Allowing students greater agency in their learning can be a liberating experience. Rather than the teacher as expert, inquiry-based learning allows learners to assume the responsibility of becoming experts of the knowledge they are constructing through a process self-discovery and trial and error, while the teacher’s role is to monitor their students’ process of constructing new meaning and step in when they need help. Continue reading
Trio Writing authors Alice Savage and Colin Ward offer 6 practical activities to help your beginner level students write successfully in English.
For native speakers, a writing process that starts with a plan and ends with sentence-level editing makes sense. However, non-native writers have different challenges, especially at the introductory level. Fortunately, process writing is not set in stone. We can adapt it to suit our students’ needs.
The first step is to identify those needs. Lower level ELLs need language, lots of it, and early on. They may also need extra support in meeting the expectations of target language readers.
The following classroom activities offer options for tweaking the standard writing process. They are meant to be flexible, working tools that can be used individually or together depending on the unique characteristics of a class and its goals.
1. Front-load with language
Students who sign up for a low level English writing class bring very little language with them, so it makes sense to start with vocabulary and grammar, but which vocabulary and grammar? Fortunately, the prompt itself points the way.
For example, in a beginning writing class, the prompt What does your country look like? suggests the target language. The vocabulary elements might include mountains, beaches, rivers, a desert, and other place nouns. Adjectives such as green, tropical, tall, beautiful would also be helpful. The grammar lesson might include the plural –s and There is/ there are.
Pulling all these elements together can already feel like an uphill climb; however, the lesson can be made more efficient if the language is taught in chunks. Consider using images to teach beautiful mountains, tropical beaches, or a large desert. Then set up activities that allow students to mix and match to create new patterns such as the following:
Use the words to make phrases about your country. Add a for singular, and –s for plural. Then fill in the chart below.
In the example above, students practice vocabulary and grammar to produce accurate sentences that are ready to go when it is time to write a paragraph about their country.
The activity can also be extended by eliciting additional adjectives and nouns related to the students’ own contexts.
2. Conference at the point of need
One on one conferencing is generally helpful for all writers, but it can be adapted to suit the particular needs of ELLs. Multi-lingual writers may need more direct guidance if they are to meet the expectations of L1 readers. A simple checklist can provide both focus and flexibility for this task. In the example below, developed for a two-paragraph assignment, the teacher may comment on all items, but targets only one for the conference. This focus keeps the revision manageable for the low level English learner.
- The assignment indicates the student has gone off topic, and the conference will focus on planning for a new draft.
- Paragraphing might include options for rearranging content to develop ideas and shape them into paragraphs.
- Language focuses on vocabulary, grammar, mechanics and/or other syntax issues.
- Ideas discusses ways that a strong student might stretch their skills by elaborating or even adding an additional paragraph.
3. Share the revision process
Peer interaction helps English learners develop both language and writing skills. The following activities can be implemented during conferencing or any stage of development where students need review or practice. The first partner activity below practices grammar and vocabulary, while the second focuses on paragraph awareness.
4. Repurpose peer review
Students can sometimes treat peer review as an error hunt, but peer readers can play other roles as well. For example, why not make the reader more of an active listener by asking questions to help the writer clarify ideas?
Teachers can also set a quick and motivating publishing stage by having writers exchange final drafts and directing them to simply enjoy and respond to one another’s ideas. This gives beginning writers the chance to have their final draft read without being evaluated.
Even beginners can write a paragraph or two when the process is tweaked to meet their needs. By going a little lower, a little slower, and rethinking the writing process from the perspective of language learners, it’s possible to help students succeed from the very beginning.
All materials adapted from Trio Writing by Alice Savage and Colin Ward, Oxford University Press
An earlier version of this article first appeared on englishendeavors.org. If you’d like to read more ideas for the English language classroom, click here.
Colin Ward looks at how to support students to think critically in the language classroom. Colin is a Professor of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, Texas. He is also a co-author of Q: Skills for Success and the forthcoming Trio Writing, both published by Oxford University Press.
