Reflections On ESL Academic Issues

Reflections On ESL Academic Issues

1. Reflecting on Cook’s (2001) Common Assumptions – 2: Teachers and students should use the second language rather than the first in the classroom.

Before I started this course, one of the teaching issues that I had an unwavering view about was the use of a student/s first language in the classroom. Not only did I believe that Cook’s second assumption was correct; I also felt it was so obviously true that debating the issue was unnecessary. My view was influenced by several factors:

1. My belief that if students join an English language class, their goal is to improve their English ability, and that this goal is more likely to be achieved by focusing on English exclusively.

2. My belief that a classroom is a place to practice using a language, and therefore, students do not need to practice using their first language, as they are already proficient in its use.

3. I never had a student question my policy of only using English in the classroom, even though there were a lot of opportunities given to them to voice their opinions about the class they were in (needs assessments, one-to-one conversations).

4. Every school/institute/university I have ever taught at in my teaching career had a policy that included Cook’s assumption.

When Alfons gave a presentation about using L1 in the classroom, and talked about the ideas of Auerbach (as cited in Schweers, 1999), Hopkins (as cited in Schweers, 1999) and Nation (2001), I wasn’t impressed with their positions at first. Auerbach suggests that the L1 provides a sense of security, and Hopkins talked threatening the identity of a learner. I thought at the time that if a teacher does his/her job well, he/she can create a classroom atmosphere that comfortably addresses these issues. In my teaching experience in Korea, I concentrated a lot on this, and while the occasional student was unhappy with something, I honestly feel that my students never felt insecure or threatened. As for Notion’s idea of using the L1 as a tool, well I just thought that there are better tools available.

However, after going away and thinking about the issue, I am now in the position where I am reconsidering the rigidity of my beliefs. This is entirely due to my conversations with non-native speaking colleagues in this course. For example, one of them shared experiences about teaching grammar, and how helpful it was to use an L1 to explain concepts. Another told me that when she taught vocabulary, she had many experiences where she received positive feedback about the use of L1.

I then reviewed what Auerbach, Hopkins and Notion had to say from a different perspective, and this time I was much less quick to be dismissive. I think I have a little more empathy for their views, a better understanding of where they are coming from. This has affected the way I think about teaching. I feel that I now have an extra “weapon” in my “arsenal” to combat the difficulties of language teaching. So, in the future, when I am teaching in the classroom, I will certainly look for ways to incorporate some L1 into my lessons.

2. Reflecting on “9 Uses for Column 8 in the Language Learning Classroom”, taken from the “Reading Materials” section on Blackboard.

I have always viewed newspapers as a great potential source of material for an ESL/EFL classroom. For example, while teaching in Korea, I made a handout for advanced students called “Ambiguous Newspaper Headlines” where I asked students to find the intended and unintended meanings of headlines such as, “Iraqi Head seeks arms” and “Squad helps dog bite victim.” I also found interesting Ann Landers/Dear Abby columns and current events articles, cut and pasted them onto A4 pages and added some questions for discussion. These materials always gained a positive response from learners.

However, I felt that there were many more ways that a newspaper could be used and I have kept an eye out for any material on the subject. I was pleased to find the “9 Uses for Column 8 in the Language Learning Classroom” article, as it discussed several classroom applications that I hadn’t seen before. All the activities looked feasible and had the advantage that they could be applied to any newspaper, internet or magazine article. The two activities I particularly liked were “Read, Ask and Tell” and “Story-telling for listening”, and I will explain why, in the context of their use in a Korean EFL classroom.

For the “Read, Ask and Tell” activity, the writer suggests that the teacher asks one student from each group (the teacher has already divided the class into groups) to move from group to group to tell them about an item. This is a very good idea, as Korean students often feel very nervous giving any kind of “speech” in front of their peers. They are often very shy and this exercise will help students to overcome the inhibitions that they feel, as they gain confidence with each telling. At the same time, they will improve fluency and accuracy, and feel a greater sense of success as a result. The listening students will not become bored, as they have a variety of items to listen to and ask questions about.

One way to use the “Story-telling for listening” idea is for the teacher to tell a story up to a certain point and then divide the class into groups and have them resolve the storyline. In asking students to finish the story, they have to come up with and discuss certain scenarios and then choose the best one. This teaching method is particularly relevant to Korean students, as they often have trouble with creative thinking in a classroom setting, due to a lack of practice. In primary school and high school, they are usually expected to memorize what the teacher says, and are given little opportunity to voice their own opinions.

