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Category Archives: english

>Self-correction, except for typos or some “absent-minded” errors, is very difficult for students because if they knew it was wrong they wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Peer-correction isn’t fun and it is difficult for students to fully trust their partner’s evaluation. The question that puzzles many teachers is what is the best way to help students to improve in areas where they make a lot of mistakes?

The obvious answer is teacher-correction. But is teacher-correction effective? Recent research shows that students do not make effective use of teacher-correction. The teacher would like to imagine the student takes his corrected paper to a quite place, sits down and pulls out a dictionary and grammar book and carefully goes over the corrections. But in fact, most students only check to see how much “red” is on the paper and then file it away in their book bag never to be looked at again. Much of the teacher’s laborious work of careful correction is actually time wasted.

If self-correction, peer-correction and teacher-correction are not effective, then what is the best way to involve the student in the writing process in a corrective way? How can the student be put in a position to notice grammar or writing in a way that interacts with his previous knowledge and develops a deeper and clearer grasp of English?

I have been doing research in a new method I developed at a university and at multinational businesses where I taught managers and businessmen. I call it Teamwriting. It helps students to benefit from peers, helps students to learn not only from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others and makes the most economical and efficient use of the students’ and the teacher’s time.

I divide the blackboard space into vertical sections large enough to allow someone to stand in front of one section and large enough to contain the writing task (about one-meter wide). Then I divide the class into pairs or teams, assigning each set of students to a part of the board.

The writing tasks are everything from brainstorming a subject to writing a paragraph to writing an essay (write small). This works quite well with a class of about 20 but I’ve only been able to do it with a class of 40 when we had blackboards on two walls of the classroom.

Sometimes each group gets a different topic to work on or sometimes it is the same and they compete with the other groups. I get the whole class out of their seats and up to the board. Usually one student will take up the chalk while the rest of the team (from one to three others) offers suggestions and corrections during the writing process. I find this gets the students intimately involved with the language process and able to benefit from the help of some of their classmates – thus the peer-learning factor.

After the writing is done, usually terminated by a set period of time, I will examine each writing sample, one-by-one, with the entire class looking on. First, I will ask the class to offer corrections. The class really focuses on this activity. You can see every eye examining the sample trying to see if it is correct or not. Some speak up. Others may have ideas about the writing even though they may not voice them. But they’re all involved. Then I will offer my corrections, if any.

Some of my classrooms are equipped with AV equipment, essentially a video camera and projector, which allow the projection of books or papers. If the classroom has this sort of equipment the students do not need to write at the blackboard but can do their teamwriting on a piece of paper that the teacher can project and correct before the class.

Teamwriting seems to be more effective than personally correcting individual writings or conferencing with students, and especially so when considering the economy of time. It allows every student to test their ideas about the language, it enables immediate feedback and is a quick, easy and engaging way to “learn from the mistakes of others”.

>Maria Spelleri – Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

I have used developmental reading texts with EAP pre-college students with success. These books are written to teach L1 students who have tested and placed as “weaker” readers. These books focus on becoming an active reader, using a method like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) annotating strategies, and text book attack skills like identifying the main idea, types of support, purpose, tone, words that signal organizational patterns, bias, drawing conclusions, etc.

The one I’m using this semester in one class is called “Reading Across the Disciplines” by McWhorter. It has only authentic text book sections and chapters. Another, slightly lower level one is Advancing College Reading Skills from Townsend Press. These could only be used by high intermediate level and above ESL students.

I have found that some ESL reading texts seem to just read and test for comprehension without directly teaching the tricks for staying focused when the interest level is low, or how to change reading strategies with different kinds of reading, so I love these books that analyze what, exactly, good readers subconsciously do.

>By Erica Hughes – Tallahassee, Florida

In my opinion giving a participation grade is basically a way to motivate students to speak in class. It’s a way to encourage informal, spontaneous speech and give students “credit” for it.

