ESL Students ~ Don’t Underestimate Their Intelligence

24 Apr

There is a clear problem in the world of ESL teaching (both language and content), and it comes primarily from the side of the ESL teachers. I would almost say it is a unique type of racism that is beginning to show. And it is concerning me on behalf of the students.

The Problem ~ ESL teachers tend to believe that any student who cannot communicate the idea in English cannot understand the idea itself.

While it is certainly true that there are students we teach who are intellectually challenged (primarily because they are 18-20 and really care more about Basketball or Dance right now), it would be well for ESL teachers to remember that they are often teaching some of the most intelligent and educated students in the country. Students in ESL programs are rarely ever stupid ~ different, and perhaps driven to less academic pursuits perhaps ~ but not stupid.

And it is time we stopped planning our lessons around this concept.  

Just look at most ESL websites ~ we are taught to teach students at a very low intellectual level. It’s all fun and games ~ very little actual intellectual-level learning. And they are carrying this pattern over into content-based classes.   Students tasked with learning about deep content (Macroeconomics) are being taught very simple “here’s how business people say ‘hello!'” lessons.  It drives me crazy.

There is a belief among the ESL teachers that Asian students are incapable of doing Critical Thinking. That they are taught only to memorize and can do no more.  0_0 How condescending can you get? 

I have watched my students soar into the world of Critical Thinking, marching through complex questions and speaking for hours about their ideas of applied philosophy to Economics, Art, Culture, Science, and the World.  I was given the class “Business Ethics” and then told by other teachers that the students would never understand the concept ~ it was “above their comprehension level.”  By the end of my class, they all managed a 30 minute conversation where they not only explained complex Ethical theories, but applied them to current problems that they felt were important. I didn’t chose the ideas for them, they took the knowledge and ran with it on their own.  

I once had a student that other teachers warned me about because they were “slow” and “just couldn’t understand.” Admittedly they made poor grades at first (I wasn’t grading those assignments, another teacher was). But then they came to me in tears about why they were graded so low when they had spent “5 days without leaving the dorm just to do this.” After looking over the paper, I was blown away. They were using resources, quoting law books, bringing in the national Constitution. They were using appropriately huge words like “Deconstruction” and “Rehabilitation.” They could explain their paper to me, and it was way beyond even many US student’s levels. The only problem? A small issue of not knowing how to use the small connecting words of “for, an, to. . . ”  That’s all. Together we sat down, and I explained those words to them. Their next paper, they got a 100 and were applauded by the senior teacher. It had never been a lack of comprehension ~ merely a difficulty in explaining it to others that was the problem.

And this has happened over and over in schools all across Asia.  

There is an instinctive racism that happens to westerners when they confront people who don’t speak native English. It’s like if a person can’t speak English, they must be stupider or less competent than us.  We do it without thinking, without realizing. High-level communication is difficult so we think they must not be able to comprehend the ideas themselves. But this is fundamentally flawed.  

Stop treating the students like idiots and teach to their level.  If they don’t understand you the first time, try again.  And Again, and again. Because they are fully capable of understanding the ideas. It is simply your communication of the ideas that leaves something to be desired.  

The students are smart ~ be respectful and remember your own college language days. How good are you at that college French still?  

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