You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but…

IMG_0870Every time I use this idiom with my ESL students, they get confused.  “Are you calling us horses?”  I always have to explain to them that I can present an opportunity for them to learn English by their working with a partner or doing group work, continuing at home with paragraph writing or grammar exercises, writing their examples with or without mistakes on the white board for the class to look at, etc.  However, they have the choice to take advantage of the opportunity or not.  I cannot force them to learn English, and I certainly can’t learn it for them.

This little talk I have with my students usually happens midway through the quarter when I see who is doing or not doing what.  Last weekend I thought to myself that if I saw “He have” another time on a paper, I would end up pulling out my hair.  How could advanced ESL students make a mistake that they might have made in their first ESL class?  What is going on?  (And you can find such mistakes in papers written for English 1A or History or Psychology.)

So, I decided to get at the heart of the matter and ask my students, but I wanted them to be totally honest with me.  Don’t tell me what I want to hear.  Tell me the truth as you know it.  I asked the students to take out a clean sheet of paper and not put their names on the paper.  They were to answer 4 questions for me, and they were to be an honest as they could.  I told them that if they were afraid of my recognizing their handwriting, they could use the other hand or just print.

I asked them the following questions:

  1. Do you always proofread your work before you turn it in?
  2. If you do, how do you do it?  If you don’t, why don’t you?
  3. Why would students not proofread their work before turning it in?
  4. How is it possible that an advanced ESL student in their class could write, “He have problems at home with his family.”? 

I collected the papers.  The students could discuss the questions with their partners to see how similar or different they were in their answers.  I waited until the next class meeting to have a class discussion when I had read all their answers.

For #1, I got a mixture of yes and no.  “If I have time.”  “If I am not tired.”  “Never.”

For #2, the students who proofread said that they just read through their homework once.  For those that didn’t, they complained that there was so much homework and that it took so long that they had no time to proofread, or that proofreading wasn’t part of the assignment.  Some said that they couldn’t recognize their mistakes even if they proofread the finished assignment.

For #3, you might expect the students to just repeat #2, but many said that perhaps students had never learned how to proofread.  Or no one had ever even asked them to proofread before.  (Can that really be true?)  Some even said, “That’s not my job.  That’s the teacher’s job.”

For #4, many students said that such mistakes are made and remain in the work if the student didn’t proofread the paper.  But more students explained that the distinction between 3rd person singular verbs and verbs for the other persons may not exist in the first language of the students.  And the meaning of the sentence is not obscured by writing the wrong form of “have.”

What was refreshing is that the students knew I didn’t know who had written what, but they could discuss the topic without giving away their proofreading behavior.  I presented some of the opinions, such as the one about the teacher’s job being to correct errors on papers.  Good idea?  Bad idea?  How long would this option hold out after they left their ESL classes?  At four-year colleges?  At their future jobs?

Out of this discussion came the concept of language independence.  How could they achieve this independence if this were something they valued?  I told them that some students had said that they had never learned how to proofread their papers.  I asked them how many were interested in learning techniques of proofreading, and surprisingly over half the class raised their hands.  So, that is on the agenda for this coming week.  However, the proof is in the pudding.  What do you think?  Will I see “He have” or something so basic after next week?

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