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.

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