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.

Stressing out about stress

I can’t remember how many times I’ve told my students that stress – the emphasis placed on the sound or syllable spoken most forcefully in a word or phrase – is a very important aspect of spoken English. I tell them that although this linguistic feature may seem trivial to native speakers of Czech, it can be a matter of communicative survival in English. The trouble is that Czech has a fixed stress, meaning that its position can be predicted by a simple rule, i.e. it almost always comes on the first syllable. It’s not a big issue if you place the stress elsewhere – you will likely be understood, provided you get other aspects of pronunciation right.

My students often struggle with sentence stress – the stress placed on words within sentences – and I wrote about ways of handling it here. They also find it difficult to deal with lexical stress – the stress placed on syllables within words. There are two notorious words I repeatedly correct – hotel and event. It doesn’t matter how many times I model the pronunciation; in most cases my students will get it wrong the next time again. There are obvious reasons for this: as already mentioned above, it’s natural for my students to speak stressing the first syllables in words. Moreover, despite the fact that in written Czech the word for hotel is identical to its English counterpart, we pronounce it slightly differently, i.e. we place the stress on the first syllable.

Now, my students are not the only ones who sometimes struggle with this aspect of spoken English. I remember at least two occasions when my message seemed totally unintelligible to my Australian friend, just because I placed the word stress incorrectly. For example, I remember that my friend looked really puzzled when I told him about the problem with mosquitoes. I pronounced it [ˈmɒskitəʊs] instead of [məˈskiːtəʊs]. I had to repeat the word several times and even describe the insect before my friend got the meaning. I was pretty frustrated because to my Czech ear, the difference is not so dramatic, and if I heard the word pronounced in different ways, I think I would always understand. By the way, this is one of the dangers of monolingual classes taught by a teacher speaking the same L1 – we understand one another and easily ignore things that seem unimportant to us. 

Another communication breakdown happened when I used the word teetotaller. I said [ˈtiːtəʊtlə] instead of [tiːˈtəʊtlə]. Neither repeating the word nor raising a glass of beer helped my friend to get the meaning. I had to spell the word (which got me into even more trouble, as you can imagine)! I know that this isn’t a very frequent word but this situation clearly demonstrates what an important role word stress can play.  

I’m really happy I experienced those two communicative failures since I can share these stories with my students; I can show them what pitfalls there are waiting outside the safe L2 classroom. 

Challenging one of my personal myths …

If you have been a teacher for some time now, there are probably certain principles you strongly believe in. It is possible that you consider some approaches better than others. For example, you might believe that communicative language teaching is better than the grammar translation method. Or, and this is my case, you may believe that certain seating arrangements work better for your classes than other alternatives.

I’ve always felt a strong dislike of teaching language classes in the traditional classroom layout – straight rows facing the front of the classroom. Ironically, although this straight row arrangement has been widely criticized, mostly because it is said to inhibit experimentation in the classroom, it still predominates in most educational settings. It is not surprising that the majority of classrooms in the school where I work are arranged this way.

I’ve always preferred the horseshoe arrangement, mainly because I believe that it’s best for both student-student and student-teacher interaction. I like it when I can face all my students and I like the space this type of layout provides. But more importantly, I think it’s good when students can see one another’s faces (and mouths) all the time. This is particularly important in a language classroom, where people listen and talk to each other most of the time. In fact, whenever I had to teach in a room where this arrangement wasn’t possible, I felt extremely uncomfortable.

But some time ago I became a student again and I started attending seminars and workshops, where both types of layouts were common. Suddenly, seen from the student perspective, the one I disliked as a teacher didn’t seem much worse than the one I preferred. On the contrary, I remember occasions when I felt physical and psychological discomfort when sitting in the horseshoe arrangement; either because I had chosen an inconvenient spot – one of those places where I was forced to keep my head and neck in a very unhealthy position when looking at the board – or because the room was jam-packed with people and I felt I had lost my personal space – the intimate zone reserved for close friends and family members.

Back to my teaching context, though. I teach in a small room which can accommodate up to 22 people. The size of the room allows you to make a horseshoe out of 8 double desks at the most. However, as I started teaching slightly larger classes back in September, and I didn’t really want to move into a different room, I simply brought three more desks and created an additional, smaller horseshoe inside the big one. As you can see below, although it looked pretty cosy and learner-friendly, it was crammed with quite a few students. This realization, as well as my personal experience, nudged me into a small experiment.

Before …

One day, before the first group entered the room, I had changed the current layout to the traditional one (see below). As it is quite a small room, the change didn’t look too dramatic to me, but I felt that at least I had created some space around each desk. Nevertheless, it was interesting to observe my students’ first reactions to the tweak. I had to smile when I overheard some of the comments the kids uttered upon entering the classroom: “What? ” Oh no! ” What’s this supposed to be? ” “Oh dear!” “This is terrible!” Some just looked puzzled thinking that this was only a mistake which was going to be fixed as soon as their lesson started.

After

The whole point of the post will be revealed soon. I obviously might have changed the layout right after having heard the initial negative reactions, but I decided to wait for a couple of more lessons and enjoy all the psychological impact this alternation had on my students. I want to stress that all my students are in their teens, which means that their negative reactions may only be a type of adolescent rebellion. Anyway, after the second lesson spent in the ‘new’ room, when they seemed to have adjusted to the change a bit, I asked each group the following question: I know you said you felt discomfort when you entered the room for the first time, but I’d like to ask you to share with me some potential advantages this seating arrangement might bring. 

I was really surprised at some of their ideas. Although some students still kept the defensive pose, others had already changed their mind. Well, actually, it’s not that bad. I’m enjoying it after all.

Here are some of the perks they eventually came up with. The tongue-in-the-cheek ones are indicated with a smiley face.

1) I can hear my partner better during the speaking activities, probably due to the fact that our personal space is not invaded from all directions.
2) I don’t have to look at other people’s faces 🙂 My personal note: I believe that some students might also find it embarrassing to be constantly observed by their peers.
3) At least it doesn’t feel like the awful evening language course we attend. 🙂
4) My neck doesn’t hurt anymore.
5) I can rest my arm on the radiator, which I couldn’t before. 🙂
6) The teacher can’t spot the mobile phones hidden under the desks. 🙂
7) We can concentrate better.
8) Swinging on chairs is safer now. 🙂

The most obvious conclusion is that most people resist change and they don’t hesitate to express the resistance as soon as they are confronted with something new. But once they adjust to the new thing, they may discover that it’s not that bad in the end. It’s possible that sooner or later they will want to come back to the old and traditional, or maybe they’ll want to move one step forward. I myself made a step forward when I tried something I had always been reluctant to do. I should add that from a technical point of view, there are some advantages to this seating arrangement, such as the fact that the students can easily and smoothly change partners without even having to stand up. But this is for another post.

…and this is probably a parody of my post :-))