The Push, an English Experiment

How far can you push students?  How much do students know and remember? How can you find their limits if you don’t give them the seemingly impossible? I wanted to find the answers so I decided to challenge my elementary students.

Last Wednesday, I asked the 7th and 5th graders I teach to use the vocabulary they had been learning all semester to make a conversation. Twenty sentences. Let me tell you, twenty sentences is a stretch for Thai students.  They can memorize, they can read, they can write, but when it comes to putting together coherent phrases and speeches, Thais tend to fall short.  Elementary students are fine when you ask them “What is your name?”, but if you ask how old they are, many don’t understand. High schoolers have a hard time keeping a simple conversation.  Could my primary students do it if given the opportunity?  I was going to find out.

To start off, I split my students up into groups of four or five.  Thais like to copy, so I figured why not have them work together anyway.   Eight example sentences were given to show what I was looking for:

  1. Hello.
  2. Hello
  3. How are you?
  4. I am good.
  5. What is your name?
  6. My name is Amy.
  7. Where are you going?
  8. I am going to school.

The students had to come up with the remaining 12 sentences on their own.  Now, I had this vision in my mind that all the students would be working together in their groups, have written wonderful dialog, and finally present the conversation in front of the class.  My realistic expectations were a lot lower, consisting of incoherent phrases and confused Thai students with the “you-want-me-to-think-on-my-own?-I-can’t-do-that” look own their faces.

When I told my co-teacher of this activity, her eyes got a little bigger and she gave a little “Ohhh!” I teach four English classes on Wednesday.  Three classes met my expectations, just a little short of what I was hoping.  But class #2, Ma 1/2, did it.  In fact, they blew me away.  Everyone was working together in the groups and looking through their English notebook for vocabulary.  I couldn’t believe it was happening exactly how I imagined.  I was so happy I wanted to take a picture, but had unfortunately left my camera at home.  The end result was fantastic.  The questions matched the answers.  The students used the language they had previously learned.  Some had even changed parts of the my example.  The questions went in a logical order, and the grammar was correct.  Not every group had the same dialogue.  And best of all, THEY DID IT ON THEIR OWN!  As my teacher-friends can tell you, this is an extreme rarity in Thailand.

Going off of that high, for the last 10 minutes, I made two people from each group stand up and give their conversation in front of the whole class.  Thais are usually shy and scared to talk in front of a group. Class 2 over exceeded my expectations in the presentations too.  All the groups did it, and the students were pushing the groups who didn’t want to present, go anyway.  Good job peer pressure.

According to society, the none of my students should have been able accomplish this so well.  Thais are suppose to be bad in English [Thai English teachers usually write the student’s scripts for English competitions, and Thais often tell me how they are the worst in the ASEAN countries when it comes to English].  Thai teachers probably wouldn’t not have tried this experiment, thinking none of the students would understand.  But I am glad I pushed them.  It made me want to challenge them even more.   How far can class #2 go?  You never know until you try.  All the students needed, it seemed, was a teacher who cared and gave them the chance.

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