Archive for Tag: teaching tips

Monday, December 13, 2010

So, Who’s Lying, Inspector? The “Perfect” Activity for Practicing the Past Perfect

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

newjgea@aol.com

In my last blog I discussed an alternative way of introducing the Past Perfect. I proposed that teachers kick off their set of lessons on this “unruly” bit of grammar by presenting contexts in which the use of the Past Perfect is essential to the intended meaning of a message, and only afterward moving on to sentences in which the Past Perfect can be substituted for the Simple Past.  This, I suggested, would allow students to get a feel for the Past Perfect’s semantic impact, for its force.

I also promised there to share my favorite Past Perfect activity.  The idea for this activity came when I happened on an exercise entitled “The Perfect Detective,” which is included in The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book by Nick Hall and John Shepheard.  Though based on the concept of that exercise, my activity differs in several ways; I introduced some changes in order to allow students to be involved at all stages of the task.

The activity not only encourages learners to identify the real differences in the meanings of various messages, but it tends to engage students quite naturally.

What does it ask students to do?

Solve a crime.

STAGE 1

The teacher presents the crime scene, but not by simply telling students what happened.  Instead, the teacher makes this stage interactive and suggestive by offering no more than the list of key words and phrases below, from which students must attempt to deduce the series of events.

John Flitz    9 p.m.    country house    dinner    six guests   midnight   shots heard    Flitz’s body    discover

STAGE 2

Students are informed that the guests who attended that infamous dinner party are being interrogated by two inspectors.  In pairs, students compose testimonies for the guests by completing a worksheet provided.  Each student of each pair will complete one version (A or B) of the worksheet in order to create his or her set of testimonies.

STAGE 3

Once the two versions of the worksheet are filled in, students are told that four of the six guests had plotted the murder, and that those guests gave testimonies which contradict one another.  Students who completed version A of the worksheet then compare their testimonies with students who completed version B of the worksheet.  By paying close attention to the meaning changes caused by the alternating uses of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past in their sets of testimonies, students will be able to determine which guests are telling the truth, and which guests are lying and may well have plotted the murder of Flitz.

STAGE 4

After students have decided, in pairs, who the four suspects must be, one student from each pair reads out the suspects’ names.  The teacher writes on the board the names read out for each pair.  Students are then asked to justify their decisions, highlighting the meanings conveyed by the use of the Past Perfect in some testimonial statements and the use of the Simple Past in others.

It seems to me that the force of the Past Perfect is illustrated quite vividly in this activity.

OK, so students won’t be thinking that they’ll necessarily be incarcerated for using the wrong construction, but they may well come to realize that getting a handle on that unruly old Past Perfect is worth their time.

Hall, N., and J. Shepheard. The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book. Essex: Longman, 1991. 131-132. Print.

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.

Interaction

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.

Activities

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.

Conclusion

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. http://www.ajde.com/Contents/vol3_2.htm.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative

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

Checking the answers in a homework or in-class assignment can be one of those huge time eaters. It is a necessary evil. After all, there is little point doing an activity if students never find out if their responses are accurate or not. However, calling on students to mechanically read their answers aloud can take up a lot of valuable class time with very little pay off. It is boring, predictable and involves very limited student talk.

My goal when I spend time checking student answers is twofold. First, I want to make sure students get the correct answers. And second, I want to make sure students understand why their answers were incorrect so that they can learn from their mistakes. But how is this best accomplished?

Time for Questions

When I assign homework, I usually provide the answer key. Students do the work, check their own answers, and put a star beside the questions which they don’t understand. At the beginning of every class, I ask the class if they had any questions about the homework. We go page-by-page and students can ask their questions and get a brief explanation. This system has worked very well for me in adult classes which are low-stress. Students have to feel comfortable enough to ask questions in front of their peers without losing face.

Of course, you also have to be able to trust the students to do the work before looking at the answers! One teacher I observed who did not have the same faith in her students put several copies of her answer key on the back wall. Students came early to the class to check their answers; it was a genius way to encourage students to come on time!

Check with a Partner

In a recent edition of Voices, Nicholas Northall suggests giving students time after an activity to check their answers with a partner. “This time allows them to discuss any answers they don’t agree on and to reach a conclusion as to what the right answers are” (Northall, 2010, page 11). This pair work would best supplement, not substitute for, a traditional answer check. Students still need your final word on “right or wrong.” But during this time, the stronger students may be able to explain their own choices to their partner, thereby eliminating the need for as much teacher talk.

