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Monthly Archives: July 2007

>By Ross McBride – Canada

We created an academic prep ESL class for career colleges. We took our ESL students and had them audit classes in the program they would enter after the prep class within the first 2 weeks. The students had a real in-class experience where they had to take notes and then report back
to the ESL class.

All the ESL students were shocked at the speed, vocabulary, amount of reading, homework etc etc. They worked harder in the prep class as they realized how high the bar was for English language skills.


>By Maria Spelleri – Manatee Community College, US

I teach at a community college and often have some of my former students who are now in mainstream college courses stop by my office to complain about their classes. They complain that the teachers talk so quickly, that they have so much reading to do, that it’s hard to work in groups with native speakers, that the teacher tells jokes they don’t understand, that they feel marginalized, etc.

I see the situation from both sides: the side of the instructor with a lecture hall of 60 students and maybe 5 or 6 former ESL students in the bunch AND the side of the English language learner overwhelmed in the unsheltered language community. I have lots of opportunity to advise and commiserate with the students who come to my office, but now I would like to address the instructors. Some things are obvious, like watching out for cultural bias in tests, writing new, specialized terminology on the board, or providing a lecture outline or agenda that students can use to help them take notes. But it really is a delicate balancing act of aiding the non-native speaker without singling this student out in any way or having different standards for the student, and the more I think about it, I wonder what, if anything, I can advise the instructors to do!

(Instructors often feel, by the way, that if the student passed the entry exam for college level courses, then the student should be on a linguistic par in every respect with the native speaking student and that they, the instructors, shouldn’t have to do anything.)

For those of you who teach students who then go into mainstream courses, or for anyone with ideas on the topic, what tips would you give other instructors for helping these non-native speakers do well in their courses?

>By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui Gongye Daxue, Anhui Province, China

When I came to teach here, although I‘d been a speaking test examiner for more than 10 years (for UCLES exams) I‘d actually never had to set an oral English exam before. I’d taught always in situations where the students were either taking no exam or were working towards an external exam. So if I did have to set tests, they were very much on the mock-exam model.

I’d never taught a modern language within a university/college setting where this was the student’s main subject (major). Although I had a short training specific to coming to this post in China, provided by the NGO who sponsor my post, I came with some sort of assumption that there would be a syllabus, there would be designated attainment targets (although not necessarily expressed in that way). Well, you all know the reality here.

I was timetabled for first year Oral English classes who were provided with one of the ORAL ENGLISH WORKSHOP series of books. If anything, I found that was worse than arriving with nothing. It implied someone somewhere thought the content of this course book was what my students should be mastering.

Anyway, after a semester of muddling along and getting some sort of impression about what might be possible, I realised that the lowest of the UCLES EFL exams I’d been a speaking test examiner for was probably within the reach of everyone in the class. I’d been warned about the tradition of everyone in the class passing the exams. Remember I’d done those UCLES tests for years.

I could remember the type of tasks set in the exam, and I produced a parallel. Those UCLES tests are taken in pairs, but I chose to give each student an individual exam – partly as a public relations exercise about oral exams within my department. I was interlocuter as well as assessor.

So I recorded all the exams and marked them from the tapes. I was right in that all my students were capable of attaining that first level in the UCLES hierarchy, which means that in a grander scheme of things they had all achieved the Council of Europe Basic User level. The descriptors for this (in summary) are:

Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very personal and family information, shopping, local geography, environment).

Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.

Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters of immediate need.

At the end of the first semester all my students could do that – although a good number could only just do it with a very sympathetic interlocutor. Others walked through it. Which gave me a good spread of marks. And on that basis I decided to model the exam at the end of the second semester on the next level up (which I’d also done examining work for). By that stage my classes had included a fair amount of group work, and so the exam was done in small, randomly selected groups of 4, not including me. This year I’ve done lots more group work, but am actually planning to give one-to-one exams at this stage instead – partly for comparison.

So my decisions were based on a combination of what was within my own capabilities as well as the students. I’m not an expert on language testing. My only teacher training is a CELTA, and in the past when I’ve had to devise and construct college tests it was done under the supervision of a very experienced head of department. But also I’m not into re-inventing the wheel.

The Council of Europe stuff – which relates to ALL the languages taught in Europe (and that includes teaching non-European languages) – is the result of mega-input from experts over heaven knows how many years now. I feel I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could devise any better sort of structure to work within – so I’m using it. I do also like it – I find it clear and easy to get my head around.

I’m also interested to find that now I’ve got hold of an English translation of the syllabus for our English & Education majors, which details Band 2, 4 and 6 targets, I’m starting to be able to relate them meaningfully to the band descriptors I’m used to using. I’ve come across this syllabus too late to affect how I teach and examine this year, but it’s certainly going to help me next year.

