Language Myth #7: "One-size-fits-all in the classroom"

We catch up with SpLD private tutor Amanda to find out why she thinks one-to-one tutoring can have such a profound impact on those students with Specific Learning Differences. 

1. Tell us a little about your professional background.

I worked in office roles and in customer service when I left university, but found that helping to develop and train individuals and small groups in various projects and processes in each role I took on was what I found most interesting. From this point, my professional background has centred around education and training. After I completed a PGCE and trialled classroom teaching, I discovered a real passion for one-to-one teaching. I took a TEFL course and spent a year working one-to-one with students that were finding it difficult to find the motivation to read and write, and became more involved in tutoring those with dyslexia. I completed the OCR level 5 SPLD course and am focussing on this field, for adults and children.

2. Why are you so passionate about working with SpLD students?

Once any student discovers that by comparing ourselves to others it might mean that we overlook our hidden qualities, how we learn begins to change for the better. I love helping to raise students' confidence, self-esteem and increase their self-awareness. Knowing what makes somebody tick is what sets a student on a path to finding their niche and harnessing their inner creativity.

3. What is your approach with students?  How are lessons adapted and how can it benefit them?

During lessons, I like to encourage, enthuse and take things step by step. As each student is an individual, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For some, fast-paced activities and games might enthuse, whilst for others, discussion and mnemonics might work. However, confidence and self-belief is needed for any learner.  By completing informal assessments, I like to guide students to discover their strengths, and use these strengths to support what they find challenging. 

4. Do you use any specific resources in your sessions?

I like to use a variety of resources such as, IT or board games, Post-it notes, Magnetic letters, but all activities develop with the individual, so it is dependent on what is most relevant, most helpful and most fun to the student. 

5. What can families do to support someone with an SpLD?

There are many things families can do to assist. Firstly, use what interests them to motivate and use their personal strengths are and let them flourish; anything from telling stories to juggling can be related back to literacy.  Secondly, don't overload them, make it fun! Learning doesn’t always need paper and pens; use technology, use the outdoors, get creative!  Thirdly, structure everything, recap constantly, and know that repetition is a good thing as long as it’s not dull. Finally and perhaps most importantly, be patient and empathetic.

Visit our tutor page to book an informal assessment with Amanda.

Language Myth #6: "Native speakers might laugh at me..."

Your best will always be good enough.

By far the best thing about learning a language is the gift of communication: suddenly you have the ability to get to know new people and discover a whole new culture.  I can say wholeheartedly that the best thing to come out of my studies has been getting to know my wonderful friends from Spain and France. 

Recently, one of my students travelled to Guadeloupe.  He began learning French just a month or two ago with me for 1 hour per week.  His visit to Guadeloupe was an amazing one.  He also shared with me the fact that although his French was far from accurate and although he could not remember some of what he had learnt, the local people were so thrilled with his attempts to speak French that he was welcomed with open arms; unlike those who speak only English - pointing and speaking louder.  Read Andy's comments below.

I really can’t thank you enough for all of your encouragement with learning French. Before my lessons, I would have never had the courage to speak with people on my holiday. Thanks to you, I had the holiday of a lifetime in Guadeloupe and I can’t wait to go back! Speaking basic French opened up new doors and really allowed us to see the real Guadeloupe. Thank you so much!
— Andy, Ware (Beginner French student)

People love you to make an effort.  Even your worst pidgin French will still receive a warmer welcome than your perfect English.  So just give it a go; most locals will be friendly and will gently correct you to help you improve your language skills. 

If you really lack the confidence to speak with people, follow these handy tips:

  1. Take a phrase book.  This will give you the confidence to know what you are saying is correct - even if you use it to quickly check your sentence before putting the book away.  Many phrasebooks also contain a small dictionary and menu guide, which can be invaluable. 
  2. Take advantage of all the information around you.  It is amazing how much information you can pick up, simply from reading signs, labels in supermarkets, public notices, etc.  Note down/ take a picture of any words you don't know and check them when you have access to a dictionary.  This will really build your confidence and improve your vocabulary.  Chances are that these words will really stick too, as you will associate it with your trip and be able to picture the exact situation when you learnt it.
  3. Book yourself on to one of our short intense courses before your trip: Pronounce Express or Pronounce Refresh.  On these intense courses, you will learn the key vocabulary for crucial holiday/ business/ social situations, according to your needs.

Language myth #5: "People speak so fast and it is impossible to understand..."