Both of these lessons are easy to prepare, but the teacher must take care to use items that are interesting, relevant and suitable for the level of the class. Also, the ideas presented can be adapted for any ESL/EFL classroom, which means I can use them wherever I teach. I will certainly use them in future lessons and will recommend them to colleagues.

3. Reflecting on my knowledge of and the teaching of grammar

As soon as I knew that one of the course requirements was to write a reflective journal, I knew that I would include grammar and the teaching of it as one of the topics to reflect on. This is because I know that, out of all the aspects of teaching that a language teacher needs to know and understand, grammar is the one that I struggle with the most. When I took the Foundations of Syntax and Semantics course last semester, all of my colleagues in the class seemed to understand concepts more easily than me and got a better grade.

Earlier this semester, I started to consider why I had a weakness with grammar, and what I was going to do about it. I started by making a list of the reasons why, and they are as follows: grammar was rarely dealt with explicitly in my high school English classes; I haven’t made a committed attempt to learn a second language; while teaching in Korea for the last 9 years, the classes I was given to teach did not require a lot of grammar knowledge; a lack of effort on my part to learn all the things I need to know. As I reflected on these factors, I realized that the last one was the most telling.

So, the next step was to decide the right course of action. As unbelievable as it may sound, I had never read or heard about Krashen (1981) before taking this Master’s course and, of course, his beliefs about the teaching of grammar caught my attention. This, in addition to reading Cook’s (2001) assumption about explicit discussions of grammar in the first lecture of your course made me consider the idea that maybe I was worrying about nothing. After some careful thought, I realized that good teachers should know as much as they can about their subject, even if they don’t teach it explicitly. I recalled several times in Korea when a student asked me a grammar question that I feel I didn’t give a good or complete answer to.

As I was coming to this conclusion, your lecture about grammar where you compared Yule’s (1998) pedagogical approach and Celce-Murcia and Larson-Freeman’s (1983) transformative approach really gave me food for thought. The example given of a transformative answer seems to be very rule and terminology based. This reminded me about conversations with my Korean students about how they were taught grammar rules in high school. They told me how they often didn’t know how to apply what they learned, even if they spent a lot of time memorizing rules.

The example given of a pedagogical answer tried to explain why, and although I hadn’t seen this type of answer before, I felt an immediate connection with what Yule was trying to do. For me, “the cause is boring, the experiencer is bored” is a clear and concise way of looking at grammar. So, I have decided to buy his book and also do some research about this type of grammar teaching. If this type of grammar teaching proves to have gaps, I will certainly consider using the prescriptive approach as a supplement; if, on the other hand the descriptive approach covers all conceivable grammar questions and situations, I will certainly use it exclusively as a foundation for any future grammar teaching situation.

4. Reflecting on my teaching experience in Korea, with reference to Stern’s (1975) “Ten features of good language learners.”

As I read Stern’s (1975) “Ten features of good language learners”, my first question to myself was, “Have I, in my teaching career, helped to bring out these features in my students?” I realized that there are a few features that I could have focused on more with regard to my students and that I need to think about how to make sure I can encourage students to reach their potential in those areas in the future.

The feature that really made me think was “a personal learning style.” When I was studying to be an English high school teacher, I was taught to aim my material at the mid-range ability level of my students, the argument being that you cover the majority of the students, and then you give special attention to the few that are below mid-range and give extra work to the few above mid-range. This philosophy has carried over into my ESL/EFL teaching. Until I took this class, I never really attempted to understand how learning styles differ. The online presentation about learning strategies by Bettina-Maria Sluka had several interesting things to say about this issue. Arnold’s (1999) comment,

Learners do not only hold a certain conceptual belief of the language but also a
general attitude about the difficulty, the positive outcome of learning strategies and
their own personal expectations about achievement and methodology

emphaized the need to treat students as individuals, taking into account personal differences.This idea was reinforced by the case study by Ehrman and Oxford (1989). It showed, for example, that judgers and percievers look at learning differently.

