Archive for August, 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

“yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork?”

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

Writing used to be one of the hardest skills for learners to practice on their own outside of class, back in the Dark Days before email and the Internet. Options were basically limited to keeping a written journal or exchanging letters and postcards with a pen pal and the occasional “letter to the newspaper” classroom assignment.

Now, however, opportunities to freely practice writing abound: keypals, social networking sites, bulletin boards, chat rooms, Web sites where customers leave reviews and comments, blogs, and so on.

So . . . writing skills must have vastly improved, right? Well, perhaps a certain degree of fluency has. However, what we also have is a host of new problems. You’re teaching a class the difference between two, too, and to, and then they come in wanting to spell all of them 2.

I think there are two basic problems: the models students see and the attitudes they can pick up towards writing.

Poor Writing Models Abound Online

Certainly the level of writing they could encounter from native speakers out there in Internetland is something of a concern. Masses of writers seem unaware of (or unconcerned about) differences between your and you’re, or loose and lose, or (a pet peeve of mine) our and are. Misspellings are rampant, even in these days when most Internet browsers have a built-in spellcheck feature. Posters, even of longer blogs, may eschew punctuation and even capitalization. If students then are answering with the same language they see, we can expect similar mistakes, or at least a lot of confusion.

Texting Shorthand Easier for Whom?

A bigger problem though is writers (native English speaker or otherwise) who simply don’t care. “It’s only an Internet message board,” a perpetrator might say, “not an English class.” Writers who use texting shorthand point out that it’s faster. Faster to write, yes, if one is used to that. But faster to read? I don’t think so, especially not when sloppy writing and no punctuation between sentences obscures meaning. If you didn’t communicate what you intended, then your message failed, even if you got it out there in cyberspace extra fast.

The choice then that the writer makes is whether to make things easier on him or herself or easier on his or her reader. Unless the message being written is truly a personal journal (in which case, why is it online?), there’s usually some reason to communicate to readers—to express an opinion, ask a question, give information, ask for help. It’s even likely that there will be multiple readers of messages, in which case I tell students that, as Mr. Spock would put it, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” At first, students are surprised to hear that writing sloppily is selfish; but give them some time to consider the idea, and you’d be surprised how many would agree.

It may not be an English class, but aren’t online writers in some sense being graded? They’re certainly being judged. I can take a certain amount of informality online, but when spelling and typing errors get to a certain level, I just skip over the messages without even trying to read them. It’s even more important to me that emails sent directly to me be clear and careful. A student who’s getting a grade from me in an English class isn’t going to look good by sending “yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork im pretty sur i sent it b4”. If you think teachers don’t get emails like this, check in with a high school teacher (of any subject) sometime. However, students can’t know what level of formality you expect if you don’t tell them directly. Merely copying what native speaker classmates are doing isn’t necessarily going to steer them in the right direction.

Appropriate Use of Informal Writing Needs to be Taught

I don’t see many teaching materials that address informal writing except to say not to use it. That’s also a mistake, though. Any community has its own discourse, of course, and being overly formal in a chat room isn’t going to be successful either. There’s a world of difference between kthnxbai and Please accept my sincere thanks for all of your assistance.

Students need explicit instruction to know what levels of language exist and when to use them. If you don’t have examples and materials, don’t worry—ask your students to bring you examples of written English from different Internet sites that they visit. Ask them to find English that they believe is the most correct and appropriate, as well as the least correct and appropriate, and then share and discuss the examples in class. Collect similar examples when you’re online and keep them in a file. Ask students what impressions they have of the writers and to what extent those impressions are formed by the language and the place in which it appears. Compile a class glossary of the common abbreviations and expressions they encounter online and code each one as appropriate for class or not.

And don’t forget to point out that they will never be disadvantaged by being better able to switch between informal and formal English than their native speaker friends.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Can Teacher and Student ever be Just Friends?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Students = Friends?

It was one of those magical classes. You know what I’m talking about; the enthusiastic students just gel and the energy is so positive that every class is a joy for both the students and the teacher. My students in this class were mostly European, all women, and all excited about learning English. I taught them for a year, and though a few came and went, the core group consistently attended. They got along so well, they even met for coffee after every class. (Conversations were held in English, of course!)

