Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Shocking Moment

This month, I’ve been teaching an after-school intensive course to my 7th grade students. The course is supposed to be for students who are behind their peers in their English skills, so that they can work towards catching up.

There’s a student in one of my 7th-grade class who I’ll call Henry. He’s adorable, new to the school, and very shy. He has made some friends, but in class he’s very quiet and does not like to open his mouth whatsoever. I believe this is mostly because his English skills are very poor. Reading, writing, listening, speaking—they’re all extremely basic, so he has a lot of trouble keeping up in class.

But luckily, Henry’s taking the intensive course I’m teaching, so my hope, within reason, is to bring him up to speed with some of his peers. Throughout the course so far, I’ve seen him gaining some confidence in his speaking skills, which is very exciting. And the other day I jumped at the opportunity when I got a chance to work with him individually: the students were working on a word-search, and everyone in the class (perhaps with some help from peers) was capable of completing it. They were having fun and had naturally formed small groups to work in. However, I noticed Henry struggling, and knew the word search was too difficult for him. So I called him over to some empty seats towards the back of the room and sat with him for a little bit of one-on-one time. I had been looking for a chance to do this, since it’s a very rare opportunity (between all the classes I have, I teach roughly 200 students!).

I started with basics.

“What’s your name?”


“How old are you?”

That one was a little more difficult. I tried in Thai:

“Ayu tao rai?”


I thought, ok, perfect. He can recognize some basic questions. I’ll write down the English translation to a few basic things like this, and then ask him to write the Thai translation next to the English, so he can remember. So I said,

“Write, “How old are you?” in Thai in your notebook.”

Oops, forgot. He doesn’t speak English. I try again, this time in Thai:

“Kian “ayu tao rai” ti ni” (write “how old are you” here)

He jotted down a few Thai letters, but even though I can’t read Thai well, I could see clearly didn’t complete the sentence. I tried again, as clear as I could be:

“Kiaan “ayu tao rai” ti nii”

He looked at me, seemingly not understanding what to do. But the funny thing was, I was sure I that what I had said was a correct and clear sentence in Thai. I start thinking to myself, what’s the problem here?

Ok. He wrote a few letters...but not the whole sentence. He looked like he wanted to write something down, but just wasn’t doing it. I’m thinking, I’m thinking...wait at second...could it be?

“Kian pasaa tai dai mai?” (Can you write Thai?)

He bashfully shakes his head. “Mai” (no)

“An pasaa tai dia mai?” (Can you read Thai?)

Again, he shakes his head.

Oh my god, I think to myself, while trying to suppress a look of shock and disbelief on my face. Henry doesn’t only struggle in English. He’s illiterate in his own language. And he’s in 7th grade. And he just started going to one of the better schools in town. And he’s illiterate. Holy crap.

It took me a while to conceptualize this. It’s not something I thought I’d run into where I work. To be honest, I didn’t ever really think about it at all. So, what can I do? Well, a wise teacher told me that you have to meet your students where they’re at, not where you wish they were. So, as much as I can, I’ll start with the only thing I can—the basics. Since I found out Henry is illiterate, I’ve been working slowly with him on English letters (which he knows the names of) and the sounds that they make (which he doesn’t know yet). Slowly, one tiny step at a time, I hope to get him reading some basic English words. And I will also get him help with learning to read and write his own language. My greatest hope is that he begins 8th grade in a very different place than where he began 7th. I’ll let you know how it goes.