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The Writing Paradox

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBGareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘My students don’t want to write’.

I was sitting on the tram this morning watching at least three teenagers talking to each other. I didn’t know the exact number, why? Well there were two girls standing in front of me but the conversation was taking place in two ways – one was a face-to-face conversation and one was a text message conversation with person or persons unseen. The texter was revealing information that was making the girls giggle and laugh and then they were composing replies together, carefully choosing the right words. After pressing send they would chat to each other while impatiently waiting for the next text.

When I got home I started looking at the responses of the survey that OUP ran regarding writing in the classroom, the comments from around the world had a similar theme, ‘they don’t even write in their own language’, ‘pace of life is very fast and they don’t have time to write’, ‘writing is a bore’.  This created a curious paradox in my mind.

The written word is becoming more and more important in terms of communication – emails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube comments all require writing skills. Yet students don’t see a link between these and what they are doing in class.  So what are the differences?

Possibly in class or as homework writing is seen as a solitary task, a task to do alone, but as the girls showed on the tram writing became fun when they were working together, crafting the perfect line to send to their friend. So can we make class writing a collaborative task and would this increase motivation?

The girls were writing on a screen, maybe pen and paper seems old fashioned to teenage students, they probably never write a note or a letter. So can we save writing activities for our hour in the computer room or allow students to do their writing tasks on their mobile phones or tablets?

The girls on the tram were communicating but do classroom writing tasks feel like a communicative activity or just a chore, an exercise to be marked? For writing to have meaning it needs an audience. So can the students write to each and reply to each other in class? Or do we as teachers need to reply to the content of the piece of writing as well as assess it and correct it? I like to reply with a list of questions that the text left unanswered, this might encourage the student to write back or rewrite the text.

Are students too worried about the mistakes being there in black and white for the world to see? I think it is important for teachers to set criteria for the writing assessment and not focus on every little mistake. So for example, for this task I will be looking at your articles. Also calling the writing ‘a draft’ helps students to understand that they can make mistakes as long as they are willing to redraft and improve.

Even worse than mistakes for teenagers might be that they are writing their hopes and feelings down in black and white for the world to see. One of the benefits of asking students to work alone is that they might open up and share things, but they won’t do that if they fear the teacher will make their writing public. The girls on the tram knew exactly who their audience was, so let the students know who the audience will be – other students, the whole school or just the teacher. Maybe allow them to choose themselves whether the writing is public or private.

So we can see that a few changes to our classroom management techniques can help to make writing a more enjoyable activity but we still need to show students how important writing is. An easy way to do this is to do this quick 5 minute activity.

Write the following on the board –

Whatsapp message, Facebook comment, text message, phone call, tweet, email, face to face.

Call each one out and ask students to put their hand up if they’ve communicated with that tool in the last 24 hours. Then ask students to categorise if they are writing or speaking tools.

This shows them that writing is something they do all the time in their own language whether they realise it or not. So it might be a skill they want to practise in English too.

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Supporting Young English Language and Literacy Learners

pass the bombMany believe that the acquisition of oral language must precede learning to read and write in a second language. Yet, the integration of reading- writing- speaking-listening- thinking may not only enhance, but also, clarify L2 language learning in communicative settings.  In this post Marylou M. Matoush, introduces her forthcoming webinar on supporting young second language learners as they develop biliteracy.

In our volume, Focus on Literacy, my colleague, Danling Fu, and I discussed the idea that “languaging pushes thinking while thinking pushes and extends languaging.” We used the term “languaging-as-thinking” to describe the process of “doing language, literacy, and learning while being and becoming (Fu & Matoush, 2014, pp. 14-15).” Active languaging-as-thinking while learning to read-write-speak-listen leads to bilingual/biliterate communicative competence, particularly when it is done for purposes that students see as meaningful and authentic.

Active languaging-as-thinking takes place during discussions before, during, and after reading. Just as significantly, it also takes place during the drafting of pieces of written communication and during interactions about the revision of those pieces of writing.  And, when teachers view reading as an opportunity for students to see, hear, and respond to language and view writing as an opportunity for students to give voice to their own interests, inclinations, and ideas, they lead students on the journey to becoming thoughtful biliterates via:

  • Language acquisition that’s connected to home language and cultures
  • Voiced, personally meaningful language and literacy
  • Opportunities to develop cognitive flexibility as well as linguistic flexibility

Instructional emphasis on active languaging-as-thinking impacts student’s understandings of L2 language and literacy and their feelings of self-efficacy regarding L2 language and literacy learning. Further, such an emphasis impacts their identity development as empowered biliterate language users who can choose how, when, where, and with whom they are able to communicate because they learn to make social, cultural, and linguistic choices that can reflect those identities.

