Help! I need to pass an English test

The burden of being the farang miracle worker


"I have a very important English test coming up at the end of next week. Can you help me pass it?"

These are the words that strike fear into the heart of any English teacher and I'm willing to bet most of us have been in this frustrating situation. I certainly have. Many times.

We're approached by students who can barely string a sentence together and we've got seven days to transform them into William Shakespeare. It is, needless to say, a mission impossible.

My knee jerk reaction is always ‘how can I get out of this?' so I'll concoct a devious plan. I'll be vague as to when I'm available for a study session. I'll avoid answering the phone or returning text messages and generally do what it takes to remove myself from the situation and force the student to lose interest. But this is one request I can't ignore because it involves a family member. My wife's nephew to be exact.

I like Nui. I like him a lot. I've watched him grow up from the lively little boy in short trousers who attended our wedding, to the ambitious student now looking to get into university. When he was a teenager, he helped me with my Thai language study on many occasions and he made a fine teacher too. He's a hard-working guy with a thirst for knowledge and a good brain. He'll go far if he gets the right opportunities and no one wants him to succeed in life more than I do. He also lives next door.

Nui needs to pass something called the GAT test, devised by the NIETS (National Institute of Educational Testing Service) The examination contains about 60 multiple choice questions that test a candidate's grammar, reading skills, vocabulary, etc.

Yesterday, Nui furnished me with some mock GAT tests so I could familiarize myself with the content and also the level of difficulty involved. The test is challenging to say the least. I bet many a native English speaker would struggle to get a top score.

As much as Nui's English has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, the harsh reality is that he's still about 750 levels below where he needs to be in order to achieve a good test result. The main concern for me is that Nui doesn't realise it.

Sample questions

Let's look at a couple of sample questions from the GAT test to get an idea of what Nui is up against.

Firstly one from the short conversation section.

Janet: I heard you passed the screening test.
Wichai: Yes, and I'm invited for an interview next Friday.
Janet: _______________________________________

a) I'll keep my fingers crossed.
b) See you at the interview.
c) What are you doing on Friday?
d) Don't miss it, will you?

The answer I guess is A. Janet is ‘keeping her fingers crossed' - an idiom to hope that something or someone receives a favorable outcome. It's an idiom that you either know or you don't. In the question above, although choice C can be eliminated immediately, there is a degree of logic in choices B and D. Certainly enough to cause confusion if you don't know your good luck idioms.

This question is from the odd one out section

Choose the word which does not belong

A) Grab
B) Seize
C) Snatch
D) Rise

The answer is D of course. But Nui didn't know the answer because ‘grab' and ‘rise' were the only words he was vaguely familiar with. You need to have at least three of those four words in your vocabulary bank to arrive at the correct answer and Nui just hasn't had enough exposure to English.

Honesty was the best policy

I once worked at a private language school in the middle of an affluent Sukhumwit neighborhood. Not a week went by when we didn't get a worried parent coming into the reception, dragging their offspring behind them, and saying ‘help! My son (or daughter) needs to pass a university entrance English exam and it's just ten days away (or something equally ridiculous)'

It used to drive the Thai owner of the language school crazy. The owner was a very educated lady who had lived and worked most of her life in The UK. She knew that accepting a parent's money and promising miracles was unethical. She also knew it would put pressure on the foreign teacher handed the task of transforming someone from entrance exam no-hoper to a competent, intermediate level English student.

Never one to mince her words, the school owner would look the parent straight in the eyes and say ‘sorry, this is not a problem you can just throw money at'. I always respected her for that.

Help!

I often wonder if Thais are unique with this crazy, last-minute approach to exams and tests. Do other student nationalities run around the room with their hair on fire whenever an important test date looms large? Or do they simply not realize how much time and effort is involved in learning a language and progressing through the different levels of competence?

I've been studying Thai seriously for the past three years and I know exactly where I'm at. I know full well how many hours a day I would need to put in if I wanted to pass a Thai speaking test. And I would feel no shame in putting my hands up and admitting a test was beyond me if that were the case. You can't rely on miracles. Your English (or Thai) is either good enough or it isn't.

To me this is just basic common sense.

You need a Thai teacher, not me

However, what irks me most is how the native speaking English teacher is viewed as the ultimate key to test-taking success. Spend a few hours with a teacher whose mother tongue is English and passing the exam will be a breeze.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that and having just spent a couple of hours with Nui, going over mock tests in the comfort of my living room, I was reminded that what Nui really needs is a Thai teacher.

He needs a Thai teacher who is an expert in test-taking strategy. He needs a Thai teacher who can explain how to quickly locate the main topic of a reading passage or what CANNOT be inferred about birds that migrate south in the Winter. He needs a Thai teacher to highlight issues with subject-verb agreement and all that jazz.

He needs a Thai teacher who can explain all of those things in his OWN language. What he doesn't need are miracles from an English native speaker like me.


Comments

I remember working part-time in a language centre that geared mainly towards IELTS, TOEFL and TOEIC. The ladies at the front would tell the students any old bollox. Didn't matter how low level your English was they'd push you to do a the course.

