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Teaching writing

February 10, 2011 16 comments

If you haven’t had the chance to participate in this Wednesday’s #ELTChat, you may not know that we discussed writing and how to teach writing in our classes. One of the best things about these discussions is all the ideas it generates afterwards and the discussions that arise from it. In one of my tweets, I suggested that students are likely to need writing skills more than speaking skills. Fortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed and @ma_luv2teach sent me another tweet soon after the chat was over:

If you haven’t had the chance to participate in this Wednesday’s #ELTChat, you may not know that we discussed writing and how to teach writing in our classes. One of the best things about these discussions is all the ideas it generates afterwards and the discussions that arise from it. In one of my tweets, I suggested that students are likely to need writing skills more than speaking skills. Fortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed and @ma_luv2teach sent me another tweet soon after the chat was over:

The reason why I’m posting the conversation here is that we did exchange a couple of other tweets on the matter, but I believe neither could go on much further due to everything we have to do in our daily lives. Now, I really like it when there is some sort of healthy disagreement about a certain point of view and we can discuss it nicely. This was the case, and even though we finished (for now) our conversation by disagreeing on the writing vs. speaking focus issue, I’ve been thinking about it all day long and decided I could write it here and let others join the discussion and perhaps help me look at things from a different perspective. So this is what I have so far:
1. EFL learners need writing more than they need speaking:

My point here is that despite the use of technology such as skype, FaceTime, or any other voice communication software, most communication at work still have to be written. For one reason, most of the times, instrutions, memos, proposals, requests, or any other kind of document needs to be available at a later time. I won’t argue the importance of a nice chat in a business meeting, but I believe you will agree with me when I say that most learners will not be the ones in charge of upfront negotiations. Sure, some will, and these need to develop such skills, but most will be following instructions and trying to comply. They will probably be emailing foreign clients or suppliers asking for something, not calling them. It is much easier to sort out a mistake if you have written proof of what has been agreed on. Again, unless you record all of your phone calls, emails are likely to work much better.
In addition to this, we can also think of teenagers. No matter how easier it gets for them to speak to their friends, they do seem to prefer texting. For one reason, it’s much more private to text than to speak on the phone. Only those who are looking at your screen are able to read what you’re typing whereas anyone around you will have an idea of what you’re saying. Most people will only have a chance to practise their speaking skills when traveling for pleasure to Disney or going shopping in NY. I’d love this to change; I just don’t see it happening so soon, though.
2. Learning how to write is not an easy task

I’ll start this by quoting Harmer in his How to Teach Writing:

However long ago writing really started, it has remained for most of its history a minority occupation. This is part because although almost all human beings grow up speaking their first language (and sometimes their second or third) as a matter of course, writing has to be taught. Spoken language, for a child, is acquired naturally as a result of being exposed to it, whereas the ability to write has to be consciously learned.

Most students, especially these days, look for language classes that promise an emphasis on conversation. This means a lot of speaking practice and very little grammar – especially to the learner. If you allow me, I don’t think they are actually looking for conversation alone. I do believe what they mean is communication, and the reason why they dread sitting through grammar lessons is mainly because of the bad experience they had been through while studying in school. “Grammar lessons were not communicative nor engaging. Therefore, if a course teaches grammar, it will never teach me how to hold conversations” may be one of the things crossing a learner’s mind. When we ask our learners to write, we are going to correct them on their grammar sooner or later. It’s actually a good thing for the teacher as it might show him or her a couple of things that students need further practice in.

Learning how to write is time consuming, and based on the L1 teachers I talk to, it is something that students have difficulties with even in their L1. I have to be honest and say that it is exactly because of the fact that learning how to write is usually frowned upon by students that most language schools and teachers fail to emphasize it. This sometimes doesn’t even have anything to do with beliefs or lack of will, but it may just be a matter of how students see it. Language schools are, let’s not forget that, a business. In order to be able to exist, hire and pay teachers, they need students. If there is another school across the street that says students will be able to learn the language in less time and studying much less, many students will eventually go there, and now the other schools have two options – follow suit, the easy way out, or try to stick to its beliefs and hope that students will see they are right and come back. Whenever I think of this I remember the recurrent articles published every year about language courses that should be avoided. However, as long as people believe in magic solutions and are afraid of working harder than others to reach their goals, they are likely to buy it and go with the flow – if they turn out to have been fooled afterwards, at least they were not fooled alone.

