Archive for Tag: Maria Spelleri

Monday, November 29, 2010

Can An Online ESL/EFL Course Work?

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

Yes, I believe it can.

Some might think that an online ESL course is acceptable if nothing else is available to the student, but I don’t agree. I think online ESL courses have the potential to be just as effective as face to face courses.

Why not ESL online?

To instructors who say ESL can’t be taught online I ask “What do we value in our face to face courses that we worry won’t translate into bits and bytes?”

I’m willing to bet it’s the social aspect, the opportunity for cultural interaction and exploration, the bond among students and their instructor, the smiles and kind words, the active and collaborative learning.  We fear losing this humanity in the virtual world.

Many of us who have been students in online courses have taken “old school” online courses which look something like this:

“Read Chapter 6.” (All by yourself because there is no one with whom to talk it over and no one to whom you can address a question.)

“Then click on this link to answer the questions.” (Ten multiple choice or T/F questions that tell you “Right!” or “Try Again!” )

“Finally, go to the Discussion Forum and discuss the question provided.” (This is an artificial discussion in which you will write anything to fulfill the requirement and then provide a similarly mindless comment to a peer like “I agree with your point, Bruno” because that is how you get 5 extra points.)

End of unit.  Repeat next week.  Ho-hum.

There is no humanity in this kind online environment and only the hardy survive!   However, with the right course and activity design, the right technology tools, and some creativity, we can create courses that replicate the social aspect of the face to face courses we love.


One of the most important features of any course is interaction. Students who interact become engaged and engaged students are focused, curious, and primed to learn.  Three crucial levels of interaction are student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student- to-content/ materials (Moore).  If we think about our face to face ESL courses, this can be exemplified in pair work, the instructor involved in the lesson/ interested in the students’ lives, and the students engrossed in learning activities that address their interests and needs. The way to have a successful online ESL course is be sure these three levels of interaction are all present in the virtual environment.


Luckily, the technology exists to make this happen. Online courses today can provide student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction through both live and recorded voice, through synchronous or non-synchronous writing, and through live streaming webcam or webcam self-recordings.  Student-to-content interaction comes from having a variety of engaging activities and learning objects from all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Here’s a sample of some online ESL activities and objects that I have seen and a few tech tools that help in creating them. Most activities should look familiar from your face to face courses:

  • Read and discuss or listen and discuss via voice or text. (VoiceThread)
  • Learn vocabulary and grammar or complete a task using a content-rich website.
  • Small group chat via voice or text. (DimDim)
  • Recorded or live presentations. (VoiceThread, narrated Powerpoint)
  • Student created quizzes and student-led reviews.
  • Collaborative writing activities, peer review of writing. (GoogleDocs)
  • Role play, listen and repeat, listen and create. (Jing, Skype, AdobeConnectNow)
  • Drill and practice.
  • Cloze, fill-in, and multiple choice exercises with instant and meaningful feedback.
  • Timed activities for reading, writing, and speaking.

What can’t be replicated online can be approached in another way.  The key is to look at the objective of the activity, hold that objective in mind, and think how else that objective could be accomplished with the tools of the online course.  No learning objective need ever be sacrificed.


I’m not taking the position that teaching ESL online is better than teaching it face to face. However I will stand by my belief that given the right design and teacher involvement, it can be as good, as effective.

I also won’t sugar-coat course design and say it’s easy; it takes a lot of time and work up front, even if your school runs a full-service course management system like Moodle or Blackboard.  But once you have created a course, you really just need to make small or partial changes each semester; you’ll never have the huge initial time outlay again. Instead, spend your work time interacting with students online, guiding them through the course, facilitating collaborations, taking part in their activities, commenting on their work, and providing individualized feedback and help. (I can honestly say I have more contact with my students on an individual basis in my online course than in my face to face course! Who would have guessed?)

Just today I returned some paragraphs my students had written.  They had been submitted online, and I used Adobe to underline and mark up some parts. Then, using Jing I created a “screen capture” video of their paper as I recorded myself talking to the student about it and pointing things out at the same time.  Now my students not only have my markings on their paper, but  also a  recorded video of me walking them through the revisions they need, which they can watch as often as they have to.  There’s one thing, at least, that may not be easy to replicate in the time constraints of the face to face world!

Resource:  JOLT- Journal of Online Teaching

Moore, Michael G. “Three Types of Interaction.” The American Journal of Distance Education. Pennsylvania State University, 1989. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Authentic Materials for Student Engagement

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

Why Authentic Materials?

What’s the big deal, anyway? And why should we make an effort to incorporate them in our classes?

Obviously, comprehension of authentic materials is our ultimate goal in English teaching. No matter who, where, or at which level we teach, all our students eventually need and want to move from the shelter of the ESL/EFL text book to the real world of English, be it in college classes, scholarly or professional research, social communities, international business, Herald-Tribune, or Harry Potter.

That’s the “it’s good for you” reason to use authentic materials. But there’s also a “you’ll like it” reason, and it’s this reason that motivates me to use authentic materials:

I never fail to notice a particularly engaged look in my students’ eyes when we delve into authentic materials. They “hit” the activity with gusto.

I can only surmise the reasons–

  • First, it is a change from the regular textbook routine.
  • Second, they recognize the challenge and take pride in it.
  • Third, they know the ability to handle authentic materials is the true test of their months or years of language learning. If they can comprehend and manipulate these items, they know they are that much closer to their goal.

It took me a while to realize I didn’t have to wait until students were advanced to use authentic materials in my classes. With careful selection and planning, I now use authentic materials at all levels. Here’s a sampling of authentic materials for all levels:

Lower Levels

  • Visually rich materials like maps of all kinds (city, campus, building layout, special routes), government agency brochures like preparing for a hurricane, administering CPR, baby-proofing a home, and brochures for travel and attractions. I find a lot of material at AAA, the library, and social services offices.
  • Textual items students commonly encounter in the community, especially forms from places like the post office and bank, medical history forms from doctors’ offices, and job applications.
  • The local newspaper, especially classified and employment ads, movie and TV listings, and photos and captions.
  • Media such as songs and selected scenes from movies, TV sitcoms/dramas, and documentaries, selected interactive maps and graphs found on news sites like NPR.

Intermediate and Higher Levels

  • Magazine and news articles (For my intermediates, I particularly like Reader’s Digest, the local news section of the paper, and USA Today.)
  • Short stories and selected novels, (every time you pick up something to read for yourself, take a look at through the eyes of your students).
  • Online media like “Do-It-Yourself” or “How To” videos from or , awesome radio stories from This American Life or Science Friday, both available at NPR , and for those who teach ESP, profession-related sites like the BBC medical radio program Case Notes and the large video library on all business, sales, technology, and management related issues at . There are also short instructional and demonstration movies on YouTube and sites with movie trailers.

It’s Not So Much What as How

The key to using authentic materials successfully is to not feel obligated to use them in the manner intended. For example, let’s say in a college-prep ESL course you were introducing students to authentic college texts. You don’t have to actually read pages from a nursing or economics text. Instead, create a treasure hunt that teaches students how to use the table of contents, glossary, and index, and in which they discover the end of chapter study guides and how the author uses side bars to explain new vocabulary.

Or let’s say you are watching a DIY video on how to paint a ceiling. A low level class might be introduced to some vocabulary then asked to raise their hands when they hear the word mentioned in the video. An intermediate level course may have to arrange slips of paper into the correct steps they see on the video, while a higher level course may take notes and orally reformulate their own DIY demonstration.

In one very low level class, we used a brochure that demonstrated visually and with spare text the steps to administer CPR. Students worked in pairs, each pair assigned a step revealed only to that pair. Students practiced mimicking the action of their step and learning how to say (1 or 2 short statements only) what they were doing. Then the whole class got up and had to organize themselves in correct order only by mimicking their steps and saying their sentences. It was a challenge for sure, but the students were deeply involved in the task and in getting each other to repeat their step. I, too, was engrossed by watching how they worked it out.

Bottom Line

Authentic Materials are not easy or “no-prep” teaching tools, but the challenge to the student and the student’s level of engagement are well worth the effort. Start looking at everything you encounter during your day with the view of “How could I use this in class?” and don’t forget to be open-minded about creative uses for what you find!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Skill Integration and Alignment: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

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

An IEP director in Kuwait wrote with a dilemma: She feels the IEP curriculum is grammar-heavy and that the emphasis is impeding student progress.

