Archive for Tag: fluency

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 2: The Difference between Fluency and Complexity

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In his great book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) notices that another problem that contributes to the plateau that often plagues Intermediate level students lies in the difference between fluency and complexity. Again, I can really relate to this, as a French learner. For many years, I have been in such a panic to make myself understood and just communicate my thoughts and needs. I am usually okay with the simple past tense; however, if I need to do anything harder than that, I freeze up. My French linguistic system has not yet restructured to accommodate newer tenses, such as the imperfect.

Similarly with our students, they may have the passive voice down in a variety of simple tenses, but when they want to say something more complex, like “the bridge is going to be being built over the summer,” they stumble. In order to put an end to their plateau, learners need to add complexity to their output. Richards (2008) suggests that this can be accomplished in three ways: by addressing the language prior to the activity, addressing the language during the activity and addressing the language after the activity.

The Language Before the Activity

First, by address the language prior to an activity, he means pre-teaching the target language and providing students with a chance for rehearsal. Now, I am sure I am not alone when I say that I rarely begin a lesson without some sort of pre-teaching. If students are going to have a conversation about, for instance, pets, it makes sense that we teach or review pet vocabulary, right? Folse (2006) further divides this language into (1) the language in the task and (2) the language needed to complete the task. So, any animal vocabulary I would teach before my students talk about, for instance, pets would be the language in the task. However, many teachers, me included, often neglect the language needed to complete the task. For example, if the goal of the conversation were to have students rank a list of pets from most popular to least popular worldwide, the speakers would need to be comfortable with the comparative and superlative, as well as the language we use to disagree politely and to express our opinions. Without this, students will have a hard time carrying on the conversations we set for them.

Folse (2006) also backs up Richards’ (2008) claims that we need to give students ample time for rehearsal to they can move from fluency to accuracy and complexity. Folse (2006) claims that “[o]ne way to put all students – the outgoing and the reticent – on equal footing is to allow a planning phase before completing the speaking task.” This means we should give students the opportunity to write conversations before they have them. I’ve often struggled with this, as real life rarely offers conversationalists a chance for practice. However, I am convinced that if we mix opportunities for practice with occasions for spontaneous talk, it will benefit our students. In fact, one of my current students is a brilliant teenager from Korea. His vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing are fabulous. However, he is extremely reluctant to talk. I suppose if he were they chatty type, he might tell me that he is a bit of a perfectionist, and, since he can’t express himself without using simple sentences and making mistakes, he would rather not speak at all. So, I often have him write down what he wants to say and then put the paper aside and tell me. That way, he can express his thoughts more accurately and with more complexity than he would have without a planning phase.

The Language in the Activity

Second, Richards talks about addressing the language in the activity, in other words, how teachers implement the activity. For instance, do we have one student talk while all the others listen? Obviously, this does not facilitate the greatest conversation practice for the students not talking, so experts suggest groups of no more than 4 or, better yet, pairs. Folse (2006) argues that even the task we choose for them impacts their linguistic development. He claims “the “now talk to each other” pseudo-task is not acceptable.” Rather, we need to be setting specific activities rather than handing out a sheet of conversation questions. So, instead of telling my students to “talk about their pets” for 15 minutes, I should ask them to rank the most popular pets and then give them the results as reported by Google or have them compare how people treat their pets in North America with how people in their home countries treat their pets. I am not quite as anti-“talk about” as Folse, however. It seems to me that some practice on carrying on a conversation for the sake of the conversation is useful, both in the real world (I mean, I don’t usually have a task to complete when I get together with my friends for coffee) and in the conversation class. I just try to balance out the times I hand out a list of questions and give students time to talk with the times they are working together to reach a common goal.

