Sunday, April 16, 2017

Those Blasted Gadgets!

"How do you get them to put down the dictionaries?"

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?


  1. I'd like to offer another perspective on this issue. I have no problem with my students' use of dictionaries. I've studied six languages over the last few decades, always using bilingual dictionaries, and I've been very successful. Instead of using awkward circumlocutions in my other languages, I use appropriate words. On encountering unfamiliar words, of course I use context to figure out what they mean, but if I can look up the others in a few seconds, why not do so? Then I bookmark them in my dictionary app (or Google Translate) and learn them later.

    In the horrible old days of gigantic paper dictionaries, things were very different, but now I have the equivalent digital versions on my phone and I'm glad to use them, and I encourage my students do the same. Unfortunately, their phones also contain the time-wasting social media apps that are the bane of our age, and that complicates the situation. Should I ban phones and prevent the students from using an incredibly useful tool for language learning, or allow them to use their phones and have to vie for their attention? I don't know the answer, and that for me is a more important issue. If my students had electronic dictionaries like the one in the picture above, it would be great, but those have never been popular outside East Asia, and today they're being replaced by smartphones even there.

    1. Anonymous,
      What a great addition to this conversation! I can absolutely imagine classes in which this would work and would be a valuable addition to the toolbox instead of the barrier to communication that it is proving to be for my little class of seniors and their counterparts at a nearby school.
      I also have studied multiple languages over the decades and remember the old days when I had to bring that little Spanish-English/English-Spanish PAPERBACK dictionary with me on my dates with my Cuban boyfriend. Lol. Although I think I got so good at it, I could probably win a speed lookup contest against someone using an electronic one today. ;)

      I do absolutely think these machines have their place and should be used. The frustration my colleague at the other school and I are having is that students look up every content word EVERY TIME, even the ones they already know (or so we assumed).

      In your comment, the key words that jumped out at me were, 'if I can look up the others in a few seconds, why not do so?' I agree.

      Unfortunately, our Chinese seniors are not figuring out some words through context and then looking up a few more quickly. They are silently glued to their gadgets and pencils during conversation time that THEY have requested, defeating the purpose of that activity.

      I also have a problem with them copying or photographing EVERY. SINGLE. THING. ON. THE. BOARD. During one coffee break, I caught a student taking a picture of my time sheet--briefly displayed while I sent it to the copy machine for my boss. Other times I've been writing a confidential email before school started, only to have a student snap a photo. They honestly have been conditioned, over decades, to copy every word put in front of them.

      In any case, it's very interesting to me to hear from instructors of various types of classes on this. You have helped me take a step back and start to rethink my rigid opposition. Perhaps we will try to incorporate some language such as, "Do you mind if I take a second to look up that word?"
      ;) K

  2. I tyrannically ban them (cell phones, PEDs). Personal Electronic Dictionaries. The cell phones? Common courtesy (AND not everyone has data so not planning to use them as "edtech) SScan't even use them in class at breaks (I hold myself to that rule too). Many articles regarding vocabulary retention. Apparently less retention using PEDs than print. But those that used PEDs for translation learned more vocabulary. So yes, I tell them use them at home if you are reading something interesting and if not understanding a word holds you up.Not surprisingly the articles also talk
    about how students become more reliant on "looking up" and less on using context and guessing ( article about IELTS preparation).
    I have a box of the clunky dictionaries - the students have no problem going over to them to get one to something up. They are getting fast (not that this is necessarily a usable skill in 21st Century but it gives them pravtice in alphabetical order (interesting how many level 6/7 cannot recite alphabet.)
    Caveat: If I were offered a set of electronic dictionaries (or tablets with data) for my class - I'd accept in a New York minute - vocab retention research be damned! Benefits of learning to use tech far outweigh other considerations.

    1. Thank you for chiming in, Claudie! I LOVE getting all these different perspectives!