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Monthly Archives: March 2009

By Erlyn Baack – ITESM, Campus Queretaro, Mexico

Here are two of my recommendations, both short essays, four pages and three pages.

For many years, I’ve used TWO essays for every advanced composition class I’ve taught (first semester, university level). I cannot remember a time when I haven’t used them, actually. My classes are for Mexican students who are supposed to have 550 although some have only 530 TOEFLs. The first essay is Chapter Two from an old book that is out of print and absolutely impossible to get these days unless you can find it in a university library or at (for $250.00 USD (not my copy; I have my own 🙂 )).

The book itself is Teaching ESL Composition, Principles and Techniques by Jane B. Hughey, et. al. (Newbury House 1983). I bought my own copy during graduate studies, and I would definitely like to see a second printing of this book because I’ve never seen a book thoroughly cover all aspects of teaching English Composition as this one does.

I use chapter two from this book, available here, In four pages, the authors basically begin /Why Write?/ by noting a dichotomy between two types of writing (meaningless and meaningful), and then they go on to write about four reasons for writing. The chapter is not only excellent information for students who can easily give examples for each reason from their own writing, but the ORGANIZATION of the chapter is much the same as the organization required of university level writing students.

The second essay I use every semester is from the book, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya by a the Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa. Thiong’o, now a distinguished professor of Literature at the University of California at Irvine. His website is at The title of his essay is just three pages, Writing for Peace, a paper he wrote during the Ronald Reagan administration, a paper in which he discussed the economic, political, and cultural exploitation of Kenya at that time.

Well, obviously, third-world readers (or, politically correct, “developing-world” readers) can see parallels between Kenya then and their own countries now. (One boy I had taught in high school, for example, was very political–active in the student government, active in political activities at both the city and state level, and he had even gone to the US, Washington, DC, and met Colin Powell, had his picture taken with and signed by Colin Powell, wrote to Colin Powell after 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq–and after reading this essay during his first year in the university, he asked, “Erlyn, do you have any more essays like this?” Writing for Peace is available at with the permission of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

I recommend both these essays, not only because their content is exactly relevant for first semester university students (either in a multi-cultural US class or a foreign class as mine are), but also because their are easily accessible for advanced (or even less than “advanced”) non-native speakers of English. It is easy for students to relate to both these essays. Finally, both are about writing and writers and their obligations as writers.

I have a few other essays I could recommend but none more highly than these two.

By Dick Tibbetts – Macau University, Macau, China

It might be worth considering what Scrabble can teach and what Scrabblers can learn.

Players can learn vocabulary from their peers and peers have to define words when challenged. I’d ban dictionaries for finding words and use something reputable like the advanced learners dic. as an authority for judging.

Scrabble games with NS are used to aid spelling but this isn’t so useful with Chinese learners because they learn the spelling before they learn pronunciation and before they are truly familiar with meaning and usage. NS who can’t spell often have a wide vocabulary and Scrabble gives them an incentive to hone their spelling.

Scrabble can give practice in the function of challeng- ing and querying:
“Hey, I’ve never seen that before.”
“I don’t think that’s in the dictionary”
These qualified challenges are useful subtleties in the art of argument.

Scrabble gives learners opportunities to use some of the meta-language of dictionaries in a natural situation. They can challenge by saying “That’s a loan word/archaic/slang etc.” I’m not sure how useful this is but it is there and it does happen.

(Photo: 45 college students, working in teams, playing Scrabble in Guangzhou, China. The board is projected onto a screen. Photo by Dave Kees)

Examinations are approached as if the pupils were enemies who must be attacked by surprise. All this discourages young people from energetically taking charge of their own moral, intellectual and physical education”. Mao was also greatly concerned by the health of school pupils. Immediately after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, he wrote twice to the Minister of Education, Ma Xulun, pressing for the schools to be given the following instructions: ‘Health first, studies second’. He returned to that theme on many occasions: ‘We must ensure that young people are in good health, study well and work hard’. A balance must be struck between studies on the one hand, and, on the other hand, relaxation, rest and sleep.

By Bob Gilmour – Programme Manager for In-Sessional English Language Programme, INTO Newcastle University, England

I read this, Teacher Most Likely To Succeed, with interest. Having not seen the New Yorker article before, it is interesting to see that they identified the same points as us.

Two years ago I took over the In-sessional English support classes here at Newcastle University (roughly about 70 weekly classes and 800 to 1400 class places in each Semester).

In the non-credit classes which are not part of students degree programmes, there has always been a problem of dropping attendance towards the ends of the Semesters. We started collecting online feedback from all students who had registered including those who stopped attending. We noted that there were particular teachers who commanded much higher attendances in their classes and analysed the feedback for those classes and talked to those teachers to see what made them different. We also compared that with feedback from other classes where attendance dropped.

What seemed to be the main issues? Engaging and challenging students; humour; taking the class seriously; passion; individual feedback. What was really interesting is that a less experienced, younger teacher is just as likely to be successful in terms of attendance and student feedback as the more experienced and higher qualified teachers. However, there are also limits and, in my experience, the limits seem to be that students expect to be taught by teachers with qualifications equivalent or higher to their own.

We then fed this back into teacher training and awareness raising sessions and attendance across the Semester improved significantly this year (although there’s still some way to go!).

Bob Gilmour website

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

Guessing meaning from context is a valuable skill to develop, but so is how to use dictionaries properly. I feel there is a place for bilingual dictionaries, learners’ monolingual dictionaries, and native speaker monolingual dictionaries. Of course, just as you may need to teach the skills for guessing from context to some learners, you may need to teach them how to use dictionaries in an appropriate way.

Just the other day, in a key sentence in an advanced reading assignment, I asked students what word X meant. They provided me with four or five different possibilities, ALL of which made sense in the context, but NONE of which conveyed the meaning that was key to understanding the author’s perspective.

I will never forget the time, now many years (20, maybe?) ago, when a key word in a paragraph was AFLOAT. One good guesser-from-context with a knowledge of prefixes (taught in class) assumed that the A- represented “without, not” rather than “in a specified state or condition.” Nothing in the context (a real article from a magazine) indicated which meaning the prefix had, yet misunderstanding the meaning changed the answers to several questions on the test. That was the moment when I stopped forbidding dictionary use on tests (or in any type of reading assignment).

As a side note, I do encourage students to underline unknown words as they read rather than looking them up. I tell them to finish reading the whole item first, and then go back afterward to see which ones they feel they still need or want to look up.

When I am writing something, and I need a word that I can’t remember or never knew, a bilingual dictionary is invaluable. If it’s just that the word is on the tip of my tongue, a quick glance in my bilingual dictionary is often rewarded by – oh, that’s it! If I don’t see a word I know, I will sometimes use a corpus to pull examples of the word to see how people are using it in a sentence/paragraph.

Of course, you have to be careful, and I often double check a word by looking it up in the opposite direction. Also, obviously, some of this is only when I have enough time, but it can be valuable in building my vocabulary skills – especially when there are no native speakers around to help.

In reading situations, a bilingual dictionary can be helpful when I want to ensure that I have understood something correctly – bilingual dictionaries are much quicker than then having to decode the meaning in the same language as the original text.

Learner dictionaries I find especially useful when I want examples of how to use a word and don’t have time to search (or perhaps access at that moment) corpora for examples that fit the way I am considering using the word.

Monolingual native speaker dictionaries are most helpful (for me) when the word is at a level of knowledge such that it does not appear even in more extensive learner dictionaries.

Of course, there will always be vocabulary that can’t be guessed from context OR found in a dictionary!