‘I don’t know why!’

Years ago the ESL program at Brock University welcomed a cohort of remarkable students on scholarships to pursue graduate studies in Canada. All of them were optimistic and highly motivated, but one – let’s call her Marianna – stood out for her exceptional diligence. She was a geneticist, and perhaps that academic focus promoted her extremely methodical approach to studying English; in any case, she wonderfully exemplified the self-aware style that often characterizes successful adult learners. One of my experiences when teaching her was especially memorable.

But first, the background: Guided by theoretical findings that were emerging at the time, we required every ESL student to read one entire easy-reader per week. We offered a large bank of fiction and non-fiction texts, and students could freely select whatever title and difficulty-level they wished. Importantly, the objective was not just to reinforce that one skill. Experience led us to expect that engagement in extensive reading would typically contribute to learners’ progress more globally: broadly speaking, in lexical and grammatical depth overall, as well as in intensive and extensive reading ability. Generally, the program worked well, but Marianna’s reaction to it was enlightening.

On receiving her scores after the first set of progress tests, Marianna expressed frustration at not having achieved higher results, specifically in reading, which she realized was crucial for her future success. She asked what she could do to speed up her progress. Despite assurances that in fact her early outcomes predicted an excellent end-of-term outcome across the board, Marianna remained impatient. “Well,” I said, “if you want, you could read two books per week instead of one.” She agreed.

During the segment before the second progress test I noticed that, in keeping with her commitment, Marianna was regularly consuming double the required number of extensive-reading books. Moreover, when the new grades appeared, she had indeed made remarkable further progress, not only in reading but also in writing, speaking and listening. I anticipated that she would be delighted, and so I was looking forward to meeting with her and going over her new scores. To my surprise, however, she had a big frown on her face.

“What’s the matter, Marianna?” I said. “You did great.”

“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t know why!”

I’ve never forgotten that reaction. In follow-up discussions with her, I came to understand the total mystification that Marianna felt. How could she connect her efforts in the seemingly separate area of extensive reading with her stunning general advancement in all four skills? Years of successful study had disciplined her never to count on coincidences or lucky breaks. In her mind, everything depended on hard work in aid of directly related outcomes, and that model had served her well until she encountered this apparently bizarre exception. By covertly magnifying her achievement across diverse particular classes, the impact of Marianna’s ambitious extensive reading ran counter to all of her usual expectations. Of course, that outcome was precisely what we anticipated, but I had naïvely assumed that a good result would be enough, with no need to explain the rationale. In fact, if I had had better insight into Marianna’s very responsible learning style, I might have offered her not only language training but also a deeper form of education. But I fell short.

The take-away: I learned from Marianna to appreciate the need, especially with highly self-aware adult students, to back up practical tips for success by disclosing the reasoning behind such advice. Fortunately, Marianna did not hold this against me but she did make me see that – unintentionally but nevertheless actually – I had treated her like a child. She had been willing to accept my strange extensive-reading recommendation on trust, and it worked, but if I had taken time to explain my pedagogical rationale in fuller detail, she would have had a much better opportunity to incorporate that new strategy into her own well-thought-out bank of learning skills.

Okay, my bad, Marianna! After that day, I tried hard not to repeat the error.

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9 thoughts on “‘I don’t know why!’”

  1. Thanks for the comments, Jim and Wazir. When we have an opportunity not only to teach an enthusiastic student, but also to learn from them, what more could we ask?

  2. I’m with you, the post-Maria John Sivell. I almost always share with students why I want them to do something. This is not a habit that I began, at the start, due to an awareness of the pedagogical value of the sharing. Rather it was part and parcel of being an authentic human in an authentic relationship with clients I view as peers and collaborators. It’s nice to know that bringing students into our confidence when asking them to carry out a task can also be good teaching practice.

  3. Great story Professor Sivell. You are very good story teller. I agree with Kelly…it’s very important for ESL students to know the reasoning.

    1. You’re so right, Gonul: knowing the logic behind pedagogical instructions certainly is important … and yet, isn’t it amazing how easily one can overlook that point!

  4. No doubt you’re right on the mark, Mirjana. And especially whenever things get tough, that resource is surely one of the factors that can help to keep teachers feeling good about their job.

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