3. Learning how to write will boost your speaking skills more than the other way around

OK, I could actually spend sometime talking about the difference between learned and acquired language, but as the difference is kind of blurry, I’ll just make use of another point. We need exposure in order to be able to reflect upon our sentences and utterances. This happens very fast when we are speaking and we hardly ever have the time to analyse what we are saying so that we can rephrase what we are trying to convey. However, when it comes to written language, it’s a lot easier for us to go through what we thought we were trying to say and be aware of different ways to say it. It’s much easier for us to be consciously aware of our production and remember it when using it in different occasions. Here I’d make use of Bialistok’s model for language learning:

I believe it’s much easier and faster for learners to refer to their explicit linguistic knowledge in order to progress than for them to base their learning experience on speaking practice alone. “Eh?! What happened to language being conversation driven, you dogmeist you???” Fret not, I’m a firm believer in the fact that language is conversation driven (at least until today). Written production may be an excellent source of input for learners and also an excellent source for them to learn about their own mistakes and be more conscious of them while holding a conversation. Let’s not forget that there are still many illiterate people out there who can even speak in public very well, but are incapable of reading and writing. Yet, I’ve never seen anyone – please, let’s not go into disabilities – who’s able to read and write but can’t speak. Much on the contrary, even in L1, it’s quite common for us to witness people becoming more proficient speakers once they start writing more. I really don’t think you’ll become a better writer by speaking more.

To sum it up, writing and speaking are both important skills that should be well attended to in class. My point, however, is that we tend to go from one extreme to another quite too fast. It is much more pleasant to talk to others in class than to write messages. You don’t walk around writing things on a piece of paper and showing others, but, IMHO, when it comes to foreign language interaction, writing is still a lot more common than speaking. A good example of it? How many voices do you know from the people in your PLN?

** A big thank you to @ma_luv2teach for helping me think more about this topic. I’m far from having this as my final word on it, and I do hope others (if they could put themselves to read this till the end) can also help me on this one.

World Englishes and standards

July 25, 2010 26 comments

Image by lumaxart

The idea of world Englishes, or even Globish, seems to be everywhere I look this past month. Not only was there an article by David Crystal on the Braz-TESOL magazine about world Englishes and the importance of learning a bit more about the variety of English of the country you’re going to visit – vocabulary and other features. In addition to that, the cover of the Newsweek magazine has on its cover a picture of the world saying, “Speak Globish?” what does this mean to our learners?

A couple of things that spring to mind are some conversations and articles I read a while ago when people said that nowadays people shouldn’t be so concerned about achieving native-like proficiency as there are many different varieties of the language. Non-native speakers of the language outnumber native speakers by far. Some years ago, Newsweek published an article talking about the rise of English as a lingua france where they said that there are 3 non-native speakers of the language for every native speaker. I guess there might be 4 or 5 nowadays. The trend, then, is to understand and acknowledge the differences. But this has always been something that kept me wondering: if I’m learning a language in order to be able to communicate with people from other cultures, and if this is the so-called lingua franca of the world, should teachers let their students get away with something that’s really distant from native-like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar usage?

The first time I thought about it was probably about ten years ago. One of my students was in the Brazilian navy and he told me that anytime they met and had to talk to people from other ships, they spoke English. Now, he could easily communicate with Italians, Chileans, Spanish, French, and people from other nationalities using English. However, every time they had to talk to Americans, British, or Canadians, for instance, they couldn’t understand what they were saying and vice-versa. I’m sorry if this goes against what some people might believe in, but I truly believe there’s something wrong with this.

We learn to speak a foreign language to communicate. We study a foreign language because we want to be able to function in a foreign country using that language we’ve spent so long studying. When I think of native-like English, I’m not saying people should work exhaustively to reduce their accent, by no means! However, There are certain standards I feel that should be taken into account. Learners from languages whose rhythm is syllable-timed should learn that English is a stress-timed language. They should be taught some of the individual sounds which do not exist in their L1. And teachers ought to expect nothing but the best these students can produce.

I’ve always thought that language teachers are the worst listeners out there. Language teachers want to (and have to try as hard as they can) understand what their students are saying. We’ve got to do this if we want to recast, repeat, provide correct form, or do anything else that teachers have to do to get learners to learn the language. Things are not like that in the real world, though. One of the problems I can see there is that teachers might end up limiting their learners. By not showing learners that they do need to improve their pronunciation, to learn new words, and to change their speech to make it sound more natural, teachers are telling learners that they may be able to do whatever it is that they might want to in the foreign language. Well, sometimes simply being able to communicate and say, “me wants water” or “have a possibility is true” may be way less than what our students will need.