I am sure that I didn’t totally ignore individual differences while teaching in Korea. I used a lot of task based activities that gave scope for individuality and I was always on the lookout for students who weren’t coping with a particular activity and quick to help. On the other hand, I certainly did not have a coherent strategy to deal with different learning styles, and therefore, at best, I addressed this issue in a very haphazard way. In the future, I will be sure to choose activities, where possible, that incorporate different learning strategies, or at least make sure that in any given week, activities cover a range of learning strategies.

Another feature that caught my attention, though to a lesser extent, was “a tolerant outgoing approach to the target language and empathy with its speakers.” A lot of Korean students complained to me that they had been in situations where foreigners had been quite assertive or even aggressive with them and they felt embarrassed and powerless as a result. They felt this way because a) they are taught that confrontation should be avoided and b) they were speaking in an L2. I therefore encouraged students to think about being more pro-active in dealings with foreigners, even to the point of having role plays that looked at different possible responses to confrontations. Perhaps in my zeal to empower my students, I lost sight of the fact that a balance needs to be maintained. Certainly there is nothing wrong with showing students how to be assertive; however, this is problematic if I don’t spend time on how to build bridges with people from other cultures. I will make sure I am more balanced in future classes with regard to this issue.

5. Reflecting on how to teach students to be communicative outside the classroom.

This issue, which has been discussed on Blackboard, is one that I believe should be central in every teacher’s mind. Students expect (and it is a very reasonable expectation) that after finishing an ESL/EFL class, they will have the skills to have a conversation with a native speaker outside the classroom. However, many students struggle to use what they have learned in the “real” world. Thi Nguyen pointed out on the “Genuine Communicative Activities Outside Classroom” thread,

I often receive quite a lot of feedbacks (sic) from some of my economic (sic) and
technical students who complained that they were hardly able to use what they
learned from school to function properly in job situations.

I have been in the same situation as Thi. Many of my Korean students have told me how difficult it is to talk to foreigners or understand what they are saying. So, due to the importance of this problem and the difficulty of finding solutions to it, a lot of reflection on what to do about this situation is certainly warranted.

One way in which to do so is to look at a variety of opinions and options and evaluate them. So, I will look at some of the ideas proposed by my colleagues on Blackboard and decide which ones are suitable for me to implement in my future lessons.

Duc Nguyen suggested that teachers can introduce films or daily conversations recorded from the TV. I think that this idea has a lot of merit because using this approach takes students outside the realm of the classroom and “into” the scenario presented. I believe one of the main problems students face is that they often equate English with a classroom environment, because all or almost all of their English interaction takes place there. With this teaching strategy, students see English being used in non-classroom situations. However, one of the drawbacks is preparation time. Unless the programs are already part of a pre-existing media package, the time it takes to prepare for a class using this type of activity is problematic. So the only way I could create my own media classes in any future job is if I had a chance to do so in vacation time, as in my experience, it would not be possible in a usual weekday.

One of Thi To Nhu Pham’s ideas was to open an English speaking club. This idea would certainly give students the opportunity to practice speaking, but would only be effective in terms of helping students communicate in the “real” world if it is far enough removed from the classroom context. For many students, the classroom becomes a “crutch” – they are familiar with the environment, and feel uncomfortable trying to speak outside it. If the club is merely an extension of the classroom, with the same teacher, same students, and similar material, then it is hard to see how this idea could address the problem. If, on the other hand, the club is open to anyone and the club activities are divorced from the school environment, then I think the idea can work successfully.

References

Arnold, J. (1999). Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Celce-Murcia & Larson-Freeman (1983). in The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teachers
Course. Cambridge: Newbury House.

Cook, V. (2001). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (3rd Edn). London:
Edward Arnold.

Ehrman, M. E. & Oxford, R. (1989). Effects of sex differences, career choice and
psychological type on adult language learning strategies. Modern Language Journal,
73(1), 1-15.

Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning.
Oxford: Pergamon.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Schweers, C., Jr. (1999). Using L1 in the L2 Classroom. Forum journal, Vol 37 (2), 1-6.

Stern, H. H. (1975). What can we learn from the good language learner? The Canadian Modern Language Review 34, 304-318.

Wajnryb, R. (1987). 9 Uses for Column 8 in the Language Learning Classroom.
Retrieved October 7th, 2005, from http://blackboard.elearning.uq.edu.au/webapps
/portal/frameset.jsp?tab=courses&url=/bin/common/course.pl?course_id=_40152_1

Yule, G. (1998) Explaining English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.