Archive for March, 2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In Praise of Praise

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

My son is a good writer. I remember when he became one, back in 6th grade—when his teacher told him he was one. He hadn’t really written much at that point, so she was just going on her instincts—she could see he loved to read, and his spelling and grammar were decent, and he did have a tendency to ramble on, when writing as well as when speaking.

He’d never minded writing before, but equally didn’t find it especially appealing; it was just something one did in school. However, once his teacher told him he was a good writer, he took that on. He spent more time on his assignments and he tried harder. He even said he felt he had to do better than the other kids in his class “because she expects it of me. I’m a good writer.” Not surprisingly, through increased effort, he really did become a good writer, a skill that stayed with him throughout high school.

Such a simple thing to say to a child: “You’re a good writer.” And yet what an impact it had. A well-placed comment like that can change the shape of someone’s education, and, by extension, their career and their future.

Of course, we can’t just tell all of the learners in our classroom that they are good writers and then stand back and watch it come true. For praise to be meaningful, it has to be said 1) with sincerity and 2) at the right time.

Praise that rings false is worse than no praise at all, and students are adept at knowing when you’re saying something you don’t really believe. Even if false praise is believed, it isn’t helpful because it gives students inaccurate information. Telling a student her pronunciation is excellent when actually she is practically unintelligible will (if she doesn’t believe you) lead her to think you’re making fun of her or don’t believe she can ever get any better, or (if she believes you) keep her from working towards necessary improvements.

Praise at the right time means praise when a student is open to hearing it and could use an affirmation or an encouragement. I think there’s something special about anticipatory praise, too, like my son got—he hadn’t won a Pulitzer prize for writing at that time, and in fact, being 11, hadn’t done much writing at all. But his teacher sensed his potential, and, in effect, praised that—creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think a lot of us can remember a time in our academic lives when we were feeling just a bit uncertain about our talents or unsure of ourselves and someone we looked up to gave us the right words of encouragement.

It’s not always easy to praise students. Sometimes we don’t know them very well. Sometimes they’re actually not doing very well. Sometimes other students demand more of our time.

I’ve found that many teachers, being compassionate and nurturing, actually pay more attention to those students who are struggling. Of course, this is a wonderful thing to do. And yet—I think it’s important not to overlook the students who are doing well. It’s shortchanging them to think that good test scores and grades are reward enough. Remember that “good” students can have as many insecurities and moments of self-doubt as the outwardly less successful.

I’ll close by describing an activity I’ve often done with classes at the end of a semester or term—although there’s no reason you couldn’t do it in the middle of a course either.

Have students sit in a circle, if your numbers and room space allow; otherwise, they can keep their regular seats, but a circle where they can all make eye contact is nice. Choose one student to start, and have her (or him) thank the person on her left for something concrete. Give a few examples at the start so students get the idea—

     “Thank you for giving me the homework assignments when I forgot to copy them down” or
     “Thank you for making me laugh in class” or
     “Thank you for letting me use your dictionary.”

The person receiving the compliment says “You’re welcome,” and turns to the person on his left and gives a compliment, and so on around the circle. Note that everyone gives and receives a compliment, and that students don’t choose whom they speak to (it’s just determined by seating order).

I promise that you will be amazed, as well as touched, by the things students mention! I’ve done this with high school students, university students, businessmen, mixed groups of adults and teens… and there are always a few people moved to tears. If you can’t always praise your students, then, let them praise each other.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Better Alternatives to Asking “Is Everything Clear?”

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

How many times have I hesitated before asking my students the question “Is Everything Clear?” Many. Why? Probably because I have suspected something.

Abandoning, or at least limiting the use of this seemingly handy comprehension check question has not been easy for me. It has been attaching itself, by some universal law, to the end of my classroom explanations for years.

However, in many cases the question has seemed to serve very little purpose.

When asked “Is everything clear?” (or some equivalent of it), students will frequently answer “Yes.” because they wish to save face, to please the teacher, or to help maintain the lesson’s momentum, etc. Knowing this, we can only wonder at the sincerity of that response on a given occasion. Similarly, the response “No.” usually provides little usable feedback. Head-shaking to indicate a negative response can leave the teacher uncertain about whether students have misunderstood just one word, or most of an explanation.

