Wednesday, November 21, 2007


A student I taught this afternoon is preparing for a university level oral exam in which she has to describe a picture. “What sort of picture?” I asked. “I don’t know” she replied. The exam is on Monday, there has been no practice of this sort of task and she has no idea what to expect. Now I have been teaching children and adults for long enough to know that you can give some groups of students important information over and over again and they will swear that you have never broached the subject, but this is not the case here. Next I discovered that she had no idea how to go about describing any scene and would have found it difficult even in Italian. This is not uncommon in students: how are they to know if you, as the teacher, don’t tell them? How can you concentrate on content [and not even that has been done here] and completely ignore technique? For goodness sake, give the poor dears some guidelines! The student’s mind – it was a fascinating process for me to watch – just zoomed in on the objects in the first photo we looked at and she was not lacking in vocabulary. But she had no knowledge of how to order her thoughts or how to make her description interesting. “Just a minute, slow down” I counselled. “Now tell me where we are – it doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly – just town / countryside / Britain / Italy”. Then, “OK, when is it happening? What season do you think it is? Why? What time of day? Why?” If there are people: “Now, who is there? What are they doing? What are they wearing?” or if there are no people, “What can you see?” Again – whoa! “Take the picture section by section”: and of course, she had no stock of phrases like “in the foreground / in the background / on the left-hand side” etc. This is not the first time I have come across a student who is just told, “The exam’s next week – this is what you have to do [in the vaguest terms ] -get on with it.” It is easy to criticise a teacher I have not met – I realise that – but I’ve seen so much of this now that I think there must be a general lack of guidance here in how to approach the required tasks. To be fair, I have observed this in the UK too.

On a similar theme, I do not know how any teacher can expect students to debate in an oral exam or write discursive essays without giving them a list of the expressions they will need to do so, regardless of topic. The lists I have devised for Italian and English teaching are divided into sections such as: agreeing / disagreeing / conceding / concluding. [French has more commercial material available on this.]

My advice to students is always, “Do anything [legal] that you can to give yourself an edge”. And , with higher level exams, that usually means observing and studying the culture of the target language and doing a lot of reading. I remember begging an A level French group I was teaching to go and see the films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, which had just been released in Britain at the time. [These were 18-year-olds, remember: you shouldn’t have to always organise a school trip to a film that is showing in a cinema down the road from where they live.] Only one young man from that group heeded my advice. And when the aural exam came upon us what was the main part of it about? - An interview with Pagnol, the author of the books on which the films were based. Apart from the fact that, if they’d gone to see the films, the other students would have experienced a psychological boost – “Hey! I know about this!” – and believe me, that can help on exam day – one question used the French word sources. Only the young man who had seen the films realised that in this context it meant “springs”; the others misinterpreted it. I rest my case.

When it comes to reading in the foreign language, I tell students to resist the urge to look words up when tackling a book: otherwise it slows the whole process down, they get fed up and the book ends up back on the shelf. “Persevere and get the gist”, I tell them. And they are often surprised at how quickly their fluency improves. In the days when a literature paper was obligatory in A level modern language exams, I would tell them to read the book in English translation first. After all, they were going to do that anyway, so you might as well be honest about it and make the thing an asset. “At least if you do that”, I would point out “you have read the book as it was meant to be read – in its entirety, without worrying about meaning and without stopping to analyse”. Then we would go to the original version and get down to the nitty-gritty. Another way that students can help themselves when learning a foreign language is to read a news story – one of international interest – in their own langauge. Then, when they at least know the basics of what has happened, they can go and find a version of the story in the target language[ so easy with the internet!]

With regard to listening, I tell students to have the radio on as much as possible in the foreign language: they don’t have to understand all, or even most, of what is said but if you have it on while you are doing the ironing or something you are, subconsciously, absorbing some of the rhythm of that language. Czech, for instance, is a monotone language and if you are a learner you need to listen to it to get to grips with that: in English, on the other hand, tonic stress and sentence stress patterns are vital: [Consider how tonic stress can alter meaning in English, eg., perfect - adjective / perfect - verb and the way we use our voices for emphasis where French and Italian use extra words, eg., I think that / Moi, je crois que…] One of the reasons why someone like me puts cushions over her ears when the Queen or Blair makes a speech in French is that, although it will be grammatically correct, they use exactly the same intonation as they do in English.

Talking of grammar, one thing I never do is say, “It is ALWAYS like this” when giving a grammatical rule. You might be able to get away with this with children but advanced and mature students are more likely to come across stylistic variations and this can be quite stressful for them. They [understandably] blame you, too: “But you said….!”

In preparing students for English IELTS [a horrible exam which I would not like to have to sit myself] I analysed the type of questions asked, particularly in the listening test, probably the most difficult component. There was nearly always an address given, very quickly, which students would have to write down. Now, just as a lot of Italian street names are those of historical dates – every Italian town will have a via XXV aprile, for instance – so British street names are themed: names of famous people, names of battles, names of flowers, etc. I ‘d advise students that it might be worth their while to buy themselves a ticket for the City Circle bus, take the round trip through the city and notice the street names. Those particular street names may not have come up, though sometimes they did, but the activity gave students confidence – and confidence, provided it is not misplaced, can be an edge in an exam situation.

