Sunday, December 5, 2010

My Students' Main Problem

I am grading papers and mini-quizzes in my Hispanic Civlization class. This semester, I have a really great group of students: they are intellectually curious, motivated, active, and smart. There is, however, one thing that limits them terribly in what they can do: the English language. In many responses, I can see that they know the answer but are impotent to express themselves in their own (and, more often than not, their only) language. The perennial "actually," "basically," "kind of," "sort of," "really" and "like" that pepper their written assignments in spite of my endless exhortations to avoid these meaningless words testify to the students' grievously inadequate vocabulary. Even when they have original ideas, they are prevented from expressing them by their linguistic limitations.

The same problem arises with the lectures I deliver. There are too many words that I use that students simply do not understand. I can't turn every thing I say in class into a snappy soundbite, which is the only format that students never fail to respond to and retain. As a result, we are constantly separated (or "seperated" as my students keep writing) by a linguistic barrier of major proportions. Given that I am not even a native speaker of English, this is scary.

I constantly see my students trying to express themselves verbally and often failing completely. They try to substitute the words they so painfully lack with gestures, interjections, weird sounds, filler words, etc. They struggle with their own language so much but end up losing this battle most of the time. Having no linguistic competency in any language must be an extremely limiting thing. As somebody who speaks, reads and writes in three languages on a daily basis, I cannot even imagine how difficult it must be to live in this verbal desert where even simple thoughts are not easy to express.

How did this happen that these young people have been trapped in such monstrous linguistic incompetency? Who robbed these kids of language? And, more importantly, how can this be remedied?

Sorry for the abundance of teaching-related posts! I know that everybody must be sick and tired of them, but we are heading into our last week of classes, after which I promise to stop harping about teaching for a while.


Pagan Topologist said...

Indeed! Syntax and grammar are overwhelmingly difficult for many students, too, not only vocabulary. I think more reading is the only possible remedy, but enforcing a "more reading policy" is not workable if it merely builds resentment.

Clarissa said...

I don't know what the remedy here can be. There is no more prestige attached to being able to speak and write well, and that, I think, is the main issue. Students exchange tweets, Facebook updates, text messages that, by their nature, are choppy and very basic. And even in college, many professors try to fit into that model to look more hip and ingratiate the students. So many college courses in the Humanities don't even require any participation other than multiple choice assignments, clickers, and the dreaded "projects", where all students have to do is compile some silliness from the Internet and deliver it in class.

Meredith said...

Frankly, as someone in a similar age bracket (I assume--I'm a second-year law student, but a young one, having gone straight through undergrad, making me just shy of 24), I can tell you what the problem is: we're the first USian generation that only vaguely got taught grammar. I only learned about more complicated parts of speech when I minored in Spanish in college. The thing that has saved me has been my lifelong love of reading, so I knew what the parts WERE, I just didn't know what they were called. I still actively work to use (for example) who/whom correctly and things of that nature, but it is HARD. We were also the first generation to get standardized testing in reading/English courses, which did NOT include instruction in grammar. I'm still resentful. I'd love to know how to diagram a sentence or how to use my native language with more ease. I get complimented on my academic papers by professors for my grammar/vocabulary, which I don't think is that extraordinary to start with! As much as I hate to say this, it's only going to get worse. We need a revolution in this country among the lower grades and we need it NOW.

Michael Blekhman said...

An extremely interesting post! The problem is really tremedous, and the tendency is very dangerous.

It would be more than interesting to analyze the situation in other countries to know if that's a universal problem. By the way, the latter definitely ousteps the purely 'teaching' framework. That's a national (if not international) disaster.

Thanks a lot, Clarissa!

Michael Blekhman

Clarissa said...

You do write beautifully, Meredith. We need more people like you around.

Clarissa said...

Michael Blekhman: I can always count on my Indian, African, Chinese and Latin American students to write well and demonstrate high levels of language competency.

fairykarma said...

A slight digression:

Perhaps this issue has been addressed here before, but I wouldn't know how to search for the discussion. I'm not trying to be critical; more curious.