Since establishing students’ comprehension is crucial to the teaching-learning process, it may well be a good idea to replace the asking of some common, yet characteristically ineffective questions such as “Do you understand?” and “Is everything clear?” with alternative and more productive comprehension check techniques. Here are a few that I have found to be comparatively effective.

Ask very specific questions and encourage students to respond using fingers or cards.

Questions like “Would you like me to repeat the last sentence?” and “Is this structure familiar?” can be better alternatives to the sweeping and often ambiguous “Is that clear?” After all, students may be unsure about what “that” represents.

But even when more concrete questions are asked, some students may feel too shy or too embarrassed to give a frank answer verbally. Most likely, the teacher will hear from only those who understood the concept. We can sometimes get a more accurate response from students if they are allowed to provide their answer visually. One way is for students to show the teacher two fingers (index and middle) to reply “Yes.” or just one finger (index) to reply “No.” When students are seated in a traditional arrangement (or in one of several others no doubt), the teacher can easily see their replies but their peers cannot. This method seems to prevent quite a bit of that suggestiveness which can spread almost instantaneously when answers are given orally.

A similar technique uses pairs of cards (red and green) which are placed face down on students‘ desks. When asked a question, students may raise the green card to say “Yes.” or the red card to say “No.” Due to the color-coding, the teacher can quickly get an impression of students’ responses.

Use concept questions instead of questions requiring repetition or recall.

Concept questions allow us to check if students have grasped the meaning of the language item they are studying. They ask for interpretation rather than repetition or recall, they often involve personalization, and they differ somewhat in grammar and vocabulary from the constructions and words being practiced.

Example: The teacher has explained and illustrated the meaning of the phrase “to be reluctant to do something,” and in order to check students‘ understanding of the expression, the teacher has presented students with the following sentence: Mary was reluctant to share her textbook.

If students provide answers to questions such as “Who was reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Was Mary reluctant to share her textbook?”, the teacher will have little confirmation of students’ comprehension of the meaning of the phrase.
However, if they offer responses to concept questions such as “Why do you think Mary could have been reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Since she was reluctant to share her textbook, what might she have said if you’d asked her to let you use it?” or, even more personalized, “Have you ever been reluctant to share something? If so, why?”, the teacher will obtain more usable information. A much more effective comprehension check can result.

Provide students with opportunities to practice asking their own, focused questions.

Students often have questions but they don’t ask them. One reason has to do with the difficulty of formulating the questions that they know are appropriate. Sadly, students will sometimes avoid asking any question if they can’t manage to formulate the one they really wish to ask, and, of course, basic questions like “Could you repeat that please?” or “What does … mean?” do not always fit the context.
So, if an intermediate student hears the sentence “The documents need to be sent to the Office of Human Resources” and does not quite catch the name of the office, coming up with ways to ask for clarification regarding that information might be a real challenge, especially if the student assumes that an appropriate question would take a form such as “What office do the documents need to be sent to?

Complicating the matter is the fact that clarification questions are not always formulated as complete sentences in natural, daily conversation. If native speakers of English didn’t quite hear where the documents must be sent, they might simply say, “Where?
In his article “Say What?: Getting Students to Ask Questions,” Randall S. Davis suggests exposing students to an amount of focused repetition so that they can practice isolating words they don’t quite catch, using interrogative words to ask questions about missing information, adding tag questions, and even simply identifying some last word that they understood, repeating it, and adding a facial expression to show their puzzlement. Davis includes a couple of interesting exercises which are based on the strategy of focused repetition that he outlines.

I’ll continue in my mission to substitute a variety of comprehension check questions for the reflexive, but ordinarily ineffectual, question “Is everything clear?” (and just hope that my tongue won’t need any more splints for sprains). How about you? Do you find yourself using that question (or an equivalent) reflexively? Any thoughts on the value of using it?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Focus on Phrasal Verbs

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Don’t Put it off! Covering Phrasal Verbs, that is.

