Archive for June, 2009

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Battle of the Selves

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

My L1 Self

Most people who know me would tell you that I am not a shy person. In fact, I tend to be chatty and outgoing. Some might even call me loud. When I joined Weight Watchers in 2006, I didn’t hide quietly at the back of the room; I spoke out in the meetings, asking questions and sharing my personal triumphs and challenges. Even when I attended different meetings out of town (something had to get me through Christmas time in the hot-dish capital of the world – South Dakota), I usually struck up conversations with the people sitting next to me and spoke out in the meeting when I had something to add. In English, I would definitely fall into the category of sociable live wire.

My L2 Self

Fast forward to 2009. I have been living in Belgium for almost a year now. Faced with chocolate, cheese, and the best french fries on earth, I have kept up regular attendance at the local Weight Watchers meetings. They are conducted entirely in French, and I enjoy the challenge. What I find most interesting, though, is the complete personality change that I undergo when I enter the meeting hall. I become shy and quiet. I usually find a place at the back, and I don’t make eye contact with anyone.

Sometimes, the leader, Jacqueline, tries to include me by prompting me to share a meal idea or weight loss strategy. At these moments, I tend to sweat, panic, and stammer through a convoluted response. I get agitated for a number of reasons: I might not be entirely sure I understand the question, I don’t want the other members to judge me by my grammar mistakes, and I don’t want them to think that I am just one of those people who can’t be bothered to learn their language.

Speaking out in my Belgian Weight Watchers meetings is a horror equivalent to oral surgery; sometimes it’s necessary, but I’d really rather not.

The Importance of Accuracy

I have spent years telling my students to not worry about what people think and to just get their ideas out there. However, this is certainly not advice I, myself, can easily follow. One on one, I am fine. When I was younger, I managed to learn Russian fluently just by trial and error. But, when speaking publicly in another language, I feel very vulnerable. I want to make the right grammatical choices because I want to be both understood and accurate. I want people to think about my ideas and not my verb tense errors.

A Solution?

I know many of my students feel the same way, but there is no magic solution that I am aware of. (If you know of one, post a response to this blog immediately!) Many of the things we have already talked about in this blog help: drilling, error correction, scripting. Having students give speeches in class is another way of preparing them for the unsympathetic ears of the native speaking audience. I am also a huge fan of the “dull” grammar book work that eventually leads to automaticity. My French teacher does all of this, and yet, I still go beet red and start to sweat when Jacqueline turns my way.

In the end, maybe only time will transform me from an L2 introvert to an L2 extrovert. However, my experience has certainly made me more sympathetic to my students’ reticence. I won’t flippantly tell my classes to “just get out there and speak English” again!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Breaking the Silence: Activities Aimed at Encouraging Students’ Oral Participation

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

A group discussion begins. The clock ticks and tocks but there is not a second of silence. In fact, all the participants are so active that the teacher is forced to set a limit on how much each student can contribute to the conversation. When asked to summarize the group’s deliberations, the students compete for the role of speaker. Even when the class is over, while packing their books (and checking their latest text messages), the students continue the discussion.

Am I dreaming? Probably. But some approximation of this scenario is possible, at least some of the time.

We know that an ordinary oral task can evolve into a dynamic conversation if students work in an environment where obstacles hampering participation–such as shyness, feelings of inadequacy, or worry about embarrassment–are overcome by peer support, a non-punitive learning environment, and even motivation.

But what about the actual activities we use? Do certain oral tasks naturally evoke an animated response?

In my experience, students are more often orally active when:

1. They know that the success of a group activity requires a contribution from every student.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to share, compare, and then present information about each member’s study habits.

2. They are asked to contribute knowledge or expertise acquired outside the ESL classroom.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to describe the steps involved in ordering a CD, DVD, book, article of clothing, etc. from an online store.

3. They are surprised or shocked by a piece of news, preferably fake news.

Example activity: Before class begins, two students are told a piece of “strange” news and are asked to report that they have heard about the news when the teacher mentions it during a class discussion. Even doubting students and shy students have been known to bring themselves into the conversation once the two ‘plants’ have spoken up.

