Lessons from My Office Hours

What is the point of Failure and what can it teach us?

From Microsoft Clipart

 

I know this title sounds pretty bleak but it is partly the result of an episode that happened this week during my office hours, and that I thought I’d like to share with you. Before I do so, though I need to outline our C1 exam so that you will understand how both the student and I felt:

The University of Verona Language Centre C1 Test

Our C1 exam consists of three parts, and students need to pass all three to be given the credits they need. The first part is a computer based test which focuses on Use of Language in Context, Reading and Listening. This is followed by a Written test, which at this level involves producing a text of approx. 200 – 250 words in either a narrative, descriptive or discursive style on various subjects. The final test is an oral test of about 10-15 minutes which is usually in a paired format and students have to show that they can communicate in effective English about familiar and more abstract topics. In order to pass all this they need to get a minimum of 60% over the three parts of the test, and they are allowed to score from 55% to 60% on one of the parts if this is then compensated for on one of the other parts.

What this means, then, is that a student can pass the whole test if he or she scores only 55% on the computer test but this is then compensated for if he or she goes on to score 65% on the written and then 60% on the oral test, giving a total of 60% overall.

Failing your exams … or, even worse, Almost Passing

So, to come back to the episode last week, this is what happened: a student came to my university office hours last week, clutching an enormous exercise book and communicating in an English that was perfectly comprehensible. She told me that she had tried to do our C1 written paper various times and was having trouble. She had passed the computer test but couldn’t pass the composition paper. This girl had been in my course and had religiously printed out all the work she and others had done on writing during the course. (This is available for all students on my wiki, with the questions, the students’ answers and my comments and correction code. See this example page.) She had also gone on to develop this by focusing on specific areas such as phrasal verbs etc. all lovingly colour coded in her exercise book. She had come with a few intelligent questions such as what did I mean by “effective language”. (I explained that I meant language that “did its job” of communicating the message you wanted it to, clearly and well.) All this told me that she was a student who had studied hard and thought about what she was reading. This is what we want in our students, isn’t it?

Well, then she showed me a practice essay she had written in a narrative style, using an old exam question as a model. She was convinced that this was “perfect” and yet as soon as I read the first sentence I knew that we were up against quite a few problems and I could feel a sinking feeling come over me.

What was the Problem?

The first sentence was already problematic:

“I can’t descend.” Emma said.

I asked her whether the story was informal or formal and she said that that was another thing she had not really understood. What did informal language or formal language mean. I explained and gave her examples in Italian, so that she realised that the use of “descend” here wasn’t natural. You wouldn’t say that to a friend. She said that she had been avoiding simple words like “get down” because she thought they were too easy, aren’t they more of a B1 level??? was the question. It took quite some explaining to show here that words as such can have many different levels and what is important is to know how to use them.

Coffee and mug
Coffe pot and mug the perfect collocation

Collocation, colligation and Word Choice

We all know how important collocations are in natural language use, and we spend quite a lot of time talking about this in class. Despite this, however, my student had quite a few unnatural collocations such as “It was snowing abundant” (as well as the fact that she was using aan adjective instead of an adverb). She knew what collcations were but didn’t know how to find them, check them or notice them. She said, the problem was that she did not know when something was not possible. The same was true of colligation or “grammatical collocation” as you might think of this. She had looked up the word “discesa” which in Italian means a slope but can also be used as an adjective or adverb meaning downhill. She had found the word “downhill” and was using it to mean “slope” so she produced a sentence like this: “They skied along the downhill with ease.” We have a problem here of incorrect word choice followed by inappropriate colligation as a result of this.

You can see where all this is going and I’m not going to go through the whole composition but, as I explained to her, this language was not “effective” because it did not communicate what she wanted to, because of the words she was choosing, how she was using them and also because of the register. These are all things that, at a C1 level, you need to be able to do.

Two Major Problems

By this time the poor student was nearly in tears and I was feeling very depressed too, because there were two major problems here:

1) she did not have a good monolingual dictionary, despite the fact that I had recommended several. As soon as we started looking at her “problem language” in the Longman Contemporary Dictionary of English (the online version, in fact) all these problems were clear and she began to see what I was talking about. She needed to learn how to use a dictionary well, and yet, this is something we do all the time in class, so for me, as a teacher, this means there is no guarantee that students sitting in my lessons will actually benefit from what I’m teaching them to do;

2) She chose words, which were often false friends etc. and she was convinced that they were correct. One example of this was the word “structure” which can be used in italian to mean the company or firm etc. In her case it referred to a ski resort, and she wrote “The director of the structure” which does not really work in English. When I showed her that this was unnatural and we looked at structure in the dictionary she said: “But I had no idea! How do I know when something has the right meaning or not?”

This is the crux of the matter and it is very difficult to answer. My answer is that enough exposure to a language teaches you what is appropriate and what isn’t, but I’m not sure that this is always true. This student told me that she read widely in English but she read for the ideas and didn’t really notice the language, so I suggested reading first and then taking a page or so every now and then and analysing the language. Part of me, however, wonders whether there are simply some people who are interested in the way language words and others who are not. I was watching an Austrian detective series, for example, the same day and something in my mind noticed that they used the verb “recherchieren” and without even realising it, I was thinking, “Would that be used in Germany or South Tyrol?” It comes naturally to me to question these things, but does it come naturally to everyone? If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you simply have to train yourself to do it, but I think that many of my students who have been through a traditional style of school system do not believe in the value of these things. They think they need to do a lot of grammar exercises and practice tests and then they’ll be alright, which is rather sad in university language students.

An hour later my student was thoroughly depressed at the thought that this composition would not have passsed the test either and when I asked her what she had learned she said that she had learned not to discount simple words, and to get a better dictionary.

I felt extremely drained after this and felt the need to write about it because I feel as though I have failed her in some way. This was someone who was willing to study, who told me that she uses English every day in emails at work, but I had not been able to help her prepare for her exam. One of the most difficult things for a teacher to do is to chip away at student beliefs such as the sacrosanct nature of the grammar exercise, and all you can do is keep on going in the hope that some will understand the message.

So, what can failure and suffering teach us?

We all know the value of passing a test, but failure can teach us something too. In this case the student has failed her exam but she has learned some important lessons about how she approaches another language. In my case I failed to communicate my message to her in class, but I helped here in my office hours, and the whole episode has led me on to think about the process, so that I can use it in an exemplary way to others.

Failure inevitably leads to suffering but suffering in itself has lessons to teach us as well. ON a personal level, if I never suffer then I don’t appreciate so many of those little pieces that go together to form the amazing mosaic that is every simple moment of the day. If I never have to live without “hot water” for instance, I don’t appreciate how wonderful it is to have hot water readily available when I have a shower.

On another level suffering helps us to understand what other people are going through, and if we have never suffered ourselves then we cannot develop any real empathy. I know what it means to fail a test, so I can understand what my student is going through. Empathy is essential in a teacher, and not only, because it is by understanding what somene is going through that we can start to help them to come out of it.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, but everything begins somewhere. I don’t know if my student has really understood what she needs to do for her exam, or whether I have been able to help her, but both her and my failure have taught us something as has the suffering.

Sorry to go on at length about this but I felt the need to write it down and share it to work it through in my own mind. I’d be really interested to hear other people’s take on it too.

 

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