Summer is here, and business is booming at First Step. More students have signed up for my first and second grade classes than I can teach, and fifty more are on a waiting list for our normal classes. Nearly every day, more students and parents are visiting or asking about our school. There is an unfortunate downside, however.

For some reason, regardless of how terrible their children’s English is, parents won’t just sign them up for a new class that starts from lesson one. Instead, they pretty much all take an entrance test to try to get into a more advanced class. So far, less than five percent of the students who have taken it have passed and been able to start from a second semester class. Sadly, few of the parents can accept this fact without spending 10-20 minutes pressuring me to put their kids in a higher level after having just seen their kids fail horribly. It absolutely blows my mind.

The entrance test includes an oral component and a written component. For we use an old semester one exam, minus the grammar section. The spoken part, which is what I base most of my decision on, is broken into three parts. In the first part, I ask the student several simple questions, such as “What’s your name?”, “Are you a boy?”, “Will you swim at school tomorrow?”, and “Is this your pen?”. Before starting, I tell the student to ask me if he/she doesn’t know what a word means, and during any tough parts of the test I try to figure out why a kid can’t answer. Next, is a spelling section. I say various words, mostly monosyllabic, and the kid has to spell them out phonetically. As always, I accept anything that’s phonetically equivalent to what I said. I start with simple words, such as “hat”, “hut”, “lack”, “leak”, “far” and “fair”; and then I get into more difficult words, such as “motion”, “weight (don’t use a)”, “bellow”, and “below”. This section is mostly to determine how well the student can tell various sounds apart, but the more difficult words also test familiarity of phonics rules. After the spelling section, is a reading section, in which the student has to sound out various words. Ideally, these words are all new to the student. I use this section to see what sorts of pronunciation and phonics problems a student has.

Since most students new to my school have only learned spelling through brute-force memorization, they really tend to struggle with the spelling section of the test. Quite a few have also been taught by Taiwanese teachers with fairly weak pronunciation skills, and they really tend to struggle with sounding out words in the last section. So, baring a complete catastrophe in those sections, I usually focus my attention more on how they do in the first section. Some of the students who were able to start from the second semester had fairly weak phonics, but were able to get caught up through taking some extra review classes on the side, and putting in a lot of extra time on CD homework. The truly frustrating entrance tests are those in which the kid bombs everything, and the parents are too proud to accept it… in other words, about half of them. Here’s a typical conversation:

Me: We’ll put little Johnny in a new class.
Parent: A new class?!? Do you mean from lesson one?
Me: Yes. He failed every part of the entrance test.
Parent: How about if we just review with him at home. Then could he start from a second year class?
Me: Well… if you can teach him the entire first year’s material on your own, then I guess you don’t really need my help. If his English is greatly improved when you bring him back, though, I’ll put him in a higher level.
Parent: Nononono, I mean have him start from the advanced class NOW and we’ll review at the same time.
Me: He couldn’t understand the words “walk”, “will”, “did”, or “lazy”. The second year class is reading a book about Amundsen and Scott’s race to the South Pole. How will he be able to get anything out of that class!??
Parent: Well, he’s already studied for four years at Hess. It would be a waste to start from a first year class now.
Me: Will it matter to anybody how good his English is when he’s grown up?
Parent: Of course!
Me: Will it matter to any of those people whether he studied here for three years or four in order to get to that point?
Parent: Uhmm…
Me: Look. I know how you feel. He’s spent a lot of time in class, and it’s frustrating to “start over”. But, all of the English he’s already learned is still useful. We really just need to fix up the weak points before pressing onward. It’s like building a house. If the ground floor is falling apart, can you just ignore it and start building a second floor? No, you’ve got to make sure the foundation is solid first.
Parent: Well… I suppose so.

In the end, they usually sign up for whatever class I suggest. The extended conversations it takes to get them to sure gets old quickly, though.. especially considering it’s unpaid work.