Here is how you can make your Writing class students’ and fellow Writing-Course colleagues feel satisfied at the end of a term. And here is how you can save yourself a large amount of time, energy and reduce stress.
The final class of the term has just finished. You look at your Level 4 Writing class roster and choose which students whom you are not sure if they have the writing skills necessary to be successful at the next level. Let’s say that out of your 16 students, six are in this “borderline” category. (You are confident in your decision to pass the other eight students and fail two.) You organize a file with writing samples for each of these six students.1 You give this file to the teacher at the next level, Level 5. That teacher reads your six students’ writings, and the next day meets with you. She tells you that she is confident that three of the students look ready for Level 5. You spend about 15-20 minutes talking about the other three students, reading parts of their essays together (sometime aloud) and analyzing their work.2 For students whom you both are still unsure about, you can look at more samples of their writing. In the end, the two of you decide one of them could pass and two should repeat Level 4. You feel assured that your students will be in the right level the next term and that you can explain to any student who might wonder why they failed what they need to work on in order to pass the next term. 3
The reason why this process is so powerful is that it resolves all these troublesome situations:
Situation 1) Teachers are disappointed by the writing skills of students being promoted to their classes.
A Level 4 teacher has discovered early in a term that some of the students in the Writing class who were promoted by a teacher at a lower level (Level 3) do not have the necessary writing skills to perform well at that level. Often it results in a tense conversation like this:
Level 4 Teacher: “I have one of your students from last term, Fidi, in my Level 4 class. His writing is very weak. I wonder how he was able to pass your class.”
Level 3 Teacher: “Yes, I know he’s not really good. When he came to my class from Level 2, his skills weren’t very good. But he did all the assignments and tried very hard. So I didn’t feel like I could justify failing him.”
Situation 2) Students feel they weren’t treated fairly because the teacher didn’t like them.
A student who failed his Writing course complains to the director that the reason why he failed was because the teacher didn’t like him, not because he had poor writing skills.
Situation 3) Teachers burn out from teaching Writing classes due to excessive record keeping.
Writing teachers readily accept the fact that these courses involve reading/marking a lot of papers. However, what often overwhelms them the most is having to count up points for every assignment and keep records of these.
Situation 4) Students quibble with the teacher over points on a writing assignment.
A student receives 83 out of 100 points on an essay and argues with the teacher that he should have gotten 86 points.
Situation 5) Students who fail the Writing class beg the teachers to change their grade because of the personal hardships failing would cause them.
Student: “Could you please, please let me pass this class? My parents don’t have a lot of money, and I might have to leave this school if I fail. I’ll work hard at the next level. I know I can do well in it.”
Here is the process that is the remedy for all those situations.
(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
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.
It seems that there are two approaches to giving feedback to each student
General Feedback Approach
Part of problem with giving general feedback at the end of an essay is that the comments tend to be so generalized that there is little for students to apply to future writing assignments. For example, here is what one teacher wrote: