Can you handle this?


July 27, 2010 by Willy Cardoso

“S.T. must be 55-60 years old. One of her daughters, who’s married with two children, lives in New Zealand, and S.T. will spend three months there with them, November to January. S.T. said that she had started many courses, even abroad, and also private classes, but nothing  gave her the expected results. She added that she thinks she has a ‘trauma’ and that she can neither retain nor produce anything. So, she wants to know if we have a magic formula that can help her from now till October. I pass this over to you, so you can think of some possibilities. The meeting is tomorrow”, wrote the Commercial Manager to the Director of Studies / Course Designer, who just came back from this meeting and said “It’s 100% psychological”.

Isn’t there more to teaching than just teaching?

Are teachers qualified to deal with something like that? Labeled as psychological. Teachers, let’s say at a CELTA level, which is above average in the Brazilian context. Can they handle it?

I say, no, no, no.

So, what happens? Should the school try to help even knowing it doesn’t have the right resources? Or maybe it’s not a matter of resources; it’s a matter of language schools deal with language issues and not psychological ones? But then, who’ll tell this person she needs ‘more’ than English classes? Aren’t language, identity, culture, background, cognition, behavior, and so on in the same bag? Shouldn’t we be ready to handle this? Shouldn’t any teacher be ready to handle this?

How would YOU handle this?

If you’re a teacher, how would you teach S.T.? What would you do in the first classes, how would you plan these?

If you’re a teacher trainer, how do/can you prepare teachers to teach this kind of learner?


13 thoughts on “Can you handle this?

  1. Crikey, that is a biggie!

    I guess the first thing I would do, knowing all of the above, would be to sit down with S.T. and go through his/her educational experiences one by one. Trying to see if there are any similarities in the way he/she describes how the learning experiences just didn’t work may lead to some evidence as to whether there is something more here.

    I’m thinking specifically things like, I can’t read what’s on the board properly, this black text on white paper handout looks funny (or the text ‘swims/floats’ around). These might be indicative of a learning difficulty like dyslexia.

    Other things, like asking whether he/she finds it easy or difficult to work on several things at once. Doing something like a simple memory test with a picture (tell them they have 1/2/3 mins to look at a picture, then ask a series of observation questions) may lead you to poor working memory being a possible cause.

    But all of this, without the possibility of a more qualified opinion, you can’t really do that much. It’s different here in Further Education in the UK. Most colleges have referral services, to check things like dyslexia, that can be contacted to provide diagnosis and support. If you’re a private language school, and S.T. is paying, I’m not sure there is much you CAN do!

    • Thanks Mike, wise comments! I like the simple, yet effective ‘tests’.

      There was once a case in which a learner/child was already diagnosed with dyslexia and the school simply told his father that it was not able to teach him, because there wasn’t a single teacher trained to deal with that. It was honest, and I liked that. But I’ve seen many other cases in different places, in which students with special needs were ‘taught’ by unprepared teachers. In this case, it is a private school and S.T. is paying quite a lot of money. I wonder how many private schools/language institutes take this for granted and does whatever just to get fees paid.

      • Well, no question for me as to whether the language school should do something. Whether they will is another matter altogether.

        I feel for the people involved here. There’s a student who obviously wants to get on, but just hasn’t been able to, and doesn’t know exactly why (or is reluctant to say). You can’t really force anything, any of the things I mentioned above has to be done 100% with the learner.

        Then there are the teachers. Fair play if the organisation takes the position of saying ‘sorry, there’s no one qualified for this’ but it’s so sad to have to exclude people from education. Then if the language school have taken the person on as a student ($$$) then whoever is teaching them is in a real tough position. They might even misunderstand what potential barriers there may be to learning for this student and just end up saying ‘well, he/she is never gonna learn, so why should I bother’ and end up with a whole load of resentment.

        Fact is, without support, this situation is going to cause issues.

        This resonates so much, as there are a number of students where I work who are in a similar position to S.T. Sometimes though, there isn’t much you can do. The key thing is that the learner needs to accept what’s wrong and accept support, since you cannot force it on them. If they don’t want support, what can you do.

        Perhaps with S.T. there is the fact that they have said there might be a ‘trauma’. This might be the first step in helping S.T. to achieve what he/she wants.

      • The language school should do something – I agree. But what and how? This is tough. Even when we’re willing to help, really into it, sometimes we don’t know how. Money, at least when I’m involved, plays no important role in such situations, so I could just say ‘sorry, we cannot provide you with what you would like’ and I think this is alright, I’ve done that, shamelessly. It’s way better than saying fine and screwing up even more with the person’s learning history.

        Another good point is the potential risk of saying ‘he/she is never gonna learn’, which I have addressed on the post about unconditional positive regard.

        Luckily, S.T. acknowledges having some sort of block(s) and accepts support, huge first step. I’ll write more soon, with good news!

  2. Cecilia Coelho says:


    Like you I believe the school / teacher cannot handle it. Or at least not the way it seems S.T. expects. And the first thing I’d probably do would be what you said Mike. But I also think her problem is most likely not dyslexia or any other learning disorder. She has probably put up an invisible “I can’t get it” wall around her. I see that happen a lot here in Brazil, 90% of times with older students.

    These students may do this because of a first unsuccessful experience at learning English, especially if they didn’t fit into the previous teaching approaches – audiolingual would be my guess. They had very little opportunities for actually using the language and when they did, they usually felt inappropriate, inaccurate. And then they decided they could not learn, they had a “problem” with English. And it’s one of those things you repeat so much you start believing in it and it finally becomes the truth.