It also makes me realise that we tend to see the Band exam stuff from the student-obsession perspective, while underlying it there is the same sort of work I’ve been used to being aware of in a European context. Here, I realise I see the students’ type of understanding – the seeing only the tip of the iceberg – because I‘m not included in my department as a colleague with access to formal and informal discussion about all this.

From my students I have an impression of teaching that’s come down to a lowest common denominator sort of level influenced by the need to get students through those exams to allow them to graduate. But I think I can also see where my own college department is failing to meet the specifications in that syllabus, both in intention and reality. Which in itself is interesting as this is a department that an international NGO thought warranted support in its development.

>By Tony Gilbert

Before we came to China, we spent quite a lot of money to buy ESL books in Australia as lesson/teaching resources. Feel like a bit of a fool now! Today we visited the Xin Hua Bookstore in Nanning and found some of the same Cambridge series books for about 15% of the price we paid in Australia. And lots of other books besides. For an investment of A$25 (a quarter of what we spent in Australia) we have quadrupled our ESL bookshelf. So, my advice is don’t bother to bring a lot of ESL books to China, unless you are going to teach in deepest Tibet or somewhere.

>By Karen Stanley – Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

One effective way of having students ask questions, I’ve found, is to sit down/stand in the corner, not saying anything, and simply wait for the students to say something. This is often after I’ve explained something a bit complicated, and expect that it will take students time to absorb what I’ve said before they can even figure out if they have questions.

Sometimes I will ask *them* a question and wait. Once in a while, no one ever says *anything*, and after waiting quite a long time (I’ve learned to wait quite patiently), I finally take pity on them and begin myself. Of course, I don’t deal with classes of all Chinese students, and don’t know how that kind of waiting would work in that type of classroom.

I have thought about using the following technique for dealing with student questions (I heard about it in a presentation some time ago), but have never actually *tried* it. I keep thinking I should (someday, of course).

The teacher hands out index cards (or small pieces of paper, since I understand index cards are hard to come by in China) at the beginning of class. During the class, students have to write down a question about something the teacher explains during the class. The students turn in the questions as they leave class. The teacher can then go through them and use them at the beginning of the next class.

>By Daniel T. Parker

This probably won’t work for every class, but I recently rediscovered a solution to a problem I have about not getting questions from my college students.

No matter how many times I ask for questions during a lesson, I rarely receive any questions, even when I can tell that one or several students are puzzled by something. I understand that part of it is shyness concerning asking a question in front of their classmates.

Usually, I hold my classes right up until the “ten-til” mark, but a couple of weeks ago, I finished my prepared lesson about 15 minutes early. Instead of engaging the students in small talk or time-killing, I just said, ah, go on and get out of here, enjoy the extra time.

Wham. I was surrounded by five students wanting to ask questions. Since I hadn’t waited until the “ten-til” mark to dismiss, they now had time to ask their questions AND get to their next class.

I remembered this having happened before, so I’ve tried a little experiment this week. I’ve been planning to end my classes 15 or 20 minutes early. In my conversation classes, all but one of my classes (and it was the night-time class) saw students coming up not to ask questions, but just to have conversation (hooray!). In both of my composition classes so far this week, I’ve ended up fielding several questions each time, and actually staying in class longer than I would have if I’d dismissed at my regular time.

Again, it probably won’t work for highschool/middleschool classes, or maybe not even with every college class, but it seems to be getting the job done — now, at least — for me.

>Jennifer Wallace – Anhui University of Technology, Anhui Province, China

This week I’m going to finish off the activity in progress which led to individuals coming to the front of the class to speak – but that may be the end of it for this class. Last year I had one group that was so bad at group work – they’d sit totally silent! – I ended up giving it up completely with that class.

However, in contrast, with other classes I do include individuals coming to the front of the class, plus we record it – and then we listen to the recording – and I give feedback from the recording, which the students are saying is really good!

One of the reasons I’ve asked students to speak at the front of the class is that with this one poor class, with both pairwork and group work they often do’nt do, or do it pathetically poorly. Knowing a number of people will then follow on by speaking to the whole of the class does seem to function as some sort of incentive to use the pair/group work as a rehersal – but I’m far from sure of the value of any of this.

One teacher described his use of [throwing] chalk in maintaining classroom order. I could never do this. Many, many years ago, as a classroom assistant in a state school in the UK, a board rubber in my hand, I turned round quickly and crossly to reprimand a student. The board rubber flew out of my hand and cracked the child across the nose. I was lucky I wasn’t accused of deliberately assaulting the child – if it happened now in a UK classroom I probably would be. Thowing ANYTHING at a student ANYWHERE is not acceptable, and I’m not going to do that in China for behaviour that doesn’t even start to equal the problems many UK teachers face on a daily basis.

