Saturday, March 29, 2008

Going to New York Tomorrow!

Tomorrow is the big day when I leave for New York! I feel bad for leaving my students for a whole week, but on the other hand, I’m really excited to get the chance to go to the largest conference of ESL teachers and researchers in the world. Hopefully, I’ll learn some cool teaching tricks I’ll be able to use with the students back home.

Basically, I am going to New York to do two presentations. The presentation that I am most excited about is the one that I am doing on blogs. I think that this going to be my last presentation on blogs for a while, so I really want to do a good job. I have been doing presentations on blogs for four years now. I can’t believe that I have been blogging for four years. That’s a lot of words. Anyway, for this presentation I continued with my blog survey that I have been doing for the last little while, and I analysed the vocabulary in the blogs my students did in the Fall 2007 semester.

The results from my vocabulary analysis were really interesting. I chose 10 students at random from last semester, and I then put them though a vocabulary profiling tool created by Dr. Tom Cobb ( The vocabulary profile told me how many of the words my students wrote were from the first 1000 most common words of English, the second 1000 most common words of English, the academic word list (570 word families – Coxhead, 2000), and words that aren’t on any of those lists. In order to see if there was any change in the way my students use vocabulary, I took approximately the first 500 words they wrote at the beginning of the semester, and I then compared that profile to approximately the last 500 words they wrote at the end of the semester. What was interesting was that 8 of the students showed that they were using a higher percentage of the academic word list at the end of the semester compared to the start of the semester (one student stayed the same, and one student used less). When I saw those results, I felt it confirmed my initial suspicion that blogs are a way for students to grow and consolidate their vocabulary over a semester. This is just a pilot study, and so far, I have only done a graphical analysis. The next step would be to run a statistical analysis to see if what happened with my students’ use of vocabulary is significant. However, in the meantime, I’m pretty impressed! Keep on blogging – it works!

I’ll report on the results of the survey in my next blog.

Wish me luck in NYC!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Blogging for Academic Purposes

Gosh, I'm starting to realise more and more that it is really hard to take over a class half way through the semester. There are a lot of little things that I take for granted, that maybe another teacher wouldn't even be concerned about. I guess one of those things would be how I see the role of blogs in an academic writing course.

For me, I take it for granted that blogs are a complete different genre than normal academic writing. That means, all of the rules and conventions that the students are learning in class might not necessary apply when they are writing their blogs. For one thing, blogs are a totally informal forum for the exchange of ideas. When writing a blog, it isn't a one way flow of communication like it is in an essay. Hopefully, in a blog, I can get lots of comments so that this blog is more like a dialogue between me and the world. Also, while the stiff formality of the traditional academic essay has it's place, I feel that worrying too much about academic vocabulary and formal ways of expression will stop the flow of ideas, which is the whole point of the blogs. Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is that it is okay to use your everyday language in a blog, and you don't have to worry about stuff like thesis statements, and topic sentences. Also the point of blogs is to get your ideas out of your head. Thus, I don't want people worrying about stuff like spelling, correct grammar, the perfect vocabulary word, or the right punctuation. The most important thing is just to get the ideas down into the blog. In fact, when it comes to vocabulary, if you can't think of the perfect word, just keep typing. You can type around the word, for instance. What I mean is, if you want to say the word "ladder" but you can't remember it, you can say this: I put a thing like some stairs up against the side of a tree and climbed up to pick an apple. See . . . it's the same thing, everyone knows what you are saying, and you don't have to waste your time looking words up in the dictionary.

Also, I find that when students type directly into their blogs, they tend to think in English. There isn't enough time to translate back and forth between their native languages and English. This helps to increase the speed the students can think in English, and it helps them get used to approaching writing tasks in English. However, if they start to worry too much about what they want to say, they might be tempted to start to think of their ideas in their native languages first. If that happens, I generally find that the grammar problems start to get worse and worse.

Anyway, I guess the point of this rant is that I take it for granted that blogs are an informal fun way to practice English and read what the rest of the people are thinking about in class.

Keep it fun!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Reacting to Student Concerns

It’s the first day of a new schedule today, and I wonder what the students think about it. I know that the administration here in the EAP program thought a lot about how to address the concerns of the students and create the optimal conditions for learning, and this is what they came up with. Basically, I am now teaching each writing class for about five hours per week, and the other teacher is going to teach the grammar class for about five hours per week. We are going to alternate the days that we teach so that the students can have a full two hours with one instructor on any given day.

It will be interesting to see how this works. On the one hand, I like the idea that I now have a full two hours to focus purely on writing. There is a lot of work that we can get done in an hour. I’ll also have more opportunities for writing in class. On the other hand though, I used to like the flow I sometimes was able to create from the one hour grammar portion of the lesson to the one hour writing portion of the lesson. While I totally believe in teaching grammar, I like to mix it up and take an untraditional approach to teaching the grammar in that I do a lot of activities that force the students to use the grammar structures I am targeting that day rather than traditional “grammar exercises”. It is almost like we are doing a lot of different activities, and the students are unconsciously focusing on the grammar targets for that day because of the activities themselves. After that, I like to then see if the students can apply the grammar I have been targeting in their writing. If I notice that the correct grammar structures are being produced, then I can move on. If I notice that the correct grammar structures are not being produced, then it is time for either more activities, or even some old fashioned grammar lecturing where I explain the grammar rules to the students on the board. More than any of that though I also like forcing the students to come up with their own questions about the grammar. The sneaky thing is that half the time I don’t answer their questions. However, I like to set up the conditions where the students are able to articulate the questions and truly understand what it is that they don’t understand. Once they really know the questions, they should be able to find the answers on their own. I need to do this, because once the students are working by themselves in their regular university courses, they aren’t going to have the benefit of a grammar teacher to answer their questions, so they need to teach themselves how to learn on their own. Additionally, it is impossible to truly understand the “answer” if you don’t really know the “question”. Remember . . . . the answer is 42! What is the question?

Anyway, despite what I have written above, we’ll try this new schedule and see how it works. Naturally, there are arguments for the other side that say that some pure focused and concentrated grammar instruction is just what students need if they wish to speak English accurately and fluently. Anyway, I’d love some feedback!