Archive for Tag: Ela Newman

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Don’t Dread Drills

By Ela Newman

Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL

University of Texas at Brownsville

Repetition drills, substitution drills, transformation drills. Are they mechanical and unexciting or practical and indispensable in language learning?

The notion of drilling often sparks animated discussion, but surely some students, some of the time, can benefit from having to repeat new structures. The frequency of use itself can help turn that newly-learned phrase into a more reflexive phrase. Drills also allow students to practice controlled and “graspable” pieces of language. Still, we may reasonably wonder if they are stimulating enough, and if they have anything to do with real communication.

Can we use drills in real and meaningful contexts? Is there a way to avoid rote repetition?

I recently took an online course designed by Diane Larson-Freeman, in which it was suggested that role plays involving creative automatization can be very effective. In these, students repeat the same sentence a few times, but they do so in contexts which would require that repetition in real life. In other words, the repetition is “psychologically authentic — the situations call for “natural repetition.”

At one point, students are practicing the structure
something needs V-ing, and they have to repeat the sentence My washing machine needs fixing a few times during a call to an appliance store because the call keeps getting transferred to different departments of the store. I guess that’s something like an instance of “the run around.”

I found the idea quite interesting and have created a few role-play situations that generate a need for “natural” repetition. Here are a couple of scenarios I came up with which can be transformed into role-plays incorporating psychologically authentic repetition. Both focus on the causative have.

Activity 1: This Room Looks Different

The student has had his or her apartment redecorated and is having a party. Guests are pouring in and they notice the changes. One guest says, “This room looks different,” and the student may respond, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Another guest arrives and says, “Wow, this room looks great!” to which the student may again say, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Knock… knock… Who’s there? Another guest? Great! (The more guests the better for the student learning the new structure!)

Activity 2: You Look Different

The student has changed something about his or her appearance and goes to work the next day. One co-worker comments, “You look different today,” and the student may respond, “I had my hair cut yesterday.” Another employee notices a change in the student’s hair color and says, “Your hair seems darker,” to which the student may reply, “Yes, I had my hair dyed chocolate brown yesterday.” Of course, if the student has had a complete make-over, this could go on for some time!

In these activities, the new structure is repeated out of necessity in a “psychologically authentic” context. It feels natural. There is a “legitimate” reason for a student to repeat the same sentence a few times. It appears to be a good way to practice structures which are genuinely new to students, and could precede activities which allow for greater variation in responses.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have used this method and those who’d be interested in sharing role-plays aimed at giving students chances to repeat new structures in contexts which require repetition naturally. Anyone ever practiced past tense forms using role-plays that involve meaningful repetition?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Too Much Red Ink? Providing Feedback on Students’ Written Work

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

Fairly recently, William Ancker conducted a research survey of students’ and teachers’ attitudes to error correction. The survey was administered in 15 countries and the results reveal that 24% of teachers, but 78% of students, feel that all written errors (or mistakes) should be corrected.

I’d say his findings confirm many teachers’ assumptions about their students’ views on error correction. When it comes to written work, students tend to expect that most, if not all, of their mistakes will be pointed out. They want to know what they need to work on, and they expect us, the teachers, to give them detailed comments on their work.

Many teachers I’ve known have argued that a page strewn with corrections or comments may not only impact students’ motivation negatively, but may also cause students to be confused about the structure and content of their writing.

Meeting expectations without hindering learning

Is there a way to satisfy students’ expectations without hindering their learning? In my experience, two strategies can help achieve a balance here: establishing a healthy attitude towards mistakes (that is, one which views mistakes as learning opportunities), and using an effective method of pointing out mistakes.

This is the method I use:

1. I give my students a copy of a chart listing grammar problems which are common at their level. To familiarize them with the tool, I provide them with a short paragraph containing various errors, assign them to identify and correct those, and ask them to expand the chart by adding examples of grammar problems found in the paragraph.

