>How students learn for tests

>When our students take the big exams are the only questions they get right the ones the teacher “taught” them? I don’t think so. I would like to know how effective is teacher “teaching” as compared to indirect learning.

I think they are answering some questions on the test correctly for items that they were not “taught”. If so, then how did they learn them? I believe Comprehensible Input is playing a bigger role than we realize.

Krashen tells the story of how his French teacher wanted to only speak French to them and was explaining a grammar point, in French. Finally frustrated, she told them in English. However, her effort to explain it in French, all that French speaking to explain something, actually constituted Comprehensible Input for the students and helped their French.

Every time the teacher talks to the students in the L2 is Comprehensible Input. Teachers are naturals for adjusting their English speaking so students can understand them.

So between the teacher’s speaking and the student’s own study they are getting a lot of CI.

Perhaps the student is reading a business text and it is talking about international finance and the teacher wants the student to learn some language about stocks, bonds, interest rates, prime lending rate, etc. Perhaps the student has some degree of success in learning some of those terms but there are many things in the text that the student was not studying but was learning such as “carry on” when it says “banks cannot carry on making risky loans” or something like that.

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>Reverse engineering vocabulary learning

>We hear a lot of advice about how to teach vocabulary, how to bring the mass of vocabulary to the student so the student has the right word when she needs it. But instead of looking at it from the mass to the useful word, let us look at it from the useful word to the mass. In other words, how did that student actually acquire that word?…a sort of lexical forensics, if you will.

I have been pondering the CET4 English test used in China. This is the most important English test in China and it’s hard for Chinese to claim they know any useful amount of English if they haven’t passed this test. (Following this test is the CET6 and CET8). I’m looking at an official sample test right now and have chosen a question at random to study. This is one line in a long paragraph and we know it’s talking about home care for someone who is ill. This is a cloze test question and it goes like this:

The responsible one in the home ___ on with the rest of the care during the _interval_ between the nurse’s visits.

(a) works (b) carries (c) looks (d) depends

The answer is “carries”.

Now the question is, how did the student come to choose that word? What was the learning process that enabled that student to correctly choose that word over the others? Were those words in a vocabulary lesson? Were those words on the student’s vocabulary list of words to memorize? How did our student acquire those words to be able to answer the question correctly? How did the student know she cannot say “…WORKS on with…” That sounds almost possible. How exactly did the student know it is impossible? What lesson was given to the student on this?

If we take a look at the correct word we can see in the American Heritage Dictionary there are many definitions or usages for the word “carry” plus six phrasal verbs with multiple uses as well, these being:

carry-45
carry off-2
carry out-3
carry over-7
carry a (or the) torch-1
carry the ball-1
carry the day-1

And…

carry on-4
To conduct; maintain: carry on a thriving business.
To engage in: carry on a love affair.
To continue without halting; persevere: carry on in the face of disaster. To behave in an excited, improper, or silly manner.

This makes a total of 64. Certainly, our student did not need to know every usage of “carry” to be able to choose it as the correct answer. But the student had to learn many of them. And how did she learn them, did the teacher teach them to the student?

My suspicion is that our student has not had English lessons in the multiple uses of the word “carry” that enabled her to answer correctly. Perhaps the student never had any lesson on the word “carry”. I believe that once an elementary vocabulary has been reached, the vast bulk of learning takes place indirectly through vast amounts of input as suggested by Krashen in his theory of “Comprehensible Input”.

>Coaching for retention

>”I have an intermediate ESL class in a community based adult ed setting. Although the class is offered twice a week, most can only come once or they start off with regular attendance and then disappear. I have heard of this in all kinds of settings, materials, teachers, languages, public and private instruction. Does the number of students have anything to do with it ? I will only offer once a week next semester but I’m also thinking of more practice to be done at home. Does anyone have any advice?”

You’re right, this is a problem in lots of schools and training centers where the student is required to attend for some certificate or degree. But in those cases, the student may not be attending out of interest but just out of paper necessity. I think in a long-term corporate training program that it is easy to have a drop out rate of about 50%.

