When I was living in Japan and in Africa, I occasionally met a non-native English speaker who spoke almost fluent English with clear pronunciation, natural intonation and mature vocabulary and had great listening skills. Naturally, I assumed that they must have spent time in an English-speaking country or had English-speaking friends or a tutor, but all of them told me that they had never left their country and had little contact with English speakers. However, I soon learned that all of them had one thing in common: each of them had developed their oral skills through one fairly simple technique.
After the first day of the term a few years ago, I noticed a long line of students outside our Academic ESL (English for Academic Purposes—EAP) director’s office. It was my first day teaching in this program, so, needless to say, I was curious. It turns out these students all felt that they were not in the right level.
I soon discovered that this was a common occurrence on the first day of each term. During that first term for me, we made a change to the format of the courses. After that, students rarely complained about being in the wrong level. And students’ skills improved substantially. Here is what we did.
Some students (and even some native-English speakers!) think that a good conversationalist is someone who just asks a lot of questions. Anyone who has tried to have a conversation with my former roommate (name unmentioned here) will know that that’s not true.
Do you want someone to feel like they have interesting idea? Ask follow-up questions.
The second activity involves maintaining and extending the conversation by questions about what their partner has said. It’s called “Using Follow-Up Questions.”
All over the world and on almost every campus, there is a need for well-qualified teachers/tutors who understand grammar terms and who can “lead” ESL students to discover and correct their own mistakes, and by so doing, become better at self-editing. Unfortunately, many teachers/tutors merely tell students what their mistakes are and how to correct them. This approach has been proven to be ineffective at making students aware of their mistakes and at helping them become independent. The purpose of this posting is to give a brief introduction to an innovative and at the same time straight-forward techniques which teachers/tutors can use when conferencing individually with students about their writing assignments.
An important ingredient for making pair work activities successful learning experiences would seem to be active involvement on the part of both members; and it seems obvious that certain tasks would produce more involvement than others. In fact, research has been conducted on the type of communication present when pairs are involved in one-way and two-way tasks.
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.