Archive for April, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Technology in the Grammar Class

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

When I lived in the USA, I had the pleasure of working at an intensive English program that embraces cutting edge technology. The department even has its own tech-guru to train teachers in the latest technological tools at their disposal.

Technology Heaven

Now, I don’t consider myself particularly tech savvy (I have to draw little pictures of the buttons I should press to make things happen), but I loved the way technology kept me better organized and made my life easier than before. For example, once I finally (after several semesters) mastered a new grade book program, I was able to spit out midterm and final grades in a fraction of the time with far fewer mistakes.

It was also at this time that I became a PowerPoint addict. The ability to create a lesson and then use it again and again in other lessons won me over! Even now, I am constantly looking back through PowerPoint lessons that are years old and copying and pasting slides into new presentations. You could say that I have been in tech heaven!

Technology Purgatory
Technology comes more slowly to some schools than others, however. The school at which I teach now is on the opposite end of the technological spectrum. We recently got TVs in all the classrooms and the teachers share one computer in the workroom that has internet access.

I am not complaining, mind you, I know there are many more challenging situations that teachers face all over the world. That said, it has been a slightly difficult adjustment. It’s kind of like a tech purgatory in that it’s nothing to complain about, but I sure do miss my ready-made class websites and internet access in the classroom.

Technology = Good Teaching?
This new situation has challenged my thinking about what it means to teach with technology. Was I a better teacher when I had access to the internet in my classroom? Do students care whether or not I prepare PowerPoint presentations, or is writing on the board enough? After 8 months of teaching English and learning French here, I can comfortably say that, while technology does not make us better teachers, it does make work easier for us and learning easier for the students.

Recently, my French teacher started showing her lessons (simply word documents) on the TV as well. Although they are exactly the same as what is written on the paper directly in front of us, I find looking at the TV screen easier. I feel more connected with the teacher and the other students when my head is not buried in a book, and it is infinitely easier to follow along when she is pointing at the screen and describing a grammar point than when she is holding up a paper and pointing at something. Being a student, in this case, has actually confirmed my intuitions about technology and teaching: it is an invaluable tool for teachers and students.

Technology = Good Teachers’ Materials
So, if so many teachers and students agree that technology is such a useful tool, why am I still burning the midnight oil creating PowerPoint presentations to accompany many of my texts? Why do I have to lug books home to scan their pages into my presentations so that my Beginner students know exactly what I mean by the “Grammar Spot blue box”? Why can’t every author follow Betty Azar’s example and provide interesting and clear PowerPoint presentations with her texts?

It would be SO nice if I could just plug a few of my own slides into a ready-to-go presentation and not spend hours hidden behind my battered, old Dell. Until the day that PowerPoint lessons automatically accompany Teacher’s Manuals and text websites full of interactive practice are available to students, I will continue to do it on my own.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Teaching Articles: A Listening Activity

By Anthea Tillyer
City University of New York

Founder, TESL-L Electronic Discussion Forum

Ah, articles. I love ’em! We should all love them because they keep us in business (along with prepositions, of course).

I have lost faith in teaching articles through reading, partly because if someone is reading well and fluently, they are not actually reading the articles (or most prepositions or other non-content words).

I think that listening is the best way to learn/teach articles. I mean, listening to native speakers in movies or shows or even speeches. One activity that is very popular (and successful) is with a piece of video – a very short piece, perhaps a commercial or two.

Before class, first make/get a transcript of the video; then remove all the articles and replace them with spaces or lines or whatever. Next, put some additional spaces before some of the plural nouns or non-count nouns where no article is needed, and then a few additional spaces or lines at random throughout the text. These latter ones are the “decoys” and that’s where most of the fun is.

In class, put the students in groups and invite them to insert A, AN, or THE in the appropriate places or leave the blanks blank. Of course, you have to explain that some of the blanks are just there as decoys. If the students are in groups of three, they can assign roles: one is the writer (of the group’s decisions about answers), one is the speaker (when it is time to share answers with the rest of the class), and one is the “explainer” (who will explain the rationale behind the group’s choices).

When all the groups have finished this activity, play the video and invite the students to check the choices they made for the blanks in the text against what they hear on the video. Then they can consult again. Finally, as a plenary activity, the class can go over the text and get the right answers.

You can also switch the order and play the video first and then have the students try to decide where the articles should go in the transcript.

Also, sometimes it is good to give the same text a week or so later, as a surprise follow-up, just to see if the knowledge “stuck”.

