True story. I was called in at short notice to cover a class for an absent colleague towards the end of the last school year. The students were 12th graders – 18 years old – and so had their final exams in English looming. It soon became apparent that they were counting down the days to the exam with the kind of enthusiasm that you might muster for a trip to the dentist’s.
These students were not academic high flyers; they were simply looking to get through the B1-level test in one piece. They were shy, reluctant to speak and unsure of their English. Hmm. I only had 45 minutes – and after that we were unlikely ever to have another lesson together. What to do?
It was too late to back out of the door and slither away down the corridor. I suggested we take a look at exam speaking tasks and topics. They agreed – which is to say they shrugged and looked at the corner of their desks, being careful not to catch my eye.
And so we began by looking at some of the topics that come up on the speaking test.
Now the bad news for students is this: you cannot get significantly better at English in the course of a single lesson. The good news, however, is that you don’t have to. Something we can achieve in 45 minutes, on the other hand, is to demonstrate to weaker students that 1) they are good enough and 2) they need not be afraid of the exam tasks.
The topic we were discussing (OK, I was discussing) was healthy living. What can you tell me about young people’s diets?
The answer, it turned out, was not very much. When students believe that their spoken English is poor, getting them to speak can be extremely difficult. What they needed was encouragement. Correct their mistakes? Why? It was much too late for that. Instead of reinforcing their own sense of insecurity, I wanted to give them a bit of confidence.
‘Communicate your ideas – don’t worry about the mistakes. You’re allowed to make mistakes.’
Oops. I said the ‘I’ word. That’s the other big problem in situations like this. Ideas. Students can have absolutely no idea what to say when they have to talk about a topic such as diet and healthy living – not even in the mother tongue.
Typical attempt: ‘Young…people…eating…lot of…fast…food…’ Then phut – it’s like the tank is empty and there’s nothing left to say.
‘Write this down,’ I said, and went over to the board and wrote: My grandmother always says…
Then we tried it again. This time, they had to start their answer with My grandmother always says… – that was the rule. And it didn’t matter what their actual grandmother did or didn’t say.
And what was the outcome? Well, the difference that grandmother made was startling. First of all I think we can agree that ‘My grandmother always says young people eating lot of fast food’ is a much better answer than ‘Young people eating lot of fast food.’ It’s personalised, creates an authentic-sounding context, and adds an element of structural complexity which enhances the linguistic merit of the utterance as well.
There is something else, though. Something much more interesting. What I’ve found is this. As soon as the words leave the students’ lips, they have an idea of what to say next. Suddenly the possibilities are obvious. There is somewhere for the answer to go.
Even better, the beauty of grandmother is that she is surprisingly – and consistently – successful at transforming platitudes into memorable answers. Take your dullest, driest exam questions (‘What is your ideal holiday?’, ‘Do you prefer the cinema or the theatre?’ ‘Why is it important to learn foreign languages?’) and give them the grandmother treatment, and you’ll find that after a while the students start to smile – and then to speak.
The lesson ended and I wished the students luck. And I never taught them again. Occasionally, however, I’d pass them in the corridor or stand behind them in the dinner queue. One of them would always give me the thumbs-up and smile: ‘Sir! My grandmother always says…’
They had discovered they were good enough – and it was all thanks to grandmother.