I have started a system in my more advanced classes where the students receive a page of about 15 or so little squares that say “I participated” on them. The write their names on the squares and cut them up. Then every time we are having a discussion in class, and they make a contribution, they pass up on card. At the end of 1 or 2 weeks, I count the cards and return them to each student.

That is a way for me to quantify and defend the participation grade I give them, but more importantly the student who don’t usually participate, because they don’t see the benefit of making a comment in class, get immediate “credit” for their comments. It can get a bit cumbersome in big classes, and of course there are still a few students who always participate and others who never want to, but I have stuck with it.

>By Dick Tibbets – University of Macau, Macau

A teacher asked: “Did anyone find their background prepared them well for teaching in China – especially for the first time?”

It is the knowledge that is important and organised courses are probably the easiest way to get some of this knowledge. The letters [MA, Phd], well, they’re just for the CV.

If you take a course then you are accepting someone else’s syllabus and, to some extent, someone else’s ideas of how you should use that knowledge. You just have to hope that they know what they are doing. After all, this is what your students have to do. You are their ‘someone else’.

If you design your own course of self study then you need to know which topics will be useful to you. It can work but you are a little more in the dark.

As for my background, yes it’s helped me all along. When I left computer programming all those years ago, the post grad cert ed I took really did help prepare me for the classroom and once I got there a series of courses by Rinvolucri helped even more. The experience I gained over the next 10 years teaching various types and levels of English to learners from some 70 or so countries then fed into my MA and both the experience and the ‘extra’ knowledge from the MA helped when I came to Hong Kong and Macau. I’d say that the experience is the most valuable part but it was those bursts of learning (I won’t call it training as a fair bit was independent) on courses that put the experience into contexts and made it all much more useful. Teaching in this part of the world IS harder than teaching in, say, Spain or Germany. Knowledge based experience was worthwhile for me.

>By George

To accurately test my students, I give them oral exams which are recorded on tape. These exams have two parts. The first part is Q&A covering things we have covered in class. They almost always have a memorized response for the basic questions. I tend to ignore these.

I focus on their responses to the follow-up questions. For example, I’ve told them that we might discuss their grandparents, so I might ask, “Are your grandparents alive?” “How many children did they have?” How many boys and how many girls.? “Do you know your aunt’s and uncles?” “O.K let’s talk about your youngest aunt” Here is where they begin to breakdown because they didn’t think to prepare for a discussion about their youngest aunt.

I’ve also begun ba asking about a favorite middle-school teacher and them focus on the teacher they liked the least. Once I gotten to the real subject I’ll begin with what is the persons name, age, etc. and gradually lead to more complex questions.

Then I start looking for syntactic, grammatical and vocabulary failure. In many cases the exam has ended in 2 or 3 minutes and some have gone as long as 30 or 40 minutes. In all cases I use subjects they are familiar with. Family, School, Friends and Hometowns. If I knew more about sports I would dwell on that. I have been know to ask a student to explain what a mid-fielder, a striker or a goalie does if they play those positions in football or the role of guards, the center or forwards in basketball. I’ve even asked guitar playing students to explain how to play a particular song. In short they give me a guitar lesson.

To test for middle school, determine what is grade appropriate and start from
there. Again, start simple and progress to the complex. At what level do they abandon an answer or the topic entirely. The second part is a short oral reading which incorporates most of the english phonemes. I sometimes give the samples to practice with but they get a new reading for the exam. The must read cold.

Also, I’ve just begun developing a set of reading passages tha will begin at about fifth or sixth grade level for native speakers using Flesch-Kincaide RGL measures and which become progressively more advanced. This way I can determine the level at which they begin to break down, identified by their rate of word abandonment. In the first year I will be mainly concerned with phonetic identification and production. As we progress, stress and intonation will become more of a factor.

Oral exams can be quantified, but I don’t like using them as the basis for a grade. I tell the school that grades shoud be considered as a report of a student’s speaking level and how much they have improved.

