Archive for February, 2010

Friday, February 26, 2010

Is That (Really) Clear?: Refining the Art of Gauging Students’ Listening Comprehension

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

In 1996 I flew to the US for the first time. Somewhere over the Atlantic, I was standing in line for the restroom when another passenger approached me and asked politely for what I considered at the moment to be an odd favor. I had not quite caught the whole message, but because by trade I was a teacher of English (someone expected to have few if any problems with listening comprehension), I shied away from asking the woman for clarification and simply responded. It seemed that she was asking me to wipe her tray table where she had spilled some juice. Astonished, I remarked, Well, that’s quite an unusual favor you’re asking me for. Her facial expression indicated that she considered my response peculiar- after all, she was only inquiring about whether she could go ahead of me in line to get a paper towel so that she could quickly clean up the result of her “juice accident.”

My reluctance to ask for clarification stemmed from my unwillingness to admit that I had just experienced a complete lack of listening comprehension. That woman’s words were English words, and I had been studying English for years. Even though I considered the woman’s request bizarre, the circumstantial combination of an adultish ego and a childish timidity prevented me from asking her to clarify or repeat what she’d said. I realized later, however, that if the woman and I had been speaking Polish, my first language, I wouldn’t have thought twice about responding with a Slucham? (Pardon me?). Italic

Two Obstacles to Gauging Listening Comprehension

That experience reminded me of two basic obstacles to gauging listening comprehension in the ESL/EFL classroom (two obstacles regularly highlighted in ESL/EFL methodology courses):
  1.  Students frequently avoid asking for clarification or repetition.
  2.  Students often answer Yes or nod their heads in response to the question Is that clear? when they know that they do not sufficiently understand the concept or point about which they are being asked. Italic
Common Ways of Actuating Requests for Clarification
How do we usually embolden students to ask for clarification or repetition?
Many of us:
  • provide students with a list of phrases they can use, such as Could you repeat that? or Excuse me, what does … mean?;
  • praise students who ask for clarification by saying, That was a good question or I’m glad you asked that question;
  • or illustrate that “comprehension checks” are a natural component of conversation, both formal and informal, and they often take similar forms in students’ first languages.
Common Ways of Ensuring Comprehension

How do we usually ensure that students’ Yes, I understand. really reflects comprehension?
Many of us:
  • read students’ body language when they answer the question Is that clear?;
  • ask follow-up questions, such as Which exercise will you be working on now? or What does … mean?;
  • or ask students to repeat the key idea mentioned.
Alternative Ways of Ensuring Comprehension

I’m familiar with a few alternative ways of ensuring students’ comprehension, and I’ll share them in the forthcoming Part II of this post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about additional ways of ensuring students’ comprehension which have been effective in your classroom.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Multi-Purpose Exercise: The Incomplete Dialogue

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

A: Mr. Firsten, I’d like you to meet a colleague of mine, Sue Van Etten.

B: How do you do?
C: _____________________________________

Okay, I’m sure you can figure out what Speaker C says on that blank line without having to put your thinking caps on, right? You’ll probably say How do you do? or you might put Nice to meet you or some such response. That’s because your communicative competence is just that, competent!

But would your students have that same competence in this formal situation? In fact, how do you even know it’s a formal situation? Well, Speaker A addresses me as “Mr. Firsten,” not “Richard.” And then there’s the use of that formal, first-time greeting, “How do you do?” These two elements tell me right off that the situation is formal. That’s because my communicative competence is working fine. And I know that a typical response to such a formal greeting is to repeat the same greeting; that’s why it’s correct for Speaker C to say “How do you do?” if she chooses to. Just imagine: in only these three lines, we’ve had to deal with both cultural and linguistic skills.

We’ve also touched on the use of punctuation as an aid to the reader. Notice that the blank line has no punctuation at the end. That’s to allow for either a question (How do you do?) or a statement (Nice to meet you). The students have choices.

