Archive for September, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Not HER Again!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

A couple of semesters ago, I had a problem in my French class. It all started on the first day of the class. I wandered in and took a seat. The seat next to me was empty, but before the class began, a student (I’ll call her Ms. Steam Roller) came in and sat beside me. She seemed nice and her French was good, so I felt like I could learn from her. However, by the mid-semester point, I had found that I did not enjoy working with her at all. Because her French was better than mine, she ignored my suggestions when we had to write dialogues. Doing pair work with her was like standing in the path of a steam roller. Sure, she was a nice person, but if I had to keep working with her, I was going to scream.

So, after the class, I approached my teacher and said that I would like the chance to work with other students. She asked me why I didn’t just change seats the next class.  But I felt that, since I had been sitting in the same place for months, it would be a bit rude to change that late in the game. I needed another solution. My French teacher was great. She worked out a system that allowed us all to change partners every class, so I got away from Ms. Steam Roller without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Changing it Up – Why Bother?

This experience has impacted my own classroom management style because I now go out of my way to make sure students don’t always work with the same partners. I know from experience that students, for many reasons, may not want to work with the same person class after class. There are other reasons, too, to change it up a little.

First, students need exposure to different kinds of English and different levels of ability. If a Korean student always works with a Brazilian student, both students will eventually become accustomed to each other’s pronunciation and errors. That can feel more comfortable, certainly, but we all know there are a wide variety of different accents and a huge continuum of abilities, even in one class. It is better, in my opinion, for students to be exposed to different kinds of English so that they have to work at negotiating meaning, which, according to Folse (2006), is an important part of language learning.

Also, working with students of different levels allows for a wider variety of learning opportunities. When I had to work with Ms. Steam Roller, I constantly felt like the slow student. However, when I worked with other students, I sometimes got the chance to teach them, which helped me learn the skill better myself. I don’t always want to be the “helper” and I don’t always want to be the “helped”. It’s nice to have a little variety.

Changing it Up – The How To

I try to shuffle my students at the beginning of class. Sometime, I just count off. If I have 12 students, I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The 1s get together, the 2s get together, the 3s get together you get the idea. They actually pick up their books and move everything to sit with their new partner. At first, this takes a while, but after a few lessons, students expect to have to move and it only takes a minute.

If I am feeling more creative, I work the shuffle into my warm up. I might have a set of index cards, one for each student. Half the cards have pictures or definitions or gap fills (depending on the level of the class) and the other half have vocabulary words. The students stand up, walk around the room and say their word until they find their partner. Then, they move their stuff and sit together for the rest of the lesson.

A couple of years ago, I went to a session at TESOL called “Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective” by Kitty Purgason. She suggested doing the above activity with questions and answers or using common idioms or phrasal verbs cut in half. In Maryanne Wolfe’s presentation at TESOL 2010, she suggested an interesting activity if space permitted. She gives each student a card with some information (in the demonstration, the information on the cards was the life expectancy in a number of different countries) and told students to put themselves into a line from the longest life expectancy to the shortest . Then, once the students are all lined up, she folds the line in half, like you would fold a string, so the students at the end meet up and become partners, all the way down the line. What fun!

Students deserve to have a little variety in their partners. They may seem to be happy working with the same person day after day, but I bet that many of them will welcome a change. The class gets to know each other better, the affective filter is lowered, and students develop new friendships. It’s a win, win, win!

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Olson, K. (2010) Movement and Learning, Paper Presented at TESOL 2010: Boston.
Purgason, K. (2007) Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective, Paper Presented at TESOL 2007: Washington.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Can You Be a Good Language Teacher if You’re Not Fluent?

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

Years ago, at one of the annual JALT (Japan Association of Language Teacher) Conventions, I attended a special session where a panel of experts fielded questions from the audience. One question that was asked was, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English, or a mediocre teacher whose English is excellent?

It’s a good question, I think, and I certainly have my own answer (the former!). Often this question comes up in non-English speaking countries when fully qualified local teachers feel pushed out by unqualified native speakers.

However, it’s often not the question that schools or administrators have. Instead, the question might be, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English… or not to have an English teacher at all? That’s a question that both influences the existence of English programs (and often that question gets settled by demand) and the self-confidence of teachers.

But I’m Not Fluent

I have personal experience with this, having taught—for years—a language I am not fluent in. I returned from a few years in Japan to take an ESL job at state university in the US. I was called in to see the Chair of the Foreign Languages Department about a week before classes started, and he asked me if I would teach the Japanese 101 class. Of course, the first thing I said was that I’m not fluent in Japanese. “But you were just living there,” he said. (Oh! Again the embarrassment of not having learned more! Does that ever really leave the non-fluent non-native speaker?) Rather than haul out my justifications and explanations, I just shrugged. My level was my level, and it wasn’t going to increase before Monday.

