Archive for Tag: Ela Newman

Monday, December 13, 2010

So, Who’s Lying, Inspector? The “Perfect” Activity for Practicing the Past Perfect

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

newjgea@aol.com

In my last blog I discussed an alternative way of introducing the Past Perfect. I proposed that teachers kick off their set of lessons on this “unruly” bit of grammar by presenting contexts in which the use of the Past Perfect is essential to the intended meaning of a message, and only afterward moving on to sentences in which the Past Perfect can be substituted for the Simple Past.  This, I suggested, would allow students to get a feel for the Past Perfect’s semantic impact, for its force.

I also promised there to share my favorite Past Perfect activity.  The idea for this activity came when I happened on an exercise entitled “The Perfect Detective,” which is included in The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book by Nick Hall and John Shepheard.  Though based on the concept of that exercise, my activity differs in several ways; I introduced some changes in order to allow students to be involved at all stages of the task.

The activity not only encourages learners to identify the real differences in the meanings of various messages, but it tends to engage students quite naturally.

What does it ask students to do?

Solve a crime.

STAGE 1

The teacher presents the crime scene, but not by simply telling students what happened.  Instead, the teacher makes this stage interactive and suggestive by offering no more than the list of key words and phrases below, from which students must attempt to deduce the series of events.

John Flitz    9 p.m.    country house    dinner    six guests   midnight   shots heard    Flitz’s body    discover

STAGE 2

Students are informed that the guests who attended that infamous dinner party are being interrogated by two inspectors.  In pairs, students compose testimonies for the guests by completing a worksheet provided.  Each student of each pair will complete one version (A or B) of the worksheet in order to create his or her set of testimonies.

STAGE 3

Once the two versions of the worksheet are filled in, students are told that four of the six guests had plotted the murder, and that those guests gave testimonies which contradict one another.  Students who completed version A of the worksheet then compare their testimonies with students who completed version B of the worksheet.  By paying close attention to the meaning changes caused by the alternating uses of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past in their sets of testimonies, students will be able to determine which guests are telling the truth, and which guests are lying and may well have plotted the murder of Flitz.

STAGE 4

After students have decided, in pairs, who the four suspects must be, one student from each pair reads out the suspects’ names.  The teacher writes on the board the names read out for each pair.  Students are then asked to justify their decisions, highlighting the meanings conveyed by the use of the Past Perfect in some testimonial statements and the use of the Simple Past in others.

It seems to me that the force of the Past Perfect is illustrated quite vividly in this activity.

OK, so students won’t be thinking that they’ll necessarily be incarcerated for using the wrong construction, but they may well come to realize that getting a handle on that unruly old Past Perfect is worth their time.

Hall, N., and J. Shepheard. The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book. Essex: Longman, 1991. 131-132. Print.

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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Small Talk. Not So Small After All?

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

newjgea@aol.com

- Hi there!  How are you? Teaching anything new this semester?

- No, huh uh.  Mostly conversation courses.  But I like them.

- Using a good textbook?

- Yeah.  It’s full of good exercises.  But you know what?  I’m thinkin’ it really needs another chapter.

- Yeah? On what?

- Well, on the language that people use as, well, “time fillers” when they’re in the lunch room, at the bus stop, in the elevator, or wherever.

- I know what you mean.  Small talk.

- Yes, exactly.

- Yeah.  You may be right.  Well, good luck in those classes.

- You too. Bye!

- Bye!

How often is small talk a part of life in the classroom?  Perhaps not often enough.

The majority of the curricula I’ve followed, and most of the textbooks I’ve used in conversation classes, haven’t focused much on small talk, as such. Yes, there have been units on greetings, the weather, and family – typical topics for short, casual conversations.  Students have learned how to thank someone, how to apologize to people, how to ask for directions, and even how to inquire about someone’s plans for the weekend.  Yet these “how-to matters” tend to be presented as separate topics, often in different units.  They are not usually treated together, under a heading like “small talk.”

How often is small talk a part of life outside the classroom?  Daily.

