Five Panics

Five Ways to Reduce Student Panic

After many years of schooling, I’ve noticed many of my adult Japanese students feel quite certain as to their poor aptitude for English: they have years of proof of their inability for this esoteric subject. Yet times now require this lingua franca as a professional necessity in many companies, not merely a subject of study. How can we as educators turn this decades-long experience of failure into a series of practical successes? Following are five basic types of people who find themselves suddenly confronted with one of their worst nightmares, and some solutions I’ve successfully applied to address them.

The panic of poor scholastic aptitude

Perhaps one of the easiest to deal with, this type of person is common. I know – I’m one of them! School and even university were a constant series of struggles, and never seemed to result in the skills that seem to be offered. Framing education in terms of Visual-Audio-Kinaesthetic (1) provides a simple yet effective framework for learning modes. While most people have a slight mix of these modalities, usually one is predominant, and ESL schooling in Japan usually appears to focus on Audio, where the teacher explains content.

I begin a lesson with such students focussed on action, touch, gestures, pictures and the student producing and recording key points, new vocabulary and phrases. I’ve discovered that most of my lower level students are heavily kinaesthetic. If this person’s abilities are quite low, writing greetings, conversations and emails in their notebook, and them responding likewise, usually is the most effective way to provide them with the evidence that they can actually use English. I avoid verbal explanations as much as possible.

The panic of xenophobia

The Japanese population has a vast majority of Japanese people (2). This homogeneity simply doesn’t provide many opportunities to interact with a foreigner, and suddenly sitting alone in a closed room with one may simply be culture shock. One student I had at least had classmates, but it still took several weeks before we were able to have a reasonable conversation.

Instead of talking about race or other such unproductive topics, I unleashed some of my repository of Japanese-only jokes (3) and cultural references, such as speaking in Samurai phrases, saying Japanese tongue-twisters and announcing, ‘I hate English. Repeat!’ This student and I discovered that we share a very silly sense of humour, and two years after I started teaching that class, the student confided in me, in English, that she hates foreigners. She is one of the most focussed students in the class.

The panic of not being teacher-driven

This type of panic comes when the instructor does not give the student a text, grammar points, prefabricated conversations, or timed activities (4). Not only do most educational institutions and businesses seemingly focus on a top-down model, the hierarchical nature of Japanese culture implies that the teacher is the specialist and source, and the student is the recipient, of knowledge. The past thirty years of various language acquisition studies prove that communicative competence requires learners to engage their skills actively.

I begin by asking students how they have studied English in the past – school, university, English classes, and then confirming with them how their skills improved. Or didn’t. I then ask them what they need – speaking and writing, invariably – and what activities can help them improve. I draw pictures of each on the board, with one side for passive, and the other for active skills. This greatly reduces the panic, greatly increases the focus, and clarifies expectations throughout the course.

The panic of imperfect English

There are some people who, even if they understand the concept of communication skills, will repeatedly come back to specific grammar points, and want to investigate every possible permutation of that point with complete clarity before even trying to to apply it in conversation. The amount of time spent checking and double-checking stalls all progress for not only themselves, but any other students. Having been focussed so intently on the grammar-translation method, altering this focus has presents some challenges.

I usually change this situation by writing ‘communication’ or ‘discussion’ on the board, or whatever skill the course is focussed on, and begin a brainstorming session. Then I ask about how each item can be enhanced. From this point, specific grammar questions become much less frequent and intense, and even those who are most tenacious gradually start participating more, simply through majority rule. I follow up with self-evaluation activities to reinforce, clarify and use practical and active learning skills.

The panic of potentially losing their jobs

This type is perhaps the most serious, and requires three specific components: practical confirmation of current skills and abilities, clarification of both current and future professional needs, and practical, step-by-step activities through which this person reveals to themselves their own progress. Panic in this situation can most effectively be ameliorated with a coaching approach (5).

It is vital that the student writes their needs down. Active writing must be suggested, reinforced and promoted until it becomes an autonomous habit for that person. Positive reinforcement, kindness, and good manners are the context in which both attitudes and habits change. The outcome, skills development, can easily be evaluated together, adjusted and focussed throughout the course, as everything has been written down – by the student. This self-made evidence of capability provides this person with what they most need

While I’ve listed five specific panic-stricken types of people I’m regularly faced with, the humble reader may have noticed similar threads running through my solutions. Traditional approaches to language acquisition, specifically a teacher-driven approach with a mechanical focus, are insufficient to the task of professional skills development. While modelling activities support mastery of the language, people require a deeper engagement with the language, how it works and how to use it, to build competency. Evidence of skills development, as documented by the learners themselves, is the unequivocal proof that they are capable.

Neuroscience studies have proven that when the brain is in panic mode, whether the fear of pain is social, financial, physical or psychological, the brain cannot form the new connections vital for learning. Knowing how to identify the source of someone’s ability to ‘get it’ is my very first step when meeting a client, and dictates how I interact with that person in the learning environment. Following a textbook or materials is a necessary first step in language acquisition, but for many adults, it often simply maintains their current capabilities. Genuine written output with tailored feedback and discussion provide the communicative experience which develops skills, self-confidence, and also provides the supporting evidence of their progress.

1. VAK:

2. Japanese demographics:

3. Japanese-only jokes:親父ギャグ

4. Adult learning:

5. Language Coaching Questions:

– What are you studying English for?

– How have you studied?

– How do you use English now?

– What do you need to use English for in the future?

– What are your weak points?

– What are your strong points?

– How have you enjoyed learning something in the past?

– How would you like to learn English?

… et cetera