Recent Research in Teaching Grammar

November 14, 2008

How important is grammatical knowledge? How can we balance grammatical accuracy with communicative fluency? Can grammar even be taught? These questions have been debated for as long as language has been taught. Two recent articles provide new insight on the role of grammar in language classrooms.

Grammar Can be Taught (without hurting fluency)
Research conducted by Mochizuki and Ortega (2008) revealed that teaching grammar to students results in more accurate speaking in communicative tasks. Furthermore, the students who studied grammar performed as well as the control group in measures of fluency. This groundbreaking study offers hard evidence that studying grammar will help students improve their English significantly.

Grammar Should be Taught
It is not enough to know that grammar can be taught. The question remains whether it should be taught. Shiotsu and Weir (2007) conducted a series of experiments to see how much of reading comprehension could be explained by vocabulary knowledge vs. grammatical knowledge. They found that grammatical knowledge is more important than vocabulary size, and they extrabpolated their findings to understanding English in general.

What This Means for You and Your Students
These two studies show that a well-rounded curriculum must have a grammar component. This is critical both for students ability to understand English and for their ability to use the language.
 

Mochizuki, N. & Ortega, L. (2008) Balancing communication and grammar in beginning-level foreign language classrooms: A study of guided planning and relativization. Language Teaching Research. 12 (1) 11-37.

Shiotsu, T. & Weir, C. (2007) The relative significance of syntactic knowledge and vocabulary breadth in the prediction of reading comprehension test performance. Language Testing. 24 (1) 99-128.

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Texas TESOL: more student interest in online software

November 11, 2008

Hello everyone. Well, it looks like live blogging from conferences is not likely in the cards for me. By the time evening rolls around and it’s time to comment on the day’s sessions, I’ve got so many other events going on that I don’t get back to my computer until late. For international TESOL, I’m working with some of my colleagues here to put together a daily brief of the best sessions. This would be a service mostly for teachers who can’t attend TESOL–kind of like reading the highlights of a sporting event you miss.

Texas TESOL’s attendance was down a little this year. They usually average 1000 attendees, but this year saw around 800 or so, according to conference organizers. Based on conversations with teachers at the conference, a big contributor to the lower attendance was school districts cutting back on funding for substitutes etc.

A big trend at TexTESOL that I noticed was the continued interest of students in accessing ESL software online. (See an earlier post on this)

The stories generally went like this: Teachers told me that they had bought software for their language labs a few years ago. Everyone is happy with the content and thinks that it is making a difference in the students’ learning. Lately, though, students have been asking about using the software at home.

Since the schools sank significant funds into the network version of the software, many of them are hesitant to make the jump into online versions. It seems, though, that ESL students are beginning to expect that software should be accessible from any computer.

Some of the big publishers (Pearson Longman included) have been moving in this direction and are offering significant options for online software. Others appear to believe that students will not want to pay the extra cost of online subscriptions and are only developing CD-ROM based software. I think it will be very clear sooner rather than later who is right on this point.
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Trends from Ohio TESOL: Technology and Speaking/Writing

November 7, 2008

Ohio TESOL had around 700 attendees this year, making it one of the most well attended state TESOL conferences nationwide. This is especially impressive at a time when a lot of districts are cutting back on funding for teachers to attend conferences. The conference was a great opportunity for me to talk to a lot of ESL teachers about the current state of ESL methodology. A few recurring themes emerged: the use of technology and teaching productive skills (speaking and writing).

Technology and Software for ESL Students
Many teachers reported that they are exploring what technology can do for them and for their students. They described experiments with Moodle and social networking sites. I also heard a lot of interest in commercial ESL software. By far the biggest buzz was on what’s available online rather than on CD-ROM. Some teachers have been trying out different projects and assignments online for a while now, but the majority were just starting to explore their options. As student access to the internet broadens and teacher familiarity with available software increases, I predict significantly higher use of technology in ESL.

Productive Skills
Whenever we talked about Reading/Writing or Listening/Speaking classes, teachers shared with me a renewed emphasis on speaking and writing–especially in academic contexts. As one teacher put it, “We don’t want to have listening courses with a little bit of speaking at the end. We’re focusing on developing students’ speaking skills at the same time as their listening skills.” I heard the same about Reading/Writing courses–a real move toward full integration of writing into reading. While I didn’t get enough confirmation to say this strongly, I believe that much of this comes from the realities in mainstream courses. Students need to be prepared to participate orally in class and are increasingly being asked to do more short writing assignments (often in online discussion boards). My prediction here is that more ESL teachers will begin to reexamine their curricula and pump up the writing and speaking components.

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Ohio TESOL: Fostering the “Community” Part of Online Community

November 3, 2008

Sorry to have been away for a full week. I was out travelling in Texas and Ohio, and I got behind in my blogging. I even missed a few days over at ESOL World News. It was an interesting experiment for me, and I think I can ensure that there is no interruption this week when I go to TexTESOL.

At Ohio TESOL, the trend was definitely the growing emphasis on technology in langauge learning. Many people presented on using various free resources in langauge classrooms, but the most interesting sessions for me were the ones that described the possibilities for online learning.

