3 Things I Learned About EFL Education from ‘B’ Group

The school year has ended. Summer is here. And all the teachers are rejoicing and singing for the new beginning.

Now that the dust has settled from the school year and I have rejuvenated myself on my Icelandic adventure (yes, you should definitely go), I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the school year that has passed.

I am not ashamed to say publicly that this has been the most difficult year of teaching in my career. I never thought anything could beat my year teaching on the east side of Austin, but it seems my students this year certainly achieved something (less hair on my head and a higher blood pressure that even daily meditation could not prevent).

Despite the challenges and frustrations, this experience has taught me a lot about EFL education, and I would like to share with you 3 things I have learned.

What is ‘B’ Group?

Before I go on, I need to give a little background on the class that caused me a lot of traumatic pain and stress, henceforth referred to as ‘B’ group.

The school I worked in runs a content-based language curriculum (as opposed to a language or grammar based curriculum) and divides students from each homeroom by English proficiency for English class. While homerooms are random and heterogeneous, English classes are separated by ability level. In its simplest definition, ‘B’ group is the lowest proficiency level class in a grade level in the school. However, it’s much more complicated than that…

Generally speaking, with a few exceptions, what ends up happening (perhaps through Darwin’s natural selection) is the bottom 20% of each homeroom ends up in ‘B’ group. They not only struggle academically with English, they actually struggle academically in most classes.

That being said, academics are the least of ‘B’ groups’ problems. Again with a few exceptions, these students have the least parental support (1 parent came to parent’s day), they have major behavioral issues (like picking up a desk and slamming it down in the middle of class seemingly for no reason), and emotional issues (I have never seen so many 6th grade boys cry).

To sum up, ‘B’ Group is the most difficult parts of teaching. It busts Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler’s (2008) 70-20-10 principle. It’s every (10) in the school wrapped up in a four-wall package called a classroom.

Now, for what I learned…

1. Dividing EFL Students by “Proficiency Level” in Elementary School is a Terrible Idea

I believe in Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory (need a refresher?), and therefore, I am naturally skeptical of separating students into leveled classes. I believe there is a lot to be said about learning from your more advanced peers, both directly and indirectly.

With language learning, however, I do believe some leveling is needed. Putting a pure beginner (A0) with no outside support in a class with advanced learners (C1) is a recipe for disaster.

But in elementary schools with EFL programs, this is not an issue. In grade 1, you may have some students already at a lower beginner level (A1) while many will be A0. This is not a huge gap, and it is ok to mix them in a content-based language classroom (I may approach it differently in a language/grammar based classroom).

Even by grade 6, the gap wasn’t terribly large with the top students at lower-intermediate (B1), the majority a solid upper-beginner (A2) approaching B1, and the lower group a solid A1. While I could entertain reasons why not to put B1 with A1 learners, I see little problem mixing A2 and A1 in content-based language classrooms and may still maintain the idea of mixing the B1 and A1 students in content-based situations (Again, language-based classrooms would be a different story).

Why is mixing levels good and separating bad? Back to sociocultural theory, in grade 1 those A0 students will benefit from the input that their A1 classmates produce. If you separate them, the only input A0 students will receive is from the teacher. The amount of authentic language input will be significantly less. And as teachers, we know two things to be true: (1) students often are able to help their struggling classmates more than we can and (2) students would much rather listen to their classmates than us. The same rationale would work in grade 6, too, with B1 students providing a lot of authentic input.

Also, the negative effects of grouping compound over time. Every year, the lack of exposure compounds making it so the top group continues to receive a ‘flood’ of input while the lower groups continue to only receive a trickle. The best continue to get better, while the others stagnate.

The students in my ‘B’ group improved A LOT this year, especially in reading. We started the year with students asking me how to read words like “eraser” and “boat.” We ended the year with them being able to read aloud paragraphs from grade level textbooks (although comprehension was at times sketchy and needed to be scaffolded).

With such great improvement, I can’t help but wonder where they would be if they hadn’t been separated from their more able peers from the beginning…

2. Should we use the same textbook?

In schools that level their students, a raging debate exists about whether to use the same textbook or not. One side contends that by using different textbooks, you are limiting the potential of students to information and limiting their educational opportunities. The other side argues that by using incomprehensible material, the students are not even being given a chance to succeed.

So where do I stand after teaching ‘B’ group?

*drum roll*

I don’t have a freakin’ clue.

In my class, we used the same textbooks as all the other groups. As I noted above, the students improved a lot. I mean… A LOT! That being said, using a grade level textbook was an extremely painful ordeal for both me and the students.

In support of the side that calls for the same textbook, I believe a lot of the improvement seen in the students was a result of the challenging material. This was the first year they were given the same textbook and I wonder where they would be if they had it all along.

Unfortunately, not everyone improved. Two students in particular basically shut down as a result of the complexity and wouldn’t even try. This is clearly a danger with students. If they feel they can’t succeed, they won’t even try.

