We all know what golden rules of ESL are:
— lots of speaking
— English only
— no translation
— equality to all four skills “reading, writing, listening and speaking”
To mention but a few. Now and again however you have a student with whom you need to go against the rulebook because the rulebook just doesn’t seem to work.
Anna’s problem: fluent but incorrect
When I started teaching Anna, a university student, she already spoke confidently and fluently. There was just one problem: her every sentence was a jumble of words with grammar mistakes and no sentence structure or word order whatsoever. A typical sentence Anna said would be: “She on Tuesdays go to school early always”.
Originally, I thought this issue was due to her lack of theoretical grammar knowledge. So we spent about half a year going through all the basic grammar topics from Present Simple onwards and did a great deal of written and oral practice tasks. However, when we got back to speaking again, nothing had changed! Anna was still saying “I goes” and “ early always”. Even though she now knew perfectly well that in Present Simple after he, she, it we add s and that we put adverbs of frequency before the verb. Even though she had had lots of written and speaking practice on both of these topics.
The thing is, that even when Anna spoke in her native language, she would speak very quickly, say a whole lot of different things in one sentence and it was sometimes quite hard to follow her. So, the issue wasn’t her lack of knowledge of English grammar rules but rather her way of thinking and speaking in general. Instead of teaching her grammar rules I needed to teach her to think and therefore speak in a more organized way and give some structure both to her thoughts and her language.
At first I had tried the usual way of dealing with speaking mistakes, which is letting the student talk without interruption while writing down their mistakes and going over them after they finish speaking. However this strategy isn’t effective if the student makes mistake in every other word – there are just too many. I needed to adjust my methods of working with Anna even if it meant breaking all traditional rules of ESL teaching. So now:
1) I stopped and interrupted Anna immediately after every mistake and made her correct it. She would get so annoyed by constant interruptions that she began to try and speak correctly in order to avoid them.
2) I would write down Anna’s every sentence and then have her translate it word to word into her native language. This helped her understand where she had made mistakes. I also gave her sentences in her native language and asked her to translate them into English. Translation helped to organize her thoughts and make her sentences more structured.
3) We did jumbled sentences through using sharescreen. I found a lot of interactive jumbled sentence tasks here and had Anna do a lot of these each lesson. This made her more aware of word order in English.
We’ve been working this way for a couple of months and there’s definitely been a lot of improvement in Anna’s speaking. Needless to say this kind of “boot camp” lesson will not work for a student who is learning English “for themselves” and is looking to have a fun lesson. Translation and being interrupted after every other word is not fun. However, as Anna desperately needs to learn to speak English correctly for her studies, she is motivated enough to go through this kind of regime as long as it helps her achieve her goal.
What I’ve learned from working with Anna is that while universal rules of ESL teaching benefit most students, don’t be afraid to break them and try something different to help your student achieve their language goal!