K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Students…

Last night I went for beer with some engineers I teach on Monday nights. It was an interesting talk we had, and I enjoyed it. Most flattering was when the students started comparing my teaching to that of their other instructors, both other foreign English instructors and also their Korean professors in their major department. As dubious as I am at taking such compliments at face-value (for flattery often seems to be a mere social grace here), their insistance and detailed comparison of my teaching style with other teachers made me feel good. I won’t name the others they mentioned, but I will say I was very complimented, because I know those others are very good teachers.

Sometims during this test period, though, I’ve experienced some powerful frustration. I sometimes find the hardest thing to do is get students to keep things simple. They so often seem to want to say things in as complicated a way as they would in their native language. Given how flowery Korean can be sometimes, I find this especially hard with Korean students. So all term I’ve been asking them to focus on keeping it simple: “Shipgae malhae! Shipgae sengakhae!”, (Say it simply! Think simple!) I would tease them once they got tangled into complicated sentences in pair work…

I try to model this technique of dumbing down one’s self-expression, giving up some detail and nuance for the sake of getting one’s basic message across, and sometimes it works, but often, students just mistakenly think my Korean is better than it is. (Or, maybe again, it’s just compliments out of politeness to an authority figure…)

But, in any case, sometimes it led to amazingly hilarious sentences. One of my students had no partner for his pair work so he wrote a dialgue and handed it to me during the test, with “my” parts highlighted in fluorescent yellow. Here’s a tiny excerpt, just one of four conversations:

A: Now, It’s time to taste special food I cooked.
B: Oh, god. I think it’s not a good.
A: How much turkey do you want?
B: I hope you give me so much.
A: Okey. I recommend you should clearly even eat dregs.
B: Oh, a few please

Now isn’t that interesting? It’s especially interesting because, after all of the practice we did, it should have been obvious to him that the point of this dialogue was to show he knew how to speak about countable and uncountable nouns… like this:

A: How much turkey do you want?
B: A lot, please.
A: How many carrots do you want?
B: Just a few, please.

But of course, that would mean keeping things simple. I don’t know how much more I can do in the way of helping students grasp this, really. I show them the main grammar point every time that we start a new one, and I have them practice it before we try the dialogues. But some students just don’t seem to get it.

Then again, there were a couple of girls who did the same dialogue not only with wild gestures showing they wanted a little or a lot (complementing their excellent pronunciation, rendering the test somehow very cartoon-like), but they also had props—little cardboard cutout vegetables to show me they knew which vegetables they were talking about. A little preparation counts, as far as I am concerned. (And there were no cheat dialogues written on the backs of the vegetables, either!)

I guess when one teaches, one simply has to accept that some students aren’t going to get it, and some rare students just don’t even stand a chance. But it’s a hard thing to accept…

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