Archive for August, 2010

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That’s Not Really Hard, So Why Don’t They Get it?

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

Have you ever taken a course in another language? If you have, then you entered the realm of comparative linguistics without even realizing it. That’s because you would be subconsciously comparing how something is said in your native language to how it’s said in the language you were learning. So, for example, if you learned some Spanish or French, you quickly realized that the typical place to put an adjective is after the noun in those languages rather than before the noun, as we do in English. And you realized that the English phrase of the or of a closely resembles the way a genitive phrase is expressed in Spanish or French, but that there’s no equivalent of the –’s in those languages. Voilà! Comparative linguistics!

So why, then, do many ESOL teachers end up pulling the hair out of their heads when trying to teach something so seemingly easy as the use of that –’s? Why do their students often drop that inflected form and say things like the neighbor dog? The reason may not be that the students are just poor language learners; it may be due to language interference. There are languages in which the proper way to form a genitive phrase like the neighbor’s dog is to say “the neighbor dog.” This is something that would be useful for ESOL teachers to know so that they could anticipate the problem and hopefully nip it in the bud before the problem becomes fossilized.

To pursue this item a bit more as a case in point, let’s take a look at how this genitive phrase is produced in a few unrelated languages:

  • In Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia, you’d say the neighbor dog.
  • In Haitian Creole, you’d say the dog the neighbor.
  • In Arabic, you’d say dog the neighbor.
  • In Cantonese, a form of Chinese, you’d say neighbor the dog.

Aha! So it may very well be that it isn’t the fact that your students just don’t have the smarts to get it; it’s probably language interference with the structure of their native languages getting in the way that’s created this problem.

If you’re an EFL teacher, getting into comparative linguistics to make teaching certain grammatical points go more smoothly is relatively easy since just about all the students you have in any class speak the same language, the native language of the country you’re working in.

If you’re an ESOL teacher working in an English-speaking country with students from lots of other countries, the task of delving into comparative linguistics is more daunting, but definitely doable. You don’t need to become fluent in any of the languages spoken by your students. If you see that some or all of your students are struggling with a certain point of grammar, all you need to do is a bit of research into how that form is structured in their languages to see whether or not it may be creating a bigger problem to teach than you might have thought. And in those cases when a certain form is a big problem for certain students, you may find it useful to give them some comparative phrases in their languages and in English to show them how to switch from one way of communicating this to the other.

I guarantee that your students will be very impressed that you’ve familiarized yourself with something in their languages and can demonstrate how it crosses over from their languages to English. You’ll definitely win brownie points with them and, in addition, you’ll become a more effective teacher!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dialogues for Beginners: Snooping at Techniques of “Non-ESL” Language Teachers

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

The story below, which is almost twenty years old, is still worth a few chuckles to my friend and me, and it’s recently gained an additional value: this summer our recollection of an elementary school incident prompted not only an expected giggle, but also an investigation, or rather a casual “snooping,” at some practices used with beginning learners by teachers of languages other than English.

Here’s what happened years ago:

We were beginning students of Russian, and during our second or third class meeting we were asked to prepare a telephone conversation which was to include some of the phrases we’d studied.  As you can imagine, our vocabulary was meager, and our confidence about acting out the conversation in front of a group of other 12-year-olds was definitely shaky.  We scrambled for ideas and put together the following lines (here translated into English):

Good day.

- Good day.

- Is your father at home?

- Yes.

- Is your mother at home?

- Yes.

- Is your brother at home?

- No.

- Thank you. Good bye.

- Good bye.

We earned an F for this performance.  But get this.  It was a failure not because the dialogue was poorly prepared, but because it was never acted out!  The conversation seemed so painfully and funnily unnatural that it threw us into a fit of inextinguishable snickering.  We stood in front of the class with our heads down and shoulders shaking, unable to speak.

This summer my friend asked, “You’re a language teacher.  Is it still common teaching practice to ask beginners who know, let’s say, ten words to create and act out dialogues?

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from snooping into a textbook for beginning learners of Russian?

Curious to see what dialogue-based tasks are used these days by teachers of Russian, I leafed through a textbook published recently for beginning learners.  Interestingly, almost all reading tasks and the majority of the speaking activities were based on dialogues in that book.

In spite of having a limited vocabulary and a minimal knowledge of grammar, users of this textbook are regularly asked to create dialogues.  How does that make sense?  What makes their task possible and meaningful is that a clear, real context, together with a list of useful words and phrases, is provided.