In my classes, the only one’s who acutally fail are those who only show up for exams and the rare film. Those who come to class but aren’t there count as absent. Our school weeds them out pretty quick. Last term eight of my students flunked out including two who were pretty good english speakers. Six were expelled for cheating on Chinese teacher’s exams.

>Tony Lee – Shengda College, Zhengzhou, Henan, China

My marking of the first half semester exam last year was a disaster of sorts. Totally inexperienced, I was far more subjective than I should have been but the kids seemed satisfied with their placings. The marks were not a problem because another techer with zero grading experience of any sort scored the whole class between 90 and 100 so to make it fair we had to do the same.

Next exam I used a ‘proper’ grading rubric and slavishly referred to it while listening to each member of the groups of three. It still resulted in a bunched up result – spread of 10%.out of a possible spread of 40%. Changed the rubric again and this last lot of results was just as closely bunched.

I know that you can turn them into any spread you like but that is a bad way of correcting my own testing “incompetance”. My problem is I lack the killer instinct of a practiced examiner I find it impossible to nit-pick to the extent required and then ruthelessly apply the marking scale.

As others have commented — perhaps with oral it does not matter quite so much if the ability to speak is what we are testing because provided the students are given at least a couple of minutes to prepare they all do a pretty good job of speaking (I see them in 3’s and each student has a different topic to talk on and they have had 10 minutes to prepare. After each has spoken I get involved in a general discussion on some safe personal topic and gauge how well they cope).

The problem is I do not really test their ability to cope with a typical staff meeting or questioning from an audience or even a job interview situation. I have had interview sessions in the classroom and the typical result is that neither side has a clue what the other is saying.they are so busy worrying about working out what they are going to say that they have nothing to spare for listening what the other side is saying — a situation many native speakers also find themselves in. No answers from me I’m afraid – just the same old problems.

Our limited experience with failures here and a bit of insider info from the Chinese teachers leads me to the conclusion that there are no real failures, just those who just scrape through.

>By Charles Schroen

Here are some thoughts to add to the discussion of ESL students in college, with apologies for length.

More years ago than I care to admit, I started teaching in EFL in the Peace Corps. The last 12 years of my teaching career I have been affiliated with an ESL program that is part of a two-year college. For the last seven of those 12 years I have been teaching full-time in that program. This has included summer teaching every year.

I care a lot about the progress my students make, and in many cases I find that I care more than they do. As a teacher, what should you do in that case? Without internal motivation to be better learners, how far can former ESL students (or any students for that matter) get in higher education in another language and in another culture? Let us not forget that many students we get were not successful in educational institutions (K-12) in their home countries.

What makes us think that they all should succeed in higher education in another country and in another language? What makes us think that the road for them should be smooth and that teachers should make allowances? What makes us think that teaches should care? I don?t know anyone in a two-year college who is not overworked. The more overworked we are the more difficult it is to care about all of the ridiculous things that administrators can come up with that they think everyone should care about, which makes it even more difficult to attend to students.

A few other questions to ponder: Across the U.S., what percentage of students born and raised in the U.S. who take courses in a two-year college ever get a degree? What percentage of the world?s population ever attempts to enroll in higher education in another country and in another language? And of that percentage, what portion does not succeed? These numbers will give us an idea of the enormity of the task that our students face. It is precisely that enormity that will indicate the percentage of success that we might expect.

As teachers, what can we do to be truly of assistance to these students? First and foremost, they need to be independent learners. We can talk about how to learn; we can have them practice so that they show us they can do those things; and we can be the best learner in the room by example. I like the last one because implicit messages are far more profound than explicit ones. Language is our subject, but learning is our discipline. Students who are good learners will succeed; those who are not will struggle. Good learners will persist through the struggle to find that success is born in the struggle. Use language to help them to become acquainted with these principles and they will become learners for life. Their education, like yours, goes on far beyond the walls of any college or university.

Keep learning.

>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.