Archive for April, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 2)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Pronunciation is one element of language courses that often gets overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that experienced teachers know how difficult it is to learn the sounds of a foreign language as an adult, especially if that language is nothing like your own. This basically means we accept that Japanese students will always have a Japanese accent, that Koreans will always have a Korean accent, and so on. Incidentally, I always used to think in terms of learners “gaining” the accent of a foreign language, but I remember hearing a friend talking about a Japanese person he knew who had managed to “lose” her Japanese accent. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I wonder which viewpoint is more common among teachers?

Anyway, as well as acknowledging the difficulty of the task of teaching pronunciation, most teachers also realize that even with a heavy accent, the majority of learners will be able to make themselves understood to proficient speakers of English. The combined effect of these two beliefs is that pronunciation often gets relegated to a once-in-a-while exercise with the sole purpose of providing a bit of variety in the course.

There are at least two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that teachers, particularly those of monolingual classes, are often very poor judges of how comprehensible their students actually are to regular speakers of the language. When I lived in New Zealand, I did the examiner training for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). As part of the workshop, we had to watch videos of candidates speaking and assign grades. What soon became clear was that teachers were giving far higher grades to students of nationalities they were familiar with. For example, two teachers who had worked in Korea gave a Korean student a high grade for her speaking, whereas the teachers who had mainly worked with European learners gave her a low one. Their reasoning was, “We can’t really understand what she is saying.”

The second reason why pronunciation deserves more attention in language courses is that a learner’s knowledge of the sounds of a language will directly affect their ability to perceive and recognize those sounds. In other words, having good pronunciation is just as important for listening as it is for speaking. My limited understanding of how recognition systems work is that they compare sensory input with stored representations of a variety of forms. For example, we learn how the word “boy” sounds, and we then create and store a template of it in our brains. When audio signals reach our ears, they are run through the database in order to find matches. The same principle applies to the recognition of words and letters. You recognize “x” as the letter that comes before “z” because the marks on this screen fit the representation of that letter that you already have stored in your brain. Of course, you would probably recognize it if I wrote it as “X” too, and even if I wrote it by hand. The human brain has an incredible tolerance for variation that allows it to recognize shapes in a way that computers cannot. That is the theory behind those weirdly shaped letters you have to input manually on some blogs in order to post a comment. The system works because humans can tolerate greater manipulation of basic forms than computers can.

Even so, there are limits to the tolerance (I am using the word here in its engineering sense) of even the human brain’s recognition systems, and these become stricter when representations of objects or phenomena resemble each other. For example, in many cases, it is impossible for us to distinguish between “1,” “l,” and “I” when written in isolation because they look so similar. When that happens, the knowledge of language and context that I described in my previous entry kicks in and allows us to make inferences that go beyond the information that is being provided by the senses.

When a language student learns a new word, they create a template for it and store that template in their database. It is quite possible that when they reproduce the word from its template, the audio signal that results will be within the limits of tolerance of proficient speakers of the language, so the learner will be able to make him or herself understood. A problem arises, however, when the focus switches to listening. Because the template the learner has created does not really match the signal produced by proficient speakers, and because the learner’s recognition system will naturally have a more limited tolerance owing to their lower mastery of the language, there is a very good chance that they will not recognize what they are hearing. It’s a bit like going to meet someone that you have never met at an airport armed only with a photograph that was taken twenty years ago. If the person doesn’t actually look like the photograph, there is a good chance that they will walk right past you without you recognizing them at all.

Like all language teachers, I constantly struggle to make myself understood to my students. I have often noticed that the reason my students cannot understand what I am saying is that they have learned an incorrect pronunciation of a particular word. The following is a typical example of a conversation in one of my classes:

Me: Can you close the curtain?

Student: ??


Student: Curtain??

Me: (gesturing) The curtain!!

Student: Ah, kah-ten!!

It is almost as if they are correcting my pronunciation to match their internal representation of the word. Every teacher in Japan knows that we can easily make ourselves understood by simply saying a word the way our students say it, and I suspect the same is true of any teacher with experience of teaching a particular language group.

My point is that learners need to learn words as accurately as possible so that the template they create reflects the audio signal that is produced when proficient speakers of the language pronounce that word. If a learner creates a template that is significantly different, it might be close enough for their recreation of it to be understood by proficient speakers, but it may not be close enough for them to recognize the word when they hear it.

As teachers, I think we need to start realizing that pronunciation is just as much a listening skill as it is a speaking one, and we need to start giving it greater prominence in our courses.



Thursday, April 12, 2012

Keeping Our Eyes on the Testing Prize

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

All during our years of education and career training, one of the most important lessons driven home was that we need to stay focused, we need to keep our attention on what we’re doing, and we need to make sure not to get distracted. Nobody would disagree with any of this, right? Well, sometimes it’s not so easy to keep our eyes on that prize when it comes to testing.