So, after studying possessives and “furniture” vocabulary, students maybe be asked to prepare a dialogue for this sort of situation: You are in a new dorm.  Visit your neighbor.  Talk about your rooms.  Use these words: bed, table, desk, poster, curtain, lamp, sink, trash can, pillow, blanket.

Even though students’ dialogues may be fairly short and simple, the context will allow for a certain authenticity, and the vocabulary list will provide a level of comfort for the often vulnerable beginner.

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from taking a class for beginning learners of Modern Greek?

In her article “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher,” Diana R. Ransdell, an experienced ESL teacher, recalls a summer course she took in Modern Greek.  She concludes that the course not only helped her relate to her ESL students’ frustrations, but also provided “first-hand exposure to new techniques” which she later incorporated into her teaching (45).

One technique she remembers particularly well used creative writing. Before taking that course in Modern Greek, she “had never once given a creative writing assignment to beginning students” (43).  Typically, those tasks tend to be rather time-consuming and are generally given to students whose vocabulary is more extensive.  Later, however, because of her experiences as a language learner, she “took steps to ensure that creative writing would be an integral part of future teaching” (44).

As a beginning student of Modern Greek, she was asked to compose a creative story, which she wrote in the form of a dialogue. Because half of the vocabulary she knew at the time amounted to names of food items, the dialogue centered on the theme of food. In her dialogue she spoke to a vendor about the availability of watermelons, cherries, lemons, and bananas.  She writes: “The experience gave me a sense of power because the words I had used … were no longer mere words.  Now they were my words” (43).

So how should I answer my friend’s question about the currency of using dialogues with true beginners? Yes, it seems possible and common enough to ask beginning language learners to create dialogues even if their vocabulary is limited.  But perhaps to make sure that they don’t fail at this (like we did), we can be sure to provide them with a truly realistic context and key vocabulary, and assure them that they will feel accomplished, no matter how simple the conversation turns out to be.

Now I’m considering snooping into my colleague’s textbook, one for beginning learners of German.  I wonder what dialogue-based tasks they use in, let’s say, “Lektion 3.”

Ransdell, D. R. 1993. “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher.” ELT Journal 47/1: 40-46.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Life Cycle of a Teacher

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Do you remember those “The Life Cycle of the Frog” pictures we often had to study in science when we were kids? You know, “the egg to tadpole to tadpole-with-legs to frog” graph? Well, wouldn’t it be handy for ESL educators to study a graph that shows the life cycle of teachers? Tessa Woodward thinks so. I was fortunate enough to watch her presentation, The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers, at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) 2010 Conference in Harrogate, England in April, and her comments really resonated with me. Basically, she distilled several researchers’ observations about trends associated with years of teaching experience into an hour-long lecture which made me think about what I expect professionally from myself and what supervisors can reasonable expect from their teachers.

The “Novice to Committed to Activist to Authority to Disengaged” Graph

According to Woodward, who was citing Huberman (1989), there are usually 5 basic stages of a teacher’s professional life cycle. Obviously, the time line varies from person to person and upon reaching one’s third year of teaching there is not a dramatic shift from stage 1 to stage 2, just as a tadpole’s new legs don’t just pop out on the Monday of their fifth week of life. These are merely the trends Huberman observed.

  1. 1-3 years: The novice teacher is usually overwhelmed and overloaded and struggles just to survive. On the plus side, this is a stage of great discovery for teachers. In this picture of the chart, I imagine myself sitting up in bed at midnight and cutting out an endless supply of flash cards.
  2. 4 – 6 years: This teacher has entered a period of stabilization in which they make a commitment to teaching (as opposed to “teaching so I can travel abroad”). In this portion of the graph, I imagine myself considering my MEd options and pulling from a box of my favorite, “go-to” flashcards.
  3. 7 – 18 years: In this stage, teachers do what Woodward refers to as “pedagogic tinkering.” This is a period of experimentation and activism; however, teachers at this stage are also at risk of burning out. I am currently in my fourteenth year of teaching, so I don’t have to be too imaginative. I see myself branching out to learn new teaching skills and excited about motivating other teachers to be involved in professional development.
  4. 19 – 30 years: This teacher has entered a time of serenity (the promise of this ought to keep many of us going!) and authority. This teacher makes an excellent mentor; however, may tend toward a conservative rejection of innovation. I imagine myself at this stage in kind of a serene yoga pose and being more confident in the class and with other teachers.
  5. 31 – 40 years: At this stage, teachers are becoming disengaged from the profession. This can take a positive form of acceptance and an adventurous (“nothing to lose”) approach to new methodological trends. Unfortunately, on the other hand, this teacher might be disenchanted or already mentally retired. At this stage, I imagine (optimistically, maybe) I am motivated by the enthusiasm of my less-experienced colleagues and still interested in how research can inform my teaching.

Where are you?

Where are you in “The Life Cycle of a Teacher” graph? Are you the overwhelmed novice still spending hours creating materials? If so, take heart! If you commit to this profession, you will develop a rudimentary repertoire of teaching routines in just a few years. All the time you are investing now will pay off! If you are in the twilight stages of the life cycle, your less-experienced colleagues may benefit from your knowledge. Consider being a mentor and/or sharing some of your materials.

Where are your Teachers?

However, although this graph is useful for teachers, in my opinion, it is even more useful for administrators. If you look at your staff, do you see as much grey as brown or blonde? Having a balance of more-experienced and less-experienced teachers can benefit your entire program, especially if you have a mentoring system in place. Coupling experience with exposure to new trends in education can help all teachers to grow and stay positive.

Huberman, M. (1989) The professional life cycle of teachers, Teachers College Record, 91(1).
Woodward, T. (2010) The Professional Life Cycle of Teachers, paper presented at IATEFL 2010, Harrogate, UK.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Flexibility of Thought-Provoking Conversations

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

One of the many challenges that all teachers face is finding ways to keep the learning experience interesting and dynamic. A good way to do this in a language classroom is to introduce thought-provoking themes or topics that students will relish discussing. Not only are such topics great for conversation practice, but they also allow for flexibility so that a teacher can apply them to focus on specific grammar points and writing assignments.

Here are two juicy themes that always get students thinking and discussing:

In Exile

Teacher speaking to class . . .

You were part of a group that tried to start a revolution in your country. You didn’t succeed and the government captured you and your group. A court has ordered that you and your group will be put into exile. You will be transported to an island where nobody lives. There are many animals and plants on the island that you can use for food, and there is a lot of fresh water. You will have to spend 15 years on the island as your punishment.

You will have no way to communicate with the outside world: no radio, no television, no phones, and there is no electricity on the island. But the government will allow your group to bring ten items – only ten – to the island to help you survive. You need to work together to decide which ten items you should bring to the island. You have 20 minutes to do this.

If you have a small group of students, treat this as a whole-class activity and let everybody discuss the topic together. As they suggest which items are important to take, list them on the board and let the whole group discuss the value or worthlessness of each item. Try to reach a consensus to create a final list of which items they will take. Make sure they clearly explain the reason they have suggested this item or that.

If you have a medium or large class, break the students into small groups, perhaps five or six students per group, with one student acting as the group secretary who will write down which ten items the group decides on. Walk around the room and eavesdrop on your students’ discussions. Help out if need be. When time is up, ask one person in each group to call out the list of items and write them on the board. Then compare the items in each group and have the class as a whole choose which ten items from all those lists should be the final list of things to take to the island.

Who’s Most Responsible?

Teacher speaking to class . . .

A young woman is married to a salesman who travels a lot on business. In fact, he’s almost never home. She’s very lonely. There’s a river that separates her town from one on the other side. While her husband is away on another business trip, she decides to go to the other town to have an adventure. She doesn’t want anybody in her town to know what she’s doing. To go to the other town, she decides to take a ferry across the river.

When she arrives in the other town, she goes to a ____ (You can fill in a place that will be appropriate for the backgrounds of your students. For example, you can say a bar or night club, a park or an outdoor café, etc.) She meets a young man there, they talk and feel a natural attraction for each other, and later she goes with him to his apartment, where she spends the night.

The next morning, she remembers that her husband is coming home that day, and she panics. She must get home right away. She runs out of the young man’s apartment and makes her way back to the ferry. But there’s a problem. She doesn’t have enough money to pay for the ferry ride back to her town and the ferryman refuses to take her if she can’t pay. She runs back to the young man and asks him for money. He gets angry, thinking she’s really a prostitute, and throws her out. She begs the ferryman to take her and she’ll pay him later, but he refuses again.

The young woman knows that there’s a bridge over the river about a mile away from the ferry. Nobody uses that bridge because there’s a dangerous mentally ill man who lives under it. She doesn’t want to use the bridge because of the danger from the man under the bridge, but she’s desperate. She must get home. When the mentally ill man sees her start to cross the bridge, he thinks she’s the Devil who has come to hurt him, so he runs over to her, attacks her, and kills her.

My question to you: Who is most responsible for the young woman’s death? Is it her husband, who was almost never home and made her feel so lonely? Is it the young man in the other town who wouldn’t give her the money to take the ferry back home? Is it the ferryman who refused to take her if she couldn’t pay him? Is it the mentally ill man under the bridge, who killed her because he thought he was protecting himself from the Devil? Or is it the young woman herself who is most responsible for her death?

Have the students discuss this question just as in the first discussion mentioned. Make sure they understand that they have to be able to defend their choices of who is most responsible for her death by giving convincing arguments.

Believe me, you’ll find your students get fully immersed in these discussions with lively, animated conversations. And if you choose to, you can create all sorts of exercises like open-ended sentences and modified cloze procedures based on these topics to practice specific grammar points. You can also have them work on short writing assignments to get the most bang for your ESOL buck.

Have fun with these and any other thought-provoking topics you come up with.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Auxiliary Topics for Students’ Journals

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

I love black cats. I love black cats. I love black cats.” This is how one of my fellow EFL student’s English journal entry started, and continued.  The same line echoed on for an entire page, and, believe it or not, that redundant block of sentences was actually submitted as a weekly journal assignment.  In all fairness, however, the prompt for the assignment, which read: “Write on anything you’d like.” (and which had been used all semester long) was sort of begging for it.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, that instructor’s journal entry comments showed little more creativity or compassion.  They took one of two forms- “Interesting entry!” or “Thank you for sharing!”.

I think that course must have set some kind of dye, because I had, as a learner of English, a kind of aversion to journal assignments afterwards.  Truth be told, I’ve had a kind of aversion to assigning journal writing as an instructor of English.

The big issue in my mind is how to make journal writing constructive. Some of the questions that have plagued me are:

“Do I grade them on those assignments?”

“Do I really ignore even the most glaring mistakes?”

“How often do I assign journal writing?”

“Do I make specific in-text comments, or do I make one summary comment at the end, or do I make both?”

“What topics do I use?”

“Do I in fact have time to read and comment on all entries if journal writing is just one of many components of the curriculum?”

Though I’ve answered each of these questions more than once, I can’t say that I’ve come up with many usable conclusions.  I’m still very much in the middle of the process of discovering what works.

However, I have determined one rather surprising thing: my students, on the whole, value journal writing not only as a safe, personal, and meaningful monologue (or dialogue), but also as a potential learning tool.  I think this is positive, and helpful.

Students clearly appreciate not having their journal writing corrected, but they also seem to expect to be taught, directed, or challenged.

Below are some alternatives to the prompt “Write on anything you’d like.”  As they must, they allow for the free flow of creative ideas, but they also direct students in one or two tasks as well as challenge them a bit.  I’ve substituted these topics now and then for prompts focusing on students’ narratives, responses to readings, or reflections on a theme.

Task-oriented journal writing topics: I’ve asked students to…

1. imagine that a classmate did not quite understand the meaning of, let’s say, an idiom that I used in class and explain it to that classmate in writing, thinking about how they understood it, about what examples they would give to illustrate the meaning, and about what helped them memorize the phrase; or

2. record progress on a group project they are working on, thinking about how much they have done, what the biggest difficulties have been, what aspects of the project have been fun or have given them a sense of pride; or

3. re-read their first or second journal entry and select a few sentences which they consider a bit weak and improve those sentences, adding more details, replacing some words with more advanced or exact vocabulary, or rewriting with the use of a “freshly learned” sentence structure; or

4. brainstorm and cluster ideas for their next paper, and ask me (in writing) any questions they have about that assignment; or

5. look for a short text (story in the textbook, a brief article, a letter to the editor) and imagine that they are a co-writer, think about what they might add to the text, and create a paragraph that could be inserted into the text.

Last semester I informally polled my students to check which three of our task-oriented journal topics they’d suggest that I use with my students next semester.  The winners were… (drum roll… drum roll…): “help a fellow student understand some material”, “improve your old journal entry”, and “co-author an article.”  I’ll gladly be following their advice.

Do you assign journal writing in your classroom?  What works for you?