Dawn Bikowski easily had the most interesting session of the conference. She described parameters for helping students to move from just posting messages toward developing an actual online community.

One of the issues Bikowski brought up was that, for many people, text-based communication can be impersonal. What makes social networks and blogs work so well in creating a sense of community is that they make the communication personal again. People can upload photos and play games with each other. They can take personality quizes, post the results, and share them with friends.

Bikowski recommends that online communities should foster opportunities for students to express themselves as individuals. Participants should share information about themselves and what they do outside of class. Informal langauge should be encouraged in any situation that does not otherwise require formal langauge. When possible, sharing photos or other personal media will also be helpful.

All of these strategies will make the online community feel less like another set of assignments and more like an engaging space. This will result in learners being more motivated to participate and complete all of the activities that are set.
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Schools Score Low–Cite ESL Students

October 23, 2008

Updated 10/27 (see below) 

The past month or so has seen several reports of schools posting lower test scores and singling out ESL students a one of the main causes. (for example, Des Moines, Evanston, Hattiesburg, San Diego, Sacramento, Joliet) These articles tend to follow the same storyline. If it weren’t for large and/or growing numbers of ESL students, all would be well. Each of these articles presents a more or less charitable view of the language learners (to be dealt with later), but the causes of the lower scores are generally the following.

Limited ESL Instruction
Many schools do not have dedicated language instruction for language learners. Rather, teachers come into the classroom and help individual students during the flow of the mainstream class. It’s difficult to imagine most students (and especially older ones) doing well without some kind of explicit, sequenced instrtuction about their new language. The most serious issue is students development of academic language skills (see Jim Cummins’ work) as opposed to conversational fluency.

Limited Number of ESL Teachers
Further complicating matters is the significant shortage of certified ESL teachers in most school districts. This is especially serious in districts that have not had significant ESL populations in the past. A sudden shift in demographics can leave a send a large influx of language learners to a district who has never had to address English acquisition in a concerted way.

Lack of Appreciation of Length of Time Needed to Learn a Language
Possibly the most serious challenge to any K-12 ESL program is understanding that students will need a relatively short period of time to become fluent enough to function with their classmates but will need much more time to develop the kind of academic knowledge and skills that they will be tested on. Some states limit ESL instruction to only lower grades as though no older students who immigrate do not need the same kind of classes as younger ones. Others limit the number of years that a student can take language classes to some arbitrary length of time (Oregon may be next)

Solutions?
I’m afraid that the scope of this blog (and my own background with adult language learners rather than children) limits proposing much in the way of solutions. Much could be addressed if there were more funding for ESL programs. That’s difficult to communicate to many parents who don’t take a very charitable view off language learners and who would prefer that the money go to other programs. The one good thing you’ll ever hear me say about No Child Left Behind is that it is raising the profile of students like English Language Learners and is sanctioning schools who don’t meet these students’ needs.

Update 10/27–Mary Ann Zehr over at Learning the Language raises some good points about this post. For example, she was absolutely on target that I missed the fact that

“the tests ELLs are taking are designed for native-English speakers and are not very good at measuring what second-language learners know and can do.”

In fact, the Evanston example above attributes much of their low scores to the fact that Illinois recently changed its policy about testing ELLs. In the past, ELLs were given a less complex test (one assumes less complex linguistically) than native English speakers.

Thanks, Mary Ann!

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Reading Skills vs. Reading Practice: 2 Emerging Patterns

October 21, 2008

It’s usually one or the other: either teachers are concerned that their students aren’t developing strong reading skills, or they’re worried that the students don’t get enough practice actually reading. I rarely, if ever, hear someone say that they’ve got the mix right.

Trying to balance intensive reading and extensive reading is hardly new. Researchers themselves have argued back and forth about how much of language learning is made up of simply reading comprehensible input vs. using the same strategies that successful readers use.

What’s new is the sheer number of options available to ESL instructors today. From websites to textbooks to text messages, there is an ever-expanding array of choices for teaching reading. While consensus among experts is still a long way off (if it’s even possible), two patterns are emerging.

Focus on Fun Texts with Minimal but Regular Skill-Building
Many reading instructors organize their courses thematically and opt for a greater emphasis on actually reading in class. As a rule, there is not enough time in a classroom setting for truly extensive reading to take place, but these instructors still devote a larger amount of class time to silent reading. They argue that students who are actually interested in what they read will be more likely to read–turning them into better readers along the way.

Focus on Intensive Skill-Building–with Extensive Reading for Pleasure
Another camp argues that there are so many different reading skills, and that these need to be studied systematically, which means that class time should be spent on building them. They believe that the structured nature of a classroom lesson lends itself more to studying and practicing discreet skills than silent reading. They content that time outside of class is much more appropriate for pleasure reading and emphasize longer reading assignments for homework.

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ELL/ESL/EFL Blog Carnival — Seventh Edition

October 2, 2008

If anyone has not yet checked out the 7th edition of Larry Ferlazzo’s ELL/ESL/EFL Blog Carnival, then it’s time you did so! While you’re there, spend some time exploring Larry’s site–an impressive resource for ESOL teachers and programs.