The columns of the chart are labeled in the following way:


2. While correcting students’ written work, I underline problematic structures in the text and write symbols representing them in the margins. This is a fairly typical approach today. However, I also circle certain symbols. The purpose here is to indicate grammatical details that have been emphasized or specifically taught in previous lessons–those which students should be able to correct easily. In other words, I circle what I hope are mistakes (one-time slips), not actually errors (problems caused by students’ not knowing particular grammar structures yet).

Uncircled symbols suggest gaps or other issues. Students can learn the names of most of these by looking to the error chart, and then, if they wish, consult a grammar reference book to learn more about the issues. Students can also choose simply to wait for future lessons which address those grammatical issues.

3. As I discuss grammar points in class, I ask students to add new information to columns of the error chart, such as chapter and page numbers indicating the places in the textbook where certain points are covered.

Win-Win: Students get the feedback they want and the tools to self-correct

This method has worked well for me and my students on a few levels.

  • First, it allows me to give students the thorough feedback they generally expect.
  • Second, it alerts students to the mistakes they should be able to correct themselves. (Self-correction, it seems to me, is crucial to progress.)
  • Third, it affords students opportunities to investigate problem areas on their own. This encourages them to be independent in their studies and to go beyond what we do in the classroom.

I suppose we all feel awkward when we make a mistake and someone points it out, but if correction is done in a friendly, supportive and constructive way, I think we usually value it and appreciate the chance to remedy the problem, however small, and to increase our facility in writing. Sometimes progress lies on the other side of a blush (!).

Have you ever asked your students about their views on error correction? If so, what were their responses?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Striving for Fluency: Crafty Tricks, Inevitable Pitfalls, and Productive Approach

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
As a beginning language learner, I remember knowing many classmates who seemed able to talk indefinitely in English without pausing. If they paused, it was not because they had to, but to extend some measure of courtesy to other students. After all, it was only fair to let everyone contribute to our conversations.

But how many of us did, in fact, speak up regularly, without embarrassment, with pure abandon, pushed by the heavy thought that we would never be fluent unless we practiced? Not too many. We were shy by nature and rather inhibited by what we thought were flawless performances of our fluent classmates. But, still determined to speak up, many of us developed crafty tricks in order to sound more fluent and more skilled. How many of these do you recognize?

  • Learn a word which sounds quite sophisticated and “plug it in” whenever possible (I had a friend whose sentences always included the word appreciate. He seemed to be grateful for lots of things.)
  • Learn a few longer phrases, even sentences, and make them fit whatever topic is being discussed
  • Use abbreviations, clipped forms, and contractions (Cause was quite popular at the time)
  • Instead of boring the listener with an unending chain of “umm” and “ahh,” use phrases such as “Now, let’s see,” or “How can I put it into words?”

A Pile of Pitfalls

While the last trick on the list seemed to work quite well, the others turned out to be nothing but pitfalls, making us more nervous and, in fact, less fluent. Finding ways to make the “big” word or “the perfect sentence” fit the context of the conversation was not just exhausting, but certainly unnatural. Intertwining piles of abbreviations and contractions with long pauses didn’t seem to serve any communicative purpose, except for irritating the listener, perhaps. “It’s … ‘cause…umm… they’ve… ahh… well, …no…. they’d… umm…” would test any listener’s patience.

Most of those tricks did not work well. The idea of creating those, however, testified to our serious, maybe obsessive, interest in becoming truly fluent. We wanted to reduce our number of pauses and repetitions, create undisturbed runs of words, and use connected speech naturally.

The Real Secret of Becoming Fluent

Interestingly, what did help many of us reach higher levels of fluency was exposure to tasks focused on accuracy. Because of our concern with the quality of language we produced and, consequently, with the effectiveness of our communication skills, some emphasis on accuracy allowed us to develop greater fluency. Knowing that we were using appropriate structures and words, we were much more willing to speak up, explore, and experiment with the language.

And so, in our case, accuracy seems to have been not just any component of fluency, but its foundation. Focusing on communication skills is crucial in language learning; being able to use language appropriately is also a part of meaningful and successful communication for both native and non-native speakers.

