Entries Tagged as 'Reflective Teaching'

Language & How We Think

Linguist and author, Guy Deutscher, in a New York Times article titled Does Your Language Shape How You Think? wrote about new research that reveals our native language’s influence on thoughts:

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

If you have difficulty with a certain concept in English, take some time to research a few ways your own language is shaping your thoughts. I see these problems arise most often when advanced level students revert to translation to convey meaning, but run into a wall when the meaning isn’t clear to the listener.

Maybe you’re having trouble translating.  You might be trying to translate a concept that isn’t prominent in the minds of English speakers.  Time (verb tenses) and space (prepositions and geographic locations) are common conceptual differences among languages.  How are your perceptions similar or different to the native speakers’ perceptions?  Is this affecting mutual understanding between you and your listeners?

Connecting in a Bilingual Class

The content in the video How do you support second-language learners in the classroom highlights some of the more important, and very easy, things that can be done to create an additive bilingual environment.

Sometimes, the easiest thing I can do with my students is ask them to share a word or phrase with me from their language, which I then try to say.  Whether they laugh at my most earnest attempts or sympathize with my errors, the result is usually an instant trust, and from there, they will learn.

Mechanical Pencils and Other Inconspicuous Time Theives

Observing a nervous young student whose mechanical pencil kept breaking during a test made me think of other ways that seemingly minor interruptions affect our concentration and productivity.

This boy was already nervous because of his impending test.  He habitually looked at the clock to see how much time remained to finish his practice paragraph.  Not only that…he was also being interrupted…

…by his pencil?

Yes! In fact, he was so nervous that he pressed down so hard while writing that the lead broke 5 times in 20 minutes.  Every time it broke, he would stop, click the lead, and glance at the clock.  By the time he returned to the assignment, his focus was lost.  The interruptions themselves do not take that much time, but regaining concentration does!

Research here and here indicates that he would lose time in resuming his original task.  Even more surprisingly, the length of time of an interruption doesn’t correlate to the length of time to refocus.  In other words, even small interruptions can lead to big time wasters.

So, parents, think twice when your children do their homework in a noisy crowded room.  Consider arranging a quiet study area.

Students, think about and address all the distractions that you have every day.

  • Remove the clock from your field of vision
  • Turn off your phone (beeps, buzzes, clicks, and tones are stealing your valuable study time)
  • Disable pop-up ads on your computer
  • Write in a notebook and type it later to avoid the temptation of logging onto Facebook or Twitter (at least while studying)

So, remember, it takes longer to refocus after hearing the phone than it does to just hear the phone.  Prepare for and minimize the distractions while you study, and you’ll be done with your homework before you know it!

Tuesday’s Tip: Tongue Twisters

Tongue twisters are not ideal to use in an ESL class.

Picture yourself trying to communicate in a new language.  It can be intimidating speaking with correct grammar or using the right pronunciation of a word (is it sheep or seep, or jeep?).  Maybe you’ve been misunderstood or laughed at.  That’s not very fun.

Then your teacher hands you a sheet with funny phrases that have only the most difficult sounds in this language.  Now, the teacher wants you to say them!!!??

Any research on good teaching practices would advise against creating uncomfortable situations for students, and using tongue twisters in an ESL class qualifies.  Not only can they make students distressed, they are linguistically confusing.  Hearing the differences in sounds is hard because some sounds that exist in English don’t exist in other languages.  Not only that, but it also provides occasions for students to involuntarily recreate errors, solidifying the very sounds they may wish to eventually correct.

Now, I’m not a total fuddy duddy, and have been known to use tongue twisters myself.  They’re fun…what can I say?  There is, however, a time and a place to appropriately use tongue twisters.

When you have a class who might enjoy the word play, here are a few tongue twister links.

Different Questions – Same Technique

Something happened to me during a tutoring session that taught me a lesson worth sharing.  I hope this story helps you, too.

The student is in middle school.  She is learning techniques on how to read to learn and to find information using headings and other special text features.  I explain the technique with a script that she reads aloud first to internalize the process of thinking through the steps, which was inspired by this Scholastic article.

There are several strategies, called general reading processes, which researchers have discovered readers use every time they read anything. If your students don’t do these things, this is the place to start your think-aloud modeling since these strategies will have the greatest pay-off for them across all reading tasks.

Everything is going well.  She answers all the questions correctly.  At the end of our session, I say, “Can you see how this will be helpful in school?”  She replies, “Yea, but in school, they ask different questions.”

Somehow, the fact that the technique can be applied to all types of questions didn’t sink in right away. I guess whatever I said didn’t help my student connect the activity to a real-life application.  There could have been a flaw in my delivery or a simple misunderstanding (as will happen with students, especially ones with a preexisting language barrier).

However the gap in translating the lesson into real world application occurred, the fact that it occurred taught me some lessons of my own:

  • It’s important to discuss the purpose of an activity (more than once if needed).
    “We’re doing this to help you in your academic classes.”
    “This technique will help you read a text book more effectively.”
  • Review the steps to help students retain the information
    “Let’s do a few more, and see how it goes.”
  • Use materials that resemble real-world materials.
    “Do you have a text book we can practice with?”
  • Have the student explain how they will use the technique.
    “When I’m reading a chapter in history, I can use this technique to help with the questions at the end of the chapter.”
  • Get parents involved.
    “OK, Mom.  You can help, too.  Make sure she can do this independently.”

How do you bring lessons from the classroom to real life application?