First, some background. Students come into the IEP after having been exposed to English grammar instruction in their regular schools. The IEP instructors also put a lot of emphasis on grammar, but this work doesn’t seem to have a significant effect on reading and writing scores. The director feels that the amount of grammar in the program, and more specifically, the way it is largely being addressed (“300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices”) is not the most effective way to teach English.

Do Course Outcomes Support One Another?

One of the challenges of discrete skill programs (a class for reading, a class for writing, for speaking, for grammar, etc.) is that we instructors sometimes get territorial and forget the bigger picture–how all these elements need to fit together in a “complete communication” package. I wonder if the instructors at the IEP ever look at their program curriculum across a level, rather than up and down a skill? In other words, how do the outcomes or standards for Reading 4, Writing 4, Speaking/Listening 4, and Grammar 4 complement each other and reinforce each other? Or is each skill truly in isolation within the level?

When instructors in the program where I teach started to discuss this, we found ways we could support each other’s curriculum. The first thing we did was exchange our course outcomes. We then spent time brainstorming ways we could support another instructor’s outcome in our class. We did this informally; however we recognized the benefit of mutual curricular support. We each started by just trying to approach a single objective of another course from the perspective our own skill class.

For example, one of our Reading 4 outcomes states “Student will understand sentence connectors and signal words that aid in their comprehension of a text.” As a Grammar 4 instructor, I saw a way I could complement that outcome. Instead of teaching coordinating and subordinating conjunctions at a sentence level (i.e. sticking with the book exercises alone), I searched for an interesting paragraph that students would not only enjoy reading and discussing, but that also contained the target grammar. We then studied the grammar with the context of the reading.

It’s even easier to go the other way, meaning the writing and speaking instructors can easily support the outcomes of the grammar course. When our level 4 Speaking instructor uses a rubric that includes accuracy, she pays particular attention to errors in the grammar structures being taught in Grammar 4 and also to structures students should have learned in Grammar 3.

Holding the students to a level of cross-skill competency emphasizes the importance of learning grammar for actual use as opposed to learning it for book completion or test success. (Have you ever had a student complain “But why did you mark me down for spelling in my answers? This isn’t writing class–this is reading class!” Viva cross-skill competency! )

In addition to skill integration, formal or informal, I would suggest to the IEP Director that she examine how well the program’s textbooks support the course objectives. (“The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.”)Work backwards from the course objectives. Does the exit test for the course directly test those objectives? Does the course textbook or other learning material directly address both the test and the course objectives? For example, if a program were grammar-heavy, would Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar work best as the speaking/listening text or as the grammar text?

Do Texts Support the Course Objectives?

Also, are the course objectives independent of the textbooks? Or is the curriculum simply “what is in the book”? The latter would certainly lead to instructors feeling like they had to cover every exercise in the text book. (“Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language.”) Our program also uses the Azar series, but our grammar curriculum at each level is not an exact match to the content of the Azar books. There are some chapters or charts we omit and some grammar we include that is not in the book. However, our course objectives are our guiding light, not our textbook.

It’s hard to get objectives, exits, curriculum and textbooks aligned. It’s a multi-semester, multi-person project, but it is oh-so-wonderful when these elements click into place. Teacher frustration lessens, there are fewer student complaints all around, and best of all, there’s a general improvement in exit results.

While I agree with the IEP director’s wish not to micro-manage, I would suggest that curriculum development and alignment of course objectives, tests, and textbooks isn’t micro-management at all, but basic program structure and development, which rightly comes top-down. But as Barbara Matthies said, getting faculty ownership of changes is the key to making it happen (and may I add–without a revolt.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Setting A Positive Tone

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

It’s hard to put a finger on what makes a class gel and be a lot of fun, be a place where students laugh and respect each other, where there are few or no class management issues, and excited students eagerly engage in the day’s activities.

It’s equally challenging to try to turn around those other classes, hopefully rare in their occurrence, that seem like a chore and a bore, where students grumble at the teacher and at each other, where they prefer to work alone rather than together, where trying to get a discussion going is just opening yourself up to eye-rolling and not so furtive glances at an incoming text message.

