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…and we’ve circled back.

This quarter, I’m teaching reading, and in some ways this is my actual dream. I love reading, and I’m still really excited to share this love with my students.

But we’re back to the baby-bird syndrome, something that I noticed in my grammar class during the first quarter (it’s now the third quarter).

In Grammar, I’d figured out that the way to wean the students from relying on me to directly spit my pre-chewed knowledge into their mouths was through self-directed companion worksheets. I made worksheets that they used to dig through the text to figure out grammar points on their own, and then they practiced mostly on their own.

When we went over the material, it was a lot of them telling me the treasures they’d found and me tweaking their understanding of the rules.

With reading, I suppose I haven’t quite found my groove, and I worry that it’s negatively impacting my students. I’m still in the trenches, and I’m doing my best to give them engaging material, to activate their schema and to practice what we’ve learned–but things don’t really seem to be sticking,

a fact that is definitely reflected in their test scores.

For a couple weeks, I had students doing silent reading in class every day, and we went over the tests together as a class. This seemed to result in a positive uptick in test scores, but I was worried that I wasn’t spending enough time on explicitly teaching everything in the course plan (we have course plans that detail the subjects/skills we should cover each week).

So, for a couple weeks, I dialed back the silent reading to once per week and stopped covering the tests in class.

This has resulted in a noticeable downswing in test scores. Of course, there’s also the chance that I’m not doing the right kind of practices, but to me it looks like the reading skills simply aren’t sticking.

So I think we’re going to go back to plan A–more silent reading, more discussion of plot for The Giver, and more explicit correction in errors. We still have two more quizzes for the quarter, and I’d like to see students’ test scores come up again before the final exam.

The students have told me that reading is getting easier for them, but I’m not seeing it reflected in an academic context and I’d like to.

That’s all, for now.

Well it’s the beginning of a new quarter at my university, and that means a new schedule and new subject.

For the past two quarters, I’ve been teaching Grammar out of the Focus on Grammar series. Overall, I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and I especially enjoyed the last quarter. I felt like my students and I really managed a solid grasp of the material overall.

So of course, the laws of the universe dictate that my tiny teaching universe be completely turned on its head.

This quarter, I am teaching reading to a lower level, and I’m on the evening shift (This last bit being completely irrelevant except to drive home the whole “turned on its head” bit).

I am still a pretty new teacher, so I was really nervous. Slowly, though, I remembered my Hagwon experience in Korea and the fact that I actually love teaching Reading because…well…I love to read. That simple.

I could think of no better way to spend my days then spending a few hours sharing my love of reading to a captive audience–

captive in the literal sense, of course, because they are bound by university rules to stay in class or be dropped.

Of course the love of reading isn’t enough. I have to teach these students how to pass their final exam, and how to pass the TOEFL if that’s their goal.

According to the Journal of Studies in Education, there are nine basic ways of reading: Intensive and Extensive reading; scanning; skimming; search reading; receptive reading; critical reading; reading for meaning; prediction; and redundancy.

With a teacher along to help develop these ways, students can use reading as a powerful language acquisition tool and it can provide them with critical target language exposure.

Intensive reading is pretty task-based, and its easily modified to a classroom environment. The article “Teaching Reading to EFL Students to make them Better Readers” states that the overall aim of intensive reading is get students to understand the meaning of a text and how that meaning is produced. In extensive reading, on the other hand, we often teach parts of a whole (book), and in that way we will be able to construct the meaning.

This strategy is a bit more difficult to adapt to the classroom because they can be forgotten. Also, in my limited experience, the length alone is intimidating to students, and it requires significant patience and review to keep even the lowest learners on par and engaged with a veritable mountain of foreign-language text in front of them.

That’s right. In my class, I’ve decided to teach my low-intermediate English readers a book: The Giver, to be specific.

This is one of my all-time favorite books and I think it is intensely appropriate for an academic setting. Plus, right now with the dystopian YA novel-turned-movie renaissance, I think it’s quite relevant, and that students have a lot of schema they can activate to contextualize the story and themes.

As the article states, longer texts also provide ample opportunity to practice reading strategies like skimming and scanning, plus it gives students a chance to compare the text against itself, and to think about the way the plot and characters develop, and to even discuss the writers’ point of view.  I’m hoping that in studying these topics, students will also be able to develop their receptive reading and critical reading skills.