Helping you to become a better listener with our new esl mp3 downloads

Listening to native speakers in any language can be extremely difficult; they speed at which they speak is rapid, and as language learners, it taxes our brain hugely to listen to long dialogues.  For me, the hardest has always been dialogue in films; fast speech combined with heightened emotions, colloquialisms and idioms is clearly a recipe for disaster!

Let's compare Spanish and English for example.  Most English speakers believe that native Spanish speakers are by far the faster speakers, but my Spanish friends say the same about English people.  So how can this be?  The answer is simple.  In fact, many studies support the fact that on average Spanish and English speakers tend to use approximately the same number of words per minute, although it is acknowledged that Spanish words tend to be comprised of more syllables.  The real obstacle to our listening, is our unfamiliarity to the individual words and our inability to separate them.  This often results in us hearing something completely different to what is actually spoken. 

So how do we combat this?  The answer is simple - practice. I know I bang on about practice all the time, but it really is the key to your success.  The more you listen to your target language, the easier it will become.  Follow my key tips:

  • Surround yourself with the target language.  Listen at every opportunity.  TV, radio, podcasts, films.  With this consistent exposure on day to day topics, you will find it increasingly easy to identify how these individual words sound when they all run together.
  • Use the subtitles.  Embrace them - there is no shame in using a transcript or subtitles whilst you are learning; they are a great tool to support you when used correctly.  Where possible, the subtitles should also be in your target language.  Make sure that you are still also focusing on listening and not simply reading. 

I have recently developed a series of mp3 clips to help English as a Second Language learners.  They are aimed at intermediate-advanced learners and they focus on phrasal verbs and expressions.  Our audio clips follow Alexandra Jones, a young singer, through a series of useful situations, such as moving house, looking for a job and meeting with friends.  Each pack contains the audio clip, plus everything you need to use with the MP3 audio clip: transcript, comprehension questions and definitions with examples.  Perfect to use on the go!  You can find a free sample pack and the full list of available dialogues here.

Spanish and French MP3 packs currently being developed and available shortly.

Language myth #4: “I can’t retain information”

"I have the memory of a goldfish!"

I think it is fair to say that adult learners are often envious of their children’s abilities to learn a language.   The saying is true in many cases; children are like sponges, but that doesn’t mean that our hopes of learning a language are dead in the water!  It is equally true that, quite often, the more ‘mature’ we get, we simply need to work a bit harder; to make a commitment to learning and to find a more effective way to retain information than rote learning.

In my classes, I put most emphasis on using a variety of teaching methods; whether this might be a Powerpoint presentation, a set of flashcards, a worksheet, a conversation, a listening exercise or a game.  Here is an extract from an email recently received from a new client who has been attempting to learn French for a year, with no success beyond “bonjour” and “bonsoir”:

“Thanks again for a great lesson, I still can't believe how much I'm retaining!  For me to make this kind of progress is remarkable! Your teaching methods, materials we’re using and I think the pace you set really resonates with me... I'm really enjoying the challenge of getting to grips with the language.” -  Andy, adult French beginner.

I recommend studying little and often; the more you can study between classes, the more successful you will be.  Find the way that works best for you.

It is estimated that as many as 1 in every 5 people suffers from some form of dyslexia.  Most people assume dyslexia means simply seeing letters in a jumbled order on a piece of paper, but it may also encompass such traits as finding it difficult to retain information for more than a few seconds or being disorganised.  

Simple things such as having a folder to store your work in, or setting aside a regular time to practice can really help.

Try to vary the way you work too – you don’t necessarily need to sit and suffer reading a text book every night:

  • ·Make yourself a set of flashcards for words you find tough to remember.  Make two piles of those you know and those you don’t, until eventually you only have one pile .
  • By a game, such as KLOO GAMES which build vocabulary and sentence structure.
  • Find someone with whom you can practice.
  • Join our FREE social meet up groups.
  • Or for those of you who like Sherlock, you might be familiar with the idea of a memory palace.

Language Myth #3: "I'll be fluent by next year with one hour a week..."

Top tips to boost your learning

It may not be what you want to hear, but fluency in a foreign language takes time and dedication; and even then it is difficult to achieve mother tongue fluency. It does of course also depend on your definition of fluency; perhaps spontaneous conversational exchanges are what you are aiming to achieve for example. You should certainly begin with a clear and realistic goal, according to the time frame you have and the amount of time per week you have to dedicate to your study.

Consider your journey with English throughout your lifetime; it takes several years through childhood to master pronunciation and expand your vocabulary - in fact, is there anyone who can confidently say they know all words in the English language? Then can we truly say we are fluent in our own language? Of course we can; so then perhaps it is our perception of fluency in another language which we need to alter. With any language you will constantly be learning; add to this the fact that the language will be evolving and reshaping itself constantly too, so it is impossible to know everything.