There are a lot of reason for this. They can range from the teacher’s skills and relationship with the students, the students perception concerning the effectiveness of the course, students’ personal problems and many others.

While we are beginning to see the limits of traditional classroom teaching we are presented with opportunities to make use of technologies to solve these problems, and the technology may be as simple as a telephone.

Sometimes, by benchmarking ourselves to other industries, we can adopt their solutions to similar problems. We could get some ideas from the Open University and fitness centers.

Open University has done a lot of research into this. Nearly all their training is distance and it is easy for students to drop out. They found that regular phone calls and feedback from the instructor reduced drop out significantly. [below I’ll put some links]

There are many other areas where drop out or attrition is an issue. About a year ago I saw a 60-Minutes program once where a company boss was trying to help his employees get healthier to the company’s reduce insurance premiums. The employees agreed to a fitness program. We all know how easy it is to NOT exercise, so he had someone calling employees as a friendly reminder and to check up on them on how they were doing on the program.

I have always wondered how that worked and if it would work for our kind of teaching. I’ve been researching the subject for about a year and have come across a couple helpful things.

There is a company called “Fitness By Phone” which coaches people by phone. If you are interested in the possibilities of such a method, I suggest you go to the website below and explore all the news articles written about this company. From the articles you can piece together the technique.

http://www.fitnessbyphone.com/inthenews.html

It seemed one of the main ways they coached their clients was by working out an exercise plan and then checking up on them if they followed the plan and talking through any issues involved in following the plan and hitting targets.

Supposedly, Stanford University has researched this sort of coaching as a way to reduce hospital visits by patients who have a difficult time to go to the hospital. This is a research paper by Stanford although I find it curious that I’m unable to locate this paper anywhere but the websites of several fitness centers. Nonetheless, it provides many useful ideas.

http://www.fitnessbyphone.com/stanford.html

Of course, these ideas are not going to help every case. Our target, as teachers, will have to be to reduce attrition even if we can’t eliminate it.

1. Proactive contact from the Institution: retention issues: Recent research within the Open University and elsewhere has demonstrated the importance of telephone contact in student induction, retention and performance on course. Read all about it: http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2004/Gaskell_Mills.htm

2. Here is a paper called: Persistence in Distance Education. It covers “Studies of students’ reasons for dropout”, “Student profile studies” and “Implications for institutional intervention”. Find it at: http://www1.worldbank.org/disted/Teaching/Design/kn-01.html

>Some things to NOT teach

>It is not only important for us to know what to teach but we also must know what NOT to teach.

Our time with our students is limited. So we should definitely focus on what English will benefit our students the most in the period during and shortly after our training.

I’ve met teachers who say that someday the student may need a certain bit of obscure English or English skill. The problem is that it is likely that the student will forget it before he has a chance to use it. In that case, all of the teacher’s and the student’s time and effort is wasted.

This is the case with a friend of mine who came to China to learn Chinese. After three years of intense study at the university followed by three more years of living and working in China, she discovered she had forgotten one year of the words she had learned during her training. Because she was living and working in China and very actively used her Chinese, the only way she could forget them was that she didn’t need them. She wasted one year of her life learning what she didn’t need.

I think if teachers were paid by what English their students remember and are using one year after their training then many teachers would teach quite differently than they do today.

>Still more on error correction

>On the TESL-L mailing list, a teacher asked the question below about error correction. As it seems to be something we’re interested in, I’m including my reply. – dk

“I,m an English teacher in China. I’m teaching 2 classes with 56 students each. When I teach writing, I’ll use differnt methods to encourage my students to write about their own ideas. To my joy, they like writing very much though it is hard work. However, I find it very difficult for me to correct their errors. I know fluency is more important, but it dosn’t mean we can ignore accuracy. Error correcting will take lots of time and energy, and the students don’t want to see their composition after I correect errors. Is there anybody who can help me use a kind of more efficient method?”

This is a common problem faced by many writing teachers. We could say it is even a trap because teachers feel obligated to this idea of correcting everything.