And hey, maybe their critical thinking skills too? It is college, after all.

I realize that I’m not going to make them fluent readers in 10 weeks, but my earnest hope is that I will be able to impress my love of reading upon at least a few of them. The skills that I’m teaching them this quarter are the skills some excellent teachers taught me years ago, and in turn those teachers have gifted me with basically the love of my life: the love of reading a good look.

I’m really excited and optimistic about passing on that gift to a few of my students. Not unlike The Giver 😉

Source: Macrothink Institute. Teaching Reading to EFL Students to Make them Better Readers. http://www.macrothink.org/journal/index.php/jse/article/view/3895/3296

 

 

“I’m not like a regular teacher. I’m a cool teacher”–Me.

Life is mostly a lifelong exercise in turning the things that work against you into positives (sorry to wax philosophical). In my case, I know one of the things could work against me is my apparent youth.

I am 29 years old, and I teach at a university. I am definitely not the youngest professor here, but I’m young enough to have been asked in my interview how I would handle students who saw my youth as a way to undermine me in the classroom or as an instructor.

I wish I had known then what I know now, because I would have told my potential employers that if you wield it right, youth is a powerful tool that can connect me to my students.

In some ways, I feel like I have to tread lightly. I must be ultra fair and ultra consistent. When saying no, I fall back on my college’s policy a lot.

In others, my youth makes me extremely approachable, and I play this up in the classroom. As a result, students tell me about the latest trends; those trends then make their way into classroom materials, where students are usually amused/pleasantly surprised to have a teacher who is kind of sort of “in the know.”

This brings us to social media, that new hot ish that everyone is talking about. In my university, I am on the social media committee, so our team runs the university facebook and twitter pages, as well as the university snap chat.

After months of harassment, I have also given in and given my students my personal snapchat, and in exchange they have given me theirs.

It’s a given that social media is a great tool to boost communication, and a simple google search of social media in the classroom will give you pages and pages of results with both lesson plans and scholarly research.

The article Study of Social Networking Usage in Higher Education Environment states that social media was found to be useful in quickly disseminating information. It also found that participants were likely to use social media for entertainment, task assignment, exams and class rescheduling (Falahah and Dewi Rosmala, 2012).

I’ve added my students to my Snapchat account, and they’ve also had me create a Chubble.

Since then, the environment in both of my classes has noticeably improved. It is more warm in the classes–more personal. There are more jokes. In some ways, this has resulted in a more rowdy classroom. But in others, I’ve actually noticed an uptake in marks (correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but I think it’s worth noting).

In a language classroom, as a foreign language teacher, I am a novelty. And to be fair, they’re also kind of a novelty to me too. Our connections are forged through curiosity–a desire to see and show. My students want to see how I live, and they want to show me how they live. This is particularly powerful with some of the shier students–the ones who are quiet in class, or who seem disinterested. The tiny communications that we have outside of class show me more of their interests and allow us to have moments of connection. Although I never put anything they tell me into class material directly, knowing their interests, their senses of humor and the places they frequent all help me to create class materials that are just a bit more personal and that much more engaging. The students don’t want a whole lot of attention–they just like knowing that their teacher is available. That I care.

As a sidebar, since I have been using Snapchat, both the students and I have found that it is a much more easy and direct way to stay in contact. So far, my students have not abused this–they only use it to ask things that are (in their mind) urgent.

And I use it for things that are (in my mind) urgent as well. The other day, I made a mistake in their notes. Once I discovered the mistake, I wrote it on the board, snapped it with a little joke and sent the snap to every student on my list (all of them minus one or two). I was happy and excited to see them opening and screenshotting the note I sent.  If I had sent it via blackboard or Engrade, it would have fallen into the “teacher I didn’t get” abyss. With snapchat, the problem was noted and solved immediately.

In conclusion, I wrote this reflection to say that I have enjoyed using social medial with my students purely to be social. Students feel more invested in me and I feel more invested in them. This has had only positive results; (I am not an idiot) I am careful with what I post and we all enjoy the extra communication and connection.

