Learners often talk of having good days, when they surprise themselves, and days when they take a step backwards. When the bad days start to heavily outnumber the good ones it spells bad news: progress stops, students give up, teachers lose students. We need to do all we can to identify and come to the aid of frustrated learners.
How can we spot frustration? Poor attendance is one possible sign. Some students speak up about their difficulties, but others simply silently melt away, and we need to keep a close eye on the attendance register to help identify these. Decreasing confidence is another indicator – like when a student who once seemed outgoing gradually but perceptibly becomes withdrawn, or over-anxious about mistakes. There may also be resentment directed at the teacher, or at other members of the class. Then there are students who never seem to be comfortable with the group and level they are placed in. The problem is that these symptoms of frustration all reduce even further the individual’s capacity to learn. So what should we do?
One option is to take a softly-softly approach, reducing expectations on the learner. Differentiating between stronger and slower students increases the planning burden, but is essential if any participants are getting left behind. It means planning realistic and attainable tasks for every individual. We could also consider pairing our self-doubters with weaker students, in the hope that they realise what they do know. For those learners who worry excessively about mistakes we can always reduce the amount of correction, and focus instead on offering plenty of praise for successfully completed tasks, focusing on the bigger picture.
Unfortunately, the true reasons behind lack of progress may not match a frustrated student’s own perceptions. Watch out in particular for those students who expect mastery of the language. Quite clearly, they are likely to be disappointed before too long. Some students may have been given a false impression of their level via previous assessments. So, it’s important to focus on diagnostic tasks which uncover true needs at the outset of the course, because where students have unrealistic expectations, promptly correcting their perception of what is attainable is only fair. If necessary, ask your school to provide a general summary of how many hours are needed to move up a level, based on many past students’ data. These may help to back up your assertions.
Some students may have been given a false impression of their level via previous assessments. So, it’s important to focus on diagnostic tasks which uncover true needs at the outset of the course, because where students have unrealistic expectations, promptly correcting their perception of what is attainable is only fair.
I once heard about an Afghan student in my school who, contrary to his teachers’ advice, had entered for FCE, and attained just 15%. He subsequently blamed the school. His level of attendance was sketchy, but what everyone agreed on was his potential: the problem was lack of effort. Many of us will have met such a person in class. In such cases why not take a different approach – push harder? Pair the learner with strong students that have high expectations. Insist on homework and integrate it into class activities so that there is a sense of responsibility. Try to make homework broader than simply exercises. Ask them to do research and report back on a topic. Hopefully this will be more motivating, involve more realistic language use, and may reflect the student’s interests. It also matters more if it isn’t done.
A minority of students put little cognitive effort into the learning process themselves. Some may be unable or unwilling to self-study. Others have the best intentions, but they simply don’t know how to go about learning. Whatever the reason, spending some time in class developing effective strategies for learning will be time well spent. Why not for instance show students the various ways they can record vocabulary? Many course books offer sections on learning skills: it’s well worth having a look at these.
Certain teachers seem to cater for certain learning styles, and hence suit certain students better. It’s a really good idea, then, to set up a time when student and teacher can discuss the failure to advance. From this meeting an individual learning plan can be set up involving targeted homework and areas to pay special attention to. Equally, the teacher has a better chance of incorporating the student’s needs into their planning and compensating for their learning style as much as possible.
As teachers we know that it’s not all plain sailing when it comes to language learning. Inevitably we will encounter learners that are frustrated at their slow progress. It’s unsettling if they point the finger of blame at us, but before we start beating our breast, it’s useful to take a step back. Tackle the root cause: by reducing pressure, or pushing harder, by managing expectations, by including learner training, and listening to concerns. Who could ask for more?