Is Your Content Challenging Your Learners?

Sara DavilaSara Davila

Learning Without Progress

I worked overseas for a number of years in a variety of settings, spending the longest time in Korea with students at almost every point on their language learning journey from kindergarten to university. One thing that was always fascinating to me was how much time learners devoted to language study versus what little progress they would make over the years. When I asked my A2-level university class how many years they had spent studying English, a majority of students reported that they spent roughly 10 years learning English, many in private schools or with private tutors. It was an alarming amount of study devoted to learning a language with little progress made. At the time I found myself asking why and dug in a bit more to understand the problem. Countless hours of research, interviews, and analysis of course materials later, I came to the conclusion that my students were never challenged beyond what they could do. Once they had achieved a certain ability, much like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, every English class was a constant repetition of information my students had already learned. With this in mind, it becomes even more important for teachers to have a sense of their learners’ level of ability so that they can provide content that will appropriately challenge learners in the classroom.

Content Creation and Challenge

In my last blog I spent a lot of time talking about communicating students’ ability to perform in English. To recap, using the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), we can give a quick, easy-to-understand, description of learner performance using a validated, publicly available scale. When talking to colleagues and peers in the field I no longer say my students are “low-intermediate.” I say they are “B1.” For those in the know, this provides a great deal more information about what a teacher can expect students to be able to do in the classroom. The Global Scale of English (GSE) allows me to get even more specific about the skills and abilities of my students by providing a data-driven teacher-calibrated bank of descriptors in three distinct categories: General Adult English, Academic English, and Professional (Business) English. 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

E is for Error

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Coming home one afternoon from my job teaching English to university students, I found my four-year-old son prancing around the kitchen with a beach towel cape around his neck, fighting evil superheroes with a wooden spoon. “Spencer,” I said, “How was your day?”

“Good,” he replied. “I swimmed with Mommy.”

“No!” I sternly reprimanded him. “The verb swim has an irregular past tense verb form!”

No, of course I didn’t say that. It’s not the language or the attitude one uses with a four-year-old. Instead, I employed what is called a recast: “Oh, you swam with Mommy.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I swam with Mommy.”

Spencer’s use of swimmed is a common but intriguing utterance that gives us an insight into childhood language acquisition. It is highly unlikely that he had ever heard the construction from either his parents or his articulate seven-year-old brother. It’s possible he might have picked it up from one of his four-year-old friends but, more likely, it was an illustration of a young and flexible mind’s ability to generate grammar rules and then apply them in conversation. In this case, Spencer is likely to have intuitively noticed the pattern of regular past formation with ‑ed, in words such as walked (but not run/ran), talked (but not speak/spoke), and napped (but not sleep/slept). He then naturally—and experimentally—applied the formula to the word swim.

But was the resulting utterance a mistake or an error?

Mistakes and errors seem like interchangeable terms but, in linguistic terms, they are quite different. Even the most competent native speakers make countless mistakes in the course of a day’s speech. Often referred to as slips of the tongue, these mistakes tend to be mispronunciations or grammatical lapses that native speakers immediately know are wrong. We mispronounce words when we’re tired, or interrupted, or are speaking more quickly than the speed of thought; our brains and tongues are not in sync.

Similarly, grammatical lapses often occur because we begin saying one thing, and then our thoughts are diverted and we end by saying something else. Typical of this type of mistake are subject-verb agreement issues (Give me one or two apple—I mean apples.). Other common errors are article mistakes (I want the book—I mean, a book.), or preposition mistakes (Get in—I mean on—the bus.). Self-correction is so common that it has its own linguistic label: repair.

In texts and emails, we tend to ignore such problems as the products of stumbling fingers, and in other computer-based writing, our errors might be automatically corrected. In speech, we tend to self-correct unless our message is urgent and/or obvious mistakes are unlikely to interfere with meaning. If the listener knows what was meant, it’s most usually the polite choice not to correct the speaker. On the other hand, a speaker’s mistake that seems like an important point or one that throws the conversation into ambiguity, sometimes prompts a listener to ask for clarification. In the sentence “While I was in Germany, I went to Brussels.” might prompt the listener to query, “Did you mean Brussels or Berlin?” In this case, it might have been a slip of the tongue and the speaker did mean Germany’s capital, Berlin, or perhaps it was about going on an international trip to Belgium’s capital of Brussels.

But what about errors? Continue reading

Tax Time!

Bill Bliss Photo 2014Bill Bliss

Here are three quotes appropriate for the month of April:
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
“Why did the colonists fight the British?  Because of high taxes – taxation without representation.”
“When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?  April 15.”

The first was penned by Benjamin Franklin in 1789. The second and third are among the 100 official questions and answers on the US citizenship exam.

Tax Tips

Filling out tax forms always seems to occupy too much time – and often it’s our evening time in April that we might otherwise be devoting to lesson preparation, correcting student homework, or other professional work. So in the spirit of helping you get through tax season, here are some tips to ease your lesson planning on those days you’re slogging through your 1040 form. I hope you find these helpful whether you are preparing students for the citizenship exam or you are incorporating civics topics into general EL/Civics instruction. Continue reading