Archive for November, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Can An Online ESL/EFL Course Work?

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

Yes, I believe it can.

Some might think that an online ESL course is acceptable if nothing else is available to the student, but I don’t agree. I think online ESL courses have the potential to be just as effective as face to face courses.

Why not ESL online?

To instructors who say ESL can’t be taught online I ask “What do we value in our face to face courses that we worry won’t translate into bits and bytes?”

I’m willing to bet it’s the social aspect, the opportunity for cultural interaction and exploration, the bond among students and their instructor, the smiles and kind words, the active and collaborative learning.  We fear losing this humanity in the virtual world.

Many of us who have been students in online courses have taken “old school” online courses which look something like this:

“Read Chapter 6.” (All by yourself because there is no one with whom to talk it over and no one to whom you can address a question.)

“Then click on this link to answer the questions.” (Ten multiple choice or T/F questions that tell you “Right!” or “Try Again!” )

“Finally, go to the Discussion Forum and discuss the question provided.” (This is an artificial discussion in which you will write anything to fulfill the requirement and then provide a similarly mindless comment to a peer like “I agree with your point, Bruno” because that is how you get 5 extra points.)

End of unit.  Repeat next week.  Ho-hum.

There is no humanity in this kind online environment and only the hardy survive!   However, with the right course and activity design, the right technology tools, and some creativity, we can create courses that replicate the social aspect of the face to face courses we love.

Interaction

One of the most important features of any course is interaction. Students who interact become engaged and engaged students are focused, curious, and primed to learn.  Three crucial levels of interaction are student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student- to-content/ materials (Moore).  If we think about our face to face ESL courses, this can be exemplified in pair work, the instructor involved in the lesson/ interested in the students’ lives, and the students engrossed in learning activities that address their interests and needs. The way to have a successful online ESL course is be sure these three levels of interaction are all present in the virtual environment.

Activities

Luckily, the technology exists to make this happen. Online courses today can provide student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction through both live and recorded voice, through synchronous or non-synchronous writing, and through live streaming webcam or webcam self-recordings.  Student-to-content interaction comes from having a variety of engaging activities and learning objects from all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Here’s a sample of some online ESL activities and objects that I have seen and a few tech tools that help in creating them. Most activities should look familiar from your face to face courses:

  • Read and discuss or listen and discuss via voice or text. (VoiceThread)
  • Learn vocabulary and grammar or complete a task using a content-rich website.
  • Small group chat via voice or text. (DimDim)
  • Recorded or live presentations. (VoiceThread, narrated Powerpoint)
  • Student created quizzes and student-led reviews.
  • Collaborative writing activities, peer review of writing. (GoogleDocs)
  • Role play, listen and repeat, listen and create. (Jing, Skype, AdobeConnectNow)
  • Drill and practice.
  • Cloze, fill-in, and multiple choice exercises with instant and meaningful feedback.
  • Timed activities for reading, writing, and speaking.

What can’t be replicated online can be approached in another way.  The key is to look at the objective of the activity, hold that objective in mind, and think how else that objective could be accomplished with the tools of the online course.  No learning objective need ever be sacrificed.

Conclusion

I’m not taking the position that teaching ESL online is better than teaching it face to face. However I will stand by my belief that given the right design and teacher involvement, it can be as good, as effective.

I also won’t sugar-coat course design and say it’s easy; it takes a lot of time and work up front, even if your school runs a full-service course management system like Moodle or Blackboard.  But once you have created a course, you really just need to make small or partial changes each semester; you’ll never have the huge initial time outlay again. Instead, spend your work time interacting with students online, guiding them through the course, facilitating collaborations, taking part in their activities, commenting on their work, and providing individualized feedback and help. (I can honestly say I have more contact with my students on an individual basis in my online course than in my face to face course! Who would have guessed?)

Just today I returned some paragraphs my students had written.  They had been submitted online, and I used Adobe to underline and mark up some parts. Then, using Jing I created a “screen capture” video of their paper as I recorded myself talking to the student about it and pointing things out at the same time.  Now my students not only have my markings on their paper, but  also a  recorded video of me walking them through the revisions they need, which they can watch as often as they have to.  There’s one thing, at least, that may not be easy to replicate in the time constraints of the face to face world!

Resource:  JOLT- Journal of Online Teaching

Moore, Michael G. “Three Types of Interaction.” The American Journal of Distance Education. Pennsylvania State University, 1989. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. http://www.ajde.com/Contents/vol3_2.htm.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative

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

Checking the answers in a homework or in-class assignment can be one of those huge time eaters. It is a necessary evil. After all, there is little point doing an activity if students never find out if their responses are accurate or not. However, calling on students to mechanically read their answers aloud can take up a lot of valuable class time with very little pay off. It is boring, predictable and involves very limited student talk.