The first thing I'd do is tell the students how difficult IELTS can be. If you're at a level under pre-intermediate, you will struggle (these students harboured ideas of studying in the UK, etc, so needed at least a 6.5 score). I told them they'd be better off learning general English for a while and then come back. So, I'd get that out of the way and I'd introduce the course. We'd get to the first activity and I would see the students' faces drop. That sudden realisation that this was proper hard work.

No word of a lie I had a student ask me; "Teacher, if I did this test in Cambodia, would it be easier?" to which I replied "Is that a joke?" I could see some of the students eyes light up as they thought I was going to reply 'yes'. Unfortunately for them, I had to break the news that this is a standardised test. It's the same all over the world and the reason it exists is to test your level of English. Faces dropped again. I explained to some of the nurses one time that doing their TOEIC test can be a question of life and death for some poor bugger in hospital. The questions aren't trying to trick you - they're trying to make sure you're listening properly and have a good grasp of English.

I think many people believe studying IETLS, etc, to be a status symbol. I've had students study it thinking it was merely an advanced level of learning English. It's not. It's a test that anyone can take to test their level of English. If you wanna spunk god knows how much money up the wall on doing a 60+ hour course and then an exam, go nuts. But understand the reason for studying English proficiency exams. It's not about learning English - it's about learning how to pass a particular test. Your English has to already be good to get a meaningful score that will help you progress to university abroad, etc.

By Nigel, Thailand (10 months ago)

I have been asked on a couple of occasions, once to help a golfer who couldnt hold a conversation in English pass the American college SAT exam to get a scholarship. I suggested 2 hours a night, 5 nights a week, and 2 rounds of golf on the weekend (5 hours), at a cost of 1000B an hour, for 3 months, as the minimum he needed to pass. I then threw in a generous discount as Im a nice guy, so it came to about 50k a month.

If you do it like that, the enormity of the situation seems to hit home. Youve been helpful, given a professional opinion, devised an individual plan (in theory) and a price they can decide on or not. Normally its not.

To finish of the story, somehow this kid is at college in the USA, though there is no way he passed the SAT. I have no idea how

By Rob, Bkk (10 months ago)

Yes... I agree with Nigel. My time is precious - at least it is to me! I quote stupid money just to avoid teaching private students... but I will do it for stupid money!

I used to teach classes of male nurses who were going to work on oil rigs. They had to have a minimum TOEIC score before they could advance to the more expensive training of being on an international oil rig.

The money for these nurses was very good so they were motivated to learn... but almost all of them failed anyway.

They simply couldn't compete with other Asian countries because they hadn't been giving the stepping stone building blocks of the English language. They were being asked to run before they could walk.

Back to Phil's dilemma...

"I have a very important English test coming up at the end of next week. Can you help me pass it?"

NO, YOU CAN'T!

Phil's problem is that all eyes are on him NOT the student. If the student fails, he'll be understanding and Phil can easily explain to his wife what went wrong... but to everyone else in his family, his reputation is now one of failure. A tangible failure that people can look to, point out and use as an example of failure.

No amount of explaining on his part will mitigate this failure, too. His student will be looked on as the blameless victim of Phil's ineptitude.

You're better off simply saying "I'm sorry but this isn't what I'm good at. I can't teach this to you."

He'll get a few doubtful looks and some accusations behind his back that he's simply lazy and can't be bothered. This will last a day at best. I can live with that... mostly because it's true.

But if you DO decide to take on this challenge and your student fails, then everyone who knows you will see YOU as the failure and NOT your student. You will have let him down!

Fair? Nope... but the unrealistic expectations of Thai people is what you're battling against.

If you have months of preparation time, an extremely motivated student and a ton of cash to prevent your sanity from being impacted, then I'd say go for it. If you have until the end of next week, then make holiday plans for the next few days right now!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (10 months ago)

There can be two extremes with the opinions on foreign teachers here. One of them is that we don't know what we're doing, and the other one seems to be that we're geniuses/miracle workers when it comes to preparing students for English proficiency exams. Or is it that these students and their parents are just really wishful thinkers.

A few times I've been asked by parents "If you teach my kid IELTS, can you guarantee they'll get xx score?" In my head I've been thinking "Who said I have any interest in teaching your kid any private lessons? (we're not all waiting on the edge of our seats to serve you)And you know your kid is a lazy so and so. You're literally wasting your breath asking me this". I've kindly replied that I can't guarantee anything. Don't put the onus on the teacher to make this happen. Put the onus on the student studying and give him (sorry, but it's usually guys) a big kick up the ass!

I work at a school and have part-time online work. I'm never short of hours. When they ask me to quote them a price, I always quote high. A thousand baht up an hour. It's win-win-win. They ask me to lower the price to which I reply "Oho. Cannot!". Win. They agree and I'm making a thousand baht up an hour (they've never agreed) 'or' they go away thinking "A 1000 baht an hour? Damn, that guy must be good!".

By Nigel, Bangkok (10 months ago)

I used to have a printout of a research paper that (very broadly) suggested that students wishing to increase their IELTS band by a half band would probably need 200+ hours of intensive study in an English-speaking environment. Whenever I got the dreaded question in a pre-course counselling session I would drag the dog-eared copy out of my folder and begin to describe the size of the task facing them. They generally got the message...

By Russell_CNX, Chiang Mai (10 months ago)

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