What do my students think about English?

This is a very quick post to explore some answers to a survey that I gave my students in the first week of classes this semester. It might also link nicely to the recent #keltchat, “Just who are my students anyway?

I asked my students to complete the sentences below using a Google form. 52 of them submitted answers.

  1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because
  2. In the future, I would like to use English to…
  3. Things I do well in English are…
  4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:
  5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

Here follows a very rough analysis of the results.

1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because

Generally positive answers: 16.

Typical statements: Lots of talk here about learning new things and enjoying learning languages. Also contact with “foreigners” and English speaking culture, mostly movies and music. A couple of students talking about how being good at English made them feel proud.

My thoughts: Nice to see that enjoying languages hasn’t been totally beaten out of them by the school system, but not a whole lot of surprise here, and about the number of positive responses that I would have expected.

Answers about feeling shy or scared: 8.

Typical statements: Two main factors here – pressure of getting good grades, and not being good at English. One poor student got railroaded into a fairytale narration competition by their elementary school teacher and clearly still resents it. I don’t blame them.

My thoughts: Perhaps a lower number than I’d expect, and surprisingly no mention of fear of talking to foreigners.

Negative reactions (anger, frustration): 15.

Typical statements: Lots of talk about memorization here, presumably of the never-ending-vocab list kind. Also lots of mentions of the complexity of English (a four-dimensional language according to one respondent).

My thoughts: I wonder if anyone ever gives any of these kids any support in memorizing words, or techniques to help them memorize them?

Apathetic reactions (boredom, tiredness): 13.

Typical statements: Boredom seems mostly to come from students not understanding. Only one mention of boring teaching.

My thoughts: I don’t blame you at all, and a good message to me not to talk too much or at too high a level.

 

2. In the future, I would like to use English to…

First answers*

  • Talk with foreigners or people from other countries**: 24
  • Travel: 10
  • Work: 10
  • Cultural things (reading, watching movies): 5
  • Teaching others: 2
  • Studying: 1

My thoughts: Very interesting that answers are predominantly about social and leisure activities rather than more self developmental pursuits (studying and working). This would seem to indicate that my students have a good deal of curiosity about the world and its people, which is really healthy. However, I wonder what effect my presence has on these answers, and whether they would be the same with a Korean teacher. It might also be interesting that testing and test scores never make an appearance.

* Some students gave more than one answer, but I took the first as being the most important and only included that.

** Very few students specified “native English speakers” or “Americans” here.

 

3. Things I do well in English are…

First answers

  • Listening: 14
  • Reading: 12
  • Speaking: 9
  • Writing: 6
  • Nothing: 2
  • Others (vocab, interest, presentation): 9

My thoughts: Once again my students are confounding my expectations. I would neither have expected listening to outrank reading, nor speaking to score so highly. The students who said speaking tended to say they enjoyed conversation with foreigners (and had had some experience of it), and also that they were not very worried about grammar or accuracy when they were speaking. I would guess that this doesn’t fit most people’s profile of a typical Korean student. I wonder what this means, if anything, for my classes. Another thing that I wonder here is whether these answers would be the same had I surveyed the first groups I taught three years ago.

 

4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:

First answers

  • Speaking: 27 (plus 2 for “communication” and 1 for “pronunciation” which might take it to 30) .
  • Writing: 4
  • Listening: 4
  • Confidence: 4
  • Presentation skills: 4
  • Grammar: 3
  • Reading: 1
  • Vocabulary: 1
  • Weak points and error correction: 1

My thoughts: Not a huge amount of surprise here. I think almost all students recognise that their speaking skills may lag behind others as a result of well documented problems with Korea’s English education and its focus on (obsession with?) receptive skills and formal knowledge. This gives me a lot of confidence that a strong focus on speaking is both necessary and wanted in class, and I feel that the desire to speak is there if tapped in the right way. I’m coming to this data a few weeks into the course and I would say that it’s well reflected in the students’ participation so far.

 

5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

First answers

  • Speaking / Conversation: 29
  • Watching videos: 7
  • Listening: 2
  • Games: 2
  • Other*: 12

My thoughts: Again, not surprising but a very positive base for making my classes strongly conversation driven. More interesting is the popularity of video. The cynical part of me wonders if this is students making a play for some nice easy movie watching time in class. The more positive part sees students wanting to connect with culture and authentic materials. I’d be quite interested in some kind of extensive watching program, but sadly I don’t have the time in class to make it work. I’m also heartened by only two students saying “Games”. I sometimes wonder if students get conditioned to games as almost the only way to learn English by their school and hagwon experiences where games are an excellent way to encourage participation**, but this is clearly not the case. I’m pretty anti-games in my current context, so it’s good to know that I’m not crushing student expectations!

* Quite a lot of students seemed not to understand this question.

** I’m not suggesting here that games are a bad thing, or that teachers shouldn’t use them. I have certainly made extensive use of games in other contexts, and believe they can be extremely effective tools for learning. 

Final thoughts

Overall this was quite an interesting experience, especially the questions about students’ ambitions and views of what they do well. I think if anything it shows that freshmen university students may well have had a high degree of contact with English outside of the school system, and in fact do view it as a practical language for social and leisure purposes, rather than just something to study to pass an endless slog of tests. This is an assumption that I am very much guilty of. I’m not quite sure what effect all of this will have on my class yet, but I’ll try to come back to this post before next semester and try to view my next intake of students with fresh eyes.

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6 responses to “What do my students think about English?

  1. Thank god someone else who teaches young learners is a bit anti-games. I had to take over from a ‘teacher’ who was a human Nintendo and had real problems getting capable students to speak in natural utterances because everything ‘needed’ to be hangman or Uno.

    I love this survey. I may give my Junior High students something similar soon.

    Thanks,

    Marc

    • Hi Marc, thanks very much for your comment. I possibly have a bit of sympathy for some teachers who use games too much, as it’s often a symptom of their context and administration which might make games the only option. For others though, I suspect laziness and picking the path of least resistance.

      I can probably share the base survey with you if you want, though it’s really easy to do it yourself on Google Forms. Shoot mean email if I can be of help.

      Alex

      • Alex,

        Cheers for the offer regarding the survey, but I think it would need too much adaptation. Google Forms is great, though.

        I suppose I am a bit harsh about games. Where games are expected, and where you have little kids, there’s a place for it. With ten year olds who can hold a conversation and ask questions, I think those teachers need to see the fallout and lack of progress they cause.

        Cheers,

        Marc

  2. Many thanks for your interesting post. It is highly encouraging that your students focus on speaking/conversation and contact with foreigners (including other non-native speakers!); and I would assume this is not (only) because they are aware of weaknesses in these areas but first and foremost because they see the real-life value of the skills involved.

    I am sure you are doing a great job helping your students achieve these goals. At the same time, however, even the most communicative classroom has its natural limitations as regards authentic and intercultural spoken interaction. In our EU project TILA: Telecollaboration for Intercultural Language Acquisition, we aim to extend the physical classroom by integrating communicative telecollaboration activities (from chat and forum to videoconferening and 3D virtual world interactions) in a flipped learning approach. And besides tandem, we also use lingua franca interactions among non-native speakers. Have a look at our CALL 2015 conference paper: Kohn & Hoffstaedter (2015). Flipping intercultural communication practice: opportunities and challenges for the foreign language classroom” (https://uni-tuebingen.academia.edu/KurtKohn/Papers).

  3. Hi Kurt, nice to have you back on the comments here! I hope you’re well.

    I’ll try to have a read of the paper, and I notice there’s a conference coming up. Any plans to stream it or put recordings up?

    Thanks,

    Alex

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