EAL

Ten tips for sustaining verb tenses in writing

Not too long ago I had an opportunity to respond to a request on the NALDIC EAL-Bilingual email list with regard to the above, i.e. how to help EAL learners sustain tenses in their writing.  Here, I've written up my response in full. I hope EAL teachers find it useful. Please let me know! 

Obviously I don’t have a clear picture of the lesson aims/teaching contexts and age groups, but here are my thoughts.

What is your aim?

First, I think I’d ask the teachers what the aim of their lesson was. If it’s to write an interesting/creative story, then tenses wouldn’t really matter, provided meaning was communicated.  If the aim, however, was to raise awareness of or produce accurate forms of a variety of tenses/aspect, then, yes, accuracy across the writing would be important.  And, linking to this aim is the marking of such work. Again, marking and feedback (in the latter case) would need to focus only on accurate use of tenses/aspect rather than other grammatical structures or content.  So, what I’m saying is that if sustaining verb tenses in writing is the issue, this needs to be addressed in the aim of the lesson and the marking of the writing.  But, I’m sure teachers already know this ... 


...so ideas … off the top of my head, I’d say the following:

The work really needs to be done at the planning (pre-writing) and editing (post-content creation) stages of the lesson. During the actual writing, learners need space to get ideas down on paper - content over form - as it’s too cognitively challenging trying to focus on both.  

At the planning stage, here are some ideas for raising awareness:

  1. Cut up and re-order similar texts, asking learners how they figured out how to put it back together with a specific focus on tenses and their connection with other linguistic devices, e.g. adverbs of time.
  2. Talk about tenses with regard to the particular genre (e.g. story telling/narration) - pick out common tenses/aspect - past simple for completed actions in past, present perfect for bringing past together with present (e.g. when past has an impact on present), past perfect (when one action happens before another - both in the past), past continuous for temporary states in the past etc.
  3. Dictogloss - read a short text that is abundant in the tenses you want to focus on. Get students to listen first, only for content (gist).  For the second listening, get them to number a piece of paper with the number of sentences in your short text. Read each one aloud at normal speed and get students to write down what they can (e.g. key words). Read only once. When finished, get students to work together (pairs or threes) to reconstruct the entire text.  Tell them they should discuss which versions might be better and why.   When feeding back, take ideas from all groups, discuss why some might be better options than others (again, in terms of tenses). Compare with the original. Continue sentence by sentence, highlighting tenses/aspect and doing some language work here in preparation for their own writing.
  4. Use graphic organisers for planning purposes - sequencing charts, for example, or timelines.  Give students time to plan.
  5. Talk about how learners indicate past, present, future in their own languages (e.g. through context or through adverbs of time etc). Compare other languages with English.

All of the above can be supported with timelines (i.e. visual representations of tenses) and with carefully planned questioning for scaffolding purposes.


At the editing stage, here are some ideas for noticing and correcting:

  1. Get learners to read their work aloud. Often we don’t notice mistakes in writing but we do when listening.  They can do this individually or in pairs.
  2. Peer editing - get learners to ask each other concept-checking questions, e.g. (Did this event happen in the past? Is it finished? Was it temporary? Did this action happen before this one? etc. Again, supported by timelines and grammar rules/books - referring back to/connecting with the raising awareness activities you did at the planning stage.)
  3. Whole class feedback - take a learner’s text (anonymous - one from a previous year even) and analyse tenses throughout asking the types of questions above.
  4. Tense Detectives’ - this is a slightly different take on School 21’s ‘Talk Detectives’ (used for checking that learners are using agreed discussion guidelines).  Nominate 2 or 3 students whose job it is to sample some of the work looking specifically at accurate use/continuity of tenses in their peers’ work and feed back to the class good examples, possible problems, questions etc.  
  5. Reformulation - rewrite a learner’s text and get learners to compare your version to the original, noticing and discussing different forms (e.g. tenses) throughout.

Feed Forward

Then, after editing, give learners an opportunity to make changes/re-write and implement feedback. Make sure learners refer to feedback on previous work before embarking on a new piece (e.g. feed forward).

I'd love to hear how you may have adopted or adapted some of these ideas and the extent to which they worked in your context, so do leave a comment.

 

Activating Prior Knowledge

Here is the short presentation I gave at the ELT Well Open day on 30 September for those who missed it.  It gives a variety of different ways teachers can activate prior knowledge at the pre-reading / pre-listening stage of a lesson.  If you have questions or if you would like further advice or to book a workshop, please get in touch.

