Three experiences in the past week that reminded me about why teaching ESL is such an entertaining job.
First experience: After class, I was reading a passage in which one of my Vietnamese students had written. She was describing a time when she had a close call while driving. “Suddenly, a car which was coming toward me crossed over into my lane. It scared the hell out of me!”
Second experience: A few weeks into the term, one of my more out-going Indonesian students entered the room and said, “Wassup!”
Third experience: I was handing back some homework to my students before class started. As I gave one of my Taiwan female students her paper in which there were some mistakes marked, she looked at it and said, “What the fu!” Then she smiled and asked me, “Is it OK if I say that to a teacher?” I asked her if she knew what that meant, and she said she didn’t, but she had heard someone say it in a movie and thought it would be fun to try out.
To many people in the outside world, our job for teaching ESL looks like a lot of fun. People have told me, “It must be so interesting working with students from different countries and cultures every day.” And most of us would agree. But what they are imagining is only a tiny part of what makes this such a great job. We can never predict what our students will come up with next as they learn and try out the language.
Reading every chance you get.
An international student, Emily, was really struggling with the grammar in her writing assignments. Even though she worked with a tutor, she was continuously making basic mistakes. Last fall, we reluctantly promoted her to my higher-level Writing course. She started out as the third lowest in grammar-in-writing skills out of 17 students. Ten weeks later, she was the second best. I was totally amazed!
At the end of the Fall term, she passed my class and then took English Comp (English 101) during the Winter term. She got an A.
I had a chance to talk to her about her remarkable turn-around. What she did is not beyond what other students can do. After that opportunity that I had to talk to her, every term, I share with all my students her story. Here is the PowerPoint that I use to do this in case you’d like to tell your students about how a peer of theirs was able to improve the grammar in her writing in a relatively short time. True story about improving grammar in writing thru reading
I’ll summarize what she had done below.
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
You,the conversation teacher, are happy because the noise level in the room is high. That means that the 12 pairs of students (24 total) are engaged in the conversation activity. At the start of the next class, you want to give them feedback on their performance today, especially because you want to give positive comments to those who are very active. There are also a couple of pairs who need some “re-direction.”
Needless to say, you’re not going to be able to give each student specific feedback specifically on what they said because you can’t actually hear them above all the talking. But you can actually see whether or not they are using conversational techniques. (See previous posts of two important techniques Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1) and Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)
Even if you can’t hear them, you can see if they are engaging in a natural conversation; it looks like ping-pong, in which they are reacting to each other, asking follow-up questions and giving understanding responses. You can also see if they are more like bowling, in which one monologs for a while while the other “zones out,” then the other monologs. You can see if someone is dominating and if someone is very passive. Interestingly, you can even see if they have switch from English to their native language; often when they do this, their voices lower and their faces aren’t as animated perhaps to “hide” from the instructor.
If you suspect that a pair isn’t using natural conversation techniques or isn’t speaking in English, there are things that you can do.
Feeling euphoria from flow
Early in my career, I had a whisper conversation with two of my novice colleagues. We had often heard several of our other colleague lament the fact that they had just picked up a set of essays and would have to spend several hours marking them. To them, it seemed drudgery, and they assumed all of us felt the same. In private, the two novice colleagues and I were a bit surprised and relieved to find that we actually enjoyed the process of marking our students essays and giving them feedback. We weren’t weird for feeling this way. Over 35 years later, I still find this a rewarding experience. One of the reasons is that it allows me an opportunity to experience flow.
A well-known research psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (he has humorously explained that his name is pronounced “chicks send me high”) has described this state as having several characteristics. Amazingly, in our job as ESL instructors, we often get to experience this.
Look at what happens when we are checking a set of essays and how that activity can lead to the euphoric experience of flow:
(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
“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:
How to teach ESL writing
The ultimate goal of an academic ESL writing course is to help students develop the tools that they will be able to use in writing assignments in mainstream academic class like English composition, psychology, history, business etc.
The job of the ESL writing instructor is not, contrary to what some might think, to lead students to write deep or complex ideas. That is what mainstream instructors will do. Our job is to help them develop the tools or techniques that they can use to clearly organize and explain their ideas, no matter how simple or profound those ideas might be.
The success of this approach
At our college, we’ve based our academic ESL writing courses on teaching those tools. To determine the effectiveness of our approach, we’ve track the success rate of students who have completed our academic ESL program. Over the past 15 years, approximately 95% of those international students received an “A” or “B” in English 101. In the years prior to using this approach, when the focus was on deep ideas and research papers rather than clarity of expression, only about 75% got an A or B.
What writing skills do students need?
The foundation of our writing courses is constructed on what skills mainstream instructors would like their in-coming (first-year) students to have. To find this out, I interviewed over 50 instructors at two universities and a community college.