By Graeme Keon
Working as a private English tutor I was often confronted with the problem of how to get the student in front of me to actually want to learn English. As any teacher knows, it can be pretty gruesome trying to teach a child who doesn't want to know.
It was fortunate that some parents were happy for me to take a fairly relaxed approach, allowing their children time to build up some affinity for the language and to discover its usefulness for themselves. Although the progress made in this direction isn't always reflected in test results in the short term, over time the improvement can be far above what anyone expected of the child. Many of my early students who were handled this way developed quite a liking for English, continuing to study it outside of class times and becoming very proficient in it. And for them, all kinds of doors have opened - social activities, job opportunites, overseas study, travel etc.
Other parents however, especially those who had already been engaged in a "battle of wills" with a supposedly lazy or rebellious child, were often desperate for improved test scores. In Taiwan especially, if a student continues to score below average then he won't make it into a prestigious high school or college, his job prospects will be severely limited and the writing is on the wall - his life is practically over before he even has a chance to start it. So in their viewpoint, I was an ally in their struggle to make the child finally knuckle down, do his homework diligently and get a decent score on his test - next week. A mother and father even announced to me once, "We give you permission to hit our son if he needs it." To me it was similar to someone taking their broken-down car to the mechanic and saying, "You have my permission to kick the wheels and dent the fender if it won't go." As with all such cases, if the student was not willing to learn something that was obviously useful, then there was something else that had to be addressed first.
For a time I tried to "walk the middle path" and do what I could for such families, with mediocre results. But as time went on and word of good results spread, I found parents coming to me who already understood that I took a different approach to teaching, so did not advise me on what or how I should teach. It made it easier to handle each student according to their particular situation, and things got easier. It confirmed my original notion that trying to overthrow a child's right to think for himself, only makes him worse. And that the real answer lay with the teaching approach, in what was being taught or how it was being taught.
It was the fact of having to explain these same things again and again that gave me the idea of putting it all in a book.
Thus I began to mull over what this would entail. Some were surprised that I chose a picture book rather than a thick, scholarly and authoritative work. At my writing speed I was not about to spend the next ten years attempting such a thing, but more importantly, after many discussions with parents and teachers over the years, I had observed a lot of confusion on this subject. Study difficulties were usually blamed on the wrong thing and there was no time to discuss it anyway - Johnny simply had to get a better score or he was toast! And how many people in this multimedia age can really understand a page of text? A picture, on the other hand, supposedly speaks a thousand words, and luckily, doesn't need translation. I was convinced that only a picture book would cut through all this.