Source:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042812053025

 

My university is on a quarter system, and since the start of the new quarter three weeks ago I have had one goal: to get them off my back to foster learner independence.

I’ve had some successes and some failures (as you can imagine). In the first week, I did a mock-up sheet of how to use COCA. It was step-by-step and included screen grabs and arrows on the sheet. Then we marched down to the computer lab and I turned them loose.

And you know what? Students are impossible to predict, because they followed that sheet and used COCA flawlessly, but nearly every single one of them needed one-on-one help logging in to the computer (username: student/ password: student).

I asked the students to rate the usefulness of this tool, and out of fifty students only two said they didn’t see the use. The other 48 gave responses along the lines of that this would help them study by themselves.

This leads me to believe that although they can be intensely needy, these students actually want to study on their own. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s more about developing trust than an actual need for hand-holding.

What I’ve been doing these days is preparing sheets at the beginning of each lesson that walk them step-by-step through the pages they should look at in their book and the information they should note (open your book to page 61. Look at number 2, part b. Find the word “remember”. What does it say?)

These lessons seem to be a general success. By the time I come in to explain, they don’t really need much explaining. So far, activities like this really seem to till the soil of their minds and help things stick–something I can see reflected quite strongly in their actual use of the grammar points this quarter versus last quarter. In my class, we are required to give speaking and writing grades in addition to quizzes. So far, quiz grades have been steady, remarkable only in that the quizzes I give are much more detailed than they were last quarter.

To me, however, the real sign that whatever I’m doing is making an impact lies in their actual use of the grammar points. Last quarter my poor students (bless their hearts) couldn’t actually use the grammar, no matter how hard they tried. This year, when students speak to me, a lot of them are putting “didn’t” in the right place and tense. This is something they don’t notice–but I do. Their writing, too, is inspiring to me. Last week we did past simple versus past continuous, and I got an overwhelming majority of writing that was done in class and used those tenses correctly. This week it was used to, and the same thing. Whether or not they know it, these girls are actually teaching themselves how to use these tenses.

There are more than a few articles that touch on this concept–teaching students to teach themselves. Sometimes, as Maryellen Weimer wrote in Faculty Focus, students respond quite negatively–they don’t realize that there is a method to our madness.

Because of this, I try to keep the lines of communication clear with my students. “I’m doing this for the same reason I don’t let you tell me your name if I forget–because if I figure it out for myself, I’ll remember. If you tell me, I’ll forget immediately again.”

They seem to understand this, and most of them seem to like this style of working. (I can tell because mobiles are away and the conversation really is about grammar!). I explain to them that there is a hierarchy of figuring this stuff out for themselves in my classroom: first, read the directions. Second, think about it. Ask yourself does it sound right? You know enough English for this! Third, ask your friend. Fourth, check your book and notes (usually included in the first step of read the directions!). Fifth, ask me. But if you ask me, I’m going to just point to where it is in the book.

I’m not doing this to be lazy, I tell them. I’m doing this because I can’t take the exam for them, so they have to know that they know the material.

Still, most of my students seem to view me as the be-all, end-all source of knowledge in my grammar classroom. To that end, TESOL Connections has a few recommendations for building learner trust and autonomy that I think I might use before my next quiz.

First, I think I will have students make a yes-no chart, where they can write down and see the things they know well and don’t know well. Then they can compare it to their friends so they can better assess each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

Next, I really think I could adapt the jigsaw activity to the upcoming unit. In this activity, I give students a piece of the knowledge, and they put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. This is kind of perfect for future and future time clauses, because these units contain multiple components. If everyone focuses on one part of the big whole, though, I think they could put it together.

These activities could improve my classroom collaboration, foster trust among learners, and increase learner autonomy. That would be a win win win for me!

Source: http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolc/issues/2015-12-01/index.html

 

So a couple of weeks ago, I happened across an article in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes talking about concordancing in L2 writing classes.

(Well, what actually happened is that my school has a Journal Committee where they read and review academic journals and I attended, pretty ostensibly so that I would have something to blog about use to improve my teaching)

In any case, they had this discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of getting students to conduct corpora-based research in the classroom, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Basically, the article states that corpora are (of course) powerful research tools, but when overused students can get bored with them (which definitely corroborates my own experience as a student).

