A boy wanted to ask a girl to the school dance, but he was too shy to talk to girls. To help him start to overcome his shyness, one day in a store together, his mom told him to walk up to a female clerk and ask where he could find the toothpaste. If he did that, he’d prove to himself that he could interact successfully with a female who was a total stranger, and he’d be able to see himself moving toward his goal. (From Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.)
I realized that I could apply the principle behind this story to a category of students who seem to be in many of the ESL class that I’ve taught. They are the ones who are feeling discouraged about their seemingly inability to progress in their language-skill development. Many of them have failed the course, and in some cases, more than once.
Some of these learners don’t feel like trying any more.
Here is typical exchange that I’ve often heard between teachers who were evaluating a student’s writing together.
It’s relatively easy to evaluate the content in students’ writing. We can usually agree about how well it is organized, how clear the ideas are presented and how deep the support is. The challenge comes when trying to gage the students’ level of grammar in a writing context. It involves more than just counting grammar mistakes. We need to consider a couple of aspects, and one of them is the seriousness of the errors. For example, look at these two sentences:
(Student A) One day, a young bride 1 name Jane packed her stuff and tried to leave her hotel.
(Student B) One day, a young bride packed her stuff, 1 she tried to leave her hotel.
They both have one error, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are at the same level. Student A’s mistake could easily be just an editing error. On the other hand, Student B’s is a run-on and could indicate that the student is still struggling with sentence boundaries.
When analyzing grammar mistakes, we also need to consider the complexity of the students’ sentence style.
Traditionally, when evaluating students’ writing levels, the “evaluators” silently read the essays in their offices, oftentimes fill out a rubric and come up with a score. Most of us would agree that such a process is onerous and often results in students being misplaced.
The method that I’ll describe here has important benefits for teachers and the ESL program as a whole. I’ve used this in several ESL programs for two situations: (1) determining which students should be promoted to the next level at the end of a term, and (2) placement of new students. It’s especially helpful for determining the proper Writing-class level of borderline students, in other words, ones whose writing levels are not obvious.
To demonstrate how the method works, let’s look at those two situations.
A former ESL student of mine, Teddy, came to my office for a chat. I asked him how his classes were going, and he showed me the mid-term exam grade from his intermediate-level speaking class that his teacher had just given him. I asked him how he felt about it. He said that he was feeling discouraged because he really tries to be active in conversation, not only telling his ideas and opinions but also responding to and including other. So he felt that he deserved a much better score than a 72%, which was a failing grade.
Then I asked him, from looking at this grade form, what he thinks he’ll need to do to improve his grade.
He felt confident that he could ask more questions and try to respond to others more with rejoinders.
But about the pronunciation and grammar grades, he said that he wasn’t sure.
He imagined that he might have some problems with “L” and “R” sounds. And he thought that the grammar score was low because he always makes mistakes with prepositions. So he planned to think more carefully about those when talking.
The problem and the fix