What if your learners end up having the chance to work for a multinational company and are chosen to become spokespeople? I’m pretty sure their chances will be way slimmer if they can’t speak English with native-like pronunciation and correct usage of vocabulary and grammar. There’s a huge gulf between being chosen by a non-profitable organisation to speak in public mainly due to your contributions to a cause and being hired by a company. It would be naive of us to say that people don’t judge you by the way you talk. This doesn’t mean using obscure words and complicated structures will get people to hold you in high regards – but being able to use the language properly and naturally certainly will.

What should be done about world Englishes and all of the varieties of English one might encounter in the world? Well, I think teachers should look at things from two different perspectives: productive and receptive skills. When it comes to productive skills (speaking and writing), learners should be taught according to high standards and, in my view, respecting the rules of the two mainstream varieties of the language – British and American English. When it comes to receptive skills (reading and listening) the more varieties we can expose our learners to, the better. If teachers can show students examples of both natives and non-natives using the language, the better we will be preparing them for the world of ‘Globish’. If you ask me, the question is not really “Speak Globish?”, but it should be “Understand Globish?”

Over to you…

Pronunciation, Grammar and Vocabulary

There are three things involved in knowing a language, and these have been called “the ‘what‘” by Penny Ur in her “A course in Language Teaching“. The three ‘whats’ would be pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Needless to say, there are lots of things involved in each one of these topics. For instance, when we’re talking about grammar we can look at it from many different perspectives (Scott Thornbury has done a presentation on ‘7 ways of looking at grammar’, which you can watch here), and I myself like the idea of the 3 dimensions of looking at grammar (form, meaning and use). If we turn our attention to vocabulary, a lot has been said about it as well, and there’s even an approach that puts lexis on the spotlight. We know that there’s a lot more to learn about a word than just its meaning. Lots and lots of people have discussed/been discussing the importance of lexis in language learning these days, and grammar seems to still be the guiding principle of most curricula. What about pronunciation? (Just to make things clear from the start, I’m not talking about accent reduction, elimination or any other thing related to accents on this post. Accents are OK, but certain pronunciation problems really do hinder communication)

It seems to me there’s just so much teachers need to pay attention to that it’s easy to end up overlooking this leg of the tripod of language learning/teaching. We’ve arguably had more importance given to pronunciation these days – it’s more and more common for coursebooks to incorporate the IPA,  for example. However, it seems to me that whenever teachers have to sacrifice something due to time constraints or any other situation that may arise in the classroom, pronunciation gets it. Add to this the fact that language teachers are the worst listeners there are (well, we all try really hard to understand what our learners are saying, don’t we?) and there you go: the perfect scenario for lots of pronunciation problems. But why does this happen?

For one thing, we can look at teachers. Native speakers may sometimes feel it’s enough to model the correct pronunciation and learners will eventually pick it up, or they may simply not have been given proper training to work with those “greek” letters from the IPA. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, may not feel secure enough so as to correct learners as they themselves aren’t sure how that word should be pronounced. Oh, but if it were only the individual sounds. Teachers have to worry about supra-segmental features as well as segmental features when working with pronunciation. What if you’re teaching speakers whose rhythm of their native language is syllable-timed how to speak a stress-timed language? What I’ve noticed is that teachers tend to settle for anything they can understand and that’s it – no corrections are necessary. And right there we’re likely to have students making mistakes (which will be fossilised by the time they become aware of it) for a very long time.

Another problem might be the curriculum itself. If teachers are always pressed for time to do things, they’ll eventually have to choose to omit A or B, and guess what tends to be left out? Anyway, I guess the problem I’ve witnessed (and went through as a learner myself) is that teachers do not give pronunciation the importance it deserves in language teaching. It’s almost as if we took it for granted that learners would magically learn how to speak correctly as they progress. To be honest, I believe consciousness raising may help a lot in this regard. I’ve had many students who complained that native speakers spoke too fast or they couldn’t get any conversation in movies for the same reason, and I won’t even mention songs. But is that really so?

Having gone through this myself, I decided that the best way out would be to study. And this study is what enables me to tell my students to pay attention to how they should position their tongue in the mouth if they are to produce a certain sound correctly, or tell them which words are stressed and which are unstressed, and teach them a thing or two about elision, assimilation and intrusive sounds in connected speech. What I found out is that students from all levels tend to pay closer attention to these lessons than to vocabulary or grammar lessons – regardless of their level. (If you’re looking for a book on this, check Sound Foundations, by Adrian Underhill.)