However, I was surprised and excited to learn that with the right amount of training, students themselves see corpora work as quite useful and some even preferred it to reference and grammar books (Yoon, 2011).

According to the article, corpora work has been shown to foster learner autonomy, which is something that I am interested in incorporating in my classroom. So far, my experience in this region is that these community college students are a lot like baby birds–they want the knowledge chewed up for them and spat directly into their mouths.

With the right motivation, however, this is a tool that I could incorporate into my teaching arsenal to foster a more autonomous and independent working environment.

The article named several ways to apply corpora-based study in the classroom. One use was that it allowed writing students to compare their work with that of experts in the field, thus allowing them develop their own measure of the appropriate voice and style for whatever genre they’re studying at the time. It is also a great tool to get students to notice their mistakes, and can be used to build vocabulary (Yoon, 2011). The study even suggested that students could compile their own corpora of their writing work, which I also thought could be a tool learners could use to measure their progress as well as a source of pride in what they have accomplished up to that point.

Of course it also helps students to begin recognizing collocations and chunks–those tricky little things for which I as a teacher have no better explanation for them than “memorization” and “it comes with more exposure to English.”

I am big on having students look at outside, natural uses of English to make connections with what we’re learning, but I teach grammar. Last quarter, I had students find and present examples of whatever grammar point we were learning that week via sources like Instagram and Twitter–fun and fresh for them, getting them to connect grammar outside of the classroom for me.

I’m not sure I want to lose that element–it was a fun way for me to see what the students were into, and it was a sneaky way of getting students to think about English would it being super painful. However, I know that incorporating corpora work in the grammar classroom–especially for students at my level–could be an exciting way to get students to recognize patterns for some of the grammar points they struggle with (third person s, “dummy do” and present perfect all come to mind).

I think I will incorporate mild corpora-based research into the upcoming semester’s classwork, and then compare this batch of students’ mistakes on quizzes to the last batch. I’m excited to see what I find!

Source:

Concordancing in L2 writing class: An overview of research and issues. Choongil Yoon. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. Vol. 10, 2011 (130-139)

A couple days ago, EdWeek published a blog entry about students’ mistakes–how they make them, and how the way teachers handle them can be helpful or harmful to the student. Although it seems the writer was drawing from his experience with younger, first language students, I still drew a lot of parallels to my experiences teaching English as a Second Language.

The gist of the article is that when we as educators rush to fill the gap of empty space where a student is struggling to find the correct answer, we leave him/her with several negative impressions:

  1. that if you’re quiet long enough, someone will swoop in and provide you with the right answer
  2. it’s not OK to struggle to find the answer
  3. you don’t have to take an active role in your own learning–it’s voluntary
  4. you don’t have any responsibility in this situation; just shut down and I’ll save the day.

I was immediately transported to my MA Tesol days, where we spent at least a couple of weeks discussing the pros and cons of various forms of error correction. Of course, recast was the lowest of the low–lock it in the closet for its ineffectiveness. We also have explicit feedback, which can sometimes fail to produce modified output; clarification requests (which I’ve actually had a lot of success with in getting students to “fix” their errors); metalinguistic feedback; elicitation; prompts; repetition; and translation (Rezaei, S.; Mozaffri, F; Hatef. A, 2011).

As a teacher, I often weigh in my mind the best ways to point out and correct errors to my students. I tend to have a lot of success with the “just pausing” level of elicitation, where I leave a gap of silence and let them work it out on their own. I teach Level 3, which translates to intermediate(ish) in a lot of cases, and at that level they have the ears to hear when things don’t quite sound right, even if they don’t always have the skills to form the perfect output–yet. In the same vein, I have found that repetition (combined with a bit of strategically placed inflection) also helps students to hear that what they said “sounds funny” and actually does result in uptake.

Still, in the classroom, as the Ed Weekly article said, we can’t help but to “feel” for our students, right? They’re kind of on the spot and they’re searching for the right word or answer…the clock is ticking..everyone’s eyes are on that ONE girl…and it almost becomes more merciful to just go ahead and supply the answer instead of letting them slog through the mental quagmire.

