Cultural Teaching

Harris’ article reminded me of a time when I was privately tutoring a fifteen year old from China. He came to America about five years ago and struggled immensely with the meanings of words. He often asked me how to use adjectives properly; I remember him asking me the difference between fancy and extravagant, for instance. He also asked me the meaning of “bakery” and “coffee shop” and when it was appropriate to use each one. I wasn’t used to having to teach in this way. I hadn’t encountered a student who could easily come up with creative story ideas but struggled with word choice because of the complication of the English language. The way we structure sentences is, as well, very different from what ESL students see in their own countries. Overcoming these obstacles was very challenging for me and at first I felt as if I failed as a tutor because I couldn’t come up with the most appropriate way to address his concerns.

Harris tells us in his piece that “students expect tutors to work on errors and difficulties in specific pieces of discourse, not on a larger, more abstract level of writing skills and processes,” (210). After reading this, I can understand where my student was struggling. When we discussed his writing, he asked a lot more questions focusing on specific words and sentence construction rather than general grammar rules. It was almost as if he needed to get through the first stage of the English language that we take for granted before he could work on grammar rules. I’ve known the difference between synonyms, and when it’s appropriate to use which word, since I was a child. To struggle with this, however, must make the English language rather frustrating. Harris writes that ESL students listed vocabulary as the most puzzling part of English. The students mention “Sometimes I know the meanings of some words but I don’t know how to use them; Sometimes, there are different words that can be translated by a same word in our language, but they will be used in different positions in English” (216). Learning how to overcome this obstacle, as a tutor, proved very difficult for me. I tried to think of ways to help the student differentiate between synonyms but it was very challenging. The student would tell me in his own words what he was trying to say and I’d attempt to help him pick the best words to use in English to translate successfully. I’d try to keep in mind how much I admired the student for trying to learn English. If native speakers struggle with it, I sympathize greatly for ESL students.


Note for Heather: Here are the rest of my posts…

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