In the language classroom we often ask students to talk about or refer to their personal situation and experiences. This is seemingly good practice. However, with some learners, particularly younger ones, this focus on their personal lives can bring personal problems to the fore, which may actually hinder their language learning or affect their confidence in class. This article discusses this problem through actual situations and suggests a practical way to solve the problem, a way that actually widens students' communicative abilities.
- My first problem
- Is a correct answer a true answer?
- Looking for personal reasons, personal problems
- A real situation, a real problem
- A practical approach, a practical solution
My first problem
My first experience with a personality oriented approach to EFL teaching occurred about seven years ago, when after many years as a university lecturer I began to work at school, and with junior classes at that.
A ten-year-old girl, one of my best students, suddenly stopped doing homework, refused to answer in the lessons, and finally went into hysterics. When everyone left the classroom, I asked her what the matter was, whether I had irritated her in some way. A few minutes of silence, then she blurted out, "You are always by your children's side, I also want to be hugged by mum!" She burst into tears, I hugged her, feeling her whole small body shake, thinking, "That's it, our current topic is 'Family', and the Russian EFL textbooks are full of questions which children see as very personal".
Is a correct answer a true answer?
Such problems do not occur in lessons of physics or maths, for instance. But in any lesson, a child is conditioned into giving a 'correct' answer, which they sometimes perceive as a 'true' one.
I talked to the girl's grandfather and learned about a very typical modern situation. The girl's parents divorced a long time ago; the father had a new family and had forgotten about his daughter; the mother went abroad for a long time, so the child remained with her grandparents. There are plenty of such 'forgotten' children around. If they live with a relative or guardian, that's not the worst that may happen. So I began to work out my own personality oriented approach.
Looking for personal reasons
I know that today, at least in Russia, what's meant by a 'personality orientated approach' is that every student requires an individual approach according to the abilities shown. One should get an extra task so as not to be bored, another barely manages to follow the lesson, yet another needs a lesser task and some extra attention. A teacher should look for new sources of motivation and encouragement, which is quite difficult, considering that Russian teachers' salaries are very small and they are habitually delayed.
It was my belief that the new approach must include the teachers' ability to look beyond a student's refusal to answer or occasional bad discipline, to see if there aren't any personal reasons which have nothing to do with school or subject. Every year, when getting a new class, I check their families, talk to homeroom teachers, listen to the children themselves. Naturally I do get my share of lazybones, hooligans and incapable kids. But they are all children. They cannot always control their emotions or cope with their problems. A teacher is a substitute parent for some of them.
A real situation, a real problem
Family is traditionally included into the list of the school final EFL exam, in the 10th (the last but one) grade we are to discuss it during the whole second term. Youth problems, family structure, questions like "who takes after whom in your family", the vocabulary which includes words like "supportive, understanding, dysfunctional…". On the other hand, I deal with real teenagers. Every year, I check my groups. Two single-parent families in one group, four in another, an orphan and divorced parents in the third… There are also normal two-parent families. Still, when I know that a kid's mother, aged 37, died recently, should I forget about that one bereaved kid and ask them those questions from the textbook, who takes after whom, who cooks, who sews?
A practical approach, a practical solution
Children often perceive the questions as something to be answered fully and truthfully, they become confused and don't know what to do when asked something totally innocent, which they see as something personal.
So, I start preparing in September, when we study a totally neutral topic - 'Education'. When we come to a speaking task, I explain seriously what is expected. We are learning how to build sentences in English which are grammatically correct. It is OK to answer anything, as long as it is sensible and up to the point. For example, if I ask you, "Where's the Pacific ocean?", and you've forgotten, just answer, "I don't remember exactly but I know it is somewhere on Earth". This way; you show me that you understood my question; you built your own sentence; communication has been achieved.
By November, the end of the 1st term, all my students are well-trained. The results? A boy whose father recently left them stopped trembling at every "personal" question and confidently talks about modern family values. A girl whose mother died stopped crying silently and now takes part in all the discussions. The whole group stopped turning their heads when we come to questions and comments.
I wrote several lessons to supplement the textbooks. My students passed their final exams very well. After all, no teacher can know all the circumstances that may influence a student's answer or behaviour when an examination board member may ask any questions on the theme. My students are always ready, they know how to discourse, how to cope when they hear a 'personal' question.
Nina Koptyug, Ph.D., associate professor of English, Russia
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