Friday, January 30, 2004

the battle of wills

I've been tutoring my Korean buddy's sister, Mrs. Oh,* in English. She's been taking the TOEFL over and over (!!!) in an effort to improve her scores, and I was recruited to help her with her essay-writing technique. It's been pleasant, but today we hit our first significant conceptual impasse, and as is true in so many such cases, it's very much a matter of culture.

Toward the end of our hour, I told Mrs. Oh that her written English is great (which is true; and her spoken English is quite good, too), and that the main problem seemed to be time-budgeting. Mrs. Oh's general strategy, whether practicing for TOEFL essays or performing on the actual test, is to just sit down and write the essay. She almost always ends up not having enough time to finish, and so she rushes through the essay's final phases.

The technique I'm recommending to her is pretty much the one recommended to most Americans who've been in similar testing situations (think: AP tests in high school, or any number of blue-book exams in college): start with an outline. When you've got a skeletal framework for the main ideas of your essay, it's a lot easier to flesh them out and connect them logically.

Mrs. Oh's been taking the computerized TOEFL. She's allowed to have some scratch paper for brainstorming/scribbling, but apparently she never uses it-- a habit I'd like to change in her. When I suggested the outlining technique during our previous lesson, she seemed very receptive. But today, when I told her I'd be emailing her some essay topics at random throughout the week for her to practice outlining drills, she balked.

"But our teachers have told us that there are only 70 essay topics out of over 180 that are most likely to appear on the test!" she claimed. "I think I should be studying only for those!"

Being the blunt asshole that I am, and not being too interested in this style of learning, I told her flatly, "Ah, that's basically a memorizing technique. I'm trying to teach you a skill that's relevant to the test. If you learn this well, then it won't matter which topic appears in front of you come test time."

We went around and around on this subject for about ten minutes. She got up from the table and came back with a booklet to show me what she was talking about. It was one of those hastily-cobbled, faded-ink Korean publications hated by foreign teachers everywhere, presenting a very formulaic approach to the TOEFL-- and sure enough, it dealt with specific essay topics and rated them according to their frequency of appearance on TOEFLs past: three asterisks meant "very frequent," two asterisks meant "somewhat frequent," one asterisk meant "rare," and zero asterisks meant something like, "this question has never appeared on the exams"-- in other words, "Don't bother studying for this question. It'll never come up."

But as we flipped through the booklet, Mrs. Oh did a double-take, because every single essay question, we realized, was being dealt with via the outline technique-- the very approach I was telling Mrs. Oh to take! There it was, in black and white: the essay topic first, then some suggested ways to break the topic down in outline form. A-HAAAA!! BUSTED, YO!

I'm not sure whether Mrs. Oh got the point, but I'm going to plow ahead with the emailed exercises, anyway. She's a very pleasant woman in general (if a bit tightly-wound), and I don't really blame her for hesitating in the face of a new and perhaps alien method: I've vented plenty while learning Korean. But in my opinion, she needs to be divorced from the conviction that handling the 70 most frequent essays is the best method for approaching an essay test: it's one's technique that matters, not the specific content of each essay.

Mrs. Oh took the TOEFL this past Wednesday and will be taking it again in about a month. We'll see whether my outlining drills have any effect in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, we'll chalk today up as a slight dimming of the glow of our pedagogical honeymoon.


*Actually, she's Mrs. Kang, just like my buddy's last name (Kang Jang-woong), because Korean women usually retain their family names when they get married. But she insists that I call her Mrs. Oh, which is her husband's surname, because she feels this would be more of an American thing to do. I didn't want to get into the whole, "Most Americans would prefer to respect the Korean way of doing this" business, so now she's Mrs. Oh.


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