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.

When is a grade a bagel?

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?

Continue reading “When is a grade a bagel?”

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?”

A criticism of critical thinking

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.

Continue reading “A criticism of critical thinking”

Consortium on Graduate Communication

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.

From Generic Writing to Writing Genres

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.)

 

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.

Graduate Writing Panel at CCCC

UPDATED 3/25/12:  Steve Simpson, Anne Zanzucchi, Christine Feak, and I closed down the Conference on College Composition and Communication (literally, we were the last session!) with our panel, Preparing and Supporting Graduate Student Writers across the Curriculum. In our session, we talked about a dissertation boot camp, joint construction in the language classroom,  the use of peer review with native and non-native speakers, and the benefits of genre-based pedagogy as we considered how our universities can help all graduate students turn from novice writers into proficient writers and may even expert writers.

Our handouts and PowerPoints are available here.

Comments, responses, and questions are welcomed! You can reply to this post, and I’ll be sure to share your feedback with the other speakers. You can also send me a private message.

On chunks and language learning

Ben Zimmer has a great column in today’s New York Times about chunking. A chunk is a fixed piece of language that frequently occurs in particular contexts to fulfill the same function. Zimmer gives examples like “make yourself at home” as well as Halliday’s classic observation that we drink “strong tea” but get caught in a “heavy rain” (and never “heavy tea” and “strong rain”).

In academic writing, chunking (or collocations, or fixed expressions) is essential for proficiency. In the last week, I’ve been teaching phrases like “yield reliable results”, “pose a threat to” and “raise an issue.” And it’s hard to imagine empirical research papers without clauses like “the results are statistically significant.”

There are several interesting implications of this phenomenon. Obviously, as Zimmer notes, language needs to be taught in chunks not as individual vocabulary items, and it is not even necessary to understand the grammatical structure of the chunk in order to use it, which further supports Halliday’s contention that grammar and vocabulary are just different ways of analyzing the same text. I remember learning the form “Je voudrais …” to make a polite request in my first year of French, long before I understood that this was a conditional verb.

But even more interesting is the somewhat philosophical conclusion that we are not romantic creators of language, but rather proficient users of linguistic formulae (Swales and Feak make a similar point in Academic Writing for Graduate Students). This has important consequences for the way we view plagiarism. We teach students to paraphrase source texts “in their own words,” but we know that the notion of “your own words” is a myth. Sophisticated writers also know that some phrases are in the “public domain” and are available to be re-used. Ultimately, there is a gray area between idiomatic writing and plagiarism, which we need to recognize when we teach the important skills of paraphrase and summary writing.

For my take on this topic, check out the three-part video presentation I made an UNC (you can also just read the PowerPoint slides!).

Videos on paraphrasing and avoiding plagiarism

My last major task before leaving UNC-Chapel Hill was to finish a series of video presentations on paraphrasing and plagiarism that I’ve been promising to make for months! They are finished, and you can watch them here.

I had already done a video on this topic last year, but after hearing some great sessions at TESOL in March, I wanted to revisit this important area for academic writers. In particular, the second-language writing interest section’s colloquium on plagiarism (handouts here) stressed the importance of teaching learners good use of sources and not just threatening them with the consequences of plagiarism.

So, that’s what I’ve tried to do in the video presentations. I start by discussing how to use sources — or rather, I give writers questions to ask about sources in their field — and then go on to show the language tricks and techniques that make for acceptable paraphrases and summaries. The series is written for ESL graduate students, but others might find it useful, too.

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment!