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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Call for Advice

This is a cry for help to my PLN.

                                          Photo by Simon Howden

It is not a nice feeling, after so many years of teaching, the one you get when you have no idea of how to help a student advance. It is a feeling of complete and utter exasperation. A feeling of uselessness and hopelessness. Thoughts of incompetence run through my mind. Why don't I know what to do? Why have I run out of ideas? It is so hard not to lose patience and blame the student as well as myself for not knowing how to overcome the problem. This is why I am asking you, my network of knowledgeable friends, for help.

The Student: a one-to one student in his early forties working for a company recently taken over by a British firm. Started in February as a False Beginner, had three months off over the summer and has started lessons again in October. Two hours per week.

The Course: using an elementary level course book as a source of general vocabulary and grammar as well as skills practice.

The Problem: The student has an elementary level of vocabulary and grammar structures and can understand written texts on a wide range of topics, however his listening skills are at beginner level. He can only comprehend spoken English at sentence level (on a good day) and freezes whenever a recording is played.

The Situation: The student has face to face contact several times a year with British visitors to the factory with whom he is expected to communicate. He needs to be able to understand and respond to native speakers socially whilst showing them around the factory.

How can we improve his listening skills in a short period of time? What kind of tasks can I give the student? One of the main problems is nerves. However much I try to get him to relax and just listen, this seems impossible. We have been working on pronunciation issues such as elision and sentence stress in order to make listening easier but at the end of the day, when another teacher comes into the classroom and asks him a basic question he just freezes.

So, please if you have or know of any ideas, tasks, links, websites or even books that may help, please let me know. How can I rid my student of the sensation of being thrown into a black hole whenever he hears English?


  1. Hi Michelle,
    This is just a first, off the top of my head suggestion. Going to keep thinking of something more structured and long-term.

    So here goes: how about working together on creating simple "scripts" of possible conversations with the visitors. Start by reading them out loud together, at first concentrate on building confidence in speaking, mask the listening element by simply reading the visitor's part yourself. Record the scripts if you can, so he can listen to them outside the class. Gradually take the script away, replace it with prompts, and finally take the script away all together. Repeat the conversations without the script, slowly pick up your speaking speed to add to the difficulty, vary the wording and questions a little, gently, step by step.

    See if you can get a colleague to record them with you so he hears another voice.

    Record questions and conversation openers (again use new voices where you can - colleagues, friends ..) and play them as prompts - your students listens, decides what to say, listens again and interacts with the recording. I guess audacity or similar on a laptop would work.

    Going to keep mulling it over! Hope that's of some help,

  2. Hmmm... these sorts of "spikey" students, term first cointed by Mike H but I likey...

    are very difficult.

    Does he have this difficulty in his L1? Probably not, because he can ‘listen’ to you…

    Have you asked him why he freezes? What is the block, what is the root behind shutting down his ears...

    I think lots of people will give you tips and tricks on the instruments and tools to get him practising – and Cecilia’s tip above is great. However, practising, given he is the UK already is probably not the issue...

    Try to find out if there is a story in there - did someone make fun of him in a meeting or did he fail to get a contract because he couldn’t understand what was being said? Was someone awfully rude in the past when he didn't answer something quickly enough, perhaps asked him if he was an idiot? (sorry, please don't hate me, but the Brits (along with many other cultures) can be terrible when dealing with non-natives)... and this may even be something that happened to him YEARS ago as a kid at summer camp...

    Anyway, my point would be that I would get him to express the fear, as once he realizes that it’s just a silly fear based on a past issue… you may then be able to help him by encouraging him to recognize that not only has he already made progress since the Incident (if there was one) but that by doing more listenings in class and out of class the situation will never reoccur.

    Hope that’s useful,


  3. Hi Michelle

    Here is a resource. It's a temporary link, but your student might find it useful. If you choose one of the units from level 1 or 2, do Introduction-Warmer, then Growing Branches. Here, he can listen and watch the language, which he might find comforting. You can play the verses a few times.

    Hope it helps!


  4. Cecilia and Karenne gave you great tips. I find that *recordings* are sometimes part of the problem, when the language has not been uttered and pronounced before with a visible mouth and lips. Maybe just talking with him (very simple chat, how are you today, how was your evening)while writing the questions down *each time he freezes*, since his reading skills are satisfactory. This may improve confidence, if you repeat the same kind of pattern every time, with slight differences, according to his answers. Hope it helps. Bonne chance !
    Alice M

  5. Tough one Michelle...

    Have come across quite a few of those on my years of teaching. same profile, not much contact with Englih=sh learning when younger then having to learn it as an adult. The pressure of HAVING to learn the language and communicate (with the threat of losing the job if not accomplishing that) just complicates things...

    My suggestion would be trying to start with issues and topics he's familiar with, that he enjoys talking about. Maybe some podcasts for English learners on varies themes ( has a wide selection) and then asking him to write/talk about them, or having them read a text and then listen to it.

