Archive for Tag: register

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Using Survey Reports to Boost Academic Vocabulary

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

newjgea@aol.com

It was an inconsequential bet.  However, as an act which naturally produced a kind of thrill, it was met with my students’ ardent approval.  I had gambled that I’d guess what phrase 90% of the class would use in their first sentence of a text summary assignment.  I had even conceded that it would not include the author’s name or the title of the text.

“As it turned out,” I won. The legendary and persistent “is about …” was used by everyone in that group except for one student, who, changing the tense, wrote “was about… .”

I often use this mini-game to introduce the concept of academic vocabulary in my writing classes, and I usually follow it up with the question: “Can you think of a brief but more precise expression which can substitute for that phrase?”  Typically, students come up with a healthy little list of expressions such as the text presents …, the article discusses…, the author argues that…, etc., which include key descriptive verbs.

So, what are the characteristic features of academic vocabulary?

No doubt, academic vocabulary, regardless of field, is often used to report, to analyze, and to summarize.  It is also characterized by a level of formality, by its precision and by its accuracy.

What kind of interactive activity could involve students in producing a written piece with some of those characteristics?

Certainly, reports based on interactive surveys, at least those which

  • state the purpose and the method used,
  • present results,
  • analyze results, and
  • draw conclusions

are suitable.

What vocabulary can be used at key points in survey reports?

Students tend to appreciate ready-made lists of vocabulary items that are commonly accepted and are recognized as acceptable in formal, academic writing, and which are keyed to the purpose of a particular writing assignment.  I’ve created a table with words and phrases that have worked well for my students and their survey reports.

What features should typify survey reports?

I recently narrowed down my list of essential features to two: they should highlight an opinion or a preference, and they should focus on a change.

Reporting on survey respondents’ opinions allows students to use vocabulary often found in typical academic writing assignments, assignments such as those requiring argumentation, reference to sources, and presentation of other people’s ideas.

Reporting on changes allows students not only to mention the “before and after circumstances,” but also to use vocabulary associated with comparison, perhaps even with causes and effects.  Such reporting naturally requires special, formal vocabulary.

How have I used a survey activity with my students?

Example survey: I ask my students to prepare a very short survey (a list of 3-4 questions) about how “nerds” are viewed.  They make two copies of their survey.  Then they distribute a set of the first to their classmates, and collect them when the students have finished.  Next, the group is asked to read the article “America Needs Its Nerds” by Leonid Fridman.  Later, a set of the second copy is distributed, completed, and collected for analysis.

After students analyze the results and receive instruction in the organization of survey reports, they move on to the writing. I ordinarily ask my students to use calculators, to create tables or graphs if they wish, and, while composing their reports, to incorporate some of the vocabulary items given in the table.

What approaches do you take to teaching “academic vocabulary”?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

“yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork?”

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

Writing used to be one of the hardest skills for learners to practice on their own outside of class, back in the Dark Days before email and the Internet. Options were basically limited to keeping a written journal or exchanging letters and postcards with a pen pal and the occasional “letter to the newspaper” classroom assignment.

Now, however, opportunities to freely practice writing abound: keypals, social networking sites, bulletin boards, chat rooms, Web sites where customers leave reviews and comments, blogs, and so on.

So . . . writing skills must have vastly improved, right? Well, perhaps a certain degree of fluency has. However, what we also have is a host of new problems. You’re teaching a class the difference between two, too, and to, and then they come in wanting to spell all of them 2.

I think there are two basic problems: the models students see and the attitudes they can pick up towards writing.

Poor Writing Models Abound Online

Certainly the level of writing they could encounter from native speakers out there in Internetland is something of a concern. Masses of writers seem unaware of (or unconcerned about) differences between your and you’re, or loose and lose, or (a pet peeve of mine) our and are. Misspellings are rampant, even in these days when most Internet browsers have a built-in spellcheck feature. Posters, even of longer blogs, may eschew punctuation and even capitalization. If students then are answering with the same language they see, we can expect similar mistakes, or at least a lot of confusion.

Texting Shorthand Easier for Whom?

A bigger problem though is writers (native English speaker or otherwise) who simply don’t care. “It’s only an Internet message board,” a perpetrator might say, “not an English class.” Writers who use texting shorthand point out that it’s faster. Faster to write, yes, if one is used to that. But faster to read? I don’t think so, especially not when sloppy writing and no punctuation between sentences obscures meaning. If you didn’t communicate what you intended, then your message failed, even if you got it out there in cyberspace extra fast.

The choice then that the writer makes is whether to make things easier on him or herself or easier on his or her reader. Unless the message being written is truly a personal journal (in which case, why is it online?), there’s usually some reason to communicate to readers—to express an opinion, ask a question, give information, ask for help. It’s even likely that there will be multiple readers of messages, in which case I tell students that, as Mr. Spock would put it, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” At first, students are surprised to hear that writing sloppily is selfish; but give them some time to consider the idea, and you’d be surprised how many would agree.

It may not be an English class, but aren’t online writers in some sense being graded? They’re certainly being judged. I can take a certain amount of informality online, but when spelling and typing errors get to a certain level, I just skip over the messages without even trying to read them. It’s even more important to me that emails sent directly to me be clear and careful. A student who’s getting a grade from me in an English class isn’t going to look good by sending “yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork im pretty sur i sent it b4”. If you think teachers don’t get emails like this, check in with a high school teacher (of any subject) sometime. However, students can’t know what level of formality you expect if you don’t tell them directly. Merely copying what native speaker classmates are doing isn’t necessarily going to steer them in the right direction.

Appropriate Use of Informal Writing Needs to be Taught

I don’t see many teaching materials that address informal writing except to say not to use it. That’s also a mistake, though. Any community has its own discourse, of course, and being overly formal in a chat room isn’t going to be successful either. There’s a world of difference between kthnxbai and Please accept my sincere thanks for all of your assistance.

Students need explicit instruction to know what levels of language exist and when to use them. If you don’t have examples and materials, don’t worry—ask your students to bring you examples of written English from different Internet sites that they visit. Ask them to find English that they believe is the most correct and appropriate, as well as the least correct and appropriate, and then share and discuss the examples in class. Collect similar examples when you’re online and keep them in a file. Ask students what impressions they have of the writers and to what extent those impressions are formed by the language and the place in which it appears. Compile a class glossary of the common abbreviations and expressions they encounter online and code each one as appropriate for class or not.

And don’t forget to point out that they will never be disadvantaged by being better able to switch between informal and formal English than their native speaker friends.

Friday, March 14, 2008

It’s Just a Formality

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I greatly appreciate the comments sent in by Sam Simian in response to my last piece, “Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy.” Sam has given me some really meaty food for thought.

He mentioned that Nina Weinstein, who has written extensively in the field of ELT, claims her research shows that when we use reduced forms like gunnuh, it’s not because of how relaxed we feel in informal situations, but because of the speed of our speech. I really don’t agree with that. Yes, of course we tend to use reductions like wanna, hafta, and wudduyuh when speaking quickly, but I don’t think that’s the only condition under which we’ll hear native speakers use such reductions:

(mother tenderly talking to her agitated eight-year-old son)
A: Don’tcha think it’s time you made up with your brother, Bobby?
B: No way, Mom! I hate ’im! I hate ’im!
A: Oh, c’mon, Bobby. You know you don’ hate ’im.
B: Yeah, I do! I do! He’s mean!
A: Look. You’re older than him. Shouldn’tcha show ’im it’s not right for brothers to fight?
B: But Mom, he lost my favorite ball. And I never told ’im he could play with it!
A: Tell ya what. If you shake hands with Jimmy and make up, I’ll buy you a new ball ― an’ that bat you wanted, the one you saw at Z-Mart. An’ you don’ hafta take out the garbage for a whole week. So? C’mon, wudduyuh say?
B: Awright, Mom. But he better not take my stuff anymore!

Now that conversation just wouldn’t be rushed through. I hope you’ll agree that Bobby’s mom probably spoke quietly and gently to her son to calm him down and persuade him to do the right thing, not that her bribes didn’t help! This is why I don’t think reduced pronunciations are necessarily a result of speaking quickly. I think such reductions can say something about a relationship or the mood set between two or more people in a conversation. The “relaxed” sound of these reductions reflects the relaxed mood Bobby’s mother wanted to create. That’s my take on this. What’s yours?

I found it very interesting that Sam says, “If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka came into my class and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Simian. Wussup?’ I don’t think that the problem would be the reduced form; I think that the problem would be the expression that’s being reduced: What’s up? What’s up? is an informal greeting. I’m a fairly informal person, so I wouldn’t take offense at that being directed at me. However, I would probably explain that Wussup? is a very informal greeting. I would also take that opportunity to explain that most people see the classroom as a formal environment, so Wussup? would usually be considered inappropriate — especially when a student is addressing a teacher.”

I couldn’t agree with Sam more. That choice of greeting does seem inappropriate . . . or does it? I keep wondering what’s happening to how we deal with formality in American culture and how our language reflects this. I think there’s a definite shift going on in formality or in a lack of it, and I think the lines between what many consider a formal situation and an informal one are becoming blurred. I’m a child of the 1950s when I do believe there were quite clear lines separating formal from informal situations and the appropriate use of formal language from its informal counterpart. That doesn’t seem to be the case so much these days.

As I said, I’m a product of the decade I grew up in ― I can’t escape it. That’s why it bothers me every time a salesperson or other such person decides on his or her own to call me by my first name without asking for my permission first. (I think they’re told when they receive training for their jobs that if they start calling the customer by his or her first name, they’ll create a more friendly atmosphere and relationship, which will make a sale go more easily.) But being the kind of outspoken person I am, I’ll pipe up right away and say, “Excuse me. My name is Mr. Firsten, thank you.” The perpetrator of the infraction always looks quite shocked at being rebuked, but I guess that’s because most people just let things like that go by without saying a word. Not this customer!

Something similar which happens quite often in my part of the US (South Florida) is that a salesperson or repairperson will address me as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. Now, I’m quite aware of the fact that there are certain relatively small areas of the US where the culture allows this to happen, that is, to use a title like Mr. along with a first name, but that’s really not the case where I live. I think people do it here because they don’t want to bother asking you how you pronounce your last name if they feel it’s too hard to pronounce. Well, I honestly don’t think that Firsten is that hard to pronounce, and it would behoove those people to learn how to pronounce other people’s last names as a sign of courtesy, if nothing else.

Sam says it doesn’t bother him that Michael Mukasey said gunnuh instead of going to during those formal Senate hearings he had to attend, but it bothers me. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur; that’s possible. Yes, I know that Americans prefer informality over formality in many kinds of situations, which means their language will reflect how formal or informal they elect to be, but I do think we should still have sociolinguistic lines that are clearly defined. I’m interested to know how you feel about such things, so don’t hesitate to post your comments. They’ll be well received.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

A very interesting thing took place a few nights ago. I was having a wonderful time at a dinner party I’d been invited to. The guests happened to make up a very nice cross section of Americans, including Northeasterners, Midwesterners, Southerners, and even somebody from Guam.

I can’t recall how this came into the conversation around the dinner table, but an animated debate got under way concerning what is or isn’t right in spoken English. A gentleman from upper New York State started decrying what he termed the “downgrading” of English, both in vocabulary and pronunciation. He was especially appalled by pronunciations such as “gunnuh” for going to, the future expression. I tried to explain to him that there’s nothing wrong with that pronunciation, depending on whether or not it’s the appropriate register for the setting and the speakers involved. I explained that going to would be appropriate in a more formal situation, but that “gunnuh” would be fine in an informal setting such as among friends. The basic idea I was trying to impart was that it’s not so easy to say what is “right” or what is “wrong” in areas of language such as pronunciation; that it all depends on the setting and choosing the proper register.

A couple of days later that pronouncement kind of imploded. Once again I was ambushed! I was having lunch, listening to various American senators questioning Michael Mukasey, who President Bush had nominated for the job of U.S. Attorney General. The setting couldn’t have been more formal: Mukasey sitting at a table with hands clasped and a microphone in front of him; a panel of senators asking him difficult questions; reporters and photographers all around ― pretty formal, wouldn’t you say? And then suddenly, while munching on my tuna sandwich, I heard Mukasey say, “Yes, Senator, I’m gunnuh look into that.” “What? What did he say?” I gasped. “‘I’m gunnuh’? He said ‘I’m gunnuh’? Mr. Mukasey! You’re supposed to say ‘I’m going to’! Don’t you know that?” I shouted at the pale, bureaucratic-looking face on my TV screen. “What’s next? Are you gunnuh start saying ‘I shoulduh’ instead of ‘I should have’? And what about when you want to know what your staff is talking about? Do you usually ask them, ‘Wussup’?” I was beside myself. I couldn’t even take the last bite of my tuna sandwich.

Was that concerned English speaker from New York state right? Is English pronunciation being “downgraded”? I’ve been wondering about how much attention we give or don’t give to the way people pronounce. Are there perhaps unwritten rules on what is and isn’t appropriate pronunciation of a given word or phrase in a certain situation? Do people cringe if they hear somebody like Michael Mukasey say gunnuh? And what about shoulduh or coulduh? Why should gunnuh be okay but not shoulduh or coulduh? It seems okay when people say should’ve and could’ve, doesn’t it? Hey! Wait a minute! There’s been a commercial on American TV for years for a vegetable drink in which the character says, “I coulduh had a V-8!” I know he doesn’t say, “I could’ve had a V-8!” and there’s no way on earth that he says, “I could have had a V-8!” No, he definitely says coulduh. Is there a reason for that? Why did the script writer opt for coulduh instead of the other two pronunciations? And why did the director let it get by, not to mention the company that pays for that marketing campaign? Is there something going on here that ELT instructors should be thinking about?

What do you think English teachers should do about all of this? If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka comes into your classroom one fine day and says, “Good morning, Mr./Ms. X. Wussup?” how should you respond? If you have a negative reaction to that greeting, what are you going to tell the student? How would you explain why you cringed when he or she said that? I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say on this subject ― so tell me!