(Originally published by Anthea Tillyer as part of a TESL-L

Friday, April 17, 2009

Too Much Red Ink? Providing Feedback on Students’ Written Work

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

Fairly recently, William Ancker conducted a research survey of students’ and teachers’ attitudes to error correction. The survey was administered in 15 countries and the results reveal that 24% of teachers, but 78% of students, feel that all written errors (or mistakes) should be corrected.

I’d say his findings confirm many teachers’ assumptions about their students’ views on error correction. When it comes to written work, students tend to expect that most, if not all, of their mistakes will be pointed out. They want to know what they need to work on, and they expect us, the teachers, to give them detailed comments on their work.

Many teachers I’ve known have argued that a page strewn with corrections or comments may not only impact students’ motivation negatively, but may also cause students to be confused about the structure and content of their writing.

Meeting expectations without hindering learning

Is there a way to satisfy students’ expectations without hindering their learning? In my experience, two strategies can help achieve a balance here: establishing a healthy attitude towards mistakes (that is, one which views mistakes as learning opportunities), and using an effective method of pointing out mistakes.

This is the method I use:

1. I give my students a copy of a chart listing grammar problems which are common at their level. To familiarize them with the tool, I provide them with a short paragraph containing various errors, assign them to identify and correct those, and ask them to expand the chart by adding examples of grammar problems found in the paragraph.

The columns of the chart are labeled in the following way:


2. While correcting students’ written work, I underline problematic structures in the text and write symbols representing them in the margins. This is a fairly typical approach today. However, I also circle certain symbols. The purpose here is to indicate grammatical details that have been emphasized or specifically taught in previous lessons–those which students should be able to correct easily. In other words, I circle what I hope are mistakes (one-time slips), not actually errors (problems caused by students’ not knowing particular grammar structures yet).

Uncircled symbols suggest gaps or other issues. Students can learn the names of most of these by looking to the error chart, and then, if they wish, consult a grammar reference book to learn more about the issues. Students can also choose simply to wait for future lessons which address those grammatical issues.

3. As I discuss grammar points in class, I ask students to add new information to columns of the error chart, such as chapter and page numbers indicating the places in the textbook where certain points are covered.

Win-Win: Students get the feedback they want and the tools to self-correct

This method has worked well for me and my students on a few levels.

  • First, it allows me to give students the thorough feedback they generally expect.
  • Second, it alerts students to the mistakes they should be able to correct themselves. (Self-correction, it seems to me, is crucial to progress.)
  • Third, it affords students opportunities to investigate problem areas on their own. This encourages them to be independent in their studies and to go beyond what we do in the classroom.

I suppose we all feel awkward when we make a mistake and someone points it out, but if correction is done in a friendly, supportive and constructive way, I think we usually value it and appreciate the chance to remedy the problem, however small, and to increase our facility in writing. Sometimes progress lies on the other side of a blush (!).

Have you ever asked your students about their views on error correction? If so, what were their responses?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on Oral Correction

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

At a Sunshine State TESOL conference a year or two ago, I attended a session given by a professor from the University of Central Florida about methods of correcting of oral grammar. The paper presented was the result of a survey given to 80 community college students in Florida. They were asked which type of correction they preferred to receive from an instructor.

While I can’t remember the sample sentence used in the survey, the correction choices given to the students were as follows:

Student says “I go to the store yesterday.”

The choices:
  1. Rising intonation question (You go to the store yesterday?)
  2. Recast (I WENT to the store yesterday.)
  3. Explicit (Don’t say “go” for the past- say “went”)
  4. Metalanguage (Are you talking about the past or present? What has to change in your sentence if you are talking about the past? And, so, what is the past tense of the verb you want?)
The preferred correction method by a wide margin was method 4: metalanguage explanation. It seems that walking the student from the error through the correct answer is seen by students as being the most effective and the most “enjoyable,” if correction can be enjoyable.

We might jump to the conclusion that the preferred method was culturally related; however, the study included students from all different cultures, both low and high context. That got me thinking that maybe the preference bias had to do with educational level and goals. Maybe the fact that all the students were in community college meant they had developed a sense of what worked for them, or maybe being in community college meant they were getting strong and direct grammar instruction so the metalanguage was comprehensible and meaningful.

Personally, I use all four methods in my classes depending on the situation. Although I would never say “DON’T DO THAT — DO THIS,” but rather “Try this instead.” The metalanguage method logically seems that it would have the most permanent effect on learning, since students would know the “why” behind constructs and thus be able to correct themselves better in the future. It’s kind of like the Band-aid or surgery metaphor: going through a Socratic metalanguage approach addresses the root of the problem while an explicit correction or a recast merely puts a band-aid on the problem which will likely “erupt” again at another time.

