“But teacher Nate, do all compound adjectives need a hyphen?”
“Is there a rule about when to double the final consonant with comparatives?”
“Why do British people say ‘he’s got brown hair’, and American people say ‘he has brown hair?'”
The above is a list of recent questions that I didn’t have an immediate response to. In each case, I stood there for a moment, feeling both proud of the student for asking the question and hating them slightly at the same time. It put me in difficult spot, I could either confidently give an answer that I wasn’t 100% sure of, or I might look like an impostor in front of the whole class. What to do?
Read on for advice on how to respond to difficult questions that students ask. This post will cover dealing with grammar/lexis questions, the unanswerable questions and uncomfortable personal questions/requests that come from students.
Or, if your problem isn’t answering students questions, but rather deciding how to correct their errors, take this short and fun quiz to help guide you down the right path of when and how to correct errors.
Grammar and Lexis Questions
I know some pretty anal people when it comes to grammar and lexis, I am, after all, a teacher. However, I have yet to find a native speaker who didn’t have some gap in their knowledge of correct grammar or pronunciation. English is a crazy language with a ridiculous number of exceptions when it comes to grammar, pronunciation and usage. Quite often, native speaking teachers don’t know the rules associated with the grammar they teach and have to rely on it “sounding right”.
In general, non-native teachers have an advantage here. Having learned the language themselves, they are often more aware of the rules and exceptions; especially the useful ones. In fact, just yesterday I was about to look up the rule for when to double the final consonant with comparatives, when a non-native teacher peaked over my shoulder. “Ah, I learned this in school. With consonant vowel consonant, you double the final letter, with vowel vowel consonant or vowel consonant consonant, you don’t.”
What impressed me the most was this teacher’s ability to remember the rule on cue. I don’t know about you, but I don’t specifically remember learning this rule. Usually I simply correct students spelling when they spell comparatives incorrectly, but I hadn’t given them the tools to determine how to spell the words in the first place. Yes, shame on me.
In my opinion, teaching rules like this IS useful to students. Some teachers would argue that teaching in this way makes the classroom too synthetic or fake; that students learn best through exposure to the correct language and not by dissecting it. The other argument against teaching rules like this is that there are always exceptions and this can be frustrating.
My thinking is that rules like the one above are tools. I want to give my students all the tools that I can to succeed with their language learning. I don’t make rules like this the focus of my lesson because students often know the rules already, and I don’t want to distract from students using the language. Instead, I usually reserve rules like these for consistent student errors or for when a student asks the question.
So, if a student does ask you a grammar or lexis question, and you DON’T know the answer, what should you do? Some might disagree, but I tend to think that lying and acting overconfident in my knowledge of a word’s meaning or a grammatical rule will only have negative effects. What if you are wrong? What if the student looks up the rule and shares it with the whole class and proves you a liar?! What if you can’t show your face in the class again without students shaking their heads.
When I am confronted with a question like this, where I’m not sure, I simply tell the student that I’m not sure, but I will check and bring it up during the next lesson. I usually praise the question asker as well, so that there is no negative splashback from me not immediately knowing, “Huh, that is an excellent question. I’ll have to double check and get back to you. I don’t want to give you any incorrect information. Thank you for bringing that up.”
The important thing here is follow through. If you say you are going to look up something for a student, make sure to do so. There are a lot of great websites to look up grammar and usage or, if you’re a bit more old-school, maybe it’s time you or your school invested in a grammar and usage book. They are about the size of a dictionary.
“Why is this pronunciation in this part of America so different than what I usually hear on TV?”
“Why does cool as a cucumber mean relaxed. Are cucumbers really that cool?”
“Why are there so many different spellings for the /f/ sound?”
Again, I empathize with English learners, I really do. Though definitely not the only language with exceptions to nearly every rule, and a host of strange idioms that don’t make any real sense; as far as I’m aware, it’s the worst. Often, language learners want more than just to know the rule or the right way to say something. They also want to know why.
Let’s look at this in the same way we looked at the first type of questions. Is it useful to tell students why? When it comes to the meanings of sayings and idioms, it is likely that you don’t know why, and that the student knowing wouldn’t be helpful in any way. Granted, it can be interesting to research etymology or get to a deeper of why the English language works the way it does, but, unless it’s going to help the student in some way, I often simply say that I don’t know.
Young or old, students are usually curious about their teacher and their private lives. I’m pretty open about myself to my students, but there are certain lines that need to be drawn. Children’s questions are usually pretty harmless. If they touch on a subject that you don’t want to discuss, they usually accept the explanation that you’d rather not talk about it.
Adults can sometimes be worse. Over the years, I’ve been asked some rather personal questions about my sexual habits, my feelings about the school I was working for, etc. that I either didn’t want to answer, or thought it was wiser not to. Though sometimes pushier than children, if you politely defer and change the subject, it often works.
Remember, being paid to sit down and talk to a student doesn’t suddenly turn you into their therapist or romantic partner. Keep the setting professional; if the questions begin to make you uncomfortable, and the student doesn’t respect that, you should talk to management about the situation as soon as possible.