Archive for January, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Student-Teacher’s Concerns about Group Work: Three Quick Solutions

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

The “bubbly” Beata, one of my former student-teachers, regularly avoided incorporating group work activities into her lesson plans. She thought of group work as a fail-proof recipe for a classroom fiasco. She considered facilitating pair work now and then, but never quite incorporated it, nor did she include any group work activities in her plans. However, after a brief pep talk one day, one in which I laid out some of the advantages of student collaboration, Beata agreed that her hardened aversion to group work was more reflexive than rational.

Concerns about Facilitating Group Work

When asked why she resisted group work activities, Beata shared the following concerns:

1. that students would not want to talk
2. that students would never finish their task on time
3. that most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations

Overcoming the Problem: A Little Nudging

Since people often learn well by experimentation, I resisted equipping Beata with a set of ready-made solutions, thinking that I would deprive her of instructive experience. Instead, I suggested that she simple change the “would” in the expression of her concerns to a less pessimistic “may.” I also encouraged her simply to experiment some with group work techniques as the teaching practicum continued.

Basic Quick “Fixes”

In the end, to encourage Beata to start testing out her ideas for group work, I did provide her with a few basic quick “fixes” to the classroom problems that she feared were likely to occur.

Concern #1: Students would not want to talk.
Quick Fix #1: Bring a CD Player.

“Controlled noise” seems to get group discussions going. Background music (played at a relatively low volume) tends to come in handy when students feel self-conscious about being heard by the whole class. One of my college professors would often turn on the radio as soon as he asked us to do a group work activity; it worked like magic.

Concern#2: Students would never finish their task on time.
Quick Fix #2: Bring an Alarm Clock.

Deadlines for group work completion seem to be respected more regularly if students are aware of how much time is remaining. Often, actively involved in discussions, students lose track of time. Putting on the board updates on how much time is remaining, or setting an alarm clock to go off five minutes before the task needs to be completed, often does the trick.

Concern#3: Most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations.
Quick Fix #3: Keep a Physical Distance from the Presenter.

Often, student-presenters speak to the teacher, not to the whole group. The closer the teacher stands to the presenters, the quieter their performance becomes. All that may result in students’ losing interest in what is being shared. I’ve noticed that either by sitting together with the non-presenting group or simply by standing as far from presenters as possible, I, as the teacher, have “blended in” and thus encouraged the speakers to address the whole audience.

