Expert blindness: what I learned about teaching struggling students by learning a new language

This year, I have ‘learned’ Spanish… Well, when I say I have ‘learned’ it, I mean I have studied it for four months and can now have an incredibly general conversation while making at least four grammatical mistakes a sentence. I’ve grappled with the different past tenses; I’ve had a few run-ins with ‘ser’and ‘estar’; I’ve dallied with the subjunctive – him and I don’t get along. I can catch sneaky ‘false friends’ when they’re written but struggle when they’re hidden in fluent, rapid, drawled Spanish. I am nowhere near mastering the language, and probably never will be. But I’ll be happy if I can speak to locals when travelling and thrilled if I can build up to reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his original tongue.

I have always wanted to learn another language, but I didn’t anticipate how useful it would be as a teacher. It helped me to put myself in a student’s position: a student who struggles with the subject. As teachers, we all-too-often see pupils who have reading ages far below their own – who struggle with writing and who are obviously overloaded by the dense and rich vocabulary we use in our disciplines. As English teachers – a sub-group of humans who are particularly good at using words – we are often tempted into expert blindness’ enticing hold, forgetting just how hard it is for those who don’t know as much as we do.

Consider these very basic sentences in Spanish: ¡Hola! Mi nombre es Bob. Vivo en Londres, Inglaterra.I bet you can work out what is being said, because most of the words will be familiar to you.

Now read this: tengo un hijo y una hija en primer grado. Ambos van a una escuela pública circa de la iglesia grande. Mi esposo es abogado y trabaja todo el tiempo. If you studied Spanish in school, you might recognise some of the words. If you didn’t, I bet these are much harder to decipher than the previous sentences. When a student who really struggles with reading attempts a passage of Dickens, say, they feel like we do when attempting to decode a passage written in another language: some of the words are familiar and many are a total mystery.

Here are some of the tactics I employed when learning Spanish and some insights which may be useful for struggling students:

VOCAB: When coming across a new word, I needed to see lots of examples and incorrect examples, and to attempt to use them multiple times in different sentences. In short, I needed to hear it, say it, read it in multiple contexts and write it myself. In teaching: read more about teaching vocabulary in my post here.

MEMORISATION: I memorised some useful, conversational phrases using Quizlet, such as ‘la cosa es que…’ (the thing is that…). In teaching: the equivalent might be getting students to memorise some really versatile sentence structures for writing analytically such as: [Author]’s use of the word ______ suggests… or Whereas [character 1] represents X, [character 2] represents X. This has been written on extensively by Josh Goodrich here.

GAP-FILLS: Gap-fill activities were really useful. I would fill in the gaps in a passage with a ‘word bank’ to choose from. Gradually, the words were more complicated and the options became more difficult to choose between until, finally, the word bank was taken away and I had to complete the passage unaided. In teaching: for the very weakest students, gap-fill activities can be a good way to consolidate or, as Andy Tharby puts it, to connect knowledge. For instance, students could fill in the word-gaps of a story’s plot at a more basic level or use an exercise like this one to more deeply understand a character. E.g.

  1. Hero is presented as  _____________ and _____________ because she …
  2. Beatrice is presented as  _____________ and _____________ because she …
  3. Benedick is presented as  _____________ and _____________ because he …
  4. Claudio is presented as  _____________ and _____________ because he …
  5. Don John is presented as _____________ and _____________ because he …
  6. Leonato is presented as _____________ and _____________ because he …

Possible options: conventional? unconventional? outspoken? impressionable? manipulative? cruel? self-pitying? brave? vulnerable? forgiving? patriarchal? resentful? jealous? humorous?

MCQs: Multiple-choice questions helped me to see the nuance in a word, phrase or concept. It forced application of newly acquired knowledge because I had to consider why, for example, a phrase worked in one example but not in another. In teaching: now, I try to include at least one, carefully-crafted MCQ in my teaching every week per class. I ask myself what the trickiest concept from the week was (hardest and most important), and then I ask the students one question about it. That way, I get instant feedback about misconceptions and can re-teach on the spot. E.g.

In which examples is Dickens using irony and how do you know?

a) ‘Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception’

b) ‘The tears sprung out from between his chin and bony fingers’

c) ‘Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child’

d) ‘The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again’

e) ‘The parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed’’

READ, READ, READ: I read a Spanish short story every day, starting from beginner level (A1) and getting to mid-level (B2) in two months. Then I moved on to news stories. Actively reading meant that I was constantly exposed to the most common/ useful words in multiple contexts and could build my vocabulary gradually. In teaching: Lots of schools, including mine, do a version of a ‘shared reading’ programme in which all students read the same book together with a teacher. I’ll write more about embedding reading into the school culture in a future post, but for now, to ensure my students are actively reading every day I use Doug Lemov and co’s ‘Control the Game’ methods in almost every English lesson I ever teach.

ERROR CORRECTION: drills in correcting errors can sound repetitive, but there is a strange satisfaction in ‘fixing up’ (as Engelmann would say) a sentence and making it work. In Spanish learning, correcting mistakes in sentences was not only essential for improvement but also morale-boosting. In teaching: I’m more convinced than ever that you need to show incorrect examples alongside correct examples to really aid understanding, whether it be for teaching vocabgrammar or spelling. In our department, we use some of The Writing Revolution’s wonderful methods and so far, the ‘turn these fragments into full sentence’ drills are working extremely well. They are best used when embedded within the content. E.g. turn ‘when Arthur Birling’ into a sentence when recapping An Inspector Calls.

MOTIVATION: finally, a note on how easy it is to feel demotivated. At the risk of sounding over-sensitive, it is quite amazing how quickly morale plummets when your teacher is impatient or sharp when you’re finding something difficult. It’s natural to feel a bit hopeless when you can’t grasp something. In teaching: never underestimate the power of patience, kindness and encouragement alongside high expectations. Building a culture of trust and support in the classroom is essential to curb demotivation when the going gets tough.

What else could be in this list? As ever, would love everyone’s thoughts. Mnemonics also helped with remembering, but this has been written on extensively here.

Expert blindness



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