Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Getting students to use dictionaries

By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, USA

I want and encourage my students to use a dictionary. At the lower levels, I like them to use a bilingual dictionary, and at intermediate and above, I prefer them to use an Eng-Eng dictionary. I get annoyed when students are assigned to read something short for homework, and the next day I ask them "Who looked up what X means?" and not one student bothered to use a dictionary. The other day in a high intermediate speaking class, I gave students a list of words to describe character and personality. The students were to work in groups, agreeing on the top three words to describe each- a successful college student, a successful career person, and a good spouse/partner. I knew that with the combined knowledge of each group, there would probably still be about 10-20% of the words on the list the students didn't know. I reminded them to use a dictionary. (And not because I was lazy to explain the word, but because I wanted them to go through the explanation and negotiation of meaning process in Eng as a group! I will always help them refine a definition after they have given it their best shot on their own.) When students were sharing their results, I asked some "Well, why not X to describe a spouse?" and the group would reply "Oh, we didn't know what that word meant." Only 1 person in 1 group had bothered to identify any unknown words. I was disappointed that students just preferred to skip over a word rather than take a chance that it might be the perfect word they needed to complete their task.

I know students have to deal with words in context and that they can't be expected to whip out a dictionary every time they encounter an unknown word, but if a college student isn't curious enough to do define a new word encountered while doing homework, or in a relaxed, un-timed environment, I'm guessing the student will never look up words. Too many intermediate level and above students are complacent with their limited vocabulary because they function OK in their limited worlds, and it's hard to convince them that increasing their vocabulary is anything but icing on the cake.

Naively I thought that requiring a dictionary as stated on my syllabus would result in students actually getting one and each student customizing his or her own use of it as needed, learning the words (or at least looking up words) needed by each individual. Instead I see that I need to resort to choosing the words the students will learn and providing assignments that can not be completed without the use of a dictionary. It's frustrating when I try to treat college students as adults who are able to make decisions about what they need to learn, only to discover that many still have the "learning resistance" of a teenager and lack self-initiative, and I instead have to tell them what to learn.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Developing tests for academic listening & speaking

By Erlyn Baack - ITESM, Campus Queretaro, Mexico

A teacher asked about "Listening/Speaking exams to assess low intermediate students if they are ready for high intermediate level and then high intermediate students if they are ready for advanced level of ESL. Putting an emphasis on better academic preparation, in Listening we stress listening to lectures and note-taking, and in Speaking, we stress academic vocabulary, grammar correctness, and presentation techniques. We consider (1) exam content, (2) testing efficiency considering the number of students, (3) a rubric for Listening/Speaking, (4) involvement of outside instructors to make testing more objective.

The teacher asked a whole series of interrelated questions involving testing of 40 low intermediate and 80 high intermediate students, and while the questions were specifically about "Listening/Speaking exams, the emphasis is much broader including listening and note-taking and academic vocabulary, grammar correctness, and presentation techniques.

Those questions, therefore, are all-encompassing questions that must be asked early on in the semester or even before the semester begins.

Teachers at both levels and the school administration should ask themselves (1) What do we want the students at each level to know (or be able to do) when they finish the level, (2) how are we going to teach it, and (3) how are we going to test it? Essentially, therefore, teachers at both levels should be (or should have been) addressing these questions in their lesson plans and classroom activities since the beginning of the semester. If daily or weekly classroom activities are designed for students to achieve the successes desired by the time of the final exam, their probability of success is high.

It would seem to me that listening to lectures and note-taking would be the easiest to teach and test although it takes collaboration among teachers and administrators on setting it up. For a simple classroom activity, I would recommend going to a website like Living on Earth at , download some MP3 files of radio stories, play them for the class while they take notes, and then test using ten multiple choice questions, for example. (Parenthetically, it is EASY to get written permission from LOE to use their MP3s in this manner, even including putting their files on CDs for the reserve in the library or for free distribution.) After the quiz (or before in some instances) students at both levels should have the opportunity to discuss the stories because they are interesting, sometimes polemic, and they can generate a lot of discussion. The last radio show is at consisting of seven stories ranging from three minutes to 17 minutes, and finally, an additional benefit is that the text is always available to these MP3 stories as well.

Regarding testing, to be fair, academic vocabulary and grammar correctness can be taken from materials (like Living on Earth) that students have already been exposed to. The text can be used for that, and at the levels Inna Braginsky is asking about, students can always benefit from focused attention toward S-V agreement, pronouns, modals, simple, compound, and complex sentences, adjective clauses, parallel structure, etc. It is up to the teachers and administrators to address the most obvious weaknesses at each level and focus on a few specifics students can study, so when they take their multiple choice texts on these things, they can succeed. (No apologies for multiple choice tests here! ;-) )

The hardest part is the speaking exam because it requires an enormous amount of consensus among TRAINED teachers.

First, teachers must agree on a series of possible questions or topics which may be announced beforehand or not, their preference. I think to be reliable the topic should come from topics students have already been exposed to, much like the Living on Earth topics suggested above (a dozen topics would not be too many for students to prepare for). After students are given three or four minutes to present a (1) SUMMARY or an (2) ARGUMENT for something or a (3) RATIONALE against something (for examples), teachers should ask a pertinent follow-up question or two, and both teachers/administrators and students should at least feel that the speech topic was fair; it was a topic the student was at least exposed to and had the chance to study.

Then, teachers should assess the speaking abilities of the students (both the prepared and extemporaneous parts), and ideally they will have worked together long enough with the parts of their rubric to arrive at a consensus independently. If four teachers, for example, assign the student a four of six points on an aspect of his speaking performance, they should be very proud of that!

I didn't address bringing a bunch of non-ESL-trained teachers into the mix, but their opinions count! Spaces both formal and informal should be available for "mainstream" teachers to explain the "greatest weaknesses" of the ESL students, but I wouldn't invite them to exams.