As teachers we need to take some responsibility for influencing these factors in a positive or negative way. Yet, time and again, when I observe classes and talk to learners I notice signs of near-neurotic behaviour in them, and in many of these cases pretty quickly realise that the source of the anxiety that leads to this behaviour is the teacher. In this short article and in the blogs that follow this month I will mention and discuss some of these common neuroses and suggest ways of overcoming them.
Error neurosis or ‘lathophobia’
Fear of making mistakes is the mother of all neuroses and almost certainly the most common source of anxiety in language learners in the public forum of a language classroom. I first became conscious of it as a learner in a Modern Greek evening class when the teacher-priest had the habit of pointing out our mistakes by drawing himself up to his full height and intoning lathos – the Greek for mistake – in a profoundly haughty and disapproving way which had us all believing we had committed one of the seven deadly sins. I lasted just one term in that class.
- The notion of mistake as sin is very deeply rooted in educational cultures around the world, the more so since mistakes in any subject can be totted up as a means of giving grades and of distinguishing between strong and weak students.
- Learners are also often concerned about looking foolish and losing face in front of their peers if they make mistakes. Research into interlanguage and second language acquisition, so often irrelevant to day-to-day classroom concerns, did deliver a useful insight in this instance in the form of a useful distinction between types of error, and also of Krashen’s oft-cited assertion that errors may be seen as ‘stepping stones on the way to learning’. My own experience as a learner and a teacher backs this up, and I go along wholeheartedly with the notion that learners benefit from observing language, hypothesising about it, testing out their hypotheses by experimenting and working with the feedback they get from their interlocutors. We as teachers would do well to allow time and space for this kind of experimentation and to offer learners support rather than a scolding when they do make mistakes.
When I was trained as a teacher of English I was told that every learner’s mistake was ‘my’ mistake, the result of inadequate teaching. As a result, I beat myself up about my learners’ mistakes for years afterwards until I realised that for progress to be made they had to start taking responsibility for their own learning and that learning from mistakes is one important part of that process. That realisation lifted a great weight from my shoulders and helped me to be concerned much more with my students’ learning and less obsessed with my own ‘performance’ as a teacher, which was a big breakthrough in my career.
Verb tense neurosis
Teachers inspire many different grammar-related neuroses in their learners, but perhaps the biggest of these is the one about verb tenses. Its origins almost certainly lie in the hard-to-shake-off tradition of Latin teaching. The syllabus in a typical Latin course was built largely around the verb tenses, a forgivable decision considering that Latin has a very formal and highly inflected system and is also no longer used for everyday communication (though I did once have a lively conversation in Latin with a fellow passenger on a train to Reggio in South Italy!).
English verbs are minimally inflected, subjects are clearly signalled through nouns and pronouns, and time is as often flagged by time adverbials as by the verb itself.
Consider these examples, all from recent authentic sources:
- What time do we start tomorrow, 8 or 8.30? (participant on a seminar in Austria last week)
- Are you coming to the dinner tomorrow evening? (phone call from a colleague today)
- I’ve just sent you an e-mail to tell you I can’t make it (reply to the previous question)
- I’m calling ‘cos I just got your message (voicemail message from my sister-in-law)
- If you don’t go tonight, I don’t (a friend, about a social event)
- She says she wants a DVD (me to my partner during a phone conversation with my daughter)
In the first four examples above, the time adverbials are crucial to the message. Without them, and with only the form of the verb to go on, the message loses its precision. In example 3 the speaker chooses present perfect whereas in 4 she uses the simple past. Both are OK. The real force of the messages is in the immediacy expressed by the word just. The speakers in example 5 and 6 ignore the rules which learners are all too often tortured with about the sequence of tenses in ‘if’ sentences and reported speech respectively, and simply say what they want to mean; in the first case it’s a kind of ultimatum and in the second the reporting refers to a conversation still in full flow.
My take on this is that we need to spend far less time on teaching the tenses and some rather dubious rules about the sequence of tenses, and a lot more on equipping learners with a good range of time adverbials and on liberating them to allow them to say what they want to mean, rather than teaching rules and then complaining that English is a badly behaved language with a lot of exceptions.
Still to come:
- Phrasal verb neurosis
- Article neurosis
- The perfect pronunciation neurosis
In the meantime, your thoughts on any of these neuroses would be very welcome!
That’s really great we have such an experienced teacher on the site. Welcome and thank you very much for nice article. You say you come from a family of teachers and it proves the saying which says: “Teachers are born not made.”
I am writing from
I do agree with you and firmly believe that teachers are the people who motivate or demotivate students. It happened to me the other day when a parent came to me and said that one of my teachers had made fun of his son because of a mistake he had made in the class. So the son doesn’t like to take part in English classes any more.
