One problem for ESL teachers is that we can become complacent and start to take shortcuts. One day, part way through my career, I realized that this was happening to me.
I was teaching a TESL methods course to American university students who wanted to teach ESL. During one class, a student asked me what to do if some students aren’t doing the assignments or not doing them seriously. I told them that the most important motivator is to always introduce an assignment with an explanation of its purpose is and how this assignment will help them in the short- or long-term future. WAIT! I suddenly realized that I had become lax in doing that in my own ESL classes.
For a dozen years, I had had the good fortune of teaching at colleges in Asia. For the most part, the students there were diligent about doing whatever I assigned without question. I soon fell in the habit of just tell them what the assignment was when I introduced it.
For example, in a Writing class, I might say, “We are going to do some practice with dramatic introductions. Look at pages 17-19. There are eight introductions. Two of them are dramatic. After you read each, you will identify which are dramatic.”
Or for a grammar exercise, I might say, “We are going to practice the most common places to use commas in sentence. Look at page 194. Let’s do the first exercise together.”
Or for a conversation activity, I would say, “Today, you will work with a partner and give directions to each other to find places on a map.”
Explaining the big picture purpose of an exercise: how it will help them in future.
Situation: Rob, an ESL student, had developed a reputation. During the past two terms, he tended to come to his classes late every day and turn in assignment late or didn’t do them. The quality of his work was so poor that he failed his Level 3 Writing course twice and was about to start his third time in it. It was the beginning of a new term, and as a program coordinator, I was asked for advice by Rob’s new Writing teacher about how to work with him.
In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath discussed an interesting approach that could help teachers redirect their ESL students like Rob. The approach is called Solutions-Focused Therapy (SFT).
I decided to try this approach with Rob when I met with him after his class. In SFT, there is an assumption that there is an exception to every problem. In Rob’s case, we assume that there was an exception to his coming to class late and doing poor work. The exception would be a class in which he had come on time and performed well. Once we can identify that class (the exception to the present problem pattern), we can analyze it like a game film of a sporting event. We can replay it to see where things were working well. What was happening? How did he behave? How did he feel?
In my meeting with Rob, we had a conversation something like this:
Me: Tell me about a class that you’ve had when you usually came on time.
Rob: I always went to Ms. Sandy’s class on time.
Me: What do you think was different about Ms. Sandy’s class?
Rob: She’s nice.
Me (Trying to get more specifics.):What did she do that was nice?
Rob: She always said hi to me when I came to class. Other teachers kind of ignored me when I arrived.
Me: That is nice. Did she do anything else that you liked?
Rob: After she told us our assignments, she often came to my desk and asked me if I understood it and if I needed any help.
Me: Did you tell her if you were confused?
Rob: Yes. And sometimes she gave me a different assignment to help me. I liked that.
Me: What did you do differently in her class from your other classes recently?
Rob: I always came to class on time. And I think I understood the assignments better and did them.
Me: How did you do in her class?
Rob: I think I did well. I passed it.
Me: Do you think that you could do the same thing that you did in Ms. Sandy’s class in your Level 3 class this term?
Rob: I think maybe I can come on time. And I can ask for help if I don’t understand.
The follow up
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
This posting is directed specifically to teachers in these categories:
- You have experience teaching ESL Writing, but you have been assigned to teach a new level.
- You have just been hired to teach in an ESL program and are assigned a Writing class.
- You have been teaching an ESL Writing class for a few terms, but this term you have some students who have “unusual” writing characteristics.
Imagine that it’s the third week of the term. You just picked up your students’ first writing sample (e.g. a paragraph or essay) and are starting to mark/evaluate them. (See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills)
You start with Adey’s essay and soon some questions come to your mind:
Next, you read Naomi’s essay and wonder about this:
- She uses complex sentences, but sometimes her grammar breaks down, especially word forms. Would these kinds of mistakes disqualify her from passing to the next level? How “perfect” must a students’ grammar be to pass?
Another student, Dante had this characteristic:
- His ideas seemed quite simplistic; he doesn’t develop them with enough details. What is the expectation for students passing to the next level concerning idea development?
Help is on the way!