From sentence to paragraph to essay – Teaching paragraph writing in Saudi Arabia

After having taught in Saudi Arabia for around 8 years, it is only now that some aspects of what makes Saudi students ‘tick’ is making me re-think my preconceptions of why students struggle to write.

During a recent writing course I was teaching, the best student in the class made me aware that he and the other students had never been taught how to write paragraphs at school. “We were just told to write”. So that’s what they did – write.

They were not taught to:

  • Plan
  • Write an outline
  • Brain storm
  • To write their ideas in any particular order
  • Or to write with any kind of interconnectedness
  • Or to summarise their ideas

There were told “just to write”.

This information is important, as what this brief piece of information reveals, is that students lack basic cognitive/thinking/learning skills, and that in the EFL classroom in addition to worrying about language, a great deal of time needs to be spent in just developing these more ‘lateral skills’.

If anyone knows of any traits within Arabic writing that might help us understand the Arabic writing/thinking process, then could they please share their experiences?

It’s not an Arab problem, it’s a Saudi problem. I say this, as all Arabs tend to be boxed into one category, but as experience shows, cultural and experiential factors play a significant part in how learning and language skills develop. We certainly need more research in this area.

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Jumping around like a monkey and trying to motivate the unmotivateable

The title is I must admit a bit harsh (does the word unmotivateable exist?), but in a way describes the context I found myself in the other day.

From a language instructor background, I’m used to ‘jumping around like a monkey’.

Most language instructors try hard to get the attention of their students, trying to get them involved in class activities, with the goal that by the end of the class they will have taken another step in their language learning. When I see a student yawn, I feel the need to access my ‘teaching strategy file’ in that upper stratum we call the brain!

The other day, I was facing a group of BA English students. I had been placed within a ‘lecturing environment’ where as one of the students told me, “teacher we are used to listening, not speaking. We just take notes.”

Tasked with having to teach modals (I was teaching grammar of course) I was faced with a bleary-eyed group of young to mature adult males.It was also late afternoon – 5.30 pm to be exact.

After a few minutes, I realised that my students were not only having difficulty with the concept, they did not seem to understand what I was saying!! When I asked them a question, all I got was silence.

What now I thought as I rubbed my chin and raised one eyebrow (in a James Bond like fashion of course).

Eureka!! (I thought)

I offered to let all of my students go home if they each wrote a sentence for the words must, might, may and could.

I wrote the words on the white board, drew four columns and made my board markers available to anyone who was brave enough to come to the front and take a risk. “Even if you make a mistake, I’ll be happy, the point is to try!!”

I waited a few minutes. Two to three students (the best ones as expected) wrote four sentences each, followed by immediate feedback from yours truly. They then all went home.

After what then seemed quite a few minutes, one or two of the students came forward and started writing. They could look at their grammar book, but they had to use different vocabulary.

The students ‘I think’ had observed the other students writing, looked at what they had written, as well as my feedback, and were beginning to pick up a pattern.

Slowly but surely, some of the more shy students started coming to the front. In a way they had no choice, as the class was becoming empty as more and more of the students started leaving. I gave individual feedback and made sure all the students were watching and at the same time was rallying them to “have a go”.

The class ended at about the same time it normally would.

I was beginning to wonder. Do I have to offer them a chance to go home early in every class to get them to actually learn something or even motivate them? Remember, this was an unusually difficult situation?

And is lecturing really the right way to be teaching a second language? Obviously I can’t use this strategy all of the time.

What would you have done?

Are book publishers killing teacher creativity and student learning potential?

Okay, so how many of you teaching English are using a text from a major
publisher? And how many of you seriously think that you, let alone your students are particularly enjoying the topics under the microscope? I mean, how does someone sitting in a dusty office in the middle of no-where decide what our students are going to learn and talk about. A few years back, I was teaching the topic of spanking to a group of Saudi students. Of course, this had nothing to do with their life experience, and the topic went down like a lead balloon! It
didn’t make for much interesting conversation.

 The other day, I started a discussion with my students about the latest smart phones. I mentioned the iphone, Samsung Galaxy, the HTC desire, the latest Blackberry Bold and a few other ‘in-phones’.

The students ‘pounced’ on the chance to talk about their phones memory size, whether Android beat IOS, and the various functionalities of the phones concerned. It goes without saying, that many of us are also ‘into’ these kinds of ‘in-things’. It was an opportunity to justify positions for choosing particular phones, and of course the resulting argumentation resulted in a lot of ‘talk’ – which of course was the desired outcome.

I find without reservation that most book publishers are way behind on interesting content. At times it feels like we’re stuck within a straight jacket that just does not give us the freedom to be creative. You have to focus on the content so that students perform well on the ‘achievement exam’.

The discussion on smart phones, fitted into the broad categories of technology, communication, computers etc. etc. Themes which are sometimes separated or combined as main topics within books.

My proposal is that within a teaching context, a collection of main ideas or topics should be decided by the teachers, and then teachers left to build whatever content they want around it – subject to the proficiency level of their students. Yes, build the content ourselves. We’re teachers, we’re meant to be
creative!

Collect the content that’s interesting to both sides (teacher and student) and start learning using more interesting content.

Okay, now I can hear many of you saying that if you have ten teachers, producing or acquiring their own content, doing their own thing, in their own class we’re going to end up with a bit of a ‘biryani’ or should I say ‘mix-up’.

If we take the example of travelling, whether you discuss the Bahamas, having a good time at a beach front, a trip to Tokyo or even Dhaka in Bangladesh, the
vocabulary used is going to be quite similar. The lexis students use will be very close.

All content areas have similar core vocabulary. No matter what you talk, read, write or listen about, the same words will be repeated across the classes, again and again.

The main topic or area acts as the starting point for creating content. The specifics of the content are in the teachers and students hands.

To summarise, teachers should have the freedom to choose whatever content they deem appropriate, look for content that is relevant and useful for students, taking into account student experience in their lives, and importantly items which are interesting and current.

How to never lose your luggage – Teaching ideas

Students, watch/see, listen, write, read and speak (see below)

[howcast url=’http://www.howcast.com/videos/2997-How-To-Never-Lose-Your-Luggage’ height=’240′ width=’360′]

There are no published materials out there that easily combine video and use this as a starting point for teaching language.

Here’s an idea: (1) Students watch/listen to the video, (2) They make notes of what they hear (listen to), (3) They then write down some questions relating to their notes, (4) They ask their classmates or instructor questions about the video. So, the process is as follows: Watch/see, listen, make notes, write questions based on information collected, read out questions and then speak.

European English :))

European English:
The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European Union rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, the British Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5- year phase-in plan that would become known as ”Euro-English” .

In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c”. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favour of “k”. This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f”. This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent “e” in the languag is disgrasful and it should go away.

By the 4th yer people wil be reseptiv to steps such as
replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v”.

During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and after ziz fifz yer, ve vil hav a reil sensi bl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech oza. Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.

Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German like zey vunted in ze forst plas.
If zis mad you smil, pleas pas on to oza pepl.

Back to work – A new academic year begins

 

“First, thank you to whoever took this photograph. The black and white backdrop, the papers on the desk, the telephone. They all nicely depict how I would describe my desk, and my day! A lot of things to think about as the new academic year begins, new challenges, re-visiting ideas and looking through my increasingly longer ‘articles-to-write’ list. Of course in the new world of professional networking, it’s imperative to ‘link-up’ with people who share the same passions, wherever they are in our increasingly intertwined close-knit world. It’s going to be fun and I’m looking forward to the ride. Have a good year fellow educators. And for the rest, if you’re not an active student, why not think about learning something new?”