As teachers we must pay attention to the fact that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process and students must be given the chance to correct themselves. It is essential that teachers transmit to students the idea that mistakes are essential and definitely not something to be feared.
Amir Abbass Ravayee
Thanks a lot for your response and your anecdote. It's great to hear from a teacher in Iran!
I agree completely with your statement about mistakes. Lathophobia takes different forms in learners but it almost always results in some kind of inhibition and loss of self-esteem. Some learners do see it as a challenge, however, and these are the risk-takers, for whom the motivation to learn is stronger than any worry about looking silly or making a mistake in a public forum. They are, typically, the ones who make most progress in our classes. Last week, in Austria, I had one of these in my group, a Building and Construction teacher from a vocational school who is trying to improve his English in order to teach some of his classes through the medium of English. Not only did he take risks with his English, but he enjoyed playing with words at every opportunity, often provoking genuine laughter among his classmates. But he was also constantly on the watch for feedback from me and came to me at the end of the week asking for my assessment of his level.
Many of the others in the group (all of them subject teachers from the vocational sector) were much more cautious about speaking up, often taking time to formulate a comment before offering it. Some of them had clearly been bruised by their experience of learning English at school and were uncomfortable about returning to a type of classroom which they remembered as being insecure and unpredictable. We teachers really do have a responsibility for creating and maintaining conditions in which learning can take place, and my experience tells me that the psychological climate in a classroom is far more important than the physical surroundings.
Thanks so much for your interest, Amir, and very best wishes
Thanks again for your response.
I am sure that your experience tells the truth. That is what I have experienced myself.
In my opinion, it's the duty of a teacher to praise students (shouldn't be overused) for their success as they struggle to be better. I usually advise my colleagues to motivate their students instead of punishing them.
Amir Abbass Ravayee
Removing anxiety from the class
From psychological points of view, you have mentioned something very important which is worthy of research and needs more investigations. I would like to share my experience with you about this subject in a short essay as follows:
On the first day of attending any class I usually try to make a quiet and encouraging atmosphere for the students so that they become more interested in learning the materials. As an example I begin in this way:
1- Mentioning the importance of the language
Dears, we have come here to help each other towards a common goal, learning a foreign language. We all know that English is the scientific language of the world and many countries use it worldwide. People of the world have become nowadays very nearer to one another. We can send an Email from Iran to someone who is far away in USA and the other person receives it in less a minute. We will have a better world if we can speak in one common language. Therefore as the ratio of the people who speak or write in English is much higher than the people who do it in other languages; most of the people of the world try to learn this valuable language. SO English is worthy of being learnt and you have made a good decision to learn English.
2- Breaking the ice and convincing the students to speak.
I practice and improve my English by correcting your mistakes and you will learn it better by making more practice. So you shouldn’t be worried about your mistakes at all. Imagine that a
Child falls down many times before learning how to walk and makes many mistakes before becoming able to speak. When a child begins to speak, he /she say words that are very funny but enjoyable for their parents. A father or mother never scolds his/ her son/daughter for the inaccuracy of their language but motivating them to be corrected. Now when you want to learn a language you are just like that small child who makes many mistakes in the beginning but gradually and by trial and mistake will learn to speak. Come on and do not be bashful to speak. I begin to introduce myself and you do the same but try to use the model mention on the board.
The students who speak, regardless of their mistakes will get positive marks. So our class is as active as possible. I am sure you don’t like an inactive or a dead class. Our class is quite live and dynamic, not static. You will get better marks by asking and answering more questions .Here I try to organize any diversion that may arises so that they follow the rules.
Students are allowed to choose their groups to practice together.
4- Choosing a good subject of discussion
Suppose you are living with some friends and sharing a flat together. Every one of you has a responsibility to do something such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, brooming the rooms, washing the dishes and ETC. One of you is lazy and has no patience to do his duty so you have to convince him to do his job in the group. You my may begin like this:
Ali to Ahmad: Oh Ahmad we are running short of bread. Could you go to the supermarket and get us some?
Ahmad, I’m sorry, I am watching TV, the serial is very interesting and I can’t stop watching.
Ali O.K. You will be starving at noon and…….
In this way Ahmad is convinced and induced to go to the supermarket.
5- Writing all the necessary words and some grammar cues on the board
Many times students are worried and shy to speak because they do not know the required vocabulary related to the topic of the lesson. When we provide them with new words we actually remove the anxiety from the classroom.
6- Do not worry about passing the exam
Your exam marks will be partly considered on your active presence in the class, the raising of your hands to answer the questions and partly on your final exam but I emphasize on the first part. There is no room for exam anxiety in my classes.
