Language learning as a tornado (or: yes, we do need to teach this again)

Don’t raise your hand because you might be in public, but are there any other ESL teachers out there who, in moments of frustration, have thought or said, But we covered that last class/week/semester/level/year? Yeah, thought so.

There are some skills that once learned are fully mastered and almost never regress, like walking, counting, reading (try looking at these words and not reading them to yourself), or riding a bike (so I’m told). Learning a language, sadly, isn’t among them. I studied German for 12 years including an undergraduate degree, but when I went back to Germany after a 15-year gap, my language use was pretty messy. Oh yes, I’d learned all the cases and articles and irregular verbs at some point, and I faintly remember something about strong and weak nouns, but now when I speak, I make so many mistakes that I’m a favorite source of parody. I told an entire summer school last year that they should wash their tie-dyed t-shirts in the dishwasher.

Language learning is dynamic: features of the target language are acquired, muddied, lost, and relearned. And that’s OK.

What is not OK is to insist that there’s something wrong with a learner who struggles with skills and structures that have previously been taught. Yes, I know we taught the present perfect tense in Level 3, but that doesn’t mean the student can use it correctly in Level 6. Why not? Well for a start, they probably practiced the tense in narrow, personal contexts (I’ve been to Canada! I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower! I’ve lived in Delaware for 8 years!), but now they’re expected to choose the correct tense when writing a literature review (researchers have found …. studies have demonstrated … recent evidence has called into question …). Not to mention the fact they have encountered a wider range of tenses since Level 3 as well as a whole bunch of other grammar and vocabulary that they’re trying to use correctly.

You can think of language learning as a tornado: the winds spiral (a popular metaphor for good curriculum design) but they do so in the shape of a funnel. As students become more proficient, they want or are expected to function in a wider range of contexts, which means drawing on more lexicogrammatical resources and using them in new ways. The ways we use present perfect in daily conversation are not the same as its functions in graduate research writing. Conversely, the kind of German I learned to understand 19th-century literature is not much help when I have to discipline 9 year olds who chase each other with staplers.

The same is true of skills and strategies. I’m getting a bit leary of these supposedly universal reading skills that textbooks call finding the main idea, differentiating facts and opinions, or reading subtitles. I suspect that, like writing strategies, these would be better taught in the context of genres where they are most naturally used. But my point here is that none of these skills should be considered so basic that they can’t be recycled at a higher level for a higher purpose.

Take, for instance, an old chestnut: identifying the author’s opinion. There’s nothing about this skill which makes it inherently more suitable for a lower level. It all depends on the sophistication of the writing. In a blog post that’s full of I think that … and we should all… and in my opinion … , learners with lower levels of proficiency  should be able to locate the opinion. But in more complex texts where the author draws on multiple interpersonal language resources to align and distance the reader, identifying the opinion (or more likely, multiple opinions of multiple voices) is far more challenging and certainly an appropriate task for advanced learners.

So, keep spiraling and expanding. Meanwhile, I have a dishwasher to repair.

Preparation for what?

I work in an intensive English program, whose purpose is to prepare international students for undergraduate and graduate degrees in the US. (So this would be a good time to note that all opinions on this blog are mine alone!)

I’m increasingly bothered by the idea of education as preparation. To some extent, it’s true: we need our schools to prepare young (and not so young) people to contribute usefully to society and fulfill their own potential. Such has always been one of the functions of schooling: education is a public as well as a private good. It’s also true that we in ESL have a duty to help our students develop the language proficiency that will help them accomplish their future academic, professional, and personal goals. To that extent, my teaching is very much concerned with preparation.

But I have a problem when the goal of preparation so dominates our mindset as teachers, curriculum designers, materials writers, and administrators that the lesson, course, or program ceases to have any meaning as an educational experience in itself.

Continue reading “Preparation for what?”

Can you reduce a non-restrictive relative clause?

Yes, I know that’s a question which has been keeping you up at night, but head on over to Cambridge’s Grammar and Beyond blog for my attempt at answering it. I’m not entirely sure I’ve got it quite right yet. While you’re there, you can play my new favorite game: find the sentence that faintly suggests the cover photo for the blog post!

My other recent posts there have been on there is/are and this/that/these/those, and they are equally riveting.

Grammar titbits and tidbits

I have a column in this month’s Grammar and Beyond newsletter on one of my favorite topics: noun + noun modification. It’s a nice segue from my recent articles on shifting from everyday to academic registers using nominalization and relative clauses. Suggestions for future topics are especially welcome right now!

I also just discovered that the reason I couldn’t get the title of this post to look right is that we say titbit in British English but tidbit in American English. Apparently, according to my favorite blog on the subject, this isn’t a case of Puritanical prudishness (you may titter all you like, dear reader), but an example of American English using the historically older form while British English goes off on its own tangent.

Introducing “Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Students” (video)

Here’s a short video I made last week at the Symposium of Second Language Writing at Purdue introducing Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers and explaining how and I why I cross-referenced my  book with the new edition of Academic Writing for Graduate Students, both from the University of Michigan Press.

And yes, the piece of paper on the table was my cheat sheet (I don’t get a teleprompter!). It was actually quite easy to tie my book into AWGS because Swales & Feak’s approach to writing is inextricably linked to language (grammar and vocabulary), and they were already using a somewhat functional approach to grammar. In fact, the third edition has a wonderful expanded discussion of old-new information patterns, which I develop in the last unit of Grammar Choices (my students’ favorite part of the book, usually).

We put a lot of thought into how much new terminology to introduce in Grammar Choices, and on the advice of Chris Feak (as in Swales & Feak) and our mutual editor, Kelly Sippell, I tried to stick to terms (technically, a metalanguage) that would be familiar at least to North American readers and especially to those using AWGS. I also wrote an expanded introduction which explains concepts that are a little less frequently used here, as well as a glossary. I was greatly encouraged at the recent Genre 2012 conference to hear Jim Martin, no less, of Sydney University endorse teaching materials that simplify systemic functional grammar’s daunting metalanguage into familiar terms, so hopefully my attempt to use functional principles with more “traditional” (structuralist) terminology will help writers benefit from the major insights of functional grammar without me having to explain it or them having to learn it!

I welcome feedback from users or reviewers of Grammar Choices. You can leave a comment below or on the Michigan ELT blog or contact me directly. Exam/review/desk copies are available now from the publisher, and you and your students can buy the book directly from the Press, from amazon.com, or in class sets from your university bookstore.

“Grammar Choices” — available now!

I just got word that my new textbook, Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers, has been printed and will be on show at the Symposium of Second Language Writing at Purdue this week (which is also when I’ll get my hands on an advance copy!).

You can also see it here on the University of Michigan Press website and download Unit 1 to whet your grammatical appetite!

Update (9/6/12): I just saw a pile of the books here at SSLW. Makes it all seem rather more real!

I welcome feedback from users or reviewers of Grammar Choices. You can leave a comment below or on the Michigan ELT blog or contact me directly. Exam/review/desk copies are available now from the publisher, and you and your students can buy the book directly from the Press, from amazon.com, or in class sets from your university bookstore.

Online ESL Videos and Workshops

While I was working at the University of North Carolina, I made a series of online workshops for ESL students who didn’t have time to attend the face-to-face sessions we offered. (I call them the bobble-head videos, for reasons which will be obvious if you watch one!) Since then, the Writing Center has reorganized their website (looks slick, guys!), and many of the links I’ve posted on the blog previously don’t work. So, here are the direct links to all the videos:

Update 1/22/13: The video links are not working — either there’s a problem with the server, or UNC has canceled its account with Panopto. I’m working on a solution, but in the meantime, please use the PDFs, and you can just imagine my talking head …

  • Paraphrasing and plagiarism 1: Using sources (video) (pdf)
  • Paraphrasing and plagiarism 2: Preparing a paraphrase (video) (pdf)
  • Paraphrasing and plagiarism 3: Writing a summary (video) (pdf)
  • Ten principles for writing email (video) (pdf)
  • Corpus tools part 1 (video) (pdf)
  • Corpus tools part 2 (video) (pdf)
  • Vocabulary development strategies (video)
  • Academic Word List introduction (video) (pdf)
  • Making the most of your learner’s dictionary (video) (pdf)
  • Using a thesaurus (video) (pdf)
  • Culture shock (video) (pfd)

Please feel free to use and share these with students and colleagues. Please note that the links mentioned in the workshops might not still be active.

Anatomy of a book launch: Grammar Choices is proofed!

The verb proof refers to the process of “activating yeast” so that your bread will rise. I won’t torture the analogy too much, but I’ve just finishing proofing my textbook, Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers, which in its own way activates the final stages of the publishing process. Now, I just need to let it rise … OK, never mind.

Since I last wrote, a very patient typesetter has decoded the multiple layers of corrections and changes made by the editor, development editor, and myself to the “copy” (the marked-up version of the manuscript) and set the text as it will look in the printed book. I then read through everything to make sure nothing had slipped through and everything still made sense. Independently, a proofreader checked for typos, inconsistencies, and other oddities. Then, the editor–the wonderful Kelly Sippell, ESL manager for the University of Michigan Press–reconciled the two sets of proofs and scoured the whole book with her eagle eyes. That led to a bunch of gently worded questions like “are you sure this reference to section 4.11 is correct?” (there is no section 4.11). With those resolved, the book marches on towards final editing and printing, appearing on the shelves some time in September, we expect.

The strangest error we found was in a table of statistics that I’ve used in a data commentary exercise. The table shows how different generations use social media for job hunting. It’s from an authentic source, but I mistyped the labels so that the generations covered were X (18-29), Y (40-47), and boomers (48-65). Yep, I created a missing generation … which includes me! For the record, Generation Y is defined in the report as 30-47. That’s why we have proofreaders to make sure our bread doesn’t fall flat.

Update (9/10/12): Grammar Choices is now available, fully proofed!

(Image credit: Flikr, Creative Commons License)