Saturday, January 28, 2012

to all you ESL/EFL teacher types out there

Problem: getting East Asian students who are at, roughly, the low-intermediate level in their English ability to move significantly beyond that proficiency level in a short amount of time (i.e., 3-5 months).

Solution: ???

I have three students at YB right now-- two South Korean, one Chinese-- who are showing subtle signs of improvement, but who are still at roughly the "3" level (using the 5-point TOEFL essay-rating scale) in terms of their writing ability. Their essays' overall content and organization isn't bad, and they don't normally engage in fallacious argumentation. The problem-- what keeps them from rising above the "3" level-- is, for the most part, their numerous and repeated errors when it comes to basic issues in sentence structure, diction, and style. I see these same errors over and over again, and they're familiar to anyone who's had to teach English to East Asian students. The litany, in no particular order:

poor tense control ("if" conditional grammar, participial confusion, etc.)
omission of third-person singular "s" for verbs
poor control of singular/plural inflection
poor understanding of mechanics (capitalization, punctuation, etc.)
misuse of definite and indefinite articles
incorrect or awkward diction (due to poor understanding of a word's semantic field)
basic spelling errors (guessing at the spelling of easy words, names, etc.)

At YB, we tutors all take both atomistic and holistic approaches to teaching these students. They're given drills that isolate certain problem areas (e.g., improving run-ons, identifying and correcting dangling/misplaced modifiers, eliminating wordiness, etc.), as well as essays to write (SAT-style, TOEFL-style, etc.). So it's not as though these students need to hear that they should just "try, try, try": they're already doing that. But the results are always the same: a score of 3 or 3.5 out of 5. It's time to find more effective methods.

The problem lies with output-- the two "productive" macroskills of speaking and writing. Even though I've tried to make these students aware of the kinds of errors they've been making, they keep falling into the same traps. Part of the problem may be cultural: Asian thinking involves a great deal of "field dependence," as Richard Nisbett (he of The Geography of Thought fame) would say. It could be that, when I tell my students about a particular error, they're unable to extrapolate from the specific context in which the error has occurred. To do so requires the ability to abstract the error, then reinsert it into a different discursive context. Field dependence may make them blind to the need to do this.

As I've argued before, increasing the emphasis on receptive macroskills won't necessarily lead to improvement in the productive skills: voracious reading doesn't guarantee good writing. At the same time, I could order my students to write essay after essay on the assumption that "writing improves writing," but that too would be useless. At this point, it's as if we're all banging our heads against a wall, and I'm as frustrated as my students are. So I'm writing this post in the hopes that some of my readers might have some creative suggestions for new and better approaches to this problem.

One possible idea, which I've already tried but haven't pursued: have students list the types of errors they've been making, then oblige them to use the list as a checklist while they're writing, i.e., on a sentence-by-sentence basis, and not only when they've finished writing. The point is to raise their consciousness about the need to be scrupulous from moment to moment. As things stand, I give my students an essay topic; they blunder heedlessly through the essay, then passively wait for me to mark their papers up in red ink. That method hasn't been working, obviously, so it's time to make the students shoulder more responsibility. Getting them into a more self-checking frame of mind could be the key.

I may also need to go more multimedia. This was a suggestion I received years ago, from one of my older Korean relatives who speaks fluent Japanese. For him, the path to success in Japanese lay in immersing himself in Japan's audiovisual culture: TV shows, movies, etc. All three of my students are fairly introverted and uninvolved in American culture; this definitely hampers their ability to learn much English while they're away from the tutoring center. Making involvement in the culture part of the learning process seems crucial at this stage. All of these students have been in the US for more than a year, but it's unclear how much they really understand about the country.* I'm thinking that (1) assigning my two TOEFL students some note-taking work from TED Talks and YouTube and (2) having my third student begin to maintain a journal based on reactions to one or more US TV shows would be a good move. They all need to break out of their cocoons.

In the meantime, I'd like to hear what's worked for you. I'm at wit's end, and I've got students who need to take the TOEFL in the late spring.

*As an aside, the same could be said about expats in Korea who spend years in an ignorant fog, the result of a combination of factors like a language barrier (often self-imposed) and unevolved social skills.



Anonymous said...

Addofio here.

Teaching writing is not my area, but it occurred to me that you might have them go paragraph by paragraph a time or two and see if that raised their apparent awareness. Something like, they sketch out an essay perhaps by outline, then write the first paragraph. You mark it up (perhaps only highlighting the existence of the errors, they have to figure out what the error is), they correct that paragraph, write the next paragraph, etc. I'm basing this only on the idea that large tasks that require minute attention to detailed rules one has not internalized/automatized are cognitively overwhelming, so doing it in smaller chunks, with the correcting immediately after the writing and then a bout of correcting followed immediately by writing (with perhaps the rules fresher in mind) might help.

The other possible issue is abstract (vs. perceptual) pattern recognition. We run up against that in algebra all the time. That may be what you called the field dependence. Some issues--like capitals and periods--can be coped with by a student at least partly through visual pattern recognition. Others, such as article usage, cannot--you have to be grasping the abstract grammar features to see the pattern (and thence apply a rule). If this is involved, then activities that invoke the pattern-making and perceiving parts of the brain might be helpful (giving them short chunks of prose to compare and contrast, describing what makes the chunks similar or different, or to sort into categories.). Rules only can be applied if you recognize the "if" part of the rule, and more rules to define those quickly become cognitively unmanageable.

Anyway, as I said, this isn't my area, so that's all I've got. You may have already tried these ideas. But if you haven't, and do, and it makes any visible difference, I'd be interested to know.

Jason said...

I do something similar to Addofio, but with a couple of different levels. I have required my students to write an essay/paragraph on a topic that they find interesting, and then I made a few photocopies of their writing sample. I then completely marked one copy. I then give them a blank copy of their writing sample and only provided them with the number of errors. They can try to fix their errors in class or for homework, and then I will give them a copy of their writing sample with the errors highlighted. They have another chance to revise their writing before I give them the fully corrected copy to see if they corrected everything. I have found that it really does draw their attention to the errors that they constantly make. It seemed to really work well when I focused on only a few types of errors, such as articles, subject verb agreement, or verb tenses. Also, I like doing this with digital copies of their work. I use the Review, Highlight, Markup, and Comment features in MS Word to create several different copies of their writing samples.
I have also used peer review with some success in my ESL classes. If your students are not making the same errors, this could help them as well. I always require the reviewer to explain his or her reason for marking something, and I think that this helped both the reviewer and the writer. This worked well when the writing samples were relatively short, but did not work as well in Korea since most of my students were properly leveled and were usually making the same mistakes.
Your ideas for getting them out of their cocoons seem great. I like using journals in my classes, and I have used class time/ office hours to have students sit with me while I check their journals for grammar errors. As we go through their journal, I point out a few of their more common errors. After doing this a few times the students will chime in during our “journal discussions” and start finding their errors on their own.

My last idea is on discrete points of grammar. If you find that your students are making the same small errors over and over, you may try to use some type of enhanced text. I normally find a passage from a newspaper online and copy and paste it into MS word. I then change the font size and style of the grammar function that I am trying to teach. I have my students read the article, and I do not mention why the text was changed. Basically, this would be a type of Focus on Form or covert grammar lesson. After reading the article, I try to get the students to tell me why certain parts were changed. I think this might help your students notice certain forms that they have trouble using correctly.

Hope this helps.