TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Archive for the tag “Writing”

On Writing and Being a New Doctoral Student

Choose the best word to complete the sentence.

Writing is a __________ act. (challenging, frustrating, rewarding, freeing).

Starting this blog post with a trick question. Truth is that at any given time this year, any of the words in parentheses could have described how I felt about writing and why it matters in my life. And while this year I have written very little on this blog, the fact that I finally began my doctoral studies has led me to examine many of my insecurities about writing and learn a lot about myself. If I hadn’t cared about about having a list of present participle adjectives in my gap fill sentence at the beginning of this post (hint to mild ODC here!), I would have also added an option reflecting what perhaps many of you know already but is worth saying: writing and embracing learning is certainly all about self-discovery. And it can get ugly sometimes when our perfectionism and insecurities come pay a visit. I know it has for me, so here I am. Sharing as a form of curing and attending to those unwelcome visitors.

 

Being a new doctoral student feels like…

… I am welcomed to join a conversation that has been going on a while at a fancy party. I am attending the party in order to bring back ideas and contribute to day-to-day activities, and sometimes I do not know how formal or informal I should dress. Also, at this party, sometimes it is assumed that I would know what people who are not at the party have said, so I have to keep asking someone or finding out what was said before so I can stay in the loop. When I do join, I am not sure if what I am saying goes in line with the ongoing discourse, of I am allowed to make a new point. The best thing that has happened to me is meeting people who have been at the party a little longer and are willing to guide. Talking with other newcomers who are also at the party helps when we are trying to figure out what is happening around us.

13244812_10154269507967853_1583795694227101422_n

Organizing thoughts and coming up with tricks to make writing work looked like this recently.

Some questions I have had:

How does a theoretical framework become strong? What’s the difference between a theoretical framework and a model? And a construct? Oh, and it is very easy for me to get distracted by subtle differences between words. Part of this learning process involves paying even more attention to nuances between different words in order to make sure I am really saying what I mean.

But most importantly, I wonder, what can I do to make sure all this fancy talk at the party translates into the kind of daily  chatter that influences how learning takes place at our schools?

 

Learning, writing, and accessibility

I wish that for every paper I write, I would also write a two-page summarized version that could be appealing to any teacher. I will never forget when, in a great course offered by iTDi, Stephen Krashen brought up the need to make research and academic work accessible to everyone. And expensive papers and journals plus lengthy papers are definitely not something we have the time or money to afford in our already busy teacher lives. In his class, anything we wrote could not be longer than two pages. While it would be really difficult to make this work in our academic world, I would like to try always writing a shorter and more accessible version of what I write in any of my classes.

Acknowledging tensions and bridging the gap between teaching and research is at the heart of it all, and this quote, taken from a book by two of those party-goers I got to (figuratively) meet earlier this year, paints a good picture of the gap.

“In any applied discipline there is an inbuilt tension between the needs of researchers, who are looking to develop robust, precise theory, and the demands of practitioners, who would like to keep that theory sufficiently imprecise to meet the requirements of actual practice in varied environments” (Dörnyei and Ryan, 2015, p.167).

 

I will continue because…

…by embracing this challenge I grow both personally and professionally.

…researching and writing implicitly addresses self-doubt and frees my ideas while giving them a place to exist.

…there are not enough women doing research, and I want that to change.

…I believe our daily teaching practices become richer if we connect them to a larger world of questioning, looking for evidence, and analyzing the answers to our questions.

So far this year, I have taken three nine-week courses, written six papers, and summarized many articles. If I stay on my current path, I have ten more courses to go before my dissertation work begins. But who’s counting, right? I will say that tracking my work does help me stay motivated when I feel like I am not capable of doing what it takes. I am learning to celebrate these small accomplishments and let them recharge my energy for the road ahead.

 

Reference:

Dörnyei, Zoltán; Ryan, Stephen (2015-04-24). The Psychology of the Language Learner Revisited (Second Language Acquisition Research Series) (p. 167). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a Sessions at TESOL 15 (Pt. 1): Grammar and Writing

This will be the first of three blog posts on sessions I attended at the TESOL convention in Toronto last month. While this first session focuses on grammar and writing, the next two will talk about linguistic heritage and the use of story telling in language learning.

Each time I attend TESOL or other ELT conferences, I like to go to a session addressing a specific issue I may be dealing with in class. I have been teaching beginners since last September. Hoping to get some guidance in writing at this level, I attended a session titled, “The Grammar You Need for Academic Writing”. While I believe it is a bit of a stretch to think of beginning English writing as academic writing, the session promised to demonstrate how ELLs could learn fundamental grammar structures applied to writing through the use of a grammar card created (and sold) by the presenters. I often shy away from exhibitor sessions, but seeing that there were no major publishers behind the grammar card mentioned before, I decided to attend and learn what it was about.

Screenshot 2015-04-06 08.19.37

I often find myself looking for simple ways to teach sentence structure, but being uncertain about how much is too much meta language or how explicit the grammar instruction should be. While I believe in following a more inductive approach to grammar (and providing lots of meaningful language), I know many learners like to have charts or visual aids with rules or tips.

The presenters of this session, Eileen Cotter and Henry Caballero, started out by giving us a free foldable laminated card titled “Building Sentences”. The chart comes with a free workbook that anyone can download at www.grammaryouneed.com, and I encourage you all to check it out and see if your students could benefit from doing some of those exercises. The chart itself is quite affordable compared to many ELT materials out there, and I would say that it’s design should make it durable.

