Archive for July, 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Move Over Learning Curve! Bring on the Learning Square!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

In the middle of a lesson about the second conditional, I was calling on students to check a routine grammar exercise from the text that they had just completed in pairs. One student, Guy, shared the correct answer and I praised him, “Well done!” At this, he assumed a slightly philosophical air and said, “Well, yes, it is correct. But this is difficult when it is not in the book.” In other words, Guy was making the complaint I have heard many time from students; filling in the gaps is (sometimes) easy, but remembering grammar rules when one is in the middle of a spontaneous conversation is an entirely different matter. Guy and all the other students who have similarly grumbled are absolutely right. This is usually the point in the semester when I dust off my handy Learning Square.

The Learning Square?

I learned about this depiction of the learning process from Linda Grant (2008) in her talk about how to teach pronunciation. However, she said the chart was not her own invention. Rather, it came from somewhere completely unrelated to English Language Teaching, and is applicable to mastering any new skill in general. Once I get up on my little Learning Square soapbox, I remind students that if they are learning any new skill, it takes time. For instance, if they decided to take up fencing out of the blue, they would go through a similar learning process as they are with learning another language.

The Goal: Unconscious Competence!

The Learning Square looks like this:

Stage Consciousness Competence
4 - +
3 + +
2 + -
1 - -

My explanation (which I must caution might be a distortion of what Linda Grant said two years ago) goes like this:

  • When a student is just beginning to learn new target language (for instance the second conditional), he/she doesn’t know the rules and can’t correctly use the target language. This is stage 1.
  • After a while, the student learns the rules, but still has trouble using the target language accurately in either written exercises and/or conversations (stage 2). This is the stage Guy is at, in my opinion. He knows how to form the second conditional (if + simple past + , + would + base), but he still has questions when he does his homework and he has trouble remembering the form in the less controlled conversation activities I assign in class. (For example, If your house was on fire, what one item would you save?)
  • The third stage is reached when the student is consistently accurate whenever he/she is thinking consciously about the grammar rule.
  • The fourth, final and most coveted stage is when the student uses the target language correctly without thinking about it, or unconscious competence.

Quality Input

Progressing up the ranks from level 1 to level 4 depends on continuous quality input. In terms of language learning, this could mean continuing to take ESL classes or it could mean listening to the radio or making English-speaking friends. Of course, this square does not describe the learning process of ALL students. Moreover, a student might be at a level 3 when it comes to the present progressive, but a 1 when it comes to the passive voice. Also, a progression up the chart is never assured. Even when they receive quality English input, we have all seen fossilized students who never progress past the second level; and there is no “schedule” by which the Learning Square operates. One student may jump from 1 to 4 quickly, while another student might be stuck at a 2 for years. However, the Learning Square helps students to see that even if they can’t master a skill completely within 2 or 3 lessons, there is still hope for them. If they continue to receive quality input, at some point, they may find themselves unconsciously competently using the second conditional.

Grant, L. (2008) Teaching Pronunciation: Meeting Individual Needs, paper presented at TESOL 2008, New York.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Go with the Flow: Yes or No?

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

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired, and over all those years I learned to enjoy the challenges of teaching grammar the most. There were rules. I taught the rules, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly by example. There were right ways to say things and wrong ways. I figured I was teaching the right ways. I mean, I followed what was stated in textbooks and sometimes consulted what the “experts” had to say. I considered myself a teacher in the know, and did my best to pass on that knowledge to my students. Nothing was fuzzy back then. Now lots of things seem fuzzy.

Let me ask you something. As ESOL teachers, at what point do we decide to teach what a great many people really say rather than what textbooks tell us we should say? Since we have no arbitrators for English the way the French do with their Académie Française, when do we determine that we should teach our students a form or a term that isn’t found in our textbooks?

Here are some examples of the kinds of utterances I often hear made by quite a cross section of native English speakers, both educated as well as uneducated. Oh, and by the way, when you look over the following utterances, don’t think that just because one may sound more “hillbilly-like” than another that it hasn’t been said by an educated speaker:

  • On December twenty-two, did you deliver the shipment as scheduled?
  • It was a moment where I found myself wondering if I was seeing things.
  • The kids threw a surprise anniversary party for Frank and I.
  • Me and him just couldn’t agree on anything.
  • They gave copies of the invoices to both Bob and myself.
  • We couldn’t figure out where he was at.
  • Two coffees, please.
  • A: Would you mind if I asked you a personal question? B: Sure. Go ahead.
  • If I knew he was injured, I would’ve taken him to the emergency room.
  • Your child just bit mine. Look at the teeth marks on my kid’s arm!
  • Because of his obesity, his heart is having to work harder than it should.
  • I’ll try and* get help.

