This year my classroom teaching responsibilities have been reduced to only two freshman-level reading courses. The bulk of my time is spent as Coordinator of the Foundation Year Support Center, helping freshman students understand the assignments for their classes in Reading, Speaking and Listening, Writing, and Business English. Working in the Support Center has given me a tremendous appreciation for the progress our students make over the course of a year in our program, because for the first time I see where they start.
It's been a first, eye-opening experience working this closely with freshmen. While a few of them start with impressive English ability, the majority are nowhere near ready to take university classes in English. They've typically studied English in the Chinese way: cramming their heads full of out-of-context vocabulary (by means of which to pass vocabulary exams), learning strategies to guess which parts of an essay to quote (by means of which to pass "reading comprehension" exams without actually comprehending anything), and perhaps memorizing a few sentence patterns (by means of which to pass essay-writing exams without actually knowing how to write an essay). Most have had 6+ years of mandatory English classes, yet never actually spoken an appreciable amount of English.
Yesterday I was visited by a charming girl with wide, mendicant eyes and the manner of a hopeful ascetic eagerly offering herself to the whip in pursuit of enlightenment. She came in silently and stood next to the chair, parts of her body physically pulsing with a war between fear and hope, until I invited her to sit. She quickly slipped into the chair, as if afraid to disturb the air too much. She filled-in the visitor's log wordlessly. She had a slight exotic but normal-sounding English name: Lia.
When I asked what she wanted to talk about, she spoke for the first time, pausing carefully between words: "My English is-a very pooh." Though this last word sounded exactly like "Pooh" in the Christopher Robins stories, her pronunciation was clear and deliberate, and she grinned proudly once she had gotten the words out. This may have been the first sentence she'd ever spoken to a foreigner.
But she didn't answer my question aloud, perhaps not wanting to tempt fate by attempting a second English sentence. Instead, she silently handed me her copy of Holes, the adolescent novel we're using as primary text for our reading class. It's fortunate that, although she is not one of my students, I am also teaching reading, so I am quite familiar with the book. I asked if she had any specific questions about the book.
I always ask students if they have any specific questions, but the ones whose English is "very Pooh" almost never do. It's hard for me not to take it personally, because surely anyone can come up with something specific — a particular word or expression the student doesn't understand, if nothing else — but I realize these students have been trained to answer questions and never, ever ask them.
Lia surprised me. Silently, almost solemnly, she opened her book. Her book was pristine — no markings, no underlinings, not even a fingerprint — yet she flipped instantly to page 23 and pointed immediately to the word "Armpit," the unlovely nickname of one of the characters in the book. The gesture was done so quickly, she had to have memorized the exact location on the page. I became slightly self-conscious: I wondered how much she had practiced for this meeting, and hoped I could live up to whatever fantasy study-session she'd envisioned.
She hadn't asked an actual question, so I asked her one: "Do you know what an armpit is?" She smiled again, nodded, and pointed to one of hers.
I explained that this is the nickname of one of the boys, then asked, "Do you know what a nickname is?" She was less sure of herself this time, perhaps because a nickname is something she couldn't point to, but she mumbled something that might have been the right answer. Just to be sure, I explained it to her a little bit, and she nodded.
"Why might the boys give their friend a nickname like Armpit?" I asked.
Lia got very serious, brow furrowed, eyes darting back and forth as if searching an invisible vocabulary list. Finally she smiled nervously and shook her head. "Sorry?" She asked.
I tried again: "If he has that nickname, what must he be like?" then clarified: "What is he like," because I figured "must… be" would confuse her. This time she smiled brightly yet briefly in understanding the question, but her brow furrowed again as she tried to come up with an answer, and again her eyes searched some invisible textbook for an explanation. She gave up and shook her head back and forth once, quick as a bunny, embarrassed but still smiling gamely.
I explained in Chinese that this boy must smell bad, then made a face and sniffed loudly at my own armpit. She nodded that she understood, but I could see in her face that she didn't, not really. The concept of giving a friend such an insulting nickname is too far from her Chinese context, in which children are given names like "Flower Bud" and "Shining Future." She clearly knew what I meant by saying Armpit must smell bad, but she couldn't process it.
She asked one more question about the book, which I was able to explain a bit more easily.
Then she sat and waited, straight-backed, not saying a word, perhaps not sure how to ask, as if waiting for me to explain something — anything — to her. She clearly wasn't done, but wasn't able to ask anything more.
