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English Learners Don’t Need Traditional English Teachers

skype contact requests englishoutthereSelling English course downloads and support to learners produces some interesting contact behaviour on social media such as Facebook and Skype. Most learners who contact us are looking for a free English teacher who can correct their text chat messages, answer questions and (if they are really lucky) have a few speaking practice conversations with them.

Nothing wrong in that we hear you cry. After all, they might get lucky and get through our ‘defences’ by being super friendly or asking a question that fascinates us and demands a quick answer. Unfortunately there is not much chance of those happening. We have seen and heard most questions and will refer them to our good friend Google. We are also experts on the way that communication ‘traps’ are laid by learners and we can spot them immediately.

We really do understand and we really do want to help, and we can, but just not in the way that most learners think they need us to help them. It’s very frustrating for everyone involved because the learners want to learn, we want to help, but they want to learn the way they have been convinced is the way to learn. Does that make sense?  

The truth is that when learners try to ‘game’ us into meaningful contact to help them learn and practice for free they are displaying behaviour that is the direct result of the damage that traditional English teaching has done to them. They have been conditioned to think that they will only learn to speak English through direct contact with a teacher who provides them with answers to their questions and a small amount of practice.  

These learners (the ones who are still trying to learn English after years of ESL lessons) are the resilient ones. They are stronger psychologically than the majority of others who have given up. They instinctively know that they need contact with fluent English speakers. But they think they need a teacher. The reason they think like this is because every lesson they have ever done has made them think that way. Even though the lessons didn’t work and they still can’t speak English comfortably. They still think they need more of the same. Are you still with us?  

What they are really displaying is a form of learned helplessness. They think they can’t do it without the help of a teacher because they have always been told by every teacher they ever knew that they needed a teacher. Even though years of lessons didn’t help them to speak.  It really is a kind of ELT vicious cycle.   

Learned helplessness in ELT is closely linked to motivation issues and is hugely under investigated (funny that!). However, we have found one research study that explains why this little mentioned phenomenon occurs all over the world. It is called A Qualitative Analysis on the Occurrence of Learned Helplessness among EFL Students and was written by Liwei Hsu of the Department of Applied English at the National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism in Taiwan and published in the Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology in 2011. We think this passage from the paper is very illuminating,  

“Question 2: What was the source of these failures? Did they come from your parents, teachers, friends or other source? 

The students’ sources of failure varied. Students with neuroticism and their extroverted counterparts, as well as the openness students claimed that the source of their failure came mainly from their peers and the teacher’s instructional method. On the other hand, the conscientious students were inclined to think carefully about their answers to this question. In the end, one conscientious student attributed his/her failure to the language environment. However, when they were asked about their thoughts on the teacher’s instruction and their failure to learn, they responded conservatively by saying that the teacher’s instructional method was a potential factor in their failure but not a significant one. For agreeableness learners, they said that although they paid close attention to the teacher’s comments, they hardly considered this to be a source of failure. None of the participants claimed that parents or friends were the source of their failures. However, when participants were asked about their views on failure in general, they all agreed that the teacher’s ineffective instruction played a decisive role in their failure to learn, even though it might not be the prime source.   

Question 3: What are the major reasons that caused the failure to learn English? 

Most students thought that not being able to satisfy their sense of accomplishment from learning English was a major reason. This statement was strongly supported by students having neuroticism, openness and agreeableness traits. In the meantime, the extroverted students argued that not being able to communicate with others in English was another major reason leading to their failure to learn. The conscientious students also regarded that “not studying hard enough” was the major cause of their failure.”  

And this,  

“For example, quite a few participants argued that their sense of failure, in terms of learning English, came from negative experiences with their teachers. Bernaus and Gardner’s (2008) study pointed out that failure in the EFL students’ learning processes might be the result of a teacher’s use of ineffective methods, such as the traditional instructional approach.”  

So, this small Taiwanese study clearly shows that the “teacher’s instructional method” was blamed by all students for the failures they experienced with their learning of the English language (to differing degress depending upon their personality type). Repeated failure to achieve a “sense of accomplishment” erodes motivation and leads to learned helplessness. Read the research for yourselves.  

What does this say about global English language teaching and learning? For us at English Out There it confirms what we have always believed. That conventional ESL taught in classrooms does not help learners to speak English, produces a long sequence of failures and, in many many cases, will prevent learners ever being able to experience success. And it keeps goes round and round.  

Our peer-reviewed research article on our website, Beginner English speaker to intermediate in six lessons (West 2012) can put the above information into useful global ESL context. This passage is from our article,  

“Based upon our prior experience of ELT, does conventional EFL/ESL actually help learners to improve their speaking skills?  

The search for an answer to the broader second question led us to some research that analysed ESL student dropout rates in the Canadian high school system. With ESL courses being deemed key to non-ESL educational integration and long-term academic success the effectiveness of the ESL programme was analysed by looking at the drop-out rates of students from the entire educational program and not just their ESL courses. If learners can use English comfortably enough to integrate fully and become just like one of the native-speaking English population of learners the researchers hypothesised that the groups’ high school dropout rates should be similar. The results of their study make for interesting reading. They discovered a differentiated dropout rate, depending upon intake placement of the students: beginner (95%), intermediate (70%) and advanced (50%) (The Dynamics of ESL Dropout, Watt & Roessingh 2001).   

Using drop-out rates to highlight the ineffectiveness of conventional ESL courses is one way to make a point, however one of the researchers went further in her paper Effective High School ESL Programs: A Synthesis and Meta-analysis (Roessingh 2004). It is an analysis of 12 major studies of effective ESL programs conducted over 14 years that she hoped would point the way to instructional and policy reform. The abstract contains the sentence,   

“In short, educational outcomes measured by way of dropout, failure, and low achievement on standardised tests all suggest that for some reason ESL learners do not benefit from ESL programming.” (Roessingh 2004)  

Roessingh applied the findings in her paper to the wider non-High School ESL environment (i.e. the global ESL industry) by writing,  

“We suspect there is much that is generalizable to other ESL teaching and learning contexts” (Roessingh 2004) and made the startling assertion that,  

“ESL learners do not achieve in line with their academic potential” (Roessingh 2004)”  

Finally, to get back to the social media ‘gamers’ who still have some intrinsic motivation left, what you are doing, trying to get online English teachers to help you for free in the way you hav been conditioned to think you need help will only reinforce any feelings of failure and helplessness that you have. It’s not going to work. So please listen to what we tell you on this website. It works, and, unlike almost all other English courses, we can actually prove it! Have a listen.