At the end of the year, we decided that we would celebrate by going out for dinner. I was particularly excited about this plan because, for me, it signaled a transition from being their teacher to being a friend. However, as I dug into my gnocchi, I had to wonder exactly what they thought of our relationship. Was I seen as a teacher or a friend? Is it possible to be both at the same time?

One or the Other

When I was a new to teaching, it was challenging being the same age as many of my students. The things I did for fun when I was young and wild might have been a little inappropriate to do with students who had to take me seriously the next day. So, for me, there had to be a distinct line between my friends and my students. Once I got older, I found that my young students were less interested in hanging out with me, maybe because I have to be in bed by ten every night in order to function the next day.

Grading Friends

I have found that with age really does come wisdom, or at least a sense of perspective. When I was just starting out as a teacher, I became friends with one of the students in my Writing class. I was so sure she would pass the class, she was a wonderful person after all, that I told her I thought it was a sure bet. I was unable to be as objective and direct with her as I should have been. She never forgave me when she didn’t pass the final and had to retake the class.

As an older, more experienced teacher, I tend to put distance between myself and the students I grade. Although I am genuinely interested in them and like them very much as people, I have found that it is easier for me to be objective when the relationship is a little more formal, and it is less hurtful for them to receive criticism from a teacher than a friend.

I Want to be Just Friends

However, in spite of this self-imposed distance, I have always harbored a secret desire to befriend many of my students. Finally, it seemed as though I was in a situation in which this might be possible when I met this wonderful group of ladies who have become my monthly dinner companions. In addition to my having a lot in common with them personally (all of us are here in Belgium because of our husbands’ work, all of us are struggling to get by in a foreign language, all of us have left behind family, friends and, in many cases, excellent jobs, in our home countries), my school does not require that I give final grades, so we don’t have that pressure on our relationship. Even still, I was reluctant to abandon my role as a teacher until the evening that we celebrated the end of the school year.

Teacher Talk

At that dinner, and the ones we have enjoyed since, I have noticed an interesting urge on my part to correct their grammar errors. I am not at all comfortable with this inclination. My students, on the other hand, love to be corrected and whenever I inadvertently slip in a recast and apologize, they insist that they want more. But, I don’t like it; it means I am still the teacher and not the friend.

When I think of the many English conversations I have had with non-native English speaking French teachers at my school, I never even have the urge to correct them much less actually do it. In fact, one of my co-workers asked me to correct her, and I had to admit that I was so busy listening to her message I didn’t even hear her mistakes. I certainly would never dream of correcting a native speaking friend. (Though, I do love to shout corrections at the TV whenever I hear poor grammar.) Nonetheless, I do hear my students’ errors. Why is this? Does this mean I can not really be friends with my former students?

Can a student and a teacher ever really be just friends? What do you think? Have you managed to find this balance in any of your relationships?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Students in the Land of Grammar: The Use of Discovery Techniques

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

“No, no, definitely no comma here,” insisted my student Tania, who immediately followed her confident statement with an enthusiastic, “We do need that information to know which tourists we’re talking about!” Her group mates nodded in wholehearted agreement. “Yes, Yes! It’s not extra information. It’s necessary information,” added Claudia, who, out of sheer excitement, almost sprang out of her chair.

Who would have thought that working on rules governing the punctuation of defining and non-defining relative clauses could generate such excitement in nineteen-year-olds? All right so we’re not talking El Dorado, but such rules can be quite valuable discoveries to most students.

For me, allowing students to become “grammar explorers” brings several benefits:

1. Because of their “mystery-solving” quality, discovery-based activities can capture and hold students’ attention as effectively as most interactive presentations can, and they demonstrate to students that working with grammar does not have to be dull;

2. Because of students’ personal involvement in exploratory tasks, discovery techniques help them remember rules more easily;

3. Because of their analytical character,these techniques actually show students ways to approach other, unfamiliar grammatical structures;

4. And, perhaps most importantly, because of the independent work requirements integral to discovery tasks, these activities prove to students that they can recognize a rule by themselves, and that they can be active “explorers” of the language even outside the classroom.

I recently came across a very informative article by Pavel V. Sosoyev entitled Integrative L2 Grammar Teaching: Exploration, Explanation and Expression in which he not only discusses the benefits of discovery techniques, but also shares a sample lesson as well as a questionnaire which he created to explore his students’ views on inductive learning.