7- No discriminations and behaving all of them alike.
Every student has a special character and talent which must be respected and noticed. Our fingers are not alike but able to perform different jobs and students should be behaved in accordance with their capacities.
8- Bringing the sleepy students to the class
Sometimes I come across with students who gaze at me when teaching but are thinking about finding a way to solve their personal problems .Here we have to do something to draw their attentions either by asking them an easy questions or talking to them to find out the problem. May be He is suffering from lack of sleeping.
9- Bringing the right tools to the class
If possible all classes must be equipped with necessary equipments such as computers, video, tape recorder, TV set.
10- Telling stories and giving lectures.
We can ask them to tell us their happiness and sorrows in forms of an imaginary story or a real lecture.
11- Taking the students out of the class, to a nice park or on a picnic.
We can make changes in the class so that it is will not be monotonous for them. They can present their lectures on a picnic or in a park.
I will write more in future.
Best wishes and many thanks for your useful essay
Thanks for initiating discussion on an important issue of dealing with learners' errors. I agree with you that teachers need to be tolerant, understanding, and positive. I have been struggling to make my teachers aware of this so that they too change their approach. However, I find it difficult mainly for two reasons: the English language classroom is not an island! That is, for students, English is just one of the 'subjects' in the school curriculum and unless changes are introduced in other subject classes as well, the teacher of English can not do much. Secondly, the parental pressure and the institutional pressure also pose problems. I remember when we introduced major changes in the curriculum of English ( in Maharashtra, India), we had to plan an awareness programme not only for the benefit of teachers, but also for parents, school heads, education officers and other stakeholders.
Thanks for pitching in with your comments. Where are you in the States? What are you doing over there?
On the points you raised:
1. I know only too well that English teachers are sometimes reluctant to 'stand out' in their schools. They often realise that English is potentially a window on a wider world beyond their own school context, and thus also a 'Trojan Horse' for smuggling new educational ideas into a system, and that this entails risks to their own standing with colleagues and school authorities. However, if all educational systems and their curricula become inward-looking, there is no hope of any change and development. So we have to soldier on as change agents!
2, Your point about all the stakeholders in education is really well made and I agree completely that we as education professionals have a real responsibility to communicate and consult with parents, authorities, employers etc, to make sure that no-one feels left out of the promulgation of new ideas.
Thanks again and warm wishes
Thanks for your feedback. The issues you have raised are very important and relevant in almost all contexts of teaching. This reminds me of an interesting incident.
Once I happened to meet a past student of mine during a journey. He was wearing a T-Shirt displaying the words: ' I was born intelligent, but my education ruined me!' I accepted his greetings and asked him how much has been my contribution to this ruin. He was a bit confused, didn't know what to say, and yet he said ' No Sir, you were different..' Noting his difficulty I changed the subject and asked him what he was doing,etc,
After the meeting, I could not forget those words for a long time. It was not possible to know who had originally written those words( graffiti !). But more important was why one should think like that!
One of the main reasons could be the lack of communication between the teacher and students. This could be because of the neurosis induced by the teacher or the context!
I shall be happy to know how you would look at it.
And yes I am at San Jose in California with my son on a vacation. I am returning to India soon. More about it later.
Thanks for sharing this story. You know there was a very active 'deschooling' movement in the 60s and 70s, based on the belief that formal education messes kids up, kills their curiosity and interrupts their development. Proponents included John Holt ('How Cildren Fail') and Ivan Illich ('Deschooling Society') on the other side of the Atlantic and A.S. Neill ('Summerhill') over here. Paolo Freire ('Pedagogy of the Oppressed') also lays into formal schooling in a big way. I see your young man in that tradition. Someone who came to regard school as an unwelcome interruption to his learning about life and the world rather than as any kind of catalyst or support to him. Presumably also no-one ever asked him what he thought. It's sad that a young person should be so disillusioned but we need to listen to this type of message and make sense of it if we are to improve as educators.
Dear A. Mazinanian,
Thanks for your very full and practical response. It's really good to know that you have thought everything through so carefully. I particularly like your analogy with small children and their parents, and also your reminder that learners are often obsessed with words and worry when they don't have the ones they need. I see this as an understandable obsession as opposed to a teacher-induced neurosis because everything we know about communication indicates that if someone has words available to them, they can communicate without too much reliance on grammar.
I wish you lots of success in developing your students' fluency and I admire your willingness to give so much priority to the affective factors that govern success or failure in learning
Very best wishes
Many thanks for your response which is much appreciated. However anxiety is a negative factor which plays an important role in learning processes. We all know that anxiety ruins our health and endanger our mental stability and some people say it is the main cause of all sicknesses. There are many factors behind anxiety such as poverty and discrimination whether in societies or classrooms .If we like to remove anxiety from our classes we have to consider its root in the society.
