Tag Archives: engaging students

Making the Perfect Mixture of Structure and Autonomy in Conversation Activities (Customizing Exercises)

conversation autonomy

Conversational Autonomy

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
Here is the link to the exercise handout:  Expressing opinions

“Ms. Brown, do we really have to do anything we want to do again today?”*  Ms. Brown is probably an extreme case of instructors who try to give their students autonomy because they believe students know best what they are interested in.

The chances are that you are from a different culture, different generation and/or different socio-economic group from your students.  You probably have a different marital status, different interests and/or different goals.  So how can you tap into what will be most stimulating for your students to talk about when they are practicing conversational techniques?  In other words, how can you customize the exercise for your current group of students?

A key phrase in the question is “conversational techniques.”  Students should be learning techniques that they can apply in conversational situations.  Some technique examples are: beginning a conversation, giving understanding responses, clarifying something, politely interrupting someone, rephrasing something, soliciting details, giving opinions, summarizing what was said, ending a conversation.

Let’s say Ms. Brown wants her students to practice giving opinions.  To customize the activity, she tells the students to think of topics that are interesting to them, get into groups and tell their opinions.  But, without any kind of structure, the students will probably just take turns monologuing, not actually engaging in a conversation.

The “perfect mix” of structure and customizing involves three parts:

Part 1) Introductory exercise
Students are introduced to the technique and briefly work with some examples of how it is used in conversational situations.  In other words, they don’t just mindlessly read some sample dialogs.

Part 2)  Structured exercise
Using questions or prompts, students practice in pairs/small groups.

Part 3) Customizing exercise
Using Steps 1 and Steps 2 as models, students in pairs write prompts or questions.  Then in new groups, they use these student-made items to further practice the technique.

To demonstrate this perfect mix, we’ll look at how Ms. Brown could have made her “giving-opinions” activity more productive and engaging.

The conversational techniques they will practice in this example are;
1) using natural statements to express an opinion;
2) using natural statements to agree;
3) using natural statements to disagree.

Here are samples of Parts 1-4.

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Playing Computer Games until 2 a.m. or Lack of Awareness (Subordination Part 2)

Computer games

My students at 2 a. m.?

 (This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

“I like summer because it’s hot.”  Pretty simplistic, right?   The assignment was to write six sentences using subordinators as part of a review of them in my advanced class.  That sentence was the type that I got from some of my students.

My first impulse was to attribute this to a lack of motivation, or to staying up until 2 a.m. playing video games, or to immaturity.  I found out that I was wrong (or at least partial wrong).

A few of my “better” students would write more sophisticated sentences like, Because of the recent refugee crisis in Europe, some Europeans are starting to question their immigration policies.”   When I shared some of these advanced sentences with the “simple-style” students, they seemed quite surprised that they should have been trying to write like that.  They thought that just using a subordinator in sentence was enough to fulfill the assignment.  I realized that I hadn’t presented the challenge clearly enough.  Here is my remedy which completely turned these students around.

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Fun & Student-Centered  Speaking/Listening Activity: Truth or Lie

owl and hat

The owl and the hat

One of my students, Sebastian, told our Conversation class this experience: “I was on a hike in the Hundred Acre Woods (a forest near campus).  It was a beautiful morning.  The sun was shining through the tree branches.  Suddenly, I heard a wooshing sound near my head.  Something attacked my head.  And then my hat was gone.  I looked up and notice an owl flying away with my hat.

The Sebastian left the room, and Kenji came in and told this experience:  “One day, I was walking in the Hundred Acre Woods.  I had a small backpack with my lunch in it.  I was wearing a jacket and a baseball hat.  All of a sudden, I heard a sound near my head, and before I could look up, an owl took my hat and flew away with it.”

Which of these students, Sebastian or Kenji actually had this experience?  Finding this out is the goal of this “Truth or Lie” game.  The students love it.

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Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Part 1 Overview)

Culture

Studying about the reasons for cultural differences

This post may sound like I am contradicting a previous post of March 13th, “Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills”   Despite my support for segregated skills in general, an integrated skills course with higher-level students who are more homogeneous in ability can be effective and practical.

For an integrated skills 1 course to be effective and engaging to the students, the subject should be something which is inherently appealing to the majority of the students.  After all, the students will be spending the course time reading, writing, and talking about the subject.

One subject which has been enthusiastically received by both students and instructors is culture, and more specifically, differences in cultures and the reason for these differences.

Some examples of these are:

-Why are people in western cultures more likely than people from eastern cultures to smile at a stranger standing at a bus stop than?

-In a study of 4-year-olds, why did the Asian children spontaneously share their candy with another child but the American children only reluctantly share when asked.

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Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills

Startup Stock Photos

After the first day at a college I had previously taught at, I noticed a long line of students outside our EAP (English for Academic Purposes) 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 had not been placed in the right level.

I soon discovered that this was a common occurrence on the first day of each term in that program.

The courses in that EAP program were organized around integrated skills, so each student was placed into one of five levels for all five hours of instruction. 1 By the end of the first day, students were quick to notice that some of their classmates were weaker than they were in some skills (e.g. speaking) but higher in others (e.g. reading).  They also were aware that some of the activities during the course of the day, depending on the skill, were right at their level, but others were above or below.

It’s not too surprising that this would happen.  New students had been given a placement exam that tested multiple skills: reading, writing, speaking, listening and grammar.  The exam resulted in one score, and their level was determined by that one score.  That seemed to be the crux of the problem. 

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Conversation class: Necessary ingredients for successful pair work (from research)

Engaging pairs

Engaging pairs

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.

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Introduction to Teaching ESL Conversation: Effective Pair/Group Activities

 

pair

Effective pair conversation

How to teach ESL conversation

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching a conversation class is that when you teach your ESL students conversation techniques, you get to hear them talk about their culture, their experiences, opinions and dreams.

A student-centered approach doesn’t mean the teacher just puts students in groups, gives them a topic and tells them to talk about it.  It doesn’t even mean that the students are put in pairs (Student A/Student B), given two different “information gap” papers and told to complete the exercise by talking.

A student-centered approach to conversation-skill development is much more than that.

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