As teachers, it’s not always easy to embrace uncertainty. There is comfort in knowing exactly what a lesson will cover, what questions are going to be asked, and how students are supposed to respond.
However, a paradigm shift often occurs when teachers push students toward thinking critically. By its very nature, critical thinking brings teachers and students to a much more ambiguous place. There is no single correct answer—but many. Teachers are asked to adopt a “pedagogy of questions” instead of a “pedagogy of answers.” 4 They might not have all the answers, and answers might themselves be in the form of questions.
Managing such ambiguity in the classroom is no simple task, yet many researchers continue to cite the benefits of teaching students to think critically. Evidence suggests that teaching critical thinking in the language classroom improves both speaking and writing and increases motivation.11 Kabilan goes so far as to suggest that foreign language learners are not truly proficient until they can think critically and creatively in the target language. 7
In addition to embracing ambiguity, teachers must grapple with what “critical thinking” actually is, for there are countless definitions in the literature.9 Is it making decisions independently? Developing criteria for analyzing one’s own thinking? Evaluating different perspectives, forming opinions, and taking action? Making inferences? Challenging assumptions? Withholding judgment?
In fact, critical thinking has become an umbrella term encompassing all of these skills. In looking at the literature, it also becomes clear that critical thinking is not a one-off task, but a journey, where students must discover and evaluate what they believe, why they believe it, and how new evidence challenges or supports what they believe. It is a journey, but one that requires several stops along the way. Part of our role as educators is to scaffold this journey of inquiry for our students.
In class, the first step of this journey often starts with a thought-provoking question. What does it mean to be polite? Why do things yourself? Does advertising harm or help us? Questions such as these allow for multiple viewpoints and set a trajectory. Questions also motivate students because they become a puzzle to be solved. 3
At this stage, teachers must consider students’ abilities, and scaffold appropriately. 8 Before asking students to share their opinions, for example, instructors may first need to give them the language necessary to do so. This may involve teaching basic chunks such as I believe that or One reason is because before a discussion.
Teachers can also reinforce critical thinking skills by paying careful attention to the language they use in class. Using higher-level terminology from Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as compare, predict, analyze, and recommend, will help students acquire the meta-language needed to understand what critical thinking is and what it does.
There is also art to asking questions. A student may say, I think that advertising helps consumers. It is natural for teachers to follow-up with Why? to encourage critical thinking. Too often, however, the Why? question can feel like an assault and lead to uncomfortable silence. Instead, rephrasing Why? to Can you explain that? can result in less student anxiety, and a more immediate and relaxed response.
Once the journey of inquiry has been established, new content helps to keep the momentum going. However, interacting with the content will require careful pauses. After a reading text or a listening, for example, students often need opportunities to stop and think, considering how the new information has modified their understanding of the question. Here teachers can scaffold new perspectives by adding on to the initial question. What does it mean to be polite….at work? At school? With family? With friends?
Students may also be encouraged to challenge or support their initial beliefs based on new evidence from the text. When mediating such discussions, teachers must be mindful of their students’ cultural backgrounds. Atkinson, for example, points out that in some cultures, the nature of critical thinking as an act of self-expression is not encouraged. 1 In culturally sensitive contexts, a lighter approach could involve asking students to think about how their experiences connect to those explored in a reading or listening, rather than demanding an outright opinion. This can still lead students toward re-evaluating beliefs, but in less intrusive way.
Often the journey must be messy in order to allow disparate elements to come together in the discovery of something new. That “aha” moment may come at one stop or another, but more often than not, it appears at the final destination. This is when students synthesize what they think with the knowledge they have gathered through a formal speaking or writing task. Students’ answers to the question may take a new direction, or several directions. Graphic organizers that help students organize their ideas can help scaffold this process of discovery. For example, when answering the question, Does advertising help or harm us?, students could use a T-chart to list reasons that support “yes” and “no” answers.
Another way to support critical thinking at the end of the journey is to ask students to reflect on their responses to the question when revising. When students revise the final assignment, for example, they could directly compare how their response of the question compares to their response from the beginning of the journey. To scaffold, teachers could offer chunks of language to frame the comparison: Originally, I believed that…but now, I think that…because… This kind of reflection will push them to see and summarize the journey as a whole and could be added to their concluding remarks.