Students must be able to cope with everyday small talk; they must be able to produce appropriate small talk.

Considering the frequency of its occurrence in daily conversations as well as its very real influence on how we are viewed as interlocutors, small talk could well deserve a regular place in ESL classrooms, classrooms which attend to communicative competence.

If we take account of its impact on reducing learners’ nervousness about spontaneous communication in L2, we also realize that “mastering” the art of small talk can lower students’ apprehension of speaking, which is crucial to their success.

Because people generally think that the language of small talk is “simple language,” and because small talk conversations can’t be considered demanding in terms of their length (lasting only a few minutes ordinarily), it’s crucial that language learners feel they can “handle” small talk.

Students shouldn’t have to say to themselves (as I have done!): I’ve been studying English for a few years but I still feel uncomfortable holding short and simple conversations.

But how can we teach small talk?

Certainly not in “topic isolation mode.”  Typical small talk “talking points” can be integrated.  We mix small talk with more serious conversation in real life; something similar can be done in the classroom.  Brief, casual conversations about the weather, complaints, health, appearance, family, apologies, compliments, plans, etc. should be held regularly, and can, with a little coaxing, involve most or all of our students over time.  Such conversations make great warm-up activities.

Sample Small Talk Warm-Up Activity

Keep a stock of cards with phrases like “Great party!”, “It was nice seeing you again”, “Let’s have lunch some time”, “You look busy”, or ‘‘I haven’t seen you for a while,” etc. Ask students, as they come in to class, to take one and then to mingle among classmates, initiating small talk with the phrase provided.

We can also incorporate activities that promote rapid, spontaneous responses also helps.  After all, small talk may be brief, but it is fast-paced!

Sample Activity for Eliciting Short, Fast-Paced Responses.

Also using cards with phrases or sentences representing a variety of topics, such as “Is this the only kind of dessert you have?”, “May I interest you in our new model of PC?”, “I’ve had a headache all week.”, “Where have you been all day?”, and “You OK?”, we can involve students in a kind of group task.  Students, in turn, draw a card and read out its phrase or sentence to another student in the group.  This should, on each occasion, prompt a brief conversation between the students (one lasting not more than 30 seconds or so).  We can sound a bell, clap our hands, or indicate in some other way, that a small talk conversation in progress should end and that a new one should begin.

I’ve found that material for lessons on small talk can often be gathered from everyday conversations I’ve heard or from those my students have heard.  If you start paying attention to such conversations, you may well get the impression, as I have, that the variety of small talk questions and answers is astonishing.

Need to run.  Take care!

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, 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

newjgea@aol.com

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 3, 2010

Auxiliary Topics for Students’ Journals

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

newjgea@aol.com

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?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Colors: Beyond the Basics

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

newjgea@aol.com

Looking into my closet the other month, my best friend said that my clothes seemed “uninspired.”  She surveyed my blues, greys, and beiges with increasing dismay, and concluded that the colors of my clothes simply blurred into one another on the shelves and hangers.  I’ve since been attending to color a bit more and I’m noticing all kinds of shades.  In fact, this summer I’m starting to get the feeling that the world’s colors are actually conspiring to awaken my sense of hue.

They have been revealing themselves almost relentlessly in all directions.  The oranges of poppies appeared between some train tracks I was watching.  Bold greens and striking yellows showed up in the embroidery of a tablecloth I saw at a folk culture center.  Subtly differing blues and whites emerged from an oil painting of a marine scene I viewed at a small museum.  I must say that I’m beginning to be energized a little by the “burst of hues” around me.

While it may still be a while before I buy a carnation-pink dress, I’ve been awakened enough to consider devoting a blog article to the use of colors in the language classroom.  So here it is.

Of course basic color terms are taught at beginning levels.  Students learn names of basic colors, describe the clothes someone is wearing, discuss living-room wall color preferences, and explore color idioms, color psychology, and so on.  Today, I’m thinking about what’s next, about what “color activities” we can use with our more advanced learners.