Bilingual/Biliterate Development

Second language learners construct “one language system” not “two separate language systems” (Genesee, 2002). This newly acquired system develops gradually as students develop linguistic, cultural, social, and personal understandings. The developmental process is unique to each and learners develop at their own rates and according to their own particular sequence. This requires new language and literacy acquisition to be understood in terms of each student’s home language, culture and social interactions, their experiences with L1 literacy learning, as well as the personal interests, abilities, and inclinations that determine each individual’s use of language and literacy.  Because these factors are unique to each student, supporting each student through the process of becoming biliterate is not a simple task.

Supporting Bilingual/Biliterate Growth

“Don’t expect perfection, expect growth.”

– Linda Hoyt

Many instructional approaches focus on correct, native-like language use for L2 learners.  Yet, primary school learners are grounded in home-based language practices that are “transformed” (Grosjean, 1989) as a new interlanguage system develops. The “multicompetence” (Cook, 1991) that results from this process of transformation suggests that learning should be viewed in terms of “interlanguage” growth rather than in terms of the “target language” (Firth and Wagner, 1997). There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that this applies to both oral and written language development among primary school learners as well as among older students. In fact, Fu (2009) observed adolescent L2 writers and noted that many students visibly progressed from home language writing, to mixed language writing, to the clear use of interlanguage and that this progression occurred prior to the use of conventional English.

Similarly, many instructional approaches focus on bilingual or oral language development prior to biliterate or written language development. Yet, reading-writing-listening-speaking-thinking develop into a single, integrated interlanguage system in which written language supports oral language acquisition, just as oral language supports written language acquisition. Also, both oral and written language lacquisition are supported by:

  • realia (physical objects)
  • gestures, movements, and other kinesthetic involvement
  • illustrations and other representations
  • personal experiences grounded in home language and culture
  • shared events and experiences
  • meaningful social uses of language

The forthcoming webinar will focus on how these and other active languaging supports that enhance L2 biliteracy learning among diverse primary school students. A few practical, low-cost ideas for generating text that can be used for instructional purposes will be included.

 

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Cook, V. (1991). The poverty-of-the-stimulus argument and multicompetence.  Second Language Research 7, 103–17.

Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (1997) On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modern Language Journal, 81. 285-300.

Fu, D. (2009). Writing between languages: How English language learners make the transition to fluency. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fu, D. & Matoush, M. M. (2014). Focus on literacy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Genesee, F. (2002). Portrait of a bilingual child. In Vivian Cook (Ed.), Portraits of the L2 User. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 167-196.

Grosjean, F. (1989). Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person.  Brain and Language 36, 3-15.

 

 


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Assessment in the multi-level classroom

Frustrated student at work in classroomIt can be tricky to test classes of students who come from very different learning backgrounds. Stacey Hughes, teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, offers some advice.

Testing and assessment are important in any classroom. In addition to the obvious goal of finding out if students have learned what is required for the end of term or year, assessment also gives teachers information about what students might need more work on. It can also motivate students to study, giving them a sense of achievement as they learn (Ur:1996).

A multilevel class poses additional challenges to the teacher. It could be argued that all classes to a certain extent are multi-level. However, for the purpose of this article, multi-level will be defined as those classrooms with students who come from very different learning backgrounds, or those in which students have very different levels of proficiency. Assessment in these situations needs to be fair for all students and needs to provide enough challenge or support so as not to bore or overstretch students. Here are some ideas for assessment:

1. Set individualised targets

You could consider setting individualised targets (or get your students to set their own). In order to assess students on their achievement of their target, you may need different assessment criteria and this difference needs to be made clear at the outset. As long as the assessment is not part of a final grade (and instead part of ongoing assessment for the purposes outlined above), students will be unlikely to opt for an easier option than they are capable of. Here are some examples:

a) Choose the 5 key words you think are absolutely necessary for all students to learn, several more that would be good for them to learn and a final few that would be great if they could learn. Assign the words to each student (or get them to choose their own level of challenge). Assess students on the words you have assigned or that they have chosen.
b) Set different word limits for paragraphs and essays. At the lowest level, ask students to write a 50-word paragraph. The next level might be a 100-word paragraph while the highest level might be two 100-word paragraphs. A similar design can be made for speaking tasks.
c) Set different criteria for writing or speaking. If a student’s work is hard to read because of spelling, set the target of improving spelling and assess only on that. Another student might not have problems spelling, but may have poor subject/verb agreement, so instead, make this the focus of the assessment.

