Saturday, 25 January 2014

Words on grammar...

There are many differences between ESL Literacy and mainstream ESL. One of them is that majority of ESL literacy learners do not have any previous grammar learning experience to build on. This certainly poses a number of difficulties and questions in grammar instruction to learners with interrupted or no formal education. Two questions that particularly have interested me is WHEN and HOW to teach grammar in the ESL literacy class?

According to Tricia Hedge, the timing and practice of the grammar acquisition is influenced by the idea that the 'intake and eventual automatization will only occur as and when students are ready'. It is also said that the 'premature practice can actually confuse rather than facilitate the intake of grammatical features'. Therefore, I personally support the arguments such as in Ellis in favour of 'delaying the teaching of grammar until learners have developed a basic communicative ability'.

While working with the ESL literacy learners and observing teacher trainees in my program, I have noticed what works and what doesn’t in grammar teaching. It is a fact that explicit grammar instruction is not something that Literacy teachers should begin with. I think that the best way to approach grammar  in this context is to start with developing learners’ ability to notice language features in written or spoken texts, in other words, gradually build their language awareness. I am usually very optimistic about  my learners’ potential to notice some similarities, differences and salient features of the language while reading as I believe that we are born with the natural ability to acquire grammar.

So this is how grammar discovery (at least an adaptation of it) looks like in our classroom. While learning to read, learners are exposed to a great deal of comprehensible input which, according to Stephen Krashen's hypotheses, is responsible for both fluency and accuracy. Although I am a huge believer in Krashen's theories about 'comprehensible input i+1', I do not support DE-emphasizing 'explicit learning of rules'. When the students develop the basic communicative ability and show the first signs of readiness to learn grammar, I proceed with the grammar discovery approach and top it up with the explicit teaching. I consider a good practice to provide additional explicit explanation of the grammar rules to reinforce the acquisition and benefit those who were not able to comprehend the form from the task.

Another question here is how the teacher knows that the learners are ready to acquire grammar. I know that this is a good time to proceed with grammar when students start noticing particular language features. For example, they notice and point out that 'he' refers to male gender, 'she' is used with female gender and 'they' refers to both in plural, or students start pointing out and asking each other about the difference in “I go...” and “she goes”, etc. As soon as tit happens, I design tasks focused on the form noticed by the learners. Usually it is a one page hand-out based on the story that we have been reading in class and focused on a particular language feature. Here you can see some examples. I also try to provide an opportunity for learners to revise grammar during hours in the computer lab. I used a combination of Quizlet flashcards for studying and Google forms for production. Some examples can be seen here: Possessive Nouns; Am, is, are; Personal Pronouns. All students enjoy the flashcards and learn from them in different ways (this is an advantage of the computer class; they can learn at their own pace and in their own ways). Certainly, not all of them are able to fill in the forms (the advanced can), but we are are working on it.

I think that grammar discovery approach is not only appropriate but also useful for beginners. Provided that the learners are ready, they will be able to compare or contrast different structures, notice the difference and similarities and come up with a grammar rule by themselves. I believe that ESL Literacy learners need to start reading to learn as soon as they start learning to read.

More ideas regarding some techniques that I have been using in class are in pictures below. These are just some ideas that can be used with a variety of topics. Let your imagination go wild!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

