This is article 2 of 6 in the series: How (& Why) to Teach Exams.
There are some people who like to splash around in the shallow end where life is safe. Others of us head straight for the deep end. It’s the thrill, right? For me, it’s definitely the thrill.
My love of risk was why I moved to Turkey a couple months after getting my Bachelors and CELTA. Not knowing anyone or any Turkish didn’t stop me. And there, the simplest of daily actions became small victories: buying the right kind of food, getting on the right bus, finding the right building.
Can you relate?
As my first year-long commitment drew to a close, I had to make the choice whether to renew my contract and stay — or pack it in. I thought a lot about the time and energy I would have to invest to reestablish myself somewhere else. From square one. All. Over. Again… I just felt tired. I wanted to capitalize on the bit of Turkish and stability I acquired so I stayed for what would become seven years.
But a busy mind needs challenges and if my environment were going to stay the same, I would need a new deep end. Within months of renewing my residence visa for another year, I turned my focus to teaching TOEFL iBT. That quickly became a bigger challenge: teaching those lessons in a fully-digital, online environment.
Luckily, an endless frontier of obstacles awaited me.
I have learned so many things about myself from teaching TOEFL. More than once, I have had to face my own fears and just get on with it. Case in point: Until 2012, I had a legitimate phobia about teaching pronunciation. I would recommend other books, websites and teachers — anything to wriggle out of being the one to teach pronunciation to my students. Finally, I realized that they already trusted me and I was doing them a huge disservice by forcing them to go through their whole search for an English teacher all over again. That and I was turning away money from students who would have been thrilled to pay for accent reduction.
The most exciting challenge, though, has been the pedagogical one: How do you eliminate a student’s mistake?
Coaching students to get higher speaking scores meant that I had to figure out ways to help them achieve higher levels of accuracy under stress. None of my previous students for regular English lessons had wanted me to “fix” their English to that degree and none of the schools where I had worked or the books I had read had focused on this. But TOEFL students who want high speaking scores are a driven crowd.
“Why is my score low, Jaime?” they would ask, desperate for answers. All they had was a mysterious number on their score report. Speaking 24.
In the beginning, I didn’t have any idea what this number meant either. But if their score was low, they had to be making mistakes, so I started with the obvious options: these grammar boo boos, these misuses of vocabulary.
Now, the most common thing I hear from my students is “Thank you for telling me that. Do you know I’ve been living in America for X number of years? / I’m married to an American… / I’ve had X number of different jobs here and been to X number of English teachers and schools… And no one has told me those mistakes. How can I know?”
To be fair, they can’t. Especially if they get subconscious confirmation they’re accurate. Especially if they go to schools that don’t identify their errors or focus on eliminating them.
It’s not me who’s obsessed with ironing out the wrinkles in a students’ English. It’s the students’ themselves. I know so well from seven years in Turkey just how many grammar and vocabulary mistakes a woman can make and still survive. If you don’t already know from your own adventure, trust me. It’s a lot.
So we can go into how absurd and pointless and evil and mean tests are… But… tests aren’t going anywhere.
(While we’re on the subject, I’d like to go on record: I do not like exams and I agree with folks when they say tests are mean. Years ago, trying to make a difference for a student because we were so stumped about why her speaking score was still 23-24, I actually called up the main headquarters for ETS and requested access to the students’ results. Then I begged. When that didn’t work, I started ranting. When the woman on the phone smirked, I went off at her. She hung up on me. Exhausted, I realized that I still had to plan my lesson and help this student. Moral of the story: I can help my students change their English faster than I can change the policy of a test company.)
So back to that question: How do you eliminate a student’s mistake?
It’s the students who understand that the scoring criteria of exams like TOEFL or IELTS are brutally neutral. And they want and need teachers who notice their mistakes, explain them in memorable ways and then find solutions for eliminating the mistake in the future. Their permission has led me on an odyssey to find ways to “get rid of” “mistakes.”
Enter the debate: Are we “getting rid of” or “eliminating” or “erasing” or “destabilizing”? Are any of those even possible? Is an error fossilized or is it gelling? Are they mistakes or errors? Can only some students fix their ingrained habits — or could all students? Why is the student correct now — and what causes her to forget 3 minutes later? Can we train students to mentally multi-task and focus on remembering the correct form while also focusing on the meaning of what they say?
Since there are no definitive answers in the literature I’ve researched or from the mentors I’ve asked, I prefer to believe it’s possible. That and I still hear my mother’s voice, decades after my childhood: “Students don’t fail. Teachers do.”
Optimism and naivety propelled me through thousands of hours of teaching TOEFL speaking lessons. Over time, a pattern emerged, an actual process for combing out the mistakes. I talk about this process in my free training (“3 Things Your ESL Exam Students Need You To Do”) but the nutshell is that there are concrete ways that we can help students fix their existing English.
I don’t do “test strategies.” I don’t teach them a bunch of new stuff. Class time with me and teachers I’ve trained is spent rediscovering what students think they already know — and creating new habits that support using “the right” English. It is what has led to giant, life-changing improvements in my students’ speaking scores.
For people who love challenges, teaching exams is like an endless rabbit hole. You can go as far as you want to with it — both in terms of breaking new personal records and redefining what the industry thinks about what the human mind is capable of.
Want to step up to the challenge?
Find out more about English Success Academy’s exclusive 16-week, online training, “How to Teach Exams.” I’ll lead you and a group of other highly-motivated teachers through the customizable lesson plans that destabilize fossilized errors and increase exam scores.
This is article 2 of 6 in the series, How (& Why) to Teach Exams. To continue with the third article, How to Double Your ESL Wages, click here.