Archive for March, 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

If Not Mastery, What?

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

I am often confounded by how much time to spend in class on a grammar point. My early training taught me to focus as much time as needed for students to get it–”get it” meaning being able to call up and meaningfully use the structure in free production. However, from further study, different books and papers I have read, and from lectures from instructors and researchers far more knowledgeable than I, it seems most experts in the field agree that students don’t “master” a grammar point at the time it is presented but rather in their own time.
Yet even if the students are able to use the structure fairly well in class by the third lesson, that doesn’t mean they use it error-free for the rest of their lives. We’ve all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes. Does this imply that if the majority of my students are able to form and use a grammar structure at the end of three lessons, that I shouldn’t waste my time spending four or five lessons on it? After all, we are on a fixed semester and have a curriculum to cover.

Clearly the structure won’t become automatic after three hours, nor is it likely to after five hours. If my goal can not be mastery (that is, repeated and automatic production of a grammar point without delay from obvious monitoring), what is my new goal? When is good enough. . . good enough?

I don’t buy the argument that learners will never be error-free. I’ve had non-native speaking professors who conducted classes for hours without a single spoken error and we know famous personalities who speak accented, yet grammatically perfect English. So I’m not talking about giving up my early dreams of student “mastery” because it is unattainable. It is, however, very impractical.

Life’s reality is that students don’t have unlimited time to reach the level of English they need for a goal--a job, college entry, grad school, whatever. As a result, instructors perform a kind of linguistic triage, deciding either at the classroom or the program level, what grammar to teach when. But surely we have to rely on more than a calendar to help us decide when it is time to move on to a new grammar point in the class, leaving behind one that may get a bit of recycling over the remainder of the semester.

Curriculum, assessment, objectives. Objectives, curriculum, assessment. It’s not as smooth as the teacher training books imply. There’s a lot of egg-chicken-egg going on. But since I have relinquished mastery as my goal, I remain stumped at how to define success. Is passing a test going to become the end goal of my course? Or perhaps increased awareness of grammar? Or maybe the ability to produce structures in class under guidance? How will I know if my students have been successful in my class?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Striving for Fluency: Crafty Tricks, Inevitable Pitfalls, and Productive Approach

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com
As a beginning language learner, I remember knowing many classmates who seemed able to talk indefinitely in English without pausing. If they paused, it was not because they had to, but to extend some measure of courtesy to other students. After all, it was only fair to let everyone contribute to our conversations.

But how many of us did, in fact, speak up regularly, without embarrassment, with pure abandon, pushed by the heavy thought that we would never be fluent unless we practiced? Not too many. We were shy by nature and rather inhibited by what we thought were flawless performances of our fluent classmates. But, still determined to speak up, many of us developed crafty tricks in order to sound more fluent and more skilled. How many of these do you recognize?

  • Learn a word which sounds quite sophisticated and “plug it in” whenever possible (I had a friend whose sentences always included the word appreciate. He seemed to be grateful for lots of things.)
  • Learn a few longer phrases, even sentences, and make them fit whatever topic is being discussed
  • Use abbreviations, clipped forms, and contractions (Cause was quite popular at the time)
  • Instead of boring the listener with an unending chain of “umm” and “ahh,” use phrases such as “Now, let’s see,” or “How can I put it into words?”

A Pile of Pitfalls

While the last trick on the list seemed to work quite well, the others turned out to be nothing but pitfalls, making us more nervous and, in fact, less fluent. Finding ways to make the “big” word or “the perfect sentence” fit the context of the conversation was not just exhausting, but certainly unnatural. Intertwining piles of abbreviations and contractions with long pauses didn’t seem to serve any communicative purpose, except for irritating the listener, perhaps. “It’s … ‘cause…umm… they’ve… ahh… well, …no…. they’d… umm…” would test any listener’s patience.

Most of those tricks did not work well. The idea of creating those, however, testified to our serious, maybe obsessive, interest in becoming truly fluent. We wanted to reduce our number of pauses and repetitions, create undisturbed runs of words, and use connected speech naturally.