My goal when I spend time checking student answers is twofold. First, I want to make sure students get the correct answers. And second, I want to make sure students understand why their answers were incorrect so that they can learn from their mistakes. But how is this best accomplished?

Time for Questions

When I assign homework, I usually provide the answer key. Students do the work, check their own answers, and put a star beside the questions which they don’t understand. At the beginning of every class, I ask the class if they had any questions about the homework. We go page-by-page and students can ask their questions and get a brief explanation. This system has worked very well for me in adult classes which are low-stress. Students have to feel comfortable enough to ask questions in front of their peers without losing face.

Of course, you also have to be able to trust the students to do the work before looking at the answers! One teacher I observed who did not have the same faith in her students put several copies of her answer key on the back wall. Students came early to the class to check their answers; it was a genius way to encourage students to come on time!

Check with a Partner

In a recent edition of Voices, Nicholas Northall suggests giving students time after an activity to check their answers with a partner. “This time allows them to discuss any answers they don’t agree on and to reach a conclusion as to what the right answers are” (Northall, 2010, page 11). This pair work would best supplement, not substitute for, a traditional answer check. Students still need your final word on “right or wrong.” But during this time, the stronger students may be able to explain their own choices to their partner, thereby eliminating the need for as much teacher talk.

Write it on the Board

I once observed a teacher who had her students come up one-by-one to write the answers to the homework on the board. This was SO boring for the students, and it cut into the time the students might be using for a communicative activity. Instead, she could have had the students who came into the class early write their answers up before the class even started. Or, she could have had the students work in pairs, as described above, and then shown the answers on a PowerPoint slide or overhead projector transparency.

On the other hand, I observed another teacher who used board writing in a very valuable way. She played a listening and, as the class listened and took notes, she took her own notes. After, the students were able to compare what they had written with her answers. It was immediately clear to the students if their notes were accurate and adequate.

Running for the Answer

Another teacher I observed turned her answer check into a fun communicative activity. She put copies of the answer key in several places around the class. She put the students into pairs; one was the “grader”, the other was the “runner”. The “graders” sat with both their assignments and their partners’ assignments. The “runners” moved between the answer key and the “graders.” telling them what the correct answers were. This format did take a bit of extra time, but the energy level in the class was high and all the students were interacting, so, in my opinion, the time was well-spent.

How do you check answers in your classes? Do you have any novel techniques for making the most out of this time? How do you make your answer checks clear and communicative?

Northall, N. (2010) What’s the answer to question 5? Voices, 216.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Struggling with the Past Perfect

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

newjgea@aol.com

As an EFL learner I appreciate grammar rules.  They provide me a kind of comfort.  They satisfy my curiosity.  They help me achieve accuracy.  They even encourage me to experiment.  Still, there was a time when one set of rules both puzzled and disheartened me – the rules for the Past Perfect.  Those rules I shunned.  They got the cold shoulder from me.  I avoided them like the plague.

I could deal with the use of the Past Perfect in Reported Speech, Conditionals, and constructions beginning with “I wish...” or “If only….”  However, getting my mind around using the Simple Past in place of the Past Perfect in “certain” stylistic contexts was too much for me, and my sense of grammar security became rickety.

On top of that, even after I began to find some comfort in perhaps the most definitive purpose for the use of Past Perfect, namely “to show that one action or state happened before another one in the past,” I’d regularly come up with sentences that sounded unnatural.  Here’s one example: “I had brushed my teeth and I washed my face.”  To my mind, this indicated that the brushing came before the washing, and so the use of the Past Perfect in this context was appropriate and necessary.  I questioned my teacher one day, asking “Isn’t that right?  Isn’t that what the rule says?” She responded, “Yes, that’s what the rule says, but there’s another rule which says that the Simple Past is typically used to list events that occurred in a sequence.”  At that, I sighed.

Clearly, I had a mental block when it came to comprehending the use of the Past Perfect, and even though my teacher would, in an attempt to help us students picture the tense, explain that it referred to a “pre-past” or a “past of the past,” I felt I was just not getting it.

Some time later, I encountered the consoling but unencouraging words of R. A. Owen who states that “the Past Perfect tense is an easy one to become acquainted with, but a difficult one to master,” and further that because in many cases the Past Perfect is used interchangeably with the Simple Past, “the foreigner is left wondering whether the choice of tense in a given context is one of taste, emphasis, meaning, or grammar” (54).

In the end, I got my mind around the nasty Past Perfect.

Realizing now the complexity of it, and remembering my own struggle with it, I’m asking myself the question: What did I need to know as a learner to master that nasty bit of grammar?

  • Before I could deal with the whole Past Perfect-Simple Past interchangeability issue, I needed to know  what roles the Simple Past played that the Simple Past did not.
  • I needed to know from the beginning when I must use the Past Perfect, rather than  when I may use the Past Perfect.

