Teaching English: First Thoughts on Student Motivation

There are many approaches to teaching English—or any foreign language. I recall a conversation with a woman who contrasted her experiences teaching English in Jerusalem with teaching Hebrew in El Paso, Texas. On the one hand good English in Jerusalem is the economic equivalent of a college degree, but in El Paso children were more or less clueless as to why their parents thought learning Hebrew was such a great idea. So I open with a question. For a rural Thai child in, oh, let’s say fourth grade or seventh grade, what is the point of learning English? I’m on thin ice again attempting to discuss this as I have very limited ability to see the word from a Thai perspective, and it’s perhaps even harder for me to assume the perspective of a Thai child.

So the best I can do is to speculate, and perhaps in a year or two I’ll have a better answer through wondering and paying attention to children. I’m guessing that spoken (written to a lesser extent) English is associated with the economic power of the west, the glitter of a few sports and entertainment stars known to Thai children, and the few relatives or family friends who live in Bangkok and use some English in their working lives. English is exotic, foreigners are amusing when they’re not threatening, and for some reason their government—to which they generally give all respect and honor—wants them to learn English. Thai children are obedient to a large extent. (In general …) They go with the flow, they trust their elders to lead them and don’t necessarily ask why we’re doing this or that. (This is not unlike the US.) So many children learn some English because that’s what we do. It’s part of being Thai: go to school and learn a number of things including English. The exceptions to the pattern of obedience probably include some children who are alienated through repeated experiences of negative judgments (lack of success at school tasks), those who take the passive aggressive stance against the school, and some who are developing individual identity and as a part of that process pull away from their former role models to try other ways of being, thinking, and acting. But by and large, children play along. What do they think the point is in learning English? What can they reasonably expect to DO with their English in the lifetime? What are their motivations?

If I knew what they think English is FOR, it might be constructive to shape lessons to match their motivation. (see the Andaman web site for one answer to the question of what motivates Thai children to learn English) There might be other ideas about the use of English that could broaden their motivation. But I don’t know, yet. For now, it’s tempting to use before and after motivations, like asking them to do a certain task once a month and showing them their earlier work to see the progress. The task could be taking a piece of paper and folding it into thirds, in one third they write some letters, some words if they know how to write some, and a sentence or two if they can. In the next section they make a sketch of something that’s important to them and dictate a couple of sentences in English if they can (which the teachers write down for them on the paper). In the third section they write the numbers in English (Arabic digits rather than the Thai digits) and show some number in context (with units). The number in context could be anything, e.g.
My height is ___ cm or
(town name) is ___ km from Kanchanaburi (capital of the province) or
I have ___ brothers and sisters.
This sort of a monthly performance sample is commonly used in US Kindergarten classrooms, and the students take to it well. We may not be able to devote the time to do this every month, it may be more reasonable in this case to do this every two months. Still, I’d like to try it.

This week we did a lesson segment in which we asked seventh graders to say all the words they could think of that they already know in English. For the class, it came to slightly over 200 words. With the exception of one obscenity they words the students knew were a good representation of the curriculum in English from the elementary school years. There were a few students who know essentially all of those words, a bulk of students who knew some more modest number, and a number of students who may know less than 20 words. Less than 20 words after 6 years of instruction in English, because it may be amusing to some children to learn English, but I’m not aware of any particular drive to master this language. Less than 20 words because instruction in English is not a priority for many Thai teachers (would you make a priority of teaching a foreign language to your classroom full of first graders who don’t know how to read their own language yet?) and teachers often consider themselves ill-equipped to teach English, so to some teachers a few songs and games seems “enough.” And maybe it is enough, by the way, who’s to say? I think and I hope that the children were pleased with the size of their bank of English words. I am pleased with it. It shows us the foundation we have to build on.

At any rate, we now have a list of the words the students have been introduced to, and for activities where the whole class works together to comprehend we can use these words and know that at least one child will be able to identify the meaning or translate for the other students.

One motivation that I should mention is that the Thai government tests school children annually (what else is new?) and one of the tests is on English (it’s not exactly IN English, but parts of it are in English). This motivates the teachers, and perhaps some students. The test is reading comprehension and to a lesser extent vocabulary work. There’s no way the Thai government would test children’s writing abilities, as it would be a massive undertaking to get readers to score writing samples and knowing how well Thai children write would probably not contribute substantially to adapting the curriculum or instructional practices, so it’s not worth the money to find out. It’s worth the time for individual teachers to assess student writing ability in English, by the way, but not worth the effort for the Ministry of Education. Clearly speaking English and listening comprehension are also not priorities in the testing, for similar reasons. So the focus of English instruction, according the Ministry of Education’s curriculum documents, is reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but the test is on reading.
So in keeping with the teacher’s motivation to teach reading comprehension, we should be planning lessons to build reading skills. So far, indications are that less than half the students know the English letters.

To motivate students to read in English, we’re starting with the students’ names. Each child has received a slip of paper with his or her name in English, and this week we’ll also do puzzles we’ve made up for each student: another slip with the first name and cut up bits of paper with all the letters needed. The children will use the slip of paper to arrange the letters, we’ll talk about the sounds of the letters, we’ll turn the slip face down on the desk, mix the letters, and try again to spell our names. We’ll use response boards (individual whiteboards with whiteboard markers and cloth to erase) to practice writing individual letters and then to spell each others’ names.

I hope that this week we’ll also begin to use our word wall words. Some smart person (Dolch) researched the most used words in primary level reading and collected 220 words that form the core of early reading texts. Someone else sorted them by difficulty (pre-primer, primer, 1st grade …) and we’ll begin by posting some of the pre-primer words. I couldn’t find a font at 150 points, which is the industry standard to be able to read the words across the room, but then realized if I put the words in 72 point font and then print at 200% I get what I needed. These words are arranged alphabetically so as the collection grows it’s still easy enough to find a word. Students can refer to the word wall when they do a writing assignment so they don’t have to know how to spell the word, they just have to be able to recognize the word and copy it. The introductory game at the word wall is to give a child a fly swatter, say a word, and have the child swat the word. There’s also a two-team-competitive version of this to use when students know a certain number of the words.

So that’s it for now from the classroom. I think I have some insight into my own motivation for being there: I value education, get a kick out of seeing children rise toward their own potential, and enjoy the puzzle of choosing or developing curriculum to match the students. I may have some notion of my counterpart teachers’ motivations, and over time I hope to have a sense of my students’ motivations.

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