Not knowing what else to do, I turned to the first page of the book and read her the first sentence: "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." That's a classic writer's "hook," almost too mechanical a one, but perhaps effective. I would have loved to have talked about authorial intentions and the use of irony, but obviously it would have been of no use to my audience of one, so I tried to at least raise the concept in a less abstract way.
I read the sentence to Lia, then asked her, "Is there something strange about that sentence?" She didn't understand the question. I asked again: "Is that a normal thing to say?" She didn't understand "normal," so I tried "common."
She pondered for a while, her facial muscles going in all directions like hamsters chasing seeds, then she settled on the safest answer: she nodded "yes," and smiled sweetly.
That was wrong, so I tried again.
I sought for a good metaphor, and thought about Dalian, where it rains a lot and everything grows well. "If I called part of Dalian the Dalian desert, would that be a common thing to say?"
She started to nod yes, but I resorted to a Chinese teacher method and gave her the answer by shaking my head and frowning "no." Dalian is in no way a desert. She stopped nodding, stopped smiling, and asked timidly, "No?"
I smiled great-big and nodded, then pointed back at the first sentence. "So if someone says 'There is no lake at Camp Green Lake,' is that a normal or common thing to say?" Again she hesitated, but finally she reluctantly pushed forward the answer... "No?"
"Yes! Exactly!" I said, with exaggerated excitement. Her face instantly uncreased and brightened with surprise.
I asked her about the word "mystery," which she knew in the sense that she could tell me what it meant in words, but she had no real concept of what it really meant. I told her that this sentence is a mystery, and she isn't supposed to know what it means yet, but the author will tell her the information to understand it later.
She frowned again, and the hamsters ran around under her skin, and her shoulders rocked back and forth asymmetrically, but she finally got it. She repeated back to me, uncertainly, "I … don't… suppose to understand. It's Mystery!" I said yes, and her face lit up again. I made sure to say that she will understand the answer to the mystery later in the book, but for now the reader is expected to have unanswered questions. That's a tough concept for a Chinese student to understand.
I asked her what information the author was telling us in the first chapter (only a page long). Even as I asked the question, I realized it was unfair: too abstract a question.
She couldn't answer, so I asked her to take out her notebook and write down the basic questions "Who, what, when, where, and why."
Her notebook was pristine, as if she hadn't a clue how to take notes. That's not unusual: Chinese students are not taught to take notes. Taking notes is a conceptual skill. They are given lists of things to memorize, and that's what they do. So I wrote the first notes for her.
Across the top of the page, I wrote the five "wh" questions. Down the side of the page, I wrote Chapter 1, 2, 3, etc. Then I asked her to fill in what information about each of those questions she could glean from each of the first chapters. She immediately got that Chapter 1 was all about "Where," the setting of the novel, so we worked together to fill in some additional details. On the second page of her notebook I started a vocabulary list, which we turned to frequently as we filled in words and expressions she didn't know.
Chapter 2, only half a page long, contained information about both "Where" — the setting — and "Who" — the main character. This flummoxed her, so it took a long time and a lot of tooth-pulling. So when I asked her, amidst five paragraphs of information about Camp Green Lake, what she could understand about the main character, she couldn't answer me, despite my reading and re-reading the two sentences: "Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before." Neither she nor the hamsters could extract the information that Stanley was from a poor family, because it was embedded in other information about other topics.
It was agonizing, it was maddening, and it was frustrating. But with every new revelation, even as simple as "Stanley is poor," Lia glowed with excitement as if she were Helen Keller understanding the hand character for "water."
We pressed on for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, pushing through ten pages of the text. I don't think Lia would ever have stopped me, had I pressed her to keep going — not until her face plopped down on the desk in exhaustion — but fortunately my next appointment, a group of 13 students from a different reading class who wanted help understanding a different assignment, arrived before we could find out.
I apologized to Lia for having to end our lesson, though I could see she had absorbed quite as much as she was capable of. As I sent her out, she beamed with excitement over understanding Something New.
I know I will see that girl again, probably at the same time every week, probably with the same frustrating lack of comprehension, and probably with the same hamsters under her skin. I know, too, that she will fall behind in her Business Management class, because she is in no position to understand the text, the instructor's spoken English, or the open-inquiry method of instruction. I hope, though, and I expect based on her attitude, that she will catch up quickly. And maybe, after our program, she will be a fluent English-speaker and (to borrow a phrase) an enquiring mind.