Friday, September 11, 2015

Reading Circles - Part Deux

Now that I am in the midst of a new semester, I am doing some reflection on how the advanced level reading and writing course went in the spring. In particular, this reflection is tied to the Reading Circle experiment (see earlier posts 1 , 2). I plan to continue using the reading or literature circles based on several positive reflections from student portfolios last semester.

Here are a few examples of some of the comments. Several students did not mention the reading circles specifically, so these comments represent a biased sample where "circles" were specifically mentioned. Those that referred to the reading circles in their reflections said they were "an excellent idea" (MGA, 2015), "the best experience" (NT, 2015), and "a useful method." Some of the reasons they thought the circles were a positive experience is that they had specific roles to play which varied every two or three weeks. They had to learn how to think about the reading and hear alternative views and understandings of the work. According to one student, activities affected other reading experiences: "it helped me a lot in understanding the bottom line of the book that I am reading..." (JQN, 2015).

One huge benefit of the reading circle was that it helped to build a community in the classroom, a sense of responsibility for playing a role in their small groups. What made it work successfully in this classroom was the participation by 99% of the students. Without preparation, when a student was called on to contribute to their circle, they knew that they were failing their classmates - not the instructor. Each role counted since a "circle" was made up of five students, each playing a different role. In addition, a few students commented that they learned about different cultures through these discussions since one of the roles was "Connector." Often, students used this role to comment about how their experience growing up in another culture was very different from what was being described in an American context.

Another theme from the students who liked the reading circles was the feeling of empowerment that they gained from having others listen to their interpretation of a reading as a summarizer, discussion leader, or connector. Students didn't feel overwhelmed by trying to learn every new or unknown word and started learning how to infer meanings from context. They could count on one member of the circle explaining at least five new words from the article, and students could always discuss difficult vocabulary amongst themselves.

A final advantage and positive outcome of using Reading Circles was the opportunity to conduct formative assessments. When the students are involved in student-led discussions on the same readings, they face each other. This leaves the instructor free to move around the room and observe whether students are doing some critical thinking and learning to discuss ideas in English. At the end of the group activity, the instructor can merge vocabulary that came from the reading - put it on the board in its various forms (noun, verb, adverb, adjective). In this way, the whole class developed a common vocabulary list.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Is "just" a female word?

It has been many months since I took the time to write a think-piece here. One of my 2015 New Year's resolutions was to save my blog. However, instead, I worked on activating my Picturing English and my Mbote from San Diego (travel and wildlife observations) blogs. I also began a new career path, working in a community college.

A while ago, I ran across this article about Words to Eliminate from your Vocabulary but I never took the time to fully reflect on it here. "Just" and "that" were on the elimination list. Subsequently, I noticed another article re-posted on LinkedIn about the use of "just" in speaking - about how women tend to use it more and how it weakens whatever we express. After Ellen Leanse published results of her informal survey comparing the usage of "just" by men and women in a business context, the idea that women mark themselves as weaker or more tentative when speakking has gone viral.  More significantly to me, I realize that I am one of those women who regularly uses "just." Consequently, now every time I write or hear myself say "just," I remove the word or remind myself to avoid it in the future.

Of course, there has been a backlash to this view. After doing a little "googling" around, I have decided not to throw out all my justs.  Last month an alternative view was published. The article is long because the writer substantiates claims with citations and the research of academics. Krissy Eliot has published another fascinating examination of how women's speech is scrutinized and depicted in American culture. (Watch the video, at least.)

Men's speech is the standard to which my speech is compared. That is definitely something I need to think about before I automatically remove all justs - and you know which "just" I'm talking about, right? (There are many meanings of justbut the one I'm writing about isn't well defined at Merriam-Webster.) 

NB:  As always, I welcome my readers thoughts on any post. I also express my apologies to anyone who has been a follower and stopped visiting me regularly. This year I have only added about four new posts here, most of which have been directed toward ESOL teaching with lesson materials and thoughts about how to be more effective in the classroom. I feel liberated writing again about our many Englishes!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"G" and "H"

By the way, don't forget to check out some Picturing English.    "G" is for get, and "H" is for head. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Organizers for Teaching Connectors

I have been meaning for some time to make these graphic organizers available to all here at Many Englishes. I have several versions of these two on connectors, but these are the most recent ones that I have distributed to my classes. One organizer focuses on coordinating conjunctions and transitions or conjunctive adverbs. I usually teach the usage of the FANBOYS and transition words together.  The other organizer focuses on a small array of subordinating conjunctions (which I encourage students to expand upon as they encounter other subordinators). Subordinating conjunctions which require more explanation of meanings, punctuation, and usage (especially the prepositional forms) are taught separately.

