Challenge Your Teaching Assumptions: Become an L2 Student for a Few Hours


Adult students-teachers

Like most ESL teachers, I feel like I have a pretty good idea about what my students are thinking during my lessons.   However, during four hours of being a second language student, I discovered that I had some significant gaps in my understanding of what my students were actually experiencing.  Sitting in a student’s seat was an enlightening experience for me.

To give my colleagues and me a chance to become L2 students, a fellow-teacher, Susan, who was fluent in Farsi, offered to give us four hours of instruction in it.  Eight of us (all experienced ESL teachers) met for two hours on consecutive days.  During the lessons, she incorporated both teacher-fronted and pair exercises and used a variety of techniques, just as many of us do in our ESL lessons.

We did not start with greetings and opening lines of a conversation, but instead, jumped right into learning some nouns, verbs and prepositions and a few basic sentence structures that could be practiced using in a variety of activities.

Although I only teach advanced-level academic ESL these days, these beginning-level Farsi language lesson transformed how I look at my students in the higher levels.

The insights this experience gave me as a teacher

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Personalized Vocabulary Exercise

Personalize Voc Image

Which of these two sentences below would be more fun for you to answer?

1) What is one significant event that happened in the world this past year?

2) What is one significant event that happened to you this past year?

Which of those two sentences would be more fun for you to hear your friend answer?

Which of those two sentences would be more likely to help you internalize the word “significant”?

It seems that the second one tends to be much more stimulating for students to answer.  And, on top of that, it seems be the type of question which will help students retain the meaning of the word.

A few years ago, I started to add an additional vocabulary exercise titled “Applied Vocabulary” to the more traditional ones that I was assigning my students.  In this, each new vocabulary word is embedded in a personal question about the students’ lives and experiences.  For example:

-With whom did you interact before you came to class today?

-When you were in high school, did your parents give you a lot of autonomy? Explain.

– Smoking cigarettes is prohibited in most high schools. What is something else that is prohibited in high schools in your country?

-With whom have you had a conflict recently (e.g., parents, boss, a girlfriend,a roommate)? __________________ Briefly tell what the conflict was about.

-Choose the things that seem inconceivable to you:
___ There will be no more wars in the world.
___ I will live in a foreign country for most of my life.
___ I will get married.
___ I will be rich enough to own several homes.
___ I will have a lot of children.
___ I will retire from work before I am 50 years old.
___ I will be a performer in a movie.
___ (Write one more thing about your future that is inconceivable to you.)

-Do you think that the method that your parents used to raise you is consistent with how you would raise your own children? _______ Explain.

-Complete this sentence: Recently, I feel insecure about _________________________ .
a) my financial situation
b) my grade in this course
c) my future
d) other: ___________________________________

Although I can’t prove empirically that this type of personalized exercise improves students retention of a word’s meaning, I have noticed an improvement in the average score on vocabulary quizzes.  (Perhaps the quality of student entering my class is just higher than previous terms, and thus, their scores were higher.)

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Innovative Approach to Writing: Introduce a new Unit with a Listening Activity

Best Friend Surprised Image

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

It can seem like our students have about a 20-second attention span.  So we try to squeeze in introductions to new Writing units during that period of time before they start thinking about text messages, their lunch, tonight’s date, last night’s date …

There is an effective and stimulating method for getting students to immediately interact with a new Writing unit through a listening activity.  We want them to feel engaged as they focus on the format and techniques that they will use when they eventually write an essay in this mode.  This approach does it in a user-friendly, enjoyable way.  Also, a side benefit is that students internalize some new sentence styles and new vocabulary.

First example of this approach

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Grammar point: “Before going to sleep, I always check under my bed for monsters.”  What is “going”?


(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

One of the most common grammar questions I’ve been asked by students or tutors whom I’ve trained or new teachers whom I’ve mentored concerns sentences like:

“While eating our dinner, we enjoyed the sunset.” [Subordinator (While) + Verb-ing (eating).]

Question: Grammatically speaking, what is “eating”?

It’s called a reduced form.  The writer is reducing an adverb clause to a phrase.
Original sentence: While we were eating our dinner, we enjoyed the sunset.
      Reduced form: While eating our dinner, we enjoyed the sunset.

We can use these with subordinators like before, after, while and since.

This phrase can come at the beginning of a sentence as in the example above and in the title of this post or in the middle of a sentence:
     She bumped into a chair while she was looking at her smartphone.
      She bumped into a chair while looking at her smartphone.

Two points that students need to know

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Customized Speaking/Listening “Game” (Actually, more than just a game.)

Odd Man Out image

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.  See below.)  

While the students were in engaged in this activity in triads, I was standing on the perimeter.  I could overhear the list that Vy read, but couldn’t think of anything special about the four names except the obvious one that Julie was the only non-Asian.  A minute later, I heard the sudden explosion of laughter and talking from them.  I realized that they had shared an inside joke.

The basis of this game (Odd Man Out) might sound familiar to many of you.  But by exploiting it more, it turns into a great interactive activity that is not only fun but also a chance to internalize many useful expressions and produce a lot of conversation.  And students are intent on listening to each other.

In its simplest format, student read a list of four words to their partners.  The partners have to choose which word is strange or odd or special and explain why.  For example:
cat, lion, dog, fish

Most of us would probably identify “fish” as being odd because it is the only one that lives in water.  However, another choice could be “lion,” since the others are common pets.

Making this a good learning tool and customizing it

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