There are a few reasons we want to avoid these “poisonous” classes. First, to be self-serving, they are just no fun. Days are low-energy and teaching becomes a grind rather than a pleasure. Secondly, they are not good learning environments, and learning will at least be impeded if not blocked all together.

Consequently, the teacher’s enormous job description includes that of classroom host or hostess. Just as the host of a party works to set a tone and mood for the event, teachers are responsible for making the classroom environment the right environment for learning and a pleasant environment in which to spend time. Similarly, like a party host looks after the well-being of each guest, setting each at ease and making sure needs are met, the teacher needs to follow suit in the classroom.

I believe the tone for a course is set in the first week of classes, but it takes an on-going effort throughout the semester to keep the tone positive and the energy up. What can teachers do in the first week to set a positive tone?

  1. Learn all student names — quickly. When I was first observed by my Department Chair, he commented on the fact that I called students by name. I later learned, to my surprise, that not all instructors bothered to learn their students’ names. How disrespectful!
  2. Use daily gentle repetition of important class information, resources, or expectations so students who are overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester can hear and see and hear and see again what they need to be successful in the course. They want to do things right, but the first week can cause information overload for full-time students, especially their first time in a program or in college.
  3. Send a personal welcome e-mail message to each student after the first class, or even before the first class if you have access to contact information. Weeks into the semester, students often comment on how much they appreciated getting that first, reassuring message from me.
  4. Be sure course expectations are clear and that the grading process is transparent. Explain “how the class works” in detail. Hopefully, this information is written somewhere where students can access it as they need to be reminded.
  5. Encourage students to get to know each other. Especially in the first week, use daily ice breaking activities that allow students to form relationships. I get bored with the name, country, work, family questions and sometimes ask students to interview each other as to an accomplishment they are proud of or what their career goals are. I also ask students to design a personal crest or coat of arms with 3 or 4 sections that serve as a visual depiction of who they are. We then put them around the classroom for a few days and students always look at them before and after class and ask each other questions. At the end of the first week, I ask them to exchange phone numbers or email so they have a “buddy” they can call if they need to.
  6. Acknowledge the accomplishment of small steps. On the last day of the first week, I spend 15 minutes in a small celebration of making it through the first week. I break students into groups of four, and while eating donuts as soft jazz music plays in the background, students are encouraged to share their feelings about college: Was it what they expected? Harder? Easier? How did they feel the first day? How do they feel now?

While no amount of good planning nor good intention can guarantee to eliminate all unpleasant class experiences, what the teacher says and does in the first week has the greatest influence on the tone of the class — first impressions, after all! — but by no means can the efforts flag after that. We are the hosts and hostesses of a 16-week party, and our guests are counting on us to help them have a pleasant experience.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Teaching Grammar with Songs

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

What better way to liven up a grammar class than with a little music?

Instructors new to the idea of using songs as a teaching tool may be reluctant, as I once was, because they worry that some of their older, more “serious” students (usually found in an IEP or college program) will perceive songs as trivial, a waste of time and money. But we can successfully use songs with these adult students as long as we have specific lesson objectives and convey that songs are simply another source of authentic language input.

There may also be evidence, which will delight even the dour rocket scientist in your class, that language learned in songs is more readily retained and memorable. (Think about how we sing our ABC’s.) Finally, I’ve found a great way to ease into songs with my adult students is to inform the students that the song is a grammar lesson disguised as a break. (“You’ve been working really hard this week, so listen, enjoy…..and learn.”)

While there are many ways to use songs in language learning in general, many grammar instructors use song lyrics as sources of authentic language models of specific grammar points. Searching for lyrics that utilize the structure being taught is a time-consuming process, but luckily there are already some linked grammar/song sources available.

There are seven different songs lessons for low level grammar structures, nine intermediate lessons, and ten more advanced structure lessons right here on the Azar Grammar site in the collection of classroom materials. These lessons involve completing cloze exercises, sequencing, completing charts, analyzing and discussing grammar usage alternatives and meaning, listening for specific words and structures, using lyrics as a model for spoken and written production, and other activities.

