Archive for May, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Make ‘Em Laugh: Expanding Students’ Descriptive Vocabulary

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

If you were asked what mode of writing you enjoy teaching most, what would you say? Argumentation? Comparison? Process? I’d probably choose two: narrative writing and descriptive writing. To justify my choice, I’d most likely mention the inherent versatility of these two modes. Each can be used at several proficiency levels, each can incorporate a variety of grammar structures, and each can be employed to facilitate the expansion of students’ vocabulary.

The Usual Road

Narrative as well as descriptive writing can accommodate and foster the use of expressive vocabulary. Yet there’s often a problem with these modes. They seem to allow too easily the use of vague vocabulary. Students writing in these modes choose verbs like “go,” “see,” “say,” and “think” frequently and verbs such as “meander,” “peek,” “ramble,” and “reflect” rarely. The tendency seems to hold even when students know two or three viable synonyms for “go,” “see,” etc. Nevertheless, students can be cajoled into using suggestive verbs such as “meander” and “peek” as well as graphic adjectives such as “cozy,” “dank,” and “agile.”

But how to cajole? That is the question.

I’ve often instructed students to refer to the senses, use color words, create similes, and avoid certain non-descriptive words when writing descriptive pieces. I’ve utilized the old “show me, don’t tell me” technique when instructing students in narrative writing. I’ve even created the “imagine the movie set” approach to get students to think about the finer details of what they have seen or imagined. I’ve used all these older and newer methods to pretty good effect, I think. They’re concrete enough, and students tend to respond to them.

Still, one alternative stands out in my mind as both natural and effective: the way of humor.

A Road Less Traveled

The way of humor is easier than many think, and it can result in the instinctive reaching for dictionaries and the desperate snatching of explicit words. The key instruction is this: Try to make your reader laugh.

Out of a combination of pedagogical intention and curiosity, I added a few potentially comedic themes to a list of writing topics recently. One theme for a narrative paragraph read “How Lucy Flunked out of Kindergarten.” One for a descriptive essay was “The Worst Restaurant in Town.” More than a few students have chosen one of the comical themes in the list since then, and several have reported that they naturally “spiced up” their papers with graphic images and vivid details in order to amuse the reader. Amused the reader has been, and I’ve been chuckling too.

Reading one “How Lucy Flunked” paper, I learned that Lucy wore some rather strange clothes to kindergarten, but the fact wasn’t expressed as dryly as that. No sir. Lucy’s ankle-length skirts always had ten rows of safety pins in them, and most of the safety pins were unfastened so they nicked other kids. (I was told that “safety pin,” “unfasten,” and “nick” were the words the student really needed to include, and so simply had to look them up in a dictionary!)

From a “Worst Restaurant” paper I learned that the restaurant floor wasn’t just “dirty,” but…,well, I’ll spare you the description of the substances that were splattered on the floor, the foreign matter that was hiding in the corners, and the smells drifting around the place. Oh, yes– it was quite an unappealing scene, but one which was “beautifully” detailed!

I have to say that I’ve been somewhat inspired by such successes. I think I’ll continue along this road awhile. The way of humor feels good and works well.

Have you used any writing tasks that incorporate humor?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Joys of Quizzing

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Now, I have to clarify; the joys associated with quizzing are felt primarily by me, the teacher, and less so by my students. However, I strongly believe that, even in programs which do not require grades or testing, quizzes are of great benefit to both the teacher and the student. Moreover, I confess (but don’t tell my French teacher) that I wish I could have more opportunities to take quizzes in my own language class.

The Obvious (and Not So Obvious) Benefits

We all know that regular quizzing serves a useful purpose in our classes. Most obviously, it shows teachers what students have retained (at least in the short term) from their most recent lessons. Tests can also highlight areas in which further revision is needed. If students don’t “get” something, a test is an easy way, and in the case of large classes or reticent students, perhaps the only way, for teachers to find out. Quizzes can also give students a sense of satisfaction when they do well on a quiz because a passing grade offers tangible proof that they are advancing in their linguistic development.

However, in my time as a French student, I have also come to realize that there is another benefit to quizzes: they force students to study and (hopefully) remember what is taught. I am a fairly lazy student, in spite of my best intentions. I sometimes neglect my homework and I don’t make it to class as often as I should. However, if I knew that I would be quizzed, I believe it would motivate me to work a little bit harder. I might be lazy, but I am also somewhat competitive. Knowing that my efforts would be given a number would make me more committed to my French lessons. Based on several highly unscientific surveys I have conducted of my own students, I believe I am not alone in my desire for assessment.

We Have to Speak?

Regardless of the “popularity” of quizzing, I think it behooves teachers to shake things up as much as possible. Giving the same old gap-fills and multiple choice quizzes chapter after chapter can get dull quickly. In addition, there are some students who are born test-takers; they know just how to excel on any kind of traditional test you throw at them regardless of their language abilities. The trouble is that, although these tests are easier to grade (and who wants to lug home more papers to grade?), they don’t really reflect how we use language in real communication.