Write it on the Board

I once observed a teacher who had her students come up one-by-one to write the answers to the homework on the board. This was SO boring for the students, and it cut into the time the students might be using for a communicative activity. Instead, she could have had the students who came into the class early write their answers up before the class even started. Or, she could have had the students work in pairs, as described above, and then shown the answers on a PowerPoint slide or overhead projector transparency.

On the other hand, I observed another teacher who used board writing in a very valuable way. She played a listening and, as the class listened and took notes, she took her own notes. After, the students were able to compare what they had written with her answers. It was immediately clear to the students if their notes were accurate and adequate.

Running for the Answer

Another teacher I observed turned her answer check into a fun communicative activity. She put copies of the answer key in several places around the class. She put the students into pairs; one was the “grader”, the other was the “runner”. The “graders” sat with both their assignments and their partners’ assignments. The “runners” moved between the answer key and the “graders.” telling them what the correct answers were. This format did take a bit of extra time, but the energy level in the class was high and all the students were interacting, so, in my opinion, the time was well-spent.

How do you check answers in your classes? Do you have any novel techniques for making the most out of this time? How do you make your answer checks clear and communicative?

Northall, N. (2010) What’s the answer to question 5? Voices, 216.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Small Talk. Not So Small After All?

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

newjgea@aol.com

- Hi there!  How are you? Teaching anything new this semester?

- No, huh uh.  Mostly conversation courses.  But I like them.

- Using a good textbook?

- Yeah.  It’s full of good exercises.  But you know what?  I’m thinkin’ it really needs another chapter.

- Yeah? On what?

- Well, on the language that people use as, well, “time fillers” when they’re in the lunch room, at the bus stop, in the elevator, or wherever.

- I know what you mean.  Small talk.

- Yes, exactly.

- Yeah.  You may be right.  Well, good luck in those classes.

- You too. Bye!

- Bye!

How often is small talk a part of life in the classroom?  Perhaps not often enough.

The majority of the curricula I’ve followed, and most of the textbooks I’ve used in conversation classes, haven’t focused much on small talk, as such. Yes, there have been units on greetings, the weather, and family – typical topics for short, casual conversations.  Students have learned how to thank someone, how to apologize to people, how to ask for directions, and even how to inquire about someone’s plans for the weekend.  Yet these “how-to matters” tend to be presented as separate topics, often in different units.  They are not usually treated together, under a heading like “small talk.”

How often is small talk a part of life outside the classroom?  Daily.

Students must be able to cope with everyday small talk; they must be able to produce appropriate small talk.

Considering the frequency of its occurrence in daily conversations as well as its very real influence on how we are viewed as interlocutors, small talk could well deserve a regular place in ESL classrooms, classrooms which attend to communicative competence.

If we take account of its impact on reducing learners’ nervousness about spontaneous communication in L2, we also realize that “mastering” the art of small talk can lower students’ apprehension of speaking, which is crucial to their success.

Because people generally think that the language of small talk is “simple language,” and because small talk conversations can’t be considered demanding in terms of their length (lasting only a few minutes ordinarily), it’s crucial that language learners feel they can “handle” small talk.

Students shouldn’t have to say to themselves (as I have done!): I’ve been studying English for a few years but I still feel uncomfortable holding short and simple conversations.

But how can we teach small talk?

Certainly not in “topic isolation mode.”  Typical small talk “talking points” can be integrated.  We mix small talk with more serious conversation in real life; something similar can be done in the classroom.  Brief, casual conversations about the weather, complaints, health, appearance, family, apologies, compliments, plans, etc. should be held regularly, and can, with a little coaxing, involve most or all of our students over time.  Such conversations make great warm-up activities.

Sample Small Talk Warm-Up Activity

Keep a stock of cards with phrases like “Great party!”, “It was nice seeing you again”, “Let’s have lunch some time”, “You look busy”, or ‘‘I haven’t seen you for a while,” etc. Ask students, as they come in to class, to take one and then to mingle among classmates, initiating small talk with the phrase provided.

We can also incorporate activities that promote rapid, spontaneous responses also helps.  After all, small talk may be brief, but it is fast-paced!

Sample Activity for Eliciting Short, Fast-Paced Responses.

