For some strange reason, some ESL instructors think they can improve any activity by making it as some kind of competition between students or between groups. Unfortunately, doing this can be counterproductive and actually discourage the most serious students.
To illustrate, consider an information-gap activity like the one from the March 1st posting Another Conversation Activity: Listen to Partner and Ask Questions to Complete Information-Gap Chart . In this, pairs of students fill in missing information in a schedule by talking, asking questions, and using clarification strategies.
Imagine the teacher tells the students that he will give a prize to the pair who finishes the schedule first. This is what will happen and how students will miss out on the skills that the activity is meant to develop.
I conducted a survey of 26 students to find out how they felt about getting red marks, which indicated grammar mistakes, on their writing assignments. I was motivated to do this after some colleagues had told me students get upset or dejected when they see these, so they only marked a few mistakes, and one even changed to a different color, thinking that, like her, students associated red marks with something negative.
Three types of marks on students papers
When I give students feedback on their writing assignments, I want them to notice three things:
- Good writing points. These are ideas, details, examples, expressions, sentence styles, grammar that they did well. I underline these in GREEN to indicate good. (See Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique for more details.)
- Weak grammar points. These are grammar mistakes or wordings that they should revise to improve their papers. I try to indicate these in a way that seem like a puzzle that can be stimulating for students to discover. I use RED to indicate these. (See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills for more details.)
- Places to improve content. These are places where students could improve their papers by adding details and/or including examples. I use BLUE to indicate these. (See “Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays and The Huge Advantage International Student Writers Have Over Their American Classmates for more details.)
The survey question to students: If you could only have one type of mark on your papers, which one would you choose?
If those colleagues who thought students were upset by red marks (grammar mistakes) were right, then it would seem that the students would not choose that option, and in fact, probably prefer the Green (good parts) option. Spoiler Alert: that didn’t happen.
Everything that we say to our students can have a big impact. For us ESL instructors that can be exhilarating, but it’s also a big responsibility. Unfortunately, without realizing it, some instructors are sending the wrong message to students with “innocent” comments. These are four statements that are in this category.
1) Teacher’s statement: Just before handing out the quiz, she says, “This quiz will be easy.”
Message that students get: If a student starts the quiz and notices that it isn’t easy, he’s likely to think, “Wow! I must be stupid. This quiz is supposed to be easy. My classmates probably know all this.”
What the message should be: “This quiz will help us see how well you’ve developed your skills so far and what we’ll need to practice more.”
2) Teacher’s statement: “You have all worked so hard this week, so I won’t give you any homework. I want you all to just enjoy your weekend.”
Message that students get: “Homework is painful. It just interferes with free time. It’s best if we can avoid it.”
What the message should be: “I’ve prepared a homework assignment that will lead you to developing your skills more. It’s going to help you do well on our assignments next week and in the class that you will be in next term.”
This posting includes sample lessons that give students a lot of autonomy.
The most important ingredient for motivating students is autonomy. 1 The sense of being autonomous can produce a very positive effect on students’ attitude, focus and their performance. Best of all, it’s very effective and quite easy to include this in ESL classes.
Having autonomy doesn’t mean that students decide what is taught in a lesson. Instead, students can experience autonomy if the lesson is set up so that they can individually choose which exercise to do first, second etc., how fast to work, when to ask the teacher a question or for help and even when to take a break.
A lesson plan template that gives students autonomy (Writing Workshop)
Teachers can organize their lesson in a Writing Workshop using many different types of materials, but it works best when using inductive exercises. That is because inductive exercises require little or no time taken up with teacher lectures.
These are General Steps for a Writing Workshop and Sample Specific Lesson with handouts
In general, teachers can lose credibility in the eyes of their students by asking them what they want to learn. The teacher is the professional in the room and should know what the students should study.
However, there are situations in which former students’ insights can be valuable. Surveying these students about what would have been helpful for them to have learned in our classes from their new perspective can give us an awareness of students’ needs beyond our classrooms.
Example of needs-analysis surveys of former students
This process will give you, your colleagues, administrators, and most of all, your students great confidence in what you and your colleagues are teaching your students. It will serve as a legitimate basis for the goals and outcomes of your courses.
This empowering process is called a needs analysis. It is one of the most important things I have ever done as a professional, and I’ve done this everywhere I’ve taught.
And on top of all that, it can be stimulating and rewarding to do.
In brief, a needs analysis in an ESL context means finding out what skills students will need in order to be successful in the future. The future can be the following term when they will be in the next level of a program; it can be when they finish their ESL instruction and will be in college courses (e..g. English Comp); it can be when they are traveling abroad; it can be when they enter the workforce.
These range from simple surveys of a small group of former students to more involved interviews with college instructors.
How to find out what skills students need to know once they leave our course or our program
- What is the incentive that makes you study hard in school?
- Who do you think had the greatest impact on what you like to do: your mother, father, a relative, a friend, or a teacher?
- In this class, is there someone who has a distinct characteristic, for example, a way of talking, a hairstyle, a tattoo, a type of clothing, or a habit? Explain.
- Think about your life. Tell about a time when your life seemed unstable.
- Let’s say that you are a parent. What rule do you think that you would impose on your teenage children?
- Name a person whom you know that has an expertise in something? __________ What does that person have an expertise in?
Which of these two sentences below would be more fun for you to answer?
1) What is one significant event that happened in the world this past year?
2) What is one significant event that happened to you this past year?
Which of those two sentences would be more fun for you to hear your friend answer?
Which of those two sentences would be more likely to help you internalize the word “significant”?
It seems that the second one tends to be much more stimulating for students to answer. And, on top of that, it seems be the type of question which will help students retain the meaning of the word.
A few years ago, I started to add an additional vocabulary exercise titled “Applied Vocabulary” to the more traditional ones that I was assigning my students. In this, each new vocabulary word is embedded in a personal question about the students’ lives and experiences. For example: