Tagged: methods

Mark it: A quick story and then some tough questions

So I had this student a while back. Let’s call him Mark. That was not his name, nor was it even his English name. He was a Korean student in his very early 20’s and I thought he was extremely bright. Some, just some, of the reasons I thought this were because his major was something that made rocket science sound simple and because he went to one of the best universities in Korea. Mark was also a very nice, if perhaps socially awkward, dude. I enjoyed working with him.

I was working in an intensive English program attached to a university in Seoul and Mark was taking a bit of time off from his university studies to brush up on his English. Actually, brush up is not the right word. He came to learn how to use English. Even though he went to one of the best unis in Korea (and had the test scores to match) Mark really couldn’t make a sentence, any sentence, when he joined the program. By the end of 20 weeks he was by no means fluent but he could do a lot in English and he looked pretty comfortable doing it. At this point I am willing to admit that everything I am talking about is directly related to simply an increase in confidence. Before Mark came to the program he’d had around 12 years of (mostly, I assume) grammar-translation teaching that helped prepare him for the college entrance exam. He did very well on that exam but could barely speak English at all.

The above is why he was registered in the lowest of all 15 of the groups in the intensive English program. In this program students took 30 hours of class and in doing so took courses from 5-6 teachers. I was the teacher that Mark spent the most time with, teaching “Learning to Speak” (which could be considered something like a fluency focused basic discussion course tailored to lower-levels). The other classes, which he took with 10 other students,  included “Practical English” (for the purposes of this post we can consider it to mean a more form-focused class following a coursebook), Listening, Reading (maybe), and Writing.

I was continually impressed, and indeed thrilled, with the progress of Mark and his classmates. I was especially impressed with the dramatic improvement Mark showed. I know that he was highly motivated and worked very hard. Perhaps it was (semi) youthful hubris but I really believed at that time that my magic mix of support, kindness,  and opportunities to use the language coupled with fantabulous feedback were some of the main keys to his success. Now, with the passage of time and a bit of maturity I realize that there were likely factors other than his aptitude, intelligence, and diligence coupled with my mad teaching skillz and overall brilliance. With some time, distance, and humility I am also wondering about the implications of this tale, if any, for my future teaching (or others for that matter) I am having a hard time isolating what might have helped Mark improve so dramatically and so rapidly. Maybe this is all beyond the scope of a 600 or so word blog post.

Questions that come to mind:  

  1. What kind of data (replace date with words like proof or evidence here if you wish) would people need to see to believe Mark improved so much?
    (Besides, of course, some shmuck blathering on about it 5 years later)
  2. (How) Could we measure, quantify, or even explain Mark’s progress in terms of SLA?
    (I mean now, or even at the time)
  3. Could we really say the intensive program was all that helpful considering all the time he had spent in English classes prior to ever setting foot in the intensive English program?
  4. Is there something to be said for spending 12 years being talked at about English?
    (Perhaps not fair. Sorry everyone.)
  5. (How) Could we consider measuring the impact of each of the various courses he and his classmates took at that time?
  6. (How) Could we consider measuring the impact of the previous 12 years of schooling?
  7. Are there any lessons to be drawn from this besides “it helps to be clever and studying 30 hours a week after 12 years might work?”
  8. What am I missing?
  9. Are these questions useless or otherwise beyond the point of what we need to consider as language teachers?
    (I am a big boy, ready to read any responses here )