Also using cards with phrases or sentences representing a variety of topics, such as “Is this the only kind of dessert you have?”, “May I interest you in our new model of PC?”, “I’ve had a headache all week.”, “Where have you been all day?”, and “You OK?”, we can involve students in a kind of group task.  Students, in turn, draw a card and read out its phrase or sentence to another student in the group.  This should, on each occasion, prompt a brief conversation between the students (one lasting not more than 30 seconds or so).  We can sound a bell, clap our hands, or indicate in some other way, that a small talk conversation in progress should end and that a new one should begin.

I’ve found that material for lessons on small talk can often be gathered from everyday conversations I’ve heard or from those my students have heard.  If you start paying attention to such conversations, you may well get the impression, as I have, that the variety of small talk questions and answers is astonishing.

Need to run.  Take care!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Not HER Again!

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

A couple of semesters ago, I had a problem in my French class. It all started on the first day of the class. I wandered in and took a seat. The seat next to me was empty, but before the class began, a student (I’ll call her Ms. Steam Roller) came in and sat beside me. She seemed nice and her French was good, so I felt like I could learn from her. However, by the mid-semester point, I had found that I did not enjoy working with her at all. Because her French was better than mine, she ignored my suggestions when we had to write dialogues. Doing pair work with her was like standing in the path of a steam roller. Sure, she was a nice person, but if I had to keep working with her, I was going to scream.

So, after the class, I approached my teacher and said that I would like the chance to work with other students. She asked me why I didn’t just change seats the next class.  But I felt that, since I had been sitting in the same place for months, it would be a bit rude to change that late in the game. I needed another solution. My French teacher was great. She worked out a system that allowed us all to change partners every class, so I got away from Ms. Steam Roller without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Changing it Up – Why Bother?

This experience has impacted my own classroom management style because I now go out of my way to make sure students don’t always work with the same partners. I know from experience that students, for many reasons, may not want to work with the same person class after class. There are other reasons, too, to change it up a little.

First, students need exposure to different kinds of English and different levels of ability. If a Korean student always works with a Brazilian student, both students will eventually become accustomed to each other’s pronunciation and errors. That can feel more comfortable, certainly, but we all know there are a wide variety of different accents and a huge continuum of abilities, even in one class. It is better, in my opinion, for students to be exposed to different kinds of English so that they have to work at negotiating meaning, which, according to Folse (2006), is an important part of language learning.

Also, working with students of different levels allows for a wider variety of learning opportunities. When I had to work with Ms. Steam Roller, I constantly felt like the slow student. However, when I worked with other students, I sometimes got the chance to teach them, which helped me learn the skill better myself. I don’t always want to be the “helper” and I don’t always want to be the “helped”. It’s nice to have a little variety.

Changing it Up – The How To

I try to shuffle my students at the beginning of class. Sometime, I just count off. If I have 12 students, I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The 1s get together, the 2s get together, the 3s get together you get the idea. They actually pick up their books and move everything to sit with their new partner. At first, this takes a while, but after a few lessons, students expect to have to move and it only takes a minute.

If I am feeling more creative, I work the shuffle into my warm up. I might have a set of index cards, one for each student. Half the cards have pictures or definitions or gap fills (depending on the level of the class) and the other half have vocabulary words. The students stand up, walk around the room and say their word until they find their partner. Then, they move their stuff and sit together for the rest of the lesson.

A couple of years ago, I went to a session at TESOL called “Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective” by Kitty Purgason. She suggested doing the above activity with questions and answers or using common idioms or phrasal verbs cut in half. In Maryanne Wolfe’s presentation at TESOL 2010, she suggested an interesting activity if space permitted. She gives each student a card with some information (in the demonstration, the information on the cards was the life expectancy in a number of different countries) and told students to put themselves into a line from the longest life expectancy to the shortest . Then, once the students are all lined up, she folds the line in half, like you would fold a string, so the students at the end meet up and become partners, all the way down the line. What fun!

Students deserve to have a little variety in their partners. They may seem to be happy working with the same person day after day, but I bet that many of them will welcome a change. The class gets to know each other better, the affective filter is lowered, and students develop new friendships. It’s a win, win, win!

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Olson, K. (2010) Movement and Learning, Paper Presented at TESOL 2010: Boston.
Purgason, K. (2007) Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective, Paper Presented at TESOL 2007: Washington.

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”?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Could You Repeat That?

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

I just finished a 3 week scuba certification. In addition to learning all sorts of things that will (hopefully) keep me alive in the water, I also, unexpectedly, learned a lot about teaching.

You might know from reading some of my previous blogs, that I am studying French, as well as teaching English in Belgium. My experience as a French student has already provoked a great deal of reflection about my own teaching and caused me to revisit and, in many cases, change the way I do things in the classroom. However, I was not prepared for the same consequence of taking a scuba certification class.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

First, I learned that repetition is the most exciting thing you can do in class. This might be overstating it, but not by much. In my scuba class, we read from a text, we watch a video that tells us pretty much what was in the text, and we attend lectures that repeat what was in the text and video. And you know what? I STILL go blank on important information from time to time. There is just SO much to remember, I need all the exposure I can get. Sure, by the third go-around, I am not exactly on the edge of my seat, but I know it is important to learn, so I pay attention.

One More Time

My teacher, Angelo, understands this.  So in his lectures, he repeats key information several times. For instance, he might say, “You ascend at a rate of no faster than 9 meters per minute.” Then, immediately after, he will repeat or rephrase that information. “So, you should not ascend any faster than 9 meters per minute.” And then, a few minutes later, he will ask us how fast we should ascend.

This is something I started doing in my Pre-Intermediate English classes with great results. I know that as a French student, I don’t always catch something the first time I hear it. We play recordings in listening activities multiple times for our students; why not do the same when giving important information or instructions?

It’s Still Not Getting Old

Still, only reading and hearing about something is not the same thing as actually doing it, as anyone who has watched students struggle to accurately use the grammar they have learned knows. After reading and watching and hearing, I was excited to do the things I had learned about in the pool. However, one practice mask-clearing was not nearly enough. I wanted to go through the motions again and again until it felt natural and automatic to clear my mask underwater. I didn’t get bored; I was so focused on what I was doing, I could have repeated the same movements until my fingers got too wrinkly to lift my mask.

The light went on! I realized that my students need the same repetition to master English skills. It is not enough to have students repeat a new word once and then move on. They need to repeat again and again until it is natural and automatic for them. Of course in the limited time I have with them, I can’t make them repeat something chorally all throughout class, but I have become much more conscious about giving them a lot more repetition. For example, in an activity I learned about from a former colleague at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD, students have 3 minutes to tell a story to their partner –  maybe about a scary experience they had as a child or a wonderful party they attended. Then, after the student has told his/her story, he/she meets with a new partner and tells the same story to his/her new partner, this time for only 2.5 minutes. Then, the student meets with a third new partner and (you guessed it) tells the same story again, this time for 2 minutes. When I first heard about this activity, I thought the students would find that much repetition too boring. However, after my scuba experience, I know that repetition is a key step toward automaticity.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That’s Not Really Hard, So Why Don’t They Get it?

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

Have you ever taken a course in another language? If you have, then you entered the realm of comparative linguistics without even realizing it. That’s because you would be subconsciously comparing how something is said in your native language to how it’s said in the language you were learning. So, for example, if you learned some Spanish or French, you quickly realized that the typical place to put an adjective is after the noun in those languages rather than before the noun, as we do in English. And you realized that the English phrase of the or of a closely resembles the way a genitive phrase is expressed in Spanish or French, but that there’s no equivalent of the –’s in those languages. Voilà! Comparative linguistics!

So why, then, do many ESOL teachers end up pulling the hair out of their heads when trying to teach something so seemingly easy as the use of that –’s? Why do their students often drop that inflected form and say things like the neighbor dog? The reason may not be that the students are just poor language learners; it may be due to language interference. There are languages in which the proper way to form a genitive phrase like the neighbor’s dog is to say “the neighbor dog.” This is something that would be useful for ESOL teachers to know so that they could anticipate the problem and hopefully nip it in the bud before the problem becomes fossilized.

To pursue this item a bit more as a case in point, let’s take a look at how this genitive phrase is produced in a few unrelated languages:

  • In Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia, you’d say the neighbor dog.
  • In Haitian Creole, you’d say the dog the neighbor.
  • In Arabic, you’d say dog the neighbor.
  • In Cantonese, a form of Chinese, you’d say neighbor the dog.

Aha! So it may very well be that it isn’t the fact that your students just don’t have the smarts to get it; it’s probably language interference with the structure of their native languages getting in the way that’s created this problem.

If you’re an EFL teacher, getting into comparative linguistics to make teaching certain grammatical points go more smoothly is relatively easy since just about all the students you have in any class speak the same language, the native language of the country you’re working in.

If you’re an ESOL teacher working in an English-speaking country with students from lots of other countries, the task of delving into comparative linguistics is more daunting, but definitely doable. You don’t need to become fluent in any of the languages spoken by your students. If you see that some or all of your students are struggling with a certain point of grammar, all you need to do is a bit of research into how that form is structured in their languages to see whether or not it may be creating a bigger problem to teach than you might have thought. And in those cases when a certain form is a big problem for certain students, you may find it useful to give them some comparative phrases in their languages and in English to show them how to switch from one way of communicating this to the other.

I guarantee that your students will be very impressed that you’ve familiarized yourself with something in their languages and can demonstrate how it crosses over from their languages to English. You’ll definitely win brownie points with them and, in addition, you’ll become a more effective teacher!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dialogues for Beginners: Snooping at Techniques of “Non-ESL” Language Teachers

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

newjgea@aol.com

The story below, which is almost twenty years old, is still worth a few chuckles to my friend and me, and it’s recently gained an additional value: this summer our recollection of an elementary school incident prompted not only an expected giggle, but also an investigation, or rather a casual “snooping,” at some practices used with beginning learners by teachers of languages other than English.

Here’s what happened years ago:

We were beginning students of Russian, and during our second or third class meeting we were asked to prepare a telephone conversation which was to include some of the phrases we’d studied.  As you can imagine, our vocabulary was meager, and our confidence about acting out the conversation in front of a group of other 12-year-olds was definitely shaky.  We scrambled for ideas and put together the following lines (here translated into English):

Good day.

- Good day.

- Is your father at home?

- Yes.

- Is your mother at home?

- Yes.

- Is your brother at home?

- No.

- Thank you. Good bye.

- Good bye.

We earned an F for this performance.  But get this.  It was a failure not because the dialogue was poorly prepared, but because it was never acted out!  The conversation seemed so painfully and funnily unnatural that it threw us into a fit of inextinguishable snickering.  We stood in front of the class with our heads down and shoulders shaking, unable to speak.

This summer my friend asked, “You’re a language teacher.  Is it still common teaching practice to ask beginners who know, let’s say, ten words to create and act out dialogues?

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from snooping into a textbook for beginning learners of Russian?

Curious to see what dialogue-based tasks are used these days by teachers of Russian, I leafed through a textbook published recently for beginning learners.  Interestingly, almost all reading tasks and the majority of the speaking activities were based on dialogues in that book.

In spite of having a limited vocabulary and a minimal knowledge of grammar, users of this textbook are regularly asked to create dialogues.  How does that make sense?  What makes their task possible and meaningful is that a clear, real context, together with a list of useful words and phrases, is provided.

So, after studying possessives and “furniture” vocabulary, students maybe be asked to prepare a dialogue for this sort of situation: You are in a new dorm.  Visit your neighbor.  Talk about your rooms.  Use these words: bed, table, desk, poster, curtain, lamp, sink, trash can, pillow, blanket.

Even though students’ dialogues may be fairly short and simple, the context will allow for a certain authenticity, and the vocabulary list will provide a level of comfort for the often vulnerable beginner.

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from taking a class for beginning learners of Modern Greek?

In her article “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher,” Diana R. Ransdell, an experienced ESL teacher, recalls a summer course she took in Modern Greek.  She concludes that the course not only helped her relate to her ESL students’ frustrations, but also provided “first-hand exposure to new techniques” which she later incorporated into her teaching (45).

One technique she remembers particularly well used creative writing. Before taking that course in Modern Greek, she “had never once given a creative writing assignment to beginning students” (43).  Typically, those tasks tend to be rather time-consuming and are generally given to students whose vocabulary is more extensive.  Later, however, because of her experiences as a language learner, she “took steps to ensure that creative writing would be an integral part of future teaching” (44).

As a beginning student of Modern Greek, she was asked to compose a creative story, which she wrote in the form of a dialogue. Because half of the vocabulary she knew at the time amounted to names of food items, the dialogue centered on the theme of food. In her dialogue she spoke to a vendor about the availability of watermelons, cherries, lemons, and bananas.  She writes: “The experience gave me a sense of power because the words I had used … were no longer mere words.  Now they were my words” (43).

So how should I answer my friend’s question about the currency of using dialogues with true beginners? Yes, it seems possible and common enough to ask beginning language learners to create dialogues even if their vocabulary is limited.  But perhaps to make sure that they don’t fail at this (like we did), we can be sure to provide them with a truly realistic context and key vocabulary, and assure them that they will feel accomplished, no matter how simple the conversation turns out to be.

Now I’m considering snooping into my colleague’s textbook, one for beginning learners of German.  I wonder what dialogue-based tasks they use in, let’s say, “Lektion 3.”

Ransdell, D. R. 1993. “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher.” ELT Journal 47/1: 40-46.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Flexibility of Thought-Provoking Conversations

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

One of the many challenges that all teachers face is finding ways to keep the learning experience interesting and dynamic. A good way to do this in a language classroom is to introduce thought-provoking themes or topics that students will relish discussing. Not only are such topics great for conversation practice, but they also allow for flexibility so that a teacher can apply them to focus on specific grammar points and writing assignments.

Here are two juicy themes that always get students thinking and discussing:

In Exile

Teacher speaking to class . . .

You were part of a group that tried to start a revolution in your country. You didn’t succeed and the government captured you and your group. A court has ordered that you and your group will be put into exile. You will be transported to an island where nobody lives. There are many animals and plants on the island that you can use for food, and there is a lot of fresh water. You will have to spend 15 years on the island as your punishment.

You will have no way to communicate with the outside world: no radio, no television, no phones, and there is no electricity on the island. But the government will allow your group to bring ten items – only ten – to the island to help you survive. You need to work together to decide which ten items you should bring to the island. You have 20 minutes to do this.

If you have a small group of students, treat this as a whole-class activity and let everybody discuss the topic together. As they suggest which items are important to take, list them on the board and let the whole group discuss the value or worthlessness of each item. Try to reach a consensus to create a final list of which items they will take. Make sure they clearly explain the reason they have suggested this item or that.

If you have a medium or large class, break the students into small groups, perhaps five or six students per group, with one student acting as the group secretary who will write down which ten items the group decides on. Walk around the room and eavesdrop on your students’ discussions. Help out if need be. When time is up, ask one person in each group to call out the list of items and write them on the board. Then compare the items in each group and have the class as a whole choose which ten items from all those lists should be the final list of things to take to the island.

Who’s Most Responsible?

Teacher speaking to class . . .

A young woman is married to a salesman who travels a lot on business. In fact, he’s almost never home. She’s very lonely. There’s a river that separates her town from one on the other side. While her husband is away on another business trip, she decides to go to the other town to have an adventure. She doesn’t want anybody in her town to know what she’s doing. To go to the other town, she decides to take a ferry across the river.

When she arrives in the other town, she goes to a ____ (You can fill in a place that will be appropriate for the backgrounds of your students. For example, you can say a bar or night club, a park or an outdoor café, etc.) She meets a young man there, they talk and feel a natural attraction for each other, and later she goes with him to his apartment, where she spends the night.

The next morning, she remembers that her husband is coming home that day, and she panics. She must get home right away. She runs out of the young man’s apartment and makes her way back to the ferry. But there’s a problem. She doesn’t have enough money to pay for the ferry ride back to her town and the ferryman refuses to take her if she can’t pay. She runs back to the young man and asks him for money. He gets angry, thinking she’s really a prostitute, and throws her out. She begs the ferryman to take her and she’ll pay him later, but he refuses again.

The young woman knows that there’s a bridge over the river about a mile away from the ferry. Nobody uses that bridge because there’s a dangerous mentally ill man who lives under it. She doesn’t want to use the bridge because of the danger from the man under the bridge, but she’s desperate. She must get home. When the mentally ill man sees her start to cross the bridge, he thinks she’s the Devil who has come to hurt him, so he runs over to her, attacks her, and kills her.

My question to you: Who is most responsible for the young woman’s death? Is it her husband, who was almost never home and made her feel so lonely? Is it the young man in the other town who wouldn’t give her the money to take the ferry back home? Is it the ferryman who refused to take her if she couldn’t pay him? Is it the mentally ill man under the bridge, who killed her because he thought he was protecting himself from the Devil? Or is it the young woman herself who is most responsible for her death?

Have the students discuss this question just as in the first discussion mentioned. Make sure they understand that they have to be able to defend their choices of who is most responsible for her death by giving convincing arguments.

Believe me, you’ll find your students get fully immersed in these discussions with lively, animated conversations. And if you choose to, you can create all sorts of exercises like open-ended sentences and modified cloze procedures based on these topics to practice specific grammar points. You can also have them work on short writing assignments to get the most bang for your ESOL buck.

Have fun with these and any other thought-provoking topics you come up with.