How to be wrong when you are right.

Sometimes my students of junior high school age bring me their school tests to have a look at. I praise or commiserate as appropriate and then, when they have gone home, I go bright red and get all blustery and angry as I rant to my poor wife about how it is little wonder so few people here develop any confidence in speaking English.

Today’s blood-pressure raising annoyance was the all too common occurrence of a student writing an answer that is absolutely correct and being marked as wrong because it isn’t the answer the teacher had in mind. I have seen a child have the word ‘dad’ marked wrong (it should have been ‘father’), and the answer, ‘I am from Tokyo,’ marked wrong as an answer to, ‘Where are you from?’ (it should have been ‘I am from Japan.’) to give just two previous examples. This time, a student was supposed to answer a question on a test with the phrase,  ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ but the student wrote, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ and was marked wrong. Now perhaps, perhaps if what they were doing was attempting a direct and extremely inflexible translation (and those certainly seem to be the most popular kinds here) I could see the teacher’s point. But they weren’t doing that. They were asked to insert an appropriate phrase for asking if the caller wanted the unavailable person to return the call. And I think, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ is just fine in that regard.

Now, I know teachers have to teach to tests and have an eye on entrance exams and whatnot. I don’t blame them for an educational system that means communicative competence has to take a back seat to fill in the blank exercises or the existence of ‘oral communication’ classes in which there is no speaking. I’m not ranting that everything must change and now! I am simply stating that students who are at least making admirable attempts to do well and writing good, correct English should be allowed the small joy of being rewarded for their efforts. What good is there in knocking the confidence out of a teenager who comes to realise he not only has to learn a language, he also has to guess the one and only correct answer out of many possibilities? Or perhaps he doesn’t have to guess. I haven’t checked but perhaps the question, ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ was the one in the textbook and therefore the correct one to remember. But you just can’t be that rigid, for heaven help the students when they try to speak to real people and discover that those people might not engage in conversation entirely in phrases from a Japanese English text book. Mind you, I suppose it might be quite nice if they did, as Japanese people’s English communicative ability would suddenly improve immensely, almost like a magic.

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7 Responses to How to be wrong when you are right.

  1. kamo says:

    Are these JHS kids? This kind of inflexibility and pedantry seems to be much more common at that level. We’re just winding down from the 3rd grade exam season at SHS and all the teachers I work with are far more flexible about ‘acceptable’ English usage, as are the exams they’re aiming at. Even with the stricter translation questions there’s usually a range of acceptable answers. (This means I’ve been bombarded with questions for the last month but hey, that’s what I get paid for.) My impression is that JHS English teachers in general have significantly lower English abilities than SHS ones, and many lack the confidence to say whether a non-mandated answer might be ‘correct’ or not. Doesn’t make it any less annoying, of course.

    • You’re absolutely right – much of it is due to the confidence or lack thereof in the English teachers. They’re not sure what is ‘right’ and so tend to stick with whatever answer is on their example answer sheet. Of course, there are exceptions. I teach a junior high teacher of English and constantly get phone calls asking whether such and such is an acceptable answer because she wants to give them points when they are correct. Just wish more were that flexible, (but not to the extent that any call me at home.)

  2. kamo says:

    Ah, I now see that you do in fact address my first question in your opening sentence. Good job I’m not paid for my close reading skills or anything, eh?

    *cough* *mumble*

  3. Japanisu says:

    I totally understand your frustration. I currently work as an ALT at a junior high school in Japan and while grading speeches/tests consistently run into annoying problems. The problem with the educational system here in regards to English is that they follow the textbook to the T which unfortunately is almost entirely wrong. I’ve encountered quite a few errors throughout the textbooks in first, second, and third year books. It makes me really question how the board of education went about organizing these books. They most certainly did not consult someone who is a native English speaker or native in both English and Japanese which is infuriating and I also find it to be a bit naive and hypocritical. Japan is really pushing English education and focusing on being ‘global’ yet they can’t even create proper textbooks? When I first arrived here I heard that their focus was specifically on American English but if they learn it wrong then what’s the point? Even the English teachers I work with at the school are frustrated with it because they’ve been abroad, studied in America, and know how English should be taught, but they can’t teach it that way because Japan also has issues involving exams which consequently also follow the textbook. Anyways, at the end of the day I just tell myself ‘well, as long as they pass the exams that’s the important part, they can learn about how wrong it is later when exams aren’t important.’

    • Yes, that about sums it up! Often you are not supposed to (or maybe not even allowed to) use English not covered in the textbook. There are lots of problems though. Another minor one at my local school is that every kid thinks a ‘Who..?’ question must be answered with ‘(person) + is or are’. They say they have been taught this. Fine if the question is “Who is in the park?” or something, but they lose points if they answer ‘Tom’ rather than ‘Tom is.’ Okay, I can sort of see where they are coming from with that type of question using the verb ‘to be’, but almost all of those same students now answer a question like, ‘Who cleans the house?’ with, ‘My mum is.’ It’s either a failure to explain by the teacher or a failure to understand by almost every single first year junior high student in my local area. Which, I suppose, amounts to the same thing.

  4. I’m curious what would happen if you just took the immature approach and acted like the Japanese teacher was crazy for marking something as incorrect that was clearly correct.

    • I’m not sure. I’m not working with these teachers so have no contact with them. I just get to see what they have marked as right or wrong when the students show me their tests. But I’ve heard you often don’t get far by interfering at all. But as mentioned above, I think the most defensive and least open to discussion teachers tend to be the ones with least confidence in their own ability. It doesn’t excuse them, but I sort of understand their feeling.

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