“If I don’t memorise, I won’t pass.” – Ling
Ling was extremely set in her ways: she memorised hundreds of essays and Speaking topics off a Chinese website, not knowing if they were good or bad, and then regurgitated them week after week in the IELTS exam. She had already done the IELTS exam 5 or 6 times and was achieving 5.5 on “good days”. She couldn’t understand where she was going wrong.
In the beginning, Ling would bring me essays she had written at home, I would correct the grammar, comment on the structure, and answer her questions. Actually her writing didn’t seem at all bad and I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t getting a band score 7.
One day it suddenly dawned on me: she was copying essays off the internet, getting me to “correct’ them, and then hoping against all odds that those very questions would appear on her test day. And so, one afternoon I presented her with an easy topic: “Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of wearing a school uniform”.
Forty minutes later I began to correct the essay and immediately could see that she was completely off-topic. The whole essay was about following fashion trends. When I queried her choice of content, she embarrassedly confessed that she had that very morning read a good essay on the topic of fashion and wanted to somehow incorporate that content into her essay. When I asked her how school uniforms and fashion were related, she argued that if girls don’t wear a uniform, they have to wear casual clothes and in order to be accepted in the school culture, they need to wear the latest fashion.
Despite Ling’s reasoning, her essay did not answer the question. And so we began at the beginning and spent a number of lessons learning to brainstorm, answer the question on-topic and write in a linear, not a circular way, which is so common among Asian students. Once she had mastered this, Ling achieved her band score 7.
Ling struggled more with her speaking than her writing. It took another 2 years before she passed her Speaking. She stopped coming to me for lessons, believing that she could work on her Speaking by herself, and spent her time practising her Speaking in front of her mirror. I believe she redid the IELTS exam another 8 or 9 times during this period, and never achieving above 5.5.
Finally, in desperation, Ling returned for help. She lacked confidence and under-estimated her ability to communicate. So, before venturing into “IELTS mode”, I forced her to forget about exams and engage in casual conversation. She resisted. Oh how she resisted: she was wasting her money, I wasn’t doing what she wanted and she wasn’t learning anything valuable.
Once Ling became aware of the fact that she didn’t have to worry about being able to express herself, she became more confident. However, she still insisted on memorising Part 2 answers. And so one lesson I video-recorded her and then we watched it together. The problems were very clear: firstly, there was no eye contact: instead of focusing on me, she was focusing inward into her brain to retrieve the memorised answer. It was like her eyes were open, but they weren’t focused on anything within her range. Another problem was that she spoke in a dreadfully staccato style. And so, I took her to my piano and tapped a number of keys with one finger – tap-tap-tap. When we redid the activity, I intermittently took very loud, deep breaths to remind her to breathe – to speak in chunks (groups of words) and breathe, speak and breathe. This was extremely challenging for both of us, because she had to stop memorising and speak more fluently. If she didn’t breathe, I banged my fist on the table which gave her a fright, causing her to breathe as a reflex action.
Of all my students and all their differing problems, getting Ling to trust me rather than rely on her memory was my greatest challenge….at times it turned into war….but Ling got her band score 7. Well done, Ling!