Student reading way too challenging books - why is this a bad idea?
June 11, 2015 6:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm a native English speaking ESL tutor in Taiwan. I've recently been hired to teach a 5.5 year old (social studies and reading.) His parents are insisting that he read from books aimed at 9-12 year old native speakers. This kid is bright, but his reading comprehension is nowhere near a native speaking kid 5 years older than him. I don't have any formal training in teaching young kids and only about a year of job experience but this seems like a terrible idea. What are arguments I can use to convince the parents to give him material that is more in line with his abilities?

The student is running into multiple unfamiliar words per paragraph and often not even grasping the main idea of the sentence we just read. I've discussed my concerns with the parents and they've told me that they want him on an accelerated learning track so that he can be taking AP tests by middle school. They think he will learn something from the books even if they're too difficult. I'm planning on pointing out that with more appropriate material, we'll waste less time with frustration-related behavior issues in class, but what other points should I bring up? Suggestions backed by evidence would be especially helpful.
posted by horizons to Education (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The Zone of Proximal Development sounds like exactly what you're looking for. Lots of science and research to back it up too!
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 6:07 PM on June 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

Appropriateness of subject matter. Books for older kids will have more mature subject matter. If he actually understands it, this is developmentally inapproriate and can even be nightmare-inducing, plus cause lots of uncomfortable questions.
posted by Michele in California at 6:11 PM on June 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A good phrase to search for is "extensive reading": in the foreign language pedagogy literature, this means reading a large quantity of materials that are easy enough to read without using a dictionary.
Importantly, if the reading text is too hard (less than about 98% knowledge of the surrounding unknown words), then their fluent reading will be interrupted and their chance for meeting a lot of language will be reduced as they have to return to more intensive language study to work on the unknown language. It’s only by reading fast can they meet a lot of language. Reading 200-300 running words slowly and intensively from a reading text in one 90 minute class is not going to build reading speed. Thus the learners will not be able to meet enough language input to meet and pick up new words or collocations from context.

Therefore, it is vital that when they are learning to use language fluently that they read fluently and smoothly with minimal interruption and at the right level. When they are studying language (such as that done in course books and grammar books) the text can be more difficult in order that they learn or re-visit previously taught language. Very often in language programs teachers mistakenly use native materials with the intention of exposing the learner to “authentic” texts. This is fine if, and this is a huge if, if the learner can deal with it. If not, then the text is noise and frustrational (for the teacher and learner) and not is not instructional (from a linguistic point of view) but will be interfering with instruction and is unlikely to help build reading speed.
Rob Waring - The Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading
What are the principles of extensive reading?

Start with stories that are well below your fluent reading level, and while reading, follow these principles:

1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.

(loosely translated from Kunihide Sakai’s

Finally, keep track of your progress: I estimate the number of words I’ve read. You could also keep track of page counts or number of books read; a service like 読書メーター (Reading Meter) will let you do that for free.

Why start at such a basic level?

It helps you get used to reading quickly; since you should know most of the words already, you hardly have to think about them.
The sentences are simpler, so you can understand them immediately, and as you start reading more complex sentences you’ll have an intuitive sense of how they fit together.
It helps you learn to use the information in the text to figure out unknown words, instead of a dictionary.
You get a sense of where your fluent reading level is, so as you improve you can tell when a book is too hard or too easy.
Words that are part of basic books are basic words themselves, and as you see them over and over, you learn them quickly; when you progress to more advanced books, you’ll know those basic words without having to think about them.
You can finish books in a reasonable amount of time, so you don’t get bored with one book.
Liana Kerr
Research indicates that if the students know about 98% of the words on a page, then they can read it quickly and with high levels of comprehension. Below 90% (one unknown word in 10) the reading becomes frustrating and slow requiring a lot of dictionary use and comprehension suffers badly. The reading is at an ‘instructional’ level when the students know between 90% and 98% of the words on a page. At this difficulty level, they will
know enough of the surrounding language that they will have adequate comprehension but will still need to look up many words if they wish to understand the text better. If the students know 98% or more of the words, then they are in the extensive reading ‘sweet spot’ and can read quickly enough because there isn’t so much unknown language slowing them down and so they can read enjoyably. If the students know everything, or almost everything, on the page, they can then read it very quickly and can use it to build reading speed and
their natural reading ability.
--ER Foundation Guide
There's lots of support in the research for reading easy things in in a second language, both from a cognitive perspective and an affective perspective.
posted by Jeanne at 6:32 PM on June 11, 2015 [50 favorites]

I came in here to say what Jeanne said, so instead I've just flagged it as fantastic.

There's an abstract in Chinese at the end of this paper which might also help.
posted by wintersweet at 7:26 PM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not a teacher, but it strikes me that the parents are setting this child up to find language difficult and frustrating. Surely the kid will learn better in the long run if he's interested and engaged rather than resentful and overwhelmed?