TRUSCOTT & ERROR CORRECTION

John Truscott famously or infamously, depending on what side of the debate you are standing on, has brought up research[1] indicating that grammar correction doesn’t really help students at all. So, generally speaking, all time spent at correcting is time wasted.

Truscott is in the same vein of English learning as Krashen. Indeed, Krashen has referred to Truscott’s research[2]. In this direction of English learning it is understood that students learn from indirect ways of teaching, things like Extensive Reading, that the students will absorb the language through massive exposure to it at a difficulty level of i+1.

After studying Truscott’s paper, and even organizing a virtual seminar for him on the TEFL-China list[3] where we interviewed him for a week, I began to pay closer attention to how my students responded to corrections.

Personally, from observing my students carefully, I’ve seen that my students do respond to some corrections.

But to be effective in this area, we have to understand some things first.

UNDERSTANDING CORRECTION

Our students cannot have a lesson, or even a correction, and simply “know” it. They only begin to know it. All learning in an area as complex as language takes a lot of time and repetition.

Choose your targets. Don’t try to correct everything. Correct what you think will be easiest for them to learn, that they are ready to learn. Remember, it is more like teaching a baby how to walk than teaching the fine points of running to an Olympic athlete. Teach only what can be learned or you are wasting your time and frustrating your student.

When you read over the papers, understand that this is the whole class speaking to you. Through their errors they are telling you what they need to be taught. In this way you can respond and give your class exactly what they need.

Group the corrections. Choose the Top 5 errors the students were making in their papers and show them how to do it correctly. Of course, some students may have not made those errors on the paper they submitted to you. But if they didn’t make this error this time they may make it next time so teach it to all of them. Even if they know, more or less, how not to make that error, such instruction will strengthen their understanding. As mentioned before, students begin to know something and slowly understand it better and better.

DIY RESEARCH

Do your own research. If you want to see how responsive the students are to correction, after you have taught them the 5 main errors and how to avoid them, ask the students to return their papers to you and ask them to rewrite the assignment. Collect those papers and check them. You’ll find that most of them will not repeat those errors, that they have learned from the correction. About two weeks or a month later, ask them to write the very same assignment yet again. You will find that a lot of the students will not make the same errors although many may have forgotten your correction lesson and are slipping again.

HASTE MAKES WASTE

Beware of the hurried writer. This guy really wastes so much teacher time. He’s the guy who forgot the homework and before the homework is to be handed in just dashes off a quick paper. He makes a lot of mistakes that, if he took his time, he would not have made. He knows they are errors but they were errors made in haste. But he doesn’t mind and he wants his paper to be corrected. The problem is, it takes your precious time to read his paper and deal with these errors. I refuse to check any papers unless the student has made it as perfect as he possibly can. Only then can I really help a student with what he doesn’t know. Check the paper for really basic errors, simple words misspelled, obvious grammar mistakes. If you find such things, hand the paper back to the student and tell him to correct it himself until he thinks it is perfect. If you find someone hastily finishing a writing assignment make sure you don’t accept it. If he doesn’t have time to try to write it well, you don’t have time to try to correct it.

[1] http://frenchgateway.coh.arizona.edu/F05/FREN579/truscott_grammar_writing.pdf
Also, see his webpage at his university:
http://www.hss.nthu.edu.tw/~fl/faculty/eng/John.html
Here you’ll find the grammar paper plus lots of other aspects of his research into correction.

[2] http://sdkrashen.com/pipermail/krashen_sdkrashen.com/2005-April/000102.html
http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/why_support/all.html
http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/eta_paper/all.html

[3] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/teflchina
This is a group of about 900 English teachers in China or involved with teaching Chinese students. If you are a teacher in China you certainly would benefit from joining this list.

>Correction or Teamwriting?

>Self-correction, except for typos or some “absent-minded” errors, is very difficult for students because if they knew it was wrong they wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Peer-correction isn’t fun and it is difficult for students to fully trust their partner’s evaluation. The question that puzzles many teachers is what is the best way to help students to improve in areas where they make a lot of mistakes?

