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Texas ISD School Guide
Texas ISD School Guide

Articles for Teachers

"My Students are too Stupid to Learn"

I never get angrier when I hear a teacher say this. Students are not too stupid to learn. The teachers, who say this, look at you and say that they (the students) just look at them with a blank expression and don't answer questions. Teachers who do this are guilty of the Cultural Deficit Theory where they just believe other cultures are not as smart as they. If a teacher feels this way it's best that they resign from their position and return to their homeland.

To those teachers, whom claim that they are great teachers, I have to ask one question: Have you taught them? Once I ask this most teachers give me that look. When a student doesn't understand or appears not to understand do you ask open ended questions? Do you look for what the problem is? Maybe the student should be retained another term to try again. Maybe a student works 9 hours after he/she leaves school at the family business. Maybe you didn't check homework, give feedback, help with answers. Maybe you didn't prepare a good lesson where the student understood it. Did you model the lesson or focus on form? Maybe a student should write an answer down on paper instead of speaking. Maybe they aren't stupid, but were never taught properly.

The truth is when you ask a student a question and they stare at you with a blank expression one of two things are happening in the students mind. The first is they are trying to understand what you are saying. During this time they are processing your question. (Remember they don't speak English and their listening skills haven't been totally mastered.) Then they need time to process what is being asked of them and to process this information to form an answer. This may take 3-10 seconds. This is known as wait time and teachers must give students ample time to process the question given to them to create an answer.

The second problem is that previous teacher(s) before may have rushed them or the lesson plans and this causes students to fall behind. Some language schools only care about money. Because of this very few, if any, students fail. In Cambodia, one formerly popular school actually allowed students to pay $3.00 for a retake of the their final exam, if the student passed it they went on to the next level. The students very well may have missed 50% of the lessons, never took a quiz during the term, never did homework or participated in any activities and subsequently never learned a thing. They may pass the final with a 40% and then passed on to the next level. This too is detrimental to a students education.

One school I taught at asked me why the students couldn't speak English. I went to teach a class and discovered the teachers were mainly concerned about TPR and not having the students speak to each other. Students need to speak 70% of the time. They were more inclined to have the students repeat a phrase in unison. While repeating a sentence is good as some students may feel more comfortable screaming out a sentence in unison with others. It doesn't work unless that one student is capable of asking another student a question and their partner can answer it. This is where the Communicative Approach and BICS comes into play. Pair work is more helpful than shout outs. I used to have my class do role play and pair work once a week. At the end of the term one student told me she didn't like my teaching methods to begin with, but I was the first who made her speak and listen at the same time. Now she didn't want to leave. This is what students need.

Students must be assessed and if they do not meet a certain criteria they must retake the class over. Students who are rushed and never corrected or helped become fossilized and their learning becomes stagnant. Once they reach a certain level they cannot learn and the errors they have committed remain. This should never happen in an ESL setting. Teachers must choose all students to talk, question them, ensure they are active in speaking and try to get them involved in the learning. I've seen some teachers never speak to a student after the first day because they do not believe the student speaks English. They have done that student no favors.

When students have problems learning it's basically from the affective filter being raised. The affective filter is an imaginary wall that is raised when a student feels stress. When a student feels too much stress they block out any information being received and therefore cannot learn. So when a student doesn't understand a lesson it's best a teacher understand what the situation is and not cause the students stress level to rise. By doing this the student will be able to concentrate and learn with better results. To lower the stress level find out what the student knows and doesn't know. Talk with them on a break. During the class have them sit with a partner who is willing to help them by talking to them in English, explaining the lesson and anything else the student needs to reduce his/her stress level. This will help you and them.

Training is the key. Many teachers may have had only a short 4 week training course. 90% of what you will learn is in the classroom is by trial and error. You can learn other teaching methods by reading up on how to teach a certain topic on the internet. However, many teachers overseas would rather pick up a beer bottle on their time off then turn on a computer and do an internet search to improve their teaching styles.

With training there are other variables that impact teacher attitudes which, in return, influence how they teach and how they feel about their students. Some of these are: How many foreigners (ESL students) were the teacher in contact with growing up? How many ESL students were in their college? If they lived overseas before or if they ever learned a foreign language. The more contact they had with ESL students the more accepting they are, more willing to accept students, say positive things about the students and help them. If a teacher has learned a foreign language they can understand the frustration a student may be having learning another language.

I really should state this again teachers should never say students are too stupid to learn. Students are only as good as their teachers train them.

Keith Brooks has a Masters Degree in ELL from Western Governors University, has taught in five countries and has taught over 3,000 students. He manages a website and does seminars on ELL topics. He has created curriculum for numerous schools in Cambodia and has taught TESOL programs in several countries. He has written a book entitled "Introduction to TESOL" which helps new teachers understand how to teach English to ELL students. It contains more than 400 vocabulary terms, methodologies and theories which will help teachers understand how to teach to students.

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