Here is my second case study in the series. As with the previous story, this is a student I worked with who had a particular goal for his English language.
(These case studies are real stories of success but they also illustrate the trials and tribulations of the journey the student and I took to reach their goal. The experience in each case was as rich and rewarding for me as it was for them.)
One of my teaching hats is that of IELTS coach. Basically, I work with IELTS students who need a specific banding (usually overall 7 / 8 or a 7 in each part) and who have not yet managed to attain that score. Some of my students have taken the test several times. At this stage they cannot really be helped in a class as their needs are very specific to them. (you can contact me via Gapfillers if you are in this position!)
Student 2 – Stepan
The first lesson
Stepan was a highly qualified anesthetist from the Ukraine. He had worked in a senior position and had come to the UK to gain experience in hospitals here. Due to his experience and status he was able to work in a hospital as long as he scored a band 7 in each paper on the IELTS exam. This is not an easy thing to do and Stepan had taken the exam twice and failed to achieve 7 in all parts.
The main problems for Stepan were speaking and writing. At the first lesson we completed an example of each of the papers and I was pleased to see that in the listening and reading sections he was consistently scoring 7. His speaking was, however, quite stilted although he had quite a wide vocabulary and the writing was achieving a band 6 or less.
Although Stepan was living in London, he shared a flat with other Ukrainians and didn’t speak English at home. He had a part-time job at night as a receptionist in a hotel which should have given him the chance to practise speaking but didn’t. It appeared that he spent a lot of time at his books and didn’t take opportunities to speak to incoming guests.
His writing was mostly conceived in his own language and translated using a bi-lingual dictionary.
I suggested that he make more of his opportunities to speak and write his next essay without the aid of his dictionary. He seemed unconvinced as it was his belief that the language spoken out in the street was not formal enough for an exam. He also felt that his essays should be a showcase for his knowledge of English vocabulary. This, coupled with his rather ancient dictionary, caused his essays to sound rather like Victorian melodramas.
I realised that I could call on Stepan’s application and dedication but I was not sure that he would be willing to take my advice.
I scouted around for old IELTS books that he would not have come across and tried to stretch his listening skills with more demanding examples (not only IELTS stuff). This way he could keep improving these areas and, I hoped, see the correlation between listening and speaking and reading and writing.
To address the speaking I decided to make these segments more ‘chatty’ and get him to talk a bit more about himself and his life.
The writing was the biggest challenge. I put him on a diet of newspapers for models and said that we would read his essays out loud sentence by sentence and I would challenge everything that wasn’t clear and he would have to justify to me his choice of grammar, vocabulary or idea. I also forbade him to use his old bilingual dictionary.
Stepan realised the importance of speaking to people. He thought about moving flats but this wasn’t feasible so we set up some strategies for engaging in conversation with people who arrived at the hotel. Using some simple opening phrases he was able to start conversations and soon his speaking became less stilted. He began to enjoy the conversations themselves and saw them less as an exercise and soon his speaking became more spontaneous and fluent.
Although reading Stepan’s work sentence by sentence each lesson was very difficult for us both as I was worried about undermining Stepan’s confidence and he was depressed by the number of sentences that I questioned, we gradually began to get more cohesion into the essays and they became more fluid and meaningful. After a few weeks we were only stumbling over one or two sentences. The newspaper models helped him and gave him more vocabulary and greater agility in his use of structure. Finally he was producing good, well written, essays and now all we needed to do was add a gloss of sophistication in terms of vocabulary and set phrases. (see my postings on writing for information on this: 7 virtues to help you write well, 7 deadly sins to avoid in writing and warning: mistakes cost marks)
Stepan arrived one day for his lesson and told me that he had booked his IELTS exam. I wasn’t sure he was ready yet but he was keen to go ahead and try. This was in the days where you had to wait for 3 months before you could re-sit! We did as much as we could before the exam and he took it. Unfortunately, although his reading, speaking and listening got the 7, his writing got 6.5 (better than his previous 5). He was, obviously, disappointed but resolved to apply again immediately and continue studying. It was coming up to Christmas so we agreed that we would meet again in the New Year.
Stepan didn’t contact me in the New Year. He had gone home to visit his family and was arranging for them to come to the UK. He was also busy working and organising a hospital placement for when he was able to work.
He called me to ask one or two questions and then in February I received a letter telling me he had taken IELTS again and got his 7s (with an 8 in listening!).
Now he could begin work, bring his family to the UK and start a new and exciting phase of his life.