Thursday, March 1, 2007

Changing students' classroom expectations about lectures and dictionaries

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery

My students expected me to stand and lecture the whole time, and they complained almost constantly for the first month or so that "we're not learning" and "you're not teaching us". When I asked what they meant, they said, "you're not explaining what the text means and telling us the answers." I said, "Do you want to know the answers, or do you want to learn English?" It was the first time someone told them there was a distinction.

Progress was made on the day I took away their dictionaries. As they filed into class, I told them to put their all dictionaries on my desk. Of course there was a huge pile. Then, I had them read a story I had printed from the internet (not from the textbook, which they've already written translation for in all the margins). I told them to underline any words they didn't know, and keep reading. When they had finished, I asked them the main idea, and they got it right! I made a really big deal about that. "You understood! Without your dictionary! Hurray!!" Then, we went through each of the words they didn't know, and I walked them through the guessing-from-context procedure. As they guessed the words, I did the song and dance again, "You learned the meaning without the dictionary! Yes!" They got the message.

Also, every time I explain a word or expression, I use at least one visual example. Sometimes physical action, sometimes a picture drawn on the blackboard, depending on what a given word lends itself to. The students loved to giggle at me demonstrating things like "stagger" and "off-key", but they would always look in their dictionaries (I did give them back) to double-check the translation.

Just yesterday, we came nearer to a cure for dictionaryitis. I took the list of unknown vocabulary that students had turned in from an outside reading assignment, and I gave each student two words from that list. Each student was to become an expert on the two words, then teach them to the class using 1. the definition in English, 2. a sentence in English, and 3. a visual example. So, when they presented, I just sat in an empty student seat, and watched...and there was no whining about my "not teaching" them. It was downright inspirational to me to see one student explain "intercept" by drawing a soccer diagram where one player kicks the ball toward another, but a third player takes it away. The whole class nodded and murmurred the Chinese equivalent of "Aha!". And I didn't see anyone reach for
their dictionary! It was the kind of moment that makes the English teacher in me want to jump up and shout, "YES! Exactly right! Way to make it real!"

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