I could see from my roster for the upcoming term that the infamous Eddie would soon be attending my Advanced ESL Writing class. Eddie was slowly making his way through our academic ESL program and was well-known for his sense of humor and for continually arriving late to class. Having heard from his previous teachers about the unsuccessful strategies they had tried to use to get him to come on time, I decided to try a different approach.
Coincidentally, around this time, I was preparing to make a proposal to our program director and instructors and was trying to decide how best to present it. To get our Writing Course students to read more, I decide to recommend that we assign them to read for an hour a week and write a brief reading journal. And in order to not add more work for the teachers, I was hoping we could hire a person or two be a “Reading Journal Reader” who would read and write comments on the journals. (For more details about using a “Reading Journal Reader,” see One of Best Uses of an ESL Program’s Funds—And a Giant Help to Teachers. )
Fortunately, I had recently listened to Psychologist Adam Grant’s podcast “Worklife” in which he tells about a skill we can use when we’re trying to initiate a request. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve found, it’s quite effective.
(This posting includes handouts which you are welcome to use with your students.)
According to Brain Briefs by Bob Duke and cognitive scientist Art Markman, “… adults who learn a new language make more mistakes with prepositions than with just about any other aspect of speech.”
Most ESL teachers have probably been asked questions like this one that I had from one of my students, Camila, from Mexico: “Why do we say ‘I’m confused about’ rather than ‘I’m confused at’?”
It seems futile to try to explain the reasons or give rules for when to use certain prepositions. And even if we could formulate some, it seems unimaginable that students will stop while speaking or writing and ask themselves, “Now what was the rule for the preposition here?” Just the preposition “on” has 10 definitions.
How to learn prepositions
Markman and Duke summarize what many professionals (e.g. Krashen) in the teaching ESL field have said about how to learn prepositions: “… the best way … is to hear them, use them, and allow your brain to recognize which ones are appropriate in different circumstances by taking into account both the meaning and the statistics of when they are used. This kind of implicit learning requires a lot of exposure to the language …” (p. 127).
This doesn’t mean that the only role that a teacher plays in this is to just provide meaningful input through reading and listening.
Three ways teachers can facilitate students’ learning of prepositions
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
A student, Tim, once came to my class all excited and asked me, “Hey David, wha ya gonna do di wee-en? I wanna gedouda taw.”
I was pretty sure that he was trying to say something in English, but I had no idea what it was. After repeating the sentences several times, he became embarrassed and decided to write them down. “What are you going to do this weekend? I want to get out of town.”
He told me that the teacher in his previous class was doing lessons on reduced forms of speaking and had encouraged them to use them when speaking. So this student whose pronunciation was often hard to understand because he tended to drop final consonants of words (e.g. wee = week / taw = town) was being encouraged to do something that would make him even harder to understand. Crazy!
How to work with reduced forms. (Handout exercise included)
Many teachers mistakenly believe that spending their precious time and energy writing long comments at the end of students’ papers is what Writing teachers should do. As one instructor wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “I am an English professor, and responding to student writing is what we English professors do…For 25 years, I have diligently, thoughtfully, and fastidiously written comments on my students’ essays. In my neatest hand, I’ve inscribed a running commentary down the margin of page after page, and at an essay’s conclusion I’ve summarized my thoughts in a paragraph or more.”
This instructor decided to stop writing comments on her students’ paper after she came to this realization: “Most students seemed to spend little time taking in my comments on their papers. They quickly skimmed, looking for the grade, and then shoved the papers into their bags.” Her solution: Instead of writing comments, she decided to meet in her office to discuss her students’ papers one-on-one.
For most ESL Writing instructors, meeting with students in their offices is not a realistic option. At the same time, writing long comments at the end of papers is often a waste of time and energy, just as that professor discovered.
Fortunately, there is another option for Writing teachers.
A much more practical and yet effective way to provide specific feedback