Tuesday September 7, 2010

Thought for the Day: A picture word is worth a thousand abstract textbook words.

Day 2 of our Global Volunteers teaching in Xi’an began with great promise as our driver zigged and zagged through traffic snarls in record time. Della, one of the English teachers at the college, graciously rode along as escort. (The school van was still black.)

When we arrived at the campus, long lines of students were waiting to register. Those of us assigned to teach in the library found the double doors locked and not a student in sight. Eventually about 15 students strolled up and the doors were unlocked. We divided those 15 among us — 5 per volunteer teacher — with mixed results.

Most of our team today reported very lively sessions. My five students, all from outlying farm communities, struggled with reading and using even simple English sentences. Often they could manage only phrases. None had a textbook and I had to lend one a pen. Yet they tried as best they could to communicate in English. And by noon quitting time I believe we all knew more about each other’s lives and English conversation. One student helpfully reminded me that China’s one-child policy was interpreted as one child per city family, two in the countryside.


Especially with less advanced students, Claudia is right that the teacher should read a passage first before asking students to read.

Maggie is right that you cannot overdo “modeling” dialogue or other exercises before asking students to try them.

Prodding and enthusiasm such as Marcella radiates are powerful assets in motivating students to learn.

Wally is showing that hamming it up works in the classroom, if not on stage.

I found even my struggling students rallied when given a framework such as who, what, where, when and why — with answers modeled in advance.

The textbook we were given is woefully lacking in conversational “picture words.” Students are focused on exams anyway. So skip the abstract textbook vocabulary whenever possible and go for hot button conversational topics.

Our afternoon visit to the Grand Mosque was fascinating.

Also, you can measure distances along the Xi’an historic wall by the number of parkside Chinese opera singers. Our walk to buy opera tickets was a six singer trip, at high decibel level.

Most wonderful of all was a slender elder brother in grey scholar’s garb dipping a 3-foot long brush in a tin can full of water and producing the most elegant ephemeral calligraphy on public park paving stones.

– Tony

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