Archive for Tag: Ela Newman

Monday, March 15, 2010

Better Alternatives to Asking “Is Everything Clear?”

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

How many times have I hesitated before asking my students the question “Is Everything Clear?” Many. Why? Probably because I have suspected something.

Abandoning, or at least limiting the use of this seemingly handy comprehension check question has not been easy for me. It has been attaching itself, by some universal law, to the end of my classroom explanations for years.

However, in many cases the question has seemed to serve very little purpose.

When asked “Is everything clear?” (or some equivalent of it), students will frequently answer “Yes.” because they wish to save face, to please the teacher, or to help maintain the lesson’s momentum, etc. Knowing this, we can only wonder at the sincerity of that response on a given occasion. Similarly, the response “No.” usually provides little usable feedback. Head-shaking to indicate a negative response can leave the teacher uncertain about whether students have misunderstood just one word, or most of an explanation.

Since establishing students’ comprehension is crucial to the teaching-learning process, it may well be a good idea to replace the asking of some common, yet characteristically ineffective questions such as “Do you understand?” and “Is everything clear?” with alternative and more productive comprehension check techniques. Here are a few that I have found to be comparatively effective.

Ask very specific questions and encourage students to respond using fingers or cards.

Questions like “Would you like me to repeat the last sentence?” and “Is this structure familiar?” can be better alternatives to the sweeping and often ambiguous “Is that clear?” After all, students may be unsure about what “that” represents.

But even when more concrete questions are asked, some students may feel too shy or too embarrassed to give a frank answer verbally. Most likely, the teacher will hear from only those who understood the concept. We can sometimes get a more accurate response from students if they are allowed to provide their answer visually. One way is for students to show the teacher two fingers (index and middle) to reply “Yes.” or just one finger (index) to reply “No.” When students are seated in a traditional arrangement (or in one of several others no doubt), the teacher can easily see their replies but their peers cannot. This method seems to prevent quite a bit of that suggestiveness which can spread almost instantaneously when answers are given orally.

A similar technique uses pairs of cards (red and green) which are placed face down on students‘ desks. When asked a question, students may raise the green card to say “Yes.” or the red card to say “No.” Due to the color-coding, the teacher can quickly get an impression of students’ responses.

Use concept questions instead of questions requiring repetition or recall.

Concept questions allow us to check if students have grasped the meaning of the language item they are studying. They ask for interpretation rather than repetition or recall, they often involve personalization, and they differ somewhat in grammar and vocabulary from the constructions and words being practiced.

Example: The teacher has explained and illustrated the meaning of the phrase “to be reluctant to do something,” and in order to check students‘ understanding of the expression, the teacher has presented students with the following sentence: Mary was reluctant to share her textbook.

If students provide answers to questions such as “Who was reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Was Mary reluctant to share her textbook?”, the teacher will have little confirmation of students’ comprehension of the meaning of the phrase.
However, if they offer responses to concept questions such as “Why do you think Mary could have been reluctant to share her textbook?” or “Since she was reluctant to share her textbook, what might she have said if you’d asked her to let you use it?” or, even more personalized, “Have you ever been reluctant to share something? If so, why?”, the teacher will obtain more usable information. A much more effective comprehension check can result.

Provide students with opportunities to practice asking their own, focused questions.

Students often have questions but they don’t ask them. One reason has to do with the difficulty of formulating the questions that they know are appropriate. Sadly, students will sometimes avoid asking any question if they can’t manage to formulate the one they really wish to ask, and, of course, basic questions like “Could you repeat that please?” or “What does … mean?” do not always fit the context.
So, if an intermediate student hears the sentence “The documents need to be sent to the Office of Human Resources” and does not quite catch the name of the office, coming up with ways to ask for clarification regarding that information might be a real challenge, especially if the student assumes that an appropriate question would take a form such as “What office do the documents need to be sent to?

Complicating the matter is the fact that clarification questions are not always formulated as complete sentences in natural, daily conversation. If native speakers of English didn’t quite hear where the documents must be sent, they might simply say, “Where?
In his article “Say What?: Getting Students to Ask Questions,” Randall S. Davis suggests exposing students to an amount of focused repetition so that they can practice isolating words they don’t quite catch, using interrogative words to ask questions about missing information, adding tag questions, and even simply identifying some last word that they understood, repeating it, and adding a facial expression to show their puzzlement. Davis includes a couple of interesting exercises which are based on the strategy of focused repetition that he outlines.