I’m wondering if any of you have worked with student-teachers who expressed concerns about facilitating group work. If so, what were their worries about? Did you have similar concerns as you were beginning your teaching careers?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wussup Wit’ Dat?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
There’s been a great deal of hoopla lately over a statement made by Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid in which he commented during the last presidential campaign that he thought Barack Obama had a good chance of winning the election because he “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Of course, people have reacted very negatively to such a statement, claiming it was basically racist. Others have added that hearing Senator Reid’s choice of words, Negro dialect, was like going through a time warp back to the mid-twentieth century. So what’s really going on, and how might this be of concern to ESOL teachers?
I don’t think that Senator Reid was saying anything that many – if not most of us – don’t think, but may not have the fortitude to openly verbalize. For quite a long time, we have struggled with the issue of how we judge people by their speech. The truth is that many of us don’t look favorably on people who speak in what are considered nonstandard dialects of English. Theoretically speaking, those people may have large portfolios and be living very “comfortably,” but if they open their mouths and speak with a Brooklyn or Cockney accent or Southern drawl, or if they use vocabulary and grammar associated with African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, sometimes referred to as Ebonics) or Chicano English, we don’t consider them polished and of high social status. That’s just the way it is. Unfortunately, we do judge books by their covers. And that was the point that Harry Reid was getting at. He wasn’t being racist; he was simply being realistic and honest.
In the 1980’s, while working as Associate Director of the English Language Institute at a university in South Florida, I was approached by many instructors who told me of their frustrations in dealing with students who wrote the way they spoke, that is, in nonstandard English. The instructors pleaded with me to create a course that would correct the problem. They felt it was a terrible disservice to the students that nobody was telling them they needed to speak and write in standard English in order to get ahead in the future. They knew their views might not be considered “pc” at that time, but their consciences wouldn’t allow them to say nothing about this problem.
I couldn’t have agreed with them more. Using nonstandard dialectal variations in the streets or with family and friends in relaxed, totally informal situations is just fine, but should we consider such language as proper for school or the workplace or government? The answer is decidedly no for many reasons, probably the most important being that we need to speak a standard form of our language in such settings so that chances for miscommunications or misunderstandings are minimized. Another important reason is to make sure that the listener is focusing on the meaning of our message rather than on any “oddities” in how we deliver the message.
I conscientiously worked on a proposal to offer a course at the university called “English as a Standard Dialect.” When the proposal was ready, I decided to test the waters by showing it to faculty members who were representative of the groups of students my colleagues had been complaining about. I figured that would be a smart move before showing the proposal to university officials for approval. The faculty members who saw what I had prepared gave me very positive feedback. Not one of them found the proposal offensive, which I found gratifying. I then presented my proposal to the dean – and that’s as far as things went. He considered the course too controversial, a political hot potato, even with the positive feedback I’d already gotten. No matter what I said, it made no difference, and he refused to let me develop the course any further. I feel that was a terrible mistake, and I’ve always felt bad that the students who needed the language skills my course could have offered them never got those skills.
The main thrust of my proposal was that there’s nothing wrong with students using their dialects in appropriate settings, but that they should learn how to code switch and use standard English in settings appropriate for that dialect as well. In other words, the course would not put down the dialects that the students used all the time, but it would offer them the skills to have an option they really needed to have at their disposal. I had been given that option when I was in elementary and junior high school back in Brooklyn, New York. All of my teachers, not just my English teachers, made it a point to teach us standard English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and when it was not appropriate to use Brooklynese. The language skills that our teachers gave us in how and when to code switch have served me well my whole life. I’m sure that’s what Harry Reid meant when he said that Barack Obama “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Senator Reid must have recognized the fact that people with enough language skills can code switch at will – which is a good thing.
This subject about having at least two dialects in English, the standard one and the dialectal variation, is something that ESOL teachers working in English-speaking countries should keep in mind. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that ESOL teachers must clearly explain the differences to their students and teach them very carefully when to use one or the other form if this is truly an issue where they are located and if their students are ready to deal with it. That’s for each teacher to determine.
Here are three very simple examples of the kinds of code switching that ESOL teachers might need to deal with at one time or another:
• In the New York City area, you get on line when waiting to do something, but in the rest of the United States, you get in line.
• In parts of New England, the word wicked means very, as in saying It’s wicked cold outside.
• In AAVE, you say He workin’, while in standard English you say He’s working. In AAVE you say He be workin’, while in standard English you say He works.
To sum up, let’s not overreact to what Senator Reid said about our current President’s language skills. True, he may have made his point somewhat crudely, but that doesn’t diminish the validity in what he said. Every English speaker or English language learner should have solid skills in using the standard dialect that is understood by everybody, but that doesn’t mean that those same people shouldn’t have the skills in one or another dialectal variation when appropriate. Da’s wussup wit’ dat.

So what’s your take on this subject? I’d love to hear your comments.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Using Graphic Syllabi in Your Classroom

By Keli Yerian
Instructor, English Language Institute
University of Oregon

Imagine you are a student on the first day of an ESL class at the college or university level. The teacher hands out a syllabus, which looks something like this:

Which document would most intrigue you?

As ESL teachers, we have all thought about how to make our materials motivating and accessible. But when it comes to that first, serious, administrative document full of official information that must be communicated to students at the beginning of the academic term, most of us have probably assumed it was simply necessary to present it as is.

I also assumed this before I read Linda Nilson’s fascinating book called The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating your Course (2007). Nilson’s argument (which is not written specifically for language teachers but for all academic instructors) is this: when key information about a course, such as its structure, content, and assignments, is presented through graphics, it will be more easily understood and retained by students. In a graphic syllabus, spatial arrangements, colors, shapes, arrows, flow diagrams, and even drawings can allow students to actually see the relationships among different aspects of the course. When they can see these relationships, they can organize them within an overall schema for ‘what this class is about’ or ‘what I will learn in this class’, or ‘what I’ll need to do in this class’, right from the beginning. A supplemental text syllabus can then be given to fill in the administrative details.

Nilson cites research showing that visual material in general is retained and accessed more easily than written material in memory, and is more efficiently processed by the brain. She also points out that although all students would benefit from graphic syllabi, they might be particularly motivating for visual, global, and intuitive learning styles. If this might be true for native speakers of a language, how much might they help our non-native students, who are faced with an even bigger processing challenges in a second language? Although no research has been done yet on graphic syllabi in language classes, I would guess the answer would be ‘a lot’. I have been using graphic syllabi in many of my classes for the last few years, and have had very positive responses so far.

