Low Level Students
Nina MK, Ph.D.
In recent years, more and more people have begun to feel the need to be able to communicate in English. I get requests from such diverse professionals as manicurist, owner of a gas station, researcher, and even foreign language (not EL) teacher. All of them had English as part of their school and university curriculum five, ten or twenty years ago. In Russia, foreign language, predominantly English, is a compulsory subject at school and university, which means that absolutely every adult had studied it for several years. Why is it, then, that a comparatively small percentage can read, speak, write and understand it? I believe one of the reasons is the predominance of the old Grammar-Translation method, when all the students needed to do was learn some grammar rules, read and translate some texts. Another simple reason is, if one does not keep up a skill, it gets lost through the years. People do forget. “What’s the name of that letter, the one that looks like a dollar sign?” is quite a frequent question I am asked. The opposite situation is true: the majority of those who use the Latin alphabet would not recognize most letters of the Cyrillic one. Since the time when Agatha Christie famously explained the mystery of what looked like the English initials “BP” as actually being the Russian letters, thus denoting her suspect as Vera Rusakova (VR looks like BP in Russian), countless authors have used the same two letters in similar plots. Surprise! Many other letters look the same, like O and M, for instance. C may be lots of sounds in English, while it means only S in Russian; H is N.
• Step 1. Remind or help pupils to re-learn the alphabet. Even very good students in their final year of school flounder when asked to recite the English alphabet backwards, which is a traditional fun task at their graduation party. Most of them would start with, “Er… er… zet, ygrek, iks”, the way those same letters are pronounced at their mathematics lessons in Russian. Have a large poster to hand, with pictures accompanying every letter.
• Step 2. Teach students of any age how to read the transcription, and explain as many times as is necessary that one absolutely needs to look up any word’s spelling, pronunciation and meaning before usage.
• Step 3. Encourage reading; see to it that everybody has a book and a dictionary. Be sure to find the time to check on students’ progress. Reading is the fastest way to build up the vocabulary. If you are dealing with adult professionals, help them find either something connected to their daily work, or a book in their favourite genre. My manicurist predictably asked for a romance novel. The gas station owner wanted car maintenance manual.
• Step 4. Use structured writing at first. Offer various gap-filling and multiple choice exercises. Be sure to use both “Choose the correct grammar form” and “Choose the correct word” in every exercise. Define the topic of an essay and distribute writing examples which students can use as patterns.
• Step 5. Once you are sure that your students are ready for some independent work and that they have the minimum required vocabulary, allot writing tasks. Start with something short and simple, and go on to more complex ones. With adults especially, be attentive to their needs. If they want to learn how to write a business letter or a resume, a composition on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” is useless.
Since every adult has specific aims and purposes, I do not use any course book, though I do use my own lessons. We may start, not at low level, but virtually at no or zero level. I know from experience that some things will come back to them once we begin regular sessions. There are two main psychological obstacles to teaching low levels of any age. One, we should find a way to help them strive for success. People who were never high achievers in the subject may consciously or sub-consciously consider themselves unable to become fluent in this foreign language. If they had a teacher who would downgrade or never praise them, it may be a contributing factor to lack of progress, at first. Never hesitate to say a kind word! “It is so good you now remember all the letters”, or “Aha, you remember to use the articles” are always great boosters. Two, a more serious problem indeed, is a familiar one. “I need English in my work now, and I would like to have some lessons with you!” says a forty-year-old executive to me each time we happen to meet, these last five years. Period. Nothing else happens. It is as if he expects somebody else to do the work for him, or as if he hopes that the ability to communicate in English would spring up from thin air. I believe it is the common inertia, a sort of laziness. It is very hard to persuade an adult that he or she has to work for themselves.
On the other hand, I enjoy discussing an extremely fascinating problem with a much younger colleague who teaches Italian. She needs English, and she works diligently, carefully listening to my recommendations. I’m teaching myself French and German. What we discuss is the difficulty of existing in yet one more foreign language. We agree that we are both used to being on one plane so to speak, and thus any foreign language we encounter brings forth the one we are used to, at first. For me, it is automatically English, and I have to remind myself not to pronounce the French words according to the EL rules. For my friend, the first foreign language is Italian. And in Italian, as in Russian, one does not have to worry much about pronunciation; basically you read what you see. When dealing with English we have to check each word’s pronunciation, while in French we have to know which sounds are mute and which letter combinations produce just one sound. Each language presents its own problems and challenges. All it takes is a lot of hard work!