If I was typical in this, it may make good sense for us to begin teaching the use of the Past Perfect by focusing on contexts in which its use modifies the meaning of a message. In some contexts, the use of the Past Perfect in place of the Simple Past genuinely alters the meaning of the message.  Here students can feel a greater impact of the Past Perfect.

We arrived and she had left.

(Compare: We arrived and she left.)

His friends called with his alibi, but the police had hauled him away.

(Compare: His friends called with his alibi, but the police hauled him away.)

Although I had lived in China, I spoke very little Chinese.

(Compare: Although I lived in China, I spoke very little Chinese.)

I have the impression that once students get a feel for the semantic influence of the Past Perfect, they find it much easier to accept the interchangeability of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past (as in sentences containing subordinate clauses beginning with “before” or “after”).  It seems to me that it’s crucial that students get a feel for the “weight” of the Past Perfect.  Introducing students to the Past Perfect by way of contexts in which it modifies the meanings of messages seems a reasonable way to foster in them a feel for that influence.

I’m planning to share my favorite activity for teaching the Past Perfect in my next blog.  I would love to hear about activities you’ve used to teach this tense.

Owen, R.A. (1967). Past Perfect and Simple Past. ELT Journal, 22/1, 54-59.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guilt-Free Private “Conversation” Lessons

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

In addition to classroom teaching, I have also taught private lessons for most of my career. Although I felt justified in charging the going rate for tutoring children or teaching specific grammar or pronunciation lessons, I had always felt a twinge (albeit an extremely small twinge) of guilt when taking someone’s hard-earned money for an hour of “Conversation Practice.” My time is valuable to me, of course, but I sometimes found it hard to charge someone to talk about things I talk to my friends about for free.

In the past few years, however, I have had three experiences that have helped me reconcile the fact that I am, indeed, earning the money that private students seem to happy to pay me: I taught, I learned and I read.

I Taught (my Friends).

When a group of my friends were dissatisfied with their English lessons, they asked me if I could teach them privately once a week. Specifically, they wanted more Conversation practice. At first, I wasn’t sure about how it would work. I was their friend. Was it right to take their money just to sit around and talk? However, after a few weeks, it became apparent that I was doing much more work during our lessons than I was when we went out to eat together.

First, I came to our lessons prepared. I planned our time together, I brought activities and lists of interesting questions to prompt conversation, and I gave them homework to reinforce troublesome grammar items or to teach conversational language such as phrasal verbs and idioms.

Second, during the lesson, I wore the hat of the teacher, not the friend. I corrected the grammar and pronunciation errors I heard (both on the spot and by writing the errors down and correcting them later as a group), something I would never do when we went out for dinner. I also gave mini-grammar lessons as the need arose, and I could see they felt more comfortable asking questions than they would in a social situation.

I Learned (from a Friend).

However, it wasn’t until I decided to start private lessons to boost my French conversational skills and vocabulary that I really learned how valuable one-to-one Conversation practice really is to a student. My teacher, Isabelle, is also a friend. We chat about things like family, food and books, all the great topics. In this way, I get one hour every week devoted solely to my French. I don’t have to apologize for my mistakes, and I don’t have to self-consciously hurry through a halting sentence because I think she could say it better in English. Instead of writing my mistakes down, as I do with my students, Isabelle writes the corrections, along with new vocabulary and tricky grammar. Being on the other side of the table, so to speak, I know that Isabelle is worth every penny I pay her for her time.

I Read (in Voices).

Kristina Noto recently published an article in IATEFL’s Voices newsletter called “One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’.” In it, she outlines some strategies for successful and meaningful private lessons, or “sessions” as she calls them. During the session, Noto recommends that the student or, in her words, the “client” guide the conversation. She also suggests correcting only pronunciation errors on the spot and asking for clarification when communication breaks down. Grammar errors should be treated, according to Noto, in a following feedback session.

After the session, Noto reads through her notes or listens to her recording of the conversation. From this, she types up a feedback sheet for the student. “The feedback sheet is a way for the learner to have a record of the lesson, review the vocabulary, and have a space in which to have a second chance to correct the sentences with errors.” (Noto, 2010, page 10) She divides her feedback forms into 4 sections: Vocabulary Learned, Pronunciation, Phrases to Make Better, and Positive Points.

Private lessons can be a significant investment for students, both in terms of time and money. I have always felt a burden to make sure that the students’ individual needs are met, even more so than in a classroom setting. However, as Noto points out, this means that private lesson teachers may need to invest more time than usual in planning and writing up feedback. In fact, she says that for every hour of lesson, the teacher works 2 hours in reality, and that is nothing to feel guilty about!

Noto, K. (2010) One-to-one lessons become ‘121 Professional feedback sessions’, Voices, pages 9–10.