In a perfect world, we would have all the time and money we need to take as many lessons as we could possibly dream of; in reality, for most of us at least, it is just that - a dream. So what can you do to ensure faster language acquisition and better knowledge retention?

Here are my top tips for supporting your lesson time:

1. If you don't understand something, don't be afraid to stop your tutor and let them know that you haven't quite got it clear in your mind yet; they will be only too happy to run through it with you again, or to explain it a different way - after all, it is your lesson and their aim is to make sure you get what you need from them. If you still struggle with a particular concept, make sure you follow up with your own research at home, or it will only get harder when you try to build on this concept with new learning material in the next lesson.

2. Integrate language learning into your daily routine. There are a variety of ways in which you can do this:

a. Think in your chosen language. This sounds simple, but try to consider the vocabulary you have learnt at every opportunity. E.g. if you are having breakfast, try to recall the vocabulary for the breakfast items. This will work particularly well if you are learning with someone else.

b. Use language learning apps; if you have a phone or tablet which uses the Apple app store or Google Play store, you should be able to find a whole host of free apps; try something like Memrise if you are a visual or kinaesthetic learner. This is great for learning on the go, such as on the commute to work.

c. International websites. Find something you are interested in and look it up online. For example, I enjoy reading the political news in French, so I have Le Monde as a bookmark on my desktop, plus I also have the app on my phone which alerts me to any news headlines. Remember, you don't need to look up every word you don't know; the general rule is look it up only if it reoccurs more than once within the text you are reading. For Spanish, I enjoy the beautiful photography and quirky stories on the science based website Muy Interesante. This idea could take any form of course; if you're into music, translate the lyrics from songs - or if you're a film buff, select the subtitles option - or even better seek out some world cinema; I have plenty of recommendations for my students.

d. Take every opportunity to talk with native speakers - this can be invaluable for learning colloquialisms which may not necessarily be taught in your lessons!

e. Visit somewhere that your language is spoken; what could be better than putting your learning into practice in sunny Spain or using your French along the Cote D'Azur?! If you make mistakes, who cares?! It is all part of the learning process. These "field trips" will certainly give you the necessary experience to translate your classroom knowledge into real life situations.

3. One-to-one lessons are worth their weight in gold; the lesson is entirely focused around you, and one hour of pronunciation or grammar correction can be more productive than hours and hours spent alone with a text book.

4. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Don't be disheartened if something doesn't stick straight away - practice makes perfect. Sometimes you need to find a better way to connect with what you are learning, for example when learning the difficult French numbers, one of my students equates the complex French sounds to things she can visualise in English: quatre-vingt = cat in a van (80), or quarante quatre = carrot cat (44). She might even draw a little picture.  Equally, in Spanish I have heard things such as gato (cat) being accompanied by a picture of a cat eating a gateau.

5. Get organised. I believe organisation is key; from how you store your lesson materials, to where you work at home, to when you work. Keeping all your learning together in a folder or notebook will not only show your teacher that you are dedicated and allow you to move at a faster pace, but it will also put you in a better position to revise and will make you feel positive about your progress. The working week always ends up being more hectic than we think it will be, and we always hope for a quieter week next week... but that quieter week never comes. We need to learn to maximise the free time we do have; set aside a particular timeslot every week to look over your work - and don't compromise on it! Choose a Thursday night, or a Monday morning... or whenever you like, as long as family and friends know that will be your 30 minutes to yourself to sit down and work on a project which is important to you. .. Or better still, make them test you! ;-)

6. Don't stress. If you are struggling with something, or find yourself to be not in the mood to study, leave it. Leave it and come back with a fresh pair of eyes, as it will be amazing how much easier it feels when you are relaxed, happy and ready to learn.

Language Myth #2: "I can't learn a language because I'm dyslexic"

Dispelling common language fears

Many dyslexia sufferers are scared by their school experiences of being stigmatized and stereotyped as 'unteachable' or 'stupid' or 'illiterate'. Attitudes to dyslexia are much healthier nowadays, and nobody should feel ashamed of their dyslexia. Dyslexia is only a problem when a tutor is unaware of the needs of the student, and is inflexible in their approach to get the best results.

It's also much more common that you might think; it is estimated that as many as 1/5 people may suffer from at least one of the symptoms of dyslexia. Famous dyslexics include Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise and Jamie Oliver to name but a few.