Mood: Modifying Color Names

This exercise is one I created a few years ago for an intermediate group and it has since sparked enthusiasm among many of my students.  The activity employs two sets of cards: one set with the names of various colors and one set with words describing moods, attitudes, or emotions.  Working in pairs, students draw three color cards and one mood card.  They are then asked to write a very short narrative paragraph which portrays the selected mood. This should be achieved mainly by using other words to modify the names of the colors.  When the paragraphs are ready, students read them out and ask fellow students to guess the mood that the piece was meant to portray.

Here are the ideas of one pair of my students.  The color cards drawn were: Orange, Yellow, and Brown. The color phrases created were: “Mud Orange,” “Washed-out Yellow,” and “Cockroach Brown.” Can you guess the mood card they’d selected?  (Answer: “Dislike”)

Hues: Categorizing Color Terms

This activity is dictionary-based and it is intended for intermediate or advanced learners.  The key tool is a healthy list of descriptive color terms.  Terms like these can easily be found in the paint aisles of home improvement stores.  Some discretion is required here, however, since terms like “Death by Chocolate” and “Gypsy Bloom” are clearly meant to be catchy, not accurate.

Here’s the procedure: students are given a jumbled list of color terms.  Each term includes a word or phrase that is most likely unfamiliar to them.  They are asked to categorize the terms by related basic (or primary) color.  “Heirloom Lace” and “Parchment Paper,” for example, can be put together under “White.” “Wilted Chives” and “Parsley Sprig” may be placed under “Green.”  “Pot Clay” and “Trekkers’ Tan” would probably go under “Brown.”  To their benefit, most students consult a dictionary several times in order to complete the task.

Color and Culture: Researching Color Symbolism

Advanced learners often enjoy tasks similar in difficulty level to those assigned to students who are native speakers.  Research-based projects are of that type.  Students can, for example, be asked to investigate the symbolism behind certain colors in various cultures.  More specifically, they may be assigned to research “Green (or Blue, or White, etc.) in the Flags of the World,” or “The Colors of Weddings across the Globe.”  One plus to this kind of project is the necessity for students to locate authoritative sources, and on occasion those may take the form of a fellow student who has a different cultural background.

Any colorful thoughts?

P. S. I’m off to paint my toenails….. Happy summer!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Make ‘Em Laugh: Expanding Students’ Descriptive Vocabulary

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

newjgea@aol.com

If you were asked what mode of writing you enjoy teaching most, what would you say? Argumentation? Comparison? Process? I’d probably choose two: narrative writing and descriptive writing. To justify my choice, I’d most likely mention the inherent versatility of these two modes. Each can be used at several proficiency levels, each can incorporate a variety of grammar structures, and each can be employed to facilitate the expansion of students’ vocabulary.

The Usual Road

Narrative as well as descriptive writing can accommodate and foster the use of expressive vocabulary. Yet there’s often a problem with these modes. They seem to allow too easily the use of vague vocabulary. Students writing in these modes choose verbs like “go,” “see,” “say,” and “think” frequently and verbs such as “meander,” “peek,” “ramble,” and “reflect” rarely. The tendency seems to hold even when students know two or three viable synonyms for “go,” “see,” etc. Nevertheless, students can be cajoled into using suggestive verbs such as “meander” and “peek” as well as graphic adjectives such as “cozy,” “dank,” and “agile.”

But how to cajole? That is the question.

I’ve often instructed students to refer to the senses, use color words, create similes, and avoid certain non-descriptive words when writing descriptive pieces. I’ve utilized the old “show me, don’t tell me” technique when instructing students in narrative writing. I’ve even created the “imagine the movie set” approach to get students to think about the finer details of what they have seen or imagined. I’ve used all these older and newer methods to pretty good effect, I think. They’re concrete enough, and students tend to respond to them.

Still, one alternative stands out in my mind as both natural and effective: the way of humor.

A Road Less Traveled

The way of humor is easier than many think, and it can result in the instinctive reaching for dictionaries and the desperate snatching of explicit words. The key instruction is this: Try to make your reader laugh.

