Archive for July, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It Just Sounds Right

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

“This is so hard.”

I am sure all L2 instructors are familiar with the frustration students feel when studying another language. I feel particular sympathy for ESL and EFL students (and their teachers) because English grammar is especially aggravating. English grammar is often illogical and native speaker use of it is fickle.

It must be so annoying for students to spend hours mastering a new grammar skill only to hear a native speaker using it incorrectly. For years, I diligently taught students that we did not use “love” in the progressive. Inevitably, the next day a student would point out that he or she heard “I’m loving it” on a Burger King commercial. Thank goodness many grammar books have since caught up with that one (I hated looking like a liar), but there are thousands of examples of grammatical choices that native speakers make that violate the “rules” in our texts.

Although the line that English as a “living” language that is always changing is comfortable for teachers to give, it doesn’t ease the burden our students carry. The bottom line is that English grammar is hard, and it just keeps getting harder as students learn more.

It just sounds right.

As a teacher, I often feel a bit helpless when I am faced with a student’s crinkled forehead and bewildered question, “But, why?” Even to my ears, the answer, “it just sounds right,” sounds like a bit of a cop out. However, often, we just say things in a certain way just because it sounds better. A word just collocates better with one word than another, although there is no real “rule” for students to learn. One verb tense is just a little more appropriate than another, although both are technically correct.

A (wonderful, inspirational) teacher I worked with in the US begins each semester with a lecture about how English grammar isn’t like math. Students can’t necessarily memorize grammatical “formulas” and expect them to work even most of the time. This is true, but don’t you wish it weren’t so?

Transition from learner to fine-tuner

When I reflect on my own experience as an English teacher, I find that students in the High Intermediate level tend to struggle with this frustration more than any others. Recently, one of my students from Poland admitted that she was finding the High Intermediate class frustrating because she felt as though she wasn’t learning anything. I have been her teacher for several semesters, so I knew that she wasn’t criticizing me. I understood that she just missed that learner’s rush that comes with “getting” a new grammatical concept.

Beginners and Low Intermediate students are usually happily caught up in a frenzy of learning new things; however, in my experience, the High Intermediate level is all about a move toward fine-tuning. This transition can be very wearisome for students, as it is time-consuming and lacks those “light bulb” moments. It seems, too, that High Intermediate is a hurdle some never get over; they have good enough English to be understood and that is enough for many of our students.

Familiarity breeds a good TOEFL score?

It seems to me that the students who do succeed and move on to an Advanced level tend to be the ones that can get beyond an obsession with memorizing grammar rules. They tend to have a more well-rounded approach to language learning that includes reading and listening to authentic input. They are the ones that have become so comfortable with English that they just know which words go best together and which tense to choose.

I used to teach a TOEFL Prep class in the US, and I help prepare students for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam here in Belgium. At that level, students need to have internalized most of the grammar “rules” (although explicit instruction and more fine-tuning is always helpful) and they should be choosing correct answers more by instinct. Unfortunately, it’s something I have not figured out how to “teach” in a few months of class, but for the students who get to that point, English grammar doesn’t seem so hard, after all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can Good Listeners Help Speakers?

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

Recently, I spent some time traveling on long-distance trains and buses in the company of various fellow travellers. Though these people were of all sorts of ages and lifestyles, most had one thing in common- being well equipped with “time-killers.” Colorful magazines, books, crossword puzzles, and, of course, cell phones and iPods were employed effectively by these travelers to kill time. While I was killing time thinking about how these folks were killing time, it occurred to me, as it has to others, that the best way to make traveling time pass is simply to talk a while with some “seat-neighbor.”

But what keeps such conversations going? After all, discussion of the weather, the upholstery, and one’s favorite brand of mustard can only last so long.

Engaged listening supports speakers’ oral skills

Apparently, the key to successful, interactive oral communication in a native tongue lies in the creation and maintenance of a bridge between the speaker and the audience. No matter how eloquent, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and fluent the speaker is, a true dialogue will not last very long if the listener does not genuinely participate. Engaged listening, forming one half of that bridge, is an ingredient essential to meaningful communication.

Are bridges like this possible or beneficial in the ESL/EFL classroom?

In my experience, the manner in which an audience reacts to a speaker helps or hinders the speaker in the ESL/EFL setting. Maintaining emotional support for the speaker, for instance, seems to foster improvement in student-speakers’ oral skills.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to incorporate more activities which focus specifically on the characteristics of good listeners and the benefits of engaged listeners to speakers.

Potential Activity: Good Listeners vs. Bad Listeners

Students work in two groups: in the first, students identify characteristics of good listeners; in the second, students identify characteristics of bad listeners. One student in each group notes down the ideas discussed.

The “good listener group” may make notes like “ keeps eye contact,” “asks questions,” “gives feedback,” “paraphrases what the speaker has said,” or “lets the speaker finish his or her sentences.”

The “bad listener group” may note ideas like “ interrupts the speaker,” “changes the subject,” “does not comment on what has been said,” “is impatient,” or “is busy doing something else.”

Once the lists of ideas have been prepared, the groups, in turn, present brief, imaginary conversations which demonstrate the characteristics students in each group have discussed. While watching these conversation-sketches, students of the other group attempt to recognize and name the characteristics being demonstrated.

This activity could encourage student input and allow students to experiment in formulating manners of interactive listening. Students can discover ways in which listening skills can influence speaking skills.

