Dear Student, You’re going to fail.

2 Jun

Dear Student,

You probably know why I’m writing this letter.  You probably know, deep down, what I’m about to tell you.  But I’m going to tell you anyway and that’s why I’m writing.

You are going to fail your exam.  Sorry.

I mean I hope I’m wrong.  I hope that on the day, the gods of language learning smile upon you and every word you need arrives at the front of your brain with the minimum of effort.  Or that the invigilator accidentally gives you a PET paper instead of and FCE paper and nobody notices.  Or that you have a great day and all that preparation and training pays off.  Or that a falling star dips past your window the night before the exam and that you make the right wish.

But in all honesty?  I can’t see any other way that you are going to pass.

And this is a huge shame.  I’ve taught a lot of people preparing for language exams over the years and most of them have been fairly average at best, with a few super talented individuals who just annoyingly learn languages just by being in the same room as a teacher.  If any of these had put half the time and effort into learning English that you have, they would have all got A grades.  In Proficiency.

I really can’t fault you for effort.  You have been sending me extra homework for the last four months and doing all the extra exercises in the book that we don’t have time for in class.  You have been writing down everything that goes on the board, everything that I say, that your classmates say.  You have not only taken in all of the strategies, structures, hints, tips and frameworks that we’ve looked at – you’ve taken them away, processed them and you are using them where you can.  The report you wrote for homework the other week was a masterpiece of organisation and genre features.  In our speaking exam practice, you extend appropriately and invite discussion with the best of them.

But you are still going to fail.

And the reason is simple.  Your English just isn’t good enough.  There’s no other way to put it.

But let’s think about what that means.  As I said, from an exam perspective, you’re doing all the right things.  Your micro-skills and strategies are well developed.  The problem, as far as I can tell, is wholly situated in your knowledge of the language system.

Now, I’m not sure why this might be.  I estimate that you’ve probably had about 450 hours of tuition in the last 4 years, which should have been more than enough (according to Common European Framework guidelines) to help you across the intermediate plateau and to start you up the climb into the foothills of the advanced range.  I don’t expect that all of those 450 hours were completely focused on language input, and nor should they have been, but I wonder how many words, phrases and chunks did you write down over the years?  How many language input stages did you sit through?  I really, really want to know what it is you did – or didn’t do – to cause so little impact for so much effort.

Here are my theories, or rather my questions:

  • Do you view the language atomistically, rather than holistically?  Do you look at it as though it’s isolated grammar points to be learnt, rather than components of a whole?
  • Do you think of language knowledge in the same way as language ability?  Are you now finding that bringing it all together to do something with the language is more difficult than basic manipulation exercises?
  • Is it all too much?  Are you trying desperately to remember too many different things, like when to use the present perfect and not the past simple, whether “addiction” is the same thing as “addition”, or which of the possibilities is the correct dependent preposition to use?  Is all this cluttering your mind when you try to produce language that you just give up on it all and go with the simplest thing you can remember, in the hope that you’ve got a better chance of getting it right?


Look, I predicted at the start of this letter that you were going to fail your exam.  To be fair, we did tell you that you weren’t ready for it yet and three months ago I said I thought you probably needed another year’s worth of learning (not lessons necessarily, just learning), though I’m not sure if anyone actually said that to you in those words.  I stand by my prediction, though I really, really, really hope I’m wrong.  I’m just not sure what we can do to help anymore.  I want there to be a simple switch we can flick, a quick fix to solve the problem, I want you to be in class this week and have one of those light-bulb moments where everything comes together for you.  And we’ll keep working in the hope that it happens.

All the best,

Your teacher.


13 Responses to “Dear Student, You’re going to fail.”

  1. David Bradshaw Monday 2 June 2014 at 16:51 #

    Reblogged this on David's ESOL Blog and commented:
    How many times have you had a student who insisted on taking an exam for which they were not fully prepared? Here’s an open leter from TEFLGEEK which addresses the impending failure of one such student, and suggests some of the things which could lead to this situation.

  2. Eleni P. Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 09:00 #

    “…though I’m not sure if anyone actually said that to you in those words”

    I think it’s a five-star post because it boldly attempts to speak out about a taboo.

    Is there really a unique moment when the news comes out of “someone’s” mouth as a revelation? If so, when is, after all, the right time to put oneself in such an invidious position? And who is this “anyone” who is supposed to spill the bins?

    The first two questions are pretty simple in my mind. The revelation should take place right from the start, when a learner’s optimism influences the goals they set.

    This is how some of my stories as such start.

