King Sisyphus? Rather Not.

Last Sunday, I took from the shelf, filled with  used and overused teaching materials, the workbook Developing Receptive & Expressive Language Skills in Young Learners. Robert and I went through all the pages of that book 4 or 5 times in the past six years.  Every time we reached the end of the book,  Robert seemed to master  four types of language tasks:  answering “yes” or “no” questions, choosing one of the two words to answer simple question about the picture, finishing the sentence with the missing word, and answering “wh” questions. When, however,  some time later, we started again from the page one, Robert was lost.  Surprisingly,the task he had most problems with was related to  “yes” and “no” answers.  He also made many errors when he had to choose one of two words from the questions as in: “Is the boy pushing a tractor or a lawn mower?”  Having two options already specified in the question didn’t help him but confused him instead. Finishing sentences and answering “wh” questions went much better.

Still, the regress was clear and heartbreaking.  Robert’s  work and my work seemed to be in vain. For the fifth or sixth time we followed the same pattern:

1.Robert has difficulties with exercises at the beginning of the book.

2. As we continue going forward, the number of errors is  decreasing.

3. When we reach last page, Robert seems to pass all the verbal tests.

4.I put the workbook away convinced that Robert mastered the required skills.

5. When I  return to the book a few months or a year later believing it would be an easy exercise related to fluency and maintenance of the skills Robert was supposed to have, I  discover that Robert lost those skills.

6.We start re-teaching and/or re-learning.

This recurrent sequence of learning skills and loosing them is rather depressing.  For the fraction of a  second I perceived myself as Sisyphus, who despite many attempts, failed  to place a rock on the top of the mountain.  Only for a fraction of a second.  But although I dismissed that comparison quickly, I realized that my work with Robert might be perceived as completely pointless. One might think that since Robert kept loosing what he had learned, then there was no point in teaching him.

Such conclusion is not only morally reprehensible but also  utterly wrong.

Morally reprehensible, as it both reduces Robert’s status   from the conscientious participant in the process to the passive object of one’s educational efforts and, simultaneously, demotes a teacher from a person in charge of instruction to a helpless victim of a senseless job. Well, the teacher is NEVER HELPLESS. The teacher can observe, define patterns, learn from them, and adjust learning methods.  Presenting a teacher as a victim of his job damages him and his pupils.

Utterly wrong, as it misdiagnoses the causes of the problem.  It is not that Robert cannot learn.  Four or five times he has proven  that he could. It is the way he is /was taught that leads to loosing the skill.  Robert cannot maintain his skills for the same reasons an average  high school graduate, who never went to French-speaking country, is doomed to quickly forget his French.

Robert never had any opportunity to intensively and frequently practice his newly acquired (or reacquired) language skills outside the dinning room table where he was learning  them with me. I couldn’t assure that others – teachers, peers, community workers would help him practice his language across different settings.

Since Robert has never traveled to “France”  how could he retain his “French”?

Besides, Robert always remembers at least a part of what he was previously taught.