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L1 vs L2 Writing Skills

Question: For a group of B2/C1 teenagers that have done FCE, which language do you think they will write better in, L1 or L2?

My Answer:  L1, of course.

Their Answer:  English.  We don’t do anywhere near as much writing in L1 (Spanish in Argentina, BTW) as we do in English.  We’re much better at structured writing in English.

Could this really be the case?  My Spanish isn’t good enough to judge their writing but I might get a colleague to look at some of their Spanish compositions.

Has anyone else encountered this?

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2011 in Activities

 

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‘Simple ideas aren’t always easy to come by’ a.k.a ‘Repeating a lesson isn’t cheating’

I will be honest and say that Tuesday probably isn’t my favourite day of the week.  I go from 3pm until 9:30pm seeing 4 different classes with only a 15-minute break in the whole thing.  It can be brutal and when I get home I usually don’t have much energy to do anything except eat and then sleep.  This Tuesday was different though and I’ll explain why.

So what did I want from the class?

I have an FCE exam class (more than one actually) and I haven’t really seen much of their writing – I share the class with another teacher who works more on their compositions.  However, I felt it was about time I get a better look at this very important aspect of their English.  I have already been doing some free-writing exercises with them, inspired by Claire Schadle’s article ‘I Don’t Know Why I’m Doing What I’m Doing…But I Like It’ (scroll down to page 27), but I wanted to make this writing more structured with more direction.

I’ve also been thinking recently about explicit grammar and the use of meta-language with learners (I’m not a fan) so I decided I wanted to test a theory I had about that as well.

So what did I do?

I did this with 3 of my 4 classes of the day (my first class missed out on this – sorry); two FCE classes and one PET class.  I wrote down these two sentences at the top of the board.

“Words that describe a thing / Words that describe an action”

I asked for examples. (1, see below)

I then put some letters up on the board: b, c, d, g, j, p, t, v and w.  I chose these ones because we have already been working on the pronunciation of these consonants at the start of words.

Then a simple task – please give an adjective and an adverb for each selected letter. (2)  Once this was done we reviewed the various answers.  The adverbs were definitely more difficult for the learners and there were a lot of wild guesses that, when challenged with “Can you give that to me in a sentence?”, were quickly withdrawn.

Once we had our words I asked them to choose 3 words from both columns (6 in total).  The criterion was simple – choose the words that you are most comfortable using in your writing and speaking.  Then they had the task: use these words in the following writing task.  I wrote this on the board.

Describe your favourite time of the day.

At this point a moment of inspiration struck which I hadn’t planned!  “Stop.  Before you start, what is the goal of your writing and speaking in the FC exam?”

The answer I wanted and eventually got out of them was that writing and speaking are their opportunity to show off their English and show the examiners just how much they know and can use.  I often say “The examiners can’t mark your head.  If you don’t speak it or write it, they can’t reward you for it.”  I’m sure a lot of us say the same. (3)

I suggested three grammatical structures that I knew the students were, supposedly, familiar with: relative pronouns, passives and conditionals.  We then spent a good 15-20 minutes reviewing the structure and, more importantly, the use of these different grammar points.

This was probably my favourite part of the lesson and showed again (see note 1 below) that while the students often recognize the labels of ‘relative pronouns’ or ‘passive voice’, they sometimes don’t have much of an idea about how or why they are used.  I don’t blame any previous teachers here; I think that if you are going to follow a coursebook (almost essential for an exam preparation class) you are really kind of stuck with how this grammar is presented in the book. (4)

The rest of the class went smoothly as the students completed the writing in about 10 minutes and then peer-checked each other’s texts after having gone through an example I wrote while they were writing theirs. (5)

So what did I get from the class?

I was once again saved by some quick thinking and yet more proof that less is more.  This simple idea, which I’d planned to only last about 20-30 minutes, filled the entire 90-minute lesson and the reason it did this is that I’m still bad at foreseeing how much time will be needed by my students to complete exercises, or how much scaffolding needs to be provided to get the learners ready for an activity.

I know that I’ll certainly use these activities again, probably several times but with a condensed vocabulary component at the beginning, at least for students who are already familiar with the process.

So where did it go wrong?

Well for my final class of the day, the PET preparation class, I tried to pad out the activity by giving them all the letters of the alphabet to deal with.  In hindsight this was stupid (and if you are thinking “What an idiot!” right now, I don’t blame you) but this brings me to my final point and the ‘a.k.a.’ of the title.  After having taught the same lesson twice in the same night, I felt I was just cheating if I repeated it a third time.  I tried to improvise, be creative and change a formula that was working.  D’oh!

While such a simple idea for an unplugged lesson would seem to be just that, simple or easy, I would warn you that such ideas are not always winners.  I’d like to give a word to the wise and say that when you find a lesson structure and a natural progression of activities that work, don’t be so eager to improvise around it and see what happens.  It might be a bit boring for you, but for each new class it’s fresh and that’s all that really matters.

Notes/Further Observations

1

Thankfully none of the classes had problems with my definition of adjectives but the second category title, the adverbs, was another story.  Many of the students were a little lost at what I was asking for and I got a few adjectives suggested.  Now, I know I’ve used the term adverb with these students before, especially when looking at Cambridge Use of English practice, but I still can’t say I’m very surprised either – they know the words, the meta-language, but they aren’t so hot when it comes to knowing what an adverb actually is and what is does.  Giving a definition of an adverb without calling it ‘an adverb’ really stumped them.

Does this suggest that we should be trying to reduce meta-language more in the lessons?  I personally think so, but that isn’t the main point of this blog post.

2

I have a question for you?  How often do you actually try to do some of the tasks you set your students while in class?  This activity took me a little longer than I expected.  I hadn’t prepared anything beforehand so I was working alongside my students.  Under pressure to finish first and be ready for them, I did have a couple of moments where my mind went blank.  I see this not as an indication that I should have prepared more before class, but as a reminder that students sometimes need more time than we think they do.

In general, I try to do a few activities ‘with’ the class each lesson.  I think they appreciate seeing me work through what they are working through.  A teacher standing and watching isn’t inspiring and a teacher walking around and observing can be distracting.

3.

However, I am still dealing with some students’ attitude of “I know this and I’ll just do it on the day, don’t worry.”  I’ll let you know when (if) I find a fool-proof (or should I say teenager-proof) retort to that one.

4.

I think the problem is more that coursebooks are notoriously bad at using an abundance of meta-language to label the various sections and exercises.

5.

Again, when I can, I like to go through the process with the students.  This is what I wrote down in about 4 minutes – it was noticed that I actually only used two adverbs, not the three I’d asked for… no one is perfect. 🙂

My Favourite Time of the Day by Gordon

When I have had a terrible day, and my classes have gone dreadfully (we often joke about how much stress the students put me under) I like to go home, dream of being wealthy and not teaching.  This is my favourite time of the day.

If I were rich, I wouldn’t be greedy.  No, I’d be generous.  I would make sure that my money, which would be more than I need, is given carefully to good charities.

 
 

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FCE Essay Reformulation for Teenagers, pt 2

So here’s what I did:

The students looked at their original drafts of their essays and my reformulations of these drafts side by side.  Taking only one as an example to work on, they had to read them both, compare them and make any notes on changes that they noticed and thought would be useful, i.e. chunks of vocabulary, use of specific grammar, passives, etc.

From that I divided the class into pairs (6 in the class in total).  Two had to look for and write a list (in order) of all the nouns they could find (even if they were the same noun again).  The next pair the verbs, the last pair the adjectives and adverbs.  Once they had their lists, they changed groups so that there were now two groups, each with a “noun”, a “verb” and an “adjective/adverb”.  Their job was now to rewrite the essay with only their notes and their word lists to help them.

So here’s why I did:

The students are reluctant note takers so they have to be put in situations where they rely on their notes (noticed grammar, for example).  By having the lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in order, they have a good way to start putting the essay back together.  They will force them try to put meaningful sentences together without the problem of not having adequate vocabulary.

So where did it go wrong?

Nowhere major really.  One student didn’t really work particularly hard, just gave her list of words to the other two and let them work while she ‘twiddled her thumbs’.  However, this didn’t hinder learning for the other two learners in her group nor did it disrupt the lesson in general, thankfully.