I’ll continue in my mission to substitute a variety of comprehension check questions for the reflexive, but ordinarily ineffectual, question “Is everything clear?” (and just hope that my tongue won’t need any more splints for sprains). How about you? Do you find yourself using that question (or an equivalent) reflexively? Any thoughts on the value of using it?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Is That (Really) Clear?: Refining the Art of Gauging Students’ Listening Comprehension

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

In 1996 I flew to the US for the first time. Somewhere over the Atlantic, I was standing in line for the restroom when another passenger approached me and asked politely for what I considered at the moment to be an odd favor. I had not quite caught the whole message, but because by trade I was a teacher of English (someone expected to have few if any problems with listening comprehension), I shied away from asking the woman for clarification and simply responded. It seemed that she was asking me to wipe her tray table where she had spilled some juice. Astonished, I remarked, Well, that’s quite an unusual favor you’re asking me for. Her facial expression indicated that she considered my response peculiar- after all, she was only inquiring about whether she could go ahead of me in line to get a paper towel so that she could quickly clean up the result of her “juice accident.”

My reluctance to ask for clarification stemmed from my unwillingness to admit that I had just experienced a complete lack of listening comprehension. That woman’s words were English words, and I had been studying English for years. Even though I considered the woman’s request bizarre, the circumstantial combination of an adultish ego and a childish timidity prevented me from asking her to clarify or repeat what she’d said. I realized later, however, that if the woman and I had been speaking Polish, my first language, I wouldn’t have thought twice about responding with a Slucham? (Pardon me?). Italic

Two Obstacles to Gauging Listening Comprehension

That experience reminded me of two basic obstacles to gauging listening comprehension in the ESL/EFL classroom (two obstacles regularly highlighted in ESL/EFL methodology courses):
  1.  Students frequently avoid asking for clarification or repetition.
  2.  Students often answer Yes or nod their heads in response to the question Is that clear? when they know that they do not sufficiently understand the concept or point about which they are being asked. Italic
Common Ways of Actuating Requests for Clarification
How do we usually embolden students to ask for clarification or repetition?
Many of us:
  • provide students with a list of phrases they can use, such as Could you repeat that? or Excuse me, what does … mean?;
  • praise students who ask for clarification by saying, That was a good question or I’m glad you asked that question;
  • or illustrate that “comprehension checks” are a natural component of conversation, both formal and informal, and they often take similar forms in students’ first languages.
Common Ways of Ensuring Comprehension

How do we usually ensure that students’ Yes, I understand. really reflects comprehension?
Many of us:
  • read students’ body language when they answer the question Is that clear?;
  • ask follow-up questions, such as Which exercise will you be working on now? or What does … mean?;
  • or ask students to repeat the key idea mentioned.
Alternative Ways of Ensuring Comprehension

I’m familiar with a few alternative ways of ensuring students’ comprehension, and I’ll share them in the forthcoming Part II of this post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about additional ways of ensuring students’ comprehension which have been effective in your classroom.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Student-Teacher’s Concerns about Group Work: Three Quick Solutions

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

The “bubbly” Beata, one of my former student-teachers, regularly avoided incorporating group work activities into her lesson plans. She thought of group work as a fail-proof recipe for a classroom fiasco. She considered facilitating pair work now and then, but never quite incorporated it, nor did she include any group work activities in her plans. However, after a brief pep talk one day, one in which I laid out some of the advantages of student collaboration, Beata agreed that her hardened aversion to group work was more reflexive than rational.

Concerns about Facilitating Group Work

When asked why she resisted group work activities, Beata shared the following concerns:

1. that students would not want to talk
2. that students would never finish their task on time
3. that most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations

Overcoming the Problem: A Little Nudging

Since people often learn well by experimentation, I resisted equipping Beata with a set of ready-made solutions, thinking that I would deprive her of instructive experience. Instead, I suggested that she simple change the “would” in the expression of her concerns to a less pessimistic “may.” I also encouraged her simply to experiment some with group work techniques as the teaching practicum continued.

