Archive for May, 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tenses: They Work Well in Groups

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

When I heard that by the end of the EFL class in which I was enrolled I would have learned sixteen tenses, I had ambivalent feelings. The number sounded discouragingly huge, but comfortingly specific. At the time I imagined that the challenge of mastering them all would lie in remembering their various forms and meanings. A few tenses later, I realized that the difficulty lay rather in deciding which tense to use on a given occasion.

Timelines and lists of time adverbials commonly used with specific tenses definitely cleared up some of my confusion. Still, differentiating between the two Present Perfect tenses, for example, was a Herculean task. Can I blame my puzzlement on, as Ralph Walker points out, “the nature of these two tenses, which are neither wholly present nor wholly past, but paradoxically both present and past”? ( )

Do your students struggle to understand the use of Present Perfect tenses as well? What truly helped me sort out my “tense confusion” were activities which combined the use of various tenses.

Going Beyond Tense Pairs

Teachers often use activities which contrast two related tenses, but it seems that tasks requiring students to use three, four, or even five tenses can do the trick more effectively. Students not only practice the forms and demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of each tense, but, by having to switch tenses, they learn when each is appropriately used.

Five Tenses: Sample Activity

One of my favorite “tense-decision” exercises is based on an information gap activity created by Nick Hall and John Shepheard more than fifteen years ago. In this activity, called “Ups and Downs,” students work with four tenses. In my slightly modified version of the task, students practice five tenses: Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Future Perfect.

Students work in pairs and are given two versions of a line graph presenting one trend, such as a trend in DVD sales, inflation rates, road accidents, crime rate, or online shopping, but each version is missing some information. (Here is an example: tenses.chart.pdf) The students’ task is to complete both versions of the graph so that each is identical to the other and so that it is clear what trend the chart represents. While working on the task, students need to decide which tense they should use when asking their partner questions about the missing information. Here are a few sample questions and answers.

Q: What happened to the crime rate between 2007 and 2008?
A: It rose dramatically.
Q: What has happened to it since 2008?
A: It has changed since 2008. It has been falling steadily.
Q: What is happening this year?
A: It is continuing to fall.
Q. What will have happened to it by 2010?
A. They predict it will have decreased slightly by 2010.

Do you think we could include more tenses in this exercise? Do you know of other activities which combine more than, let’s say, three tenses?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Setting A Positive Tone

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

It’s hard to put a finger on what makes a class gel and be a lot of fun, be a place where students laugh and respect each other, where there are few or no class management issues, and excited students eagerly engage in the day’s activities.

It’s equally challenging to try to turn around those other classes, hopefully rare in their occurrence, that seem like a chore and a bore, where students grumble at the teacher and at each other, where they prefer to work alone rather than together, where trying to get a discussion going is just opening yourself up to eye-rolling and not so furtive glances at an incoming text message.

There are a few reasons we want to avoid these “poisonous” classes. First, to be self-serving, they are just no fun. Days are low-energy and teaching becomes a grind rather than a pleasure. Secondly, they are not good learning environments, and learning will at least be impeded if not blocked all together.

Consequently, the teacher’s enormous job description includes that of classroom host or hostess. Just as the host of a party works to set a tone and mood for the event, teachers are responsible for making the classroom environment the right environment for learning and a pleasant environment in which to spend time. Similarly, like a party host looks after the well-being of each guest, setting each at ease and making sure needs are met, the teacher needs to follow suit in the classroom.

I believe the tone for a course is set in the first week of classes, but it takes an on-going effort throughout the semester to keep the tone positive and the energy up. What can teachers do in the first week to set a positive tone?