Do you think an activity like this would work? Any thoughts on how it might be improved?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Overcoming Fossilized Language: Difficult But Possible

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I recently received a request from a paralegal instructor looking for a way to help a non-native student whose writing skills are inadequate to her academic goals and chosen profession. He describes her as a reasonably conversant, bright student in her twenties. She had satisfactorily completed most of the paralegal program’s sequence of classes as well as two ESL courses. He writes:

Throughout the semester, she “stumbled” with the language on her written assignments. And when it came to the drafting of the memorandum, she mauled the grammar and the syntax; she had numerous comma splices and sentence fragments; she incorrectly used punctuation. She understood the assignment and she knew what was expected, but what I read was inarticulate.

Always allowing her to write, rewrite, and rewrite again after returning an assignment, I had hoped that, after my numerous marginal comments, she’d conquer some of her problems. This was not to be. Alas, the same problems abundantly peppered her memorandum. I gave up. I told her to find a friend who was willing to spend the time to go over the mechanics of her writing. She did. I gave her a passing grade.

All of this brings me–at long last–to my point. What can I do to help this student?

What the instructor describes is typical of a second language learner who missed getting a solid foundation in grammar and mechanics during her acquisition process. Our colleges and universities are, unfortunately, full of such students today. I had many such students in my own writing courses.

Bringing her language skills to an acceptable academic level is not going to be easy for this student — but she can do it as many before her have done. It’s hard but possible.

Motivation is key

The most important ingredient is the student’s motivation. I’ve had students whose previous teachers had just passed them on and who felt their English was fine for university level — until they hit my class and I apprised them otherwise. So the first step is raising the student’s awareness of his or her poor language skills.

Next comes an understanding of the consequences of having poor language skills. In my case, I told students they could not possibly pass my course with their current language skills, and without passing my course, they could not graduate from the university. That either got their attention or undying enmity. But I could not in good conscience pass students on to my university colleagues with inadequate college-level writing skills.

Students who realized the importance of having good language skills for their academic and career aspirations were then ready to listen to me and do whatever was necessary.

No shortcuts, just lots of hard work

Since I was an ESL teacher as well as a writing teacher, I offered these students the opportunity to sit in on my ESL grammar classes and do one-on-one tutoring with me twice a week. In addition, I recommended a private tutor — often one of our part-time teachers.

The student wrote a paper for me twice a week, and then we talked about it. For each error in grammar or mechanics, we referred to a grammar book (mine, actually). I explained each problem in great thoroughness and sent the student off with homework. It’s a slow process.

For a student without a basic understanding of how English is put together, a teacher just writing notes in the margins of a student’s paper isn’t enough.

The ideal tutor for this student would probably be a law student who has taught ESL or is thoroughly versed in English grammar. But, unfortunately, even among native speakers these days, precious few know
much about English grammar (due to an ideological misdirection taken in our field beginning in the 1960s).

Judging from my experience, I’d say it would take a year for this student’s English to advance sufficiently. But she’d have to be very motivated and find a good tutor. There are no shortcuts that I know of. And students lacking motivation and self-monitoring skills never seem to make it out of the rut of their fossilized language.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Turning a Cultural Faux Pas into a Teaching Moment

By Myra M. Medina
Professor, Miami Dade College

I tell my students that the most important day of the entire term is the first day of class. That’s the day we discuss the syllabus and what is expected of them throughout the term. We discuss not only how they are going to be graded, who their classmates are and some information about their instructor’s background, but classroom etiquette in the U.S. as well. When you have students who come from all over the world with different norms and values, a clear understanding of expected classroom behavior is essential for their overall success.

A kiss on the cheek may be charming, but . . .

In many cultures, it is expected that you greet everyone when entering a room full of people. Consequently, some ESL students have a difficult time adjusting to doing the opposite when circumstances call for entering a room quietly. I cannot forget the male student who would come into class late and greet all the female students near his seat with a kiss on the cheek. Everyone involved seemed very happy with the exchange. However, this “social grace” interrupted my class until the friendly ritual had concluded.

After this happened a couple of times, I realized that this student’s unacceptable behavior created a cultural teaching moment. It was an opportunity to explain that in this culture, if you arrive to class late, you do not walk across to the opposite side of the room, overshadowing the instructor as you walk past her. You come in as quietly as possible almost invisibly without greeting anyone. No one is going to think you are rude because you did not say “Good morning” (or kiss them on the cheek!). However, it is considered rude to arrive late, and it is considered rude to interrupt the instructor and the class.

“Collaboration” is not always appropriate in the U.S. classroom

Another cultural teaching moment presented itself when a couple of students sitting right in the front row were “collaborating” while taking a quiz. Quietly, so as not to disturb others, I approached them and reminded them that they were not allowed to talk while taking a quiz. But this was to no avail — the next thing I knew, they were collaborating again. Instead of being angry, I quickly realized that they were just doing what they had been taught in their culture to work together for the benefit of the group rather than the individual.

After collecting the papers, I explained to the class how in this culture we value the work of the individual and encourage independence and competitiveness. In taking the time to explain different learning styles and how these are influenced by cultural values and context, I believe I provided my students an opportunity to learn about themselves while learning about the new culture they had become a part of.

As a result of these situations and others we encountered, a colleague and I created a document titled “Classroom Etiquette in the United States,” which we now attach to the syllabus and discuss during the first day of class. Discussing classroom rules — beyond what is expected academically — provides the students an opportunity to learn about the culture, avoids future class interruptions, and creates an environment conducive to learning.