A: Flowers by Devon. Frank ________________. ___________________?
B: Yes, please. _______________________________________________.
A: I’m afraid that’s job’s been taken.

I should mention right off that students should be told to read an incomplete dialogue all the way through at least two or three times before they attempt to fill in the blanks. Doing so will give them a basic idea of what the dialogue is about and what the speakers are saying. I should also mention that working on incomplete dialogues is great for pair work. Two minds are better than one.

Now, let’s discuss what our students will have to deal with if presented with these next three lines of dialogue. First off, it would be fun to see if the students can figure out whether the two people are speaking face to face or on the phone. Because of the way Frank starts off the dialogue, it should be obvious that he’s answering a phone call. In fact, we’d probably fill in that first blank with speaking or here.

And now something else that’s interesting happens. In order to figure out what will be appropriate for the next blank, the students need to be sensitive to the fact that it ends with a question mark, so a question will be required, and they need to drop down to the next line and see what Speaker B’s response is to help them figure out a proper question. Since Speaker B says “Yes, please,” it seems reasonable to assume that Frank has asked, “Can/May I help you?” “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help you?” just won’t work. But what on earth does Speaker B say next? If the students drop down again to the following line, they should be able to figure this out. Aha! Because of what Frank says now, Speaker B must have asked if he/she can apply for a job that must have been advertised, so the students can fill in this blank with something like I’d like to apply for the job of flower arranger or I’m calling about the job as a salesperson.

As you can clearly see, incomplete dialogues offer our students quite an array of practice for various language skills. Reading comprehension is right there in the forefront. Knowledge of punctuation comes in a close second. In addition, critical thinking is an overall must, including powers of deduction.

Now let’s take a look at yet another use for incomplete dialogues.

A: Who are you sending that fax ___?
B: Our main office.

A: Who are you sending that fax ___?
B: The boss. She said to get it out right away.

Here’s a great opportunity to see how much language sensitivity our students have. By reading each answer given by Speaker B, they should be able to figure out which preposition will work in each blank. The only possibility in the first blank is to. The only possibility in the second is for.

Incomplete dialogues can be as simple or as challenging as you would like them to be. They can be very controlled, honing in on one element of language (like the prepositions above), or they can be very open ended and allow students a great deal of flexibility with their answers. They can cover cultural or communicative competence (key and register) and language skills (sensitivity to punctuation, reading comprehension, and language sensitivity such as vocabulary choices). But perhaps most important of all, incomplete dialogues allow students an opportunity to play with their new language and see what does and doesn’t work in a given context.

Let’s look at one more example to show you what I mean.

A: You don’t look so good. _______________________________________?
B: I feel really dizzy and nauseous. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
A: ___________________________________________________________.
B: No, don’t do that. I don’t need paramedics!
A: ___________________________________________________________?
B: Well, if I don’t feel better soon, maybe you should take me there.
A: Okay, just let me know ________________________________________.
B: I will. And thanks.

Here are some possibilities that students could use to fill in the blanks:

A: You don’t look so good. What’s the matter? / What’s wrong? / Are you okay? / Are you all right?
B: I feel really dizzy and nauseous. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
A: I’m going to call 911. / Maybe I should call 911.
B: No, don’t do that. I don’t need paramedics!
A: Would you like me/Do you want me to drive/take you to the emergency room/the hospital?
B: Well, if I don’t feel better soon, maybe you should take me there.
A: Okay, just let me know if you want/you’d like to go / if you want me to take you (there).
B: I will. And thanks.

Just think about how many skills this dialogue covers. Besides all the ones I’ve already discussed, we now also have survival skills, being able to handle a real-world situation in the United States: knowledge of 911, what paramedics do, and emergency rooms. A dialogue like this one is a great way to find out how much or how little your students know about certain situations and how to deal with them, and they offer a great oppor
tunity to plan lessons or discussions on aspects of life in the US that students may need to know more about.

