Monday, June 23, 2008

How to teach ESP & EAP to low-level students? Don't

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau

We try to teach ESP to low level students and beginners and it doesn't work. Employers and administrators demand results. They have students with little English and they need English users who can conduct business in English or get degrees etc. and so they give them to us. If we tell them that NSs have a vocabulary of 20K word families and that in real business and academic situations a lot of these words come into play, even if infrequently, they will reject our 5 year immersion courses and find someone who will promise the earth.

I don't do much ESP but I do run courses with an EAP bias. I try and keep them general but the university has some students with 1800 words or less studying business admin. and humanities subjects so they want them to write academic reports and papers and to be able to communicate sophisticated ideas.

What happens? Well, firstly, they are expected to write in a genre that they cannot read. They do not have the vocabulary to read academic journals and papers and can barely understand their textbooks. We have a textbook that tries to get around this by using texts from newspapers and magazines and then asking the learner to write essays full of "nevertheless" and "moreover".

I firmly believe that you cannot write in an academic genre unless you can read and understand that genre. Each academic genre is special to its subject. Some social sciences have more use of first person pronouns than more technical papers. A scholar who is an authority in a field can use more first person pronouns than a student. And there are many other differences.

A second problem is that if the learner has a small vocabulary they find it difficult to place the meaning, context and collocations of the sophisticated words they are being taught. They also find it difficult to see the rationale behind the "rules" they are taught to write by.

Even with more advanced students there is still a real problem. Take a learner with 6000 words plus the EAP list and subject specific vocabulary. They can read academic material and with a 95% comprehension can often guess unknown words from context. However, these unknown low frequency words they come across are not there for trivial purposes. Most of them are there because they are necessary for meaning and expression of the topic. When it comes to writing, the poor student is expected to write with the same sophistication as the NSs they compete with in the international job market and with a similar degree of expertise as found in the articles they read. When they write they will find that every 20 words there will be a word
they need but do not have.

It's a mess.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Fighting plagiarism with Google

By Chuck in China

I was helping a teacher who was grading some papers she was not sure about. She gave me the two papers and I quickly did a Google search and located both papers on the Web. She was shocked at how quickly I sniffed out the plagiarism. So she went back through all of her papers and all night she has been coming to my room and dropping off papers. Not all of them, just the ones that she, in her heightened state of awareness, found suspect.

All but one I found to be taken from the web. I found them all easily through Google. Just pick out an uncommon phrase from the paper and run it through Google and it pops up. Interestingly, all of the papers that were used came from various Chinese websites "dedicated" to English learning.

I used this method this semester when I suspected quite a few essays in my Western Lit class. I quickly found 6 plagiarists. This doesn't surprise me at all.

The quick lessons for those teaching substantive courses here is:

1. Be careful in assigning essay assignments. Don't pick a broad topic (as my colleague did) such as: "Write a persuasive essay on an important subject" or (as I did the first time I made this mistake) "Choose one of Shakespeare's sonnets, analyze it, and tell me why it appeals to you". Their are thousands of these essays floating around on the Internet on the Chinese websites alone (as a quick search of Google will show). The next time I chose an essay topic, I wanted to use O. Henry. But I first did a Google search to see which of his stories had the least number of references on the Web. I certainly wasn't going to use "Cop and the Anthem" (which all Chinese students know by heart anyway).

2. Use Google to check the originality of any essays you assign. It takes less than a minute to check each paper. You may be surprised how quick and how many plagiarists you find.

3. In my writing classes, I have decidedly swung away from giving take-home essays as assignments. Now, I give writing assignments in class to be completed in class. Apart from the plagiarism issue, it hones the students' skills in actually writing under some kind of immediate pressure. It forces them to produce good English on the spot. Also, as Chinese students who are forced to deal with the exam system here (CET, TEM, PET), a writing component is a part of all those exams so giving them time pressure to perform will help them in the short run, too.

Anyway, that's how I spent the first night of my summer vacation - tracking down plagiarism for a fellow colleague and, (I hope) imparting some useful advice for those who are new to the game here.

Self taught with DVDs

By Daniel T. Parker

I have a Korean professor friend who is perfecting his English this by watching movies on DVD. He watches at least one DVD per day and follows this formula: (1) play a few minutes of the DVD and try to transcribe everything he hears; (2) replay the same segment and try to correct any mistakes he made or add anything he left out; (3) replay the same segment again with English subtitles to check his transcription; (4) if there's any vocabulary confusion, he plays the same segment again with Korean subtitles. It takes him several hours to watch one DVD.... but he's very determined.