The “Building Sentences” card includes explanations on parts of speech with examples for each category, an illustration on sentence formation highlighting those parts of speech, some explanations related to the mechanics of writing, and examples related to clauses and question formation. There is a lot being referenced in the foldable chart, but I found the color coding and visuals to be helpful in making it easier to follow. Of course, the ultimate test would be to see if my students found the illustrations easy to reference.

Something that caught my attention earlier on during this session was that the presenters described themselves as faculty at a community college who simply needed more resources aside from their textbooks. I know many of us can relate there. However, a teacher next to the presenters also said that he had stopped using their grammar book and was relying on using the “Building Sentences” as his main resource in class. Now, while I often wish I could follow a content-based class and rely less on sometimes disjoined topics presented by three different textbooks, I am not sure how I would approach a writing class at the beginner level by using exclusively a reference sheet. I imagine we would need lots of personal examples and set topics to explore through reading and listening. But if I were to teach just a writing class, how to do so without a textbook? While this was not something brought forward by the presenters, I did wish the chart or the workbook included topics that conduce themselves well for writing production at the beginners level. Setting an appealing and appropriate topic for my students to write about is a common challenge for me when I design writing assignments.

Some of the suggested uses of the “Building Sentences” card were as a self-check for students after writing an assignments. I can envision students using it to better understand teacher feedback, e.g., “What does the teacher mean by clause?”. The workbook is also a nice addition for explicit practice on grammar issues, but I would like to see some research as to how (or if) this type of practice does transfer to less controlled writing assignments.

If you were to have a grammatical reference chart for writing, how would you use it with your students? What is your approach to learning grammar as it applies to writing?

Enhancing Writing Feedback through Digital Technologies

Feedback is an essential part of any writing class. We learn not only from writing itself and the explicit instruction we might receive, but also (or perhaps mainly?) from using the feedback we get from both our peers and our instructors. I believe that we need to try different approaches to improve the kind of feedback we give to our students in order to make it more effective.

Often we complain about students not making changes or reading our comments, so what can we do about it? A starting point is to think about our challenges and look for alternatives and different ways to approach the feedback process. We need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes and give feedback that is clear and meaningful to students. Of course, most teachers also face time limitations, so how can this be done?

The following link is copy of a presentation I gave on this topic at the WAESOL conference at Highline Comunity College on October 25, 2014. Below you’ll also find three links to short tutorials I’ve made on how to use some of the digital tools mentioned. Please feel free to share some of your strategies, questions, and comments. This is a topic I am passionate about and I would love to continue the conversation online!

Click to hear an 18-min version of my presentation:

Narrated Presentation

Link to tutorials:

Kaizena

Google Drive

Quizlet

The Challenge of Written Feedback

Sample of student feedback

Sample of student feedback

When I was a student, I don’t think it ever crossed my mind how much work giving written feedback would be. I just gladly took it and read every word my teachers would add to my work. This term I’ve begun teaching an English 101 class, and I have to read approximately 60 essays several times during the semester. Whereas previously I used to spend 10-15 minutes giving feedback on a students’ essay, I am now spending anywhere between 30-35 minutes on each essay. Don’t get me wrong, I am not necessarily complaining about the amount of work (this is what I signed up for and I do see the value in doing it!), but giving so much feedback has inevitably led me to question how I give feedback and how I can help students make the most out of it.

Perhaps because of the length and level of the essays I read now has increased, or maybe because I will meet students one-on-one to discuss their essay for 20 minutes after they get feedback on the first draft, I have become extremely self-conscious of every word I add when I begin writing comments to my students’ work.

This is how I am going about giving written feedback nowadays:

– I started giving electronic feedback this term just so I could actually edit my comments as I write, and so I would have more room to write.

– I am combining both shorthand writing comments, e.g., SV, Punct, #, VT, Run-on, Frag, along with longer comments in which I imagine I am talking to the student. It would be great if I could just record my comments, and while I vaguely remember someone mentioning there is software to do this, I have not used it before.

While the formats we use to give feedback matter, clearly what we say and how we say matter the most. This is actually what I’ve spent most of my time wondering lately. Am I doing is the best for my students? What could I be doing better to make my written feedback more useful for those who receive it and less time consuming for me to produce?

As I write comments on my students’ papers, I often wonder:

-Will they understand what I mean or just skip it and ignore it because it is not clear? I cannot just write a question mark or a very technical explanation of an error and expect the student to get it. But sometimes it is hard to put comments in words without writing too much! The picture I chose for this blog post is a good example of too much feedback.

-Am I sounding too harsh? I certainly don’t want to discourage students, but I also don’t want to sugar coat errors when something the student wrote is not working and needs to be revised. I have to say I do not like the way comments appear on Word –all the red lines and boxes are too much; however, I have not found a good substitute.

-Am I writing too little? Sometimes, especially when I read a paper that has more errors than the average essay, I feel like I need to just get to the most important errors and skip others. I do not want to overwhelm the student with too much feedback. But what if the student then thinks everything else he or she wrote is fine? What if they think I simply did not take the time to give feedback on everything else or did not read it? I suppose I need to continue to remind my students that I will not comment on every error on their work, just the most important ones.

As I get ready for a second round of first draft papers to come from my students, I am thinking of how I want to go about giving feedback (the language I use, the length of my comments, even where I add them). Last time, I asked students to come to tutorials prepared with questions about their feedback and essay writing. I believe this was effective for students who came prepared, as they were in charge of the discussion we had during tutorials, not me. In other words, my feedback had become theirs to adapt and question. My challenge now is making the process of giving feedback more sustainable for me while still being thorough and clear in my comments. I would love to hear tips or personal experiences from any teachers of ESOL reading this blog.

Let’s see how this next round goes. This time, I’ve got a great new playlist and some fun tea for those long nights grading essays. I’m ready!

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