I’ll end by encouraging you to read an article by Fangyuan Yuan and Rod Ellis “The Effects of Pre-Task Planning and On-Line Planning on Fluency, Complexity and Accuracy in L2 Monologic Oral Production.”

Their findings suggest that a balance between fluency and accuracy can be achieved when students are given time, even brief moments, to conceptualize, plan, articulate, and monitor their oral performance. What I found particularly interesting about this study was the exercise the authors used to research the effects of planning on fluency and accuracy in learners’ oral performance. I think that the task, which involved participants in narrating a story, would work very well as an activity promoting both fluency and accuracy in many EFL/ESL classrooms.

Do you know of any useful strategies for teaching fluency and accuracy in tandem?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Using Student-Created Material

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

Don’t tell them what they can tell you.

This advice was pinned to a cork board in a classroom where I was taking one of my EFL Teaching Methodology courses. At that time the suggestion sounded intriguing, but somewhat unrealistic. Now, fifteen years later, I know it is far from impractical.

Still, I have discovered recently that there is another dimension to that teaching suggestion:

Don’t prepare materials which students can prepare themselves.

I know. It may sound as if I’m trying to avoid one of the teacher’s basic chores: lesson preparation. Well, not this time. In fact, following that motto, I must admit, has added minutes to my lesson planning time, but it has been worth the effort.

I engage students in creating lesson material in two ways, for two reasons.

  1. I use student-created material as a springboard for introducing and practicing new grammatical structures.

    Whenever possible, before introducing a new grammar point, I ask students to create material incorporating an already familiar structure, one that we can build on. I find that students are regularly motivated by tangible evidence of their progress. Clear, objective, and immediate proof of their progress is provided when they can compare their original work to a “new-and-more-advanced” version. It is very concrete, and as such, it brings them a feeling of perceptible accomplishment.

  2. When the original material is in its more advanced version, I use it as a basis for allowing students the opportunity to become expert peer reviewers.

    As we know, teaching a new concept can be very self-instructive. (How many of us really understand the intricacies of some grammar point mostly because we have had to teach it – and appear confident while doing so?) I have noticed a wonderful tendency: as peer-reviewers, students want to provide accurate and thorough feedback. At times, that feeling of responsibility sends them back to their notes, prompts them to discuss the issue with a partner, and encourages them to give that new grammar structure some extra attention. And because that drive is psychologically authentic, it puts students’ learning in a meaningful, and therefore, productive context.

Let me add here that most student-created work is used anonymously in class. It is also submitted electronically, which allows me to create worksheets more easily. I’d like to share with you an activity I have used which incorporates students’ ideas: Lesson on Reduced Adverb Clauses

I always look for new ways of using student-created material in my lesson planning. Do you know of any? How do you incorporate students’ ideas into the teaching of grammar?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

3 Things I Learned From a Dreadful Teacher

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

My early excitement about learning English was extinguished in a flash. I was nine years old and eager to learn English, but my teacher was dreadfully uninspiring, bored with teaching, and oblivious to the effects of his sarcasm.

The French teacher described in David Sedaris’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day” is, I imagine, the female equivalent of my teacher.

After my first English class, I was convinced that:

  • I should be ashamed of every mistake I make. (Yes, my teacher would sigh and roll his eyes at our mistakes.)
  • My errors are funny to others, so it is better to be quiet than to make a fool of myself. (Yes, my teacher would comment sarcastically on pupils’ errors and the class would laugh.)
  • I have no talent for learning languages. (My teacher would explain grammatical structures and I wouldn’t be able to use many of them correctly the first time.)

Many language learners feel vulnerable or mentally limited when their communication skills, so essential to adult life, are reduced to simple sentences, single words, even gestures. I find that learners’ apprehension can be lowered if they are made to feel genuinely comfortable in the classroom, but also if they are informed about the ins and outs of the learning processes that they are experiencing.

In my classroom, I do three things to create an atmosphere conducive to learning:

  • Instill a sense of safety. I try to give my students senses of safety and confidence so that they feel free to experiment with language.
  • Turn errors into welcome learning opportunities. I try to get my students to view their errors and mistakes not as failures which should make them ashamed or which deserve ridicule, but as clues to their unique language abilities.
  • Instill a sense of progress and accomplishment. I encourage my students to be patient with their own learning processes. I create activities that will allow me to demonstrate to students that by the end of every class, they are capable of expressing themselves a little bit better, and that their efforts have paid off.