Not the way you’d teach those elements in bold face to your students, you say? I guess you’d go with the following instead or at least most of the following:

  • December twenty-second
  • when
  • me
  • He and I
  • me
  • n/a
  • cups of coffee
  • No. or Not at all.
  • had known
  • tooth marks
  • has
  • to*

Am I right? Yet day in and day out, I hear native speakers say such utterances the way I’ve listed them above. Are we to consider so many people wrong? After all, isn’t it a rule of thumb in English that if enough people consistently say something a certain way, it becomes an acceptable alternative? And if it is an acceptable alternative, shouldn’t it be actively taught? There isn’t one thing I’ve listed that isn’t constantly said by a very large number of native speakers on a daily basis.

And then there are some cultural issues that influence the way we speak. For example, when I was a kid, I was taught that in business or polite conversation, I should address a person with the appropriate title (e.g., Mr.) and that person’s last name. At a certain point, that person might tell me to call him or her by the first name instead, or I might ask if I could do so. Nowadays, mostly with salespeople, it seems they immediately go for using my first name, and I really find that objectionable. In a business situation especially, I feel the distance created by using the title and last name is appropriate, and I also feel it shows more respect to me if I’m addressed as Mr. Firsten rather than Richard. Is it just me? Am I that much of a throwback to an earlier era?

On top of that, at least in my part of the country (Florida), I’ll often be addressed in a similar situation as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. That drives me nuts, and I immediately counter by telling the person I’m Mr. Firsten. Does that ever happen to you? And if it does, do you accept it? Do you like it?

The point is, so many people use those alternative grammatical forms or ways of addressing people in business situations that I wonder if we have an obligation to address those alternatives in our lesson planning.

What’s your opinion on these subjects? You tell me. I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will have an opinion, and I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will be interested in learning what everybody else has to say. Okay, folks, go for it! Click on the word “Comments” and tell us what you think. I myself am really anxious to hear what you’ve got to say on this very perturbing issue.

*Yes, I know that you may think there’s nothing “wrong” with saying I’ll try and get help instead of I’ll try to get help, but put try in any other form and and doesn’t work. For example, would you accept I’m trying and getting help or I’ve tried and gotten help? Hmm . . . So if it’s not right in those forms, why would you consider it right in that one form?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Playing Games, Part 4

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


Many students will already know this classic matching game, but even if they don’t, it’s not hard to explain. I use this game as a vocabulary review. Allow a good 45 minutes! And with the extension activities listed at the end, it can fill an hour. However, if the preparation is done the class before or as homework, it can be played in 20 minutes.

Students are divided into groups of 4-6. If time permits (here is the step that can be done as homework), each group is given 20-25 words or allowed to choose words from their textbook or other source they have used. Words should be ones previously studied, however; this is a review game, not a teaching game. Students write a definition of the word or an original sentence that exemplifies the word, with a blank line where the word would go.

Example: the target word is “luxury”

For me, a cell phone is not a _____ . It’s an essential tool for my personal and professional life.

It’s important that you check each sentence or definition to make sure it is correct and sufficient, since the group will be drilling with these sentences.

When the definitions and sentences have been approved, students write the word on a small blank flashcard (I cut standard 3″ x 5″ file cards in half) and the matching definition or sentence on another. The words are shuffled together, and the sentences and definitions are shuffled together.

The cards are then laid face down in rows. If you are playing with 25 vocabulary words, then you will have 5 rows of 5 cards on one side of the table for the words, and 5 rows of 5 cards on the other side for the definitions and sentences.

A player starts by choosing, at random, one card first from the word side and then one card from the definition/sentence side, and — here is the important part! — reading each out loud. If they match, the player keeps them and earns one point. If they don’t match, each card is returned to the original position, and the next player draws two cards.

In some forms of this game, a player who correctly matches two items wins another turn; however, I believe this method favors the stronger students and gives them more practice, whereas it is really the weaker students who need more practice, so I don’t allow it.