In support of the side that calls for using different, more comprehensible, textbooks, this year I was only able to do very superficial reading with the class. Most of my teaching time was spent scaffolding with PPT excerpts of the text and graphic organizers in order to support comprehension of the text. In reference to Beers and Probst’s B-H-H Framework (Book-Head-Heart), I only really felt I had time to do “Book” because the text was so complex. While I tried to quickly fit in “head” and “heart”, I found it very difficult both from the standpoint of time and of content complexity. I believe an easier textbook that was more comprehensible would have been able to offer a more meaningful educational experience beyond just reading to comprehend.

In the end, I see pros and cons to both sides. I think it would take more than a year with the group to answer this question. With the improvement I saw, I wonder if with another year we could eventually reach a place where B-H-H could happen. I think its quite possible. But another year isn’t in the cards, and while great improvement occurred, it was a year of not making meaningful personal connections to a text. I question whether the improvement was worth it…

3. Teaching ‘B’ Group Takes More than EFL Pedagogical Skill

Many that know me would probably agree that my grasp of EFL pedagogical knowledge is strong, and I hope this blog is a reflection of that.

While I am very confident in my teaching abilities, and the improvement in the students is testament to it, I wonder whether I was the right teacher for these students.

Actually…I take that back. I know I wasn’t the right teacher.

As I said above, academics is the least of ‘B’ groups problems, and the year ended with a group of students who improved in English but are the same, or worse off, emotionally and as people.

The students in ‘B’ group, particularly the lower third, have been neglected both by their school, family, and community. They lack the ability to control their physical and emotional actions and look for attention in all the wrong ways.

These students need (1) love and support from everyone and (2) need to learn self-control, discipline and respect. Really, learning English as a foreign language is a footnote in the list of priorities.

Unfortunately, I felt really inadequate in giving the students what they really needed.

On the first point, love and support, I give myself a C. I did my best to do this and be their cheerleader, but I certainly became fatigued in the last quarter. The student fights, the profanity, the apathy, the throwing of desks, the arguments, etc. all wore on me.

In addition, I think I can only achieve supporting their need of love and support to a certain extent as a cultural outsider. I don’t believe I could ever connect as well to Taiwanese students as well as a local teacher could. We don’t share the same experiences, we don’t share the same beliefs, and we don’t share the same language. I never felt incapable of developing relationships before with Taiwanese students, but I think the cultural limit became apparent when teaching the most vulnerable students in ‘B’ group.

On the second point, teaching self-control, discipline and respect is difficult, especially as a classroom teacher in a foreign language. Again, I never felt this way before, but it clearly became a problem with ‘B’ group. I think they need support in ways beyond what a single teacher could provide. I also think my status as a foreign teacher causes a gap in my ability to teach some of the values such as discipline and respect. I think these students would be more receptive to someone who shares their cultural ties and values. I believe our lack of shared culture limits my ability to get through to them and connect.

I also believe many of my students need special interventions, probably outside the classroom with an educational psychologist (although I recognize that is hard to come by in Taiwan for a variety of reasons). A lot of great work has been done in psychology in the realm of executive function and interventions to improve it in children who lack it. Many in ‘B’ group certainly lack it, and while I tried to help, I think there is only so much I could do as their English teacher.

Finally, it goes without saying that parental support would help. As noted though, a lot of ‘B’ group student just don’t have that support, and the parents certainly aren’t interested in hearing what the foreign English teacher has to say about that. I don’t necessarily mean that as a bitter statement, but rather as a statement of reality. It has been documented by researchers that Asian cultures tend to be less open to outsider when it comes to matters beyond superficial hospitality (Peterson, 2004). Again, a local teacher would be more fit to reach the parents than I would.

I guess to sum up, I think a caring and understanding Non-native English speaking teacher (NNEST) would have better served these students than I could. There’s another +1 for NNESTs.

A Note to EFL Program Administrators

I categorized this reflection under ‘Education Policy’ for a reason. While this post could be construed as a teacher blaming everyone else for his struggles in the classroom, I hope you, the EFL program administrator, can use it as a piece for reflection on your program and how you can better serve the most vulnerable students.

My post indeed contains a lot of ‘ifs’ and unanswered questions, and I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you blindly follow my suggestions. What I do ask is that you look at your program, particularly the lowest groups, and see where your position and policies can help improve the situation. The ‘B’ groups are often the most ignored in schools, but they are the ones who need your attention the most.

And if nothing else, be there for your teachers who teach these ‘B’ groups. Believe me…they need your support, big time!

A Note to EFL Teachers

If you get a ‘B’ group, do your best.

I went into the situation with a “savior complex” thinking I could be the messiah that would save them from their English sins. With this as the metric, I failed miserably, and it caused me a lot of distress throughout the year.

Instead, go in with the mindset to make one student better each day. To put it in sports terms, focus on winning the game that day, forget about the championship.

And if you would allow me to give one last piece of advice:

Go in everyday with the goal to help every child, but leave knowing you can’t and won’t save them all and that’s ok. You did your best.

Where do you stand on my ‘B’ group reflections? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments.

References

Beers, G. K., & Probst, R. E. (2017). Disrupting thinking: why how we read matters. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

Curwin, R. L., Mendler, A. N., & Mendler, B. D. (2008). Discipline with dignity: new challenges, new solutions. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Peterson, B. (2004). Cultural intelligence. Boston: Intercultural Press.

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