(Does AP tests mean like US AP, advanced placement for college? In middle school, as in at 13 or so? I recognise there are probably some cultural differences at play here but I would really be concerned about a 5 year old already having his learning dictated by pressure to get into a good university!)
posted by Cheese Monster at 8:49 PM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

What's said above is correct, but here's a short (imprecise) way to say something like it:

He needs to develop a habit of flow and of expecting to understand what he reads. Once that's established, progress will happen naturally. If he develops the unconscious expectation that reading is a halting process in which he won't understand most of what passes in front of his eyes, that's a difficult habit to break. You want him to become immediately used to understanding what he reads, at reasonable speed, so that as the boundaries are gradually expanded, he will continue to expect this kind of success (even unconsciously) and will happily, eagerly do what's needed.

Another phrase: It's the "n + 1" approach, where the material the student is working on is just a little bit beyond what's completely comfortable. There's always pressure to learn and grow, but it's the correct amount, so that the student has all the tools needed _to_ learn in a natural way.

One other thing that might help make your case: it could help him a great deal later on if he can focus a lot on pronunciation _now_, while he's starting out, rather than just developing a huge vocabulary of words he's not sure how to pronounce. He could learn to read a lot, but have ingrained an awkward way of pronouncing most of them, which will really inhibit his abilities to work with native English speakers later on.
posted by amtho at 9:28 PM on June 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Chinese parents, esp. those who can afford tutors, are pushy. In the US they are often termed "tiger moms". Chinese expression applies: hoping for sons to be dragons, wishing daughters to be phoenixes. They often push children into tackling harder subjects, AP courses, skip grades, honors / magnet schools, and when the kid fail to maintain A's, hire tutors as if that would magically help.

This gets a bit touchy, because you go against the parents' wishes they'll just replace you with someone who is more "compliant" rather than someone good for their kid, i.e. "if you can't handle it I'll find someone who will! Clearly you're not GOOD ENOUGH to teach my kid!"

As I am Chinese, and I spent some early years in Taiwan, I am familiar with the mindset. And I also know it does NOT produce results, but it's all the parents know, as they were brought up that way.

Maybe you can work out a deal of some sort by making a PLAN. Explain to the parents that their kid right now is at level X. If they want their kid to read at level Y, the kid have to learn to progress to X+1, X+2, until the kid gets to Y. So you will teach the kid to reach reading level Y in Z weeks at the normal tutor rate. If the kid still haven't reached Y by end of Z weeks, you will tutor for FREE until he reaches reading level Y.

Obviously this will require some sort of objective test to assess the kid's reading level. But it should get them off your back (and the poor kid's back too, at least for a little while).
posted by kschang at 12:44 AM on June 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

Throw an unmodified piece of paper forcefully across a room and yell "Fly! Fly!" at it. Watch it awkwardly fall to the ground and make almost no progress in the direction you throw it.

Fold a second piece of paper into a paper airplane. This takes effort from you rather than the paper, as well as time, a lot more time, but lets you gently toss the paper plane in the correct way so that the plane will fly a good distance in the direction it's supposed to.
posted by amtho at 6:21 AM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a thought experiment (or if you can, actually do something like it) ask the parents, if you gave them a 300lb weight would they be able to lift it? What if you gave them a 10lb weight and ask them to lift it? Presumably they probably would have a lot of trouble or be unable to lift the 300lb weight. Ask them how they would go about becoming strong enough to lift that weight? Would they just keep trying to lift the 300lbs hoping they would eventually succeed, or would they work on weights they could handle and gradually increase the weight until they were strong enough? And then explain that studies show that the best way to learn a new language is like lifting weights where you are better off gradually increasing the difficulty.
posted by Green With You at 6:57 AM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

If these parents are so interested in "Knowledge," clobber them with pedagogical theory.

In other words, what Sweetchrysanthemum says. Another term to research would be "level of aspiration."
posted by Namlit at 7:04 AM on June 12, 2015

Reading books that are too difficult will make reading a chore instead of a pleasure.

He'll focus too much on the individual words and sentences and miss their meaning.
posted by maryr at 7:34 AM on June 12, 2015

The discussion of extensive reading and allowing the kid to get comfortable with the language is all good. So I'll just add this: when discussing this, one strategy would be to start by agreeing with the parents that "books aimed at 9-12 year old native speakers" is the goal, but the proper way to get the kid there is to start with lots of lower-level stuff because starting with lots of lower-level stuff will help the kid read higher-level stuff more quickly than struggling with the higher-level stuff right away. Than you can introduce what others have said as evidence that the kid ought to start with lower-level stuff for a few months. Basically, "You're totally right, and we're going to do what you said. Here's how we're going to get there, by starting at an appropriate level and building up." That will probably go over better than saying "I'd like to do something other than what you asked."
posted by Tehhund at 8:12 AM on June 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Also: this is why they are hiring a teacher rather than just setting their son loose in a library for 2 hours per day.
posted by amtho at 10:51 AM on June 12, 2015

Oh, and throw a cliche at the parents: 余速則不達 (If you tried to get there quickly, you may never get there)
posted by kschang at 12:56 PM on June 12, 2015

Just thought of something.

What does the kid like? Maybe you can ask the parents to substitute his regular cartoons or whatever with ENGLISH cartoons.

A lot of the classic animes, like Valkyria Chronicles, Initial D, etc. have fully English dub'ed versions. The idea is to get him accustomed to proper English pronunciations, and the cartoons generally don't use big words. :)

Oops, just remembered Valkyria Chronicles is NOT suitable for 6 year old. :-P
posted by kschang at 1:02 PM on June 12, 2015

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