Fast Fiction: Teaching Reading and Critical Thinking

2014_Sybil_Marcus  Sybil Marcus

In ESL we’re constantly looking for new ways to surprise and engage our students while teaching core language skills. My focus has always been literature—I’ve found it to be the perfect vehicle for combining all the core language skills of reading, speaking, writing, grammar, and vocabulary with lots of critical thinking and the chance to expand cultural awareness. Continue reading

J is for Jokes

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It felt like hours.

The joke my student was trying to tell perhaps took no more than three or four minutes, but it involved many clarification moves on my part (“I’m sorry, do you mean …?”) and repair moves on his part, hesitating, saying the wrong word, and then backing up to explain (“I mean ….”). At the end of it all, the disjointed story (“Oh, before that, I meant to say ….”) coalesced into an anecdote he’d read about a diner receiving a free meal at a restaurant after finding a cockroach in his soup. Afterward, the apologetic server humbly escorts the diner to the door and helps him with his coat when, unfortunately for the diner, a bottle full of cockroaches spills from the coat’s pocket.

I smiled weakly and nodded, but the student was far from finished; he felt compelled to explain the obvious: the bottle meant that the diner doubtlessly made a regular practice of obtaining free meals by this same deception. I nodded again, then gently steered the conversation back to the topic of the class.

Plateaus of language learning ascend from a base of knowing a few words and phrases, to asking yes/no and simple information questions, to using language to learn more about language (“How do you say ____ in English?”). Above those plateaus tower the mountains of dreaming in the target language and making jokes.

In part, jokes are challenging because they may violate some or all of Grice’s (1975) four maxims of how to best share information, summarized below:

Quantity—be concise
Quality—be accurate and truthful
Relation—be relevant
Manner—be clear, brief, and orderly

In the case of my student, there were several impediments to his telling the joke successfully. I suspect he hadn’t mentally rehearsed the story in English and was translating on the fly, so he was not concise. He did not have all the necessary vocabulary items at his disposal, so he was not accurate. In a conversation one expects a speaker to be truthful although in a joke the opposite is often true. But the context—or setup—usually needs to establish the fact that a joke is to follow, as with a well-known opening phrase like, “Three ____ walk into a bar and ….” This is akin to recognizing that the phrase “Once upon a time” signals the start of a fairy tale.

Alternatively, a joke might be introduced with a phrase such as, “Have you heard the one about ….” But the student did neither, so there was nothing to indicate that my class or I should suspend disbelief and understand that an untruthful story was being told for amusement. In the context of the classroom where the joke was delivered, I would have expected the student’s talk to focus on the learning of English as a second language, so it didn’t appear relevant. And because he rambled, he wasn’t clear, brief, or orderly.

However, many forms of jokes can be exploited in various ways in the language classroom. Continue reading

Towards the Critique: Teaching EAP Students to Be Critical

Tania Pattison PhotoTania Pattison

For EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teachers, it may not be enough these days to teach standard essays and research skills. In order to prepare students adequately for their future studies, EAP teachers at CEFR levels B2 and above need to go further. Recent corpora-based research has shed new light on the genres of writing that our students should expect to encounter in their future studies; for example, in research carried out in the UK, Nesi and Gardner (2012) identified 13 genres that undergraduates could be expected to write; these include essay, case study, narrative recount, and more. One that is common across the disciplines is the critique.

What is a critique?
As Nesi and Gardner put it, “The central purpose of Critiques is to demonstrate and develop understanding of the object of study and the ability to evaluate and/or assess its significance” (2012, p. 94). This could take several forms; depending on their field of study, students may be asked to review books, articles, films, plays, and works of art; they could be asked to evaluate financial data, legislation, government policy, and business operations, or they could be required to analyze critically the results of an experiment, a process, or a system (Nesi & Gardner, 2012). In other words, understanding is not enough; students need to use their critical thinking skills to respond to something they are studying and to express a judgment about its value or usefulness. In the EAP class, the item being subjected to critical analysis is usually a written text.

Learning to be critical
Most EAP students, I have found, are not really clear about what being critical actually entails; many think it has something to do with being negative, and it comes as a bit of a surprise when I tell them that while the word critical often does suggest a negative reaction, critical analysis does not necessarily involve looking for problems within the text. I like to draw students’ attention to people who work as critics of movies, music, restaurants, and so on; these people write reviews that may be positive, negative, or a little of both.

Another thing worth emphasizing to students is that a critique is not an emotional response. Students may be predisposed to disagree with any text that goes against their own personal beliefs, which may have their basis in religion or politics. It is important to emphasize the need to look objectively at the author’s argument and to come to a reasoned analysis, not an emotional outburst. Continue reading

Literature in ELT: Who’s Afraid of Literature?

2014_Sybil_MarcusSybil Marcus

This content first appeared on the TESOL Blog. © TESOL International Association. Reprinted with permission.

I admit it—I’m passionate about using literature, especially short stories, for language learning. As I result, I take every opportunity to talk about this to teachers of intermediate to advanced-level ELLs. In a nutshell, I think literature is a great teaching tool for these reasons:

  • It’s an opportunity to teach language skills in an authentic context.
  • It’s a chance to practice critical thinking skills.
  • It introduces a diverse array of social and cross-cultural topics.
  • It gives rise to energetic class discussions.

The Hemingway excerpt and exercise at the end of this blog are an indication of what you can do with even a few lines of literature. However, I first want to speak to those of you who’ve shared the following concerns with me: Continue reading

Teaching Short Stories

Alexandra_LoweAlexandra Lowe
ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College

The following blog post was written by Alexandra Lowe and originally published by TESOL International Association on June 3, 2015. It can also be accessed through the TESOL website.

At the recent TESOL International convention in Toronto, I was privileged to attend an outstanding workshop entitled “10 Tips for Teaching Short Stories” by Sybil Marcus, an inspiring teacher from the University of California, Berkeley. Presenting excerpts from two short stories, she showed us how she uses stories to teach critical thinking skills, style, grammar, and vocabulary, and to lay the groundwork for classroom debates and writing assignments. Sybil’s approach to teaching ESL skills through short stories sounded so compelling to me that I dashed back to my own classroom as soon as the conference was over to try it out.

One of the short stories she showcased in her workshop was Daniel Lyons’ “The Birthday Cake” (.doc). The story features two immigrants—an old, embittered woman from Italy and a young single mother from the Caribbean—who find themselves locked in an unexpected conflict. The story subtly raises challenging issues of attitudes toward immigrants, single parenthood, aging, isolation, and death.

The story was an immediate hit with my high-intermediate, low-advanced students. When we discussed an issue central to the story—whether the old woman was justified in her contemptuous response to the young woman’s plea for a special favor—my students were as bitterly divided as the two protagonists themselves. Even students who were normally shy and reluctant to speak in front of the whole class launched into a passionate debate over the merits of the old woman’s behavior. And what was particularly fascinating was the discovery that the battle lines among my students were drawn in unpredictable ways—students whom I would have expected to sympathize with the plight of the young mother were surprisingly hostile to her.

One bonus of this particular short story is that it is written almost entirely in dialogue, as if it were the script for a short play for three characters (the two women, and a man who finds himself entangled in their conflict).  So, naturally, I put my students into small groups of three and asked them to practice acting out the dialogue. After giving them the opportunity to practice their lines with three different sets of partners, I asked for volunteers to act out the story in front of the whole class. It was one of the highlights of the semester, as some of my shyest students threw themselves into their roles, displaying acting skills and abilities no one would have suspected, while some of the more outspoken students were able to “ad lib” additional theatrical lines for their character. Continue reading