Lyrics can be found at any one of many sites, like, but be sure to check the lyrics with the version of the song you are using because of slight variations in live vs. studio recordings and errors in lyrics transcribing. I frequently use YouTube as a free source of many songs, and the video is sometimes a stimulating source of discussion as well.

As you listen to the radio or when you pop in a cd at home, listen to songs with an ear for grammar and you’ll likely stumble across a song that you can use for a future lesson — just don’t forget to jot it down! If you are “always” searching, you’ll save a lot of time, as opposed to pouring over song lyrics searching for a specific structure the day before you plan on teaching it! The songs on this website provide an excellent jump start to your own collection as well as offering some activity ideas that can be reused on any song you come across. Have fun!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on Oral Correction

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

At a Sunshine State TESOL conference a year or two ago, I attended a session given by a professor from the University of Central Florida about methods of correcting of oral grammar. The paper presented was the result of a survey given to 80 community college students in Florida. They were asked which type of correction they preferred to receive from an instructor.

While I can’t remember the sample sentence used in the survey, the correction choices given to the students were as follows:

Student says “I go to the store yesterday.”

The choices:
  1. Rising intonation question (You go to the store yesterday?)
  2. Recast (I WENT to the store yesterday.)
  3. Explicit (Don’t say “go” for the past- say “went”)
  4. Metalanguage (Are you talking about the past or present? What has to change in your sentence if you are talking about the past? And, so, what is the past tense of the verb you want?)
The preferred correction method by a wide margin was method 4: metalanguage explanation. It seems that walking the student from the error through the correct answer is seen by students as being the most effective and the most “enjoyable,” if correction can be enjoyable.

We might jump to the conclusion that the preferred method was culturally related; however, the study included students from all different cultures, both low and high context. That got me thinking that maybe the preference bias had to do with educational level and goals. Maybe the fact that all the students were in community college meant they had developed a sense of what worked for them, or maybe being in community college meant they were getting strong and direct grammar instruction so the metalanguage was comprehensible and meaningful.

Personally, I use all four methods in my classes depending on the situation. Although I would never say “DON’T DO THAT — DO THIS,” but rather “Try this instead.” The metalanguage method logically seems that it would have the most permanent effect on learning, since students would know the “why” behind constructs and thus be able to correct themselves better in the future. It’s kind of like the Band-aid or surgery metaphor: going through a Socratic metalanguage approach addresses the root of the problem while an explicit correction or a recast merely puts a band-aid on the problem which will likely “erupt” again at another time.

The only problem I have with the metalanguage correction method is that it tends to single out a single erring student for what could be a long and tortuous questioning. I have gotten into downward spirals where I ask the student a leading question and he can’t answer. So I ask a more basic question, which it turns out he can’t answer either. Then I try a question from a different approach. By this time, the student just wants the ground to open up and swallow him, so I have probably now opened up the question to the entire class, trying to make it a class lesson instead of the single person focus it started out as. Still, that’s a pretty arduous process to be repeated X number of times in a 53-minute class!
My blogger colleague, Tamara Jones, recently related this experience:

“For the first several weeks of my French class, I repeatedly said “dans les Etats-Unis” when I referred to my life in the USA. My teacher patiently recasted and recasted and recasted: “aux Etats-Unis.” It was almost like a running joke in the class, but for some reason, I just could not get it right … until one glorious day when I just remembered. The entire class applauded, and since that day, I have said it correctly. Although researchers have often doubted the effectiveness of recasts, I am living proof that our patience is not in vain.

I pose this for consideration:

What if one day, like a random quantum misfire, Tamara correctly said “aux”? This resulted in thunderous applause, in other words, positive reinforcement, which led to correct use of “aux” from that point forward? What if her new behavior wasn’t a result of the recast after all? Let’s face it — just because it’s “common sense” that correction will result in modified behavior . . . well, we’ve been wrong before! For a look at that very possibility, read What’s Wrong With Oral Correction.

Monday, March 30, 2009

If Not Mastery, What?