Phrasal verbs are, at best, an irritation to many English students. They are arbitrary in that the verb and preposition combinations often have nothing to do with the actually meaning of the phrasal verb. However, they are also ubiquitous. Once thought to belong solely to the realm of spoken or casual English, phrasal verbs are now acknowledged as being a part of almost every type of English, from news broadcasts to novels to college lectures to thesis papers. They are everywhere. Students have no choice but to learn them, no matter how frustrating the chore may be.

Quite often, phrasal verbs will appear in the later chapters of a grammar text. While I strongly support any exposure to phrasal verbs students can get, I wonder if this is the best place for them. In my opinion, phrasal verbs are more like discrete vocabulary items than grammatical patterns that can be learned and applied in a variety of situations.

Ideally, in my experience, phrasal verbs are best learned in a Listening / Speaking class. (However, because phrasal verbs show up in all kinds of written English as well, they could be certainly addressed in a Reading / Writing context as well.) I think that a Conversation class is a good fit for a phrasal verb lesson because, not only do students need exposure to this target language to be fully effective communicators, but it also gives teachers something concrete to teach in the class, in addition to doing “conversation practice” which can be a bit more difficult to measure. Learning phrasal verbs gives Conversation students the feeling that they are learning something tangible in a subject area which is not.

Getting on with the Business of Teaching Phrasal Verbs

First, I usually begin with a warm up of some sort that reviews the phrasal verbs from the previous lesson. I sometimes give students one index card each with either the phrasal verb or a gapped sentence and instruct the students to walk around the class until they find their match. Or, I might divide the class into groups of three or four students and have one student from each group turn with their back to the board. I write a phrasal verb from the previous lesson on the board, and the group has to give their partner clues until he / she shouts out the phrasal verb. The goal is to re-activate the vocabulary from the previous day and get students ready to think about English.

Then, we check the homework as a class. I strongly believe in assigning written practice with phrasal verbs. Keith Folse, in his wonderful text, The Art of Teaching Speaking, argues for the need for students to have time to prepare to speak. In my own experience as a French student, I know that I am better able to use vocabulary I have had written practice with. In addition, as a lazy student, I tend not to learn that which I am not forced to learn, and the pressure of homework is a great motivator. If the homework assignment was to use the phrasal verbs in sentences or a story, I collect them and check them myself. However, if the homework was a gap-fill or matching activity, we usually go around the class and check the answers aloud. This is a great opportunity for me to correct any pronunciation errors (especially associated with the stress that belongs to the preposition in this unique case) on an individual level.

Then, students have time in groups to continue with some controlled practice. If we are tackling new phrasal verbs, I often give them a dialogue or sentences which give the phrasal verbs context. Students work in pairs to “guess” what the meanings are. If students are recycling previously learned phrasal verbs, they would work in pairs to complete some kind of written activity which elicits the target language. At this point, we are focusing on the meaning of the phrasal verbs and whether or not they are separable (the object can go between the verb and the preposition) or inseparable (the object can only go after the phrasal verb) or intransitive (the phrasal verb does not take an object) in this particular meaning. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with phrasal verbs is that these rules change when the meaning of the phrasal verbs changes.

Once I feel comfortable that the majority of students have grasped the ins and outs of the target language, we move on to a less controlled, more conversational practice. I either present the students with conversation questions containing the phrasal verbs we have studied or I assign them some kind of performance task (for example: plan a news report using five of the phrasal verbs or plan a family argument using five of the phrasal verbs, etc.), or I ask them to reach a group consensus about a subject that prompts use of certain phrasal verbs. This less-controlled task gives students freedom to experiment and make mistakes they can learn from.

Getting Students Caught up in their Own Learning
This process is, admittedly, a little slow for some students. It can take hours just to get a handle on 10 or 15 phrasal verbs. For more motivated students, a phrasal verb journal might be useful. When students hear or see a phrasal verb, they write it down and refer back to it often in order to commit it to memory. Students wanting a little more self study also might like Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell’s English Phrasal Verbs in Use. I like this text a lot because it divided the phrasal verbs into manageable subject areas.