I teach ESL to preschoolers and tutor elementary school kids in English as well. All my students came to me from the local school, where the kids weren’t handling the school program. I was a little surprised when I discovered how the children didn’t know the full alphabet, even though many of them have been studying English for well over a year.
After nearly a year of tutoring them, I felt inspired to write an open letter to their teacher. I am not here to condemn him or his teaching methods. This letter just came from another teacher who doesn’t understand why the children have to struggle with this foreign language in school and not make any progress, even after two grades of learning.
An Open Letter to the Elementary School English Teacher.
I am not here to tell you how to run your class, because I know handling over twenty students is a challenge that Hercules probably would not have been able to handle. I know the system under which you must work is hard and complicated. I know it is so much more than just a couple of hours with students. I understand the vast amount of paper work you are loaded up with, the pressure from the principle, and other problems that a teacher must deal with while not in the classroom. It is hard and draining and I praise your determination to teach in a school at all, as it is not the most rewarding of tasks as far as many people are concerned.
I am not here to tell you what a horrible teacher you are, or tell you that there is something wrong with you. All I am really here to do is ask why.
Why do your students come to me nervous and fearful? Why are they afraid every time they don’t know a word from the textbook vocabulary? Why do they get red in the face and start fidgeting as though searching for a place to hide when they don’t understand something? Why are they so tense? So quiet? So afraid of me? Why does it take me two to four lessons just to get them to relax? To start talking? To open up?
Each one of your students followed this same pattern when they came to me for private tutoring lessons. They would drop their gaze when unable to answer a question. They would take deep breaths waiting for me to lose my temper, or get mad, or react in some other negative way. For the first two weeks I had to reassure them before, during, and after every activity that it was okay if they didn’t know the answers. That it was alright if they didn’t understand. That I was there to help them learn so they shouldn’t be afraid to tell me they don’t know.
I know teaching a new language is hard, but I’ll let you in on little secret: learning it isn’t much easier. The children are all elementary students. This means they have only recently learned to read and write in their native language and are still struggling with the rules and grammar. Now, plus to that, they are given a foreign language and asked to grapple with it as well.
I don’t want to judge your teaching methods, but your students come to me not knowing the alphabet. Some of them know less than half the letters. You have been teaching some of them for two years. May I be so daring as to ask: what have you been teaching them all this time?
One of the second grade students told me how you began giving her reading and writing assignments before she even fully grasped the alphabet. She still can’t read in English properly and this is after nearly a full year of studying.
You complain to their parents that you can’t get them to read, but has it ever occurred to you that without a proper knowledge of the alphabet they will never read? The alphabet is the basis of reading, the basis of the language and if your students do not know it how can they be expected to read or write anything in the language?
You give them dictations every week without giving the proper time to learn the new words – to children who have only been studying English for less than a proper school year. Children, who, I repeat, don’t even know the alphabet!
Some parents have the time and knowledge to help their students, but some do not and that is why they are forced to turn to me; not so much as to teach them English but to help them with the homework that you insist on loading them up with. I was taken aback by the amount of homework you give them. I wonder if you realize that the children don’t understand the homework. How do you expect them to do it?
Extra homework is not the solution the problem. It would be like giving pages and pages of multiplication and division to someone who hasn’t yet grasped the full concept of numbers. What is more, when they come to me for private tutoring we spend so much time doing the homework that I don’t even have time to teach them the basics that you were supposed to have given them from the beginning. Out of one hour we spend half an hour to forty-five minutes trying to figure out the homework; that leaves me with half an hour to fifteen minutes to drill them in grammar, learn the vocabulary in the textbook, and hopefully learn something that will help them next time they come to your class.
Once again, I don’t want to come down hard on you, but I am a little puzzled. The children don’t understand what they are learning. What is the point of teaching them, then? What is more, because they don’t understand the learning experience becomes a drag. It’s not fun, it’s boring, it’s confusing, and it is something you are teaching them to hate.
Learning a foreign language can be so much fun. It is an opportunity to learn about a different culture, a different way of life. And yes, you may not have the time and energy to make each lesson some grand adventure, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it simple.
In fact, I am of the opinion that simple is the way to go. Don’t try to cram all sorts of information to the children. Be willing to take it slow. Don’t expect the impossible of them. Understand they have other subjects in school, and that they don’t need you to give them as much English as possible with the hopes that they will be reading and writing fluently by the end of the first school year.
Just give them the basics. Especially to the second graders who are being introduced to English for the first time. There is a saying. Do few things, but do them well. Perhaps the kids will know less, but they will know it well. Well enough that when they enter the next grade they will be able to keep up with the school program instead of fumbling around, confused and discouraged.
You are not a native English speaker yourself. Surely you understand what it is like to try and learn a foreign language. It is a challenging process. Lots of things don’t make sense and it takes an effort to get the hang of it. And being loaded up with too much information is not the way to go about it.
We are entering the fourth quarter. The sun is out, the weather is getting warmer and it will become even harder to keep the kids in the classroom, be it yours or mine. I want to ask you to take it easy on the kids. Give them time to learn the material. Explain the rules in such a way that they will understand. Don’t over load them with information. Make it simple, but doable. This will not only help the kids to enjoy and understand their last two months of English in school, but it will make your job easier, and mine as well.
Wouldn’t you agree that it is better to finish the year with students who have a basic knowledge of English instead of students who don’t understand what on earth they were doing in their English classroom for two hours every week?
After all, we all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day; surely we can just as easily understand languages can’t be learned overnight.
The private tutor of some of your students.
(media gotten from freeimages.com)