Inevitably, cards will be drawn again and again, even after their matches have been seen before. This is the nature of the drill — students are repeating and remembering, repeating and remembering. It may take some supervision on your part to remind them to say the words and definitions/sentences aloud each time, yet this is the crucial step.

The game finishes when all cards have been matched.

If time remains in class, have students make two stacks of cards, again keeping the words together and the definitions/sentences together. First, have them take turns drawing a definition/sentence and recalling the words (they should be pleasantly surprised by how easy this is!). Then, have them take turns drawing a word and either recalling the example definition/sentence or creating a new one.  This, too, is usually pretty easy by this point.

Students of all ages and levels enjoy this game, and the advantage for you is that they will drill and drill until they really know the words, with minimal supervision on your part. You can even keep the games the groups have created to use with other classes (as long as those other classes are studying the same vocabulary, of course). Cutting out the preparation step means less practice for new groups, but does save the preparation time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Colors: Beyond the Basics

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

Looking into my closet the other month, my best friend said that my clothes seemed “uninspired.”  She surveyed my blues, greys, and beiges with increasing dismay, and concluded that the colors of my clothes simply blurred into one another on the shelves and hangers.  I’ve since been attending to color a bit more and I’m noticing all kinds of shades.  In fact, this summer I’m starting to get the feeling that the world’s colors are actually conspiring to awaken my sense of hue.

They have been revealing themselves almost relentlessly in all directions.  The oranges of poppies appeared between some train tracks I was watching.  Bold greens and striking yellows showed up in the embroidery of a tablecloth I saw at a folk culture center.  Subtly differing blues and whites emerged from an oil painting of a marine scene I viewed at a small museum.  I must say that I’m beginning to be energized a little by the “burst of hues” around me.

While it may still be a while before I buy a carnation-pink dress, I’ve been awakened enough to consider devoting a blog article to the use of colors in the language classroom.  So here it is.

Of course basic color terms are taught at beginning levels.  Students learn names of basic colors, describe the clothes someone is wearing, discuss living-room wall color preferences, and explore color idioms, color psychology, and so on.  Today, I’m thinking about what’s next, about what “color activities” we can use with our more advanced learners.

Mood: Modifying Color Names

This exercise is one I created a few years ago for an intermediate group and it has since sparked enthusiasm among many of my students.  The activity employs two sets of cards: one set with the names of various colors and one set with words describing moods, attitudes, or emotions.  Working in pairs, students draw three color cards and one mood card.  They are then asked to write a very short narrative paragraph which portrays the selected mood. This should be achieved mainly by using other words to modify the names of the colors.  When the paragraphs are ready, students read them out and ask fellow students to guess the mood that the piece was meant to portray.

Here are the ideas of one pair of my students.  The color cards drawn were: Orange, Yellow, and Brown. The color phrases created were: “Mud Orange,” “Washed-out Yellow,” and “Cockroach Brown.” Can you guess the mood card they’d selected?  (Answer: “Dislike”)

Hues: Categorizing Color Terms

This activity is dictionary-based and it is intended for intermediate or advanced learners.  The key tool is a healthy list of descriptive color terms.  Terms like these can easily be found in the paint aisles of home improvement stores.  Some discretion is required here, however, since terms like “Death by Chocolate” and “Gypsy Bloom” are clearly meant to be catchy, not accurate.

Here’s the procedure: students are given a jumbled list of color terms.  Each term includes a word or phrase that is most likely unfamiliar to them.  They are asked to categorize the terms by related basic (or primary) color.  “Heirloom Lace” and “Parchment Paper,” for example, can be put together under “White.” “Wilted Chives” and “Parsley Sprig” may be placed under “Green.”  “Pot Clay” and “Trekkers’ Tan” would probably go under “Brown.”  To their benefit, most students consult a dictionary several times in order to complete the task.

Color and Culture: Researching Color Symbolism

Advanced learners often enjoy tasks similar in difficulty level to those assigned to students who are native speakers.  Research-based projects are of that type.  Students can, for example, be asked to investigate the symbolism behind certain colors in various cultures.  More specifically, they may be assigned to research “Green (or Blue, or White, etc.) in the Flags of the World,” or “The Colors of Weddings across the Globe.”  One plus to this kind of project is the necessity for students to locate authoritative sources, and on occasion those may take the form of a fellow student who has a different cultural background.

Any colorful thoughts?

P. S. I’m off to paint my toenails….. Happy summer!