So, if you agree that teaching a language is indeed teaching the tripod pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary, and if we’ve got a series of constraints that prevent us from doing all three as much as we feel we should at the same time, how does the following sound to you: we should work harder on pronunciation with beginners (A1/A2 students). This means we’d have to worry a lot more about correct stress and intonation. Grammar and vocabulary will also be taught, obviously, but these are rather simple at initial stages, especially these days when the English language is everywhere. Once we get students to pronounce things correctly and understand certain features of connected speech, they’ll have no problems listening to / speaking sentences in the “third conditional” (If I had spoken to my teacher, I would have been able to give you an answer.) when the time comes. After a short while (B1/B2), grammar becomes increasingly more complicated for learners. They need to learn more complex grammar structures to convey complicated messages so we shift our focus to the teaching of grammar. A while later, learners will know pretty much all they need to know in terms of grammar to communicate and we can then focus heavily on vocabulary (B2+).

Well, how does this sound to you?

Linking sounds

April 9, 2010 15 comments

I’ve noticed that some of my students, or perhaps most of them, have problems with connected speech. This is true to many different areas, but I realised it’s particularly difficult for them to understand the linking sounds in English. So, this is an activity I used a long time ago to show students such linking sounds. I focussed specifically on the last consonant sound of a word linking to the first vowel sound of the next word. Let me show what I mean by using one of the sentences from this paragraph:

  • So, this is an activity I used a long time ago to show students the linking sounds in English.

The sound of the consonants in red is linked to the sounds of the vowels in blue, and this is what it sounds like:

  • So, thi sisanactivity I use da long ti meago to show students the linking sound sinEnglish.

It all looks pretty messy if we don’t change things a bit to help students ‘visualise’ the sounds. If you work with the IPA and your students are acquainted with it, the best option is to go with it. However, if they’re not that acquainted with it, perhaps the best alternative is to try to show these linking sounds differently. I used a song (Bizarre Love Triangle – sung by Frente) and it worked out quite all right.

It all depends on how much you have to work on the song: if there’s plenty of time, you can explain the idea of the consonant-vowel linking before you play the song. If possible, make use of some examples in the students’ L1, as this particular feature of connected speech tends to appear in many different languages. After that, play the song and give students the handout with the actual lyrics. Ask them to try to identify the words that end in a consonant sound and that are followed by a vowel sound. Once they finish doing this, get them to practice the links. As they end up having difficulties doing so, it helps if you modify the lyrics of the song to make it sound slightly more “natural” to your learners. For instance, the first line of Bizarre Love Triangle is:

  • Every time I think of you

I rewrote it as if it were:

  • Every tie my thin co-view

When students hear the song, they can easily relate this modified version of the lyrics to the words being sung. Here’s a video of the song:

An alternative is to give students the modified version first and let them try to guess the actual lyrics. To make it even more challenging, don’t play the song and get them to work in pairs or small groups and read the sentences aloud to try to guess the actual words.

You can find both the complete modified version of the song and the actual lyrics here: Bizarre Love Triangle (this is a .doc file).

Well, I hope you liked it!

Speaking activity – Debating about the environment

January 27, 2010 4 comments

(Note: before you start reading the post, I think it’s important to tell you that one of the videos I used in the activity does contain some ‘inappropriate’ language to some audiences, and I recommend you use it only with adults. If you feel your learners shouldn’t be exposed to this kind of language, you may either choose a different video, use only the first video and adapt the activity, or simply dismiss the activity out of hand.)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what to write as the 20th post. Truth be told, I came to the conclusion that even though it might mean something to me as a personal achievement (I didn’t think I’d come this far and actually miss posting here), it’s likely to come across as yet another post that people may or may not enjoy. As I’m somehow involved with the teacher training programme and recruitment process at the moment, I’ve been sort of away, but something came to mind while listening to the radio and I decided to post an activity here so that not only can I share it with you, but I can also come back to it and remember it later – even though there (still) are no handouts or anything like that to go with it. It’s basically a lesson on the environment with two videos for students to take notes while watching, and sides in a discussion. I’d use it with upper-intermediate or advanced learners (B2+ according to CEF). Here it goes:

1. Start the class by asking them what they know about COPE 15, the Kyoto protocol and how they feel about all the heated discussion on climate change currently on display. Help them with vocabulary they might not be familiar with but focus on what they produce instead of telling them what you want them to learn – you may always contribute a word or two at a later stage.

2. Tell them they’re going to watch two videos which have opposing views on the matter, and they’re supposed to take notes while they watch the videos. The first video is a bit long (about 21 minutes), so it’d be nice if you stopped after every segment to ask some comprehension questions and let them share their notes. The second video lasts about 8 minutes, but as it’s a stand up comedy show by George Carlin, it’d also be nice if you stopped once or twice to let them share their notes. It’d also be a good idea to pre-teach any difficult vocabulary.