The news might be that there is a new law against driving while listening to metal rock and roll (passed because of research into brainwave conflicts associated with doing the two activities at once) or that scientists have discovered a genetic defect in collies which is causing an increasing number of them to become rabid spontaneously. (Sorry Lassie!) The list of possible fake news items is endless, but the best seem to be those which are surprising yet also somehow believable.

4. They can use vocabulary items which are familiar and key to the task.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to consider a few job applications–which contain a variety of formal, characteristic vocabulary items–in order to decide whom to hire as a language tutor.

5. They have limited time to complete the task.

Example activity: Students play a high-speed version of the well-known game “Twenty Questions”–a version called “Twenty Seconds.” Knowing that everyone must think and speak quickly in the game, and that mistakes will inevitably be made by a number of the participants, students ordinarily feel less inhibited than usual when playing this question- answer game.

Once a supportive and cooperative learning environment is established, we can turn our minds to activities. It is my experience that the choices of oral tasks often determine whether or not students genuinely engage in discussions.

Do you use any special tasks to foster animated discussions in your ESL classroom?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Mistakes Students Make

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

As shocking as this may sound, in all my years of teaching English, I really hadn’t given much thought to the causes that lie behind student errors. I am sure that if someone had asked me, I would have probably been able to rattle off a few of the most commonly cited reasons for student mistakes. However, as a new French student, I was blindsided by an unexpected motivation for my own errors.

That Darn L1!

We all know about the challenges students face due to first language interference. For example, if a student’s first language is Chinese, he or she might neglect to include the BE verb in a sentence because there is no exact equivalent in Chinese. In other words, “[t]heoretically speaking, Chinese is less marked with this sense of “be”.” (Huang, 1994, page 3) Thus, understandably, students who try to master a new tense, for instance, which does not exist in their own language will struggle as they experiment with it.

Simply Not Enough Time

In addition to L1 interference, students may make errors simply be due to the fact that they have had insufficient exposure to the target structure. Vocabulary researchers have determined that students need to see a new word in context 12 (yes, that’s 12!) times before they have much hope of using it in a conversation (Hinkel, 2009). If that’s what it takes for a simple word to become embedded in a student’s consciousness, think of how many times they will have to see a complex grammar structure before they can use it without error.

Two Steps Forward …

Errors might also indicate that students are busy applying the rules that they have learned as they become more adept language users. For instance, if a student learned the phrase “I bought a sweater” as a chunk of language, perhaps in a clothing vocabulary lesson, but then reverted to “I buyed a sweater” after learning the past simple in Grammar class, a teacher might want to tear his/her hair out. Is this student actually moving backward? Educators, such as Schellekens (2008), would argue that, in fact, the student is moving forward. As students learn more complex structures, they begin to think consciously about their language and attempt to apply the “rules” they have learned.

Deliberate Errors? Oh the Horror!

While all of these reasons for student errors are valid, I have to add another to the list–students may make deliberate errors for reasons of social self-preservation. Of course, we might expect this of high school students railing against authority, but I was shocked and horrified when I found myself, an eager adult French learner, actually consciously avoiding the back of throat, French /r/ sound when I spoke out in the class. I was being deliberately lazy, and when I thought about it, I had to admit it was because I didn’t want the other students to think that I thought I was “all that” by imitating the teacher’s perfect /r/ sound when the rest of my language was such a disaster. This realization surprised me because consciously I know that none of the other students are even listening to me, much less judging me, and who cares what they think anyway? Nonetheless, I am sticking to my flat English /r/s.

Though this example is related to pronunciation, it could just as easily be a grammar issue. So, now when, as a teacher, I patiently recast and recast and recast, I wonder which of the many reasons are truly behind my students’ errors. If students are making deliberate or “lazy” errors, what can teachers do? Maybe if my French teacher overtly teaches the pronunciation of the French /r/, I will feel more comfortable using it, but maybe I will just ease into it as time passes. I am not there yet, but if you come to Belgium in a few months and hear a foreigner using a perfect French /r/, it just might be me!

Hinkel, E. (2009) Teaching Academic Vocabulary and Helping Students Retain it, paper presented at TESOL 2009, Denver, USA.
Huang, J. (1994) A Study of L1 Interference in Chinese Senior High Students’ English Writing,
Schellekens, P. (2008) Assessing the Skills of Migrants and Refugees, paper presented at IATEFL TEA SIG Conference, Dublin, Ireland.