Helping Students Learn

by Jim bagsh


As a teacher, what is your job?

If you said “to teach” I’m sorry to say you are wrong. You might think that the best language teachers are those with the best pronunciation, use the newest methodologies, and always have the funnest games and activities. Those things are just tools. They could have the best pronunciation but always use their native language in class. They could use the newest methodologies but use them incorrectly. They could have awesome games and activities but they don’t help the students improve their English.

“Teaching” is about helping the students learn. If the students don't learn, then even the 'best' teacher isn't teaching.

The ultimate goal, or outcome is “The students will learn.” Things like methodologies, activities, games and materials, are just tools that the teacher uses to help students learn. Because of that, the best teachers are the ones who know what tools to use for the maximum benefit.

Teach to the student, not the standard

How many teachers experience this? When teaching younger students English, a sizable number of students fail to learn what is taught by the ‘standard’. And every year, teaching to the ‘standard’, just seems to add more to those that are failing. There are students who want to learn, but are struggling so much that they slide further and further behind. Until you reach the oldest students, most who have failed for so long, they don’t even try anymore.

In my experience too many teachers teach to the ‘standard’, that curriculum given by the government. But if our goal is to help students learn, even the standard is just a tool, a benchmark. And just like other tools in our educators toolbox, we need to use the curriculum correctly and to the best advantage.

We do that by using the curriculum as a goal, something we aim for. Our daily goals in our classroom should be to get “the English level of as many students as possible as close to the standard curriculum as we can.”

Can we do that now? No. English, like any skill, is built upon layers and layers, brick by brick. To have the best outcome when students graduate, a good foundation needs to be laid down in the early years, and each grade level must be carefully built upon the last.

But it always goes back to “student”. Every day, with every lesson, with every class, with every piece of homework, with every test, teachers need to ask “Are most of the students learning what I need them to learn?”

If the answer is no, then it is the teacher’s responsibility (not the students) to do something about it. Review more and go back over what students haven't learned. Present new ideas slower and in more depth with more practice. Trying different (not necessarily ‘new’) methodologies. Switching activities and games. Constantly assessing what is being taught, how it is taught, and if it is working.

Much needed ‘student’ skills are lacking

As English teachers, we are so focused on teaching ‘language’, that we forget that our students, especially younger children are still learning ‘how to be a student’. A few students seem to have a natural ability to write notes, study on their own, and generally excel in all their classes. And it is wonderful to have those in your classroom. But they are a gift - the real work is the rest of the students in your classes.

As a teacher trainer, I walk around my co-teachers classroom and am very, very concerned at how many students do not know how to take notes. But it isn’t because they are bad students - they just haven’t learned how to do it. Especially when teaching younger students, it is crucial that teachers assess how they write things on the board. Is it clear? Is it organized? Is it too much information? Can it be copied easily? And then check to make sure that all of the students are getting the material down in their notebooks right.

We cannot just assume that it is the students’ fault. If they don’t have the skills they need to learn, that it is 100% the teachers responsibility to help them learn what they need to know. If the student has the skills but chooses not to use them, then that is on the student. But even then, the teacher still needs to work to motivate the student to “learn”. As teachers, we cannot give up on anyone.

Besides note-taking, what about skills like memorizing new vocabulary? Or learning how to write a paragraph? Or how to summarise a story? Learning is pretty universal. Skills learned in language class can be transferred to other school subjects like math, science, social studies and even places like music and physical education.

English teachers need to be aware of how other teachers are teaching their subjects, so they can take advantage of skills the students have already learned and to know what skills they have not. And language teachers should also share what they have learned about teaching to all the other teachers because you never know what could be useful in another context.

For example, students can thrive in a structured environment where things seem familiar. It allows them a sense of safety while letting them explore new things. English teachers should look at how younger students are taught their native language in class. What methodologies are used? What activities have the teachers used that were the most effective? New isn’t always the best when it comes to teaching. A new method isn’t always superior to an old method just because it is new.

Connect, connect, connect

With increased accessibility to social networking through the internet, teachers should be sharing their knowledge. Teachers who spend their whole day in the classroom, dealing with every day problems, should be helping each other. Instead of looking at those teachers who have students who win competitions, they should be looking at teachers who have the highest number of students who can actually use their new language.

And sharing is simply not copying what someone else did. We should be asking questions about how something was used, when did it work and when did it not work, which students did it benefit the most and which students did if fail to help?

Teachers need to connect, really connect. And schools need to support this, especially those in isolated rural communities. Our goal of getting the English level of as many students as possible as close to the standard curriculum as we can means for the whole country, not just the in the big cities.

Every student should be shown how to learn the most they can so that they have the highest potential they can reach for. It doesn’t matter if they have aspirations to be a herder, or the prime minister, they need to have all the tools they can carry to help them throughout life. Learning is a universal tool that benefits everyone, everywhere, anytime.