and-see-how-far-you-get-activity. I pulled out my handy kitchen timer, set it for a minute, and had the students just read the text. At the end of a minute, I said stop and had students circle the last word they had read. Then we repeated the whole process again. And while students were silently reading, I watched. I watched as their eyes slid down the page, watched as they flipped pages, watched as some of their mouths moved as they read. And I noticed one student who was doing none of these things. She had her hands folded flat on the table in front of her and her eyes remained fixed and opened to the point where they seemed to be almost tearing up.
During lunch, I found the girl, A-Chan, and said (in Japanese), “Class was pretty difficult today, huh?” And she nodded. And then I took a deep breath and I said, “So, you can’t read English?” And she nodded slowly. And I said, “Do you want to learn how to read English with me? We can study after school starting next week.” And she smiled. She smiled and nodded yes. So we set up a study schedule and I’m going to be doing some one-on-one reading tutoring for the next few weeks.
But I have to admit that saying, “You don’t know how to read,” was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a teacher lately. I worried about how she was going to react, how upset she might be if I had made a mistake. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t also think about the responsibility it would entail if she said yes. But I’m starting to realize that this is what being a teacher is all about, just recognizing where you are needed and finding a way to be there.
For the past three weeks, I’ve spent the first ten minutes of my first year English classes focused almost entirely on how to ensure that the students will pass the first unit test. I’ve been hopping from activity to activity and kind of forgot, that for some students, passing that test couldn’t be less important. So a big thank you to Rachel for an activity which gave me the time to watch my class, notice what was going on, and realize where I needed to be. And a thank you to you too A-chan. For meeting my question, not with shame, but with a smile. Now let’s do some reading.
Implications for CALL. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 8: 103-28