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Teacher Joe's Super Students!

Do you know why I enjoy being a teacher? The reason is that when I teach, I am helping people. It feels so good! When students listen to my advice and apply it diligently, I can see their English improve steadily. Sometimes their progress is fast, sometimes it's slow, but it is always sure and steady. When I teach, I also have a good time with my students. We not only learn a lot, we also laugh a lot together. We can share ideas on all kinds of topics. We know that we can trust each other to speak openly while helping each other grow and develop.

Teaching, however, is not always easy. For example, when I first started teaching in China, I couldn't even remember my students' names. The names were all new to me, and trying to say them using the four tones of Mandarin Chinese made them even more difficult. I used the excuse that I am very forgetful. In fact, one of the first things I learned to say in Chinese, after "Hello" (Ni hao) and "Thank you" (Xie xie), was "I am very forgetful" (Wo jixing bu hao). Every time I forgot a student's name, I apologized by saying "Wo jixing bu hao". I didn't think that was funny, but my students would always laugh.

After repeating it so often, I can now say "I'm very forgetful" just as easily in Chinese as I can in English. This is an example of the old saying "Practice makes perfect"! Of course, instead of practicing "I am very forgetful", you should practice saying things like "I am an excellent student because I study hard" or "English is easy for me because I read English Salon every month" or "Teacher Joe is a nice guy so I will send him some money". That last sentence is a joke, please laugh! Thank you. You are a obviously a very good student.

Many students helped me by laughing at all of my jokes, even if they were not always funny. Students also helped me by taking English names such as Robert or Susan or John or Mary. Some students, however, chose names that sound rather strange in English, like Chocolate or Color. A few students even chose names that were not at all acceptable. For example, one boy chose the name Fancy. He said he liked the way it sounds. Unfortunately, in English, it doesn't sound quite right for a boy. The name Fancy makes a boy sound a bit "girlish". He had three English teachers tell him that Fancy sounds very strange before he finally changed his name.

Another boy chose the name Wendy because he thought it was cute. The problem is that Wendy is definitely for girls only. He absolutely refused to change, even when other teachers suggested more appropriate names for him. He wanted a name that sounded cute, and that was that. He kept the name Wendy until I suggested he try Harry. He wasn't too happy at first with the name Harry but then I reminded him of the story Harry Potter. Then it sounded good to him!

Of course, my students face more serious problems. One problem for many students is English pronunciation. English has a very unique rhythm which is important because language is like music. Many languages around the world, including Chinese, have a very steady beat and sound like traditional drums. English, on the other hand, has a unique up and down rhythm, making it similar to jazz music. So, when I teach, I have to encourage students to use this very different rhythm.

One way we learn English rhythm is by using movement. I ask my students to bounce up and down in their seats as they repeat sentences using natural English rhythm. It seems a bit funny, but I do something similar when I study Chinese tones. For example, if I practice the second tone of Chinese, such as when saying The Great Wall (Chang Cheng), I move my head from low to high along with the words! Sometimes, I ask my students to clap their hands on strong beats when listening to or repeating English sentences, which also helps them follow English rhythm naturally.

Some words actually change meaning with the rhythm. For example, numbers such as 13 and 30, or 14 and 40, are sometimes difficult for students. The main difference in pronouncing these numbers, more than the final consonant, is the rhythm. Numbers such as 30, 40 and 50 have only one strong beat, but 13, 14 and 15 have TWO strong beats. To help students understand this, I write 13 on the blackboard as thirteeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen. I know it looks strange, but my students never forget!

Beyond pronunciation, students also need to improve their listening skills. Students need to listen to various samples of English. For example, my students often listen to me as I explain the rules of the American sport called baseball. Sometimes, to improve their comprehension, we try playing baseball in the classroom! (We use a broomstick to hit a ball made from paper!) Another way students can improve comprehension is by listening to jokes. When my students laugh, I know they understand! Do you want to test your own comprehension? Go to Joe's Joke Page and listen!

Perhaps the biggest problem students have is speaking English with confidence. How do I deal with this problem? I challenge my students to speak as smoothly and quickly as they can. I have my students ask and answer questions and I use my watch to see how long it takes. At first, students don't like this exercise because they realize how slowly they speak English. However, when we practice, when students see how quickly and smoothly they can speak, and when they see how easy it is to improve, they gain confidence! Students who ask five questions in 90 seconds on the first attempt, can progress to where they ask five questions in 20 seconds or less! Even the weakest students start to enjoy speaking out.

By listening a lot, laughing often, and practicing conversations with a timer, my best students become "Super Students". Other people sometimes envy them and say they must be "good language learners". The truth is that, with hard work and the right attitude, anybody can do it. How about you?

This article first appeared in English Salon, a magazine for students of English in China, in June, 2005. If you can read Chinese, visit their web site here for more interesting articles.

"Professor" Joe

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