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?

Conversation questions

How many of you out there teach speaking?  In this day and age, skills tend to be combined as a result of the so-called ‘integrated skills’ movement. Although supporters of this methodology believe that it reflects real life, I find that courses do not provide enough practice for students in the relevant skills. What I’m saying, is that students need focused practice for a substantial amount of time in the four skills. In my context, students do not get sufficient opportunities to speak, so I try hard to ensure that students speaking per lesson ratio is as high as possible.

I often summarise whole chapters into one A4 worksheet. which then acts as the main point from which I then teach. I typically also prepare my own conversation questions so that students can use these to talk about the content of the chapter. I usually have about 30 questions per chapter.

We now have plenty of pair work going on in the classroom which is a relief. Students have given me positive feedback and are being cajoled into practicing their speaking more.

What do you think? Are we all prone to go with the flow? Have we lost our creativity?

By the way, I’d like to share something I recently found on the net. It’s a speaking question bank. Here’s the link: http://iteslj.org/questions/

Enjoy.

 

Assessment without numbers

What does a number mean? If someone gets 80 on the TOEFL iBT what does it actually mean? Is someone who gets 85 better that someone who got 80? Really? How?

What about in the classroom? You give students a score out of 10, 15, 20 etc, but what does the score really mean? What does good, very good or excellent mean? Do we really know what we mean? Do the students understand what the scores mean, or even these expressions?

What if scores were totally replaced by descriptions or descriptors? What if we gave a student a description of what they had achieved?

Are we giving students marks, because that’s the way it’s always been? Or may be this is also a reflection of our educational backgrounds as well as the undergraduate and graduate courses we’ve taken. After all, we probably also got scores or grades.

And what about the usefulness of assessment. What can we do to make students more aware and at the same time get them to do something about their learning?

It might require us as teachers to also take a closer look at what we mean, and/or what our students are really doing. But may be we just don’t have the time?

So there are a lot of questions here, a lot of elements, what now?

Well, what do you think? What do you do? How can we reinvent testing and assessment?

I’m hoping to add future posts to the questions above.

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.

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?

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.

______________________________________

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)

______________________________________

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?