2. Break your targets into manageable chunks

Create a master list of targets for yourself, and assign 2-3 targets at a time for students.
This has the effect of making learning manageable. Some students may already be quite good at word stress, for example, while others, possibly from L1 interference, might need to work a lot on their pronunciation.

Your master list should be comprehensive and cover all language areas. For pronunciation, it might include:

a) Correct word stress on vocabulary words
b) Clear distinction between /s/, /z/ and /Id/ in past tense
c) Rising intonation on yes/no questions

For speaking, it might look like this:

a. Can ask and respond to questions about likes and dislikes
b. Can speak about likes and dislikes for 1 minute
c. Can give reasons or examples for likes and dislikes

3. Differentiate between assessment questions and let students choose their level of challenge

Again, this will work best if the assessment is not marked or graded.

a) For a reading or listening assessment, provide many different questions, and ask students to answer more for higher levels of challenge. For example, the Level 1 challenge could be to answer questions 1-3, Level 2 could be questions 1-5 and Level 3 could be questions 1-7. If you set this kind of task, make sure each question increases in difficulty.
b) Allow for levelling in answers. Level 1 challenge answers could be 1-2 words or yes/no questions, while level 3 challenge answers could be whole sentences or open-ended questions.
c) Provide optional hints for those who need it. Students could choose to do the assessment with or without hints, for example. This works well in conjunction with digital or online assessments.

4. Provide a place for students to go next

At the end of the term or school year, it is customary to test whether or not students have reached the learning goals for the course. For those students who aren’t yet ready to progress, make sure they have a class to go into that isn’t just a repeat of the level they have just done. Some courses provide a middle level between levels that caters for those weaker students, for example, English File 3rd edition Intermediate Plus. In this way, weaker students don’t feel penalised, but feel a sense of achievement in having completed a level.

Assessing students in a multi-level class differently according to their level can benefit all students by providing the right amount of challenge. This can be encouraging and create a positive atmosphere of achievement in the classroom. I hope you enjoy trying out some of these ideas.

References & Further Reading

English club. (n.d.). Teaching multilevel classes. Found at: https://www.englishclub.com/teaching-tips/teaching-multi-level-classes.htm.
Accessed 30/04/14.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: practice and theory. Cambridge: CUP.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Moving into EAP: navigating the transition

EAP English for academic purposesWhat exactly is EAP and how should it be taught? Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, discusses the challenges and opportunities for teachers moving in this area of English language teaching ahead of his webinar on the subject. 

First and foremost, you’ll want to know what EAP really is. ‘What is EAP?’ might sound like a straightforward question, but there’s quite a lot to it. For some people EAP means study skills – for example making notes while listening to a lecture – yet there’s much more to EAP than this.

It’s helpful to start with the three key words in EAP – English, Academic, Purposes – and look at each of these in turn.

What English should we focus on?

English is such a vast language that we need to be clear about what’s most relevant for our students, and spend time on this. We simply don’t have the time to cover everything.

For vocabulary, it’s useful to divide the language up into three broad groups:

• Core vocabulary – the most frequent words including prepositions and determiners, and frequent nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs
• Academic vocabulary – this is central to EAP and includes all the words which express meanings in any discipline, for example ‘argument’, ‘in terms of’, and ‘significantly’
• Technical vocabulary – this includes discipline-specific vocabulary, such as ‘genome’ (genetics) and ‘flotation’ (economics and finance).

In EAP we need to focus mainly on the first two of these – core and academic. Learning subject-specific words is beyond the scope of most EAP programmes, which tend to be general (i.e. where students of different disciplines study together in the same classes) rather than specific (where classes are built round students from similar disciplines, such as engineering or economics).