Out of a combination of pedagogical intention and curiosity, I added a few potentially comedic themes to a list of writing topics recently. One theme for a narrative paragraph read “How Lucy Flunked out of Kindergarten.” One for a descriptive essay was “The Worst Restaurant in Town.” More than a few students have chosen one of the comical themes in the list since then, and several have reported that they naturally “spiced up” their papers with graphic images and vivid details in order to amuse the reader. Amused the reader has been, and I’ve been chuckling too.

Reading one “How Lucy Flunked” paper, I learned that Lucy wore some rather strange clothes to kindergarten, but the fact wasn’t expressed as dryly as that. No sir. Lucy’s ankle-length skirts always had ten rows of safety pins in them, and most of the safety pins were unfastened so they nicked other kids. (I was told that “safety pin,” “unfasten,” and “nick” were the words the student really needed to include, and so simply had to look them up in a dictionary!)

From a “Worst Restaurant” paper I learned that the restaurant floor wasn’t just “dirty,” but…,well, I’ll spare you the description of the substances that were splattered on the floor, the foreign matter that was hiding in the corners, and the smells drifting around the place. Oh, yes– it was quite an unappealing scene, but one which was “beautifully” detailed!

I have to say that I’ve been somewhat inspired by such successes. I think I’ll continue along this road awhile. The way of humor feels good and works well.

Have you used any writing tasks that incorporate humor?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Peaceful Coexistence of L1 and L2 in a Language Classroom

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

newjgea@aol.com

“I’d like to talk to you after class,” I informed one of my 8th grade students, convinced that having missed another homework assignment, he needed to be reminded of our class expectations.  Since my teaching practicum supervisor, an unyielding believer in an exclusive use of L2 in a language classroom, was interested in observing our “after class” talk, English had to be the default language of that conversation.   I followed the English Only Rule, but sensed that the student perceived my words more as an intriguing oddity than a formal reprimand.

The use of L2 in EFL and ESL classrooms

Exclusive or predominant use of L2, a fundamental principle of the communicative approach, stresses the importance of frequent and natural exposure to the target language.  It makes sense, and there are many advantages to the approach.  Even if a school policy doesn’t impose the approach, linguistic realities may.  Like many of you, I have often had to use L2 exclusively if only because I wasn’t familiar with the L1 of each of my students.  Still, even if following the English Only Rule is generally feasible, it may not always be the best idea.  It seems to me that there is no pedagogical faux pas in brief “detours” into L1 under certain circumstances for certain good reasons.

Why and when can we use L1 in EFL and ESL classrooms?

According to Polio and Duff (1994), L1 is commonly used in foreign language classrooms to explain difficult grammar concepts, to solve problems caused by students’ lack of comprehension, to address administrative issues, and so on.  Of the eight typical causes of L1 use mentioned by these researchers, three, to my mind, stand apart clearly as good reasons.

To manage behavioral issues. Although there may always be some way to communicate pedagogical expectations without using L1, at times psychological purposes should be allowed, momentarily, to outweigh educational ones. I still believe that my 8th grader would have understood the importance of doing homework in my class much better had I spoken to him in Polish, our L1.

To communicate empathy or solidarity. Under certain circumstances it is appropriate to communicate understanding or unity to a student, and this can require appropriate, perhaps idiomatic, precision on the part of the teacher as well as full comprehension on the part of the student.  In her article “L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation,” Anne Edstrom recalls a situation which prompted her to use L1.  She had mispronounced a student’s name a few times and was worried about the way he felt.  By switching into L1, she was able to express her concern and to stress her good intentions in a timely and unambiguous manner. At one point she writes, “there are moments when my sense of moral obligation to a student, in this case concern about communicating respect and creating a positive environment, overrides my belief in maximizing L2 use” (287).