And here are four of my own discovery-based lessons:

It seems to me that discovery techniques have various merits, but they are rather time-consuming and I ordinarily manage to use them only intermittently in a course.

Which grammar structures or concepts do you think might be taught naturally by way of discovery techniques? Do you use exploratory techniques in your classroom? If so, have you found them to be effective usually?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I Teach the Parts of Speech

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

Actually, I wanted to write about phrases and clauses and about teaching them as adjectives and adverbs. However, that reminded me how many teachers I’ve run into over the years who disagree that the names of parts of speech should be taught to students. I argued with a publisher over this for at least three years, actually, before being “allowed” to teach the parts of speech in a textbook for lower-level students. So let me take a brief diversion to defend this position.

The arguments against teaching the names of the parts of speech are mainly that the terms are too difficult for students to learn, and further, that they aren’t helpful. I disagree with both of these arguments.

Minimally, I think students should know noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, and article. With advanced students I might add in determiner. OK, that’s seven words. Is that too high a vocabulary load, especially when most of those concepts exist in the learner’s native language? I think if they can learn seven objects in the classroom, or seven modes of transportation, or seven irregular verbs, then seven parts of speech isn’t going to short out the brain.

A larger issue is whether they’re helpful. This depends, of course, on whether the teacher uses the labels. I use them all the time. I use them to talk about

  • different word forms (accept is a verb, acceptance is the noun form of that verb);
  • the placement of different parts of speech (Your sentence “Is late again,” is missing a noun or a pronoun as the subject); and
  • the functions of subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases and so on.

And now I’m back to where I wanted to be . . .

It seems to me that one of the challenges of forming correct and elegant sentences in English is in knowing where to put the different elements. Where does the subject go? Where does the verb go? How about the direct object? And those are the easier things to teach.

Where my more advanced students trip up is in knowing where to put longer elements, such as

  • in the morning,
  • running for the bus,
  • while on his way to the bakery, or
  • on the corner.

The problem is that students don’t know what these elements are—that is, how they function. Therefore, they can’t place them correctly in a sentence.

Pretty much, they’re adjectives and adverbs—more correctly called adjectivals and adverbials, but I use adjective phrase and adverb phrase with my students at first, and then just adjective and adverb, once we’re all on the same page.

Suppose we have a simple sentence:

  • He fell.

Even lower-level students have probably seen the structure subject + verb + adverb, and might be able to write a sentence such as

  • He fell slowly.

However, the most common adverbs are actually NOT the one-word ones that end with ~ly, even though those are the easiest ones to identify. An adverb tells us where, when, why, or how. If students know that phrases can be used to talk about when, where, why, or how, then they can write

  • He fell to the ground.
  • He fell when he tripped.
  • He fell as soon as he tried to stand up.
  • He fell with a strange choking sound.

The trick is in knowing that to the ground (where?) functions as an adverb, as do when he tripped (when?) and as soon as he tried to stand up (both when? and why?) and with a strange choking sound (how?). English allows (and even encourages!) one to combine adverb phrases and clauses, as in

  • He fell to the ground with a strange choking sound as soon as he tried to stand up.

Getting this concept down is huge. It doesn’t bother me terribly much if a student writes

  • *He fell at the ground.


  • *He fell as soon as tried to stand up.

Those sentences contain errors, of course, but the basic pattern of subject + verb + adverb is still there.

Adverbs are movable elements, more so than most others. But students need to know that adverb clauses and phrases move as units, and where they move to—for instance, to the beginning of a sentence:

  • As soon as he tried to stand up, he fell.

To take another example: A student who is writing short, careful, simple sentences and wishes to expand them might wish to add some adjectives. Students are usually taught simple one-word adjectives (that answer the question What kind of? or Which?) that come before a noun.

  • She went to the bakery.
  • She went to the new bakery.

But how much more interesting if we can describe the
bakery with some prepositional phrases; note that these come after the noun:

  • She went to the bakery on the corner.
  • She went to the bakery with the jumbo strawberry creampuffs.

Again, an error in choosing the correct preposition doesn’t bother me if the student is able to modify the noun with a phrase.

This is the way I like to address syntax, especially in reading and writing, with at least intermediate and advanced students—and some beginners as well. And that is why my very lowest level students learn the names of the parts of speech—so that we can talk about what the parts of speech are and how they function.