Instead of the tried (and tried and tried) traditional tests, I have been incorporating a lot of spoken quizzes into my testing repertoire. For example, I have just finished teaching a unit on the past tense with my Pre-Intermediate class. On Monday, they are all expecting to take an oral quiz. I will call them up to my desk one at a time (the rest of the class will be otherwise occupied and not paying attention) and give them 5 base verbs that I have chosen randomly from the list at the back of their book. They have 1 minute to make 5 sentences (or less if they are very clever) in the past tense. They will be given a score from 1 – 4 for each verb they use.

1 = The student tried unsuccessfully to make a sentence.
2 = The student didn’t form the past tense correctly.
3 = The student formed the past tense correctly but there was a problem with meaning or pronunciation.
4 = Perfect!

This kind of oral quizzing can also work well for a variety of other grammar structures when students interact in pairs. For instance, if students have just finished a lesson on modals for asking permission, you can have two students come up to your desk and have a conversation in which they take turns asking each other for permission based on a variety of random situations you present them with. (“You are the student and your partner is the teacher. Ask him if you can leave class early today.”) Keep in mind that the “random” part is key; if students know exactly what you will ask them, they will memorize beautiful speeches that don’t demonstrate what they can do spontaneously. This kind of quizzing is quick (if I limit my students, I can get through the entire class in under 20 minutes) and easy to grade (it is done on the spot – no papers to drag home).

I should warn you, however, that the first time you threaten to give your students a spoken quiz they will groan like they are dying. Be prepared and be strong! Ultimately, they will acknowledge that this is a much more realistic version grammar use, and many will even come to prefer it to more traditional forms of testing.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Should Learning English Be Fun?

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

It’s a hard question, isn’t it? Saying “yes” might imply your classes aren’t serious or useful; but who wants to be teacher who says “No”? That’s not going to be a popular answer with your classes (or perhaps even your colleagues or your boss). It’s not really a yes/no question, though; maybe it would be better expressed as “How much fun should learning English be?” A better question, but no easier to answer.

What is the question, really? The one question you should be asking about learning, and by extension, your teaching? To me, it’s “Why are my students learning English?” Although there are many different answers, depending on the students, I am going to guess that the answer most of them would give, were we to ask this directly, would not be “To have fun.”

My high school-aged son is in his second year of learning Japanese in an American high school. I heard him exclaim, one evening, that he really liked his Japanese textbook. Since I write language learning textbooks, I naturally wanted to know why, and to take a look at his book.

It’s frankly not a very exciting textbook, at least visually. It looks like ELT books from 20 or 30 years ago. Black and white, with no photographs. The line drawings are simple and are only used for exercises, not as decoration. The exercises are pretty straightforward—here’s a model, here are some substitutions, now get in pairs and do it over and over again. There are no celebrities and no references to current TV shows or movies. There are no crossword puzzles.

I asked my son what he particularly liked about his book, and he said, “It’s easy to find the vocabulary in the unit—it’s all in a list.” Was that the most exciting feature? I asked, and he said yes it was, because that made it easy to study for tests. Were the dialogues exciting? He had no opinion. Did he wish there were color pictures? No opinion. Did he find the exercises fun? “Who cares?” was his answer. I explained that when I wrote textbooks, I was repeatedly asked to design exercises that were fresh yet relevant to students’ lives, that presented the material in engaging ways—that were, in a sense, “fun.” He laughed at me. “Mom, when I want to have fun, I play the XBOX, or hang out with my friends. I don’t study Japanese. What I want is a book that explains things clearly so I can study as efficiently as possible, because I don’t have a lot of time. I just want to know the stuff and get a good grade.” When pressed, he did say that he would be happy to learn Japanese from a modern attractive textbook with fresh engaging topics—but only as long as he could learn it as well and as quickly as he could do it with his current book.

To put it another way: You’re turning 11 years old. For your birthday, would you rather have a party with pony rides and a clown who can fold balloons into whimsical shapes, or would you rather have an ESL teacher come and give a rousing lesson on the present perfect? If you’re an adult, would you rather go to a jazz club with your friends, or have a little study group that examines the way transitions are used to connect paragraphs in an essay? How about learning the proper way to cite sources using APA formatting? No? Our students, for the most part, are not trying to have “fun” in class. They’re trying to learn English.

Now, certainly there are some students who are learning English because of a strong affinity for literature, who will go on to become poets and craftspeople who work with English because of a pure love of the language. However, I think most students want English to do well in school, or get a job, or travel, or interact with other people with whom English would be the common language; and for those students, what is going to make them happiest is success. Knowing the language. The extent to which an enjoyable activity leads them to this success is what should drive our choice to use this activity, and not whether the activity is a fun game in and of itself. Fun in the classroom now with no appreciable achievement in their learning goals will give you a class of students that laughs happily in every class and is ultimately unhappy and angry at the end of the term—and rightfully so. Activities that might seem repetitious or mundane, if they result in students learning the language, are actually going to please them more.

