Why don’t they get it?

It’s a given that we live in an era in which students have the chance to be exposed to the target language much more frequently than people from past generations did. Smartphones are, at least in Brazil, becoming an essential item, and there are already people who would rather forget their wallet at home than their mobile. Cable TV has also become much cheaper, and widely-available Internet access allows people to quickly check whatever they want at the touch of a screen – literally. Add to that the amount of websites and Apps that promise to aid students in their endeavour of learning a foreign language and you have what should be the perfect mix of tools that anyone would probably need to succeed at learning a foreign language. It’s just there. All you’ve got to do is being willing to learn it.

Yet, teachers who have been in the profession for a while now seem to witness a rather intriguing phenomenon: instead of mastering a language faster and much more easily, learners make way too many mistakes that interfere with their production, even though they seem to communicate more. When we check indexes that measure language proficiency of English, we can easily notice that despite the availability of access to the target language, learners haven’t really made as much progress as we’d probably expect. But why is it that teachers have stopped demanding more from their learners, and why aren’t learners working harder at learning more?

I’d even agree that learners nowadays are actually able to understand more than learners from 15 or 20 years ago, but they seem to be OK with their production at a much lower level than before. My take is that the easier it is for learners to understand a language, the easier it is for them to believe that their production is at the same level of their understanding of the language. And we, teachers, haven’t exactly been doing much to show learners that their current mastery of the language is far below what they could achieve if they applied themselves to it.

In the past 5 years or so, I’ve seen quite a growing number of people who advocate that as long as the student can communicate, teachers have done their job. And that’s where the problem lies, in my opinion. Since it’s much easier to get in touch with the language and to practise your understanding of the language, and since most English students don’t feel the actual need to communicate in English except for classroom interactions, teachers can fall victims to the belief that students have reached a certain level just because they are able to talk about one or two topics with relative ease. The truth, however, is that nowadays it’s very undemanding for learners to simply look up any piece of information they may need without actually paying attention to what they’re doing. And paying attention is key for successful learning to take place.

Learning is an effortful activity, and if it’s a doddle to look up any kind of information you need, and if teachers don’t require that their learners make meaningful use of whatever piece of language they’ve been trying to teach, learning just won’t take place. I honestly believe that this is one of the reasons why many teachers don’t succeed at their endeavours to correct learners – when a simple “yes” is what the student utters after a correction, very little, if any, learning is taking place. But, hey, this has been going on for such a long time now that it’s common for many teachers themselves to feel that they don’t have to learn anything anymore.

My piece of advice is that if you ever wonder why is it that your learners fail to grasp and understand basic notions of the language, or are incapable of producing very basic sentences without making mistakes, it might be time to look inwards and honestly assess the way you’ve been teaching. Why is it that learners who are usually exposed to so much language fail to produce a simple present sentence correctly? Perhaps it’s time you stopped believing that just because their passive understanding of the language is so high, they’ll magically end up transferring that to their active use of the language. They won’t, and the sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we’ll start doing what we’re supposed to do – teaching, not chatting.

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Henrick Oprea

Henrick Oprea has been working in ELT since 1997. He's got a post-graduation degree from the University of Birmingham. He is the current president of BRAZ-TESOL. He currently works as a freelancer teacher trainer and educator. He believes that teachers are the ones who make the difference in any classroom, and this is why he is keen on sharing. He blogs about education and ELT at, and you can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He's also a dad!

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