The Language After the Activity

Third, Richards mentions addressing language use after the activity. I was a bit mystified by this. I mean, after the activity, isn’t the lesson finished? But, before the students go home, Richards suggests focusing on grammatical appropriateness via activities like having students publicly share what they discussed I their groups, as Richards (2008) contends “there is an increased capacity for self-monitoring during public performances.” Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about this suggestion. I hate, hate, hate the kind of activity where each group has to share with the class a summary of their conversation. When each group is more or less repeating what the other groups have said, students simply stop listening and tune out until it is their group’s turn to talk. No one cares about what other groups had to say on a conversation topic. However, if each group is focusing on a slightly different aspect of an issue, that makes the “sharing” part at the end more interesting.

Or, better yet, if the conversation is centered on a task, like Folse describes, it can be very interesting to hear the results each group reached. For instance, there are several great conversation tasks in Rooks’ (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook that always prompt lively discussion, and we all want to hear what each group decided at the end. For instance, in “Starting a New Civilization,” the students are told that a nuclear war has broken out and only a small island will be spared. There is a group of people waiting at an Australian airport and they can take a small plane to this island, but there are 10 people at the airport and only 6 can fit on the plane. The students have to decide which 6 will survive and continue the human race. Of course, each of the candidates has both something to offer and something that people may object to. For instance, there is a man of religion, a young female singer, a policeman with a gun, an alcoholic agricultural scientist, and so on. The conversation this activity prompts is always intense, and when groups can finally reach a consensus, they are eager to share their results and hear what other groups have decided.

In addition to a public “performance”, Richards also suggests having students listen to more advanced learners or even native speakers completing the same conversational task. The point, of course, is to have the students go beyond simply passively watching. Rather, the teacher would have to set some kind of a noticing task which would prompt the students to focus on the linguistic and communicative choices the speakers make. I think this is an interesting idea, and might work if teachers could somehow make recordings in advance of lessons. For example, when I taught pragmatic functions, like favor asking or ending a conversation, I filmed native speakers doing these things and used the conversations as an awareness raising activity in my lessons.

However, I could also have shown them at the end. Obviously, this kind of post-activity task has a number of drawbacks. First, who has the time to hunt down willing native speakers in order to record them ranking pets? Second, I am not sure students wouldn’t feel a bit depressed having to compare themselves with native speakers. Even though, logically, they know they aren’t as fluent or accurate as native speakers, I would worry that subconsciously, this activity might be a bit frustrating.

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Rooks, G. (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook, Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I’d like to explain what I call “The Final -S Problem.” For a lot of teachers, it goes like this: “I teach my students when to use a final -s, and they can do it fine in a controlled exercise, but then when they talk or write freely, they go and make final -s errors!” Whereupon the teacher throws up his or her hands in despair and determines that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language.

It seems to me that those who would expect immediate mastery of grammar patterns perhaps confuse teaching language with teaching arithmetic — though, even in arithmetic, students get to make repeated mistakes without all arithmetic teaching judged to be ineffectual.

What gets missed in this equation is that grammar teaching provides a foundation for processing, for conceptual understandings of how a language works, and for developing skills — sort of the way music lessons provide a foundation for learning to play the piano. Learning a second language is far more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than it is to learning arithmetic.

In learning to play the piano, certain students — especially adults who are literate and educated — find cognitive understandings of concepts such as musical key and notation helpful to the process, despite the fact that no amount of cognitive awareness is going to make anyone able to play the piano immediately upon being given abstract information about it. Can you learn to play the piano without cognitive knowledge of musical form? Yes. But is such awareness helpful for many adult students, and does it speed the process for them? Yes, indeed.

“The Final -S Problem” is a metaphor representing the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

Here are the questions I ask myself about “The Final -S Problem,” and my answers.

Q: Is it harmful for students to know when a final -s is supposed to be used?
A: That seems highly doubtful.

Q: Do students want to use final -s correctly? Do they care?
A: In my experience, yes.

Q: Is grammar information about the use of final -s helpful to students?
A: Yes. On a practical level, it helps students self-monitor, understand marked errors in their writing, catch a recast (students with a grounding in grammar often show that they “get” a recast with a look that says, “Ah, right.”), use a writing handbook, and make sense of dictionary notations such as mosquito, n., pl. –toes, –tos. More importantly, attention to final -s raises students’ awareness, making them more likely to notice it in what they hear and read.