I am a relatively new reader, and you seem to write so freely about your students' faults. It certainly does break my preconceptions of the impartial professor. As a student, I have on occasion googled interesting professors. If I found a blog like this, I would be livid! I would zip my mouth and never open it in class again, with hope that my particular disorganized verbal debate patterns not end up being laid bare for the world to see.

I consider it akin to a professor perhaps chancing upon their favorite student's blog. The professor finds out that the student is overly critical of the professor despite seeming pleasant and engaging during lecture.

As an outsider, it's certainly interesting and very amusing to hear the personal thoughts of a professor. I highly doubt your classroom has the type of understanding where you can tell your students, "Class, use your words more!", and they take this advice gladly.

Clarissa said...

fairykarma: as I said recently, I teach languages and literature, so by the very nature of what we teach, we end up interacting with students on a level that's a lot more personal than what you can see in many other disciplines.

Everything that I say in this post, for example, I have discussed with my students in class. They do recognize that there's a problem. Many of them pointed out to me that the issue is even more serious than I think and gave examples where poor linguistic competency has hampered them (both in class and outside.)

The written component is very important for this particular course, so not only have I said to the students "Class, use your words more!", I have said many many other things that were a lot tougher, and gave examples of poor turns of phrase, and expressions. I also told them that they have tortured the English language to the point where it's about to die a slow and painful death.

The funny thing is that they still adore me. :-)

I think it's the honesty they appreciate.

Anonymous said...

This might sound funny to you, but back where I came from, 'Wren and Martin's English Grammar and Composition' was the staple of all schools for teaching English. There are those who think it was a waste, but I am grateful I was forced to do it.

Tom Carter said...

I teach English (generally advanced levels) and business management in a private, commercial school in Belgrade, Serbia. I'm doing it part-time, mostly for fun and something to do with my time, and I'm obviously nowhere near the professional level you are, Clarissa. From what I read and see among my younger nieces and nephews, we're teaching more English grammar here than in most American schools.

I like Meredith's comment. I'm old enough to remember being drilled on parts of speech, diagraming sentences routinely, and suffering through organized study of vocabulary. I think there's a lot of value in that.

Clarissa, do you know enough about your students' backgrounds to identify differences in language skills among students who attended public schools and private schools or who were home-schooled? That would be interesting.

David said...

I wonder if formal instruction in grammar really helps all that much?...or is it more a matter of being exposed to a lot of good writing and being around people who express themselves well?

"There is no more prestige attached to being able to speak and write well"..perhaps not *directly*, but good speaking skills, in particular, are a significant help to success in business, and surely in many other fields as well.

Tom Carter said...

David, I think a reasonable amount of instruction in grammar (to include diagraming sentences) is essential to understand the structure of language and to be able to use it competently. An analogy might be studying the internal combustion engine without learning where the spark plugs are and what they do.

Anonymous said...

My children are in the same age group as your students. They had very little grammar in school, and from the time they started writing papers, I'd edit them, we'd discuss the changes and then they'd make the corrections. My son no longer asks for editing help (and has won a couple of awards for his writing); my daughter asks, but her only problem now is the occasional extraneous comma.

I worked with my kids on this because I can remember a time when papers seemed really difficult...until suddenly they weren't difficult any more. I wanted my kids to be able to achieve that because being able to write well is really an asset in any future endeavor.

If they don't get it in school, they have to get it SOMEWHERE, and many parents don't even realize the problem until the kid's gone to college and failing. I don't blame the parents, but I wonder why grammar isn't taught any more. Most kids may not like it, but most kids don't like math, either.


Anonymous said...

A course I once participated in where the language was English, made me more humble. Everything I said sounded childish. I couldn't make fun, and before I had put my question together, the subject had changed.
I guess I loose many when I ramble along in Danish - though I try to translate everything I say into common words. What relief it is to meet another reader and just share thougts.

I think a lot of reading makes the difference - and using the language yourself, while trying to be both precise and poetic.

(My spell checker says everything I've written here, is a mistake)

M. Hoeyrup, Denmark