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

I am often confounded by how much time to spend in class on a grammar point. My early training taught me to focus as much time as needed for students to get it–“get it” meaning being able to call up and meaningfully use the structure in free production. However, from further study, different books and papers I have read, and from lectures from instructors and researchers far more knowledgeable than I, it seems most experts in the field agree that students don’t “master” a grammar point at the time it is presented but rather in their own time.
Yet even if the students are able to use the structure fairly well in class by the third lesson, that doesn’t mean they use it error-free for the rest of their lives. We’ve all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes. Does this imply that if the majority of my students are able to form and use a grammar structure at the end of three lessons, that I shouldn’t waste my time spending four or five lessons on it? After all, we are on a fixed semester and have a curriculum to cover.

Clearly the structure won’t become automatic after three hours, nor is it likely to after five hours. If my goal can not be mastery (that is, repeated and automatic production of a grammar point without delay from obvious monitoring), what is my new goal? When is good enough. . . good enough?

I don’t buy the argument that learners will never be error-free. I’ve had non-native speaking professors who conducted classes for hours without a single spoken error and we know famous personalities who speak accented, yet grammatically perfect English. So I’m not talking about giving up my early dreams of student “mastery” because it is unattainable. It is, however, very impractical.

Life’s reality is that students don’t have unlimited time to reach the level of English they need for a goal-a job, college entry, grad school, whatever. As a result, instructors perform a kind of linguistic triage, deciding either at the classroom or the program level, what grammar to teach when. But surely we have to rely on more than a calendar to help us decide when it is time to move on to a new grammar point in the class, leaving behind one that may get a bit of recycling over the remainder of the semester.

Curriculum, assessment, objectives. Objectives, curriculum, assessment. It’s not as smooth as the teacher training books imply. There’s a lot of egg-chicken-egg going on. But since I have relinquished mastery as my goal, I remain stumped at how to define success. Is passing a test going to become the end goal of my course? Or perhaps increased awareness of grammar? Or maybe the ability to produce structures in class under guidance? How will I know if my students have been successful in my class?

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, 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!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Just Do It!

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

As the saying of disputed origin goes, we remember only 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, and 90% of what we do and say.

I don’t know how accurate that really is. Nonetheless, every version of this adage shows that retention peaks with the modalities that involve our greatest participation- movement and speech.

Can we learn a language as passive observers? I remember a discussion in a teacher training class about Krashen and the Input Hypothesis. We wondered if a person could learn a second language if that person never spoke a single word of the language, never wrote, never produced any output at all, but got rich input at just the right i + 1 level. Would it be possible to acquire a second language?

Or do we have to be active participants? Do we have to involve movement and speech for efficient language learning? My personal second language learning experiences reflect the saying at the beginning of this post. What has stuck with me over time is the language that I did and said – not the language that I read in a book as I tried to self-study, nor the language I heard a teacher say in class.

Years ago, I took a Spanish class where the instructor basically lectured to us in English and smattered in some Spanish words. We followed along in the text book and listened. It was normal to pass an entire hour without the chance to utter a word in Spanish. Not only was I bored to tears, but even in the immediate weeks after, I had ZERO retention of anything from that class.

My French class, on the other hand, became my model of good language teaching and proved to me the power of doing. The instructor loaded the class with cultural activities that we learned about and participated in while speaking French. I learned how to play roulette on a mini-roulette wheel in the classroom- in French. Along the way, I learned some colors, numbers, and a rich vocabulary like “No more bets!” I participated in fencing classes- in French. I learned body parts and movements (in addition to vocabulary for blade types and protective gear!) We went to French restaurants and prepared French food. We discussed pictures in French fashion magazines and tasted wine, as we learned adjectives from “ridiculous” (some fashion) to “smooth” (some wine). (It was night school…. it was the 80s……at least we didn’t mix the alcohol with the gambling!)

Back then, I had no urgent need to learn French. Yet, twenty years later, I remember the vast majority of what I learned in that class. In contrast, a few years after the French class, I had a lot of motivation and a real need to learn Spanish. From that class, I remember nada. Almost.

Thankfully, it is the memory of that happy, Gallic experience that guides my classroom teaching and prompts me to infuse all my classes with doing. We might not be playing 21 and sipping Manhattans, but doing is also standing up and shaking hands in a lively role play, or asking a student to lead a class activity from the front of the room. Doing is when a student teaches others origami or leads the class in a jumping, stomping Lebanese dance.

Engaged, focused students who no longer watch the clock. What more could a teacher want? The proof is in the doing.