    Something else I think we have to consider is that she might just need to readjust her expectations. I think it’s been somewhat established that not everyone will have 100% perfect English – very few get there actually. And if that is her parameter, it is an impossible goal to achieve. Maybe talking to her, showing her other people who can be considered fluent speakers and who don’t have the so-called native English. Think “globish” as David Crystal would say : )

    As for your question to whether the school and teachers SHOULD be ready to handle this, I have doubts myself. It feels like we should, but at the same time, how can we? As Mike pointed out, the reality is very different from a further education program. No, we are not qualified, but yes, I do think the school/teacher could give it a shot. But make it clear that you have no magic formula, and then try to find out why.

    I know it’s not that easy. Actually I almost regret commenting, for I have no idea what I’d do. All I know is that I’ve faced that situation more than once. Some of these students learned a little, were able to communicate and were grateful for it. Others were disappointed for me not being able to magically turn them into native speakers, made that clear and left. In the end, we try, but not always succeed. And some just couldn’t get it, and I actually considered saying: try Spanish (which probably wouldn’t work, because their problem was most likely lower linguistic intelligence).

    I think the important thing is that you care – enough to post this here – and that you try. And most of all that you share and we have healthy discussions like this. Who knows? Someone might come up with an answer.

    • Cecilia, thanks so much for you comments!!

      Just to clarify, I’m not saying this school cannot handle it, it’s more to the question of whether this is the school’s responsibility and what we need to take up such responsibility. And also, of identifying the real problem here, I can’t say I can’t handle it if I don’t know what the matter is more precisely.

      I share with you the opinion of the “I can’t get it” wall and I think we (educators in general) SHOULD be ready to do something about it. How? Firstly by talking more about it, and being principled in our actions, by talking we’ll identify challenges who are not only ours and possibly find ways to overcome these based on other’s experience, by sharing. It seems little, but it isn’t. So don’t regret commenting.

      Against all odds, I shall return soon to comment about the good news regarding this case.

  3. When I was reading your post, the first question that came to my mind was: ‘Can learning and learners be separated?’

    I do agree with you that we are not qualified to deal with something like that… I am a learner as well.

    Well, I would need to learn how to teach S.T… But till October? There won’t be any magic formula that could help both of us (me and S.T.)

    I think there should be a gr8 way to do so but I don’t know it so far.

    You have point when you wrote that language, identity, culture, background, cognition, behavior, and so on are in the same bag.

    And I can also say that passion and teaching skills are in the same person: you.

    You care about S.T. 🙂
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. This is so valuable.

    • Learning and learners cannot be separated, ever. That’s the reason of my questioning.

      I really don’t know if S.T. will learn a lot of English till October, probably not. What I expect is that she starts to enjoy it at least, and that she ceases to think “I can’t learn”.

      And thank you for your kind words! Passion is a strong word, I’m flattered. As regards teaching skills, it’s yet to be proved. ; D

  4. Silvina says:

    Interesting question!
    I like Mike’s idea about going over her experiences.
    I’ve met cases of this type in my teaching career and have noticed these things:
    – these are adults that work best in one-to-one lessons, so that they can feel they’re not pressed
    – the teacher should be a more resourceful source, applying those techniques from NLP, and other fields.
    – as the role of affect is so important, we should take into account what happens to her and learning (sometimes it’s just a questions of learning the language). Many adults have had disappointing experiences as regards language learning and seem to connect their failure to their own capacities. Instrumental motivation might be a way to have a successful motivation this time.

    Some practical things I can think of, taking into account she does not have so much time:
    – pay more attention to vocabulary than to grammar, help her feel she can build up a considerable store of words to use
    – help her think about the situations when she might need to speak English and work on those
    – encourage her to keep a journal where she can include anything connected with her progress (a kind of diary)
    -use visual, auditory and kinesthetic cues to help her remember words

    • Thank you Silvina! Good tips!
      As you said, teachers can make use of techniques from other fields, but how many teachers are equipped with that? Isn’t it already difficult to master ‘how to teach English’ in its most basic form, without the psychology behind? Or not, it’s easy?
      Sometimes I come to think that teacher training courses should focus more on case studies and action researches instead of lesson planning and ‘fun’ grammar activities.

      I don’t believe very much in instrumental motivation, I mean, it’s fine to initiate something, but it doesn’t last long, at least from what I have observed, and the learner becomes dependant on it, which means, she’ll study for something external to her, usually something required by someone/something other than herself. Conversely, she should find pleasure in learning for the sake of her own personal growth.

      I really liked the practical ideas! Especially, keeping a journal, I’ll recommend that.

  5. Anxiety seemed to be the main issue with S.T.
    Public speaking as well, she mentioned that even in Portuguese (L1) she fears speaking in public.
    The school’s manager, in a very sensitive way, contacted a doctor who works with flower remedies and who has helped him in very difficult times. S.T liked the idea and will try that out. Also, she got from the school a kind of special cushion to use in bed/sofa when working with a laptop. She had mentioned that she would like to use the web to study English, but that it was difficult to do that for long time in a comfortable way.
    S.T was amazed by how she was being taken care of. She said “I was always the one who would look after people, my kids, husband, etc, no one really ever looked after me, I feel very special now.”

    As I said, I don’t know how much she’ll learn, this is in fact unpredictable, but at least now I think she’ll be a bit more at home with taking up the challenge of learning another language.

    Classes start today.

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