  1. Learn all student names — quickly. When I was first observed by my Department Chair, he commented on the fact that I called students by name. I later learned, to my surprise, that not all instructors bothered to learn their students’ names. How disrespectful!
  2. Use daily gentle repetition of important class information, resources, or expectations so students who are overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester can hear and see and hear and see again what they need to be successful in the course. They want to do things right, but the first week can cause information overload for full-time students, especially their first time in a program or in college.
  3. Send a personal welcome e-mail message to each student after the first class, or even before the first class if you have access to contact information. Weeks into the semester, students often comment on how much they appreciated getting that first, reassuring message from me.
  4. Be sure course expectations are clear and that the grading process is transparent. Explain “how the class works” in detail. Hopefully, this information is written somewhere where students can access it as they need to be reminded.
  5. Encourage students to get to know each other. Especially in the first week, use daily ice breaking activities that allow students to form relationships. I get bored with the name, country, work, family questions and sometimes ask students to interview each other as to an accomplishment they are proud of or what their career goals are. I also ask students to design a personal crest or coat of arms with 3 or 4 sections that serve as a visual depiction of who they are. We then put them around the classroom for a few days and students always look at them before and after class and ask each other questions. At the end of the first week, I ask them to exchange phone numbers or email so they have a “buddy” they can call if they need to.
  6. Acknowledge the accomplishment of small steps. On the last day of the first week, I spend 15 minutes in a small celebration of making it through the first week. I break students into groups of four, and while eating donuts as soft jazz music plays in the background, students are encouraged to share their feelings about college: Was it what they expected? Harder? Easier? How did they feel the first day? How do they feel now?

While no amount of good planning nor good intention can guarantee to eliminate all unpleasant class experiences, what the teacher says and does in the first week has the greatest influence on the tone of the class — first impressions, after all! — but by no means can the efforts flag after that. We are the hosts and hostesses of a 16-week party, and our guests are counting on us to help them have a pleasant experience.

Monday, May 18, 2009

What does an “A” really mean?

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

An “A”?!?

The cry of outrage echoed throughout the office. One of my co-workers, Colleen, who is currently completing her degree online had received her final grades. Ironically, Colleen’s response was not prompted by the fact that her grades weren’t high enough; she was angry because she felt that her “A”s were unearned.

As a teacher, I was a bit surprised by her reaction. I am sure every teacher who is in the position of having to issue final grades has had at least one tearful student in his/her office trying to negotiate a better grade. In all of my years of teaching in an IEP, I have never been approached by a student who wanted a lower grade.

What does an “A” really mean?

This situation and Colleen’s cry of outrage has caused me to reflect on my own grading practices and that of other teachers in my former program. (In my current situation, I do not have to submit grades.) In a grammar class, there might be little room for subjectivity when it comes to grading; students either know it or they don’t. However, in other classes where subjectivity dominates the grading process, how many “A”s had I given out, and was I really being fair to my students?

In retrospect, I probably wasn’t too generous, but I was not overly tough, either. As I reviewed my old grade books, I saw that I tended to give “A”s to the top 10% to 20% of students. The majority of my students received Bs, several in each class got Cs, and students appeared to have to really have put forth an effort to not fail my classes, as few did.

But they tried so hard!

One of the dangers instructors of subjects such as conversation and writing face is that we may want to reward our students for their effort rather than have the grade reflect the finished product. As education moves increasingly online, teachers may want to give students grades for simply posting comments rather than assessing the quality of the comments. This bothers me for the same reasons that it bothered Colleen to get an “A” for what she felt was merely average work. While I don’t want to discourage students’ efforts, I have come to believe that it diminishes the value of an “A” when any student who turns in the work is eligible for it. It takes away from the accomplishments of those students who have truly done superior work.

Grades for the real world?

I think that looking at my grade books with a more critical eye might cause me to think twice about the grades I assign in the future. I want students to be proud of the “A”s they achieve in my class.

However, if I had once believed that I would be better preparing my students to face the tough mainstream college and university professors they will face once they leave the nest of the IEP, I was kidding myself. In North America, instructors are constantly complaining about the inflated grades students have come to expect, students are upset when they are not rewarded for showing up to class, and other students, like my co-worker Colleen, are increasingly disillusioned about what an “A” actually represents.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Don’t Dread Drills

By Ela Newman

Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL

University of Texas at Brownsville

Repetition drills, substitution drills, transformation drills. Are they mechanical and unexciting or practical and indispensable in language learning?

The notion of drilling often sparks animated discussion, but surely some students, some of the time, can benefit from having to repeat new structures. The frequency of use itself can help turn that newly-learned phrase into a more reflexive phrase. Drills also allow students to practice controlled and “graspable” pieces of language. Still, we may reasonably wonder if they are stimulating enough, and if they have anything to do with real communication.

