A boy wanted to ask a girl to the school dance, but he was too shy to talk to girls. To help him start to overcome his shyness, one day in a store together, his mom told him to walk up to a female clerk and ask where he could find the toothpaste. If he did that, he’d prove to himself that he could interact successfully with a female who was a total stranger, and he’d be able to see himself moving toward his goal. (From Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.)
I realized that I could apply the principle behind this story to a category of students who seem to be in many of the ESL classes that I’ve taught. They are the ones who are feeling discouraged about their seemingly inability to progress in their language-skill development. Many of them have failed the course, and in some cases, more than once.
Some of these learners don’t feel like trying any more.
Some of these learners give up trying because they don’t believe that they can succeed. They attribute their failure to a lack of (natural) ability rather than factors that are changeable and that they can control (Dornyei, Motivational Strategies In The Language Classroom.)
Like the way the mother helped her shy son, we can set up conditions in which our discouraged students can begin to experience success through a sequence of small, manageable steps. And best of all, this does not mean the teacher needs to make extra lesson plans and exercises for those students.
To illustrate how this can be done, I’ll use the example of one of my former students, Ryan. After having to repeat Level 3 Writing, Ryan was finally able to pass to Level 4. Unfortunately, he failed during his first term at that level, so he was assigned to my Level 4 class to repeat it the next term. On the first day of class, he sat in the back looking dejected. I could tell from the sample writings that I got from his previous teacher and from the first-day’s writing task what his weak points were:
- His grammar broke down when trying to write complicated ideas.
- The ideas in his paragraphs tended to be just a list of ideas without clear connections. In other words, they lacked cohesion.
Small manageable steps
1) Reduce the number of items in an exercise. I assigned the class an exercise showing students how to add details from their experiences to an essay. (This is the exercise: Add details from your experiences ) Since Ryan had done this the previous term, I knew that he understood the technique. Thus, instead of having him write the two paragraphs that the directions called for, I told him that he could write only one paragraph. To help him with his cohesion, I told him to use at least one conjunction (and, but, so, or) and at least one subordinator (when, who, because, after, etc.) And I reminded him to check his grammar carefully before handing it in.
2) Selectively mark mistakes. The students did a fluency writing activity. (See • Fluency Writing: Reading, Speaking In Triads, And Listening Culminating In A Writing Task). This culminated in a one-page paraphrase of an article. For most students, I marked all their grammar mistakes. (See • Common Teacher Myth: Students Don’t Like to See Red Marks on Their Papers. )
However, for Ryan, I focused specifically on his weak points of comma splices and run-ons. I ignored the one or two preposition mistakes and some other minor ones. Like all the students, Ryan showed me his corrections, so he and I were able to zero in on those specific mistakes.
3) Highlight small successes. On every writing assignment, I marked (in green) places where he correctly connected ideas with conjunctions and subordinators. Also, I did that with sentences in which he correctly wrote advanced-style sentences. (See • Writing class: Easy, focused, POSITVE feedback on essays. )
4) Give specific positive feedback (written and oral). On writing tasks, at specific point in the margins, I wrote very brief positive comments, like “Interesting point,” “Clear example,” “Good connection to topic sentence.” (See • Avoiding Writing-Teacher Burnout: Save Your Time And Energy With This Effective Method For Giving Specific Feedback.) When I conferenced with him, as we were looking at the corrections that he had made using the codes that I had written in the margins, I would occasionally point to a specific sentence where I had written a positive comment and say, “This is really good!” or “I like what you wrote here.” or “This is a good improvement.”
5) Assign only part of an essay. This is somewhat related to Item 1 above. All the students were assigned an essay which included an introduction, some paragraphs in the body and a conclusion. Privately, I told Ryan that he could first just write the introduction and first paragraph of the body and show me. That way, we could easily focus on the mistakes and strong points without him feeling overwhelmed. Once he was satisfied with and confident in that first part, he then wrote the rest of the essay.
6) Offer to conference. Writing teachers typically provide opportunities for students to conference with them about their writing assignments. For students like Ryan, it can be helpful to remind them directly that you are available to talk to them about how to complete an assignment, and how to correct mistakes and improve the tasks.
By the way, it’s not necessary to conference with students outside of class, which can be inconvenient for both the teacher and student. To read about a writing workshop approach, which allows for all the time you would need for conferencing during class time, see • Most Important Motivator of Students: How You Can Use It )
7) Acknowledge them as they leave. At the end of class, if at all possible, I try to make eye-contact with each student as they leave and smile or say something brief. I make an extra effort to do this with students like Ryan. (See • The Importance of a Classes’ Final Minutes—The Last Impressions.)