The Real Secret of Becoming Fluent

Interestingly, what did help many of us reach higher levels of fluency was exposure to tasks focused on accuracy. Because of our concern with the quality of language we produced and, consequently, with the effectiveness of our communication skills, some emphasis on accuracy allowed us to develop greater fluency. Knowing that we were using appropriate structures and words, we were much more willing to speak up, explore, and experiment with the language.

And so, in our case, accuracy seems to have been not just any component of fluency, but its foundation. Focusing on communication skills is crucial in language learning; being able to use language appropriately is also a part of meaningful and successful communication for both native and non-native speakers.

I’ll end by encouraging you to read an article by Fangyuan Yuan and Rod Ellis “The Effects of Pre-Task Planning and On-Line Planning on Fluency, Complexity and Accuracy in L2 Monologic Oral Production.”

Their findings suggest that a balance between fluency and accuracy can be achieved when students are given time, even brief moments, to conceptualize, plan, articulate, and monitor their oral performance. What I found particularly interesting about this study was the exercise the authors used to research the effects of planning on fluency and accuracy in learners’ oral performance. I think that the task, which involved participants in narrating a story, would work very well as an activity promoting both fluency and accuracy in many EFL/ESL classrooms.

Do you know of any useful strategies for teaching fluency and accuracy in tandem?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What’s the Best Way to Correct?

Tamara Jones
jonestamara@hotmail.com
SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Recently there have been several blogs about the importance of correcting errors. Students beg for it, and teachers know it is an essential part of language learning. So, if we all agree that corrective feedback is helpful, what are our options? How can we best address student mistakes? In terms of correcting spoken errors, we have several options:

Correction Definition Example: “He go.”
recasts repeat with correction “He goes.”
confirmation checks request meaning clarification by supplying corrected form “Did you mean he goes?”
explicit overt explanation and correct form “No, not he go.You want to use the 3rd person singular.He goes.”
repetition repeat the error with emphasis “He go?”
clarification questions signal a lack of understanding “I don’t understand.”
metalinguistic clues overt explanation without correct form “That’s not correct.You need to use the third person singular.”

As a teacher, I have used each of these methods at various times in my many years in front of a class. As a French student, I have (depressingly often) been on the receiving end of a variety of these correction techniques as well.

For the first several weeks of my French class, I repeatedly said “dans les Etats-Unis” when I referred to my life in the USA. My teacher patiently recasted and recasted and recasted: “aux Etats-Unis.” It was almost like a running joke in the class, but for some reason, I just could not get it right … until one glorious day when I just remembered. The entire class applauded, and since that day, I have said it correctly. Although researchers have often doubted the effectiveness of recasts, I am living proof that our patience is not in vain. I think the key is to keep them short and emphasize the correction.

Your Error for All to See

Another error correction strategy that my French teacher is fond of using is a variation of metalinguistic clues. When she hears an error and doesn’t want to interrupt, she writes it on the board. I do this, too, with my students. There is something about seeing the mistake that makes it easier to correct, most of the time. I use this a lot with my private lesson students, so I can offer the error correction they want and avoid the dreaded accusation that I am not helping them, but not interrupt the flow of speech unnecessarily. Some students have gotten so good, they actually correct themselves when they see me pick up my pen.

What Works for You?

In the end, we need to think about the preferences of our students and our own personalities as teachers. I would be interested to hear which of the above techniques you have used successfully or unsuccessfully, and which you have been on the receiving end of. In other words, what do you prefer as a teacher and a student?


Lyster, R., & Ranta, L. (1997) Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 37-66.

O’Relly, L.V., Flaitz, J. and Kromrey J. (2001) Two Modes of Correcting Communicative Tasks: Recent Findings. Foreign Language Annals, 34/3, 246-257.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Confessions of a Recovering Control Freak

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA
It’s hard for me to surrender control in my life, including my classroom. (You catch that “my”? I’m not kidding here.) Even though my conscious self knows that studies show empowering students leads to more student satisfaction and adult learners need a say in their learning, the insecure inner me yearns to micromanage my classes, doling out pages and assignments like the last M & Ms in a lifeboat.

