During the week of December 6-10, I’ll be responding to questions posted online about teaching conversation skills in LINCS’ “English Acquisition” Discussion Group.
LINCS (Literacy Information and Communication System) is a division of the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to discussion groups, it contains many resources for teachers.
Here is a link to the announcement: DATE SAVER: Week of Dec. 6 –A Learner-Centered Approach to Teaching Conversation — Discussion with David Kehe!
Everyone can read the discussion, but if you’d like to participate in it by adding a comment or asking a question, you can set up a LINCS account for free: Create a LINCS account
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.
You’ll probably wonder what an experiment involving a bucket of ice has to do with teaching ESL but bear with me.
In The Power of Moments by Heath & Heath, the authors discuss an interesting psychological experiment in which participants were subjected to two different versions of an unpleasant experience.
The first trial had subjects submerge a hand in 57-degree (14°C) water for 60 seconds.
The second trial had participants submerge the other hand in 57-degree water for 60 seconds yet they then kept their hand underwater for an additional 30 seconds, during which time the temperature raised to 59 degrees (15°C).
Next, participants were asked “Would you rather repeat the first trial or the second?” Amazingly, two-thirds of the participants chose to re-do the second trial, even though they were exposed to uncomfortably cold temperatures for a longer time. Researchers concluded that participants chose the second, longer trial because they preferred the memory of that second trial or disliked it less. In other words, people judge an experience by how the event ends. Psychologists refer to this as the “peak-end rule.”
This can also explain why 2-week vacations are not necessarily remembered more fondly as 1-week ones. What seems to matter is how they end.
Similarly, negative endings can leave us with a bad impression about what had been a pleasurable experience up until then. A common example is a breakup of a relationship as we clearly recall the painful final interaction.
How this applies to teaching ESL.
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.