Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Newspapers for speaking, reading and writing

It is well documented that newspapers are an effective means of teaching a language. In many ESL environments, students read newspapers in their own language. How then can teachers turn this situation tinto an asset in order to teach English?

It will be to the teacher’s advantage if they know the students’ language. But this is not often the case. However, not all is lost. The teacher can either get the best student in class to translate the selected news item for the lesson. At the same time, the teacher can read the same piece of news in the English newspaper. Of course, this has to be done in the preparatory stage.

Then the instructor can write up her lesson plan and objectives. In my personal opinion, it is more effective to discuss topics that are nearer home to the students and of greater interest to them. Since lack of vocabulary is the main stumbling block for oral discussion and writing, the teacher would need to work out the vocabulary. Much of class time will also be spent on how to use the new words in different situations.

The activity involves reading, speaking and writing as well as word building. As a spin off, it can be turned into a drama, a mock trial, a debate etc depending on the story.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Of American Idol and ESL Music

Music is a universal language. Long before they could speak English fluently, many Chinese students I knew were belting out current hits like professionals! No doubt, their foreign teachers provided some impetus. However, these days with American Idol, music videos and karaoke, students do not need adult motivation in this direction.

Since students learn more effectively if they are interested, why not take advantage of this to stage song competitions as part of language learning? Certain songs can be turned into dramas. I remember teaching my students Nat King Cole’s “Bicycle Built for Two" – an oldie but goodie. I then divided the class into different groups to present stories out of that song. I was pleasantly impressed by their performances! Trust young people’s imagination with romances! The most important thing is that the students are learning the language the fun way! A song can also be turned into a comprehension piece or a ‘fill in the blank’ passage.

American Idol as well as other reality shows can be used as the basis for oral English discussions concerning young people, trends, culture and new technology. Or it can be turned into a debate on the judging criteria, talent versus looks, comparison of American and Asian singers, comparison of the various contestants, an appraisal of the three judges and many more issues!

How to get students interested in reading

Weak students often drown under the weight of college reading assignments due to lack of vocabulary, poor grammar and poor reading skills. Lack of interest in the subject matter too plays a part. The teacher is unable to give such students easier reading tasks because they have a syllabus to complete.

To overcome such problems, I often get my students to read the night before and to find out the meanings of difficult words. During class, I would have a quiz on synonyms or antonyms related to the assignment at hand. Very often, I would go over the meaning of words with them, illustrating their meaning by making sentences or by giving examples. Sometimes, I use cloze passages to test their new vocabulary.

I remember one particular reading assignment that was related to baby snatchers. It coincided with front page news about a senior government official who had just married a woman, more than twenty years his junior. We turned that topic into a debate and it was one of those rare moments for a teacher to see disinterested students suddenly becoming enthusiastic about their reading. Their ability to relate the reading text to what was happening around them was the reason for the change of mindset.

IELTS Reading Test

There are three reading passages and test takers are required to answer 40 questions within 60 minutes. Test items are graded in terms of difficulty. The length of the passage is between 1500-2500 words. Due to the length of the texts and the time constraint, students often make mistakes which include rushing through the text without really understanding what they read or reading too slowly with the result that they are unable to answer all the questions.

To avoid these mistakes, learn to speed read. Take a reading passage which is about 1500 words long, time your reading and calculate your reading speed by dividing the number of words read over the time clocked to get your speed per minute.

Learn to skim over a passage very quickly to get a general gist of the article. Then read more carefully, underlining important points, taking into consideration, topic sentences as well as discourse markers before reading the comprehension questions. Then scan for the answers.

When you come across a difficult word, read the sentence before and the sentence after
it to make an intelligent guess of the meaning. You will not be penalized for wrong answers, so make sure you attempt all questions.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Reading and Writing Strategies

Contrary to popular belief, reading is not a passive activity. We bring our background knowledge into our reading. For example, when we read about badminton, immediately we associate it with various competitions such as the Thomas Cup, the All England Championship or the Sudirman Cup. We think of singles and doubles, badminton court, shuttlecocks, rackets and the three countries that predominate in this game –China, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Likewise, when we read about bird flu, (Avian Influenza) the virus that is transmitted from fowls to humans, instantly, we think of mass culling of fowls, its economic effects on poultry farmers and the Kentucky Fried Chicken industry as well inoculations and vets.

If we make a habit of reading using the above methods, the text in question becomes more interesting. And we can go one step further by responding to the text with our written thoughts. Reading strategies are important not just in IELTS but in college where we really need to know how to deal with heavy reading assignments.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Sharpening listening skills -Part II

Another effective way of helping elementary students in their listening ability is for the instructor to invite a few volunteers to the front of the class and tell them they need to obey whatever instructions you call out. The rest of the class will watch the action.Then call out one word orders like "stand, sit, jump, hop, jog, run, laugh, cry, blink, sleep..etc, etc. The volunteers only act out your orders. Once they get the hang of the game, let one of the volunteers act the role of issuing the instructions while the rest of the class obeys.

For the slightly more advanced classes, play 'Simple Simon Says.' They'll enjoy it. And they'll learn multiple skills the fun way because the game reinforces the following :
1. third person verb with an 's'- eg : says' instead of 'say.'
2. the game stetches their vocabulary bank.
3. tests their pronunciation skill since a badly pronounced would lead to confusion.
4. Last but not the least, the game reinforces leadership skill.

Point out these positives to the students to convince those who think that playing games is a waste of class time.

Acquiring listening skills

A good lesson can have a deep impact on the learner. I learned the art of teaching listening skills from a course organised by the British Council, more than a decade ago. It's still stuck in my mind and I apply it whenever suitable and the resulting outcome never disappoints.

This is how it's done. Relate to your students about your family, throw in some interesting details but do not allow them to write it down.

Then test their ability to relate what they've just heard.

Such lessons are very effective for elementary students.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Vocabulary learning

College curriculum makes little allowance for vocabulary learning. This implies that the initiative is left very much to students themselves. My students tend to use their electronic dictionaries in class. They come across a difficult word in their reading or listening, flip open their e-dictionary, check up the word, very often without any regard to the word in context and promptly forget its meaning after the lesson.

It is the same too with students preparing for IELTS. They have the misconceived notion that they need to know at least ten thousand words in order to excel in IELTS. Very often, they learn words in isolation, including bombastic words that one hardly hears of! And it isn’t their fault! Their instructors at privately run IELTS centers often impress them with such words! Vocabulary is important if students are to understand not just reading but speaking, listening and writing. Teaching them the base words, their derivatives, different meanings of the same word as well as idioms will do much to help them during tests to make intelligent guesses of new words.

I feel thematic teaching also helps in systematic vocabulary building. For instance, a theme on weddings would take into account, the main players, their roles, the wedding banquet, the wedding gifts, the taboos and so on… Imagine the number of words learnt just from a topic like this. Their meaning becomes reinforced if they dramatize the activity, sing songs about it or watch a movie pertaining to it. Teachers will find that their students will begin to enjoy learning English words when the right scaffolding is provided.

Playing vocabulary quizzes, scrabbles, word puzzles are some fun and challenging ways to help ESL students prepare for their IELTS.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Mock Weddings!

I was teaching in an English center once where they had a three and half months, intensive, stay-in course. The finale of the course was a mock wedding where the sponsors and the press were invited guests and it was an occasion which exposed the students to foreigners where they could practise their English. Among the students was a former civil servant who was preparing to immigrate to Canada and several others who had similar dreams.

Four weeks before the real event, I began exposing the class to the vocabulary and culture related to weddings. For instance, I taught them the symbolism of the wedding ring – that its shape symbolizes the permanency of the marriage contract which implied that when they see an attractive man with a wedding ring, they should know that he’s been taken and vice versa. Thus culture and moral values came into play whenever appropriate.

Of course, an expected question was why the wedding dress is white in color? Each person in the class was given a role. The ‘father’ of the ‘bride’ was the oldest in the class. He was given the responsibility of giving a speech and a toast. A week before the ‘wedding’ one could feel the tension in the centre! Each person was memorizing his/her lines. The ‘groom’ and the ‘bride’ rehearsed aloud their wedding oaths as they marched up and down the long, narrow, hostel corridor! Every evening, for a week before the real event, we went over the ceremony and practised the wedding march from the corridor to the 'altar' to perfection.

I had meant for them to use things around their environment for the wedding –flowers plucked from the roadside, a white lace which was in the center to be used as the bridal veil, simple food like nuts and popcorn but no siree! The students wanted everything to be in style.

They rented real costumes from a wedding company, ordered a three tiered cake and had an expensive bridal bouquet!

They had a hilarious time and for some, it was their first encounter with Caucasians. To be able to converse and to be understood in English left them in a state of euphoria for days !

I know the experience left a deep mark in their language learning experience. As for me, I learnt further the importance of being sensitive to the culture of my students. I had given the role of recording the event to the second oldest student in the class who thought the task was beneath him but he didn’t tell me this. Instead, he nursed a grudge until after the course, when he spilled it out during one of our get togethers!