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“Writing tasks were monsters who often invaded my nightmares. English is not our mother tongue, so, despite their best intentions, my parents could not help me directly.  It was in Year 7 that I decided to confront these monsters and defeat them.” (Habiba, Year 8, ESL)

In Year 8, Habiba Mohamed won the Spelling Bee, was voted the Bookworm (a book review competition) and declared the best speaker in annual inter-school debate competition. Until the previous year, she was struggling to get even a C in English. Her friends, teachers and parents were ecstatic but not surprised with these accolades. They had seen it coming. Here’s an interview with Habiba that explores her transformation journey.

JoinIvy – What motivated you to focus on English, among other subjects?

Habiba – I hated English. I started fine in the early years when we learnt phonics and spellings in school but suddenly, I do not recollect exactly which year group, I started getting scared of the subject – may be when we started doing reading comprehension and writing tasks. I made mistakes even in forming simple sentences. My spellings were frequently wrong.

But I liked History and Science. However, I could not write all I wished to write because of my restricted vocabulary and ability to pen thoughts into sentences. I realised that hating English was not an option because it affected my ability to express myself and excel in other subjects. I think that realisation was a turning point.

JoinIvy – What role do you think your parents and teachers played in this transformation?

Habiba – Writing tasks were monsters who often invaded my nightmares. English is not our mother tongue, so, despite their best intentions, my parents could not help me directly. Moreover, they are busy with their work. However, they always tell me that if I set on a path, I should keep walking even if I do not see immediate results. This value helped me to stay committed.

I am really thankful to Ms. Catherine who guided me along the path – she asked me to start with writing one sentence at a time, learning one spelling at a time, one new word… and then building on, slowly. I think, the rule of 1 did the magic for me. 

JoinIvy – Could you elaborate on the rule of 1?

Habiba – It is simple. Every day, I would read 1 short passage, learn 1 new word, memorise 1 new spelling and make 1 sentence with it. This required about fifteen minutes work after my homework, so it was manageable, both in terms of time and effort. The key is however, to do it every day, including the weekends. After a few days, my grasping power started increasing and I could take in more than 1. It is helpful if there is a teacher or a mentor who can guide in terms of selection of passages or reading material, give feedback and generally keep you on the course.

JoinIvy – What tips would you give to the students with English as second language?

I think it is very important to use the language with your friends and teachers, even for casual conversations – during lessons we sometimes prefer to clarify doubts by talking in our mother tongue because it is comfortable. If you are learning how to swim, you cannot walk at the side of the pool hoping to learn your strokes. Similarly, you have to use the language as much as you can.

For writing, if you have no help, start by copying short passages in your own handwriting. When you write, you are bound to pay attention to spellings and vocabulary. 

Reading books in the language you are learning is essential, because only then you notice usage of tenses & vocabulary, and start developing fluency & comprehension.

It is helpful if you process the feedback that teachers give on your work; sometimes students ignore it although teachers make a lot of effort in marking the work and highlighting areas for improvement.

It helps to do your writing homework and submit on time – even if you feel you are unable to do it as well as you would like to. Just sticking to homework schedule sets a target and if you read the feedback to your homework, you can work on improvements in the next assignment.

Basically, be slow but be regular.

JoinIvy – Thank you Habiba. You are an exemplary student.  Our best wishes for your future endeavours.