Tutoring Reflection 7 (Final Reflection)

In response to the ancient oracle’s proclamation of his wisdom, Socrates is quoted as saying that “It is only because I … know that I know nothing.” If I have learned anything about teaching from my three months tutoring Eliana, it is that I know, at best, very little. Teaching is both an art and a science; while I may know something of the science, I feel that I have a lot of learning still to do, especially about the art. As with all arts, they can never truly be mastered. And as with all sciences, much of what we believe to be true is mere illusion, like the fanciful figures we see in clouds which in reality are nothing more than our minds playing tricks on us as photons reflected from billions of atoms of water dance around in our eyes. So I must ask myself if the modest improvements I perceived in Eliana’s English language abilities were real, or whether they were only artifacts of my perception, like the faces we can’t help but see in clouds. My experiences with Eliana have taught me that, especially when it comes to learners whose interlanguage is long fossilized, the power I have as an instructor to help my student improve her language skills is limited. Although I did my best to help Eliana reach her stated goals, in the end I fear that we made precious little progress. My enthusiasm was insufficient to overcome her motivation. I will never really know if the small victories we achieved in the crucible of the classroom will transfer over to her real-world language skills.

I have also been convincingly reminded by this experience that teaching beginners, intermediate-level students and advanced learners are all distinct endeavors that require correspondingly distinct methods and strategies. It also seems that I may have initially overestimated my student’s English proficiency, although weighing fluency against accuracy in language assessments is never an easy task. I am haunted by the possibility that I allowed myself to be drawn into Eliana’s comfort zone–the part of her expressive range that is accurate but limited–and that I failed to push her to exceed her current bounds. At the end of the day, however, I must accept that since Eliana is generally satisfied with her current language skills, I have no reason, or right, to try to convince her to feel otherwise.

My greatest challenge during the tutoring period was finding a way to get the learner to use new language. Although I presented lots of new structures and vocabulary and Eliana practiced them (in controlled sessions) during the lessons, it was not easy for me to get her to use the new language in her free production. I would frequently attempt to elicit the newly-taught structure or lexical items only to receive a response that landed right back in the middle of Eliana’s comfort zone, drawn from the same set of structures and vocabulary that she had already mastered and avoiding the new, more “difficult” (i.e., less familiar) structures and terms. The area where I seemed to find the greatest success was helping Eliana notice some of her grammatical and lexical errors, for my corrective feedback was often met with successful learner uptake. Again, however, I am unsure of whether that progress will result in permanent changes to Eliana’s interlanguage or whether she will only be more aware of her errors after the fact. Is awareness of one’s language errors and mistakes of any real benefit if that awareness does not yield permanent improvements to spontaneous speech (i.e., unrehearsed utterances)? I suppose that this is an interface question that is still unresolved after more than thirty years of vigorous academic debate and so I should not be overly concerned with it, yet it troubles me nonetheless.

If I could go back and do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I would try harder or be more persistent in encouraging the learner to incorporate new language (the structures and vocabulary I presented during the tutoring sessions) into her speech. I have little doubt that Eliana made some gains to her receptive language skills, which as Folse informed us can be a good “first start,” but given my student’s experience with English and her current proficiency level, I believe that she needs more than a “first start.” Her receptive language skills are already impressive and her passive vocabulary probably approaches that of a typical (although perhaps not university-educated) native English speaker. The conundrum was finding a way to convert the learner’s receptive knowledge into active knowledge. Should I have been more insistent? Could I have been more creative? Does my still-developing teaching toolkit lack the pedagogical implements to achieve these aims, or did I just fail to use the right tool for the job? These are a few of the questions that I will continue to ponder long after this course and my tutoring project with Eliana have ended. Looking back on the experience, I am left wondering whether the progress I saw in my student was real, or whether it was illusory, like a face in the clouds.

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