This is the question that sends shivers down our spines as teachers and makes us glance back at the board we had written on with sheer panic.
Did we explain a piece of grammar or vocabulary incorrectly?
I have heard this question over the years and it has always resulted in a playful chuckle in the classroom among the students and myself. Recently, I have come to the conclusion that this question always comes from a good place and is not meant to be taken in a malicious way or to challenge the teacher. The student has a perception of an item of grammar or vocab they have acquired elsewhere and a genuine curiosity, and it’s up to me to shed a bit more light on this item of language. I never say that they are wrong. I actively listen to what they have to say, then add my two cents. This type of exchange has not always gone down well with my colleagues, though.
Throughout my career in conversation with other teachers, they have felt embarrassed when challenged by students or placed under the microscope such as when they cannot spell something, cannot explain why a collocate connects with certain words, cannot define a word on the spot, and so on. I have felt this way too but have learnt important lessons from these exchanges.
When it comes to spelling, I often ask students to help me spell a word if I don’t genuinely know it. I get a few perplexed faces. I tell students that I’m not the greatest speller in the world, but it is more than that. English sounds do not match their spelling. By showing learners how difficult it can be for native or proficient speakers of the language to spell, they learn not to judge others and to make spelling a crucial development goal for their writing.
Collocations are tough for learners. It doesn’t help learners to hear their teachers say that “this word just doesn’t go with that one” as an answer to a gap-fill exercise, especially in exam classes. To avoid situations like this, I use a corpus in the classroom to show students the data they need to compare sentences where the other collocates are either wrong or not as frequently used as stronger collocates. This always seems to do the trick.
When it comes to defining words in the classroom, particularly ones that you have not planned for, so incidental learning, I have no problem looking it up in the dictionary in front of the students. I also don’t want to give the students a half-baked definition. I don’t think teachers should be made to feel guilty about these situations. I don’t know every word in the English language and neither do the students when it comes to every word in their first language.
This question will always make itself known throughout my career, and that’s okay. At first, I was always a little red in the face being asked it during my formative years, but I think I can now confidently navigate out of it. It’s always a good thing for students to question the things they are presented with anyway, whether it be the teacher or the coursebooks.