    Any way you do it, he's lucky to have a teacher like you, looking out for the best way to help him :-)

  6. Hi Michelle,

    As well as trying to get to the root of the problem by talking about it and highlighting some strategies for listening, relaxing etc, it might be worth looking at:

    The great thing here is there are articles accomapnied by a recording so it can help your student with visual support from the text and images. Gradually, the text can be taken away as he builds confidence.

  7. Thank you all for your comments. I shall certainly give all your suggestions a try.

    I think one of the main problems os lack of concentration and stress - he is working long hours and has a complicated home situation, meaning he doesn't come to class in the most ideal frame of mind. He doesn't have time to do much studying or practice at home for the same reasons.

    Another reason why his listening (and speaking)skills in particular are worse than others is because he would have had virtually no practice in these areas when he studied over 20 years ago.

    Karenne, we are in Spain, not the UK, but a British firm have bought out the local one. This means that his exposure to English is limited to the classroom, and any extra time he can find at home to practice.

    Thanks you to everyone for your great advice. If you have any more links to websites that might be suitable for him to use at home, please let me know.

  8. tough one!

    Not wanting to belittle others' suggestions and speaking only from personal experience I think the issue is not in finding the best material or lesson staging. These might help once you figured out where the blocks come from. Or better, when the student figures it out and decides to face it.

    Sometime ago I posted a complicated case in my blog and it was better taken care of with the student going to a floral-remedy doctor and for the school to show that they CARE for her more than anyone else ever did, the fact that you're worried about it already says you care, but the students has to receive that caring and acknowledge it for anything to happen.

    This is the post in case you’re interested, it doesn’t have the solution to your problem but it’s good food for thought.

    Another thing, if he doesn't want to go psychological with you is to adopt another posture.
    Talk openly about what it takes for one to learn a language and ask him if he really wants to, after all it’s his responsibility more than anyone else’s. He needs it fast, but two hours a week won't do, will it? How many hours does he need to study a week if he wants to be 'level X' by 'time Y'? Crunch numbers with him, get real. You can even do something very business-ish like a SMART objective plan i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timed.

    I don’t want to be an ass but, who goes off for 3 months without English lessons when there’s a job at stake? one that demands you to speak the language in which you’re a beginner, unless you’re sick in bed or really not caring about it but doesn't want to show, there’s no reason to be that negligent. Anyway, apparently too many people do that it seems. That’s why they hire us, to pretend it’s not only their problem when the solution is almost exclusively theirs. Sorry… I hope I'm wrong here, but again, I've seen that so much that it's impossible to rule it out.

  9. Michelle,

    I did the following with my students today:

    I wrote on the whiteboard:

    "the GEneral PRINciple in pronunCIAtion is that you ONly stress what´s imPORtant"

    Actually, I didn´t use capitals but just big letters whilst making the rest so tiny that only the length of the word could be deduced. A bit like at the opticians, you know. Well, my students soon enough figured out what I had written. Don´t ask me which cognitive processes and that had been at work, but my guess is that they were the same ones as the ones which people generally use when they are reading or listening to someone else´s talking: predicting, guessing, hearing what they want to hear (a favourite of mine)... that sort of thing.

    Why am I telling you this?

    Because I can´t rid myself of the feeling that your student is one of those people who internally refuses to take a step ahead before he´s sure he´s understood every single word (and checked the spelling, too, preferrable written). My feeling is he needs to be made aware he doesn´t understand every single word in Spanish either, especially not when he´s in a crowded bar or at the Jerez football stadium.

    If I´m right, y** c****d s*t h*m a f*w si****r ex******s. I´m sure you can just make them up using typical conversational questions for example. Next step could be for him to guess possible answers, follow-up questions etc. which really brings us to the scripts Ceri suggested earlier.

    Hope this was is any help.

    Let us know how you get on.

    Good luck and have fun ;-)


  10. Fortunately, I've never had a student like this but know of several who have. As some people pointed out, the issue is not his English or any particular skill set, it's his personal issues. You'll need to work on confidence building, facing fears, and separating work and home. Once you can start getting past the blocks, then you can get down to the business of English. Outside help may be advisable on this.

    I'm also in agreement with Willy. 3 months off? Two hours a week? English seems to be the last thing on his mind.

  11. This man has to overcome his fears in order to commit to learning.
    The key is to slow down progression and make it real.
    He doesn't need to worry about written English at all for the time being. I'd drop it completely.

    A manager who shut down completely under shock when forced to speak English made me get into Suggestopedia, specifically into using relaxation techniques with students. These are methods that don't start with content, they start with doing something the student feels comfortable with. Any audio input should be fun and engaging to get the emotional plugs out his ears. And the most engaging, least threatening audio just happens to be you. I'd have music he likes on in the background, then I'd speak short useful sentences and get him to mouth them with me slowly in chunks - get his mouth around the language. We'd connect the phrases to visual anchors like picture cards (I have a memory game from the National Gallery that works really well). Get him to pick cards he associates with the sentence and be sure to have a bit of a laugh about it. Nothing relaxes you like laughing. Then get him to repeat the phrases picking up those cards. Then vary the phrases with other vocabulary. I might record myself saying those phrases so he gets used to the recosing medium before you play him any other audio.


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