The only problem I have with the metalanguage correction method is that it tends to single out a single erring student for what could be a long and tortuous questioning. I have gotten into downward spirals where I ask the student a leading question and he can’t answer. So I ask a more basic question, which it turns out he can’t answer either. Then I try a question from a different approach. By this time, the student just wants the ground to open up and swallow him, so I have probably now opened up the question to the entire class, trying to make it a class lesson instead of the single person focus it started out as. Still, that’s a pretty arduous process to be repeated X number of times in a 53-minute class!
My blogger colleague, Tamara Jones, recently related this experience:

“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 pose this for consideration:

What if one day, like a random quantum misfire, Tamara correctly said “aux”? This resulted in thunderous applause, in other words, positive reinforcement, which led to correct use of “aux” from that point forward? What if her new behavior wasn’t a result of the recast after all? Let’s face it — just because it’s “common sense” that correction will result in modified behavior . . . well, we’ve been wrong before! For a look at that very possibility, read What’s Wrong With Oral Correction.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I’d like to explain what I call “The Final -S Problem.” For a lot of teachers, it goes like this: “I teach my students when to use a final -s, and they can do it fine in a controlled exercise, but then when they talk or write freely, they go and make final -s errors!” Whereupon the teacher throws up his or her hands in despair and determines that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language.

It seems to me that those who would expect immediate mastery of grammar patterns perhaps confuse teaching language with teaching arithmetic — though, even in arithmetic, students get to make repeated mistakes without all arithmetic teaching judged to be ineffectual.

What gets missed in this equation is that grammar teaching provides a foundation for processing, for conceptual understandings of how a language works, and for developing skills — sort of the way music lessons provide a foundation for learning to play the piano. Learning a second language is far more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than it is to learning arithmetic.

In learning to play the piano, certain students — especially adults who are literate and educated — find cognitive understandings of concepts such as musical key and notation helpful to the process, despite the fact that no amount of cognitive awareness is going to make anyone able to play the piano immediately upon being given abstract information about it. Can you learn to play the piano without cognitive knowledge of musical form? Yes. But is such awareness helpful for many adult students, and does it speed the process for them? Yes, indeed.

“The Final -S Problem” is a metaphor representing the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

Here are the questions I ask myself about “The Final -S Problem,” and my answers.

Q: Is it harmful for students to know when a final -s is supposed to be used?
A: That seems highly doubtful.

Q: Do students want to use final -s correctly? Do they care?
A: In my experience, yes.

Q: Is grammar information about the use of final -s helpful to students?
A: Yes. On a practical level, it helps students self-monitor, understand marked errors in their writing, catch a recast (students with a grounding in grammar often show that they “get” a recast with a look that says, “Ah, right.”), use a writing handbook, and make sense of dictionary notations such as mosquito, n., pl. –toes, –tos. More importantly, attention to final -s raises students’ awareness, making them more likely to notice it in what they hear and read.

Q: Are grammar concepts such as singular and plural useful?
A: From my observations both as a language teacher and a language student, yes. If I were to undertake learning Urdu, I know that I would like to understand how singular and plural are marked. And I also know that I’d like to be able to find that explicit information without having to figure it out completely by myself.

Q: Does information about using final -s help students reach fluency and accuracy in its usage?
A: In my experience, ESL students in my freshman English class who had spent four years at an American high school with no grammar component and with fossilized ungrammaticality underperformed (in accuracy within fluency, as well as rhetorical skill in writing and ability to comprehend academic English in readings) compared with students who had had a grammar component in their home countries (as well as in our IEP prior to their enrolling in freshman English). So, in my observation, the answer to the question is yes.

Q: Are there longitudinal studies showing that students who have grammar instruction in the use of final -s develop better usage than those who do not?
A: I think longitudinal studies are very much needed in the area of eventual (not immediate) mastery of grammar structures, comparing ELLs with no grammar component in their long-term instructional program with those who do have a significant grammar component.

Q: Is practice helpful?
A: Practice in a classroom context can instill confidence, encourage risk-taking, give students opportunities for experimentation, and lead to successful communication experiences. (A grammar base can easily lead to communicative activities. A lot of meaningful communication goes on in a grammar-based class.) But does practice guarantee mastery? No. (If it did, I wouldn’t still be hitting F-natural when I should be hitting F-sharp on the piano.) Grammar teaching simply lays the groundwork and helps speed the process in adults and young adults. Anyone learning a second language as an adult (which is different in a number of obvious ways from a child learning a first language) needs lots of input and experience using the language. Grammar-based instruction provides just a little help along the way.