You might be thinking, “Well, that could be true, but it won’t work for me because I’m not artistic”. But non-artists can take heart, for even a simple flowchart, created for example through Word’s SmartArt Graphics templates, can capture some crucial course elements in graphic form. Word’s draw function allows users to easily paste various shapes and lines into a document, including arrows and text boxes for labels. Here is an example using SmartArt Graphics that was made by a new teacher in just a few minutes. The two examples above were also both created with Word.

In fact, it is best to keep these syllabi relatively simple. Too much information can overwhelm the eye. The only ‘negative’ comments I’ve had on my graphic syllabi have been when they have tried to communicate too much. Colleagues and even past students of the course can help you adjust and clarify your graphic documents. Current students too can be asked to create ‘pictures’ of how they understand the course goals or structure, even if you have not provided any picture yet to them. These student creations may reveal any misconceptions students might have about the course, as well as provide new ideas and inspiration to the instructor.

Try it out! As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.

Nilson, L. (2007). The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Friday, January 8, 2010

To Read or Not To Read

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Getting students to read aloud is something I had often done as a teacher without giving it much critical thought. After all, if the students are reading, it means that I am not. And that means a reduction in teacher talk time — something we all strive for, right? However, in the past year, I have had two personal experiences that have shaped the way I approach reading aloud in my own ESL classes.

I have no idea what I just read.

About a year ago, my former supervisor convened a study group with the goal of learning more about how students learn to read. The teachers who participated were given several academic articles to read, and we met after reading each one and discussed it. One article was particularly dense and difficult to understand, even for educated native speakers. The study group was focused on one specific paragraph. In order to get a clearer grasp of the information, the group leader asked me to read it aloud. As I did, I noticed something fascinating happening. I was concentrating so hard on correctly pronouncing the words and getting the phrase groups right, that I had no idea what I had read when I was done.

If this can happen to a person reading in her own language, what happens when students read in a language that is not their first? As a result of this experience, I tried to avoid having students read aloud at all. I read everything, from the course syllabus on the first day of class, to the instructions for each activity, to the reading passages that I didn’t have them read silently. I wanted to make sure that they never read something aloud with no idea of what they were reading. However, I was often left with a tired voice and the nagging feeling that I was cheating my students of valuable practice.

Read after me.

It wasn’t until I joined my French class that I experienced the joys (or at least the benefits) of reading aloud for myself. When she gives us a text to read, my teacher, Sandy, reads it aloud or plays a recording of it first. That gives us a chance to note the pronunciation of key words, mark down the liaisons, and figure out what the text was actually about. Then, she assigns pieces of the dialogue or text for each of us to read aloud. We each read our bit and then listen as the other students read theirs. We recycle the same text over and over until every student has had a chance to read. Sandy interrupts our reading to correct our pronunciation as necessary. As a student, I feel quite comfortable with this activity. I feel well prepared for the phonological aspect of the task, and I already understand what I am reading, so I don’t feel stressed out in the slightest when I am asked to read aloud.

The consequence of this experience has been a limited return to reading aloud in my own classes. When we come across a dialogue or text in our course materials, I read it first and then the students take turns reading one or two sentences each. Sometimes I call on students randomly, and sometimes we go around the room. It gives me a chance to hear students’ pronunciation and address any issues they have, and it appears to increase their confidence as well.

“Is Reading Aloud Allowed?”

However, this evolution of my teaching practice had all been more or less subconscious until I read an article in the latest edition of English Teaching Professional by Jeremy Harmer called, “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” In it, he debates the pros and cons of reading aloud and ultimately argues that there are many benefits to incorporating this activity into the ESL lesson plan. He makes the case for reading aloud as a diagnostic instrument (back to having students read bits of my syllabus on the first day, then) and as a tool for helping students to make connections between words and phrases and the sounds associated with them.

In addition, he also contends that reading is an actual real-life skill. As a PhD student, I use reading aloud when I have to read a dense academic text. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times and rely on the pausing to help me decipher the message of the text. In my experience, this is also a useful strategy for students who face the difficult academic texts from standardized tests. Being able to chunk the texts into manageable bits can help students to more quickly and easily understand what it is they are reading.

I am convinced that reading aloud has an important place in our classrooms. When done carefully, it can be a powerful tool and can help students hone reading and pronunciation skills they otherwise might not be able to. However, Harmer insists that the text that students read aloud has to be carefully chosen, they need to understand what it is they are reading, and they need time to listen and/or rehearse before being asked to do it in front of the class.

Harner, J. (2009) “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” English Teaching Professional, 65.