Best wishes and I wish you would have nice holidays in coming Christmas
Dear A. Mazinanian
Thanks a lot for coming back to me on this point. It reminded me of Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs, which helps us to see how learning and development can only take place if certain basic conditions such as safety, absence of hunger and thirst, etc are met. As teachers, we always need to keep this in mind. You can't expect a scared or hungry student to learn!
Very best wishes
Thanks for contributing. I agree totally that teaching has become much more challenging and that we have to play several roles in order to carry out our day-to-day responsibilities satisfactorily. You spoke of 'enormous changes' and I guess you are feeling these in your context. Would you like to write a bit about what you are facing and how you and your colleagues are coping with everything? It would be good to hear more from you.
It takes great courage to reveal and discuss Teacher's neurosis associated with English teaching.
Neurosis related to job is in every field and English is not spared but it vapourises by being authentic and equal command on learner's language.
I'm into EFL to hard core rural stuff of India and each day comes as a challenge and opportunity to learn.
Graduated in Phonetics and Linguistics has given an opportunity to teach and frame English Language course for fellow Indians, the way I learned from different mediums and sources .
British Council’s site has proved to be a learning platform for me.
I would be delighted to know solutions to the problems of EFL learners from you.
Thanks for your message. Very good to hear from you as a teacher in rural India, and to know that you learn so much through your day-to-day experience. It would be good to hear more about what you have learned fropm your students and what kind of students they are (age, background interests etc)
Do you have a recommendation regarding the most effective sequencing (to L2 english students) of past tenses. For example, would modal perfect (such as could have taken) precede past perfect (had taken), etc?
Thanks for your query about sequencing past tenses. My criteria and decisions would be taken on the basis of communicative need in the first instance, and on underlying meaning as a second foundation. Let me explain:
The modality involved in 'could have taken'' is often closely connected with the need to communicate a notion of an unfulfilled intention or a regret. The time dimension is 'built into' this notion. The past perfect is generally used where it is important to distinguish between two points in past time, and has no modal dimension, though clearly it is often used in association with 'could have'/'might have'/'would have' constructions (which are strongly modal), in 'if' sequences and other expressions of hypothetical meaning. I usually approach this rather difficult area of language in a sequence like this:
1. I remind students of 'going to' as a means of expressing intentions, as in e.g.
What are you going to do after you finish this course?
2. I then ask students to think of a turning point in their lives, when they were faced with a decision between two paths or courses of action. I would give them an example from my own life:
When I was 18 I had to choose between going to university and taking a job with a cotton company. I was going to take the job, but my Dad stopped me and told me I had to go to university.
The key here is the 'was going to' construction which I use as a conceptual platform for the next step:
3. I then ask them to address the question:
What would/might have happened if you had..........
eliciting answers such as:
I would have gone to the USA.......etc
I like to follow this up with Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken.
Each of these verb forms slots intop a comprehensive view of time, with or without an element of modality, and would always use a conceptually simpler form as a step toward a more complex one. I also find that if I start in the present, in the students' 'here and now', and work towards the past on the basis of personal experience, this helps. This makes the simple past particularly important to enable them to tell their own stories and experiences. I would also teach the past progressive from the conceptually equivalent launchpad of the present progressive:
Q: Which book are you reading now?
A: The Da Vinci Code.
Q: Do you remember what you were reading this time last month?
A: Yes, I was reading The Da Vinci Code. It's a long book!
Finally, in this response, I have always taught the 'used to' form in the same lesson or series of lessons as the present simple, mainly because they are conceptually related (far more closely than the link between simple present and simple past) and therefore there is no need to make a song and dance about 'used to' much later on in the course, and also because it makes the lesson much more interesting in terms of what students are able to express, e.g.
I used to smoke 40 cigarettes a day but now I don't smoke at all.
I don't know if this helps, and I realise that I have talked all round the question you asked. In a nutshell, we need to be associating verb forms with the meaning they convey and the conceptual frameworks they belong in. These meanings and conceptual frameworks exist in learners' L1 but may be realised in very different ways linguistically.
Great thanks for sharing your ideas! I use something like this in my classroom, but the activities you have provided are worth trying without any doubt! Thanks for the prompt!
You are absolutely right that difficulties with grammar issues are greatly dependent on L1 of learners. My students have more problems with different ways of expressing Future and the 'mysterious' differences between Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuos :).
I would be grateful if you find time to help me with a piece of advice, when you have time, of course.