Author Archives: commonsenseesl

Discouraging Smartphones from Disrupting Students’ Focus in Class

smartphone

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

Research has found that students who multi-tasked with emails, text messages, and social media during class had lower scores on tests than students who did not multi-task.

I wanted to share that research with my Writing students, but, instead of just giving a lecture, I incorporated it in a fluency writing activity.  (I’ve described the step in a fluency writing activity in a previous posting Fluency writing: reading, speaking in triads, and listening culminating in a writing task. )  It involves reading, speaking, listening and writing.  In brief, students in groups of three, each having a different part of an article, read their part to their partners, and then, individually paraphrase the entire article.

I’m attaching the complete fluency activity about smartphones here in case you’d like to try it with your students.  Fluency Smartphones

A Smartphone Policy that Seems to Work for Students

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“Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays

Surprised

“Wow!” can be expected from professional writing not students’ writing.

An English Comp instructor told me that after reading a student’s essay, she wants to think, “Wow!  These are amazing ideas.”  I’ve also met ESL writing instructors who also looked at her students’ writing in a similar way.  She wanted them to write about “something significant.”  She wanted to be entertained.  She wanted to learn something new.

Actually, those are not what we are trying to accomplish in our ESL writing courses. And even if they were the goals, how could they ever be honestly evaluated?  I’ve witnessed a conversation between two instructors in which one of them was in total amazement about one of her student’s essays.  In it, the student, who was African, described how happy the people in her village were and how people there did not experience depression even though they were some of the poorest people on earth.  The other instructor yawned and said, “I already knew all that.”

After I read an essay, I might say, “Wow!” but it’s not because of the student’s profound ideas.  It’s because s/he used a technique in a way that really help explain his/her idea.

What were a looking for in essays is how well they are using writing techniques.  These are tools that we can teach students, that they can apply to other writing tasks, and that we can evaluate.

Needless to say, we don’t just list the techniques and expect students to apply them.  The art of teaching ESL is leading students to learning the techniques so they can have them available in their “tool box.”

Here a just a few of the writing techniques that we can teach our students:

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Amazing Technique to Customize Listening to Movies, Podcasts etc. for any Level of Ability

movies

Lower-level adults understanding mature content

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

This amazingly simple technique revolutionized how I teach listening skills and completely liberated me.

After watching a good movie or a documentary on PBS or listening to an interesting segment on NPR or a TED Talk, I often thought, “My students would really like that.  Too bad their listening skills aren’t high enough.”   It was especially frustrating when I was teaching adult students because it was such a challenge to find mature content that they could understand.

Then I learned about this technique.  By using this, my students at almost any level can understand and enjoy any movie, documentary or program/podcast that I share with them.

I’ll explain more details about using the technique with movies, but here is a brief summary: Basically, the students are not trying to understand the narrator or actors.  Instead, they listen to their instructor tell them (at their listening level) what is being said or even describe in English what they just saw.  Every 10-30 seconds, the instructor stops the video/program, and explains what they had just heard or saw at a discourse level that they can understand.

For example, this came from an NPR segment about recycling.  This is what the students heard the person in the recording say, “They also gave the volunteers cans of soda and after the volunteers had drunk the soda, when the cans were intact, the cans went in the recycling.  But if the cans were dented or crushed in any way, the volunteers ended up putting those crushed cans in the trash.”

The instructor stopped the recording and told them what they had just heard at a level that they could understand, “The researchers gave some volunteers some cans of soda.  The volunteers drank the sodas.  After they finished drinking all of it, some of their cans looked new.  But some volunteers squeezed (instructor pantomimes squeezing the can) so it looked bad.  Do you understand?   Then the volunteers had to throw away their cans.  If the cans looked good or new, they threw them in a recycling bin.  But if the cans didn’t look new or looked bad, the volunteers threw them in the garbage.”  All this input is at their level.  And the information is probably new and interesting for the students.

Using videos for listening-skill development

Approach:

1) The teacher writes key vocabulary on the board.

2) The teacher presents a segment of 5-10 minutes of a movie or documentary by stopping every 10-30 seconds.  S/he explains at a proper level for students’ comprehension what was said and/or what is happening in the video.  The teacher points to the key words on the board during this.  Students are not expected to understand what is said in the movie, only what the teacher says.

3) After listening to the teacher’s “presentation” of the segment, students are given a task to demonstrate comprehension(See tasks described below.)

4) After completing the task but before checking it, the students watch the segment again.  And they can ask the instructor to explain/paraphrase parts again.

5) Students can revise their answers on the task.

Types of tasks to do after a segment:

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Making the Perfect Mixture of Structure and Autonomy in Conversation Activities (Customizing Exercises)

conversation autonomy

Conversational Autonomy

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
Here is the link to the exercise handout:  Expressing opinions

“Ms. Brown, do we really have to do anything we want to do again today?”*  Ms. Brown is probably an extreme case of instructors who try to give their students autonomy because they believe students know best what they are interested in.

The chances are that you are from a different culture, different generation and/or different socio-economic group from your students.  You probably have a different marital status, different interests and/or different goals.  So how can you tap into what will be most stimulating for your students to talk about when they are practicing conversational techniques?  In other words, how can you customize the exercise for your current group of students?

A key phrase in the question is “conversational techniques.”  Students should be learning techniques that they can apply in conversational situations.  Some technique examples are: beginning a conversation, giving understanding responses, clarifying something, politely interrupting someone, rephrasing something, soliciting details, giving opinions, summarizing what was said, ending a conversation.

Let’s say Ms. Brown wants her students to practice giving opinions.  To customize the activity, she tells the students to think of topics that are interesting to them, get into groups and tell their opinions.  But, without any kind of structure, the students will probably just take turns monologuing, not actually engaging in a conversation.

The “perfect mix” of structure and customizing involves three parts:

Part 1) Introductory exercise
Students are introduced to the technique and briefly work with some examples of how it is used in conversational situations.  In other words, they don’t just mindlessly read some sample dialogs.

Part 2)  Structured exercise
Using questions or prompts, students practice in pairs/small groups.

Part 3) Customizing exercise
Using Steps 1 and Steps 2 as models, students in pairs write prompts or questions.  Then in new groups, they use these student-made items to further practice the technique.

To demonstrate this perfect mix, we’ll look at how Ms. Brown could have made her “giving-opinions” activity more productive and engaging.

The conversational techniques they will practice in this example are;
1) using natural statements to express an opinion;
2) using natural statements to agree;
3) using natural statements to disagree.

Here are samples of Parts 1-4.

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Is the Hokey Pokey Really What It’s All About?  No, Subordination Is. (Part 1)

College

Dependent and Independent Clause

My students are always quite surprised when I tell them this true story about subordination*.  Several years ago, I taught Academic ESL at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP).  I had discussions with the chair of the English Dept. about how they determine which students (American and International) are qualified to take English 101 Composition.  Not surprisingly, he said all new students write a placement essay.  But this is the surprising part: the readers/evaluators do NOT consider the idea-development, nor the paragraph organization, nor the grammar.   Instead they looked for only one aspect: whether or not the writer could use subordination (dependent and independent clauses) correctly.   Their research found that that one aspect was the most reliable predictor about which students would be successful in English Comp.

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Playing Computer Games until 2 a.m. or Lack of Awareness (Subordination Part 2)

Computer games

My students at 2 a. m.?

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

“I like summer because it’s hot.”  Pretty simplistic, right?   The assignment was to write six sentences using subordinators as part of a review of them in my advanced class.  That sentence was the type that I got from some of my students.

My first impulse was to attribute this to a lack of motivation, or to staying up until 2 a.m. playing video games, or to immaturity.  I found out that I was wrong (or at least partial wrong).

A few of my “better” students would write more sophisticated sentences like, Because of the recent refugee crisis in Europe, some Europeans are starting to question their immigration policies.”   When I shared some of these advanced sentences with the “simple-style” students, they seemed quite surprised that they should have been trying to write like that.  They thought that just using a subordinator in sentence was enough to fulfill the assignment.  I realized that I hadn’t presented the challenge clearly enough.  Here is my remedy which completely turned these students around.

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Yes! Fun Learning Subordintion Inductively (Subordination Part 3)

fun

It’s actually fun.

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

“Now, I finally think I get it,” an adult ESL student told me.  After years of trying to understand the terms of dependent clauses, independent clause and conjunctions and how they work (and don’t work) in a sentence, she seemed greatly relieved.

Instead of using a traditional approach of having students look at the rule and then trying to apply it, an inductive approach to grammar seems much more effective (and even fun) for students.  (This approach is especially affective with ear-learners.  See a previous posting Approaching Grammar with Generation 1.5 Students and Other Ear-Learners  )

To avoid overwhelming them, I have found that starting with just two subordinators “because” and “since” is easily manageable for even the most insecure student.  Once they understand how these work in sentences, it’s amazing how quickly they can apply the concept to other subordinators.

I’m attaching here a handout worksheet that I’ve used with lower-level students, and you are welcome to use too.  Intro to Subordinators Pt 3 Ex

Please see Subordination Part 1 (Part 1) and Part 2 (Part 2)for more about this most important concept.

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you about grammar, subordination and inductive lessons and hearing your perspectives and experiences.  Feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting, and we can continue this discussion.

David Kehe