Basic Quick “Fixes”

In the end, to encourage Beata to start testing out her ideas for group work, I did provide her with a few basic quick “fixes” to the classroom problems that she feared were likely to occur.

Concern #1: Students would not want to talk.
Quick Fix #1: Bring a CD Player.

“Controlled noise” seems to get group discussions going. Background music (played at a relatively low volume) tends to come in handy when students feel self-conscious about being heard by the whole class. One of my college professors would often turn on the radio as soon as he asked us to do a group work activity; it worked like magic.

Concern#2: Students would never finish their task on time.
Quick Fix #2: Bring an Alarm Clock.

Deadlines for group work completion seem to be respected more regularly if students are aware of how much time is remaining. Often, actively involved in discussions, students lose track of time. Putting on the board updates on how much time is remaining, or setting an alarm clock to go off five minutes before the task needs to be completed, often does the trick.

Concern#3: Most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations.
Quick Fix #3: Keep a Physical Distance from the Presenter.

Often, student-presenters speak to the teacher, not to the whole group. The closer the teacher stands to the presenters, the quieter their performance becomes. All that may result in students’ losing interest in what is being shared. I’ve noticed that either by sitting together with the non-presenting group or simply by standing as far from presenters as possible, I, as the teacher, have “blended in” and thus encouraged the speakers to address the whole audience.

I’m wondering if any of you have worked with student-teachers who expressed concerns about facilitating group work. If so, what were their worries about? Did you have similar concerns as you were beginning your teaching careers?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Create a Tall Tale for Practicing the First Conditional

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

Have you ever caught yourself involuntarily remembering lines from a song that you’ve heard many times? Or a movie? Most people have, I suppose. But what about lines from an ESL listening exercise?

About ten years ago, I was using the “New Cambridge English Course” textbooks with most of my students. The series was written by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter, and it was very popular at the time. One of the textbooks contained a unit on First Conditional which included a listening exercise featuring a story about John and Olga. Quite a few lines from that exercise are still embedded in my memory. I always looked forward to playing the exercise recording even though I’d heard the story countless times and should have been bored silly by the tale.

What made that listening task memorable was not only the plot, but the response that the exercise evoked in students. For me, that listening activity, however simple in design, is one model of an effective exercise in First Conditional.


The teacher plays a recording of John and Olga’s story in the usual way, except that occasionally the story is interrupted and a question on the pattern “What will happen if…?” is posed.  Students then attempt to predict a consequence of some action or event that has occurred, writing down their ideas using the First Conditional. Afterward, students read their sentences aloud and discuss their ideas. The teacher then presses the play button again and reveals “the truth” as the activity progresses.

Plot: The Key Ingredients

The key to the success of this exercise is the plot, and the significant ingredients of the plot are suspense and unpredictability. This plot comprises startling events, and a mix of people, places, and objects that we might not expect to see together in a relatively simple story. We experience a spur-of-the-moment date at the zoo and the loss of a purse in a snake pit; we meet a pretty girl and an angry boss; we encounter champagne, a revolver, and a wad of money. The mysterious Olga and the opportunistic John are caught in a web of dynamic circumstances. Oh my!

Students’ Reactions

By the second or third round of “What will happen if…?” students are laughing out loud.  But they are also beginning to realize that the story is so unpredictable that even the craziest or silliest prediction may actually be correct. The humorous atmosphere eases apprehensions about the demands of the new grammar structure. The lesson becomes a matter of fun, and the learning finds a place in students’ memories.

Bonus Learning Opportunities

This exercise, like any modeled on it, can easily be used as a springboard for various post-exercise activities. One that I have used allows students to prepare sketches during which they pose the “What will happen if…?” question at key points.

Also, this exercise, because of its unpredictable content and its openness to creative input, encourages students to use (and often look up) original or precise vocabulary.

