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.
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 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.
*(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
Sometimes I get the feeling that some of my ESL students (including advanced ones) believe that there are a limited number of “who” and “which” out there, and they are afraid of using them all up before they die.
The problem happens when students are trying to write more advanced styles with a dependent and independent clause in a sentence.
Mistake: The people are walking their dogs should keep them on a leash.
Correction: The people WHO are walking their dogs should keep them on a leash.
Mistake: I try to give money to charities help homeless people.
Correction: I try to give money to charities WHICH help homeless people. *
I’ve also notice that this mistake often happens when students start a sentence with “there”.
Mistake: There was an accident happened near my house.
Correction: There was an accident WHICH happened near my house. *
* We could substitute the word THAT for WHICH in these sentences.
Solution: Helping students with this. (Handout included.)