The problem with teaching language through integrated skills

Many of the books that we use to teach English nowadays, combine the skills. Although this seems to be in vogue, as someone on the ground, I wish there was more time to focus more on one particular skill.

Although integrated skills are meant to reflect the reality of language use, they fail to take into account a learners trajectory. When learning a new language, it takes time to master a particular skill.

Many teachers are not in control of their teaching schedules, and are likely following one that is centrally produced. My experience has been, that lower level learners are left struggling, and those above do not get enough time to practice. This becomes even more apparent when teachers have a finite amount of time to cover a course, and they are under pressure to keep up with everyone else, especially if they work in a large organisation.

Basically, as a practitioner, I believe that the introduction of integrated skills should happen at a later stage when learners have a stronger foundation in the new language.

This is no sentimental hark back to the past, it’s a genuine concern of someone who is teaching day-in-day-out.

Is anyone listening out there? What do you think?

Teaching very very weak students how to write

picture source: emiller27.wordpress.com

How many times have you ended up with a class of students who seem to be well below the level required for a particular class?

They cannot seem to comprehend what you say (listening and vocabulary knowledge?), and are unable to respond when you speak to them. They seem to lack basic words, and yet you have to teach them how to write a 5 paragraph essay!

You have a course schedule with a number of units to cover within a finite period of time. You cannot at this point resort to teaching them grammar and improving their lexis.  Admittedly the latter is easier to do than the former.

They also seem to have a problem when it comes to brainstorming, and seem to lack ideas. May be the ideas are there for a restricted list of topics, as they have probably not had to talk about societal issues. I’m assuming that if ideas exist, they are unable to convey these as those ideas can only be conveyed in their L1.

Strategy so far

I’ve been focussing on ensuring that the students internalise the framework of an essay. What I mean is, the idea of having introductions, body paragraphs and a conclusion, and the sub-levels for these important pillars of an essay, e.g. a hook, thesis statement and supporting ideas.

In every class, we have a new topic or topics, and a brainstorming session. This is followed by trying to fit the ideas into the framework. Which of course is then followed by adding meat to this skeleton. This is a good way to introduce new vocabulary. Throughout this period, I’ve been acting ‘all enthusiastic’ as if I’m some kind of football team manager/ motivator.

In addition to the above, I’ve come to the conclusion, that in order to get the attention of the students, we need to brainstorm topics that they can relate to, or are close to their hearts.

I’ve covered topics like ‘finding a marriage partner’, ‘why a certain famous person is famous’ and even how to make ‘rice and meat’ also known as kabsa! I’ve been amazed at the attention the students give, and how familiar, interesting topics engage them. You can see their eyes light-up and of course the smirks when I try to introduce some ‘silly’ topic.

How are we progressing? Well, the prognosis is, that irrespective of how well the student understands the framework, or likes the topic under discussion, if the message cannot be conveyed, which requires a reasonable level of language, then the chances of success are low. Ultimately, the reader needs to understand the message being conveyed. Being able to piece together accurate sentences with appropriate vocabulary is a necessity. Even part accurate will do. But we are even below that. You know how serious word order problems, along with inappropriate vocabulary can just totally confuse the reader.

I’m sure there are ways that others deal with such difficulties, but when you are teaching a 2-3 credit hour course over a semester, it can be difficult to do anything extra. I have asked them to revise certain tenses they may have studied as part of a grammar course in the past. But should I be following this up? There’s little time.

All of the above obviously brings up issues relating to teaching, learning and assessment issues. Issues that I’ll try to discuss in the future. My final thoughts link in to these issues.

Final thoughts: Who let these students pass the previous courses? They could not possibly have passed looking at their current performance. What were they being taught before and how? What kind of assessment was going on, and using what standard? Is the context a major problem, and do we need to take a closer look at this?

All the best.

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.

Supplementary materials as pension plan

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to work for Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam – see a website about Yusuf – www.yusufislam.com  ), a well-known pop-star from the late 60’s and early 70’s.

In case you’re wondering, I was certainly not teaching English, and neither did he have an English Institute. So what does this have to do with TESOL and teaching?

Okay, let’s take a step back, and think about ourselves as teaching professionals. First, how many years have you been teaching? Second, how many subjects have you taught; third, how much are you earning compared to other professionals?

Let’s assume the answers to the first two questions are “quite a few”, and for the third, the answer is “pretty average”. Having said this, if money was a primary motivator for you, then you would probably have gone into another profession.

Question: How many supplementary materials do you produce per lesson, per day and per week? Now, calculate the number of supplementary materials you produce per year, and then multiply this into the number of years you’ve taught.

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Here’s an example:

Subjects taught a week                                                                    =4

1 supplementary sheet (S.S) per week created for each subject   =4 (S.S) per week

The teacher works 50 weeks a year                                      =4 (S.S) x 50 = 200 (S.S)/Year

The teacher works 10 years                                                  =200 (S.S) x10 = 2,000 (S.S)

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Now, how many TESOL teachers are there out there? Let’s assume 20,000.

Taking the figures above, this means that 40 million supplementary sheets are produced for each generation of teachers.

What happens to supplementary sheets? Well, they’re stuffed in envelopes or filed away to gather dust. Who knows, they may be re-used but ultimately, this vast knowledge is being thrown away. How much knowledge have we lost in the last 100 years or more? How could this knowledge have helped us in our teaching and research today?

Each one of us is a container (or silo) of knowledge. Where is that knowledge going? It’s going in the bin of history. There is no library out there of supplementary materials, and so that knowledge is going to waste.

Now back to Cat Stevens (Yusuf). Musicians write songs, and some even produce the music. Long after Yusuf had left being an active musician, he was still receiving money for the work he had previously done. Wherever and whenever a song was played, be it on the radio, be it in an advert, a royalty would be earned. So despite the fact he had written the songs 20 years earlier, he was still making a living on the work he had previously done. The musicians who had collaborated with him in the past also got a part of the royalty. This is standard practice across the industry.

Now, some of you may have worked out what I’m trying to suggest here, which is that the supplementary materials we produce is a valuable resource of knowledge, something that each one of us produces without even a second thought. It’s part of our job. But what happens afterwards?

Ladies and Gentlemen, you are repositories of knowledge, the work you produce is invaluable, and in reality all of that knowledge is going to waste.

Why can’t we have a library of supplementary materials in e.g. cyberspace, let’s say something like Amazon.com, where teachers, students, materials seekers, curriculum writers and even policy makers, can go to and download a copy of one of the masterpieces you have produced. Every time they download your work, you get paid a modest amount, a ‘supplementary materials royalty’.

In a world where iPhones, iPads and various digital tablets exist, in a world where everything and everyone is connected via the net, and in a world where for our students this is the norm, why don’t we take the next step? Imagine you are teaching and then you ask all your students to download materials from cyberspace. Who knows, there may be enough relevant materials out there that you may not even need a textbook. Every time a download occurs, someone somewhere will receive a small royalty.

In this world of transmedia, where publishers are making a killing with their books, CDs, DVDs and online resources, why don’t the rest of us also make use of this opportunity? No one is saying that you are going to make a ‘ton of money’ but at least you can get back something for the work that you produced with your own creativity, your own passion, with your concern for your students, without even a thought that you should get a monetary return. Who knows, with a ‘supplementary materials royalty’ we may survive the unpredictable financial world we currently live in.

So now that I’ve provided the idea, are there any takers out there who can make this a reality?

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.