Admitting a problem truly is the first step on the road to recovery because now I am on a mission to give my students more say, more choices, more control of their studies in “my” courses. Proud in my recovery process, I just wanted to share a few small steps that I took as I started out.

1. I gave students several topics to choose from in preparing presentations and writing papers, or sometimes they come up with one completely on their own. (It took a weekend with the shades drawn to calm down after that.)

2. In a thick textbook that we never get through, students get to pick chapters with topics that interest them. (OK, I chose 7 of the 15 and they choose 2, but it’s a good start.)

3. I allow students to “blow off” their choice among certain homework and assignments. (The tremors are much better now.)

4. Students are permitted to look at incoming text messages during class. They aren’t allowed to answer them, but when they feel that vibration, do you think they are thinking about class anymore? No way! Better to take a quick glimpse and then shut it off until break time. (No one can actually hear my teeth grinding, I’ve been told.)

5. I use every possible excuse to have a student man the instructor station and show a paper on the projector or type on the computer for all to see. I might even stand in the back of the class and ask a student to be at the “controls”, pointing out items for the class to look at or comment on. (And I absolutely resist the urge to shout out Focus! Zoom in! The paper is upside down! Oddly enough, they figure it out without me.)

6. In an advanced level reading course, my greatest challenge because reading can be so teacher focused if an effort isn’t made, I incorporated a regular “You Be The Teacher” activity. In this totally student- centered activity, the class learned about the Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan, the problems with building a space station on Mars, issues regarding the Mexican border fence, and how dogs evolved into the hundreds of species we have today, among other interesting topics. Students delved deeply into their articles and became confident with every paragraph. It was very successful as far as student engagement, and I think it caused them to focus carefully on discerning important details from filler. But the best thing about this “letting go” was seeing how involved the students were as they worked on authentic readings of their own choice.

As I hand over more classroom control to the students, I feel we are becoming more like partners in their learning, which is what I had always told them we were. But now I am also walking the walk!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Using Student-Created Material

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

Don’t tell them what they can tell you.

This advice was pinned to a cork board in a classroom where I was taking one of my EFL Teaching Methodology courses. At that time the suggestion sounded intriguing, but somewhat unrealistic. Now, fifteen years later, I know it is far from impractical.

Still, I have discovered recently that there is another dimension to that teaching suggestion:

Don’t prepare materials which students can prepare themselves.

I know. It may sound as if I’m trying to avoid one of the teacher’s basic chores: lesson preparation. Well, not this time. In fact, following that motto, I must admit, has added minutes to my lesson planning time, but it has been worth the effort.

I engage students in creating lesson material in two ways, for two reasons.

  1. I use student-created material as a springboard for introducing and practicing new grammatical structures.

    Whenever possible, before introducing a new grammar point, I ask students to create material incorporating an already familiar structure, one that we can build on. I find that students are regularly motivated by tangible evidence of their progress. Clear, objective, and immediate proof of their progress is provided when they can compare their original work to a “new-and-more-advanced” version. It is very concrete, and as such, it brings them a feeling of perceptible accomplishment.

  2. When the original material is in its more advanced version, I use it as a basis for allowing students the opportunity to become expert peer reviewers.

    As we know, teaching a new concept can be very self-instructive. (How many of us really understand the intricacies of some grammar point mostly because we have had to teach it – and appear confident while doing so?) I have noticed a wonderful tendency: as peer-reviewers, students want to provide accurate and thorough feedback. At times, that feeling of responsibility sends them back to their notes, prompts them to discuss the issue with a partner, and encourages them to give that new grammar structure some extra attention. And because that drive is psychologically authentic, it puts students’ learning in a meaningful, and therefore, productive context.