I’m being paid by a UK-based international NGO to contribute to the general up-grading of the teaching standards in this department, as well as teach English. My classes are meant to be models of successful modern methodology!

>By David Tillyer – Westchester Community College, New York, USA

For the past few semesters I’ve been having my Level 4 class create their own vocabulary lists each week. Their assignment from Monday to Wednesday is to come up with two or three words that they have encountered in the past week.

On Wednesday they each put their words on the blackboard. I try to limit it to 20 words as more would seem unmanageable. Each person is responsible for giving the class a definition. I then follow up with any further explanation that is needed.

I then use crossword creator to put together a crossword puzzle for the last task in our Friday class. Because all the words are customized, this provides an opportunity to make some of the clues refer to our class. This increases the “ownership” of the new words. The students enjoy and look forward to this activity and often try to work some of the words into their journals in the following week (not a mandate from me).

This is a very useful exercise and has many positive consequences. Some of the negatives are:

1. I’m on the spot on Wednesday to define words off the top of my head–not a new experience, but not easy.

2. some students participate more willingly than others– not a new experience either

3. some of the words that appear have low frequency and some of them are irrelevant or just silly. This is our word list for this week: flustered, profile, detach, glance. homey, rim, ballpark figure, Samaritan, cunning, cunning, fragile, plot, blame, explicit, swallow, bless, tease, homemade, courtship, woo, legend.

These are not words I would have chosen and I’m not sure that they are useful words (yes, ‘courtship’ and ‘woo’ came from the same student – I don’t know what he’s been reading!), however, they are their words and they like the idea of putting together the list each week.

>By Lida Baker – Los Angeles, California, USA

A discussion about the Direct Method takes me back more than 25 years, when I was a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. We were required to study a language we hadn’t learned previously, and I picked French. The text, written by Pucciani and Hamel, followed a grammar syllabus and employed the authors’ version of the Direct Method, which went like this:

Each day the teacher began the class by greeting us and making small talk for a minute or two. (I should point out that every word uttered by the teacher was in French, starting on day 1.) She then presented the day’s teaching focus by embedding the grammar in a question, which she directed at a student in the class. The student would answer the question to the best of his ability, and the teacher would instruct him to write it on the board verbatim. We were not allowed to help or correct what the student wrote on the board. In fact, the question-and-answer process continued while the student was writing. Very quickly we learned to focus on what the teacher was saying, not on what the person at the board was writing.

The teacher would repeat this question-and-answer, write-the-answer-on-the-board sequence five times. Each question would have different vocabulary but the same target structure. When there were five sentences on the board, the questions and answers would stop. The teacher would call on students to read the sentences on the board and state whether they were correct or incorrect. If the sentence was incorrect, the teacher asked the student to correct it. If the student was unable to do so, the teacher called on someone else or corrected the error herself.

After going over the five sentences on the board, we would start a new question-and answer set with a slightly different focus from the one just completed (for example, the target verb might be different).

If this procedure sounds tedious, let me assure you that it was not. Student interest and participation were always very high. I attribute this to a number of factors:

1. The method was highly interactive.

2. Students got instant feedback on whether their sentences were correct or incorrect.

3. Alternating between aural-oral and board work gave students time to rest and reflect on what they were learning.

4. New language was presented in small, manageable chunks.

I recall being frustrated from time to time by the inductive presentation of the grammar. I am a “rule following” type of language learner, and it annoyed me when I couldn’t find the rule. In those cases I would see the teacher after class and she would explain it to me in English.

That summer I traveled to France and, to my astonishment, was able to perform basic operations like ordering food, making a hotel reservation, and asking directions entirely in French. The method really worked. I have used it, along with other teaching techniques, to teach ESL grammar for more than 20 years.

However, I don’t know how useful this version of the direct method will be for those who teach in a place like Japan. My French teachers were able to speak French exclusively because there is enormous overlap between French and English vocabulary and syntax. And of course the two languages have the same writing system.

>Maria Spelleri – Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

Using a crossword program is a convenient way to generate vocab practice from student-selected words.

I really want to add student-selected words to the prescribed academic vocabulary that comes in our text books, but my problem has always been coming up with enough practice material to make it worthwhile. A crossword program is fairly easy to get, but what to do for the next in-class practice with the words, and the one after that?

I know I have spent HOURS making cloze sentences, matching, and other worksheet activities for student-selected words, usually taking sentences from dictionaries and google “concordances”. Since I teach in an academic program, I also have to create tests that incorporate the student-selected words. (Teachers who do this know how time-consuming it is. Vocab practice development is such a drain that one of the first questions our instructors ask a vocab text publisher is “Does the text come with a test generator?”)

If all this is just ONE small part of ONE class, how do teachers manage this?