Monday, January 26, 2015

Listening Boot Camp (Week One)

I'm happy to report that the first phase of Listening Boot Camp (the buy-in) has been a success, but not without a bit of head-banging along the way (my head against classroom door--to much laughter). Many grasped the concept of guessing a word from context after I read "The Shillybog" aloud to them while they shouted out possible meanings for the nonsense words. To satisfy their unavoidable demand to see all oral texts in writing, I let them spend an hour with a printed copy, delighting in the fact that dictionaries were of no use whatsoever.

I gave them some language for oral practice:

A: What do you think _____ means? 
B: I think it means ____. A: 
Why? B: Because... 


A: What do you think 'shillybog' means? 
B: I think a shillybog is a type of night club. 
A: Why? 
B: Because we know it's downtown, and we know people go there after work to drink and dance or sing. It could be a dance club or karaoke club. 

That worked well. The next day I wanted to give a lesson on the art of talking around an unknown word, so I brought in a package of little dinosaur figures from the evil dollar store. After explaining the point of the exercise and getting agreement that they would not use dictionaries or pencils during this part of the lesson, I put them in A/B pairs and slipped a plastic T-Rex, Pterodactyl, or Stegosaurus into the waiting hands of each A partner, who tucked it under the table and vowed not to show the toy to partner. I reminded the Bs that communication is a two-way street and that they could ask partner questions about the item hidden away between cupped hands.

Soon I was hearing things like, "Does it have a long neck and tail?" "Do children visit parks and see statues of it?" Feeling satisfied with how things were progressing, I slipped out to use the washroom. On my return minutes later, two students had bilingual dictionaries open, and I heard the word "dinosaur."

I will be honest with you. I was crushed. I love my senior students like my own grandparents, so becoming angry with them is almost beyond imagining. But my face flushed. I got their attention and asked them, "Do you know how long I searched for an item nobody would know? By looking up the word, you've ruined the lesson."

You have to realize that I would normally NEVER use such strong language with my students. But this sneakiness and not taking me seriously when I set rules for activities has been going on for well over a year now. They do as they please, thinking a sweet apology makes it all better. Enough is enough.

Since they rarely if ever see me upset, my visible disappointment got their attention. Having used the dinosaurs as a warm-up and practice, after the break we played a game to practice this new skill of talking around an unknown word. I divided the class into two teams and explained the charades-like activity to them. Taking turns, one student from each team would come into the hall with me to peek at an item from a bag I'd brought from home. The student would then return to the classroom and try to describe the item to his/her teammates. Speaking the L1 meant an end to that turn and no point for that team.

This actually went very well. Some items they had to describe included a corkscrew, sink strainer, zip-lock bag and tape measure. Only one student lost the turn for her team by lapsing into her first language.

Thursday was compromise day. As a reward for their great efforts to fully participate in the Listening Boot Camp activities, I let them see the names of all the mystery items from the day before in the form of a matching worksheet. Once they had worked with classmates to complete the gap-fill, I asked them to practice a short customer-clerk dialogue with the same household items in mind:

A: Can I help you? 
B: Yes. I'm looking for a... well, I don't know the name of it. 
A: Can you describe it for me? What's it used for? 
B: It's metal. You use it to break open the shell of a nut. 
A: Ah, a nutcracker! Yes, we have a few models to choose from. How much did you want to spend? ...etc. 

After pairs had practiced their shopper-clerk dialogues one time through with each item, I invited them to the front of the class to perform for each other.

At the end of class that day, three students came up to me as they were leaving in order to tell me, "We like this method. We like listening boot camp."

Friday's lab activities included links to videos meant to reinforce some of the concepts presented during the week.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Listening Skills Dilemma

I am about to pull my hair out. Seriously, I'm at my wit's end. Today I did a needs assessment with my beloved morning class (90% Chinese, 100% over the age of 55). They are almost in tears, they so badly want to improve their listening skills. And yet, when I try to get them to set aside their electronic dictionaries and pencils for a block of listening / speaking time, I feel like I'm dealing with toddlers. They are sneaky. They apologize. They laugh. They look sheepish. But they do not comply.

The same thing happens when they repeatedly revert to their L1--a problem that comes with the fact that it is such a homogeneous group. We have voted on it. THEY decided they wanted to ban L1 from the class, except for occasional, brief and discreet whispers to a classmate: "How do you say X in our language?" But do they stick to that rule? Heck, no. The minute my back is turned... no, not even. Right in front of me they just babble away in the L1.

One source of this challenge is clear to me. Given the generation and culture of origin of the majority, I assume they have been inexorably steeped in the grammar-translation method of second language acquisition. We have talked about that. I've offered myself as an example since I've studied languages as diverse as ASL, Demotic Greek, Latin, Japanese and Farsi. They nod in agreement when I say the grammar-translation method was apt and sufficient for my Latin studies, given the goal of being able to translate Ovid. Do they think this method rendered me able to order a beer in Latin or ask where the bathroom is? Of course not. We laugh.

In summary, I've given sermons about forging neural pathways (they are educated enough for this level of analysis) until I'm blue in the face. I've offered cute quotes like, "Do the uncomfortable until it feels comfortable." I've given testimonials from my own history as a successful polyglot. Nothing ever works for long.

Today I am starting over. I have decided I will do whatever it takes to get buy-in. I will try to work with instead of against the barriers. We must solve this problem. Below will be my journal where I will keep an account of what works and what fails.

12 January Tricked groups into making oral presentations without looking down at paper by surprising them with the assignment and not allowing them to bring paper with them to the front of the class. Of course they did just fine, and it was much more engaging than when they know about a presentation ahead of time and spend all night MEMORIZING their parts (gah!) or read from paper (double gah).

