Archive for Tag: writing activity

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tabloid Fever: Rousing Students’ Zeal for Emotion Vocabulary

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

newjgea@aol.com

College Life- I’ll put that one in pile A.  Recycling- Pile B.  Male-Female Communication- That one should probably also go there in pile A.  Fast Food- I’ll add that to pile B, at least for now. Celebrity Gossip- Definitely pile C.

ESL Lessons and Newspaper/ Magazine Articles: Piles A, B, and C

Like many of you, I suspect, I have developed an ESL teacher’s eye for newspaper and magazine articles.  Even when I read one out of personal interest or idle curiosity, I speculate by reflex about how I might use some of it in an ESL lesson.  I tear out and stockpile articles, or pages from articles, that strike me as worthy reading material.  In pile A go the current, student-relevant, and interestingly controversial pieces.  Pile B contains pieces on significant but comparatively stale topics, pieces I usually consider “emergency reading material.”  The pieces that end up in pile C are worth less or worthless; I can’t always decide.  We’re talking gutter press, basically.  The pages in pile C present scandalous or shocking news and they are loaded with hyperbole.  Ordinarily, I’d use pile C items only to illustrate variety in media language.

But that changed recently…

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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Joys of YouTube

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

After many years of teaching without access to the internet, I am overjoyed to finally be able to take advantage of some of the great teaching resources on the great ole World Wide Web, particularly those on YouTube. Because of my late start with this resource, I understand that I am behind the curve, so forgive me if some of my enthusiasm seems a bit out of date. There is just so much great stuff out there, if you look hard enough! In addition, the clips are generally bite-sized, so they are perfect for a bit of English practice.

I teach young learners, and I can personally vouch for the sedative quality that video clips seem to have. Nothing quiets my students down faster than the promise of a video activity. The key is to make the video more than just the video. There always has to be a purpose, even if the kids are too busy watching the clip to notice.

Kramer and the Past Tense
I was having a hard time coming up with fun activities for my students to practice the simple past tense. They need so much review to help them remember the irregular forms, but that repetition can get boring fast. So, I showed them a clip from Seinfeld available on YouTube. In it, Jerry is going out for the day and Kramer is in his apartment. The next 1 ½ minutes shows Kramer doing crazy things like riding a bike, putting out a fire, starting a fight, and hosting a party. You get the idea. At the end of the day, Kramer is asleep on the sofa when Jerry comes home and gets irritated because Kramer had not used a coaster.

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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, August 3, 2010

Auxiliary Topics for Students’ Journals

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

newjgea@aol.com

I love black cats. I love black cats. I love black cats.” This is how one of my fellow EFL student’s English journal entry started, and continued.  The same line echoed on for an entire page, and, believe it or not, that redundant block of sentences was actually submitted as a weekly journal assignment.  In all fairness, however, the prompt for the assignment, which read: “Write on anything you’d like.” (and which had been used all semester long) was sort of begging for it.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, that instructor’s journal entry comments showed little more creativity or compassion.  They took one of two forms- “Interesting entry!” or “Thank you for sharing!”.

I think that course must have set some kind of dye, because I had, as a learner of English, a kind of aversion to journal assignments afterwards.  Truth be told, I’ve had a kind of aversion to assigning journal writing as an instructor of English.

The big issue in my mind is how to make journal writing constructive. Some of the questions that have plagued me are:

“Do I grade them on those assignments?”

“Do I really ignore even the most glaring mistakes?”

“How often do I assign journal writing?”

“Do I make specific in-text comments, or do I make one summary comment at the end, or do I make both?”

“What topics do I use?”

“Do I in fact have time to read and comment on all entries if journal writing is just one of many components of the curriculum?”

Though I’ve answered each of these questions more than once, I can’t say that I’ve come up with many usable conclusions.  I’m still very much in the middle of the process of discovering what works.

However, I have determined one rather surprising thing: my students, on the whole, value journal writing not only as a safe, personal, and meaningful monologue (or dialogue), but also as a potential learning tool.  I think this is positive, and helpful.

Students clearly appreciate not having their journal writing corrected, but they also seem to expect to be taught, directed, or challenged.

Below are some alternatives to the prompt “Write on anything you’d like.”  As they must, they allow for the free flow of creative ideas, but they also direct students in one or two tasks as well as challenge them a bit.  I’ve substituted these topics now and then for prompts focusing on students’ narratives, responses to readings, or reflections on a theme.

Task-oriented journal writing topics: I’ve asked students to…

1. imagine that a classmate did not quite understand the meaning of, let’s say, an idiom that I used in class and explain it to that classmate in writing, thinking about how they understood it, about what examples they would give to illustrate the meaning, and about what helped them memorize the phrase; or

2. record progress on a group project they are working on, thinking about how much they have done, what the biggest difficulties have been, what aspects of the project have been fun or have given them a sense of pride; or

3. re-read their first or second journal entry and select a few sentences which they consider a bit weak and improve those sentences, adding more details, replacing some words with more advanced or exact vocabulary, or rewriting with the use of a “freshly learned” sentence structure; or

4. brainstorm and cluster ideas for their next paper, and ask me (in writing) any questions they have about that assignment; or

5. look for a short text (story in the textbook, a brief article, a letter to the editor) and imagine that they are a co-writer, think about what they might add to the text, and create a paragraph that could be inserted into the text.

Last semester I informally polled my students to check which three of our task-oriented journal topics they’d suggest that I use with my students next semester.  The winners were… (drum roll… drum roll…): “help a fellow student understand some material”, “improve your old journal entry”, and “co-author an article.”  I’ll gladly be following their advice.

Do you assign journal writing in your classroom?  What works for you?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Colors: Beyond the Basics

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

newjgea@aol.com

Looking into my closet the other month, my best friend said that my clothes seemed “uninspired.”  She surveyed my blues, greys, and beiges with increasing dismay, and concluded that the colors of my clothes simply blurred into one another on the shelves and hangers.  I’ve since been attending to color a bit more and I’m noticing all kinds of shades.  In fact, this summer I’m starting to get the feeling that the world’s colors are actually conspiring to awaken my sense of hue.

They have been revealing themselves almost relentlessly in all directions.  The oranges of poppies appeared between some train tracks I was watching.  Bold greens and striking yellows showed up in the embroidery of a tablecloth I saw at a folk culture center.  Subtly differing blues and whites emerged from an oil painting of a marine scene I viewed at a small museum.  I must say that I’m beginning to be energized a little by the “burst of hues” around me.

While it may still be a while before I buy a carnation-pink dress, I’ve been awakened enough to consider devoting a blog article to the use of colors in the language classroom.  So here it is.

Of course basic color terms are taught at beginning levels.  Students learn names of basic colors, describe the clothes someone is wearing, discuss living-room wall color preferences, and explore color idioms, color psychology, and so on.  Today, I’m thinking about what’s next, about what “color activities” we can use with our more advanced learners.

Mood: Modifying Color Names

This exercise is one I created a few years ago for an intermediate group and it has since sparked enthusiasm among many of my students.  The activity employs two sets of cards: one set with the names of various colors and one set with words describing moods, attitudes, or emotions.  Working in pairs, students draw three color cards and one mood card.  They are then asked to write a very short narrative paragraph which portrays the selected mood. This should be achieved mainly by using other words to modify the names of the colors.  When the paragraphs are ready, students read them out and ask fellow students to guess the mood that the piece was meant to portray.

Here are the ideas of one pair of my students.  The color cards drawn were: Orange, Yellow, and Brown. The color phrases created were: “Mud Orange,” “Washed-out Yellow,” and “Cockroach Brown.” Can you guess the mood card they’d selected?  (Answer: “Dislike”)

Hues: Categorizing Color Terms

This activity is dictionary-based and it is intended for intermediate or advanced learners.  The key tool is a healthy list of descriptive color terms.  Terms like these can easily be found in the paint aisles of home improvement stores.  Some discretion is required here, however, since terms like “Death by Chocolate” and “Gypsy Bloom” are clearly meant to be catchy, not accurate.

Here’s the procedure: students are given a jumbled list of color terms.  Each term includes a word or phrase that is most likely unfamiliar to them.  They are asked to categorize the terms by related basic (or primary) color.  “Heirloom Lace” and “Parchment Paper,” for example, can be put together under “White.” “Wilted Chives” and “Parsley Sprig” may be placed under “Green.”  “Pot Clay” and “Trekkers’ Tan” would probably go under “Brown.”  To their benefit, most students consult a dictionary several times in order to complete the task.

Color and Culture: Researching Color Symbolism

Advanced learners often enjoy tasks similar in difficulty level to those assigned to students who are native speakers.  Research-based projects are of that type.  Students can, for example, be asked to investigate the symbolism behind certain colors in various cultures.  More specifically, they may be assigned to research “Green (or Blue, or White, etc.) in the Flags of the World,” or “The Colors of Weddings across the Globe.”  One plus to this kind of project is the necessity for students to locate authoritative sources, and on occasion those may take the form of a fellow student who has a different cultural background.

Any colorful thoughts?

P. S. I’m off to paint my toenails….. Happy summer!