    Many step into a school looking for brain surgeons instead of teachers. They urgently need a B2 or whatever level certificate but they have really little time for studying and can only afford 2 hours per week. Still, they feel their goal is attainable within 8 months -as they simply need to learn the ropes regarding the exam format and revise a little bit what they learnt centuries ago. So, the revelation is there, just over the corner waiting for them to sigh.

    How do “we”, the teachers, respond? The diagnostic test screams “No!” and this is what we have to communicate along with alternative, down-to-earth goals. But does it really ever reach the recipient? Or it gets distorted by the mysterious “anyone”: “Let’s start and we’ll see about the exam in a few months time”. “It will be really difficult for you to pass this exam next June, but it’s up to you to decide, you can try if you wish, it’s a good thing to try, TRY! (with us, not the school next door).”

    Irksome, isn’t it? The mysterious “anyone” tells you- the teacher- that the learner is adamant, they want to try, which is an in explicable, mysterious thing!

    And the story ends with David’s letter.

    • David Petrie Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 12:10 #

      Hi Eleni,
      thanks for your comment and your kind words! There is always going to be a disparity, in the private sector at least, between the needs of the student, the wants of the students and the needs of the school. Most of the time I think they are quite harmonious, but as you point out, if a student is going to spend their money in pursuit of an unrealistic goal, they might as well spend it with us!
      In this case though, I don’t think the problem is unrealistic expectations, it’s more a case of simply not getting from A to B. I think the learner had just got to the point where they had given up and thought, stuff it, I’m going to do it anyway and see what happens.
      Thanks for commenting,

  3. Cary Bertoncini Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 11:40 #

    I don’t grade my students on English ability; I grade them on effort. The student described in this article would get some kind of an A in my class. I have some students who are going to fail one of my classes right now – one of them has pretty decent English ability, actually, but he does not do homework or classwork very often, does not put much effort into his group or individual projects, and is often disruptive, so he will fail the course, regardless of his score on the final test.

    • David Petrie Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 12:06 #

      Hi Cary,
      Unfortunately, effort is not recognised in Cambridge exams! I agree that it should be one of the things students get graded on, but I think where the goal is attainment of a certain level or facility with English, you can’t only grade them on effort. Plus I think there is a difference between adult and young learner classes, in that while I like to recognise the effort students make, I don’t feel comfortable making that kind of judgement on an adult learner.
      Thanks for commenting,

      • Cary Bertoncini Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 12:16 #

        Yeah, didn’t pick up at first that the context was only Cambridge exams – no escaping the quantitative nature of that situation. I taught test prep courses for years in the USA, so I know the beasty a bit. I teach university students in China now, and I think effort is just as an important factor for young adults as it is for young learners. There is always some human fuzziness to it, but if there are enough productive tasks taking place as homework and class assignments, it’s pretty easy to get a pretty good feel for relative effort and attitude.

      • David Petrie Friday 6 June 2014 at 12:24 #

        You’re absolutely right – effort is important and should be recognised. I guess the problem here is when effort doesn’t seem to be enough….

  4. Clare Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 12:54 #

    In the state sector in the UK, however, learners have been known to pass assessments (by retaking them a few times) and then progressing to the next level when they are clearly not ready. Unfortunately, funding is linked to assessment.

    • David Petrie Friday 6 June 2014 at 12:26 #

      Hi Clare,
      I’m sure that sort of thing is a feature in many places. In the private sector I’m sure retaining the student (and therefore student fees) probably plays a part in deciding whether the student has “done enough” to progress to the next level.
      thanks for the comment,

  5. Ben Naismith Thursday 5 June 2014 at 14:42 #

    Great post David, I can definitely relate.

    Unfortunately, although many (most?) people will tell you that motivation is the most important factor in learning a language, aptitude will always play a huge role, especially in getting over that intermediate hump.

    • David Petrie Friday 6 June 2014 at 12:32 #

      Thanks Ben!
      You do raise an interesting question, which I kind of deliberately avoided, but perhaps we should be asking – is there such a thing as aptitude for languages and if so, how do we identify people who possess it (or not)?

  6. Tahmineh Polroodi Friday 6 June 2014 at 09:26 #

    Dear teacher  thank you for you email , i ‘m going to start again please help me . what do i have to do ? please tell me  thank you  your studet  tahmineh 

    • David Petrie Friday 6 June 2014 at 12:34 #

      That’s the big question isn’t it? I’m not sure I have a complete answer yet (or that anybody does), but when I do, I’ll let you know!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: