One of the staples of ESL textbooks and writing courses is the descriptive essay. I’m not honestly sure what one of this is: description is definitely an important mode of writing, but when would we describe anything in the form of an essay? Even worse, this assignment is often used as an excuse to drill features that are inappropriate for this type of writing (a description can’t have a thesis because it’s not making an argument!). Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Descriptive “Essay””
I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I fell for Inside Higher Ed’s clickbait and read an article headed “Professor with no formal training shares some effective tools for others who must teach writing classes” on Twitter and titled “An Ode to Teacherless Writing Classrooms” on the site. I have thoughts. Continue reading “An ode to the teacher-led writing classroom”
I think teaching word parts (roots, suffixes, and prefixes) is overrated.
Yeah, I said it. Continue reading “Affixing the tail on the donkey”
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. Continue reading “Language learning as a tornado (or: yes, we do need to teach this again)”
In one of my favorite moments in the TV series The West Wing, politico Josh Lyman winces when a member of the president’s staff uses the word “recession”:
Larry: “If the economy is heading into a recession–”
Josh: “No, no, no. We don’t ever use that word around here.”
Ed: “What word? Recession? …What should we call it then?”
Josh: “I don’t care. Call it a boat show or a beer garden or a bagel.”
Larry: “So if it is a… bagel, the Fed thinks it’s gonna be a mild bagel.”
If you work in the West Wing, then calling an economic downturn a recession makes it a recession (once repeated on cable news, Twitter, and around the proverbial water cooler). On the other hand, if the average English teacher, say, reads in the Delaware News Journal that the stock market has fallen and declares to his two young children at the breakfast table that the US is in a recession … nothing happens. The president’s economic advisors’ utterances have illocutionary force: they make something so by speaking it into existence, just as a licensed official alone can declare two people married.
So what does this have to do with grades?
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.
A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to travel to Japan to speak at JALT and visit some schools and universities with the wonderful representatives from OUP. During a book fair at a university near Tokyo, a tall Australian ex-pat teacher asked me if we had any books on critical thinking. I dutifully pointed him to a series I’d written for which has “critical thinking tips” and explained how we tried to embed them in the content and assignments. “No,” he frowned, “I want a book that just teaches critical thinking, not a language textbook.”
Honestly, I have no idea what that kind of book would look like, and I certainly couldn’t write it. I’m not even sure what critical thinking means, and I’ve been teaching academic ESL for over 15 years. So I’ve stopped talking about critical thinking, and I don’t claim to teach it. I’ll leave thinking to the psychologists and philosophers.
For the past few years, a growing group of teachers and administrators have gathered at TESOL around sessions presented by Chris Feak and/or me, and we’ve bemoaned the lack of time and space to discuss teaching written and oral communication skills to (post-)graduate students.* This year, we have decided to take the next step and create a new professional community, the Consortium on Graduate Communication. Our group will provide online and face-to-face opportunities to share resources, investigate program models, and collaborate on research into this vital area of higher education.
Membership is free for now. Anyone who works with graduate students is welcome to join by completing this survey. The middle part of the survey doubles as a research project to create a database of graduate support programs around the world, which we will publish and present in the future.
Stay tuned for a website, listserv, Facebook page (maybe!), and details about meetings and a colloquium next March!
* Graduate students in North America are post-graduate students in the UK/Europe and some other countries. We mean here support services for students in master’s and doctoral program(me)s. By bi-varietalism comes in handy sometimes.
My short essay/conference review From Generic Writing to Writing Genres has been published in TESOL’s Second Language Writing Interest Section Newsletter (October 2013). In it, I argue (again!) in favor of a genre-based writing pedagogy as an antidote to the five-paragraph essay. I also summarize my 2012 and 2013 conference blitz, and you can find all the PPTs and handouts here: CCCC 2012, TESOL 2012, Genre 2012, SSLW 2012, EATAW 2013, and TESOL 2013.
Talking about the five-paragraph essay (as I so often seem to be), there was a great article in Slate recently denouncing the (five-paragraph) essay component of the SAT (one of the standardized tests taken by American high-school students as part of their university application). The title says it all: “We are teaching high school students to write terribly.” The article quotes Professor Anne Ruggles-Gere of the University of Michigan writing center:
“For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging. “The SAT does [students] no favors,” Gere says, “because it gives them a diminished view of what writing is by treating it as something that can be done once, quickly, and that it doesn’t require any basis in fact.”
The result: lots of B.S.
As Professor Gere says elsewhere in the article, the result is that college writing teachers like me have to un-teach what students have “learned” about writing — and it’s not just American students. International students trained to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or other English language proficiency tests also arrive with what Linda Flower has called a “limited literacy.”
Lest you think we exaggerate, here is a horrifyingly amusing blog post by Jed Applerouth, a teacher and doctoral student who takes the SAT regularly to help him tutor high school students to ace/beat the test. Since SAT essay raters are explicitly trained to ignore the veracity of the writing, here’s how to get a top score:
I stuck John Fitzgerald Kennedy in a Saxon war council during the middle ages, grappling with whether to invade the neighboring kingdom of Lilliput. Barrack Husein Obama shared a Basque prison cell with Winston Churchill, and the two inmates plotted to overthrow General Franco. Cincinnati’s own, Martin Luther King Jr. sought out a political apprenticeship with his mentor, Abraham James Lincoln, famed Ontario prosecutor.
Finally, an example of writing with absolutely no communicative value whatsoever. The SAT essay as anti-genre?!
(Hat tip to my Facebook friends and friends-of-friends for these links.)
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.