Do You Know Enough to Teach This Level?

He sat there for a moment, and then pulled out the textbook. “Do you know this much?” he asked. I thumbed through the pages for several minutes. Well… yes, actually, I did indeed know that much. In fact, I knew it quite well, because the Japanese that I had learned I had used over and over and over again, so it was solid. I couldn’t discuss the future of the United Nations, but by gosh, I had confidence in my ability to identify stationery items, report on the existence and ages of my siblings, and announce my job title and plans for the weekend.

What it boiled down to was this. He had a fully enrolled section of Japanese 101, and the native speaker teacher scheduled to take the class had just quit. Furthermore, some of the students in the class were seniors who had taken the class the year before and failed it—this was, therefore, their only chance to remove a failing grade from their transcript. And the choices for teachers seemed to be me… or no one. I said yes.

Be Clear About Your Language Level and Abilities

On the first day of class, after going over the usual information in the syllabus—name of textbook, office hours, grading policies—I told the students exactly how much Japanese I knew and how much I didn’t. Most of them, actually, looked quite uninterested; as long as I could teach this class, they didn’t really care about my nationality or non-native speaker status or inability to teach higher-level courses. Some students, though, did look a bit taken aback. So I put it to them exactly as it had been put to me: Their choice was me as a teacher, or no Japanese class. I also assured them that I was an experienced, competent foreign language teacher. I pointed out when the last day to switch classes was, and suggested that they give the class a chance, because they were certainly free to leave if it did not meet their expectations.

No students quit (although a few more added), and at the end of the semester, it was the students who asked me to teach the following semester; and then to teach the second year. I taught the first two years then for the entire time I stayed at that university.

It would be nice to report that while I was teaching the class, I also improved my own level of Japanese through intensive study. But that didn’t happen. I had my ESL classes, I had a young child, I was working on a Ph.D. Life stuff. I think that’s pretty common—while a teacher is in the midst of a full-time teaching job, it’s not so easy to find the time to work on his or her own education at the same time.

Get Support When You Need It

I compensated for my shortcomings where I could. I invited Japanese students in to help with pronunciation. However, I made it clear that these students were my assistants, not my replacements. They had the sounds, but I had the teaching techniques, and I let the class see me setting up the exercises and activities so they knew what role I was playing. When I designed worksheets that were, well, at the edges of my ability, I made sure a native Japanese speaker proofread them for me, so that I was not passing out anything that contained errors. If I couldn’t find a Japanese student on campus, I emailed a friend overseas. And so on.

It’s far worse, I think, to pretend you can’t make any mistakes than to be very clear with both yourself and your class what your abilities are. Students, after all, should be able to respect a non-fluent language learner, since they themselves are non-fluent language learners. But no one respects people who pretend to a skill they don’t have.

Results Build Confidence

The biggest challenge was to my confidence. Even knowing that I was the only choice, I felt sometimes as if I had no right to be in that classroom. I wasn’t fluent! I couldn’t always answer questions outside the textbook (although I knew how to find the answers). What got me back on track when I felt that way was looking at my students. When they entered my class, they knew no Japanese. When they left, they knew some. (Several went on to spend their junior year in Japan, and came back knowing more than I do!) The classes worked because I was a teacher, not because I was (or wasn’t) fluent in Japanese.

Just to be clear—I am not suggesting that an imperfect knowledge of the language is somehow better than a fluent knowledge of the language. Of course not. What I am saying is that fluency is not always necessary to teach a language. You need to know the level you propose to teach, and, to be comfortable, a decent bit above that level. You need to be a good transmitter of information and skills and strategies and enthusiasm and purpose. You need to be honest about what you can and cannot offer.

I do a lot of teacher training these days in other countries, and I sometimes encounter teachers who want to apologize for not being perfect in English. Our first conversations, therefore, are often not about English or even teaching, but about confidence and purpose. If there are non-fluent teachers reading this post, I want to say to you: Look hard at yourself and figure out what you can do; and then be proud of what you do.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Using Survey Reports to Boost Academic Vocabulary

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

newjgea@aol.com

It was an inconsequential bet.  However, as an act which naturally produced a kind of thrill, it was met with my students’ ardent approval.  I had gambled that I’d guess what phrase 90% of the class would use in their first sentence of a text summary assignment.  I had even conceded that it would not include the author’s name or the title of the text.

“As it turned out,” I won. The legendary and persistent “is about …” was used by everyone in that group except for one student, who, changing the tense, wrote “was about… .”

I often use this mini-game to introduce the concept of academic vocabulary in my writing classes, and I usually follow it up with the question: “Can you think of a brief but more precise expression which can substitute for that phrase?”  Typically, students come up with a healthy little list of expressions such as the text presents …, the article discusses…, the author argues that…, etc., which include key descriptive verbs.

So, what are the characteristic features of academic vocabulary?

No doubt, academic vocabulary, regardless of field, is often used to report, to analyze, and to summarize.  It is also characterized by a level of formality, by its precision and by its accuracy.

What kind of interactive activity could involve students in producing a written piece with some of those characteristics?

Certainly, reports based on interactive surveys, at least those which

  • state the purpose and the method used,
  • present results,
  • analyze results, and
  • draw conclusions

are suitable.

What vocabulary can be used at key points in survey reports?

Students tend to appreciate ready-made lists of vocabulary items that are commonly accepted and are recognized as acceptable in formal, academic writing, and which are keyed to the purpose of a particular writing assignment.  I’ve created a table with words and phrases that have worked well for my students and their survey reports.

What features should typify survey reports?

I recently narrowed down my list of essential features to two: they should highlight an opinion or a preference, and they should focus on a change.

Reporting on survey respondents’ opinions allows students to use vocabulary often found in typical academic writing assignments, assignments such as those requiring argumentation, reference to sources, and presentation of other people’s ideas.

Reporting on changes allows students not only to mention the “before and after circumstances,” but also to use vocabulary associated with comparison, perhaps even with causes and effects.  Such reporting naturally requires special, formal vocabulary.

How have I used a survey activity with my students?

Example survey: I ask my students to prepare a very short survey (a list of 3-4 questions) about how “nerds” are viewed.  They make two copies of their survey.  Then they distribute a set of the first to their classmates, and collect them when the students have finished.  Next, the group is asked to read the article “America Needs Its Nerds” by Leonid Fridman.  Later, a set of the second copy is distributed, completed, and collected for analysis.

After students analyze the results and receive instruction in the organization of survey reports, they move on to the writing. I ordinarily ask my students to use calculators, to create tables or graphs if they wish, and, while composing their reports, to incorporate some of the vocabulary items given in the table.

What approaches do you take to teaching “academic vocabulary”?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Could You Repeat That?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I just finished a 3 week scuba certification. In addition to learning all sorts of things that will (hopefully) keep me alive in the water, I also, unexpectedly, learned a lot about teaching.

You might know from reading some of my previous blogs, that I am studying French, as well as teaching English in Belgium. My experience as a French student has already provoked a great deal of reflection about my own teaching and caused me to revisit and, in many cases, change the way I do things in the classroom. However, I was not prepared for the same consequence of taking a scuba certification class.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

First, I learned that repetition is the most exciting thing you can do in class. This might be overstating it, but not by much. In my scuba class, we read from a text, we watch a video that tells us pretty much what was in the text, and we attend lectures that repeat what was in the text and video. And you know what? I STILL go blank on important information from time to time. There is just SO much to remember, I need all the exposure I can get. Sure, by the third go-around, I am not exactly on the edge of my seat, but I know it is important to learn, so I pay attention.

One More Time

My teacher, Angelo, understands this.  So in his lectures, he repeats key information several times. For instance, he might say, “You ascend at a rate of no faster than 9 meters per minute.” Then, immediately after, he will repeat or rephrase that information. “So, you should not ascend any faster than 9 meters per minute.” And then, a few minutes later, he will ask us how fast we should ascend.

This is something I started doing in my Pre-Intermediate English classes with great results. I know that as a French student, I don’t always catch something the first time I hear it. We play recordings in listening activities multiple times for our students; why not do the same when giving important information or instructions?

It’s Still Not Getting Old

Still, only reading and hearing about something is not the same thing as actually doing it, as anyone who has watched students struggle to accurately use the grammar they have learned knows. After reading and watching and hearing, I was excited to do the things I had learned about in the pool. However, one practice mask-clearing was not nearly enough. I wanted to go through the motions again and again until it felt natural and automatic to clear my mask underwater. I didn’t get bored; I was so focused on what I was doing, I could have repeated the same movements until my fingers got too wrinkly to lift my mask.

The light went on! I realized that my students need the same repetition to master English skills. It is not enough to have students repeat a new word once and then move on. They need to repeat again and again until it is natural and automatic for them. Of course in the limited time I have with them, I can’t make them repeat something chorally all throughout class, but I have become much more conscious about giving them a lot more repetition. For example, in an activity I learned about from a former colleague at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD, students have 3 minutes to tell a story to their partner –  maybe about a scary experience they had as a child or a wonderful party they attended. Then, after the student has told his/her story, he/she meets with a new partner and tells the same story to his/her new partner, this time for only 2.5 minutes. Then, the student meets with a third new partner and (you guessed it) tells the same story again, this time for 2 minutes. When I first heard about this activity, I thought the students would find that much repetition too boring. However, after my scuba experience, I know that repetition is a key step toward automaticity.