English Ears

When you’re learning a new language, situations where you can practice are all around:

  • joining a conversation group
  • running errands
  • going shopping
  • talking to other parents at the park

However, you don’t always participate in English when you have the opportunity, do you?  It is really easy not to listen.  Isn’t that why you use earphones?  Or maybe you close your English ears and plan your day in your familiar language.  Your native language is helpful when trying to understand a new concept.   It’s also good for cheering up if you’re homesick.

However, if you intentionally ignore the English around you, you’re closing the part of your mind that actively learns.  Then, you miss the easiest opportunities to learn, which don’t even require speaking!

If you don’t believe me, just start paying attention to how often you close your English ears.  How many opportunities are you missing per week?  Per day?  More than one per day is too many.

You can keep your ears open in the car – listening to the radio, news, or music…or while shopping – listening to the people around you.  At the grocery store, listen to how the guy in front of you orders his sliced turkey or fillet of fish.

So, why not start now?  If opportunity knocks, you’re English ears should hear it!

Gaming towards a better world

I didn’t believe that gaming could make a better world, either, that is, until I watched this TED presentation by Jane McGonigal.  She can explain how teaching the skills necessary for an “epic win” in gaming, successful social strategy, and achievement in science and technology lead to cohesion of our common goals and solutions of our world’s biggest problems so much better than I can.  So watch…

For a while, it seemed possible.  In fact, I still love this presentation and have listened to it several times.  I enjoy her reference to “+1 intelligence” (the relationship between actual level and potential) that occurs frequently in games, seldom in real life, and what we always try to get our students to meet.

Shortly after watching this video and geared up with a dose of “urgent optimism”,  I glimpsed (in this South Park clip) the reality of getting to where we need to be from where we are today.

So the first step to creating a sustainable future through gaming is…?  I’ve always been a big fan of goal setting…maybe these can become your goals:

  • define what skills you’re learning by gaming
  • meet 3 new people you can network with during this session
  • accept challenges from other gaming characters
  • trust others

Jane McGonigal’s idea doesn’t sound impossible, now, does it?  Isn’t this what we are trying to achieve in our classrooms anyway?

Philosophy in the Second Grade

Abby Goodnough (New York Times) writes about the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence in Springfield Massachusetts which started a program to encourage philosophical debate among 2nd graders about issues brought up in children’s literature.

Ms. Runquist’s students managed to fit philosophy in between writing and science. This was their sixth lesson of the year, and by now they knew the drill: deciding whether or not they agreed with each question; thinking about why or why not; explaining why or why not; and respecting what their classmates said.

The project was initiated by Prof. Thomas E. Wartenberg from Mount Holyoke College, who lists some of the benefits as:

  • improving reading comprehension
  • critical thinking
  • understanding and asking some of the world’s most basic questions
  • learning right from wrong
  • developing abstract thought
  • filling gaps across curricular subjects
  • express and support opinions
  • showing courtesy to classmates

It seems like these would be good skills for any student, maybe even in ESL conversation classes.

A New School Reform

The New York Times posted a story by Sam Dillon about a school reform in which students could possibly graduate 2 years earlier:

Dozens of public high schools in eight states will introduce a program next year allowing 10th graders who pass a battery of tests to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college.

Students who pass but aspire to attend a selective college may continue with college preparatory courses in their junior and senior years, organizers of the new effort said. Students who fail the 10th grade tests, known as board exams, can try again at the end of their 11th and 12th grades. The tests would cover not only English and math but other subjects like science and history.

One of the goals is to move on when one is ready rather than having to spend a number of hours in a class.  On one hand, it opens room for students who need the extra time, probably allowing for more individualized instruction, but how will it affect the achievement gap?  Where might this leave students learning English as a second language?  Modeling programs after other “high-performing” countries is a good thing, but we have to consider that those countries don’t have the bilingual education debate that the United States has.

Speech to Speech Translator

Isn’t one of the biggest problems in the world today that we just can’t seem to be on the same page, or that through miscommunication, we constantly mistake the others’ intent or meaning?  That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to be in a field that helps people bridge the gap between what they say and how it is understood by others. As an ESL teacher, I wonder how Google’s attempts at a speech to speech translator will improve upon that?

Google plans to make its Babel Fish a lot like a human translator; the software would analyze chunks of speech, and translate them in their entirety rather than translating word for word. Franz Och, Google’s head of translation services, claims the technology could go live in a couple of years. “Clearly, for it to work smoothly, you need a combination of high-accuracy machine translation and high-accuracy voice recognition, and that’s what we’re working on. If you look at the progress in machine translation and corresponding advances in voice recognition, there has been huge progress recently,” he says.

Anyone who’s used Google Translate knows that translations aren’t (and probably never will be) perfect, but they’re very helpful when you can’t understand a word of some foreign language. However, Google’s voice recognition also has issues of its own, and I fear that these two combined would produce a very high amount of errors. The Times also mentions the issue of different accents, a problem that Google plans to solve by making the software gradually learn the speaking habits of the phone’s owner.

Whether for business, career, or friendship, are there any benefits to NOT learning the basics of the language of your communication partners?  Any ESL teacher can tell you that it’s not necessary to learn other languages to teach English, but the advantages of doing it anyway are indisputable.  You can reach more people, teach more diversified groups, understand their languages’ syntactic patterns to better assist them with those in English, and have better interpersonal relationships.

I’m not afraid of the obsolescence of the field of TESOL;  any translation tool will be additive…like calculators in math or spell check in Word.  But just as I tell students who rely on spell check yet continue to turn in papers with “to” instead of “too”, I will also advise that using technology is grand, but it can’t (and shouldn’t) replace the good old fashioned noodle to solve the world’s problems.