Let me add here that most student-created work is used anonymously in class. It is also submitted electronically, which allows me to create worksheets more easily. I’d like to share with you an activity I have used which incorporates students’ ideas: Lesson on Reduced Adverb Clauses

I always look for new ways of using student-created material in my lesson planning. Do you know of any? How do you incorporate students’ ideas into the teaching of grammar?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Drilling for Language

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

The first time I studied a foreign language was in 5th grade, when my family lived in Geneva, Switzerland. My brother and I attended a private school where we essentially learned French all day, except when we were pulled out for sewing and needlework (girls) or shop (boys) or sports (everyone).

Fresh off the plane, my brother and I began at the beginning: the alphabet, simple greetings, numbers, colors, then verb conjugations.

We completed one lesson in the textbook each day, and the next day were called individually to the blackboard to take a quiz, either oral or written on the board. We were graded instantly, in front of the class.

Classwork consisted mainly of copying out verb conjugations a number of times, completing written exercises, memorizing vocabulary lists, and answering surprise drill questions fired out by the teacher when we least expected it.

Life in the ‘Language Lab’

Every now and then we went off to a dark little room—I guess some precursor to the “language lab”—where we’d watch filmstrips that advanced one frame at a time. A slide would come up, we’d listen to the French, repeat it in chorus, and *beep*! The next slide would come.

Years later, when I was in graduate school, it seemed fashionable to mock the audio-lingual method, rote memorization, drills, choral repetitions, and the teacher-centered classroom. Certainly a lot of what people were saying about a student-centered, communicative classroom did sound more appealing. A gentler, more human approach. Empowering. And yet… and yet… I did learn French, fluently. You could argue that some of that could have been due to my being 11 and living in a French-speaking environment for five months. But to this day I remember those film strips down to the word—and that was 34 years ago (oh, go ahead, do the math, I don’t mind).

  • Où est-ce que vous habitez, Jacques? (*beep*!)
  • J’habite rue de la Poste (*beep*!)
  • En face du cinéma. (*beep*!)

And yes, I have the accent and intonation down too. A frequent criticism of the audio-lingual method is that students can’t substitute freely and correctly with the patterns to make original sentences; yet that certainly wasn’t true for me or my brother.

More Fun, Less Learning

Japanese was my second foreign language. I studied for one semester at a college in Oregon. Our teacher had us memorize a dialogue every day, practice repeatedly with a partner, and recite it in class the next day for a grade. Later, in Japan, I took classes that were much more communicative. And while they were more fun, I never seemed to make any actual progress with learning the language. Even after living there for five years, the vocabulary and patterns I know best are those I learned in the US from constant drilling and memorization.

I later watched my husband struggle with his Japanese class. “What do you want to learn?” asked the teacher. My husband asked for a lesson on food because he was in charge of the grocery shopping. The teacher obligingly handed out a list of what must have been every vegetable ever eaten in Japan, as well as many that have never crossed its shores, and then asked the class (in Japanese), “What are your favorite dishes?” Of course no one could answer, since no one knew the words “favorite” or “dishes, ” let alone how to describe them using only a list of ingredients. The class continued with more “discussion questions” about food, and my husband came home very frustrated.

The Payoff Is Worth the Price

I asked him what he would have preferred. He said (yes, my husband Mr. Visual Learner and General Touchy-Feely Guy) that he would have liked a few short dialogues to memorize and then to have recited them for the entire lesson, doing just simple substitutions, until he had the material memorized cold. He conceded that it would have been dull—but said the payoff of learning the material would have been more than worth it.

Now, I’m not advocating a boring classroom, or saying there’s no place for open-ended discussion or even “free conversation.” But I do think that when communicative language teaching came into fashion, the baby might have been thrown out with the bathwater. If our students want to learn English, then really, what is going to please them most is actually learning English—even if that means some drills, repetitions, and memorization, or even the teacher leading the class sometimes (imagine!). I don’t underestimate the part a relaxed and enjoyable classroom atmosphere can play in a student’s mood and motivation. However, it’s OK to trade some momentary fun in class today for students really knowing some language at the end of the course.