I have four students in this position. The Algerian navy requires them to learn English to a prescribed level within a given period of time, and that’s that. My first group of six pilots on this scheme last year were some of the most dedicated students I have ever taught. They arrived with a lower intermediate level of English, worked their balls off and made the grade. Crucially, all six had been through higher education and knew how to study. My present group all left school, probably with great relief, at fifteen, and have not set foot in a classroom for eighteen years. They are divers; they enjoy risk and physical activity. The printed word is uncongenial to them. They read little in Arabic and write even less. Yet they have to pass an exam in English that has papers in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and get a good upper intermediate grade, noch. In the university they must feel pretty much as I would if I were required to train for their job – out of my element and completely incompetent.
I walk into the classroom on Wednesday mornings, say ‘good morning’ and smile. I roll up my sleeves, set out my books, board markers, CD player and board rubber, stretching out these minor preparations until five past ten if I can. There is no sense of anticipation today, not like with other groups where you can think, boy, have I got something really useful for you lot to get stuck into today! Nah. The blokes break off their conversation in Arabic, look at me resignedly and take their places.
OK, one hundred minutes to lunch time, let’s rock!
In language classes you can, indeed must, get the students talking to each other in pairs or small groups to maximise everybody’s talking time. Obviously if the language level of the students is very low, such activities will not last long because they haven’t got enough language to expand on the topic in question. In my other lessons, the main concern is to get everyone to conclude their conversations so that the next activity won’t fall off the end of the lesson. No danger of that here. After setting up, monitoring and feeding back on a task, I think, Christ, it must be lunchtime by now. I look at my mobile and see that it’s only ten forty five. These blokes are fairly hard working and good humoured but however hard I resist this impression, I feel effete and patronising and somehow, despite the importance to them of this bloody exam, irrelevant. It’s a strange and disconcerting feeling, one that blokes, especially straights, often arouse in me when they incline more to the physical than the verbal.
We cannot dumb any of this down. The level they must reach is pre-determined and the exam is external, so no compromise with the content or tinkering with the results is possible. We have negotiated extra hours and an extension to the course, but still their feet are just supposed to expand to fill the big boots we have to shove them into. We had five months, of which three are already gone, in which to provide language input, study skills and exam technique for four blokes who came to us knowing diddley-squat about any of these, and for whom they are as alien as diving is to me. I do not say the goal is completely unattainable, only that it probably is, and that we’d need another academic year to see some possibility of its realisation.
Luke Prodromou wrote a book in the nineties entitled ‘The Mixed Ability Class and the Myth of the Bad Language Learner’. It’s a very useful book for any teacher who has a class where students of differing levels of attainment and ability are chucked together. I can’t agree that poor language learners are simply mythical, though. Surely no experienced teacher really buys this? Doesn't the very title contradict itself, or is 'mixed ability' supposed to mean something like 'differently abled'? In maths as a kid I was not 'differently abled' from the others - I was complete crap. Why then should there not be poor language learners? Any idealist is welcome to do a swap with me every Wednesday for the next two months. Phil Beadle (look at his website, vomit-worthy main page, good articles) could do a Channel 4 documentary, turning the classroom into a multi-gym or teaching listening skills underwater. Then we will see what the IELTS scores are in August. It’s only a month away.