To teach the vocabulary of abstract concepts. Resorting to L1 while teaching the vocabulary of abstract concepts is naturally attractive.  In fact, it may make real sense now and then, perhaps when introducing words which have exact or near exact equivalents in L1, or perhaps when the minutes for practicing begin to evaporate as we pile on additional explanations, crowd the board with stick-figure drawings, and exhaust our muscles by over-gesturing.  At some point we begin to waste our students’ time.  Chances are that while witnessing our desperate attempts at explaining the meaning of a new word, at least one student will look the word up in a bilingual dictionary and will be happy to share his or her findings with the classmates (perhaps only to save them from boredom or frustration).

A recipe for success?

While circumspect use of L1 may accelerate the learning process, switching to students’ mother tongue should clearly be limited.  David Atkinson (1987) suggests that L1 should be used no more than five percent of the time in the foreign language or second language classroom.  In my experience, and I suspect in the experience of many other teachers of EFL or ESL, an expedient pinch here and a timely dash there of L1 is just about pedagogically right.

Any thoughts?  Any alternative recipes?

Atkinson, D. (1987). The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource? ELT Journal, 41/4, 241-248.

Edstrom, A. (2006).  L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63/2, 275-292.

Polio, C., and Duff, P. (1994). Teachers’ language use in university foreign language classrooms: A qualitative analysis of English and target language alternation. Modern Language Journal, 78, 313–326.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Phantom “But”: A Strategy for Sorting out the Time References of Mixed Conditionals

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

newjgea@aol.com

I was almost feverishly exited when I learned that my high school English class had progressed to the point where we were just a few textbook pages away from the unit on the Third Conditional, the most difficult conditional of all! You may be thinking something like “So, how weird is she?”, but I’m telling you, it brought a “hurray” to my mind!

At the time, I was an energetic college prep student who had just resolved to pursue English language studies after graduation, and one who relished the challenges presented by such difficult grammar structures. My enthusiasm may seem somewhat abstract, but it did have a concrete purpose. The better my English was, the better my chances of passing an entrance exam and winning a place in a university English program would be. I felt that it was within my grasp to become a university student, and I was focused on the struggle to realize that dream. The competition on the exam day that I was targeting, however, would be intimidating, to say the least. Only the top 10% of the hundreds of examinees who would be present at that university’s English exam would be admitted.

So, the long-awaited practice of the Third Conditional came at last. As I had suspected, it was “wonderfully tough.”

When we were completing that unit, I learned, to my joy, that there was more, that there were so-called “mixed conditionals.” However, I also learned at that moment, to my dismay, that those conditionals were not part of the school curriculum. If I wanted to be taught about mixed conditionals, I would have to teach myself.

A Conditional Pickle

I found a book that discussed them, and I opened it. Soon enough, it became clear that the structures of the mixed conditionals were a composite, or mixture, of structures already familiar to me. The patterns of the clauses seemed logical. Still, a proper recognition of time references eluded me for quite a while. Sorting out the differences between the present condition-past result and the past condition-present result was contorting my mind and zapping my gumption.

“But” to the Rescue

Somewhere in the middle of that self-study storm, an idea came to me. It was an idea about what could follow mixed conditional structures, and it led me to devising a kind of tool for checking my answers. I would write out a sentence based on a mixed conditional structure, and then in my head add a phantom “but” and finish the thought. This little strategy allowed me to register those big, nasty time references.

Examples:

→ If Robin weren’t shy about approaching strangers, she would have asked Mark out on a date.
BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers, so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date. (present condition) (past result)

→ If Sophie had saved the recipe for the chocolate babka, she would not have to look for it now.
BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe, so she HAS to look for it now. (past condition) (present result)

In the end, I passed an entrance exam, became a student, passed an exit exam, and became a teacher. Since then, I have used this easy method many times to teach mixed conditionals to my students. Actually, I have found that students can sometimes sort out the tense-time references more quickly if they also employ other phantom words such as “now” and “then.”

Examples:

→ … BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers (NOW), so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date (THEN).

→ … BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe (THEN), so she HAS to look for it (NOW).

Do you teach mixed conditionals to any of your students? If so, at what level or point do you introduce them?