The obvious answer is teacher-correction. But is teacher-correction effective? Recent research shows that students do not make effective use of teacher-correction. The teacher would like to imagine the student takes his corrected paper to a quite place, sits down and pulls out a dictionary and grammar book and carefully goes over the corrections. But in fact, most students only check to see how much “red” is on the paper and then file it away in their book bag never to be looked at again. Much of the teacher’s laborious work of careful correction is actually time wasted.

If self-correction, peer-correction and teacher-correction are not effective, then what is the best way to involve the student in the writing process in a corrective way? How can the student be put in a position to notice grammar or writing in a way that interacts with his previous knowledge and develops a deeper and clearer grasp of English?

I have been doing research in a new method I developed at a university and at multinational businesses where I taught managers and businessmen. I call it Teamwriting. It helps students to benefit from peers, helps students to learn not only from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others and makes the most economical and efficient use of the students’ and the teacher’s time.

I divide the blackboard space into vertical sections large enough to allow someone to stand in front of one section and large enough to contain the writing task (about one-meter wide). Then I divide the class into pairs or teams, assigning each set of students to a part of the board.

The writing tasks are everything from brainstorming a subject to writing a paragraph to writing an essay (write small). This works quite well with a class of about 20 but I’ve only been able to do it with a class of 40 when we had blackboards on two walls of the classroom.

Sometimes each group gets a different topic to work on or sometimes it is the same and they compete with the other groups. I get the whole class out of their seats and up to the board. Usually one student will take up the chalk while the rest of the team (from one to three others) offers suggestions and corrections during the writing process. I find this gets the students intimately involved with the language process and able to benefit from the help of some of their classmates – thus the peer-learning factor.

After the writing is done, usually terminated by a set period of time, I will examine each writing sample, one-by-one, with the entire class looking on. First, I will ask the class to offer corrections. The class really focuses on this activity. You can see every eye examining the sample trying to see if it is correct or not. Some speak up. Others may have ideas about the writing even though they may not voice them. But they’re all involved. Then I will offer my corrections, if any.

Some of my classrooms are equipped with AV equipment, essentially a video camera and projector, which allow the projection of books or papers. If the classroom has this sort of equipment the students do not need to write at the blackboard but can do their teamwriting on a piece of paper that the teacher can project and correct before the class.

Teamwriting seems to be more effective than personally correcting individual writings or conferencing with students, and especially so when considering the economy of time. It allows every student to test their ideas about the language, it enables immediate feedback and is a quick, easy and engaging way to “learn from the mistakes of others”.

>Thinking outside the book

>One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I’m just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student’s interest from cover to cover, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking “inside the book”. Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let’s brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Computers
Email
Telephone
Phone messages
PowerPoint
YouTube
PDA
Chat rooms
Blogs
Websites
Fax
MP3
MP4
Video
Email spam
Voice spam
Television
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us “outside the book”, what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as “The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins.” To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you’d receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a “Majestic” English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us “out of the book”. Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

– Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

– Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

– Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn’t have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don’t like, etc. (“Don’t go in that dark room!…don’t do it!…Ugh! I knew it!!!”)

– Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

– Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

– He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

– When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. (“Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called ‘Moby Dick’, a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck’s strategy is to become people’s ‘third place’, the main place people go outside of home and work.”)

– Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy’s phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher’s other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It’s interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn’t normally meet (and Jerry thinks it’s always interesting to talk to girls).

– Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

– Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they’ve never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I’m the kind of person who is easily bored.

>Google vs British National Corpus

>Tom Robb’s article on the Google corpus contrasts it with the British National Corpus(1). It seems to me that the British National Corpus is generally regarded as a cornerstone of English, a proper garden like the ones I saw in London with all the flowers and bushes arranged in neat rows in the front of everyone’s homes, and Google as a wild field where anything goes and grows.

I think teachers realize the shortcomings of Google as corpus. But that does not mean that there are not some cautions that need to be applied when using the BNC. For example, using the BNC website recommended by Tom we find there are only 232 examples for “Email”(2) but 283 examples for “telegram”.

Relying solely on the BNC is like driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror. The BNC will never reflect any new currently accepted language. Google will.

