It was at a recent city-wide professional development day for IRCC-funded frontline workers. A colleague who teaches at another centre the same niche demographic that I teach (seniors) approached me with some questions about how my class is going. This was the question foremost in her mind.
Any ESL teacher can tell you that for some of our students, the attachment to their little devices is like an addiction. We are baffled by our inability to convince students to put them away even for a few minutes, especially considering that these same students BEG us for help improving their speaking and listening skills.
So what have I tried that hasn't worked, or hasn't completely solved the problem? Hmmm, let me think back.
We spent several weeks on a 'listening boot camp' in which we learned to:
- guess words from context
- focus on content words; not stressing over all the reduced and thus hard to catch function words
- practice prosody in order to train our brains to tune into it while listening
- practice linking in order to train our brains to recognized linked words
I gave them the passage called "The Shillibog," full of non-words intended to: a) thwart their hunt for them in the dictionaries and b) teach them, in a real way, what is meant by guessing from context.
I have spoken to them ad nauseum about the need for a balance between the grammar-translation method they grew up with and more communicative ways of getting their brains to acquire new lexis in the second language. We talk a lot about strategic competence and include it as a criterion on speaking and listening assessments.
"Can you always pull out your dictionary on the streets of Windsor when using English with strangers?" They laugh sheepishly. They know I am trying to help them develop some new muscles and that--just like a new workout at the gym--it's not going to be comfortable at first.
"Do the uncomfortable until it becomes comfortable!" I say to cheer them on.
The list of things we have tried could fill a few blog posts. I'll stop here and just tell you the ending of the story. None of it has worked. They are still just as addicted to their gadgets as on day one, still resist setting them aside even for one minute.
One day I realized that I had to take a new approach. I finally admitted to myself that I'm not going to break this addiction of theirs anymore than I'm going to shame a student into stopping smoking. Instead, I started to work with the fact that when they don't have those gadgets at the ready, when they are not permitted to look at them and scribble translations onto their papers, their level of anxiety starts to mount. The longer they are without them, the more anxious they feel.
Having surrendered to that reality, here is what HAS worked in my multilevel classroom.
- As often as I can do so, I offer them the written text that we'll next be dealing with at the end of the previous class period. This allows them to use the dictionary at home overnight and come back to school with all the translations scribbled in the margins and between the lines.
- Announce ahead of time when a 'no dictionaries' activity is coming and ask them how much dictionary time they would like beforehand. Often they ask for more time than I'm willing to give, and so we do our best to reach a reasonable compromise. Example: I hand out a sheet on which there are five discussion questions (or I write the questions on the board). In order to get compliance on the 'no pencils, no dictionaries' rule during convo time, I allow ten minutes of quiet dictionary time before students are to get into discussion groups.
- I walk around during 'no dictionary' activities and remind those who have fallen off the wagon that they are wasting precious 'student talk time.'
That's about it. That's how I answered my colleague. My students and I laugh about their dependence on the technology. We joke. We bargain and barter. We compromise.
How about you? Do you try to limit students' use of the translators or not? Why or why not?