If you haven’t already done so, start incorporating incomplete dialogues into your lessons. The more you create them, the better you’ll get at writing them. And the biggest plus is that your students will have the chance to practice many linguistic and cultural skills all at the same time. It doesn’t get better than that!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What’s the Word on Vocabulary Acquisition?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Words are the starting point of language. As a French student, I hunger for more words, and as an English teacher, I strive to make learning words interesting and easy in my classes. In my experience teaching different levels, I have seen a difference in the needs of students of different levels. Beginning students seem, in general, to simply need vocabulary, while more advanced students seem to want to not only build their vocabulary, but also to use a variety of words easily in conversation.

It’s Not Even on the Tip of my Tongue
As a lower-level French student living in Belgium, I am living proof of the hunger for more words. The more words I learn, the more I forget. My inability to remember words is unbelievably frustrating, and, while my grammar errors are cringe-inducing, I can still communicate. However, a lack of vocabulary can stop an interaction in its tracks. Even when the motivation is high to remember a word, it slips away. For example, I have a prescription that I get once a year from the doctor and I leave on file at my pharmacy. For the past year and a half, I have referred to the prescription as “le papier”, the paper. Recently, when we learned the word for “prescription” in my French class, I was thrilled. No longer would I be the neighborhood idiot. I was strongly motivated to remember the word, and I said it quietly to myself several times in class. However, a couple of weeks have passed, and I can’t remember the word to save my life. I guess it’s back to “le papier”.

Flash Cards
From this, I have learned that students need more exposure to words in order to retain them. Experts suggest that learners need to see or hear a word a minimum of 12 to 15 times in context before they internalize it. Wow. In her presentation at TESOL 2009, Teaching Academic Vocabulary and Helping Students to Retain it, Eli Hinkel suggested a tried-and-true method for memorizing vocabulary: flash cards that are reviewed regularly. I have even heard of students putting words on post–its all over their house with the translation on the back for a constant barrage of English vocabulary. I can’t help but feel that if I had to look at the French word for “prescription” several times a day, I would still remember it.

Danny’s List
However, Danny, my wonderful student from Germany faces the second problem that I described above. Danny’s English is so good that I wondered why he would bother with English classes at all for that matter. When he showed me his working list of vocabulary, I was very impressed. He was doing everything right, as far as I could see. His list included everything from academic vocabulary to words associated with his work to phrasal verbs and idioms. He adds to the list frequently and diligently and studies it often to increase retention. His problem, however, lies not in memorizing the words, but it being able to retrieve them when actively engaged in a conversation.
Activate the Passive
So, how can Danny activate his passive vocabulary? Unfortunately, I don’t know any easy answers. (If you do, please respond to this blog immediately! I always like an easy answer!) One of my more advanced students, Emre, thinks hearing it is the key. She told me that she will never forget the word “flexibility” because she attended a presentation in which the speaker repeated the word many times. After the presentation, she was comfortable using the word in conversation without much conscious thought. Obviously, the more exposure students have to English input, the more likely passive vocabulary will become active. However, for students who want a more structured method for activating their vocabulary, unfortunately, I have little to offer.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Sick Policy For ESL Teachers?

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

I recently subbed three ESL classes for a friend at a large US university. She’d known of her upcoming absence for at least a week, and left lesson plans and notes for me, and all necessary photocopies and papers. All I had to do was appear and conduct her lessons. I was paid for my time by the university.

Sick leave policies for ESL teachers lead to teaching while sick

However, the experience reminded me of just how unusual it was, at least at university programs in the US. Normally, at this university (as has been my experience at all of the other American universities where I have taught), an absent teacher is expected to arrange for a colleague to sub the class, free of charge—or to pay the sub out of his/her own pocket. Additionally, one is expected to prepare a lesson plan and materials—which of course is harder to do if one is sick. For this reason, many teachers—even those who have sick leave, which not all of them do—actually find it less stressful to teach while sick. I’ve known teachers with complete laryngitis who taught their lessons entirely through mime and writing, rather than miss one lesson.

