Thursday, June 28, 2012

English Survival Skills

When I first started teaching university, I noticed gaps in my student's knowledge. We would be learning about the second conditional or something like that, but my students wouldn't know what a verb was; or they'd mix up words such as fun and funny, scared and scary, bored and boring ("Nathan, you look so boring today!" they might say). Out of this need for review, I created English Survival Skills. These are small mini-lessons that I present at the beginning of class. They are designed to briefly review some prerequisite knowledge. The students know many of these points but have forgotten them and need the review. I try to make these mini-lessons as quick and entertaining as possible. I was somewhat surprised when I gave my students a survey about the class and many students said that the English Survival Skills were the most helpful part of the class (maybe I should just teach the English Survival Skills).

For examples of what I'm talking about, head to the Resources page of my site and look for English Survival Skills PPTs in the Adult ESL section of the page. I think these would work equally as well with elementary, middle school, or high school age students as well.

Friday, June 15, 2012

SVO and the World of Meta-language

Ahh...meta-language. There's quite the debate as to whether meta-language hinders or helps students acquire another language. (By meta-language I am referring to the words we use to refer to words. Confused? i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, subject, object, present progressive, passive voice, etc.) I tend to fall on the side that meta-language is useful in limited quantities in error correction.

For example, as I mentioned in the previous post, my freshman tend to start off the year giving me one word responses.

Me: "Hi, what's your name?"
Student: "You-jin."

Me: "What did you do last weekend?"
Student: "Shopping."

Me: "Why don't you have your book today?"
Student: "Home."

It's funny, the student's meaning is clear in all the above examples, but these responses are obviously not acceptable. For one, it sounds  rude. Now, my students are not rude. They will usually say these things with a smile on their face; however, it sounds rude none-the-less. Two, these responses sound unintelligent. Once again, my students are not unintelligent; they just have some bad language behaviors.

One word on bad language behaviors-- it is teachers that reinforce bad language behaviors in their students. Often times teachers don't want to decrease student motivation by correcting student responses. Students then learn that one-word responses are okay. We do not do a service to our students by letting them use language that would not be acceptable in English speaking countries.

How then is a teacher to correct a one word response. Many teachers often overtly correct a student's response hoping that the student will parrot the correct response back.

Teacher: "Where is your book?"
Student: "Home."
Teacher: "No, say, 'My book is at home.'"
Student: "Oh, my book is at home."

The only problem with this is overt error correction rarely creates student uptake (see my website in About Me / Writing Samples for a paper I wrote on the is subject). In other words, the student knows they did something wrong, but that's all they learned. In fact, the teacher did all the work.

This is why I always make my students speak in sentence, and why I teach them that every sentence has a subject, verb and sometimes an object. I have a power point that I show in the first week of class (see my website under Adult ESL for English Survival Skill PPT) that reviews how to make sentences. This may seem simple, but it's a simple thing that students often don't put into practice. This way when students give me a one word response, I can use met-language to have them create a grammatically sound sentence.

Me: "Where's your book?"
Student: "Home."
Me: "Use a sentence. What's the subject"
Student: "My book .... home."
Me: "Where's your verb?"
Student: "My book is home."
Me: "Good sentence. 'My book is at home.' Please remember to bring it next time."

This may seem a bit like pulling teeth, but it takes awhile to break old habits. After a week or two, I can just ask students to use a sentence (no reminding them of SVO) and a few weeks later, I don't have to remind them at all.

Some teachers may think that this style is a bit too nit-picky, that it is ultimately demotivating for students, but I have found the opposite. When students are able to make their own sentences, when they correct their own mistakes, it helps develop a feeling of accomplishment.

Another thing to keep in mind, is try to have a sense of humor about all of this. Don't berate students when they get things wrong, and don't put them on the spot. It's a balance between helping them, but also holding them accountable for their own language.

Helping students develop good language learning habits goes beyond teaching a language, it helps students develop a learning skill they will use for a lifetime.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Banishment of One-Word-Responses in the Classroom

I was teaching an elementary class when a student came up to me and said, "Teacher, bathroom." I understood that the student wanted to go to the bathroom so I said sure and let the student leave. It was only later, when I thought about it, that I realized how much poor communication I let the students get away with. This student had, for all intensive purposes, called me a bathroom and I let them leave the class.

Flash forward a few years, to when I started teaching university, and I found that many older students had the same problem. They've learned that they could get away with one word sentences so I found myself teaching students that sounded (sorry to say it, but it's true) unintelligent and rude. Now let me clarify--the uni students were not dumb nor rude, but they were stuck in rut of saying what is easiest and leaving it at that.

Unfortunately or fortunately for them (depends on the student), I no longer allow my students to use one word answers at any time in my class. Every time they speak, it must be in a sentence. This sounds a bit heavy handed, but I think most students actually enjoy this. They know that native language speakers rarely use one word responses and speaking in sentences helps the students to sound more fluent. It seems like such a simple idea, but it is one that is rarely employed in many language learning classrooms.

The big take away: Make it a rule that students must always ask and answer questions in sentences.

Friday, June 1, 2012

First Post

Hi all. Thanks for looking at the new blog. This is a collection of musings specifically in the area of language acquisition and ESL. I hope to include some useful ideas and strategies that will help our students to not only learn English better but also make language learning more fun. If you have any feed back or comments, please drop me a line, either in the comments section or send me an e-mail. Teach well, learn well.