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

Transferring Skills for University Success

robyn_brinks_ps (1)  Robyn Brinks Lockwood, with Sara Davila 

The challenge of having a C1-level learner in class may be familiar to many teachers. You have an international student, who, for all intents and purposes, is a highly advanced English speaker who seems perfectly prepared for the challenge of university life. It’s easy to have a conversation, and the student can follow along in a discussion with other non-native English speakers with relative ease. There are no obvious gaps in vocabulary, and language use, with a few minor exceptions, is grammatically flawless. This is a learner that a teacher assumes would do well in any field of study. And yet, this very same student who is energized and ready to learn will suddenly end up in an English language course to further build their language skills. Why? What happened?

Essentially, regardless of C1-level learners’ high mastery of fluency with spoken communication, they are still not ready for the rigor of academic study required to be successful in academic classes in their field of specialization. In some ways, such learners are jumping off an English language-learning cliff. They are moving from classes with tightly leveled content for listening and reading and minimal writing requirements into an environment where the expectation of professors is that they have already attained the ability to successfully read and understand 50 or more pages of reading a day, participate in 90-minute lectures, and successfully write detailed and lengthy research-based papers. What can language teachers do to help address the needs of these already highly advanced learners? Continue reading

Literature in ELT: Integrating Literature into Language Learning

2014_Sybil_MarcusSybil Marcus

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

We’re all wired to enjoy a good story with intriguing plot lines and an individual prose style. So, it’s a pity that many teachers either ignore or are unaware of the creative possibilities that literature offers for language learning.

In this post, I’ll talk about some of the ways I use stories to teach critical thinking; encourage animated discussion; and hone vocabulary, grammar, and writing practice. 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

Picture It: A Drawing-Based Pre-Reading Activity

 2013_Heyer_Sandra Sandra Heyer
In the last newsletter, I shared drawing tips that make it possible for any teacher, even one as inept at drawing as I am, to convey meaning with simple sketches on the board. In this newsletter, I’ll share some ideas for making drawings the centerpiece of a pre-reading activity.
Many textbooks at the lowest levels have pre-reading drawings built right into the book. For example, each unit at the Very Easy and Easy levels in the True Stories reading series begins with comic-strip-style drawings like those below, which are from Unit 11 in All New Easy True Stories. (The story, titled “The Best Doctor,” is about a woman in Alaska whose knee problem was finally resolved after she was chased by a bear.)
Sandra_Heyer_Feb1Appropriately, textbooks beyond the entry levels do not give students the extensive visual support that picture-based readers do; however, I have found that students above the first levels still benefit from seeing just a few drawings before they read. Where do I find these drawings? I sketch them myself on the board, using drawing tips I learned from the late Norma Shapiro and from her resource book Chalk Talks. I’ve seen the positive effects of this picture-based approach so many times that now I always preview a reading selection with drawings.
How does the preview work? I simply tell students the beginning of the story they’re going to read, all the while drawing simple illustrations on the board. (I usually draw about five sketches.) For example, Unit 10 in the Beginning-level reader True Stories in the News, “Love or Baseball,” is about a guy named Joe who fakes a broken leg to get out of taking his girlfriend to a dance; he’s a baseball fan, and his favorite team is playing in the World Series the night of the dance. I set up the reading with sketches like these:
The key to this technique’s success is to tell just enough of the story to set the stage for the reading selection but stop short of giving the story ending away, ideally stopping at a “cliff-hanger” point. In the case of “Love or Baseball,” I don’t tell my students how Joe manages to fake a broken leg or how his scheme works out for him—they read the story to find out.
You might also want to try these variations of the basic technique: Continue reading