Are My ESL Students Actually Learning Anything?

While doing my CELTA at International House, one phrase from one of my tutors stuck in my mind:

Did your students actually learn anything?

I’ve made it through my first semester (around 3 months) teaching English in China. I now have just over 200 hours of teaching under my belt. So I’m still a rookie teacher. But I’m way more experienced than when I started.

During term time the schedule is relentless and there’s the constant need for MORE LESSON PLANS.

Now in the break between semesters I’m doing a bit of soul searching as to how it all went.

And now I pause and wonder.

Did my students actually learn anything?

I got a lot better at teaching of course. I now know exactly what topics will get them engaged. And I know which activities will generate the most speaking.

I also did a pretty good job of recording their class scores. I know who the superstars are, and who are struggling. But most of the students lie somewhere in between.

The main problem with teaching English at a Chinese university is that your students won’t actually get that much better. By the time they’ve arrived fresh out of High School many of them are at Upper Intermediate level. To get to Advanced level isn’t generally going to be possible for any of them unless they actually go and work or study in an English speaking country, or they get jobs where they have to speak English all day. A few of my superstars might manage it, but for some reason they’re all boys.

The other problem is that many of them make the same mistakes all the time. The mistakes are so deep rooted that even Chinese nationals who are themselves English Professors make exactly the same mistakes. The key one is he, she and it. Chinese people almost never master this. It all comes down to Mandarin Chinese having only a single word – ta – for all three (although the written characters are different).

I did try doing a mini exercise on different forms of the verb to eat. I noticed that when speaking or writing they’re often all over the place. “I like to ate at KFC” and that kind of stuff. But when I did the exercise in class there wasn’t a single mistake.

I’ve also tried teaching them specifics. For example I did part of a lesson with some new vocabulary. But from what I observe from my students, I need to be getting them to practice what they already know, rather than trying to teach them new things. That much was apparent in the exam I set for them. I got each student to describe an object. Yes a great deal of the students were missing specific items of vocabulary. For example, what shape is a pizza? And there were plenty of grammar calamaties – such as does an Octopus have 8 legs, hands or feet? I also found unexpected problems. For example, a pair of socks proved incredibly difficult for students to describe. I didn’t see that one coming.

Cute? Maybe? Delicious as far as Chinese students are concerned? Definitely. But ask your ESL students what an octopus has 8 of and you’ll get hands, foot, feet, legs, arms and all kinds of answers! One of my students even said it had 6 feet and lived in the sea, which made the rest of the class write a sentence about crabs…

What I most want my students to do is to be able to talk about anything in English. Even if they don’t know the precise vocabulary, I just want them to try to be understood. That is the ultimate goal of my lessons, and I hope I have given them some encouragement to just try speaking in English more.

So what else have I done for them?

I hope that I have taught them a few skills beyond learning English.

I’ve helped them get better at presentations.

One class I did take part in was a translation class. There aren’t too many real life foreigners for the students to practice this skill with, so it was good to take part in one of these.

Group working and public speaking is also a valuable skill to practice. In so many of my job interviews in my earlier life I failed to get the job because I didn’t speak enough.

I’ve also shown them a few things from Western culture. I see so many things in my own country that could be wildly successful in China. So who is going to be the first person to introduce China to The Big Phone Guy, or Zippy from Rainbow, or open an English Fish and Chips restaurant?

Do you think it’s important that intermediate – advanced students learn new grammar or vocabulary in every lesson? Or should they just practice their speaking skills? Leave your comments below.

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