(1) “British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of British English from the later part of the 20th century, both spoken and written.” The written part composes 90% and the spoken part 10%.
(2) Actually 43 “email” + 189 “e-mail”. A comparison on Google reveals 5.6 BILLION for “e-mail” or “email” and 11.8 million for telegram.

>Our students, their jobs, their English

>I’m working on developing a new course for a vocational college, as I mentioned before. I wanted to do some research on the students who have graduated early this year to see how they are using their English.

If students don’t use their English they will lose their English. But the English they will use will be the English they need and the English they need will be determined by the jobs they find (or other special interests). If we teach the English for the kinds of jobs they will find then they will be able to (1) do these jobs well and will also (2) retain this English and not forget it.

I sent a survey questionnaire to the students who graduated earlier this year from the college. The results are interesting:

42% are working in manufacturing or trading businesses. This is by far the largest group of industries that my students have entered. This, of course, is reflective of the type of businesses present here in Guangdong.

14% have no job at present. They may have had a job for awhile but not right now.

The other students are in various industries such as: travel & tourism, teaching & education, telecommunications, banking, hotel, IT, etc.

In these jobs the students are working in a wide variety of roles, such as, administration assistant, customer service executive, data processor, engineering dept. assistant, shipping documents clerk, merchandiser, Photoshop touch-up artist, purchaser, receptionist, teacher assistant, salesperson, telegraphic transfers clerk for a bank, translator, etc.

So our students enter a wide variety of industries and have a wider variety of roles. Can we make any useful generalizations out of those industries and jobs?

Manufacturing and trade are the industries that most of these students enter (42%). So to produce an oral English course and target English to discuss products, specifications, prices and costs, quality, shipping and transportation, plus English for other more general office functions like meetings, agreeing and disagreeing, handling complaints, etc, cover most of the students’ needs.

This kind of information is very helpful to not only provide direction in what the students need but what they don’t need, as well. For example, previously they were using coursebooks which had units on things like the stock market and the company annual report, etc. It is likely that the students would forget much of this vocabulary before they get a chance to use it.

On a side note, half of the students say they like or even love their jobs, about a quarter think their jobs are just OK or so-so and another quarter say they don’t like their jobs. So it’s nice to know that most of them are happy or somewhat satisfied with the jobs they found.

>Making podcasts for low level English students

>Here are a few ideas for making podcasts for your students:

1. Make recordings of your experiences like the time you met someone famous or thought you were going to die in an accident. Don’t be boring but be simple.

2. Interview friends and other teachers. Don’t rely on the friends to be simple enough or talk slowly enough. If the friend is using some language that you feel is too advanced for your students then jump in and ask your friend to define it or define it or restate it yourself.

3. Take your students on a tour to a favorite local haunt. There is a shopping mall here that is immensely popular with all students in this area. Record a tour of the location that they could listen to and use to follow your footsteps. Describe what you see, tell some funny stories and go in to the shop and talk to some clerks about their products. I did this with my notebook computer in my bag running Audacity with a microphone clipped on my shirt. Many mobile phones have recording functions on them. You can include some insights into some of the businesses or some of the fashions even if you have to look them up on the Internet. Check this out.

4. Make your case for your method. Students always want to know what is the best/fastest/easiest way to learn English. Explain how you are teaching your students. Some of our teaching methods are counter intuitive. I think Grammar-Translation makes a lot of sense but is not as good as Communicative Approach. If our teaching method is not always easily accepted by students you should take every opportunity to “sell” your teaching methods over and over.

5. Don’t just make a recording on any subject but try to steer it in a way to augment units you are teaching in one of your courses. This way you can further the unit, even if you have to ‘assign’ the listening item, or you can use it as a collection of materials students can listen to on a voluntary basis. For example, if you have a unit discussing Human Resources you can interview a friend about their experience in hiring or with working with colleagues.

6. Record your lessons. This is normally quite boring but it can be very effective if you just extract some of the jewels, ancedotes you tell your students, special tips on learning English, fun facts, a story about your travels, etc.

I am also trying some projects along this line and am starting to post them at GCAST.