Is there a way to turn haters into lovers?

I’ve never had a student who would openly say that they hate my subject. Not right to my face anyway. I remember a few who did say they didn’t like English, though. These were either the students who I had just started teaching, so they had had some previous (presumably bad) experience, or those who I had been teaching myself for a while (and thus I felt it was me to blame for their lack of enthusiasm).

Needless to say, one should always be wary of taking things too personally. Let’s not bash ourselves too much about things we can’t control. Instead, let’s stop and carefully analyse all the possible reasons why students may actually dislike English classes in general. Here’s a list I’ve compiled for myself and those potentially interested.

  1. Some students simply find the lessons boring, no matter what; for the most part, they can’t relate to the topics typically covered in English courses.
  2. They reckon it’s not a serious subject with all those silly games and fun activities.
  3. They feel like English classes are a waste of time; after all, they can learn English from movies, video games and YouTube.
  4. They dread failure; they are anxious about tests and other high-stakes events which can spoil the joy of learning virtually anything.
  5. Although they don’t mind listening and reading, they hate performing in class. It is the productive skills, i.e. speaking and writing, which they find extremely threatening.
  6. They hate being constantly in the limelight; they find it particularly uncomfortable to expose their feelings and personal views.
  7. English classes may be hard to swallow for individualists who need their own pace and who feel the others are just holding them back (including the teacher). They may also feel the teacher’s methods are not suitable for them, e.g. they find the communicative approach to teaching an L2 totally off.
  8. Related to the previous point, they don’t enjoy pair/group work; they feel like they can’t learn much from their peers so they don’t see the point in collaboration of any sort.
  9. They hate being taught/told what they (think) they already know, i.e. they don’t see the value in recycling the language over and over again.
  10. They feel the lack of some sort of tangibility and immediate achievement; the outcomes and success may often feel elusive throughout the process of L2 acquisition, especially when they hit the plateau stage.
  11. They don’t feel comfortable in a particular group. They feel their level of English is not high enough in comparison with others or they feel other types of peer pressure.
  12. The lessons are potentially challenging for highly sensitive students who crave structure and certainty. Successful mastery of English is preceded by a long journey with lots of unpredictability along the way. It’s a highly individual process, too. Nothing can be fully granted to anybody at any stage. In other words, you can never promise that if a student does X, they will automatically achieve Y. Inevitably, this can be off-putting for some.

There’s a high probability that by reading the list, you’ll actually get to the bottom of the problem. For me, part of the mystery has been solved: it’s not just the teacher to blame in the end. Let’s stop trying to please everybody at all costs. As teachers, we can indeed adjust a few things here and there, but there are some issues that are too complex for us to fix for good, no matter how competent and professional we are. Sometimes, all we need to do is to accept the fact that each student is an individual coming from a different background. What I’m saying here is that there will always be some students who hate English. What is more important is that there will certainly be a few that will love our subject, and these are the ones we should focus on primarily because you know what, the ‘lovers’ may eventually pass some of their enthusiasm on to the ‘haters’. Also, and most importantly, by finding out what is actually so loveable about our classes we can eventually find solutions to some of the problems mentioned above.

Is English a subject?

The notion that learning a foreign language is not the same as learning other subjects in a school curriculum is exhilarating as well as frightening. On the one hand, I feel like it gives us English teachers a lot of freedom. On the other hand, freedom comes with a lot of responsibility. While our colleagues usually teach their subjects by presenting and drilling facts, and then they check the students’ knowledge of those facts by asking display questions, on tests or otherwise, we ELTs have long suspected that such an approach will not help our students to become truly proficient in the target language.

What I mean is that our biology colleagues, for instance, can explicitly teach about their subject and so they can easily get away with a lecture, even in the primary education context. In other words, they can speak for 45 minutes nonstop while the pupils are just listening and taking notes. However, we English teachers can’t possibly adopt such an approach without feeling a bit guilty. Well, obviously, there are situations in which it is useful for your students to merely absorb L2 input. Some examples would be: reading a story, listening to a podcast, watching a movie in English, etc. But this is not what we typically do in the classroom anyway. This is what students do outside of the classroom and honestly, it has proved to be a very effective strategy for improving their language proficiency. So, throughout the lesson, it is our primary responsibility as teachers to make sure that our students get plenty of opportunities to use and do things in the target language. This is the part I’m 100% convinced of and comfortable with.

I’m still not sure how much time should be allocated for drills in an L2 classroom, though. As we all know, drilling refers to a type of audio-lingual technique based on students repeating a model provided by the teacher and the focus is on accuracy rather than fluency. For that reason, drills do come across as inauthentic. However, research shows that they are important to learning new vocabulary, for example (e.g. Alali and Schmitt 2012). As far as display questions are concerned, I plead guilty. I do use them too, especially with lower-level classes. I understand that the problem with display questions (also called known-information questions) is that they are a type of question for which the answer is already clear and teachers ask just to see if the learners know the answer. Again, this makes them appear somewhat phoney. Thus, even with young students, I try to include referential and open-ended questions as much as I can.

It’s also worth mentioning that unlike in other subjects, such as history, L2 learners follow their own non-linear trajectory towards communicative competence. So as a history teacher, you can boldly ask your class to memorize certain dates and historical events related to those dates. Some students will learn the facts easily while others will struggle a bit but at the end of the day, you can expect all of them to answer your questions correctly on a test. We English teachers, on the other hand, have wondered too many times before why on earth Student X still does not know when and how to use the present perfect tense even though we have ‚taught‘ it on so many occasions. Well, this is how it works. Some crops ripen later than others, which doesn’t make them worse or deficient in any way. You just have to be patient. It will happen in the end; you just don’t know when exactly.

So, have I or have I not answered the question in the title of this post? And is this a display or referential question? Well, yes and no. And it can be both, I think. 😉

References
Alali, F. and Schmitt, N. (2012). Teaching formulaic sequences: The same or different from teaching single words? TESOL Journal 3, 2: 153-180.