A Sleeping Beauty or Needs Analysis with the ESL Literacy Learners

As you probably know, I teach ESL literacy and low beginner class in Toronto. Not long ago, I taught at two very different programs: a TESL class for foreign university students who came to Toronto for one year (I would call it advanced academic) and an ESL Literacy. Needs Assessment was very different at these two levels. At the advanced level, I performed an ongoing needs assessment and self evaluation with some pauses for reflection every six weeks. In general I wish to think of myself as a teacher who encourages and boosts self-reflection and metacognition in the classroom. The first day of class always started with discussions, on a friendly note students were prompted to share some background information about their previous studies, experience and why they chose the program. They also were often asked to close their eyes and describe a perfect classroom situation. Then, followed a more formal part where students were invited to think about five goals they wanted to achieve in the following six weeks. They usually had to do it on their smart phones using an app (Evernote) that could be easily shared with the teacher. After the goals were set up, students were asked to think about what they needed to do to achieve these goals and then record their responses using the same app. I was able to see their written goals and listen to their responses on how they thought they were going to achieve those goals and make some notes regarding their writing and speaking difficulties as well as learning needs and styles. Every week, usually on Fridays, students were given half an hour to work on their journals (we used Google Docs, again they shared them with me so I could easily comment on their work). In their journals they had to talk about class experience, the things that they learned and how they did it.  After six weeks, learners had to complete a written assignment (usually 6 questions) entirely based on their performance in class (I'd like to note that this was actually used as their midterm or final evaluation). They were asked to review the notes in their journals. Some of the questions were:
What was the most valuable unit learned in class and why? What was new for you? What was challenging? Name one moment you were proud of yourself? Name one instance you felt frustrated? What could have you done better? What are your goals for the next 6 weeks and so on...
I taught at this program for three years and consistently used this approach to communicate with the students regarding their needs. Considering that learners came from a culture where they did not find it possible to speak freely about what they liked or disliked in class and teaching, it greatly enhanced the classroom management, class rapport and our (my and the learners') understanding of what learning and teaching involved.
However, in my Literacy class things are very different regarding the NA. I have to say I do not like questionnaires. I tried to use one that I found somewhere in a book and as a result all my level 1 students answered yes to all the questions. Of course, they thought they did not know anything and wanted to learn about everything. I did not see much use in that. So I decided to utilize a co-worker who spoke the same language with the majority of my ESL Literacy learners to help them complete a similar NA in their language. No luck either. The majority of learners did not have previous educational experience and simply could not answer those questions in their own language. Of course, how would they know?! They needed training to be able to do it. So, the NA in my Literacy class has been sleeping for a while now . I based my planning primarily on my understanding of Canadian society and its requirements to fully engage in life here, my own experience as a Canadian immigrant and also the observations about the students. I was thinking that now in January, when we are doing our report cards with students, would be perfect timing to give it another shot. Therefore, I designed these two tools to use in class: ‘Needs Assessment’ and ‘My Week in Class’. I think that now in the middle of the term, majority of the learners will be able to understand  the NA and complete it with a bit of help. They will also enjoy reading and re-reading it. The second tool,  MWIC, will take time to implement. For weeks and maybe months, students will need a lot of help and guidance, but provided a consistent approach, I am sure some of them will master it and will be able to assist their classmates. Let's see!

Learners are working in pairs on their Needs Assessment reading activity:

Learners are labelling the pictures to aid retention and enhance reading fluency:

I’d love to hear from YOU. How do you do Needs Assessment in your classroom?

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Using technology in the language classroom

On January 18th, 2014, TESL Toronto presents 'Technology for Teachers' - a one-day mini conference featuring a line-up of great workshops to help ESL practitioners embrace technology in language teaching and learning. While the spots are filling in extremely quickly, there are still some spaces available. If you haven't registered yet, it's time to HURRY UP to be able to attend the event. The conference brochure is available at TESL Toronto's website to download. Click HERE. 

As an introduction to my workshop at T4T - "Teacher friendly tools for blended learning in the LINC classroom" - I'd like to publish a phone conversation I had with Rob McBride, the Project Leader at LearnIT2teach, about the role of technology in ESL Literacy instruction. Check out LearnIT2teach podcast page to listen to a series of fantastic interviews with ESL professionals about their experiences in teaching with technology. Click HERE to access the PODCAST page.

This is a transcript of my phone interview with Rob McBride, project manager at LearnIT2teach.
Q 1: Can you tell me a bit about your teaching? How long have you been in ESL and what kind of teaching do you do?