So does dyslexia just mean that you can't read very well? Not at all. In fact, dyslexia is a complicated beast; it can mean working memory is shorter, making it difficult to retain information, letters appear mixed up, impairing reading ability, or the individual cannot easily understand how a word sounds just from looking at it.

The great news is that it is absolutely possible to learn a language when you suffer from dyslexia. All you will need is determination and a great tutor who is willing to adapt their lesson plans to help you. Take a look at the following tips:

1. Talk to your tutor. It sounds simple, but this will be the most important step in getting the most out of your lessons; if you don't tell your tutor what you are struggling with, and what your preferences are, he or she won't be able to help you.

2. Multi-sensory learning. A tutor that uses a variety of resources with a dyslexic student will have the most success; use all senses - try video clips, audio clips, conversation, role plays, games and songs, as well as tactile products which the student can touch, such as forming letters and sounds out of clay or a similar material.

3. Know your learning style. There are three main types of learners:

a. Visual learners learn best through seeing things; try overhead projections with clear instructions and vocabulary, with words spaced well apart to allow the individual to concentrate on just that single word. You can also try mind mapping, post it notes, writing syllables in different coloured pens and playing memory games such as 'pairs' to improve working memory and test vocabulary at the same time. Flashcards will also be useful, as repetition is key with vocabulary learning. Mind mapping is also a good way to make bold, visually impactful vocabulary notes which are easier to revise from than a long list of vocabulary.

b. Auditory learners learn best through listening; audio recordings, songs, conversations, and reading aloud will help these students. Applications like WordTalk also enable notes to be read aloud to you, in a text-to-speech function.

c. Kinaesthetic learners learn best by doing things and combining learning with physical activity; this could be memorising notes whilst walking around the house, taking field trips, talking with native speakers or practicing with friends. Touch is also an important sense for this learning group. Try tracing letters or sounds into the air or into coloured sand; it may help to better understand the sound you are making.

4. Did you know that the background colour of the paper you are working on or reading on can help to ease the symptoms of dyslexia? Try using materials printed on pastel colours such as peach or lilac; each learner will have their own preference. Apply this rule to your workbooks too; try to stick to a lined workbook with similar pastel coloured pages, readily available online from many dyslexia specialists.

5. The font a tutor types notes in can also make a difference; for dyslexic students avoid italics or underlining - instead use bold typeface to emphasize words; underlining can make all the lines run together. Sans serif fonts such as Comic Sans, Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Century Gothic or Trebuchet are often used. There is also a specific open source font available for free online called OpenDyslexic; a font designed specifically for use in schools to aid dyslexic pupils, for those who find that letters often "swim" together on the page.

6. The most important thing you can to do help with dyslexia is to create a tidy, clutter-free space to work in; students should feel relaxed. There is scientific reasoning behind the need for relaxation; when we become anxious or stressed, these thoughts cloud our ability to think, and for a dyslexic pupil who may already be struggling with their working memory capacity, this can make it impossible to learn anything at all. To achieve this relaxation, building confidence is important, and the lesson should be taken at the student's own pace to reinforce the important relationship between teacher and pupil.

Having a tutor who is aware of your learning needs will be of utmost importance; all of my lessons are fully adaptable to your specifications. Additionally, I work closely with a dyslexia specialist, who is also available for consultation to help strengthen your confidence with literacy and language learning. Dyslexia just requires a different teaching approach, but with the correct support, you can excel. Please contact me for more details.

How the education system is failing our children in MFL lessons

"Students will gain more confidence in a 1 hour private lesson with me than a term at school!"

As a private tutor, you could perceive that every failing school student would leave me rubbing my palms with glee at the thought of all that extra cash.  Quite the opposite.  I cannot begin to express my frustration after working with students across several state and private schools in the area on their Modern Foreign Language studies.  I would much rather spend my time helping them to excel at languages and conversational competency than explaining the basics to them; when a GCSE student points and the word “et” in French (and) and asks me what it means, just two weeks before her mock exams, I believe I have cause for concern.  She is no exception.

Three months before they are due to sit their GCSE exams, I am working with a handful of conscientious students – truly great kids with caring families - kids whose language skills after five or more years of French classes are quite frankly lower than the skills of my “basic” beginners.  Moreover, students are so terrified at the prospect of actually having to speak a foreign language, due to the lack of practice opportunities in class.   

