Diary of a language learner, Part 3 – Feedback

I walked into my third German class about ten minutes early and jauntily (dare I say gaily?) said ‘Wie geht es?’ to the half dozen students who were already there. We aren’t a very coherent unit yet, we haven’t really bonded during any of the activities that we’ve done, so the response was desultory for the most part.

Kirsten, my Brazilian work-partner from last week, gave me a big smile, which had Zum Beispiel Pizza written all over it.

Dora the teacher also gave me a bright smile and got up from behind her desk and walked over to me.

“Did you want to give me some feedback?” she asked.

To give her lots of credit on this one, Dora had written in her pre-course notes that she welcomed feedback, either written or spoken. At the end of the previous class, I had waited until all the other students had left and tentatively approached her and asked if I could make a couple of suggestions.

She had responded very positively to this, but the students from her next class were already coming into the room, so I said I would do it when there was more time.

And now she wanted to know, so we walked out of the room and stood in the corridor. Students heading to other language classes jostled past us. It wasn’t an ideal setting for feedback.

Dora looked at me, brightly and expectantly.

I started by truthfully telling her that she had a lovely manner in class and a beautiful accent which I found very easy and pleasant to listen to. She was exactly the right person to be a teacher and I was glad she was MY teacher.

Her response to this was to smile with clear gratitude. My theory that you should always start with the good stuff was very clearly vindicated and the fact is, Dora is a hard-working and dedicated teacher and she deserves lots of encouragement.

“So what am I doing wrong?” she asked, still smiling.

I smiled back, thinking this woman has a great attitude. “Just a couple of technical suggestions, if I may…” I began.

I talked about her habit of going round the circle of students in the order we were sitting to get responses or when she was asking for stuff to be read out. Always from the left, and always in the order that we were sitting. “Better to go left, then right, then middle – keep us on our toes,” I suggested.

I also mentioned the lack of feedback after our pairwork.

“Oh yes!” she said, almost slapping herself on the forehead. “You saw the trouble I was having with the audio. I just panicked!”

She had indeed encountered some problems when she tried to play the recorded material. Her first three efforts to find the exercise she wanted had produced material from other parts of the book. The point was, though, that she dealt with it calmly. There was no sign of panic.

I told her that if this was her panic mode, then she really WAS an excellent teacher. It’s awful when a teacher loses it and starts shouting about the technology in front of the students, partly because the students think it’s somehow their fault.

I was aware that my third suggestion was a bit more complex and would involve her in changing the way she does things quite radically. I’m concerned about her reliance on grammar as the backbone of any lesson. And the fact that she doesn’t give clear models of the new language items.

If we were going to have a grammar-based lesson, I thought she could improve things by giving us some clear models of chunks of language, maybe repeated chorally, for us to remember. I wasn’t sure if I should mention this, especially as we now had one minute before the class was due to start.

Those of you who speak some German will be aware of the gender thing – nouns are masculine, feminine or neuter – der, die, das – and there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason behind the choice.

Parts of the body are a good example – why is it der Arm but die Hand? Das Bein (leg) but der Fuss? Das Auge (eye), die Nase (nose) and der Mund (mouth) – and die Lippe??

And of course, it gets more complicated with object forms, and variations after prepositions.

This is not Dora’s fault, of course – she can’t be blamed for the origins of her native tongue. All I know is that the prepositional phrases I remember are ones that I have seen in context.

Once when I was in Germany, I walked to the glass door of a restaurant and tried to open it. It was locked and I banged my head on the glass. When my head stopped spinning, I saw a sign – Eingang um die Ecke – entrance round the corner. I have never forgotten it. Context!

I get a headache every time I see this sign...

I have no idea what clever ideas are promoted by communicatively-minded trainers of teachers of German. I imagine getting students to bang their heads against restaurant doors isn’t part of their methodological suggestions. All I know is that, when it comes to prepositional phrases, talking about mit + Accusativ or auf + Dativ is not going to excite the vast majority of German learners.

But actually the problem I had with Dora was a little different. She had clearly been trained to elicit as much as possible from the students, and I have no argument with that.

Up to a point.

What actually happened when we were doing prepositional phrases was that she would give parts of an example and ask us to complete the phrase.

It went something like this …

Dora: Also, Supermarkt… in…?

Student (quietly and tentatively): dem?