A. 1. I have been teaching adult ESL for 9 years. 3 years ago I started working with the ESL literacy students. Little did I know that my practices would change forever. Since then my teaching has evolved: it has become more student-driven, I wish to think - more creative, and more authentic. I have been motivated by finding solutions to the classroom challenges and providing more learning opportunities for the students. I have never stopped learning myself and have also started educating other teachers about ESL literacy principles of instruction by mentoring TESL students, blogging, tweeting and presenting...

Q. 2. Teaching ESL Literacy, what are some of the special difficulties of that?
A. 2. Majority of students that arrive in the ESL Literacy classroom are learners with the interrupted formal education or no formal education at all. In the context of the classroom this means that these students lack those critical learning strategies and this hugely affects their ability to succeed in the mainstream ESL classroom. Developing learning strategies and metacognition can be a very lengthy process. Without some feasible practices in place ESL literacy instruction can be very frustrating for both: teachers and  learners.

Q. 3. What role do you see for technology in teaching Literacy? Is it a helper?
A. 3.  Technology is a great tool in a teacher's hands. While working with some educational technology at the ESL literacy level I have been able to observe how beneficial it is for my class. There are multiple advantages for the learners who are developing their initial reading skills. They can work on their own pace, fully participate in all the activities, develop their learning autonomy, choose from a variety of exercises addressed to different learning styles, read interactively, learn in a safe environment and work with the students-generated content. ( such as (1) individualized instruction, (2) encouraging full participation, (3) developing learner autonomy, (4) addressing different learning styles, (5) encouraging active reading, (6) creating safe learning environment, (7) generating student-driven content. )

Q. 4. Were you able to find online ESL Literacy materials to use in your program?
A. 4. Yes and no. In the beginning, I though that there isn’t anything that can be used for adult ESL literacy instruction, but, along the way, I discovered  some outstanding online resources.  By the way, All of them are listed on my course with a short description. The problem with the resources is that they are very  limited, and, as you know, the majority of them are designed for early literacy and aren't practical in an ESL literacy classroom where adult students need English for their survival in Canada. I did use children's literacy resources but with a different approach. I have been motivating students in my class to enjoy those games, videos and songs together with their little ones at home. Once accomplished, this is a great way to learn English while bonding with children.

Q. 5. What motivated you to create your own blended online course?
A. 5. I started working on designing a blended online course for my ESL literacy class more of the classroom management considerations and the need to provide extra learning opportunities and practice for students with reading difficulties. I started with the idea of creating an online support for the classroom curriculum. ESL literacy classes, especially in the computer room, can be very difficult to manage, looking up resources online can take a very long time, therefore I wanted to create an online space where I could have all the resources in place that can be easily accessed and transferable from classroom instruction to self-study at home.

Q. 6 What motivated you to do the LearnIT2teach training?
A. 6. First time I learned about the LearnIT2teach project was at the TESL Toronto conference in May 2011. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to grow professionally and develop my teaching skills at a new level. I was thrilled with the idea of being able to create my own online activities.
It was free and I could do it in my own time (I will be honest with you, the majority if the assignments I completed when my family was asleep). Indeed, this training has opened many doors for me professionally and socially. I am so grateful to my mentors who have provided the training and support way beyond and above all my expectations. A special thank you to one and only John Allan!!!

Q. 7. What is Ms. Lana’s Literacy?

A. 7. Ms. Lana's Literacy is a free open source blended online course that I have been creating for my ESL literacy learners. It targets at all four language skills with a special focus on developing initial reading skills in adult ESL students with reading and learning difficulties. I used Blogger as a platform for my course to make it easily accessible by ESL literacy learners in the computer lab and at home with their children. The activities on the course reflect the needs, interests and language that emerge in my literacy classroom. It is open for anybody and I am constantly updating it with new links and activities.

#LINCchat turns two!

2 years ago today, @nathanghall & I facilitated our 1st #LINCchat . Since then, it’s become an important part of my professional learni...