Luckily for David Sedaris, his French teacher’s comments–“Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section” and “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain”–turned out to be motivating for him. Entertaining as it is, his story, as far as I know, presents a rare picture.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Resolutions or Real Promises?

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

I’ve never created a list of my New Year resolutions, but I have made mental notes of a few of those New Year’s Day promises. I once promised to eat no bad chocolate. I got months into the year with that one. Another time, I swore to exercise more, or more or less- I’ve forgotten which it was now.

It seems to me that many of us, regardless of whether we actually produce lists of New Year resolutions (and when we are not joking around about bad chocolate) make promises about things that are acutely relevant, or inspirational, or rewarding, in our private as well as our professional lives.

This year, this “teaching year,” I am resolving to be a good observer.

But how could being a good observer benefit my students? And how could observation itself be seen as effective use of my time? Well, let me see…

Can observation bring relevance to the L2 teaching-learning process? Apart from helping the teacher decide on the pace of teaching, the type of material to be studied, and the techniques that can be used, its fruits can suggest the order in which we may want to arrange the material.

Typically, we assign a level of difficulty as well as a “place in line” to a given grammar structure. For example, many of us will introduce the Simple Present before we expose students to “the workings” of the Simple Past. By tradition, the Present is taught earlier because it is structurally easier, and perhaps also psychologically more basic, at least for young children, but it seems rarely to be more experientially relevant than the Past, particularly for older children and adults.

An L2 learner myself, I remember feeling a bit impatient when, in my first English class, it took a couple of months before I was exposed to ways of talking about the past. To my mind, the past tense seemed more pertinent than the present. I had the impression that my classmates and I would speak about the events of yesterday, last week, or last year more frequently than we would talk about what we do regularly or habitually, so we were eager to do the same in English.

Maybe, if I’m a good observer of my students this year, I will notice where their grammar interests, as well as their grammar needs, lie. I realize that teaching should not be guided excessively by such student impressions, but I feel that this impression is worth a second thought and it may help me make my lessons more relevant without making them measurably more difficult in terms of the ordering of grammatical structures.

Can observation bring inspiration? (Well, the two words rhyme anyway!) We know that watching students become genuinely involved in an activity we’ve prepared can “give us wings” and encourage us to continue creating tasks of a similar sort. But it can also motivate us to try something new or unusual.

I am a fan of discovery-based tasks, and although I realize that they can’t be used daily (they tend to be time-consuming) and that not all students feel comfortable with them- some students simply want the teacher to explain all the grammar rules- these tasks do have a place in many classrooms and the results of observation can help us decide if and when such unusual activities might be used.

Also, if we allow students themselves to become observers, they too can draw motivation, even inspiration, from the experience. Discovery-based activities, which involve language learners in close examination of usage material, encourage students to discover language patterns outside the classroom as well; these students usually realize they can become more independent learners.

Another way that students can become inspired by observation involves reflection on their mother tongue. I’ve noticed that students enjoy describing structures of their native language. (Ask me a question about noun cases of Polish and I’ll feel Goosebumps.) Tasks featuring native language descriptions give grammar discussions a special, personal touch. Students “observe” native language usage, and as a result often find studying grammar more naturally interesting.

Can observation be rewarding? I think so. It can show us which of our ideas work and which were “good tries.” And I believe that such news is gratifying since it points at what activities we should definitely keep in our folders and which ones need to be rethought (or, if I dare say, “tossed”).

I’ve heard that we are more likely to fulfill our New Year resolutions as “real promises” if they are realistic, valuable, and acted upon immediately. I believe that with effort I can become a good observer this year, and I’m confident that there are material benefits to doing so. Now, all I have to do is act (and soon, I guess!).

How about you? Are you planning any big or small instructional changes this year?

Happy New Year, everyone!