As stated before, though, “Should learning English be fun?” is not a yes/no question. It’s not that simple. Of course if you can assist students in their goal of learning the language quickly and thoroughly, and you can do so in an enjoyable way, you should by all means do so! There is only a problem when those two goals conflict, and a teacher chooses enjoyable over useful.

The question, therefore, that you should be asking yourself when selecting textbooks and exercises and games, when designing your own activities and worksheets, is not “Is this a fun activity?” but “How is this going to help my students learn English?” Once you are sure that the activity is worthwhile in the sense of being practical, then you can refine it or spice it up or dress it up as a game. Go ahead and be entertaining—once you are sure that you are meeting the needs of students as learners of the language. Ensure that your classes are useful and efficient, and your students will be grateful and, yes, happy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Peaceful Coexistence of L1 and L2 in a Language Classroom

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

“I’d like to talk to you after class,” I informed one of my 8th grade students, convinced that having missed another homework assignment, he needed to be reminded of our class expectations.  Since my teaching practicum supervisor, an unyielding believer in an exclusive use of L2 in a language classroom, was interested in observing our “after class” talk, English had to be the default language of that conversation.   I followed the English Only Rule, but sensed that the student perceived my words more as an intriguing oddity than a formal reprimand.

The use of L2 in EFL and ESL classrooms

Exclusive or predominant use of L2, a fundamental principle of the communicative approach, stresses the importance of frequent and natural exposure to the target language.  It makes sense, and there are many advantages to the approach.  Even if a school policy doesn’t impose the approach, linguistic realities may.  Like many of you, I have often had to use L2 exclusively if only because I wasn’t familiar with the L1 of each of my students.  Still, even if following the English Only Rule is generally feasible, it may not always be the best idea.  It seems to me that there is no pedagogical faux pas in brief “detours” into L1 under certain circumstances for certain good reasons.

Why and when can we use L1 in EFL and ESL classrooms?

According to Polio and Duff (1994), L1 is commonly used in foreign language classrooms to explain difficult grammar concepts, to solve problems caused by students’ lack of comprehension, to address administrative issues, and so on.  Of the eight typical causes of L1 use mentioned by these researchers, three, to my mind, stand apart clearly as good reasons.

To manage behavioral issues. Although there may always be some way to communicate pedagogical expectations without using L1, at times psychological purposes should be allowed, momentarily, to outweigh educational ones. I still believe that my 8th grader would have understood the importance of doing homework in my class much better had I spoken to him in Polish, our L1.

To communicate empathy or solidarity. Under certain circumstances it is appropriate to communicate understanding or unity to a student, and this can require appropriate, perhaps idiomatic, precision on the part of the teacher as well as full comprehension on the part of the student.  In her article “L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation,” Anne Edstrom recalls a situation which prompted her to use L1.  She had mispronounced a student’s name a few times and was worried about the way he felt.  By switching into L1, she was able to express her concern and to stress her good intentions in a timely and unambiguous manner. At one point she writes, “there are moments when my sense of moral obligation to a student, in this case concern about communicating respect and creating a positive environment, overrides my belief in maximizing L2 use” (287).

To teach the vocabulary of abstract concepts. Resorting to L1 while teaching the vocabulary of abstract concepts is naturally attractive.  In fact, it may make real sense now and then, perhaps when introducing words which have exact or near exact equivalents in L1, or perhaps when the minutes for practicing begin to evaporate as we pile on additional explanations, crowd the board with stick-figure drawings, and exhaust our muscles by over-gesturing.  At some point we begin to waste our students’ time.  Chances are that while witnessing our desperate attempts at explaining the meaning of a new word, at least one student will look the word up in a bilingual dictionary and will be happy to share his or her findings with the classmates (perhaps only to save them from boredom or frustration).

A recipe for success?

While circumspect use of L1 may accelerate the learning process, switching to students’ mother tongue should clearly be limited.  David Atkinson (1987) suggests that L1 should be used no more than five percent of the time in the foreign language or second language classroom.  In my experience, and I suspect in the experience of many other teachers of EFL or ESL, an expedient pinch here and a timely dash there of L1 is just about pedagogically right.

Any thoughts?  Any alternative recipes?

Atkinson, D. (1987). The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource? ELT Journal, 41/4, 241-248.

Edstrom, A. (2006).  L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63/2, 275-292.

Polio, C., and Duff, P. (1994). Teachers’ language use in university foreign language classrooms: A qualitative analysis of English and target language alternation. Modern Language Journal, 78, 313–326.