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Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Crime and punishment

I've got a few hours of teaching over the summer with an academy here in Pinoso. Sixty hours of preparation in six weeks for the B1 exam.

Within the European Union there is an agreed framework for language study. Various educational bodies organise exams to accredit learning at the various levels which go from starters - A1 - through to more or less bilingual at C2. So B1 is a lower intermediate type course.

This is the official description of the B1 level: Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

So basically it says that you can get by in situations that you know about with texts, recordings and conversation in English. Obviously enough, within the documentation for the exams there is more detail but to give an example, about pronunciation, the documentation says that a word should be intelligible.

Now I have a critic. A Spaniard who lives in the UK and who always takes me to task whenever I make generalisations about Spaniards. So here we go. I await his comments.

It seems to me that one of the elements of the Spanish education system is to punish errors. The exam I am teaching to is run by Cambridge Examinations and their style is to reward success. To give an example at school. If a Spanish pupil fails more than a given number of subjects then they are sent back to repeat the year. There are opportunities to resit the exams between the end of one academic year and the start of the next so lots of Spanish youngsters spend a good deal of their summer holidays cramming for exams. If they pass sufficient of the failed subjects they can continue without repeating the year.

Lots of the students I deal with have learned with the la Escuela Oficial de Idiomas, the Official School of languages. Without having direct experience of la escuela oficial it sounds to me as though they have some quality teachers doing a quality job. On the other hand they seem to be very nit picky. They teach the sort of English that is grammatically correct but, at the same time, old fashioned. It may well be true that "Could I have an orange juice, please?" is more formal than "Can I have an orange juice, please?" but I don't think many English speakers would worry about that. Indeed it may well be that the escuela oficial is even more grammatically correct and teaches "May I have an orange juice, please?" I was taught, and I still say, "If I were you..." but I have no problem with "If I was you..."  - I'm sure the escuela oficial does. So the students are barraged with lots of rules, lots of detail. They become so caught up in the detail of the grammar that they find it difficult to speak or to write fluidly. Now grammar is important but if it gets in the way of basic communication it becomes a problem.

So one of the problems I have with my students is getting them to see the broader picture. Through their learning career they have seen their work returned covered in red pen. Every detail mistake is punished. Rather than being praised for having written something that has mistakes but would be perfectly comprehensible to an English speaker, the only comments are on the errors. Students are corrected as they speak breaking the spontaneity and communication. Obviously mistakes have to be corrected but they don't need to be over emphasised. "Then these two persons go to the cinema," says the student. "Ah, says the teacher - so these two people went to the cinema - and what film did they see?" Corrected but not deflated. Oh, and I've been told a couple of times by Spanish colleagues and employers that I should replace my black or blue biro with a red one so that the mistakes are highlighted.

We were doing something about the speaking exam and I mentioned that asking for clarification was a good thing - it shows that students are behaving as real people would if they were speaking. I mentioned that navigating around a word they didn't know or remember was also considered to be positive. "Oh, I've forgotten the name but it's the thing you use to dig the garden". I sensed that the students didn't really believe me. On the listening exam where lots of the questions are multiple choice I was stressing that they should leave no question unanswered. if you have three choices and you don't know which it is give yourself a sporting chance and plump for one. "Don't they take marks off for getting the answer wrong?" I was asked.


Anonymous said...

Hi, you are right. I studied English at a Spanish school and later at the EOI and got the official Escuela Oficial de Idiomas certificate. But I can tell you it is a waste of time. All my teachers were Spanish and the system is quite depressing. It has nothing to do with how you British people learn your own language. I remember I was talking to a British woman once and I started talking about "phrasal verbs" and grammatical names like that and she didn't knew what I was talking about. I mean, we in Spain memorize that kind of useless stuff and don't learn how to communicate. And when we are finally in the street trying to speak in English our head is full of "What verb should I put in here?...Wait" British education emphasize the comprehension, not the memorization. My English is awful now but it was much worse when I ended the EOI.

By the way, what do the British kids do in the Spanish schools?? I mean with the English lesson? Can they skip them or do they have to stay? You must know a lot of kids around here with that problem.

Other question: Do you know any good online center, or teacher to help a private (Spanish) student with English Lit and English language A levels?? (Cambridge or Edexcel. Most of the online centers I've seen are Aqa).
Thank you.

Chris Thompson said...

I'm going to be useless here for you I'm afraid, Nearly all the people I know who teach are teaching English to Spaniards (mainly Spaniards) following things like the Cambridge and Trinity CEFR exams (generally at B1, B2 and C1) I've bumped into a little bit of IELTS and TOEIC stuff too but nothing related to A levels. In my own case I haven't been to the UK very much in the past few years and I wouldn't know which exam boards still exist, what the syllabuses cover etc. Things change and I no longer need to keep up with examination bodies in the UK.

Are you talking about a friend near to Pinoso? The reason I ask is that I do know a couple of full time teachers who are here at the moment from the UK and taking time off for one reason or another. Their knowledge would be up to date but I don't know enough about them to know whether they taught A levels in the UK let alone in what subjects or which board they presented students to. I can ask if your friend is close to Pinoso.

I don't have children either. I don't think I know many Britons with school age children. I have heard stories about British children correcting the English of Spanish teachers of English and being disciplined for that. I've also come across lots of "first generation" British Spaniards (the youngsters were born here in Spain or have grown up since they were very young in Spain) and they have significant difficulties with English. They can speak English perfectly well, under normal circumstances, for instance with their parents but, because they live in a Spanish world speaking with Spanish peers and breathing in Spanish culture, their exposure to more complex English, to extended vocabulary, to British culture and the language that goes with it is very limited. They make the same mistakes of "translation" as Spanish youngsters - so they talk of my fathers (for parents) my uncles (for aunt and uncle), their spelling is phonetic and they do not understand the evolving and more up to date idiomatic English.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information.
That is so interesting... and sad. I know a teenager in the same situation. She knows English better than her teacher (she is actually C2), but she gets corrected (and punished, as you say) for idiomatic forms that she says no Briton uses in normal speaking English. It is so frustrating that having so many Britons in Spain we still have to have Spanish teachers of English!

Yes, it is for someone near Pinoso. I'll ask and let you know because I think what she is looking for is having some interaction with other students. Online education would be better because they have forums, etc. But, as far as I know, most online centers (NEC, ICS,...) prepare only for AQA examinations (Cloudlearn is the only one I've seen with Edexcel and CIE, but they don't have English Language A Level, only English Lit). AQA doesn't allow private students from outside UK. And most examination places here in Spain (British Council, private schools) have only CIE or Pearson Edexcel examinations. Which is weird. Maybe it is me who doesn't know. I'll find out.
Thanks anyway.