Now it’s gone 9 pm and the schoolmarm has rambled on in a way that she would never encourage her students to do, so I’ll end by saying this: I am not the perfect teacher and I don’t know anyone who is. My “tricks of the trade” have taken a lifetime in education to acquire and I have given some crap lessons in my time! I have off days, like everyone else, and sometimes the most meticulously planned lesson just goes wrong. But I have learnt this: you often do not know what effect you have had on your students. You can be in despair because a lesson didn’t seem to work and years later you find out a student remembers it as one of your best; the converse, of course, is also true. You can’t always predict the exam questions but you can give students as much confidence as it is possible for them to have by discussing approach and technique with them. Do not send them “naked into the examinations hall”.


Ellee Seymour said...

I can tell that you are a brilliant and inspiring teacher. In fact, when I met King Lear last week and we were discussing education, I mentioned how important it was for teachers to inspire, it's not the subjects that are taught so much, but how they are taught and how teachers can motivate and arouse children's curiosity.

I remember my youngest son James coming home from school one day saying he wanted to Buckingham Palace because they had been studying the monarchy, he felt inspired to learn more about our history and monarchy. Good old Mr Giddings.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Ellee. Thank you. I think being able to inspire is so important, too. I would love to meet the blogger King Lear! Well done, Mr Giddings!

Crushed said...

Street Names also tell you when the Town really flourished.

Look at Birmingham; Chamberlain square, John Bright street, James Watt Street, Muntz Street, Corporation Street.

You can feel its nineteenth century wealth.

jmb said...

Interesting exercise with the picture. Of course this goes beyond language teaching but also includes teaching the power of observation. Very good advice indeed.
It's distressing if you know what you see but don't have the vocabulary although you can often think of a simpler round about way to say it if you don't know the word.
I quickly threw away the dictionary when I started to read in Italian for it is frustrating to slow down the story. I actually started with reading those Harmony House romances which you find in every edicola in Italy because they were simple everyday stories with lots of good useful vocabulary. Then I could move on to better books actually written in Italian, not translations.
Interesting post Welshcakes.

Anonymous said...

I've attempted to learn three languages in my time, 1) French (compulsory at school), which just ended up in the French master throwing his board rubber at my head, and later at grammar school, various French teachers considering if it was worth living at all, 2) Italian at Uni, when I was doing my masters, which lasted about 13 seconds ~ 'you can't roll your 'r's, you might as well give up', ' fantastic, I'll go down the pub...'
and finally when I was spinning the wheels of steel ~ 'I really should try and learn Spanish, you know'. That lasted about three days.

But reading your post has inspired me a bit ~ if I can pack in smoking, I'm sure I can do this.. I shall have a more serious go at learning Spanish again. Good for you, Welshcakes, you are indeed an inspirational gal.

(Oh, and I'm aware that the White Isle is really Catalan, but I have to start somewhere!)

Ruthie said...

You must be a great teacher. That's all it takes to inspire a student, you know-- one great teacher. At least, that was the case for me.

Do you think language programs that claim to be able to give the reader/listener a foothold in a foreign language (like Rosetta Stone, for example) really work?

I wish you could tutor me in Italian, my Italian is really abysmal.

Liz Hinds said...

I'm sure I would have done better with langauges had you - or an older generational you! - been teaching me. I did very well in written exams and, in retrospect, realise I should have gone on to study languages rather than science, but I hated the orals! Having to 'act', put on a voice, for a language, I just couldn't do.

Now George is eating me ...

Love to you and Simi. xx

Whispering Walls said...

Bravo WL! As Ellee says, you are clearly excellent at your job. I asked my colleagues what happened on 25 April and they said it was the day of liberation from fascism. They weren't sure of the year though: 1945 or 1946?

Sally said...

That was a superb post Welshcakes - lucky students who had you to prepare them for an exam. I so agree with your thoughts on the importance of hearing a different language, not necessarily listening to it, but letting its rhythms and cadences drip in by osmosis.

marymaryquitecontrary said...

What a wonderful teacher you are. I am lucky that my children have finished with their University education. I have however three little grandchildren and I will remember your advise about taking examinations and hopefully some day pass it on to them . Have you read Mitch Albom;" Five people you meet in Heaven?" I think there will ,when you eventually arrive there( not for many years I hope) a very long queue waiting to thank you .

Trubes said...