Q: Are grammar concepts such as singular and plural useful?
A: From my observations both as a language teacher and a language student, yes. If I were to undertake learning Urdu, I know that I would like to understand how singular and plural are marked. And I also know that I’d like to be able to find that explicit information without having to figure it out completely by myself.

Q: Does information about using final -s help students reach fluency and accuracy in its usage?
A: In my experience, ESL students in my freshman English class who had spent four years at an American high school with no grammar component and with fossilized ungrammaticality underperformed (in accuracy within fluency, as well as rhetorical skill in writing and ability to comprehend academic English in readings) compared with students who had had a grammar component in their home countries (as well as in our IEP prior to their enrolling in freshman English). So, in my observation, the answer to the question is yes.

Q: Are there longitudinal studies showing that students who have grammar instruction in the use of final -s develop better usage than those who do not?
A: I think longitudinal studies are very much needed in the area of eventual (not immediate) mastery of grammar structures, comparing ELLs with no grammar component in their long-term instructional program with those who do have a significant grammar component.

Q: Is practice helpful?
A: Practice in a classroom context can instill confidence, encourage risk-taking, give students opportunities for experimentation, and lead to successful communication experiences. (A grammar base can easily lead to communicative activities. A lot of meaningful communication goes on in a grammar-based class.) But does practice guarantee mastery? No. (If it did, I wouldn’t still be hitting F-natural when I should be hitting F-sharp on the piano.) Grammar teaching simply lays the groundwork and helps speed the process in adults and young adults. Anyone learning a second language as an adult (which is different in a number of obvious ways from a child learning a first language) needs lots of input and experience using the language. Grammar-based instruction provides just a little help along the way.

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

newjgea@aol.com
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?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What to Teach?

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com


What will Keep Pino Safe?

Okay, I admit I am way behind the curve on this. People have been talking about English as a lingua franca for ages. However, it was not until I started my current job as an English teacher at the SHAPE Language Center on a NATO base in Belgium that the importance of non-native speakers being able to communicate easily in English with each other really hit home. English is the “official” language within NATO, so many of my students use English to communicate with their co-workers from other countries. An interesting example is one of my delightful Italian students, Pino, who wants to perfect his already impressive command of English in order to communicate more precisely with translators when he serves in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever my personal opinion about the war might be, I do know that when Pino is “in theater,” as they say, I want him to be as safe as possible.

A Legitimacy of Variation

Somewhat belatedly, I came across an article written by Barbara Seidlhofer in which she argues, if my understanding is correct, that since more non-native speakers than native speakers use English, native speakers don’t “own” English anymore. As a result, there is a “legitimacy of variation” (Steidlhofer, 2004, page 214) in grammar and pronunciation forms. In other words, when Pino is communicating with his German counterpart and an Afghan translator, certain non-standard forms of English are usually not cause for confusion. This begs the question, how important is it really that the speakers always include the final -s on third person singular verbs?

Incidental Errors?

Seidlhofer (2006, page 226) lists several common grammatical “errors” that many English teachers would correct if we heard, but which actually don’t cause any misunderstandings in non-native speaker/non-native speaker conversations.

  • the third person present tense –s (It cost.)
  • the relative pronouns who and which (The man which I know …)
  • definite and indefinite articles (Please pass salt. I went to the Chicago.)
  • tag questions (It will be ready, no?)
  • redundant prepositions (We have to study about … )
  • overusing general verbs, such as do, make, have, put, take
  • infinitives (replacing infinitives with that, as in I want that …)
  • explicitness (black color)

This list reads like an inventory of all the lingering mistakes my students of all levels consistently make. However, if these mistakes don’t cause any misunderstanding in the majority of English interactions should teachers be focusing on teaching and correcting them? Shouldn’t we instead focus on intelligibility rather than accuracy? After all, I have never heard of a conversation screeching to a halt, except in an English class, because the final -s was left off a verb.

