#OneThing my student taught me today

Picture the scene, if you will:

  • An ordinary 90-minute intermediate-level adult class.  The second of two lessons this group have in the morning.
  • Ten students, divided into two groups.
  • Each group has a different reading text – authentic articles taken from the TfL and RMT websites about the Tube strike happening in London this week.
  • The students’ task: work together to find 10 given words/phrases in the text and, with reference to the surrounding context and co-text, discuss their meanings.
  • If their can’t resolve any uncertainties through 2-3 minutes of group discussion, they can look in a monolingual dictionary.

Let’s watch one particular student during this task.  We’ll call him Pete.

  • Pete has been at the school for some time and been taught by many of the teachers as he bounces from class to class.
  • Pete is well known to make little effort, frequently miss lessons and not participate in activities when he does turn up.
  • Pete doesn’t really interact much with other students or take an interest in what they say or do, but seems happy enough just to sit there with one eye on his phone all lesson.
  • Despite talks with his teachers and various other people who want to help him actually get something from his course, his behaviour never really changes.

Back to the lesson:

  • Pete is in a group of 5 with 3 other students who are super-engaged with the task, discussing the different possible meanings of the lexis and how it fits into the wider context of their article, and 1 other student who seems interested but reluctant to speak (first day nerves?).
  • Pete is, as usual, leaning half-heartedly towards the other students but tapping away on his phone instead of actually collaborating with them on the task.
  • Pete is offered the chance to do the task alone if he prefers, which he refuses.
  • Pete is asked if there is something else he is thinking about which I/we can help with.  Nope.
  • Meanwhile, his peers get stuck on the phrase ‘voluntary redundancy’.  ‘Voluntary’ they know; ‘redundancy’ they don’t; they can’t work it out from context.
  • Quiet student reaches for the dictionary.
  • I intervene:

“Pete, here you go [passing him the dictionary]; why don’t you look up the word?”

  • Pete [bashfully]:

“Er… which word?”

  • Other students [more politely than the situation probably warrants]:


  • Pete flicks to the ‘R’ section quite slowly, but not as though he’s bored by the task.  Just… slowly.  I wait and watch.  The other students wait and watch.
  • Quiet student kindly prompts:

“Ra… re… good.  No, back a page.  No, that’s words which start with ‘ret-‘.”

  • Pete looks up and says baldly:

“I don’t know how to use a dictionary.”


Teaching the teacher?

I do believe I just had an impromptu 10-second teacher training session.

The way Pete said “I don’t know how to use a dictionary” was so simple, so straightforward.  He wasn’t embarrassed; he wasn’t complaining: he was just stating a fact.

It would never have occurred to me that he simply didn’t know how to find the word “redundancy”.  Looking back, I think his quiet classmate had actually opened the dictionary at ‘R’ for him.  Anything he did after that was just flicking through the pages more or less randomly in the hopes that ‘redundancy’ would appear.

© Ian James for #eltpics
© Ian James for #eltpics

I have to admit that I don’t do as much learner training as I should, or would like to.

I do hide to some extent behind the very real barrier which is continuous enrolment: as we lose some students every Friday and gain some every Monday, the class composition is quite unstable and it makes learner training very tricky, as many important and useful language learning skills/strategies do take some time to develop.  A week just isn’t enough to do more than set the ball rolling.

So what do we do – start again every Monday and bore the students who’ve been there and done that?

A-ha!  We could get them to teach the new arrivals how to do things like use a dictionary!  Win-win, right?

But no, I don’t think so–there are so many valuable skills and strategies like this that we could spend our classes doing nothing but learner training.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing?  Or perhaps a compromise: training in how to use the language integrated with training in how to learn it?

To be fair, I think we do quite a bit of that in different ways already: we often talk about how to record vocabulary, how/why to use phonemic symbols, how/why/when to use translation, why a variety of individual, pair and group work is useful, and so on.

But I admit, dictionary skills are an area I rarely work on–perhaps because most of my students do seem to know what to do when I hand them a dictionary.

Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that some don’t.

Thanks for the wake-up call, ‘Pete’!


Anne Hendler recently challenged teacher-bloggers to share just one little thing which happened in the course of their ordinary teaching day which might have made it extraordinary.

David Harbinson, among others, took up the challenge.  He pointed me towards it, and this was my response.



6 thoughts on “#OneThing my student taught me today

  1. Hi Laura,
    Thanks for sharing this. It’s just occurred to me that I should also spend more time working on dictionary skills. Like David, I often take some of my students’ skills for granted – up to the moment when I watch a student having trouble finding the word unpredictable, for example, in a small bilingual dictionary. After a few minutes she says: The word is not there, teacher. I have to tell her that she should look for predictable first and then add the prefix when she finds it. Or when another student needs the word brought and the trick is that he needs to look for the infinitive form and change it into past participle. Well, things are sometimes not as easy as we, teachers, think they are for our students.

    1. Exactly! I think it’s just a matter of reminding ourselves from time to time what things we take for granted. I’m sure I’ve thought about dictionary skills in the past, but it’s been a while since it presented any problems and I just had another reminder about it the other day in this lesson.
      Thanks for your comments, Hana!

  2. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for this post. I very often think about learner training (even if I don’t call all the different skills involved that name). It looks pretty much a continuous process to me, to any kind of a course maybe.. as a moment comes, an activity asks for a certain point to be taught, or rather demonstrated. Chances are in any class I’ll always have students who have already mastered it and others who have not and need some guidance.

    The one question that popped up in my mind as I was reading your post – was there any reason Pete had to use a paper dictionary? I’m not being critical of paper dictionaries at all and I do think dictionary skills are important, but maybe for some students, like Pete, there’s not much to it and looking it up in an online version of a monolingual dictionary would be just as fine..Just thinking here.

    Thanks for sharing the #onething!

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for your comment. I would encourage digital dictionary use just as much as paper, but 2 logistical things stopped me in this particular instance: firstly, I have some students who are glued a bit too closely to their phones and often ignore the other students, which makes it hard to generate any kind of rapport between them (useful for many classroom activities and tasks, of course!); and secondly, our wifi is unreliable. 🙂 The latter reason is probably the one thing which most frequently prevents me/the students using digital tools!

  3. Hi Laura, I have a student, just like ‘Pete’. You could have been describing my student exactly.

    I really like the lesson you have drawn from this experience. I think it has something to teach us all. I’m sure there have been times when I took it for granted that a student would know how to do something, but they never had the courage to speak up, so I just put it down to a reluctance to do the work. I shall definitely look out for this in the future.

    Thanks for sharing,

    1. Thanks David, glad you found it useful!

      I’m sure there are many more moments like this that go unnoticed, even despite my efforts to include and involve everyone, differentiate tasks and allow plenty of time for checking and feedback even on ‘simple’ things (since some things are deceptive!). But of course you can’t know everything that goes on (or doesn’t) in someone else’s head.

      Thanks again for prompting me to join this blog challenge!

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.