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By Warren Ediger – California, USA

“One of my early mentors told me that leadership is “knowing what needs to be done, knowing why that is important, and knowing how to bring the appropriate resources to bear on the situation at hand.”

Helping my adult ESL students in the classroom and online tutoring students (mostly professionals) understand “why” has paid rich dividends.

Trelease, Krashen, and others have referred to the “home run” book – that book that is so engaging that it triggers the beginning of the reading habit. Your involvement with the students, to help them find that book (maybe not on the first try), may also contribute to accomplishing the goal you seek. See here – http://sdkrashen.com/articles/homerun2/homerun2.pdf

The “home run” phenomenon is one reason I tend to use popular fiction rather than graded readers. It’s easy enough to help an adult student learn what is best for him/her and the quality of the writing is often better. There is a reason it’s called “popular” fiction.”

I live in La Habra (southern), California. I am no longer doing any classroom teaching. My time is divided between writing materials for international ELls who are working independently to improve their English and Internet-based tutoring, primarily with professionals and students preparing for the TOEFL. I will also be branching into speaking/presenting and, possibly, consultation.

Read more from Warren Ediger at http://www.successfulenglish.com/

By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau, China

This is a fascinating study and so much rings true that I go along with all that I’ve managed to read so far.

On the Chinese side there is the view of education as the ingesting of information and lack of emphasis on the synthesis of information to create and advance. There is the xenophobia that assists the belief that one can teach a neutral English that allows learners to absorb information but not evaluate any of the values and attitudes associated with that information. There is the view of teaching as a job that is done between certain times with little thought of being more than a figurehead in front of the class and there is the inability of many teachers, in spite of official statements of aims, to move beyond the stage of reading the textbook to their students – pure information transmission that makes no attempt to involve learners and, when students already have the textbook, makes no attempt to come to terms with a new reality. This isn’t a problem of Chinese teachers alone; I’ve come across plenty of Western presenters at conferences who read from the handouts they have given their audience while displaying the same words with Powerpoint on the screen behind them. But experience in Chinese schools and colleges lead me to believe that “teacher holds the book” is a very common scene in the classroom.

The article also brings to the fore the inability of the Chinese administration to evaluate teaching except in terms that have little to do with learning and more to do with time keeping. This causes problems with foreign teachers especially because they tend to fall outside the criteria used by administrators to judge teachers and there is in consequence a bewilderment among the Chinese when it turns out that inadequate teachers have been employed but the administration is unsure even how to judge their inadequacy. The reaction described in the article is typically xenophobic – a shrug of the shoulders followed by “well, they aren’t Chinese”.

I read the potted descriptions of some foreign teachers. I may have missed some but of those I read none had much in the way of TEFL qualifications or TEFL experience. The teachers described had various degrees of enthusiasm for their work and various amounts of previous classroom experience but, in the absence of any real syllabus or teaching aims, they lacked the knowledge to design and implement effective courses. I’d say the university desperately needed experienced TEFL teachers with post graduate qualifications both theoretical and practical. A team with a few TEFL MAs and DELTAS coupled with at least 10 years solid TEFL experience for each member might be able to put togetehr an effective program, though the administration might well then swipe it aside as the administration would be unable to comprehend such a program.

I will read the whole thing more carefully because I want to find signs for hope for the future. Many of the views and attitudes quoted in the article were identical to those expressed by Chinese emperors, diplomats and officials over the last three or four centuries and I believe it is these attitudes that changed China from a from an innovative civilisation with a technology well in advance of the West, a country that came within a whisker of starting an industrial revolution centuries before Britain and Europe, into a country where thinking and change are seen as risky occupations. There must be a way forward but so often I see Chinese in authority struggling to keep the status quo and effectively managing to turn the future into the past.

http://www.agelastos.com/disengagement/326-362.pdf

The ‘home page’ for the complete text can be found at:
http://www.agelastos.com/disengagement

By Jennifer Wallace
Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, China

Lots of us are trying to develop tests appropriate for the situations we’re teaching in. One document I’d recommend, because I’ve found it enormously helpful, is the Council of Europe Frameowrk, which is on the Internet, as a downloadable pdf file (for which you need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your machine). I like the document for several reasons.

The work behind it is the work of a large number of experts across Europe, who’ve developed one framework to cover the teaching (and testing) of any of the languages taught and used in Europe – which of course includes a variety of non-European languages. In other words, the whole thing is language independent. I understand it to be very much a reflection of the most up to date understanding we have of measuring language performance. The particular document in question is the latest version, the result of many revisions.

The document addresses the fundamental questions in all this, and looks at every dimension conceivable – so I can use it as a basis for testing speaking, listening, reading, anything. It looks at things on general levels and on detailed specific levels – so you can home in on the level that is relevant for you at the moment.

Because this framework is as comprehensive as it is, it’s let me think up a variety of activities for the form of my tests, activities that reflect the students experiences and what they’ve done in a course. But at the same time it’s kept me very much on track, enabling me to see clearly what level our target it.

Because it’s not language-specific, you can test yourself (there’s one section on self-testing) for your Chinese to see how this sort of approach works.

Someone also commented about examiners’ ability not to be swayed – well, I think what allows me to be more objective is using a number of scales and criteria when I test. For example, this semester my college end-of-first-year students will get some marks for pronunciation (because we’ve done quite a bit of pronunciation work on their Oral English classes), some marks for fluency, some marks for grammar, some marks for vocabulary/lexis and some marks for coherence. I’m also thinking about including some marks for how they deal with problems – repair work, asking for help, paraphasing, miming, using fillers to gain thinking time and to fill a silence, and the suchlike – what’s called strategic competence. My criteria for vocab/lexis and grammar will not be whether they demonstrate use of anything in particular, but in how effective they are at communicating successfully – do their errors interfere with communication, or hinder it, or render it impossible! This is because I teach college English majors – I think testing for specific aspects of these dimensions is the responsibility of other teachers in other classes. but at the same time, my students do realise that I consider grammar and lexis to be seriously important.

As regards a quick test, my experience, and the experience of other testing large numbers quickly for summer schools (in UK language schools), is that in an informal chat of around 5 minutes, grading only on a 5 pint scale (with very easy to understand scoring 5) is a remarkably effective tool in the hands of a native speaker. Even on the most mundane of topics (your home town, your family), it sorts the lower from the higher from the in betweens. I did this at the beginning of this year with my 225 new students, and on subsequent reflection, having taught them now for 2 semesters, remarkably few of my initial assessments were wrong, and none were way off. What’s interesting is looking back at their subsequent development! The value for me is how much respect I have for the students who got a low rating at the beginning who would only now get a middle rating – but wow, what progress! In each band, I can see students who have really made big efforts and made progress, and I can also see students who’ve made almost no progress. Of those, a small number are not interested in the effort it entails (basketball etc is more important), but I also have one or two who I realise are making efforts but little progress. I think that initial testing and placement has really helped me, and I plan to do it for future Oral English classes.

One thing I did was use the test results to make groups according to level, and that’s been very successful as well.

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 followup 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 aunts 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 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 person’s 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 that 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 should be considered as a report of a student’s speaking level and how much they have improved. In my classes, the only ones who actually 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.

By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan City, 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 to 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.

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 Amazon.com (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, http://eslbee.com/whywrite.pdf. 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 http://www.ngugiwathiongo.com/index.html. 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 http://eslbee.com/writing_for_peace.pdf 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
karen.stanley.people.cpcc.edu

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!