Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Giving Advice: The Value of Detail and the Importance of Realism

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

newjgea@aol.com

Student A:  I have a headache.

Student B: You should go to the doctor.

Another Student A:  I don’t like my boss.

Another Student B: Why don’t you look for a new job?

Does any of this sound familiar?  Combinations of correct grammar and appropriate “suggestion” phrases, yet ultimately advice that seems extreme, even unnatural?  In my experience, the problem usually lies in the way the dilemma is expressed.

Most textbooks designed for, let’s say, intermediate students include a unit on how to give advice and offer suggestions.  Typically, students are provided with a list of relevant phrases and they are asked to use them to offer advice to someone with a particular problem.

Though this method of teaching advice-offering is by now time-honored, a new and refreshing strategy for helping students master this language function is emerging.

Will any ol’ dilemma do?

No.  Problems, dilemmas, and misfortunes mentioned in text exercises I often encounter these days are more specific than they used to be, and they require more precise responses.  Health concerns, for instance, are more varied and some do not call for a visit to the doctor.  Likewise, problems at work come in a number of forms, only a few of which would result in quitting.

In keeping with this trend, I have begun to offer my students narrower, yet still realistic, problem descriptions.  Instead of asking them to offer advice to someone who feels sick but needs to go to work tomorrow, and expecting “You should call in sick,” I have asked what advice can be offered to someone who has a runny nose but needs to go to work tomorrow because he must submit a report by noon. Faced with the problem in this form, the previous response won’t reasonably work of course.

Provided with concrete, detailed, and realistic dilemmas, my students have begun to respond in less general, mechanical, unnatural ways.

Can students be guided so that they produce advice expressions with a real purpose and in a sufficient variety?

Yes.  In the name of “keeping things real,” I have found some success in focusing on dilemma-topics related to matters in which students are commonly experts.  For instance, I have, toward the end of a term, asked them to furnish advice for future students on how to do well in that very English course, and I inform them that some of the tips they offer will be included, along with their authors’ first names– if they give me permission—in the syllabus for next term’s students.  (Quite recently I discovered that I could even use the learning management system Blackboard to share students’ tips online.)

A number of my students, however, have almost reflexively considered only more immediate issues like homework or tests.  In order to assist them in increasing the range of classroom-related problems, I have prepared lists of potential dilemma-topic areas.  This is one I have used in an integrated skills class:

Study Groups

Speaking to Classmates

Contacting the Professor

Dictionaries

Mistakes

Corrections

Punctuality

Group Work

Time Spent on Assignments

Pronunciation Practice

New Vocabulary

New Grammar Structures

Effort

Involvement

Learning outside the Classroom

Notes

It seems to me that adding detail and purpose to language lessons of this type can certainly foster greater ability in giving competent advice, something which most would agree is a fairly important function of language.

And on a final note, even though many of the suggestions offered by “experienced course takers” are likely to be similar to the advice typically given by the teacher at the beginning of a course, chances are that simply because they come from fellow-students, they may be trusted more.

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