Dora: Ja, richtig.

And we move on. If you didn’t hear what the mumbling student said, you had to ask. And I got a bit fed up of asking. I think most of the others just decided they would look it up later.

So, with only a minute or so more of feedback-time, I kept it simple and said that I thought she should model chunks for us in a situation like that. She nodded. I imagine some teacher trainer’s words echoed in her mind – this is why modelling chunks is a good idea.

It was time for the class to start so we went back into the class together. This seemed to create a bit of a stir amongst some of the students, and there was a bit of whispering behind hands.

Hey, it’s better to be talked about than not talked about. 😛

So – did Dora incorporate my suggestions or not?

I’ll tell you next time!  


10 thoughts on “Diary of a language learner, Part 3 – Feedback

  1. Brilliant, Ken! I like your style. A lovely sequel to the previous post. I look forward to the next installment.

    By the way, there is some pattern to the articles in German; I’d be happy to send you a handout from my time at the uni in Munich although I’m sure you have better resources at your fingertips and within your communities of practice and learning. 🙂

    Nur weiter so!

    1. Any help with making sense of articles in German gratefully received. As the examples i quote indicate, even the possibility that nouns ending in -e are feminine is blown to pieces by das Auge!!

  2. How wonderful that ‘Dora’ not only implied she was open to feedback but actively asked for it. A very humble teacher who shows a willingness to learn from and with her own students. I wish more of us were so open. I’m now of course sitting on the edge of my seat ready for the next two installments – in the assumption that not all feedback can be put into practice instantly but some may only come back in the next lesson…….. Are you sure you only have one lesson a week? Shame for us readers!

    1. The more I think about me giving feedback, the more I realise that I might not have been so open to suggestions if it had happened to me, particularly when I was first teaching. I’m just imagining what my reaction would have been if one of my Spanish students in Seville had suddenly revealed herself to be head of teacher training at the university! I think I would have evaporated! 😛

  3. Great read as ever, Ken. Yes, Dora seems like a sensible lady to me, taking the positive “let’s talk about this” route rather than the defensive “leave me alone” stance – which is the one I used to take! Experience (Age) is an amazing thing. Looking back, I realise how arrogant I must have seemed to many of my tutors.

    So the rest of the class think Dora and you are an item, do they? Ha, ha!

  4. Hello, Ken. Congratulations on the blog. This is my very first time here and I must say that your posts are addicting and the situation about the not given feedback for the pair work really made me think about my classes. I have to admit I do not always make any sort of feedback after a pair work rather than :”Ok, so to go on with the topic about weekend and free time (for example), who would give me an example of a fun activity your partner took lask weekend?”… Or, “let’s watch an excerpt of the movie xxx and see what happened to xxx”
    Would this be the kind of feedback expected? Also, I try not to interfere in the language itself as I prefer to let them talk freely (and as much as possible during the established time).
    If you were Dora and if you had heard the pair work between Ken and Kirsten what would you have done?

    Thanks, and congrats again.

    1. Hi Cristiane, welcome to my blog and thanks for this interesting question.

      re feedback – first of all, i absolutely agree about not interfering with any produced language in a spoken feedback. Maybe make a mental note of something to talk about later if you hear something that needs correcting.

      But regarding what kind of feedback? Well, the most obvious one is to ask at least one of the pairs to tell the rest of the class what they just talked about – otherwise they may as well be composing a shopping list for after the class. Secondly, you could train the rest of the class to be prepared to ask for more details. So, in Kirsten and my case – if I said: Kirsten and her boyfriend went to the cinema’ – you then invite someone to ask a question, and someone asks ‘What film did you see?’

      These are simple ideas, but they keep students on their toes. 😛

  5. You must be the only person who can turn something like this into a real life page-turner, Ken. The suspense is unbearable…there may be trouble ahead! Roll on next week’s lesson!

  6. This is a great example of how narrative is a powerful tool for reflection. Just the simple A happens and then B happens and then C. But writing so clearly (and with humor) is a skill that takes hours (years) of practice. Quite a roundabout way of saying I love how you write, Ken.

    I agree with you, Louise and Mike that there is something so commendable in how Dora listened to your feedback. She’s ace. But the way you honed in on her true assets and didn’t just praise to soften the criticism was also a gift I think.

    Thanks for the read.


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