Many readers of this blog are familiar with my Intermediate Connectors Game Board which is a fun way (with some dice) for students to practice conjunctions orally. Here is another way using sentence strips that works well for a high intermediate+ level class. You can print the sentence strips on heavy paper or on colored paper. You need to cut between words where there is space (e.g., between conjunction and subject + verb, cut around the commas and periods. Students need to figure out what makes since. The words are all in capital letters so as not to give the students a clue about where to put a connector (at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle).  Please make comments if you have any questions or suggestions about other ways to improve the activity. I usually place a set of the strips inside a large envelope and put students in groups of four or five to sort and work together. You can do the activity more than once and make it a race to see which group remembers the sentences and puts the words together quickly and accurately.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Making Connections in English

In the spring semester, I was pleasantly surprised to find out from my strongest students that what they enjoyed most in the first few weeks of our advanced ESOL reading and writing class was learning how to use connectors or conjunctions.  Even though this grammatical structure came at the end of their textbook, I introduced it at the beginning of our course. Because connectors are the glue with which words, sentences, and paragraphs stick together, it is worthwhile to reinforce conjunctions and transition words often throughout a semester or quarter. Having some variety of games for 10 to 15 minute reviews definitely helps. Most advanced level students believe that they already know how to use conjunctions very well.

It is easy to formatively assess how well students "know" grammatical structures of English, by starting the fall semester with a review session. Divide your class into groups of four or five students and ask them to list and define what parts of speech, functions of parts of speech, phrase, and clause (independent/dependent) mean.  Using SV to indicate to students "subject" and "verb" or a "clause" leads me to ask the class to define and give several examples of simple, compound, and complex sentences. The letters SV are often used in grammar books, so their use as representations for a clause are usually familiar to advanced level students.

By reading and sometimes clapping or walking in front of the class (taking one plodding step, for example, for each simple sentence), an instructor can illustrate why, as writers and speakers, we should use a range of connectors. Sometimes, to be emphatic, we might use a string of the same simple structure as in, "I love your smile. I love your voice. I love your soul." That would definitely have an impact on me!  However, if we don't use any conjunctions to connect sentences in a writing, I show how it starts to be monotonous for a reader by clapping as I read. Da da dadum; da da dadum; da da dadum, and on and on.

Because of my background in anthropology, I always try to give students strategies for learning in general by being aware of their human biological roots. For most of our history, language was spoken. Whatever students learn for written discourse can be used in speech. There is a connection between fluent and accurate speech and fluent and accurate writing. Some students seem to be better at writing because they are familiar with a lot of vocabulary and grammar structures, but they are shy about mispronouncing words. Thus, their speech lags behind. Other students are fluent in speaking because they are focused on communicating and not on the accuracy of their grammar or making pronunciation errors. They often have more difficulty at the advanced level correcting their grammar and vocabulary errors in writing because they already have well-developed habits of expressing themselves and making themselves understood in speech.

Native speakers of any language make allowances for non-native speakers. In addition, since there is so much redundancy in language, even if you only know infinitive forms of a verb, for example, you can get around very well without knowing tenses.  Many non-native speakers of English in this country who learn to communicate through immersion never master the correct academic forms of my language. That is why it is easier for a teacher to train a beginning-level student than an advanced-level student. Beginners see progress every day whereas advanced-level students sometimes feel that they are going backwards or marching in place. In fact, sometimes advanced students DO have to go backwards and relearn what they mislearned earlier.

One way to make students aware of connectors at an advanced level is to have them come up with the various types of types of sentences in a formulaic representation. If they have difficulty, you can guide them to come up with the forms.  Then have the class work in groups and put different types of sentences on the board. Ask them to share a range of connectors, too.

Your whiteboard might look like this:
SV. SV. SV. SV.  I like hamburgers. I don't like hot dogs. I like sweets.

SV, and SV.         SV, so SV.          SV, but SV.
I like hamburgers, and I like sweets. I like hamburgers, but I don't like hot dogs.  

SV because SV.   SV although SV.   SV while SV.
I like hamburgers because they are tasty. I like sweets although they are not good for my teeth. 

First, SV.             Second, SV.           Third, SV.
First, I heat the grill.  Second, I make the hamburger patties. Third, I put the patties on the hot grill. 

Along with a review of parts of speech, this is probably enough for a first meeting of class. It serves several purposes: (1) it helps the instructor to know what the students know and don't know; (2) the instructor and students start to get to know each other and to speak with each other in English; (3) the students start to see that they have a foundation to build on.  They build social and cognitive connections in English.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Low Intermediate Role Playing Activity + Pronunciation Rubric

This activity uses role-playing cards (Big Town English card sets ) to get students to use certain grammatical structures (yes/no and wh- question forms + short answers) and a pronunciation rubric that focuses on clarity, accuracy, intonation, and fluency when speaking during a role play.

The activity worked well for a low-intermediate class, but could also be adapted for higher level English language learners. The rubric is attached as a Word document so that you can alter the descriptors to suit your needs.

Instructor needs to create separate role play cards using the card sets linked above, or he/she can have students create their own characters. Students choose a role play card and study their character. They practice playing roles during part of one class session. They ask and answer questions (i.e., the context was that they were at a party and getting to know people; they had to speak with at least six different people in the class and find out about their jobs, hobbies, favorites, and so on). The following week, students were given the attached rubrics and the target features were briefly reviewed. Students were asked to record themselves with one of the instructor's two digital recorders or to use their own iPhone as a recording device during the role playing conversation. If students used their iPhone, they sent the recording to the instructor's e-mail for assessment. Students recorded themselves in casual conversation in English for 2.5 to 3 minutes. Question prompts were written on the whiteboard to ensure that students asked and answered a range of yes/no and information questions. Each student was given his/her score with the rubrics and comments about individual weaknesses and strengths.

Reading or Literature Circles

Because of previous success at Reading Circles, I am going to institute them this semester in my ESOL Reading and Writing class (which also includes a fair amount of grammar instruction). I will report back here in the summer about the experience.

In the past, in a small IEP (Intensive English Language Program), I was very pleased with the results of this activity. It is nothing revolutionary although it does require carefully choosen reading material. Given class time limits. it is important to give a reading to students, with the understanding that they read it in advance. They are also assigned various roles to play in the circle (e.g., discussion leader, summarizer, wordmaster, passage finder, and connector). For the discussions to be productive and enlightening, students need to be prepared to play their roles.

The largest class I've done a literature circle with is one that had 15 high-intermediate students. They were divided into three reading circles of five students, with each student playing a different role. If you have numbers that cannot be divided into groups of five, you can have extra wordmasters, connectors, or passage finders, or you can form a smaller circle with the participants playing two roles each. If you have less than ten students, you can eliminate one or two of the roles (e.g., summarizer). For the first 10 - 15 minutes of a 1.5 hour session, discussion leaders pair up to draft some general questions to put to their respective groups. All the other role players can pair up for the first quarter hour, too.

Afterwards, the pairs or groups split up to play their roles in separate circles. The outcome has been very positive. Students function independently in circles, allowing the teacher to 'observe' and informally assess the students' ability to use the language of meetings (i.e., agree/disagree, clarify, ask for more information, and so on) and 'elevated' vocabulary.

Below are some links to sites I have used for this activity, including role-playing organizers and some language of meetings. I have also attached a few reading recommendations for high-intermediate to advanced-level ESOL students.

This is a new resource for me, but the worksheets are well designed with a self-assessment area at the bottom for students to rate their own participation. Because my class is not a literature class, I use magazine articles, short stories, and excerpts for reading material. There are many short story links that I will encourage my students to explore on their own this semester. This one looked very good. You can find other links at this site. Finally, it is important to know your class if you decide to do a circle activity regularly. See my notes below. You might also like to revisit my post on Reading Circles for Cambridge Advanced English test preparation.

NB: A literature or reading circle only works well/effectively with a class of motivated students. Students who just want to sit and listen to others speak and do not read in advance will be unable to contribute to the activity. Also, students who have strong aural skills but are weak at reading (but don't like to do homework) may be able to pick up on the general topic of a reading and divert a discussion away from specific analysis of the reading. These students are detractors for the well-prepared students and should be pulled from the table as soon as it becomes apparent to the instructor that they have not prepared. They should lose points for lack of participation in that activity.