Can we use drills in real and meaningful contexts? Is there a way to avoid rote repetition?

I recently took an online course designed by Diane Larson-Freeman, in which it was suggested that role plays involving creative automatization can be very effective. In these, students repeat the same sentence a few times, but they do so in contexts which would require that repetition in real life. In other words, the repetition is “psychologically authentic — the situations call for “natural repetition.”

At one point, students are practicing the structure
something needs V-ing, and they have to repeat the sentence My washing machine needs fixing a few times during a call to an appliance store because the call keeps getting transferred to different departments of the store. I guess that’s something like an instance of “the run around.”

I found the idea quite interesting and have created a few role-play situations that generate a need for “natural” repetition. Here are a couple of scenarios I came up with which can be transformed into role-plays incorporating psychologically authentic repetition. Both focus on the causative have.

Activity 1: This Room Looks Different

The student has had his or her apartment redecorated and is having a party. Guests are pouring in and they notice the changes. One guest says, “This room looks different,” and the student may respond, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Another guest arrives and says, “Wow, this room looks great!” to which the student may again say, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Knock… knock… Who’s there? Another guest? Great! (The more guests the better for the student learning the new structure!)

Activity 2: You Look Different

The student has changed something about his or her appearance and goes to work the next day. One co-worker comments, “You look different today,” and the student may respond, “I had my hair cut yesterday.” Another employee notices a change in the student’s hair color and says, “Your hair seems darker,” to which the student may reply, “Yes, I had my hair dyed chocolate brown yesterday.” Of course, if the student has had a complete make-over, this could go on for some time!

In these activities, the new structure is repeated out of necessity in a “psychologically authentic” context. It feels natural. There is a “legitimate” reason for a student to repeat the same sentence a few times. It appears to be a good way to practice structures which are genuinely new to students, and could precede activities which allow for greater variation in responses.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have used this method and those who’d be interested in sharing role-plays aimed at giving students chances to repeat new structures in contexts which require repetition naturally. Anyone ever practiced past tense forms using role-plays that involve meaningful repetition?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Teaching Grammar with Songs

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

What better way to liven up a grammar class than with a little music?

Instructors new to the idea of using songs as a teaching tool may be reluctant, as I once was, because they worry that some of their older, more “serious” students (usually found in an IEP or college program) will perceive songs as trivial, a waste of time and money. But we can successfully use songs with these adult students as long as we have specific lesson objectives and convey that songs are simply another source of authentic language input.

There may also be evidence, which will delight even the dour rocket scientist in your class, that language learned in songs is more readily retained and memorable. (Think about how we sing our ABC’s.) Finally, I’ve found a great way to ease into songs with my adult students is to inform the students that the song is a grammar lesson disguised as a break. (“You’ve been working really hard this week, so listen, enjoy…..and learn.”)

While there are many ways to use songs in language learning in general, many grammar instructors use song lyrics as sources of authentic language models of specific grammar points. Searching for lyrics that utilize the structure being taught is a time-consuming process, but luckily there are already some linked grammar/song sources available.

There are seven different songs lessons for low level grammar structures, nine intermediate lessons, and ten more advanced structure lessons right here on the Azar Grammar site in the collection of classroom materials. These lessons involve completing cloze exercises, sequencing, completing charts, analyzing and discussing grammar usage alternatives and meaning, listening for specific words and structures, using lyrics as a model for spoken and written production, and other activities.

Lyrics can be found at any one of many sites, like, but be sure to check the lyrics with the version of the song you are using because of slight variations in live vs. studio recordings and errors in lyrics transcribing. I frequently use YouTube as a free source of many songs, and the video is sometimes a stimulating source of discussion as well.

As you listen to the radio or when you pop in a cd at home, listen to songs with an ear for grammar and you’ll likely stumble across a song that you can use for a future lesson — just don’t forget to jot it down! If you are “always” searching, you’ll save a lot of time, as opposed to pouring over song lyrics searching for a specific structure the day before you plan on teaching it! The songs on this website provide an excellent jump start to your own collection as well as offering some activity ideas that can be reused on any song you come across. Have fun!