Don’t think for one moment that my criticism lies with the teachers; not at all.  Anybody outside of the teaching circle simply does not appreciate the sheer volume of work that goes into preparing exams and following a nitpicking syllabus.  The restrictions are such that children are left with almost no useful language skills outside of the classroom.  Ask them to write ten sentences detailing what we must do to protect the environment and they may oblige, but ask them to order in a restaurant and many are reluctant to even try.  Speaking proficiency and confidence really need to be addressed – and any teacher faces an uphill battle, given the increasing class sizes and the mountain of work in front of them to tick all the boxes from the exam board demands.

Every year after the GCSE results are published, we hear the familiar cries that “GCSEs are getting easier”.  If that is truly the case, then we are in even more trouble than it already seems.  We do have an increasing number of students achieving high grades – so how do we have such a disparity between the apparent capabilities of students and the results they are seemingly achieving?  The answer is simple; an increasing shift towards coursework and controlled assessments has allowed desperate teachers the potential to bow to the pressure exerted on them by school league tables and OFSTED visits. 

When the students I began working with achieved A grades in their controlled assessments – along with the entire class I might add, I began to ask questions.  In some classes, students have confided in me that the speaking assessments, which should be painstakingly prepared by the students themselves, are simply distributed to them by the teacher, to learn by rote and regurgitate under exam conditions.  Results simply do not correlate with the students’ abilities. 

Worse still are my findings from private schools; students without text books or exercise books just weeks away from their important mock exams.  With just a wedge of printed vocabulary lists for company, how is this student expected to engage with the material and suddenly comprehend French grammar and sentence syntax?  This fills me with even more disdain; these parents are paying for what is perceived to be a superior education, but perhaps this should not be assumed.  Should we be subjecting our children to the same dull, drab learning techniques of yesteryear when we know so much better than that now?!  Furthermore, surely this is even more topical now with the increasing rise in dyslexia or ADHD sufferers; does this rote learning provide a positive environment for all to flourish?  It is decidedly doubtful. 

My old professor was always an advocate of the shift towards controlled assessments; her view always hinged on the fact that there is nothing more unnatural than a 2 hour writing exam, completely devoid of interaction or creative stimuli; no books, internet access or dictionaries.  However, how can we be encouraged to move away from the stressful exam system when the new system clearly has more flaws than the last?  At least with exams, we could be reasonably sure that it was the work of the student, rather than the teacher...  

It may be simply easier to close our eyes to this shocking behaviour; to keep quiet and accept the A* grades, letting our children plough on to further education.  Do school league tables really indicate the quality of the education they are receiving, or does it simple indicate the amount of information they are being force-fed?  There is no escaping the looming question: what is the real purpose of education?  We are creating a culture of yes-men.  It seems that passing exams and propelling the school up a therefore meaningless league table has become far more important than equipping our children with any life skills.  If this is the aim, it is a resounding success.

If your child needs extra tuition to prepare for his or her exams, please contact me here

Language Myth #1: "I can't learn languages"

Dispelling common language fears

Virtually every time during my degree when I told people I was studying French and Spanish, I would get the same stereotypical response: "I can't learn languages" or "I just don't get them".

Whilst it is of course true that learning languages comes easier to some than others, that can be said of any skill different people have different natural aptitude and flair for different things.

In my opinion, success is down to two things natural aptitude and dedication. Let's translate this scenario to athletics for example take Jamaican teammates Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. Bolt clearly has natural ability for sprinting and reportedly hates training, whilst for Blake it is certainly his hard work, training and strategy which gets him closer to Bolt on the track. So when it comes to language learning, you have to be committed.

The other question I frequently encounter is "how long will it take me to be fluent?" To which I invariably reply, "How long is a piece of string?".  Firstly, what can we define as "fluency"?  Does it mean we need to know every word in the language?  Probably not; I'm sure I could throw a few English words at you that you haven't a clue about, yet as a native speaker you must consider yourself fluent.  As a teacher, the concept of fluency can be frustrating; it may have a different meaning for each person you meet. 

As with anything, the more effort you put in, the more you will get out. If you simply come to your weekly lesson and do nothing in between, you will still progress, but clearly not at the same rate as somebody who takes it upon themselves to study every day. This doesn't have to feel like a chore it need not be rote learning or grammar drills - I'll be publishing a blog soon on how to integrate fun language learning techniques into your everyday routine. 

One to one sessions with a private tutor will obviously also go a long way to helping you succeed... consider this... in a classroom of 30 people, each person would get to speak for just 2 minutes each in a 1 hour lesson. In a private lesson, the floor is yours and you are free to dictate the pace and topic of the lesson. Although you pay a premium price, these lessons will pay dividends in the end.