Creating a Similar Story

In my experience, it is often possible to take a fairly ordinary story and add a few elements of danger or mystery to create a suspenseful and fairly unpredictable tale. Including characters who have uncanny problems and who are normally associated with other social contexts usually adds color in a hurry.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Misused Apostrophes: A Seeing-Thinking-Teaching-Learning Project

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

While driving home from a workshop on integrative learning the other week, I was mulling over the three topics discussed that afternoon — aspects of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Learning Pyramid, typical learning styles of millennials — when my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a bright yellow banner flapping by the side of the road. It was informing everyone that the local flea market was now open on “Sunday’s Only.”

Instead of cringing and wondering for too long about how much less unedited signs might cost, I paused, and then asked myself, “Can anything from that workshop relate to this, if I may, apostrophe disaster?” The answer sparked an idea: I could create a project which both focused on misused apostrophes and utilized the three key topics addressed at the workshop.

After all …

  • Evaluating and creating require high-level thinking skills, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    In the taxonomy, which grades instructional activities by difficulty, evaluating and creating are actually ranked as those which involve the highest-level thinking skills. Tasks which involve interpreting, judging, ranking, scoring, composing, reconstructing, or revising represent activities which typically fall into one of those two categories.

  •  Teaching others is an activity assigned to the top end of the (memory oriented) Learning Pyramid.

    A study done by National Training Laboratories revealed that the retention rate of information is highest (90%) if learners either teach the concept to others or put it to immediate use. In contrast, when learners read from books or other materials, or listen to lectures, that rate drops dramatically to 10% for reading and 5% for listening.

  • And millennials frequently use the internet to study.

    Millennials, those of Generation Y, or simply, people born between 1977 and 1998 are more technologically literate than any generation before them, and they tend to expect learning environments to incorporate the internet.

So here’s . . .  

The Project  

  • Stage 1. Having compiled a set of examples of publicly displayed misused apostrophes, including a number of examples from internet sources as well as the “Sunday’s Only” sign example, I shared the set with students, and asked them to evaluate and to revise them. One of my sources was the website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” a gold mine of photographs showing real life examples of such mistakes. Also, a quiz incorporating photos of authentic signs, banners, TV images, T-shirts, etc., most of which need editing work, available at, turned out to be very engaging.  

  • Stage 2. (Un)fortunately, campus reader boards, fliers, and even cafeteria menus can be other sources of specimens. So I asked my students to go on an “apostrophe scavenger hunt” around campus and note examples of problematic apostrophe usage. I gave them the option of working in small teams, and I encouraged them to contact the “authors” and, tactfully, to offer to edit the phrase or sentence and to inform the authors of the rule which was broken (to instruct them).

    One of my students veered off campus and found two apostrophe mistakes on the sign in front of his uncle’s body shop. The student offered to make a new sign for the shop, which pleased his uncle. The student then offered a short explanation for the change, which met with less enthusiasm. 

The students had a great time, and they were perhaps most excited when correcting and teaching native speakers of English a little thing or two about those little marks we call apostrophes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acquiring Proficiency in English: How Much Does Geography Matter?

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

I have been following with genuine interest Dorothy and Richard’s discussion on the possibility of acquiring a “full command” of English while not living in an English-speaking country. I’d like to enter that discussion by focusing on some of the issues addressed by my fellow-bloggers. 

First off, is the terminology that we use to describe the level of language command important?

Yes. Although saying that some learner has a “full command” or “mastery” of English may suffice in many contexts, I would suggest using the term “proficiency.” Academics in English language studies at the University of Cambridge have employed this term to designate success on Cambridge ESOL’s most advanced exam: The Certificate of Proficiency in English exam, and to categorize exercises and entire textbooks designed to prepare learners for that exam. The Cambridge exams are globally recognized and the term is very serviceable. According to exam materials, those who have earned the Certificate can comprehend practically everything they hear and read, can discuss complex topics “without awkwardness,” and can “express themselves precisely and fluently.” It is an exam designed for those language learners whose level of English is similar to “that of an educated native speaker.” (See .) 

Does studying English in a non-English-speaking country mean only memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules?

Absolutely not. Activities focused on successful and meaningful communication as well as on context-specific language dominate in English-language classes offered in many countries, at least many European ones. In Poland, for example, both oral and written parts of the standardized National Secondary-School Exit Exam in English include many tasks which assess students’ communicative competence. Judging from the contents of the textbooks which are most popular in Poland, The Czech Republic, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, one may conclude that it is effective communication, not “memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules” that constitutes the core of English-language curricula in these and some number of other countries. 