ELT Well Open Day and taster sessions

In celebration of the opening of the new ELT well premises in Morecambe, Anne Margaret and colleagues (including myself) are offering a range of mini sessions aimed at supporting teachers support their learners. Please come along and discover what we can offer you, your school and your learners. I look forward to seeing you there!

 

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Why are there not more ESL/EFL teachers working in schools? A case for collaborative professional development

Good Practice in Teaching

Years ago I was sitting in an informal training session with fellow English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) teachers listening to a talk on ways to support dyslexic students.  I remember thinking to myself at that time the talk should be retitled ‘Good Practice in Teaching’, for the strategies the trainer was suggesting were ones from which all students would benefit. For example, I remember her telling us that we need to make sure that we state clearly the aims of our lesson at the start, put key terminology on the board and check students’ understanding of it; and recap main points at regular intervals. 

Fifteen years on, and several dyslexia training courses later, I not only remain convinced that all students would benefit from teachers being trained in techniques to support students with specific learning differences (SpLDs), but also that language teachers, and ESL teachers in particular, have much to offer teachers across the curriculum in terms of classroom support strategies.

 

ESL teachers supporting classroom teaching

The reasons for this are multiple. First, ESL teachers are trained to use techniques that support meaning when understanding may be limited by linguistic and/or cultural knowledge. This means that we support what we say in the classroom with visual aids, gestures and also written instructions. We’ve also been trained to avoid asking ‘do you understand?’ in favour of concept checking questions like ‘when is the essay due? And how many words do you have to write?’ We tend to use demonstrations (e.g. two students showing the class what is required to carry out a task) and models of finished products (e.g. an essay) so that students can see clearly what is expected. 

Second, we are very conscious of the need to facilitate students’ processing. We monitor our own language very carefully, editing out, when required, slang, idioms, colloquialism, jokes and obscure cultural references. We aim to speak more slowly and clearly at times, we paraphrase, and we reformulate others’ contributions.  We understand the importance of silence; it gives students time to process information and a chance to formulate a response in a second language. We use techniques like think-pair-share or check your understanding with a partner (even in their first language) and give opportunities for students to clarify requests.

Third, we know not to introduce too many new words or grammatical items in one lesson, thus overloading students’ working memories. We also value repetition and recycling, particularly for vocabulary learning. Likewise, we break down our instructions into manageable chunks, giving information only when it is needed, one step at a time. And, again, these oral instructions are normally reinforced in multiple ways via demonstrations and written support.

Fourth, we teach skills – reading, writing, listening, speaking, organization, study, exam, proofreading, editing etc.  Skills teaching and learning is normally embedded into each and every language lesson, but it’s normal for entire courses (e.g. English for Academic Purposes (EAP)) to focus on just one skill, e.g. reading for university, in which we teach strategies like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Respond, Review), again, useful for all students, not just ESL and dyslexic ones. In a similar vein, we teach note-taking and note-making skills, using abbreviations, symbols and mind-maps, equally purposeful for supporting dyslexic students’ auditory skills.

Finally, we emphasize the importance of metacognition (i.e. thinking about learning), asking students to think about how they’ve successfully approached skills-based tasks or grammar/vocabulary learning in the past and getting them to apply their knowledge and strategies to similar tasks and, ideally, sharing strategies with peers.

This list is by no means exhaustive and I have no doubt that SpLD specialists and ESL teachers have a lot to learn from each other. In fact, ESL teachers could also be of great benefit to schools supporting EAL learners (for all of the same arguments presented above and many more, not least of which is our second language acquisition knowledge), but this is probably just stating the obvious.  And don’t even get me started on oracy … I’m saving that for another post!

For so long now, though, school teachers and ESL teachers have inhabited their own worlds, drawing on the same educational theories but applying these in different contexts. But I’d argue that our worlds are becoming less distinct as our learners’ profiles change. We are both teaching more and more learners with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and who may also have more complex needs, including SpLDs. And as we are each constrained by limited funding, wouldn’t it make sense to pool our resources and engage in some collaborative professional development?

 

Collaboration is key

A good starting point for collaboration is asking in-school language teachers to offer input at training days on the type of language teaching strategies and techniques mentioned above. Sharing good practice at TeachMeets and Pedagoos would also be valuable, so too would inviting ESL specialists into schools to run workshops, ideally working alongside SpLD specialists.

And, then, of course, there is the insight that can be gained from consulting one of the rare specialists who span both spheres (SpLDs and ESL).  Colleagues like Dr Anne Margaret Smith at ELT Well offer a wealth of knowledge and also materials to support teachers in schools in identifying and teaching EAL learners with SpLDs. 

As our learners change, so must we. Recognising that we have a lot to learn from each other and engaging in collaborative professional development can only be viewed as steps in the right direction.