13 January We are seeing eye-to-eye regarding over-dependence on dictionaries. We made a compromise: dictionaries were allowed for the first 20 minutes after I had passed out the text (the needs assessment itself). After break, no dictionaries were allowed, only conversation about the questionnaire. Almost everyone cooperated, and I gave violators a choice between tucking the machines away in a satchel or letting me put them on top of the file cabinet. At the end of class, they were smiling. They said they liked the tactic and want to continue down this road.

14 January I want to sell them on the notion of guessing the meaning of words from context, so I'm giving them this text, "The Shillybog." We'll see how it goes.

15 January The activity re guessing the meaning of words from context went over very well. They get the point of it. On Monday we start our new project called "Kelly's Listening Boot Camp." The idea is that I am their personal trainer whose goal it is to help them develop and exercise the listening "muscles." It's my job to inspire and motivate while providing ways for them to strengthen these underdeveloped faculties. It won't always be fun. It may often be uncomfortable. But hopefully the end will justify the means!

Here are the text and discussion questions I'm using to kick off Listening Boot Camp on Monday.

It is my hope that I can help the learners build a tool box of strategies for improving their listening, including improving prosody through practice with the stress-timed nature of English (making the stressed vowel in content words longer, stronger, clearer), and in turn listening for content words in others' speech and realizing that catching every word is unnecessary. We will have many gambits for restoring faltering communication posted around the classroom, such as "Can you speak more slowly?" and "Can you say that using different words?" Thus we emphasize that communication is a two-way street, always able to be repaired when both parties take ownership of it.

I'd love to hear your ideas for my dilemma. What else can I do? How can I help these students with their listening skills? (Click the purple # Comments: link below.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why We Play Sentence Unscramble

Over the weekend I was Skyping with John Sivell (TESL educator at Brock), and we were talking about how literacy instruction should vary depending on whether the target language has a shallow or deep orthography. 

With their lovely one-to-one grapheme-phoneme correspondence, languages like Spanish and German have been very easy for me to learn to read and pronounce. Learning to read English as a second language, on the other hand, must be quite a challenge for our literacy students. Our learners have to contend with so many spelling irregularities, homophones and homographs, don't they? One letter can make a number of sounds, and one sound can be represented in a host of ways.

Once we as a class have pretty much mastered short vowel sounds in CVC words, I enjoy teaching the two-vowel rule. But I wince every time we run into an exception. We put those in a special column. They are our English-spelling-is-sometimes-crazy-I'm-so-sorry words. How can we better equip ESL literacy learners to take on a language in which predicting the pronunciation of the word in front of you isn't so cut and dried?
From the week we made snack bars in class.
John pointed out that when you are teaching an orthographically shallow language, you can focus a lot on the phonetic building blocks of the language. That's often enough for the learners. But when the target language is one with an orthography as deep as that of English? You have to support the learners with lots of oral practice before reading, and especially with plenty of syntax practice. Knowledge of the S-V-O pattern of English helps learners predict what the next word in a sentence might be, which in turn helps with fluency in reading.

Every week my literacy class tackles a new story or task. If it's a story, it might be Mo Stays Warm from the ESL Literacy Network, A New Dress from Talk of the Block series, or a book we have written ourselves based on photos taken while engaged in an activity. Whatever the text, I always load the ten to twelve new vocabulary words of the week into Spelling City, which allows students to work with the words on computer lab day--spelling and playing various games with them.

One key game is Sentence Unscramble. I always edit the sample sentence for every word in my Spelling City word list so that when students play this game, they are unscrambling sentences taken directly from our text. If I am giving students a sentence scramble worksheet in class, we will first play the game together as a class, pulling up the website on the classroom projector board.

I have found that by making syntax activities a regular part of our weekly routine, students quickly internalize the S-V-O pattern of English sentences--without a bit of metalanguage! Higher levels enjoy this game, too.

Update: This game has been moved to the premium section, prompting me to ask my school for a subscription. We pay about $54 per year USD. Now each student has an account and their scores go into my grade book. I can also print certificates of achievement for them, which we put in their portfolios.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Student-made Rubrics

One of the most useful TESL Ontario Conference workshops I have ever attended was called Happiness is a Good Rubric. I was not the only participant who went into it thinking that the title meant that student happiness is a good indicator of teacher success. Actually, the presentation title was intended to mean that happiness can result from having and using a good rubric.

I was then (and am still) new to ESL teaching; I had not yet started using rubrics in my own classes. Excited by the ideas that had been presented in this session, I went back and immediately started using rubrics--not only at test time, but for almost every activity and assignment, as the presenters had suggested. Until discovering the power of rubrics, I had been feeling quite frustrated by my students' seeming inability to remember to do homework, as well as by their inability to consistently remember and follow the expectations for a task. It didn't seem to matter how many times I reminded them or whether I wrote it in the special HOMEWORK corner of the white board.

All of that changed when I started giving them rubrics. The biggest shift, however, came when the students themselves started writing the criteria for the tasks and filling in the rubrics themselves.

"What do YOU think we should be looking for when we mark these essays?" I would ask.

As the learners brainstormed and came up with the criteria, we copied them together into blank grids. (You can try this in your own classes by downloading an editable MS Word rubric template from the FREE RESOURCES area - Assessment page.)

I can summarize my experience working with rubrics as follows:

  • When students have the rubric in hand BEFORE executing a task, performance improves.
  • When students help write the criteria, they invest more in the assessment process.
  • Providing rubrics ahead of time for every assignment and allowing students to take them home for reference while doing homework virtually eliminates misunderstood instructions, failure to complete assignments, and so on.
  • Students rarely if ever find reason to complain about their mark when they collaborated in creating the rubric and coming up with the criteria against which they are to be assessed. 
I have to agree with Linda Schwebke and Larry Iveson on this much: Happiness IS a good rubric!