Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 15, 2018
Nicholas McKay

Helping students experiencing great difficulty with English

You can’t save everyone.

My media teaching instructor once said this to me. It is a philosophy I strongly believe in, even if it seems a little cruel.

I love teaching. Being able to change a student’s life, by teaching them something they didn’t know, is priceless.

However, students come to you at the start of the year at varying stages of their education. Some students may have advanced ability levels, being several years ahead of their peers.

Other students might be lagging behind. I’ve had 14-year-old students with an ability level in reading and writing that mimics an 8-year-old’s.

‘Some students fall through the cracks’ is a statement I hear a lot. In fact, I hear it a lot more than I would like.

A student you may have in your class

As an example, I have a student right now in one of my classes experiencing great difficulty with English. She is 14 years old. To protect her identity, I’m going to call her Gabby.

Gabby has moved around a lot, and because of this, has missed a whole year of schooling. Instead of being asked to repeat a year of school, Gabby was allowed to continue to the next stage of her education.

Though keeping her back would have done little for Gabby’s confidence, to allow her, or anyone in her position to continue, without any interventional strategy, is equally damaging.

To say Gabby struggles with English would be an understatement. When I see her in the hall, I say ‘hello’ to her, and she replies in kind. You wouldn’t know from this exchange that she has so much trouble with the language.

As soon as she enters my class, Gabby is overcome with anxiety. She looks terrified. There is one thing a student fears more than anything else: to be told they’re dumb.

It’s a sad fact that many students think they’re dumb – even some of the most gifted of students.

When you’re a child, the whole world is on your shoulders. You have pressure from parents, you have a future to plan, homework for every subject, work and family commitments, relationships – the list just goes on.

Students are scared that with all of these commitments, they will fail. I bring this up, because when I look into Gabby’s eyes, I know she thinks she’s dumb. She’s scared of the day when someone confirms this for her.

I however, have no intention of ever doing so.

The first steps to improving a below-average student

As I said earlier, you can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. As teachers, we are often taught to teach the collective group, not the individual.

By using this strategy, however, those students who are lagging behind the others academically continue to exhibit trouble.

You cannot help a student by continuously giving them work they cannot do.

For Gabby, I first asked her to read to me. The story was about a ballet teacher.

Gabby could not pronounce the word ‘ballet’, instead reading it the way it was spelt. She also could not pronounce character names. And any word with three syllables or more reduced her to an anxious wreck.

Secondly, I gave her a listening test. I read out a short passage, line by line, and asked her to write down what I read aloud. I read each line three times, including the punctuation. Then at the end I read everything again, so she had the opportunity to self-correct.

The result was – actually, I can’t even think of a word to describe it.

Not a single sentence was complete. Multiple words had been misspelled, misheard, or simply missed out entirely. To be blunt – nothing made sense.

I also asked Gabby to complete a spelling test. I read out 75 words to her. I sounded these out to make it easier. These included common usage words, like ‘our’, to more complicated words, like ‘museum’, ‘responsibility’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘receive’.

Gabby managed to spell 17 of these words correctly.

There are steps you can take to improve the language skills of a below-average student.

Gabby failed a number of tests, including a spelling test.

Breaking down the learning difficulties

After learning a lot about Gabby’s abilities from these tests, I then had to put this information into practice.

Considering there seemed to be so much Gabby was experiencing difficulty with, I firstly had to narrow down the list. To do this, I identified what repetitive errors she made. What was she having the most trouble with?

I couldn’t very well help Gabby with everything at once. That would be impossible. One step at a time is my philosophy.

With this in mind, I firstly discovered Gabby exhibits difficulty with proper nouns. She doesn’t know when a noun ought to be capitalised.

She also had difficulty with tenses. Her writing randomly switched between past and present tense so quickly, it was difficult to keep up.

Thirdly, I identified that Gabby has trouble with certain sounds, in particular, ‘er’, ur’ and ‘ir’.

Teaching strategies that worked

I developed a worksheet for Gabby that was tailored to the three areas of difficulty that I identified.

I issued her with step-by-step instructions, and explained this to her in simple terms. While other students worked on a different task, I allowed Gabby to complete a worksheet aimed at her ability level.

Gabby was able to effectively capitalise most of the proper nouns, and was even able to incorporate the correct ‘er’, ‘ur’ and ‘ir’ sounds in a fill-in-the-gap activity (which included words like Saturday and murder).

When it came to the tenses however, Gabby needed to ask for my assistance. By reading the words with her, she was able to generate her own responses. All of them, with the exception of one, were correct. Each time she answered a question, I explained the rules behind the particular tense.

In so doing, I discovered that under the right circumstances, Gabby is able to successfully complete these difficulty areas. But where to next?

My next strategy was to undertake a game in class. Students lined up in two rows, each row being a separate team.

I would show a word to both students at the front, and they were required to pronounce it. If they pronounced it correctly, they scored a point. If they were also quick to do so, they scored an extra point.

No points were deducted for improper pronunciation. Instead, I would ask the class as a whole to pronounce it with me, to ensure overall cohesion.

When Gabby came to the front, I would first give her an easier word to boost her confidence. Over time, when it was her turn, I would gradually increase the difficulty.

Before the game, I taught Gabby a simple trick – many bigger words, despite looking complicated, can be sounded out by separating them into syllables. Though Gabby sometimes took longer to say a word in contrast with others, I was happy to reward her with a point for her ability to try.

The road ahead

Had I not simplified the content for her, I may have lost Gabby completely.

Many teachers I know say communication is the biggest factor in teaching. Though I agree, I also say trust is just as big a factor. If a student does not trust a teacher is doing the best for them, they will lose motivation.

Gabby will be submitting an assessment to me shortly. I have given her a modified rubric, so in essence, her assignment is easier than other student’s.

With the information I acquire from her work, I will be able to assess if the improvement she demonstrated earlier has continued. I will also be able to identify other potential areas she requires help with.

Being a teacher is not easy, and whoever says it is, needs a good talking to. But as long as you try (and as the age-old mantra suggests, slow and steady wins the race), that is all anyone can ever expect from you.

Have you had a student like Gabby? How did you help improve their English?

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