Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Good at English

JH asked me after class for "help with English". What sort of help do you need, I asked.

"Just... help."

Poor JH. Here's a good example of a student who is enthusiastic for English, has been exposed to it often and thus speaks it with fluency -- a slight British flavor to her minimal Korean accent -- who is struggling with the system because her knowledge of formal grammar isn't on par with her peers.

"Everyone thinks I'm good at English, but I'm not," she lamented. "I get low scores on tests. When you have a question to choose which answer is incorrect, my friends look at the sentence like Subject, Object, Verb, but I just try to read which one doesn't sound right."

I, for one, think her English is excellent. Most of my students can't put together an utterance the way she did without first writing it down and asking me to "check please Teacher." Even the ones who get high exam scores are often too shy or scared in class to actually say anything in English out loud. Truth be told, there is more than one way to be "good at English".

"'Good at English' and 'Good at grammar' are different," I told her. "Many native speakers -- many Americans -- speak fluently, but they still make grammar mistakes. In your case, I think that choosing an incorrect sentence based on how it sounds is not a bad method -- it's what native speakers do all the time in non-exam situations. That said," I continued, "I would only suggest it for a native speaker taking a test made by and for native speakers. You are a non-native speaker taking a test made by a non-native speaker. In this case, in order to succeed, you must know the grammar rules."

"It's so hard..."

"Yeah, it's hard, and it's unfortunate, but don't let it get you down. In college, my favorite science subject was biology." (I didn't tell her it was the only science class I took.) "It was difficult, and I was not happy about getting low grades, but I still enjoyed it. Hopefully your grade doesn't affect your feelings too much. I know this is hard, because your scores are very important for you. But I think you are just fine."

And to think I can only successfully communicate that kind of advice to a student if they're already really advanced...

JH tried to look encouraged. I told her to come to my office to ask any specific grammar questions any time she wanted. Honestly, I wasn't sure how to help her. She could bring her tests to me so I could show her what went wrong and how to fix it, but my co-teacher, the one who actually teaches the grammar class, could do the same and better. Here's the thing: I've learned after a few semesters that my role as "the native English teacher" is not to teach my students the English that they'll need to pass the English portions of the 수능 or any standardized tests, but to focus on conversational English, "useful" English, and bits and pieces of American culture. I'm also here to cheer them on every day, because English class is hard and high school is even harder and life at a science high school is the hardest of all.

In any case, I'm glad JH reached out to me first, because now I know a little bit better how I should support her and cater to her learning style. Sometimes I wonder if the most I can offer my students is a feeble "화이팅! You can do it!" as they stare down the barrel of an academic bazooka, but once in a while the opportunity to really make a difference in a student's life presents itself. I hope this is one such time!

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