Why do Smart High School 3rd Graders Fail English?

This is the question that Shino and I have been asking ourselves. Why are there smart high school 3rd graders who struggle in English class? It’s a sore point for many adults that end up thinking there weren’t very smart or just didn’t have a good head for languages.  Neither is true. Everyone can learn a second language. You don’t have to be a genius and you don’t have to be born with it.

Does the following sound familiar:

While sitting in class the teacher is talking about a new grammar point. They are using lots of Japanese phrases you have never heard of to describe this new grammar point. You are having difficulty understanding but you feel like you can’t ask a question. You think, maybe it will make sense at the end of the lesson. It doesn’t though. You talk to the teacher after class but the explanation still doesn’t make sense. You go home and try reading the textbook. Maybe you can teach it to yourself.middle-school-high-school-comic1.jpg

I had a similar experience in grade 11 (high school grade 2). I chose to study Chemistry for my final two years. I had always gotten high marks in Science. In fact I found science easy. In that first year though I failed my first test. To make it worse my teacher posted the results of the test on the wall at the back of the room. I felt horrified and stupid. To make things worse the teacher was the type of teacher who didn’t like students who said that they didn’t understand. I thought what is wrong? Why can’t I understand? I studied the textbook every night after that, reading the same pages over and over again. The next test I passed.

That was science though. Science has a simple logic that you can follow. Learning a language is different to learning science. It is not easy to self-study in a language. I know because I have been studying Japanese for years bouncing from one terrible textbook to the next. Sorry to say, but there are no good Japanese textbooks. Most of them are drill books. You don’t learn to communicate by using a drill book. With a good book though, you can self study. The problem is that the high school English textbooks are not designed for self study. You cannot just read them and understand.

Let’s continue that story from above:

You study at home reading the textbook over and over again. You try to complete the drills but you don’t understand how to get the right answer. You get to the test and you try to answer it. When you get it back you find you only got 20 our of 100. You look through your answers. Wrong spelling, wrong word order, incorrect word. You ask the teacher about it and she gives you the correct answer, but you don’t know why it’s correct. You try reading the textbook again. The textbook is getting harder and it still doesn’t make any sense. You talk to your parents about it. They shrug their shoulders and say “I was the same.”

If this is you, you are stuck in a cycle that you can’t get out of by yourself. The longer you are in this cycle the harder it will be to break. I’ve had lots of grade three students come to me with saying they can’t understand English but they want to do well on the university tests. They say that when they got to high school it was too hard and they started failing. I always say that I will try my best but you should have come to me earlier.

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