Why are onerous sick leave policies unique to ESL department?

Interestingly, this system of having every class subbed by someone seems to be somewhat unique to ESL. In other departments, if a professor is sick, the department secretary hangs a note to that effect on the classroom door, and class is canceled. Students don’t seem to mind all that much, either—it’s like a personal snow day. Work is made up in the next class session or electronically through email or programs such as Blackboard.

I remember once teaching French classes at a university, and I had to miss the Wednesday before Thanksgiving for a professional conference. I asked every French teacher I could find to substitute for me, but they were all teaching at the same time. When I met with the Department Chair to explain my problem, he was nonplussed. First he asked me why I thought any students were going to show up in the afternoon before a holiday weekend (something I hadn’t even considered), and then asked me why I didn’t just cancel the classes. “But I won’t be able to make them up later,” I explained. His response was, “So?” And so I canceled the classes, and no, it didn’t seem to throw my semester into turmoil.

I’ve never known an ESL class to be canceled like that, however. Somehow, a sub is always found. I’ve worked at American universities where teachers were explicitly told when hired that they should find a “friend” on the faculty with whom they would agree to sub for. The problem is, of course, that not everyone is absent the same number of days each term. Some people get sick more often than others, or need time off every now and then to care for sick family members—which meant that some people wound up subbing a lot more often than their colleagues, which led to hard feelings. Additionally, as was the case in the French department, many classes are held at the same times, so that one can’t necessarily sub for a friend even if one wants to. And finally, the stress of preparing a lesson plan that someone else can pick up and follow is sometimes too much to cope with when one is already feeling sick enough to be considering missing a class. The solution that has been sometimes presented to me is to always have an “emergency lesson plan” at the ready, that someone could come in and teach at any point in the term—but I probably don’t need to explain here that such a thing is not always possible for every class.

Now, I do see the other side of the issue too. Students have paid money to attend a class, and have the right to expect that class will be held. It’s hard enough to cover all of one’s material in a term when everything runs smoothly; missing hours of instruction time just makes it harder. If I really thought that one of my lessons wasn’t necessary or important, then I wouldn’t have done my job as a teacher in preparing it. Still, though, I can’t subscribe to the notion that the whole system will come crashing down upon us if a class is canceled every now and then—and I do think there’s a real harm being done to teachers who feel pressured into teaching while sick (not to mention a harm to those around them).

A model sick leave policy in Rabat?

I can’t, from here, recommend a system that will work for every institution. I know that the best system I ever encountered was at the American Language Center in Rabat, Morocco: If a teacher was sick, he/she called in and said so. A lesson plan for the sub was appreciated, but not required (a detailed curriculum existed for each class, so a sub could walk in and know reasonably well what should be covered that day). Teachers were not allowed to arrange for their own substitutes (to avoid pressure on one’s friends). Instead, the Center arranged for a sub—and, the Center paid subs at 1.5 their regular rate, so subbing was actually something that a lot of people were happy to take on. So that is my model for an ideal situation, in case any program administrators are reading this blog. Let’s remember that in many universities, there is no requirement that ESL teachers alone among the faculty find subs and remunerate them out of their own pocket; it’s a custom that somehow we have all chosen, and therefore, we have the power to alter it.

Plan ahead

What I can recommend, strongly, is that every teacher interviewing for a job ask about the institution’s policy on absences, and for all currently employed teachers to think about what they would do if they had to miss a class. Is it possible to have an “anyone can do it at any time” lesson plan in reserve? Is it time to create a more detailed syllabus, just in case some day someone needed to walk into your class cold? Do you have a friend who could sub for you? Are you willing and able to sub for others? What are your personal thoughts on teaching while sick, and do your students and colleagues share those convictions? What are your legal rights?

And finally… a reminder to others as well as myself that good diet, frequent exercise, and adequate sleep reduce our chances of becoming ill in the first place.