Archive for Tag: Tamara Jones

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary

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

Just recently, I wrote a post about the importance of all students developing a robust vocabulary. In Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) stresses that often one of the barriers between Intermediate and Advanced level students is that Intermediate learners rely heavily on lower-level vocabulary. In order to break into Advanced level language learning, students need to know 5,000 to 6,000 words. To further complicate matters, “knowing” a word goes far beyond being able to fill in a gap on a quiz. Students need to be able to, among other things, pronounce it, know the grammar rules that govern its form, differentiate it from similar words (for instance, ”cup” and “mug” distinguish between words that look the same but have different meanings (such as mean, as in unkind, and mean, as in “what does that word mean?”), discriminate between different levels of formality and attitudinal meanings (as in, “ask” and “demand”).

What Goes with What

In addition to a well-developed vocabulary, students also need to be adept users of collocation patterns. This brings to mind a presentation I attended at IATEFL a few years ago about Advanced learners. The speaker, Ben Goldstein, showed a letter about a trip on the screen and asked the audience to identify the words we thought upper level students would find challenging. In other words, what would we pre-teach if we wanted to use that letter in a class? Then, he pointed out all the words that a student might think he or she knew, but really didn’t. For instance, a learner might think “get” is a pretty low-level word and it is certainly in the 1000 word list. However, when paired with “carried away”, it becomes an Advanced level lexical chunk. I found this revelation fascinating because, even though I am an experienced teacher, I had not thought to pick out those smaller words. How embarrassing! Goldstein’s presentation proved to me that even though a word might seem “easy”, I need to be more aware of how it is being used and how it might trip up my students.

What is a Teacher to Do?

So, clearly, to help students move beyond a plateau at any level, we need to provide opportunities to develop their vocabulary. As I argued in Words, Words, Words, if students don’t know a word, it doesn’t matter how good their grammar or reading skills are; they can’t communicate. Here in Belgium, I am rarely silenced by a lack of grammar; I can usually make myself understood. But, not knowing a word can stop me in my tracks. For example, we had a water leak and it caused the wood floor in my bedroom to buckle. I had to ask my neighbour how to explain “buckle” in French before I could even think of phoning the landlord to report the problem. However, Keith Folse (2004) points out that, though vocabulary is really the end all and be all of language learning, text books often don’t focus on vocabulary building and language programs rarely offer vocabulary classes.

Even though I believe these deficiencies are slowly being rectified (my former university offers several levels of vocabulary classes), it is largely left to us teachers to help students develop their word banks. In my current teaching context, I provide vocabulary work on a regular basis. Especially for my Secondary students, having the perfect past tense won’t help them at all in Science class if they don’t know what an “amoeba” is. I usually follow an abridged version of Folse’s (2013) 9 Steps that I described in the previous post. Specifically, I have students begin a lesson with a card match of target word to definition. They can work on it as a group, as some have more background knowledge than others. Then, they copy the words and the definitions into their books. It’s a bit old-school to have them copy, but I firmly believe that this helps embed the words more firmly in their memories. Then, they have to translate the words. Many of my students won’t be at an English school forever. In fact, some come only for a year or two before they finish Secondary school in their home countries. So, they need to know “amoeba” in English for now and in their L1 for later. Then, in follow up lessons, we do readings and watch videos on the topic, revisiting the words again and again. We also play games, like the memory game (students turn up cards and try to find matches) and board games to help them remember. I often make my flashcards on Quizlet, which also provides games and review activities for each set of cards.

Clearly, knowing a lot of words is an important part of transitioning from Intermediate to Advanced learner. Teachers need to be aware of this and, because it takes a long time and a lot of effort to learn new words, we also need to identify which words are useful for our students to study.

Folse, K. (2004) Vocabulary Myths, University of Michigan Press.
Goldstein, B. (2010) “Countering classroom fatigue in advanced learners”, paper presented at IATEFL 2010 in Harrogate, UK.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.

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, October 25, 2013

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part I: The Gap Between Production and Reception

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

I was recently reading the magazine, “Runner’s World,” and I came across an article called “Reboot, Refresh” about plateauing. The article basically points out that “every runner eventually reaches a period in their training where their progress levels off.” Apparently this plateauing is inevitable, and it is easy (at least for a slowpoke like me) to understand how a straight, climbing trajectory of improvement would be physically impossible.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the plateaus that frustrate runners’ dreams of personal bests and the plateaus that we notice in our students’ English development. Just as “[o]ver the course of a running life, there are natural peaks and valleys – and flat lines in between,” I have noticed my students’ English skills grow, recede and stagnate. In my experience, this leveling off seems to happen when students are trying to move from Intermediate level to Advanced. Many of them simply give up, deciding that their language skills are sufficient for their purposes. But, some struggle on, and eventually they become advanced and then proficient users of English. So, what made the difference for those students? How do some students make it through plateaus and what can I do to help?

With those questions in mind, I did what we all do these days; I Googled “ESL plateau.” Luckily, greater minds than mine have focused on this phenomenon. Jack Richards has even written a short book on the topic, “Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning.” Richards helpfully breaks plateauing down into 5 common problems and suggests steps teachers can take. Although I found the entire book useful, I wanted to summarize his suggestions for those who don’t have time to read it for themselves.

The Gap between Reception and Production

Richards points out that “[l]earners may have made considerable progress in listening comprehension and reading, but still feel inadequate when it comes to speaking skills. As a French learner, I feel their pain. I can often understand, at least, the gist of what I hear and read, but I am very nervous about speaking, knowing that my grammar will inevitably be wrong and my vocabulary will be imprecise. Richards suggests that a combination of “noticing” and “focused output” can be useful to help students overcome this problem associated with plateauing. First, he recommends that teachers provide students with activities that prompt them to “notice” target structures, as this is the basis for language development. For instance, after doing a listening comprehension activity, have students return to the text for a more focused look at the language used.

Try this for 30 Days!

Helen Solorzano explained how to do this in her part of the panel discussion, “Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension,” at TESOL this past year in Dallas, Texas. She suggested using a video clip from Ted Talks to encourage students to focus on what is said, how it is said and what is not said. She used a great clip where Matt Cutts, a Google bigwig, talks about trying something new for 30 days. It’s interesting, accessible for upper intermediate students, and very inspirational. First, to help students understand what is being said, she suggests identifying vocabulary and language students may find difficult by running the transcript through www.lexicaltutor.com, as well as pulling out idiomatic and other interesting language for student attention. As students listen to the speaker and read the transcript, the teacher points out these words and phrases and discusses the meanings. For instance, in the Ted Talk, Cutts says he was “stuck in a rut”. Certainly, though not essential to understanding the gist of the listening, this phrase presents a perfect opportunity for closer scrutiny.

Second, Solorzano argues that teachers need to spend time in the lesson addressing how things are said. In other words, we need to emphasize the importance of discourse markers (reformulations and hedges, for example), stance markers (phrases that show certainty, likelihood, and attitude) and interesting pronunciation patterns in the organization of a text. For instance, Cutts contrasts how time generally tends to “fly by forgotten,” when he was doing a 30 day challenge, the time was “much … more … memorable.” In other words, he pauses slightly between each word. Those pauses didn’t happen by accident. He wasn’t trying to figure out what to say next. They are there for a reason, and Solorzano would have us challenge the students to guess what message those pauses might be sending.

Third, she contends that students need to think about what is not being said. Specifically, it is helpful to discuss cultural references that may not be immediately clear to them. Other useful focal points also include pictures, gestures and other inferences. Again, they may not be necessary for overall comprehension, but to help students “notice” language, these kinds of discussions can be useful. For example, in Cutts’ talk, he refers to meeting John Hodgman at a party. I had no idea who that was until Solorzano told us he was the guy who used to play the PC in those Mac vs PC commercials a few years ago. It turns out he is a prolific writer. Anyway, even though knowing who John Hodgman is won’t immediately catapult Upper Intermediate students into becoming Advanced English users, this kind of systematic “noticing” of language will.

Focus on Output

Richards also argues that teachers need to offer opportunities for “focused output.” The way I understand it, this is a bit different from the communicative output that has become popular in language classrooms around the world years ago. Rather than just encouraging students to talk without a care for accuracy, “focused output” is supposed to enhance fluency by providing practice activities that stimulate automaticity. In other words, Advanced language users don’t think about what they want to say word by word, they think in chunks of speech. Students who have the chance to “practice” the same chunks over and over are more likely to remember them and use them automatically.

One way of providing this practice is in conversation circles. One of my former co-workers from Howard Community College used to do this activity with her students. When she first described it, I thought, “How dull.” But, now I soon learned that this kind of repetition was far from that for her students. For homework the night before, the students prepared notes about a topic. The teacher then had half the class make a circle and then the other half made a bigger circle around the inner circle so each person in the inner circle had a partner in the outer circle. They then talked about their topic for 3 minutes. After the 3 minute time period was up, the outer circle shifted to the left and each person came face to face with a new partner with whom they spoke about their topic for 2 minutes. Then, the outer circle shifted again, and the speakers had 1 minute to speak about their topic. The idea is that the students speak again and again on the same topic, giving them much needed access to automaticity.

Georgis, A. (2013) Reboot, refresh, Runner’s World, June 2013.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Solorzano, H. (2013) Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension, paper presented at TESOL 2013, Dallas Texas.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Words! Words! Words!

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

Whenever I am at a TESOL Conference, there are a few speakers I go out of my way to see every year. Keith Folse is one of them. Whatever he is speaking about, I know I will learn something new and have a great time doing it. He is entertaining and witty and so, so smart. (Can you tell I have a bit of a TESOL crush?)

Anyway, I managed to make one of his presentations at the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas, Texas in April. It was, as always, genius! He spoke about practical activities for learning vocabulary, a great topic for me, as my students needs to master lots of academic vocabulary quickly to succeed in their mainstream secondary school classes.

Folse organized his suggestions around Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, which I had never heard of before. At any rate, he contends that if teachers structure vocabulary development around this instructional design model, students have a better chance of retaining vocabulary. At the risk of miscommunicating Folse’s message (I hope he will see this and correct me if I misspeak), I wanted to share them with you.

1. Gain learner attention of target vocabulary. Folse says there are several ways we can do this. We can present the students with a problem that prompts the target vocabulary, ask them questions that contain the vocabulary or show them an advertisement with the vocabulary. I sometimes like to start a lesson with a simple card match (word to definition or word to picture) to see what students already know and to show them what words they will need to learn.

Read more »

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Helping ESL Students Hear

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

The other day we had a CPD (continuing professional development) session at my school. The topic was Teaching Hearing Impaired students. At first, I was a bit skeptical that the session would be valuable for me, as I don’t have any hearing impaired students at the moment. Nonetheless, I am always up for learning something new and usually really enjoy the opportunity for professional development. As I have said many times before, when I am “finished” learning about how to be a better teacher, it is time to get out of the business!

Hearing Aids ≠ Perfect Hearing

Anyway, I was glad I went. I had never really thought about hearing impaired students before. To my shame, I cannot even say for certain that I have never had any in my class. I had always assumed that if one of my students had a hearing problem and wore a hearing aid that their hearing problem was “fixed” and I needn’t concern myself any further. Wrong! Apparently, a hearing aid can just help improve someone’s hearing,; it doesn’t remedy the problem completely. Students who wear hearing aids still run the risk of missing some sounds, particularly those from what the speaker kept referring to as “high frequency” range, like the /ð/, /ϴ/and /f/. Imagine the frustration for a student in a pronunciation class working on differentiating between the two “th” sounds when she/he can’t even hear either of them.

Read more »

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teachingem to Linkn Blend

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

Recently, I wrote a post about teaching listening. In it, I commented on the connection between certain pronunciation skills and listening and how we need to both teach these skills and make this connection explicit in the classroom. One of these skills, linking and blending, is a way proficient English speakers connect their speech to sound fluid and, according to Hieke (1984), to make speech less articulatory complex. In other words, it sounds better and is easier to say when words are linked and blended. Long ago, I wrote about teaching sentence stress in class, another pronunciation skill essential for listeners, but I have never broached the subject of teaching strategies to help students master linking and blending. So, here is my “two cents.”

Whating and Whating?

When proficient English speakers talk, we don’t say each work distinctly and clearly. Rather, we tend to link some of our words together. For example, “come and eat” gets pushed into one word that sounds like “comneat.” We usually link words when

  • the final sound of the first word is a consonant and the initial sound of the second word is a vowel, as in “come and eat,”
  •  the final sound of the first words is a consonant and the initial sound of the second word is an unstressed pronoun starting with /h/ or /ð/ (we cut the /h/ and /ð/ to link), as in “tell him,”
  • the final and initial sounds of the two words are vowels (we insert a /w/ or /y/ sounds to make this easier), as in “my eye,”

    Read more »

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Learning to Listen

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

For years (and years and years), whenever I had to teach “listening”, I just popped the CD into the machine, pressed play and hoped for the best while the students scrambled to fill in the gaps, answer the questions or match the cards. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I could, and in fact, should, be doing a lot more to support my students’ listening development, but aside from listening practice and more listening practice, I was not sure what else to do. In spite of my many years of teaching and the confidence I feel helping students with speaking and pronunciation, I felt like a neophyte when it came to teaching listening. So, imagine my relief when, as the Speech, Listening and Pronunciation Chair elect, I was tasked with organizing an Academic Session at TESOL on teaching listening for the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas. It was actually Helen Solorzano who organized the session, and all I had to do was show up, take credit, and learn!

Top Down Strategies – Check!

So, here’s what I learned: it turns out that what I have been doing for all these years was, in fact, “testing” listening and not teaching it at all. I needed to back up a bit and think about listening as speech processing. Dr. Steve Brown spoke about how listening is a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. Stronger listeners make more use of top down strategies, which means they pull from their general knowledge about the context and the topic to make inferences about the listening. Happily, a lot of texts on the market encourage students to do this by including pictures and warm up questions designed to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic. As a result, even in my very primitive approach to teaching listening, I did occasionally manage to expose my students to top down listening strategies.

Read more »

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How __________ (Much/Many) Practice do Students Need to Learn Quantifiers?

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

Even though many grammar series, including grammar guru Betty Azar’s, cover quantifiers from the beginning (Basic English Grammar) to the end (Understanding and Using English Grammar), my students seem to continuously struggle with using them correctly. They moan when we review them and moan when they get them wrong in their writing. Even my most advanced students appear to be mystified by the idiosyncrasies of English quantifiers.

Students Face Several __________ (Challenge/Challenges)

The problem, in my mind, seems to be twofold. First, students have to think about count and non-count nouns. At first glance, this distinction appears totally arbitrary when you consider that money is non-count, though clearly it is something we count all the time. Throw in irregular plurals (Seriously, person/people but fish/fish? How is that at all logical?) and you can have a frustrated class on your hands.

In addition to the perils of the count and non-count divide, students also have to choose from a confusing list of quantifiers full of linguistic booby traps. For example, consider the difference in meaning between “a little” and “little”. That tiny letter can mean the difference between being able to afford to buy a coffee and going thirsty. Another hidden quantifier trap lies in what Azar calls the “singular expressions of quantity”. There is almost nothing satisfactory a teacher can say to a student who asks why we say “each student” but “each of the students” when the meaning is essentially the same. It’s enough to turn a lovely group of students into a mob of pitchfork waving villagers!

Read more »

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kneading your Way into the Passive Voice

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

Don’t you just love it when inspiration strikes in the middle of an activity and turns a so-so lesson into a great one? It doesn’t happen that often to me, actually. My “great” lessons are almost always the result of careful planning and hours spent cutting out little bits of paper, but once in a great while, it all comes together in a moment of glorious on-the-spot quick thinking.

My job at the British School of Brussels is to prepare and support my students for survival and success in their mainstream classes. I have had my eyes opened to the joys of content-based language learning, and, as a result, my lesson plans often veer away from pure grammar activities. For most of my students, the vocabulary they need for their chapter on Atoms and Elements in their Science classes supersedes their need to properly use the past perfect. However, I am always on the lookout for that perfect lesson that seamlessly blends grammar with content.

How to Make Bread

So, anyway, my “grammar and content unite” moment happened after several of my students had just begun their cooking classes. We’d done all the kitchen utensils and verbs associated with cooking to death, and I was trolling the internet for an idea that would allow me to revisit cooking in a new way. I came across a great video called How It’s Made: Bread. Now, the title alone might have got many of you thinking, “Aha! The passive!” Sadly, this did not happen to me. Not right away. After watching the video, I typed up several sentences that described the process step by step.

  • The ingredients are ground in a mill.
  • The ingredients are mixed together.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dictations Revisited

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

Dictations as the Wide Collars of Language Teaching?

I was recently chatting with a colleague about the disappearance of certain “old-fashioned” activities from the language learning classroom. Often, we are so swept up in encouraging communication that we forgo lessons that promote competency. One of the babies that long ago seemed to get thrown out with the grammar translation bath water is doing dictations. For years and years, maybe even as long as I have been teaching, it has been considered very uncool to subject students to the painful task of writing something verbatim. After all, it’s not a real-life communicative task. We very rarely find ourselves writing stories exactly as someone tells them, do we? So, why make our students do it?

The Redeeming Qualities of Dictations

Well, as it turns out, there are some very good reasons to include dictations in our language teaching repertoire. They can offer effective practice for decoding the sounds of English. Dictations can “reinforce the correlation between the spelling system and the sound system of a language.” (Alkire, 2002) They can also help students identify grammatical and pronunciation features, as “dictation activities where students compare their version of the text to the original can increase their ability to notice aspects of the language which are sometimes overlooked, as well as mistakes which they commonly make.” (Lightfoot, 2005) Finally, for the overworked teacher, dictations can provide a quick, useful lesson that requires just a little preparation, a benefit which, in today’s hectic working world, cannot be underestimated. Clearly, there are many pedagogically sound reasons to include dictations into our lessons.

Read more »