I totally agree with you Welshcakes about listening to the Language that you are studying. I find this method extremely helpful when I`m doing thing around the house.
As you are probably aware I`ve been learning French for a few years. Earlier this year we had a lovely holiday in Antibes, staying in a small apartment , with a balcony overlooking a lively daily Market.
I cannot express the joy that I felt when I entered into a conversation with a Stall Holder , I apologised for my French not being, as I perceived, very good, he, of course, sweetly refuted this. After I turned to leave, to my dismay, a small queue of "locals" had formed behind me. I felt so embarrassed to have kept them all waiting. To my utter surprise and joy they gave me a spontaneous round of applause. I can tell you I felt a million dollars ! This really did boost my confidence and enabled us to totally immerse ourselves into the French way of life.
Cèst Magnifique.

P.S. Hope you are well and have recovered from your "fall". I`ve posted a little yarn on my site, hope you enjoy it.
Di xx love to Simi too xx

Ernesto Diniz said...

Hi Welshcakes. I'm a brazilian student and I was researching about language students from Wales on Google and stumbled upon your blog. I'm trying to make some contacts with people from Wales and learn Welsh (planning to do a master project on Mabinogi), but it is difficult to me to pick the right books and diciotnaries from It seems you're a nice person.

Please, make contact trough

Thank you very much!

Sharon said...

Great post. When our son was in the middle school the teacher used to marvel at his descriptive essays and writings. She would read them to her classes and take them home with her to read to her husband. He was not affluent in the language (Italian) at that time but he had an immagination. Italians are such an artistically minded group that I wonder why it doesn't translate so easily in their writing.

Unknown said...

I agree with Sharon, this is a great post. I've been falling down on my language lessons due to work and fatigue with traveling back and forth to Idaho. Although I'm not ready to read a book in Sicilian I think your idea of reading the English version first is super. I do have that bad habit of looking up single words and it is a nuisance at times.
PS-I did meet my hubby at 16 but I broke it off after three years,sigh, we met again at our 30th reunion,ha!)

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks, Crushed. I hadn't thought of that. Thanks, jmb. Yes, the books you mention are good for language learning, as are the Topolono comics for a high level! I remember reading a piler of them [which I still have] the night before my final oral. HH, your French teacher's reaction to you sounds like my maths teacher's reaction to me - he didn't throw the board rubber at me, but decided the only thing I was good for was using it to clean the board! What a silly comment from your Ital lecturer - rolling the rs and stuff like that comes later! Do have another go at Spanish - you can do it! Hi, Ruthie and thank you. I'm not familiar with the Rosetta Stone courses but I have had a look at the site. I'm suspicious of any course that suggests there's a "secret" to language learning because there isn't. Of course the best way is total immersion and that's what we had as children but it is rarely possible as an adult. And you still need some formal learning or you will end up using slang, wrong registers [tu for Lei in Ital or tu for vous in French] and getting into all sorts of difficulties. One programme that I do think is excellent for a get-by level is Pimsleur, though. I'd love to have you as s student! Thanks, Liz. Everybody hates the orals and I tell my students that anyone who says they aren't nervous is lying! Oh, it must be nice to be eaten by George! Thanks, WW. 1945. Thank you, Sally. SO glad you agree. Marymary, that is a lovely thing to say . Thank you. I will look for the book. Hi, TB. That's a lovely story and thank you for sharing it. You must have felt great! Will be over to your site later.xx from me and Simi. Henry, thank you for visiting and your kind words.Your English is excellent. I'm not a Welsh speaker but I might know some people who can help you. I will email you. Hi, Sharon and thank you. Your son's writing must have been suoperb. That's an interesting observation about Italians' writing. Thanks, Marlene. You do need a certain levvel of competence to start reading a whole book but it will come! What a lovely story about your romance!

James Higham said...

Talking of grammar, one thing I never do is say, “It is ALWAYS like this”

One of the hardest thing for Russians to accept. "What's the right answer?" they ask.

"All of them in certain circumstances," I reply.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I can imagine that that is hard for them, James. that is good advice that you give!

Leslie: said...

I can so relate to this post, having taught French for many years. What bothered me was that we often had to listen to cds spoken by French Canadians and their accent is atrocious! Even I could hardly understand it. But I persevered with my kids and would tell them, "It's USUALLY like this, but remember there are always exceptions that's you'll see when you get further on." I seem to have an ability to absorb languages easily but when you're not hearing it all the time, it takes a while to get it back. I studied Spanish for 4 years and Italian for 1 at uni. When in Italy last year, I got sick and had to stay in the hotel room for several days watching TV. And, you're so right - you just seem to absorb it and start getting the gist of it all. Great post!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanka, Leslie. Yes, accents can be hard to deal with and sometimes we'd have a problem with language assistants from Francophone countries other than France in that respect. You are right - you can absorb a language when it's all around you. Sorry you got sick in Italy, though.

tooth fairy said...

I appreciate your comments about language learning! I've taken some noncredit Italian lessons from the local community college before two past trips to Italy and the lessons helped. I have considered taking a "for credit" semester course but at my age (56) do you think I'm too old to learn the language?

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, tooth fairy. Certainly not too old! Please, go ahead and take the course!


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