In my classroom, I often find students racing each other to supply the missing words and broken links, no matter how many times I remind them that I’m the teacher. I’m teaching in Qatar right now, and I think it could be related to the culture–here, it’s very big for students to “help” their friends (as opposed to it being some sort of competition between students, I mean).

In any case, we can all pretty much agree that when we race to provide the answers for students it doesn’t do them any favors–those answers don’t even stick as well as the ones students reached all the way back into their minds and dragged to the front do.

I know that going forward, I will definitely keep the Ed Weekly article in mind when I’m handing students’ answers, and I will try to foster a classroom culture where I encourage students to allow space for mistakes and for thinking. It is, after all, simply a part of the learning process.

Resources:

Rezaei, S.; Mozaffri, F; Hatef. A; Corrective Feedback in SLA: Classroom Practice and Future Directions. International Journal of English Linguistics. Vol. 1 No. 1.; March, 2011

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2015/10/students_learn_from_error_but_we_dont_allow_it.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB

Of course a person can’t finish a master’s program in Linguistics without discussing language universals (I think): by either their presence or absence, language universals are nearly ubiquitous. 

The concept of language universals became so fundamentally entrenched in our fine field of linguistics thanks to one man, Noam Chomsky. 

A monolingual.

This always cracks me up, every time I think of the fact that it was a monolingual who was a key figure in putting forward these ideas of the features that all languages have in common. 

I guess that’s the difference between knowing language and knowing about language–between knowledge and metaknowledge. 

Anyway, Chomsky’s theories about language universals have influenced the linguistic approach toward studying language since the 1960s when they were put forward. Even now, in the backlash of Daniel Everett’s findings about the language of the Piraha (the Piraha being a small tribe in central Brazil whose language was found to lack recursion–

recursion being the ability to use your language to communicate large ideas using small phrases or clauses embedded into larger sentences. A dream housing a slightly smaller dream housing a slightly smaller dream ad nauseum. Instead of Inception, it could have been called Recursion.

According to the BBC’s teaching English blog (I admit, it’s not exactly The Journal of Applied Linguistics), Chomsky named recursion as a cornerstone of every language spoken on this earth. 

Although I am wary of anything that is the __________ of everything, especially when there are between 6000 and 7000 known languages on this earth and countless other unknown ones, I still like this idea of language universals because I am just a person who likes anything that can give solid proof that we as humans are all the same.

At the same time, though, the very program that educated me about Chomsky and language universals has taught me to be very aware of overgeneralizing.

I was fortunate that I was able to tailor my program to combine a heavy metalanguage approach with sociolinguistics, which is much more focused on language as it relates to power and society at large.

To me, sociolinguistics has always been easier to understand because it gives context to what we know about language. In my program, I sometimes felt that I was floating out in a sea of language knowledge, but there was nothing to anchor me and nothing to relate it to. The sea isn’t the sea unless there’s an island nearby, you know?

So sociolinguistics gave me my island: I could learn about language and then I could learn what my knowledge about language meant.

Yesterday, one of my friends posted this article on my facebook wall. It is about how black Americans and white Americans speak a different form of American Sign Language (ASL). Basically, how there is the standardized form of ASL that is signed (mostly) by white Americans, and then there is another form of ASL that is signed by black Americans. The form signed by black Americans has several different features and is claimed to be closer to the “original” French version.

Sound familiar?

To me, and to my friend, this sounds like dialect. And language change. 

And, following the story of the black ASL signer who found herself in school having to adjust the language she used to the standardized form (and then adjust back to black ASL once at home), it also sounds like code-switching.

And it occurred to me after reading this article: why aren’t we studying more sign language in search of language universals? Especially socially? Studying sign language could challenge so many of our assumptions about language by removing things that we take for granted now,

for example many of the nuances of different societies that I tend to gloss over in my mind when they speak the same language, like Canadians, people from the U.S. and Brits. Now I’ve learned that ASL is closer to French Sign Language than British Sign Language, and that in fact American and British signers cannot understand each other–what does that say about similarities and differences in these respective societies, if language and culture are intrinsically linked?

Studying sign language might be a way to deconstruct our language assumptions–to read language against itself–to uncover new meaning in our language studies. 

Or are linguists already studying sign language in this manner and I just didn’t know?