LI Международная научная филологическая конференция имени Людмилы Алексеевны Вербицкой

Counter-productive habits of university students learning English, their causes, and what teachers can do about it

Александр Эйтон
старший преподаватель
Санкт-Петербургский государственный технологический институт (технический университет)

18:25 - 18:40

Ключевые слова, аннотация

Key words: psychology; error correction; translation; language skills 
Russian university students have learned habits from English classes in school which hinder their language acquisition. These habits include avoiding participation, translating responses to questions and essays, and relying on written work when they should practice speaking. These habits are a reaction to fear. The fear is caused by teachers correcting errors too often, overly difficult material, and a lack of practice of language skills, particularly speaking and listening. Teachers can encourage better habits in students by limiting error correction, increasing language skill practice, and dividing students tinto groups based on their levels.


As teachers of foreign languages observing student behavior in the classroom, it is clear that certain habits are counter-productive to the students’ second language acquisition. The students themselves do not realize that they are slowing their progress. In fact, they are reacting to what they have experienced in school and trying to protect themselves emotionally. In order to improve learning outcomes, teachers can modify their methods to encourage more productive behaviors from their students.
Counter-productive habits
Freezing up: When I call on students to give me an answer or ask a discussion question like “What did you do yesterday?” sometimes students freeze. They may avoid eye contact or in lessons on Zoom they might not answer at all.  The student tries to avoid participation and find a way to end the interaction with as little English as possible. Translating conversations: Lack of comprehension is not always an issue. When I ask a question, students turn to their neighbors and repeat the question in Russian to confirm whether they understood it correctly. Usually the question was understood correctly but some students consistently look to classmates for confirmation. These students often then say their answer out loud in Russian, after which they translate their answer into English. Translating writing: Students write a short essay about a specific topic for homework. When I read the essays in class, many essays have clearly been written entirely using Google or Yandex Translate. Students often write a whole essay in Russian and then translate it into English. Both high and low level students do this, with low level students simply copying and pasting their Russian essay into a translator. Scripting conversations: Some students are averse to extemporaneous speaking. This is a major hindrance given that most speaking contexts are extemporaneous. To prepare students for class discussions, I sometimes use scaffolding to break the exercise into smaller, easier parts. I give them time to prepare for a discussion which some students use to write a response to the topic. They then read their answer to their partner and read their answer again to me. The same habit appears when students are to write notes for an extemporaneous speech. Students instead write a short speech which they then read to the class.
Causes of counter-productive habits
Overemphasizing accuracy: In many schools, English teachers emphasize accuracy over other language aspects. They interrupt students while they are speaking to issue corrections and mark every mistake they see in students’ writing. When teachers call on students to answer a question, the wrong answer may lose the student points. These methods induce fear in students. They feel they must produce perfect work and that mistakes are unacceptable. Therefore, students avoid participation to avoid making mistakes and translate everything, attempting to produce “perfect” English. Overly difficult material: When a group of students are placed in the same English classroom together regardless of their individual language levels, the result can be that the material being studied is too difficult for many students. When students are confronted with too many unknown words or overly complex grammar concepts, they can quickly become discouraged and withdraw from the class or resort to translators to try and understand the material. Neglecting skills: Some teachers teach English as a body of knowledge to be mastered. They forget that language is also a skill. These teachers overemphasize academic knowledge of the language and deemphasize actual use of the language through speaking, listening, writing, and reading. When students lack the practice, particularly in speaking and listening, to adequately use the language, they will have difficulty formulating responses to spontaneous questions. Overusing translation: When teaching new vocabulary or grammar, it can be difficult for teachers to know whether students understood the material. To check comprehension, many teachers ask for the translation of a word or grammatical structure. Although a quick way to confirm understanding, this method implies that translation is a learning tool. Many students believe that translating is the only possible way to learn a foreign language. It causes students to make constant comparisons between their native language and English, confusing them when expressions cannot be translated word-for-word or when grammar usage differs.
How to encourage better habits
Accept that students make mistakes and this is a normal part of the learning process. [Krashen 1983: 59]. Therefore, error correction should be very limited. Some research indicates that error correction does not lead to increased accuracy anyway [Conti 2015]. It is especially ineffective if many errors or many types of errors are corrected at once. In student writing, I tend to mark only one type of error. When students make an error speaking, I may prompt them after they finish, but avoid interrupting them. Increase practice of language skills, especially speaking and listening. English must be viewed as a skill, not just as a body of knowledge to be memorized. By using speaking activities and talking to students in English, we can help them build the capability to use the language in real-life. Divide students into groups based on their level and use appropriate material for their level. It is not reasonable to expect students to “just work harder” if they are too weak for the material. Material should be comprehensible for students in order for them to learn it [Krashen 1983: 72].
Conti, Gianfranco. Why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing (not the traditional way at least). 2015.
Krashen, Stephen, Tracy Terrell. The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom. 1983.