In addition, there’s grammar. As Ron Carter and Michael McCarthy have pointed out, ‘there are no special structures which are unique to academic English and never found elsewhere’. What’s strikingly different is the frequency and complexity of grammatical structures in academic language. For instance, the passive is far more frequent, accounting for about 25% of all main verbs in academic texts. Complex noun phrases are very frequent too – look out for examples like ‘a difficult investment climate characterized by over-regulation’ and unpack these in your EAP classroom.

What does Academic really mean?

We’ve all got our own experiences of academic life and culture – the schools and universities we’ve studied at and the places where we’ve taught. In EAP we have to prepare our students to survive in a context which potentially has three shocks: academic shock, language shock, and culture shock. Academic institutions like universities have their own cultures and ways of doing things. There are different academic communities – to some extent artists behave differently from biologists. But there are many things in common, such as the principle of academic honesty (don’t use other people’s material without acknowledgment) and the necessity to communicate.

What Purposes are there?

The main purpose of EAP is to enable students to be able to study effectively in their chosen programme, in English. To do this, students need considerable autonomy. Autonomy and independence don’t just happen – in short, EAP teachers need to enable students to learn how to be more autonomous. Students need to learn how to study effectively, individually and collaboratively with other students. And they need many other skills and competences, such as how to search for source texts to use in their writing and speaking.

There’s another, more distant, purpose to EAP. Most students aren’t doing further study in English for its own sake. Rather, it’s a means to an end – a professional purpose.

So, there’s a lot going on in the field of EAP. In my webinar on Thursday 20th November we’ll be exploring this through the lens of ‘E’, ‘A’ and ‘P’. Join us and see what it all adds up to!


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Feedback on academic writing – Part Three

proofreading for English language students in EAPThis is the final article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares some proofreading tips to help students to reduce careless errors and spelling mistakes.

How often do you remind your students to check their work carefully before they hand it in, then despair of all the careless errors and spelling mistakes that still pepper their writing, especially in a world with spellcheckers? But is proofreading your own writing really that easy?

The importance of accuracy

Accuracy in academic writing is particularly valued. In an academic context, an argument or a piece of research that contains errors and inaccuracies will not be seen as credible. Similarly, it can be difficult for subject tutors reading a piece of student writing to judge whether inaccuracies from a non-native speaker student are a product of flawed thinking or simply a result of language weaknesses. A long text full of minor language errors puts pressure on the reader, as they have to keep reprocessing sentences to extract the correct meaning. In this case, it’s easy to lose the thread of the argument or for the writer’s message to get lost, thus detracting from the academic content.

Teaching proofreading techniques

There’s no simple solution to eliminating those frustrating surface errors, but you can help students by explicitly teaching a few techniques they can use to proofread their writing.

A first step is to raise students’ awareness of their own specific weak points. It’s easy to assume that students know where they make the most mistakes, but often their attention is elsewhere. With every class I teach, I have a session where I ask them to bring in as many pieces of writing they’ve had feedback on (from me or other teachers) as possible. I then get them to go through and systematically count up and classify their error types (with articles, prepositions, noun-verb agreement, etc.) They pick out their top 3 or 4 error types and we work on ways that they can systematically search for and identify those errors in their writing.

This short activity from Oxford EAP Advanced is really useful for highlighting and discussing practical proofreading techniques:

feedback_academic_part3

 

It amazes me every time how many of them don’t have their computer spell-check set to English!

Dictionary skills

With a background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of teaching dictionary skills and encouraging students to use a dictionary and thesaurus both when they’re writing and when they’re checking their work. In class, I jump at any opportunity to turn to the dictionary to demonstrate to students how they can use it to check not just meaning, but collocations, dependent prepositions, following clause structures, etc. I’m particularly looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my classes which focuses specifically on the academic uses of words.

I also try to find time to introduce students to using a thesaurus. Often when they try reading something they’ve written aloud (a useful technique for checking that a text flows), they notice they’ve repeated a particular word or phrase too often. I point students in the direction of the Oxford Learner’s Thesauruswhich explains the similarities and subtle differences between sets of synonyms, helping them to choose an appropriate alternative to avoid those awkward repetitions.

Armed with a few simple tools and techniques, I hope that by the end of their EAP course, my students are better equipped to improve their academic writing style and to tidy up their own final drafts. Many of them are incredibly bright cookies in their own disciplines and I’d hate for them to let themselves down with a few awkward collocations or misplaced prepositions!

This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.

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