Seeing critical thinking as a journey with several stops treats it as an essential part of the lesson plan, which explains why critical thinking is often paired with content-based instruction. 3 It also acknowledges that students may not have a complete answer to a question right away, but will build on their answer as they travel through the lesson and encounter additional input. It is a means to an end.
It is tempting to assume that teaching content and skills will result in higher-order thinking without explicit instruction, but research suggests otherwise. Fostering critical thinking in the classroom becomes the teacher’s responsibility. However, when done effectively, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences for students and teachers alike. There is great satisfaction in witnessing students think about what they think, and taking them through that journey of discovery, one stop at a time.
1Atkinson, D. (1997). A critical approach to critical thinking. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 71-94.
2Brookfield, S. (2011). Teaching for Critical Thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
3Crocker, J.L., & Bowden, M.R. (2011). Thinking in English: A content-based approach. In A. Stewart (Ed.), JALT2010 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.
4Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Seabury press.
5Freire, P. (1973). Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: The Seabury Press
6Halvorsen, A. (2005). Incorporating critical thinking skills development into ESL/EFL courses. Internet TESL Journal, 11(3). Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Halvorsen-CriticalThinking.html
7Kabilan, M. (2000). Creative and critical thinking in language classrooms. Internet TESL Journal, 6(6). Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Kabilan-CriticalThinking.html
8Liaw, M. (2007). Content-based reading and writing for critical thinking skills in an EFL context. English Teaching and Learning, 31(2), 45-87.
9Long, C.J. (2009). Teaching critical thinking in Asian EFL contexts: theoretic and practical applications. Proceedings of the 8th Conference of Pan-Pacific Associate of Applied Linguistics.
10Mayfield, M. (2001). Thinking for Yourself: Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading and Writing (5th ed.). United States: Thomas Learning.
11Shirkhani, S. & Fahim, M. (2011). Enhancing critical thinking in foreign language learners. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 29, 111-115. Available: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811026759
Alice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, USA. This article is adapted from their presentation ‘Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum’ at the 2014 International TESOL Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom. We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.
One challenge is length. How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time? And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?
Another and more interesting challenge is meaning. Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meaning is sharp and clear, so it can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo or pantomime.
The second category includes grammar words. The words so, is, the, of, and their high frequency siblings hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013). Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.
Then there is a third more elusive category, which we call shadow words. Words such as join, thing, important and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words. Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations. (Schmitt, 2000).
As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful. Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.
Shadow words can also have multiple personalities. They take on different meanings depending on their context. Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.
So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing. While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary) (Hinkel, 2004).
Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way, not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.
There are many benefits to this approach. If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004). For example, play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.
Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).
Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time. A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words. For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching 5 different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.
The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.
Having students attend to the boundaries beyond individual words can begin to help them see vocabulary and grammar on a continuum and may be one approach to making vocabulary learning more meaningful and efficient. Collocations, lexical chunks, and prefabs can be used to introduce not just content words, but also grammar and shadow words. Through scaffolding, students can then learn how to mix and match these words to produce new lexical strings. They will see that words are not just dynamic, but do in fact have many friends.
Hinkel, E. (2004). Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar. Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching. English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.
Hyland, K. (2004). Genre and second language writing. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013). Transfer of Learning Transformed. Language Learning 63:Suppl. 1 pp. 107-129 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x
Schmitt, N. (2000). Lexical chunks. ELT Journal, Volume 54 (4), 400-401. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Savage, A. & Ward, C. (in press). Trio Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?
Colin Ward responds.
We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!
Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.
- #qskills – How can I teach reading skills to beginner students without focusing on grammar?
- #qskills – How can I help my students understand words in a reading passage?
- #qskills – How can we help students to use words from the Academic Word List?
- #qskills – Is it better to create your own materials or use existing materials?
- #qskills – How do I manage disruptive behaviour in class?
- #qskills – How can I help students that have a hard time learning the language?