Can you acquire native-like pronunciation without living in an English-speaking country? 
Yes. It is widely recognized that good instruction focuses not only on fundamental grammar and vocabulary as well as register-specific grammar and vocabulary (including slang), but also on phonetics (including emphases on consonant and vowel articulation, stress patterns, and intonation units). In Polish schools (and I’m quite sure that my home country is not an exception here), all those components are regularly part of English language curricula adopted in programs designed for all levels of language competency. Most textbooks, even those for beginning learners, devote a section of every unit to practicing phonetics. Those studying to be teachers of English are very often required to take a three-year course in phonetics. 

Can you be exposed to enough English to become in other ways proficient in the language without living in an English-speaking country?

Available evidence suggests so. There is no doubt that exposure to spoken and written English is required for the internalization of the language, and that English language input is generally more abundant in countries where it is spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. There is also no doubt that variation in register and idiom is concentrated in those countries. However, sufficient exposure to spoken and written English (both formal and more colloquial English) is demonstrably available in places beyond the borders of those countries. Where school and university curricula demand that English is the medium of instruction and all oral and written exercises, all oral and written exams, all graduate papers, and all theses must be done in English (as is customary in many Departments of English in European countries), the amount of exposure is routinely sufficient. English is mandatory in English language classrooms, but it is also commonly read, heard, and spoken in public arenas in those countries, where, I think it’s fair to say non-native speakers of English meet with native speakers of English more than occasionally. It hardly needs mentioning that various media, both monodirectional (e.g. television) and bidirectional (e.g. the Internet, with its email, chat groups, and Skype), add to the amount of English language input available in such countries. 

Is exposure to sufficient English language input- without studious attention to patterns of English grammar, vocabulary, and idiom- enough to guarantee proficiency?

Of course not. Untold millions of people have relocated to the United States from non-English-speaking countries and, after years or decades of copious exposure remain functional but less than proficient in the language. On the other hand, there have been those who have lived in non-English-speaking countries and who have been sufficiently devoted to becoming proficient, and have achieved proficiency in English. 

What are the keys to becoming proficient in English?

Immersion in the language is crucial, but clearly learners do not need to relocate to an English-speaking country to be “flooded” with English. Equally important is that the exposure is exploited in the name of English language internalization and proficiency. Attentive, devoted, motivated, and active learners take advantage of much of the input they receive.

Some years ago, a Polish friend of mine who had never taken any formal English classes, but who had “devoured” textbooks, listened to tapes and to BBC radio, watched BBC TV channels and movies, surrounded himself with reference books, and often spoke to himself in English, passed intensely competitive university entrance exams (both oral and written) with scores which were among the very hig
hest registered by that (large, Polish) university that year (and native-speakers were on those exam panels.) The scores of the only two candidates who had actually lived in an English-speaking country (England) were nowhere near as high as his scores. Was he an exception?
I have also known more than a few fellow-teachers who learned English as a foreign language in Poland and who are often mistaken for native speakers by their British or American colleagues. Are they also exceptions? Perhaps not. Are there plentiful examples of proficient non-native English speaker-writers who are from Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and elsewhere and who have briefly or never lived in an English-speaking country?
Quite likely.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Students in the Land of Grammar: The Use of Discovery Techniques

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

“No, no, definitely no comma here,” insisted my student Tania, who immediately followed her confident statement with an enthusiastic, “We do need that information to know which tourists we’re talking about!” Her group mates nodded in wholehearted agreement. “Yes, Yes! It’s not extra information. It’s necessary information,” added Claudia, who, out of sheer excitement, almost sprang out of her chair.

Who would have thought that working on rules governing the punctuation of defining and non-defining relative clauses could generate such excitement in nineteen-year-olds? All right so we’re not talking El Dorado, but such rules can be quite valuable discoveries to most students.

For me, allowing students to become “grammar explorers” brings several benefits:

1. Because of their “mystery-solving” quality, discovery-based activities can capture and hold students’ attention as effectively as most interactive presentations can, and they demonstrate to students that working with grammar does not have to be dull;

2. Because of students’ personal involvement in exploratory tasks, discovery techniques help them remember rules more easily;

3. Because of their analytical character,these techniques actually show students ways to approach other, unfamiliar grammatical structures;

4. And, perhaps most importantly, because of the independent work requirements integral to discovery tasks, these activities prove to students that they can recognize a rule by themselves, and that they can be active “explorers” of the language even outside the classroom.

I recently came across a very informative article by Pavel V. Sosoyev entitled Integrative L2 Grammar Teaching: Exploration, Explanation and Expression in which he not only discusses the benefits of discovery techniques, but also shares a sample lesson as well as a questionnaire which he created to explore his students’ views on inductive learning.

And here are four of my own discovery-based lessons:

It seems to me that discovery techniques have various merits, but they are rather time-consuming and I ordinarily manage to use them only intermittently in a course.

Which grammar structures or concepts do you think might be taught naturally by way of discovery techniques? Do you use exploratory techniques in your classroom? If so, have you found them to be effective usually?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can Good Listeners Help Speakers?

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

Recently, I spent some time traveling on long-distance trains and buses in the company of various fellow travellers. Though these people were of all sorts of ages and lifestyles, most had one thing in common- being well equipped with “time-killers.” Colorful magazines, books, crossword puzzles, and, of course, cell phones and iPods were employed effectively by these travelers to kill time. While I was killing time thinking about how these folks were killing time, it occurred to me, as it has to others, that the best way to make traveling time pass is simply to talk a while with some “seat-neighbor.”

But what keeps such conversations going? After all, discussion of the weather, the upholstery, and one’s favorite brand of mustard can only last so long.

Engaged listening supports speakers’ oral skills

Apparently, the key to successful, interactive oral communication in a native tongue lies in the creation and maintenance of a bridge between the speaker and the audience. No matter how eloquent, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and fluent the speaker is, a true dialogue will not last very long if the listener does not genuinely participate. Engaged listening, forming one half of that bridge, is an ingredient essential to meaningful communication.

Are bridges like this possible or beneficial in the ESL/EFL classroom?

In my experience, the manner in which an audience reacts to a speaker helps or hinders the speaker in the ESL/EFL setting. Maintaining emotional support for the speaker, for instance, seems to foster improvement in student-speakers’ oral skills.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to incorporate more activities which focus specifically on the characteristics of good listeners and the benefits of engaged listeners to speakers.

Potential Activity: Good Listeners vs. Bad Listeners

Students work in two groups: in the first, students identify characteristics of good listeners; in the second, students identify characteristics of bad listeners. One student in each group notes down the ideas discussed.

The “good listener group” may make notes like “ keeps eye contact,” “asks questions,” “gives feedback,” “paraphrases what the speaker has said,” or “lets the speaker finish his or her sentences.”

The “bad listener group” may note ideas like “ interrupts the speaker,” “changes the subject,” “does not comment on what has been said,” “is impatient,” or “is busy doing something else.”

Once the lists of ideas have been prepared, the groups, in turn, present brief, imaginary conversations which demonstrate the characteristics students in each group have discussed. While watching these conversation-sketches, students of the other group attempt to recognize and name the characteristics being demonstrated.

This activity could encourage student input and allow students to experiment in formulating manners of interactive listening. Students can discover ways in which listening skills can influence speaking skills.

Do you think an activity like this would work? Any thoughts on how it might be improved?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Breaking the Silence: Activities Aimed at Encouraging Students’ Oral Participation

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

A group discussion begins. The clock ticks and tocks but there is not a second of silence. In fact, all the participants are so active that the teacher is forced to set a limit on how much each student can contribute to the conversation. When asked to summarize the group’s deliberations, the students compete for the role of speaker. Even when the class is over, while packing their books (and checking their latest text messages), the students continue the discussion.

Am I dreaming? Probably. But some approximation of this scenario is possible, at least some of the time.

We know that an ordinary oral task can evolve into a dynamic conversation if students work in an environment where obstacles hampering participation–such as shyness, feelings of inadequacy, or worry about embarrassment–are overcome by peer support, a non-punitive learning environment, and even motivation.

But what about the actual activities we use? Do certain oral tasks naturally evoke an animated response?

In my experience, students are more often orally active when:

1. They know that the success of a group activity requires a contribution from every student.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to share, compare, and then present information about each member’s study habits.

2. They are asked to contribute knowledge or expertise acquired outside the ESL classroom.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to describe the steps involved in ordering a CD, DVD, book, article of clothing, etc. from an online store.

3. They are surprised or shocked by a piece of news, preferably fake news.

Example activity: Before class begins, two students are told a piece of “strange” news and are asked to report that they have heard about the news when the teacher mentions it during a class discussion. Even doubting students and shy students have been known to bring themselves into the conversation once the two ‘plants’ have spoken up.

The news might be that there is a new law against driving while listening to metal rock and roll (passed because of research into brainwave conflicts associated with doing the two activities at once) or that scientists have discovered a genetic defect in collies which is causing an increasing number of them to become rabid spontaneously. (Sorry Lassie!) The list of possible fake news items is endless, but the best seem to be those which are surprising yet also somehow believable.

4. They can use vocabulary items which are familiar and key to the task.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to consider a few job applications–which contain a variety of formal, characteristic vocabulary items–in order to decide whom to hire as a language tutor.

5. They have limited time to complete the task.

Example activity: Students play a high-speed version of the well-known game “Twenty Questions”–a version called “Twenty Seconds.” Knowing that everyone must think and speak quickly in the game, and that mistakes will inevitably be made by a number of the participants, students ordinarily feel less inhibited than usual when playing this question- answer game.

Once a supportive and cooperative learning environment is established, we can turn our minds to activities. It is my experience that the choices of oral tasks often determine whether or not students genuinely engage in discussions.

Do you use any special tasks to foster animated discussions in your ESL classroom?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tenses: They Work Well in Groups

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

When I heard that by the end of the EFL class in which I was enrolled I would have learned sixteen tenses, I had ambivalent feelings. The number sounded discouragingly huge, but comfortingly specific. At the time I imagined that the challenge of mastering them all would lie in remembering their various forms and meanings. A few tenses later, I realized that the difficulty lay rather in deciding which tense to use on a given occasion.

Timelines and lists of time adverbials commonly used with specific tenses definitely cleared up some of my confusion. Still, differentiating between the two Present Perfect tenses, for example, was a Herculean task. Can I blame my puzzlement on, as Ralph Walker points out, “the nature of these two tenses, which are neither wholly present nor wholly past, but paradoxically both present and past”? ( )

Do your students struggle to understand the use of Present Perfect tenses as well? What truly helped me sort out my “tense confusion” were activities which combined the use of various tenses.

Going Beyond Tense Pairs

Teachers often use activities which contrast two related tenses, but it seems that tasks requiring students to use three, four, or even five tenses can do the trick more effectively. Students not only practice the forms and demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of each tense, but, by having to switch tenses, they learn when each is appropriately used.

Five Tenses: Sample Activity

One of my favorite “tense-decision” exercises is based on an information gap activity created by Nick Hall and John Shepheard more than fifteen years ago. In this activity, called “Ups and Downs,” students work with four tenses. In my slightly modified version of the task, students practice five tenses: Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Future Perfect.

Students work in pairs and are given two versions of a line graph presenting one trend, such as a trend in DVD sales, inflation rates, road accidents, crime rate, or online shopping, but each version is missing some information. (Here is an example: tenses.chart.pdf) The students’ task is to complete both versions of the graph so that each is identical to the other and so that it is clear what trend the chart represents. While working on the task, students need to decide which tense they should use when asking their partner questions about the missing information. Here are a few sample questions and answers.

Q: What happened to the crime rate between 2007 and 2008?
A: It rose dramatically.
Q: What has happened to it since 2008?
A: It has changed since 2008. It has been falling steadily.
Q: What is happening this year?
A: It is continuing to fall.
Q. What will have happened to it by 2010?
A. They predict it will have decreased slightly by 2010.

Do you think we could include more tenses in this exercise? Do you know of other activities which combine more than, let’s say, three tenses?