One area where this became obvious to me in my early years of teaching ESOL was in testing listening comprehension. I realized that the tests I was given to use, created at various US universities and sold to schools like the ones I taught at, weren’t exclusively testing what they were supposed to be testing. Those tests almost always ended up inadvertently testing reading comprehension along with listening comprehension. Was that fair to my students? Not at all! If I want to test reading comp., I’ll test reading comp. But if I want to test listening comp., well, I shouldn’t be making my students read three or four sentences quickly and decide which written item reflects something they’ve just heard. I’m sure you see my point. For example . . .

The students hear: “There are quite a few students who have won scholarships this year.”

Then they quickly have to read the following and choose which sentence reflects what they’ve just heard:

  1. Many students won scholarships this year.
  2. Few students won scholarships this year.
  3. A relatively large number of students won scholarships this year.
  4. A few students got one scholarship this year.

The correct answer is 3, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t just listening comprehension that’s been tested; reading comprehension has been tested as well – and that’s just not fair.

So how do we overcome this problem of inadvertently testing reading when we really just want to test listening? It’s actually quite a challenge to accomplish because we need to rely on visuals, not reading, to avoid the problem. We need to come up with drawings, photos, and other kinds of graphic material that will reflect and not reflect each item that the students have heard. Here’s an example of what I mean.













The students hear the sentence and then look at the two pictures. They decide which one reflects accurately what they’ve just heard and that’s how they choose their answer. No need to inadvertently test reading comprehension, right?

Here are six more examples that I’d like to share with you.



















































So if you do test listening comprehension, do your best to find test items that will not accidentally test  reading as well. True, sometimes a small amount of reading can’t be avoided, such as in the “How much does it cost?” example  above, but I know you understand my point, and I hope you’ll be able to give your students fair listening comprehension tests if you decide to test them on this skill.

One other thing to keep in mind is the complexities of grading your students’ work in a writing class. How do you decide beforehand on how you’ll grade their work? Do you base your grading solely on their skill with the writing form you’ve just taught, e.g., a business letter or a basic composition, or do you grade them at the same time on the mechanics, such as punctuation and capitalization? And what about their grammar? Is it appropriate to judge them on their grammar in a writing class that focuses on forms of writing? Not such easy questions to answer, are they?

Well, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let’s keep our eyes on the testing prize.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Teaching Objectives or Learning Objectives?

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

One day long ago my student teaching practicum supervisor, the one with the fine-toothed comb, asked me “Why are you planning to start your lesson with this jazz chant?”  I replied “Because it will be fun!”  At that, she sighed… not out of relief, mind you, but out of discontent.

My answer revealed that I had not fully grasped one of the key points about learning objectives: that they must allow us to measure what the students have learned.   “Fun cannot function as an objective of learning,” my practicum supervisor continued.  “How would you measure that fun?”  “What would your students learn from that fun?”

As I began my teaching career, those key questions continued to swirl around in my head, and even though they seemed relatively easy to answer, formulating learning objectives which were both specific and practicable (unlike some larger instructional goals) was not an effortless task for me. Often, the objectives I devised sounded fine, but after a second look, they turned out to be flawed, partly because they were more about what the teacher wanted than about what the learner needed.  Here are some examples.

  • “Students will understand how to use possessive pronouns.”
  • “Students will know how to talk about their personal life.”
  • “Students will practice formal and informal greetings.”

Such objectives were decent and useful enough, I thought.  I wanted the students to understand this, to know that, and to practice those things, and I assumed that they would learn from the activities I had planned, but those activities were nowhere apparent in those objectives.  Worse, those objectives, as stated, were not measurable. How could I measure “understanding or knowing”?  What about “practicing”?  Was that measurable?

After some revision, those objectives became:

  • “Students will use possessive pronouns accurately.
  • “Students will answer correctly at least three questions about their personal life.”
  • “Students will demonstrate that they know the difference between formal and informal greetings.”

In these forms they seemed more exact, more task oriented, and, quite naturally, more measurable too.   

As the years passed, and I got better at orienting my objectives more toward learning than teaching, I created a strategy for deriving a learning objective from a “language carrot.”

A “language carrot” is a potential result of a lesson’s or week’s work, and a view to the details (perhaps rather, in keeping with the metaphor, composition) of that “carrot” can direct a teacher to a precise formulation of a learning objective.  The objective can, in turn, guide a teacher to exact instruction which results in measurable learning on the part of her students.

The first time I “dangled a language carrot,” it went like this…

I presented my students with a seven-sentence narrative in which all the sentences began with a grammatical subject, and beside it I placed a similar narrative including several sentences which began with present or past participle phrases.  (Enter the “carrot”…)  I then asked my students which narrative they preferred. To this, some responded “The one that’s not so boring!” but some also responded “The one that’s not so repetitive.”  At that point, I seized the moment and asked them “How would you like to learn the ‘tricks’ to writing the better one?”

The learning objective derived from that “language carrot” was:  By the end of this week’s unit, students will be able to write a narrative composed of five to seven sentences, at least three of which exhibit correct usage of present or past participle phrases before subjects.  

Have you had any adventures in developing your own learning objectives?