(N.B.: depending on the cultural background of your students, or their sense of humour, the second video might be offensive. It is also important to know that George Carlin does make use of some swear words in his speech. However, who’s better to judge how our students are going to respond to something than the teacher himself? Use it at your own discretion.)

3. Put students in two groups and tell them they’re going to take sides – one group believes there is a serious threat to the environment while the other believes this is just propaganda. Allow them a couple of minutes with their groups to organise their ideas.

4. Pair them up, with one student from each group and tell them they are to try to persuade the other person of what they believe in. Before they start discussing, it’s a nice idea to recycle with them some language for agreeing, disagreeing, expressing their opinions, giving examples and explaining.

Here are the two videos:

Video 1 – The story of stuff

Video 2 – George Carlin on Global Warming

If you liked it, go ahead and use it! If you didn’t like it, sorry for wasting your time reading the activity. If you have any contribution, please share! :)

Using CNN student news

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

I haven’t heard many things about CNN student news even though I find it useful in the classroom. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a daily video-podcast which lasts about 10 minutes, and, as you can guess from its name, it’s made by the folks at CNN.

Anyway, I decided to share an activity I tried out in class successfully this semester in which I used it. I used with a C1 level (according to the Common European Framework of References for Languages) group, but the activity may also work with B2 students. The activity lasts about 45 – 60 minutes. Later you can let me know what you think of it.

Material: 2 sequential episodes from CNN Student News – in this class, I used the episodes from August 21st (Friday) and August 24th (Monday). It is important to use episodes in which some of the news complement what was said on the other episode.

1. I started the class with a writing activity. The students had already learned the mechanics of writing a proposal, but they had issues when it came to planning. So I started by eliciting from them techniques they use while brainstorming ideas for a composition. We planned the outline of a text together and talked about the importance of planning your compositions prior to writing them, and the fact that it actually saves time when you’re writing.

2. I divided the group in two and explained what they were supposed to do. One of these two groups (let’s call it group A) would stay in the classroom and the other group (group B) was taken outside. Group B was supposed to work on the brainstorming of ideas for a piece of writing they’d have to write for our following class – a proposal. They should work together and come up with an outline for their proposal, and they’d have 10 minutes for this. In the meantime, group A was going to watch one news episode from CNN Student News (which lasts 10 minutes).

3. While watching, the people from group A were asked to take notes about the pieces of news. After the episode finished, group A went outside and group B stopped their planning for the proposal and went back to the classroom. This time, group A had 10 minutes to work together and share their notes about the pieces of news they’d just watched. They were asked to try to reconstitute what had been said in the episode. As we’d been working with reporting verbs, students were supposed to try to use different verbs when sharing what they’d heard. They had 10 minutes to do that and write down their notes on a piece of paper. During these 10 minutes, group B was watching another episode from CNN Student News.

4. After the episode is over, group B will now have 10 minutes to share their notes. Group A, at this moment, is told to stop working on the notes and start planning their proposal.

5. 30 minutes after you’ve started the activity, students get in pairs (one student from each group) to share their pieces of news. Before they start talking, they’re reminded of the reporting verbs. The importance of choosing two sequential episodes is that they’ll be able to understand why such and such things are in the news (group B) as well as find out what the conclusion of the news was (group A). This discussion usually lasts for about 10 – 15 minutes, depending on the group.

6. After there’s been a wrap-up discussion with the whole group, you now turn to their notes for their proposal. Students share what they’ve come up with and talk to each other about their ideas. The proposal is assigned as homework.

I hope the description of the activity is clear. If it isn’t, just let me know.

Any thoughts? What other activities do you do with CNN Student News?

Speaking activity – Speculating about pictures

December 6, 2009 10 comments

This is the tenth post on the blog. One of the things I had in mind when I created the blog was also to post some of the activities I’ve worked with in class. As I hadn’t done it up to now, it seems like post number 10 is a good one to do it.

The activity aims at working with students on speculating about pictures, and I’ve designed it to work with CAE students. Sometimes I’ve seen students having major difficulties when it comes to talking about pictures, especially when they aren’t sure what the pictures mean. They also tend to use language such as, “It is…” when they really want to say, “I think it is…”

Anyway, the activity is composed of a PPT file and a Word file. These are the files:

Extra activity – Speculating about pictures – Google Slides

Extra Activity – Speculating about pictures – Google Docs

You should start it with the PPT and use the document after the 13th slide. The document will also provide students with practice on Paper 3 (two different parts of the paper). After students have worked with the text, you go back to the PPT to finally do the speaking practice for the paper. By doing it like this, I expected students to be able to recall the language they’d seen before working with the text.

Anyway, if you decide to try the activity or just download it to analyse it, drop me a line and tell me what you think of it.

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