Continued behaviour like this can become demotivating for other students so I will have to keep an eye on this.  Any suggestions?  I don’t think this would work, though I could try. 🙂

And what was the outcome?

The students successfully took notes about chunked phrases where they got prepositions wrong or missing.  They had some sense of achievement putting the text back together again and seeing how close they got.  I hope this has also gone some way to building up their understanding of structure in their writing; the position, the reasoning, the evidence.  We are still a long way off having independent writers of English, but it is a start.

So would I do this exercise again?

Yes.

So what would I do differently next time?

I took a somewhat passive role in this exercise in an attempt to encourage learner independence and wean them off their constant need for input from the teacher.  I even went so far as to leave the classroom for a few minutes to let them get on with the work.  I believe this is a useful thing to do.  It nudges the learners out of their comfort zone – though some might call it passivity or even apathy!

However, I would probably get more involved next time, joining groups for a paragraph, observing how they work, who works, what the specific problems and confusions are.

I’m still thinking of ways to build off this structure.  Since the learners have spent time getting used to and understanding what to expect from this method, there is no reason to simply abandon it and never use it again.  If anything, I will probably use this method several times so that it becomes part of their comfort zone.  From experience as a learner (Tango classes in this case) I’ve observed that my ability to tolerate being outside my comfort zone doesn’t always last a full lesson and once I hit that point I tend to switch off to new things.  I’m assuming my students are the same.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2011 in FCE Tasks

 

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FCE Essay Reformulation for Teenagers, pt 1

So here’s what I did:

I took short essays the students had written about a specific subject.  I reformulated them, fixed the errors and put a few higher level phrases in.  I then took the reformulations, broke them into one or two sentences and gave each student one piece.  They had to talk to the other students, read out their part of the essay and put themselves standing in a line in order of what they thought was the correct order.

The last part is inspired by a method of ordering a cut up text that I was reminded of when I watched Jeremy Harmer’s excellent lecture at the IH DOS conference (direct link here) this year.

So here’s why I did it:

The students are almost completely new, or so they seem to want me to believe, to the idea of writing an essay.  They don’t really get that they need to expand their ideas, never mind how to expand their ideas.  Their written production is minimal and they have yet to find motivation.  Their pronunciation is poor and their listening skills are low.  They can basically talk to me but never listen to each other.

With this shopping list of needs for FCE: active listening, essay writing, pronunciation, vocabulary; this appeared to be the perfect activity to do with them.

So where did it go wrong?

  1. The students were instantly bored by the idea and didn’t like the idea of having to stand up and listen to their classmates again and again to understand what each part was about.
  2. The volume of information they had to listen to, retain and then connect in their heads was too much.
  3. They were frustrated that they weren’t allowed to simply read the texts and put them together as texts.
  4. They were frustrated when I refused to immediately give them the answers as soon as the exercise became challenging.
  5. Their pronunciation and listening abilities made the task almost impossible to complete in a reasonable amount of time.  (How do I measure “reasonable”?  A period of time that is not so long it takes most of the class.  A period of time not so long that the students lose interest in the goal.)
  6. The need for complete teamwork did not go down well with a bunch of teenagers who had already been at school for 7 or so hours.

And what was the silver lining?

The students did make some notes and got some pronunciation practice.  They were exposed to a few new words in a context already familiar to them.  With a little bit of help, they managed to get the orders of the essay pieces more or less correct.

So would I do this exercise again?

Yes, definitely.

So what would I do differently next time?

  1. The physical ordering of people was a concept unfamiliar to them.  They needed a warmer exercise with something VERY basic so they could feel more comfortable understanding what the physical objective of the task was.
  2. The attempt to work on so many weak skills at the same time meant that they were destined to fail at this exercise.  It should have been designed to work on only one or two of their weaker skills.  Already they are working on vocabulary and essay structure; asking for active listening and speaking as well was too much!
  3. I would probably show the completed reformulation first or perhaps just show the students’ original drafts.  The students could then try to suggest improvements and corrections themselves first before having a corrected text imposed on them.  It was also remind the students of the order of the ideas in the essays they wrote (which I did not change in my reformulations).

Click here to read about the follow up

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2011 in FCE Tasks

 

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