Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ideas for oral English practice

By Karen Stanley - Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

- provide a list of interview questions, and have students use them to interview each other; better still, have the class generate questions (with your guidance) on a particular topic, and have the students interview each other using them (one example theme: questions related to the person's carbon footprint). Make sure they don't think they have to write complete sentences with the answer to each question - in fact, they don't necessarily have to record the answer at all. Otherwise, they spend more time writing than talking.

- find a problem to solve in small group discussion; George Rooks' "Who gets the heart?" is a classic example. The students are given a list of different people with different characteristics, all of whom need a heart transplant. They then have to agree on how to prioritize who gets a heart. So, on the list you have someone in his 90s who is a national hero (but probably won't live long), a child who may or may not ever do anything of benefit (but who has a long potential life ahead of him/her), a woman in her mid 20s with not such a good lifestyle, but who has no relatives to take care of her three young children if she dies, etc. I recommend all three of George Rooks' books. He provides limitations and details for each task.

Let's Start Talking (lowest level; simpler, more practical tasks, such as planning a party)

Can't Stop Talking (intermediate; example tasks: planning a travel brochure, deciding which person should get a Citizenship Award )

The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook (advanced; example tasks: Who Gets the Heart, Design a Product and an Advertising Campaign)

Other possible lesson plans from posts to this list can be found at:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Learn vocabulary by using vocabulary

By Kenton Sutherland - Emeritus Professor, San Mateo (California) Community College District English Language Specialist, United States Department of State

A teacher in Beijing states that "in China, many English learners will learn words directly from a vocabulary book by remembering the form and one or two Chinese translations of that word" and then goes on to ask if there is a more effective way to learn vocabulary.

This method of learning word meanings does not seem to me to have much value in actual English practical usage. Chinese learners are known to have phenomenal skills at memorizing, but unless they can use the memorized words in meaningful situations, the words are stored like dictionary entries, waiting to be "looked up," many never to be used, drifting away and getting foggy in long-term memory.

When I was a schoolboy, I had to memorize the capital cities of all 48 American states -- this was in the 1940s, before Hawaii and Alaska joined the Union -- and I got an "A" on the test on capitals, but today I don't think I can remember half of them. It was all a meaningless exercise that caused me some anguish at the time, especially trying to remember whether Bismark was the capital of South Dakota or North Dakota. Sixty years later, I still can't get them straight, nor have I ever had the opportunity to use either Bismark or Pierre until now, even though these two names for the Dakota capital cities have somehow managed to stay in my long-term memory. Wait! Is one of them the capital of Nebraska? None of this memory "learning" was ever meaningful to me, and I suggest that similar memorization exercises in trying to learn English vocabulary are equally meaningless for Chinese learners and therefore pretty much useless, yet another blind alley.

So, what's the alternative to memorization? Mert Bland hit the nail on the head when he replied: "The more a student is exposed to a word in diverse contexts, the firmer grasp that student gets of the word." In effect, the students needs lots and lots of different kinds of activities in which to receive and use new words -- oral practices, games, songs, rhymes, jazz chants, readings of all kinds, radio English, television, DVDs and/or videotapes, film, karaoke, drama and theater games, readers' theater, conversation clubs, internet time, chat rooms, pen pals, e-mails in English computer-assisted instruction, talking with foreigners in English, travel outside China, lectures in English, etc. Sometimes it takes several inputs before a student grasps a word's meaning and even more inputs before a student actually understands in what situations the word can be used. That's why Mert stressed "diverse contexts" and "the more a student is exposed." In short, the key to effective vocabulary learning lies precisely in providing massive exposure to English in as many different situations and contexts as possible.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Using rubrics to evaluate spoken English

By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

One way to get a sense of structure with the evaluation of student oral production is by using a rubric. Here's an example of a speaking rubric for an ESL program in a US elementary school system: RUBRIC and here's a site with programs to help you develop a rubric: DEVELOP RUBRIC

To create a rubric for a speaking activity such as retelling a story, you need to break the activity down into its most basic elements. For example, speech is comprised of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation/stress/intonation, logical meaning and order, purpose, and in the case of the story, an element of cohesion. For the specific task, you might want to also consider the accuracy of the retelling, the amount of detail included, number or length of pauses and inappropriate filler noises, etc. Then, for each category, set the possible performance/assessment levels, for example, "excellent", "satisfactory", and "needs improvement". I prefer to work with a basic set of 3 as it is easier for me to break down a production into bad, so-so, and good instead of more subtle variations- although plenty of instructors use 4 and 5 categories.

If you do a Google search using key words like "ESL Speaking rubric", you should find many ideas to help you create a rubric that will meet your needs.

By the way, I would suggest recording the assessment either audio or audio/video because it can be hard to listen to content, mentally evaluate, and complete a rubric at the same time. Replaying the audio gives you time to better analyze the students' work and assess more fairly. Playing back the recording for the student who can then watch him or herself and compare the recording to the completed rubric assessment is a valuable learning tool as well.