Sunday, November 23, 2008

Focus on minor rules or meaning?

By Anthea Tillyer - City University of New York, USA

I am a little surprised by how concerned some teachers are about "comma splices". It seems to me that this is a tiny, tiny (and very insignificant) problem that second language writers have in English.

In fact, if my class of second language learners had this as their biggest problem when writing English, I would consider them (and me) a huge success and would take them out for a drink to celebrate.

I think this concern with "comma splices" is a typical example of teachers applying to second language writing rules that were applied to them (as first language learners). But the fact is that English is a MEANING-DRIVEN language and "comma splices" rarely interfere with meaning, especially when considered next to all the other problems that second language writers have trying to create clear meaning to their writing in English.

Another reason for the focus on comma splices by some teachers is that they are easy to teach about. They do not require any interaction with the students' ideas or writing. They are just rules. Some teachers feel much more comfortable teaching "rules" than actually dealing with meaning, ideas, and feelings.

Finally, I should point out that in the Englishes other than American, the use of the phrase "comma splice" is virtually unknown, and the reason for that is that other Englishes have no problem with sentences like

"He was not the president, he was the prime-minister."

Or this,

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness;" (Dickens).

In short, less worry about details of rules and more focus on meaning and clarity are in order. It is also useful to be less US-centric and more aware of other Englishes.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Movie "telling"

In Beijing, there's a man called "Dawei" who established a small-scale movie-theatre in his house and invited a group of special viewers, the sight-impaired, to "watch". The way he used was telling.

Each time his small cinema put on a classic Chinese or foreign movie, he let the audiences know about the movie by telling its scene. He tells almost all the necessary details from an actor's gesture to a whole war. All the audiences listen attentatively and express their satisfaction about Dawei's movie telling and say that they feel as if they were "seeing" the movie.

Actually, it isn't an easy job to "tell" a movie because of the time limit within which s/he has to convey as much information as possible to the audiences in order for them to comprehend the movie. What often appears is that some details are lost when trying to talk about others. Luckily, Mr. Dawei has mastered this pretty well by practicing a lot.

From this, I suggest that this "movie telling" be introduced to English teaching, especially  oral courses. Specifically speaking, in the oral English class, the teacher plays a movie known to the students on a DVD and picks up students to relate what they see. The movie can be divided into several part according to the scenes, and after each "scene telling", the teacher replays it and the whole class have a disscusion of the telling. In the end, students bring about a best telling version of the scene they think. Then the teacher makes a comment on it and proceeds to the next scene...

From the telling, students learn how to tell a story in English, how to pick the right or appropriate words to describe an action, an object, and how to use expressions as simple as possible since oral English prefers simplicity. They may feel time pressed to do the "telling" in the beginning period, but I believe they'll accustom to it as time passes.

In fact, it doesn't have to be movies, cartoons are OK as well. What matters is the difficulty students encounter when they perform their telling. After all, "hard" movies are no good for teaching.

Besides, this method can perhaps only be used among students with intermeidate and advanced level of English since their vocabulary and grammar is sufficient enough for the job.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Problems with games and student motivation

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau, China

Make sure the learners know the language learning objective(s) of the game but there is a bigger problem here that may negate even this approach.

The problem is that the institution does not really value spoken English and does not value the teacher of spoken English. Consequently, the learners don't either. You therefore need to use motivating forces from outside the educational institution and this is not easy. Games fit the bill but in this environment even the fun of the game can work against you.

You want the learner to directly experience the benefits of being able to speak English. If there are none for these learners. If there are none and you are teaching the branch of ESP known as ENPP, English for No Particular Purpose then you are on a limb. You might get some hooked on chatting to visiting foreigners, if there are any, and you might get some to engage in voice chat on the web, if they have the equipment. Some might be motivated by interesting discussions and some by the status of starring in a debate, though the latter can only benefit a few. I have, on occasion, offered money to the best student for a task completion, praised the winner to the skies and then, with an innocent smile, admit I lied about the money. It got enthusiastic participation and a big laugh but you can only wave your 100 Yuan about once.

In short there is no one answer to the problem. Varied activities, some games, some tasks, some hard study work, some activities that relate to the world outside seems to be the best approach to hook as many differently motivations as possible.

[Photo: Students playing the "Alibi" game. "Where were you last night at 9:00?"]

Evaluating L2 socialization skills

By Nik Bramblett - UCF, Orlando FL, USA

Sometimes we need to evaluate L2 socialization skills using an alternative assessment and not a paper test.

Here's what I would do:

(a) Work with students (using appropriate combination of whole group, breakout small-group, and/or individual/paired strategies) to develop a rubric for a role-playing activity. Discuss what "socialization skills" means and how you might measure mastery of them. Let the students decide what's important and what they will be graded on (with appropriate guidance from you as necessary, of course).

(b) Have students work in pairs or trios for the assessment... students would randomly select a social problem-solving situation from a collection that you created on cards or whatever... "You need make an important call [make up a specific scenario] and your cell phone is dead; there are two strangers nearby [perhaps it's a bus stop or whatever]. Interact with those people to solve your problem." for example. Students would have a brief period to plan/rehearse, and would then more-or-less improv a scene.

(c) Both you and the student audience would use the rubric you designed together (and reviewed clearly and modeled and practiced before these presentations began) to measure the ability of the students to perform whatever specific tasks, roles, etc. you had decided were the measurable objectives. Students' ability to effectively judge their peers' performance would (rightly) be part of the grade. This would not only measure the mastery of the skills but also the metacognition behind the skills.

Scenario-based assessment of socializing skills

By Noriko Ishihara - University of Minnesota, USA / Hosei University

[An excellent way to test students language abilities is in a realistic setting. But how can that be done? Noriko Ishihara explains.]

How to do a scenario-based assessment of socializing skills. In my view, it's very close to assessing sociolinguistic/pragmatic ability, which has usually been done with a situational approach.

In this instruction and assessment, learner language is elicited using realistic scenarios and the teacher chooses from a range of language- and culture-focused features to assess, for example,

- directness, politeness, and formality
- organization/discourse structure
- language form, semantic strategies, word choice
- tone (verbal and non-verbal cues)
- understanding and use of sociocultural norms
- the extent to which the speaker's intentions match the listener's most likely interpretation

The selected feature(s) can be assessed using various rubrics and/or checklists by the teacher and learners themselves, which can be used as rather formal assessment or part of everyday instruction/informal assessment. If anyone is interested, I'd be happy to share a paper in press that details this approach with various sample scenarios, learners language, and sample assessment using authentic learner language.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Guy Brook-Hart world tour

Guy Brook-Hart, author of the Cambridge University Press Business English book, Business Benchmark, came to China and talked to teachers about how to teach listening. Dave Kees also interviewed him. To hear the interview and some excerpts from his talk as well as talks by Jack Richards and David Nunan, go to the Insights Into TEFL podcast site.