Archive for Tag: empowering students

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In Praise of Praise

Dorothy ZemachBy Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

My son is a good writer. I remember when he became one, back in 6th grade—when his teacher told him he was one. He hadn’t really written much at that point, so she was just going on her instincts—she could see he loved to read, and his spelling and grammar were decent, and he did have a tendency to ramble on, when writing as well as when speaking.

He’d never minded writing before, but equally didn’t find it especially appealing; it was just something one did in school. However, once his teacher told him he was a good writer, he took that on. He spent more time on his assignments and he tried harder. He even said he felt he had to do better than the other kids in his class “because she expects it of me. I’m a good writer.” Not surprisingly, through increased effort, he really did become a good writer, a skill that stayed with him throughout high school.

Such a simple thing to say to a child: “You’re a good writer.” And yet what an impact it had. A well-placed comment like that can change the shape of someone’s education, and, by extension, their career and their future.

Of course, we can’t just tell all of the learners in our classroom that they are good writers and then stand back and watch it come true. For praise to be meaningful, it has to be said 1) with sincerity and 2) at the right time.

Praise that rings false is worse than no praise at all, and students are adept at knowing when you’re saying something you don’t really believe. Even if false praise is believed, it isn’t helpful because it gives students inaccurate information. Telling a student her pronunciation is excellent when actually she is practically unintelligible will (if she doesn’t believe you) lead her to think you’re making fun of her or don’t believe she can ever get any better, or (if she believes you) keep her from working towards necessary improvements.

Praise at the right time means praise when a student is open to hearing it and could use an affirmation or an encouragement. I think there’s something special about anticipatory praise, too, like my son got—he hadn’t won a Pulitzer prize for writing at that time, and in fact, being 11, hadn’t done much writing at all. But his teacher sensed his potential, and, in effect, praised that—creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think a lot of us can remember a time in our academic lives when we were feeling just a bit uncertain about our talents or unsure of ourselves and someone we looked up to gave us the right words of encouragement.

It’s not always easy to praise students. Sometimes we don’t know them very well. Sometimes they’re actually not doing very well. Sometimes other students demand more of our time.

I’ve found that many teachers, being compassionate and nurturing, actually pay more attention to those students who are struggling. Of course, this is a wonderful thing to do. And yet—I think it’s important not to overlook the students who are doing well. It’s shortchanging them to think that good test scores and grades are reward enough. Remember that “good” students can have as many insecurities and moments of self-doubt as the outwardly less successful.

I’ll close by describing an activity I’ve often done with classes at the end of a semester or term—although there’s no reason you couldn’t do it in the middle of a course either.

Have students sit in a circle, if your numbers and room space allow; otherwise, they can keep their regular seats, but a circle where they can all make eye contact is nice. Choose one student to start, and have her (or him) thank the person on her left for something concrete. Give a few examples at the start so students get the idea—

     “Thank you for giving me the homework assignments when I forgot to copy them down” or
     “Thank you for making me laugh in class” or
     “Thank you for letting me use your dictionary.”

The person receiving the compliment says “You’re welcome,” and turns to the person on his left and gives a compliment, and so on around the circle. Note that everyone gives and receives a compliment, and that students don’t choose whom they speak to (it’s just determined by seating order).

I promise that you will be amazed, as well as touched, by the things students mention! I’ve done this with high school students, university students, businessmen, mixed groups of adults and teens… and there are always a few people moved to tears. If you can’t always praise your students, then, let them praise each other.

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, 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?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Confessions of a Recovering Control Freak

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

It’s hard for me to surrender control in my life, including my classroom. (You catch that “my”? I’m not kidding here.) Even though my conscious self knows that studies show empowering students leads to more student satisfaction and adult learners need a say in their learning, the insecure inner me yearns to micromanage my classes, doling out pages and assignments like the last M & Ms in a lifeboat.

Admitting a problem truly is the first step on the road to recovery because now I am on a mission to give my students more say, more choices, more control of their studies in “my” courses. Proud in my recovery process, I just wanted to share a few small steps that I took as I started out.

1. I gave students several topics to choose from in preparing presentations and writing papers, or sometimes they come up with one completely on their own. (It took a weekend with the shades drawn to calm down after that.)

2. In a thick textbook that we never get through, students get to pick chapters with topics that interest them. (OK, I chose 7 of the 15 and they choose 2, but it’s a good start.)

3. I allow students to “blow off” their choice among certain homework and assignments. (The tremors are much better now.)

4. Students are permitted to look at incoming text messages during class. They aren’t allowed to answer them, but when they feel that vibration, do you think they are thinking about class anymore? No way! Better to take a quick glimpse and then shut it off until break time. (No one can actually hear my teeth grinding, I’ve been told.)

5. I use every possible excuse to have a student man the instructor station and show a paper on the projector or type on the computer for all to see. I might even stand in the back of the class and ask a student to be at the “controls”, pointing out items for the class to look at or comment on. (And I absolutely resist the urge to shout out Focus! Zoom in! The paper is upside down! Oddly enough, they figure it out without me.)

6. In an advanced level reading course, my greatest challenge because reading can be so teacher focused if an effort isn’t made, I incorporated a regular “You Be The Teacher” activity. In this totally student- centered activity, the class learned about the Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan, the problems with building a space station on Mars, issues regarding the Mexican border fence, and how dogs evolved into the hundreds of species we have today, among other interesting topics. Students delved deeply into their articles and became confident with every paragraph. It was very successful as far as student engagement, and I think it caused them to focus carefully on discerning important details from filler. But the best thing about this “letting go” was seeing how involved the students were as they worked on authentic readings of their own choice.

As I hand over more classroom control to the students, I feel we are becoming more like partners in their learning, which is what I had always told them we were. But now I am also walking the walk!

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?