Safe and Accurate

For me, the answer is simple. Even though I want my students like Pino to be able to express their thoughts as intelligibly as possible, I cannot let go of the notion of “correct English”. Moreover, I have never had a students ask me not to correct these minor errors because they were more concerned with fluency than accuracy. Usually, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help feeling that, although intelligibility is important, grammatical accuracy is as well. Furthermore, the studies I have read on English as a lingua franca (although I am by no means an expert) have neglected to comment on the perceptions created by inaccurate use of English. The German NATO soldier might not have any trouble understanding Pino, but if his English is better than Pino’s, will he subconsciously form a negative opinion of my student? I would be interested in knowing what others think about this issue. Are you hyper-vigilant in your correction or do you tend not to sweat the little stuff? As English evolves, and non-native speakers increasingly influence the way it changes, do you think the wretched final –s will eventually disappear?

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Too Soon Success?

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

In an article by Jeanette Corbett, What is Grammar and How Should We Teach It?, there is one point in particular that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It states that “success happens too soon” for students using strictly communicative language learning techniques (from reading the article you can deduce this refers to no explicit grammar instruction at all in a 100% task-based/situation-based learning environment). By this the author means that once students are able to get a point across with some degree of comprehensibility on the part of the listener, the student is less motivated to learn and correct his or her grammar, and in fact, “…any subsequent language input appears secondary and unnecessary to the learner, as they have already communicated their message” (Corbett p. 1).

Wow! How true is that for those of us teaching in English speaking countries? Many immigrants don’t have the chance to take formal English lessons until they have been in the new country for several years, meanwhile learning English “off the street.” Or sometimes students have attended conversation based classes that focus on fluency and have rarely or never had their grammar corrected. These students are the most challenging to me because of, ironically, their success as English language users! When they get to a place in their lives when they register for formal classes, it is very hard for an instructor to “undo” what has worked all right for the student over the years.

Naturally, we may question whether we really want to or need to “undo” anything at all. After all, we can understand the meaning of “I going now” or “I no like this” or “You want?”, so if the learners are getting their needs met using this level of English, who are we teachers to tell them they are wrong?

The key here, I believe, is the condition “getting their needs met.” If everything was peachy for the students, they wouldn’t now be sitting in our classes. Clearly they recognize something is lacking in their self-learned or wholly communicative approach. This dawning may come after not getting a promotion at work, or not being able to get a better, non-physical job. Or perhaps the learner’s child needs more from the parent in the English speaking world than the parent can currently provide.

However, just because these students are now in our classroom doesn’t mean they truly believe they need to be there. Some students may feel vaguely insulted and defensive like their success hasn’t been recognized, and after all, their English has served them well so far, so the problem must be with their instructor, their boss, or the English speakers they need to interact with- you know the kind of student that elicits this exchange:

Student: My son has twenty years.
Teacher: Oh, your son is twenty years old?
Student: That’s what I say. (slight roll of eyes) My son he has twenty years.

In my experience, to help these students rev up a burning desire to improve, I need to rather directly demonstrate to them how far their actual speech is from the English required to get to the next level in their lives. Including direct grammar instruction in my lessons – with rules, drills, and guided practice – has given me modest success with many fossilized adult learners.

Maybe this sounds a little harsh, but direct grammar instruction shows the students what they don’t know, and this bit of cold water in the face proves to them they are not wasting their time in class, that there is indeed room for improvement. Combined with recording or transcribing students so they can hear themselves, direct grammar instruction gives the students tangible structure and schema on which to base and note their progress – unlike when they learned “from the street” or in a strictly communicative setting.

And while it can be a challenge to loosen up the fossilized language mechanisms of these learners, it is a great advantage to have at least one in every class. Because of their heightened fluency, they can be counted on to explain new vocabulary to others and generally to get any discussion off to a great start!