Tag Archives: second language writing

Quick and easy teaching tips for beginning language learners

I’m taking Thai 101 this semester and am keeping a private language learner diary. What I’ve realized through writing is that the class is essentially following a grammar-translation syllabus. We are learning random words and using them almost entirely to complete grammar exercises (in the half of the class that is meant for oral communication) and written translations (in the half of the class that is meant for literacy). I know nothing about Thai. That’s why I’m taking the class. But I do know quite a lot about language teaching, and I know this approach is not helping most of us progress towards a goal of being able to communicate in the language.

Last week I got so frustrated with how the class was going that I started brainstorming simple ways that the teachers could make the class more interactive and more productive for us as learners. I looked through several language teacher resource books I have collected over the years and found even more great activities. I wrote up a list and sent it to my teachers. One teacher wrote back and essentially told me that we would do these things next semester because this semester she can’t allow us to talk with each other for fear of making a mistake. (I intend to write more–a lot more–about this later. Stay tuned!)

Since my Thai teachers weren’t receptive to my ideas, I hope someone out there in the interwebs will appreciate this list.

For reading and writing

  1. Manipulatives. Give us cards with the words that we have covered so far (maybe color coded by part of speech–verb, noun, question word, etc.) and let us play around making sentences. We can start by making simple sentences (2-3 cards) and then add to it.
  2. Writing on the board. One student writes a couple words on the board in a sentence. then another student comes up and adds a word to the sentence where it fits. We keep building the sentence (even if it is silly) until we can’t add more.
  3. Which doesn’t belong? Give us four cards, where three of the words are related (for example, uncle, grandchild, child) and the fourth is not (maybe a food word). We have to read all the words and choose the one that doesn’t fit.
  4. Spelling race. Two groups of students each get a complete set of letter cards. The teacher calls out a word and the teams race to see who can find the right letters to make the word faster. Or the teams could write on the board.
  5. Strip story. The teacher prepares a story of 5-10 sentences and prints the story so that each sentence is on a separate line. Cut the strips apart and mix them up. Students have to read the sentences and put them in the appropriate order. This would be good to do with partners so the partners can discuss what the best order is.

For oral language

  1. Review families of vocabulary words. As a class, we can brainstorm (and write on the board) all the words we have learned for a group of related words, such as office supplies, stores, places, etc. Then we can practice asking and answering questions specifically about a single family of words.
  2. Dialogues substitution drills. For a single structure, we can practice a short conversation (two students asking and answering questions). Then we can substitute just a few words and practice the same dialogue with the new words. Let pairs of students practice together instead of going around the room so we get more chance to practice speaking.
  3. Draw a picture. For listening comprehension, the teacher reads a short description or dialog and the students draw a picture of what they hear. Or one student could describe a person or a scene to a partner who draws what he hears.
  4. Role play. Have pairs of students play roles (store clerk and customer, waiter and diner) and make up dialogues to act out.
  5. Opinion polls. Each student asks a different question of all the other students (for ex, What food do you like? Where do you come from? Do you go to the beach often?) and keeps a record of their answers. Then the person who asked the question gives a report to the class (2 students like Chinese food. 4 like Mexican food.).
  6. Guessing game. The teacher has a picture of an object or activity that she keeps hidden from the class. Students ask questions (What color is it? Do you eat it?); the teacher answers. Students then try to guess what the object is with yes/no questions. Then a student can choose a picture and others can ask him/her questions.
  7. Same or different? Students sit facing a partner. Each person gets a picture card with a scene (a picture of students sitting in the classroom; people eating at a restaurant–pictures that have a lot of detail). Some pairs have the same picture and other pairs have different pictures. The students have to ask each other yes/no questions about their pictures to figure out if they have the same picture.
  8. Planning a weekend trip. Students work in pairs or groups of three to make plans for a vacation for the whole class. They need to choose where they will go and what they will do there. Then each group presents their ideas to the class and tries to convince the other students to choose their plan. The class can vote on the best proposal.
  9. Question and answer cards. The teacher prepares a set of cards with questions and another set of cards with answers to those questions (could have more than one answer to the same question). Students get one question card and at least one answer card. They have to ask their classmates their question and try to find who has the answer to their card, while also answering questions from other students.
  10. Telephone messages. Give each student a telephone number. Students act out calling another student and leaving a voice message with the phone number to call back.

In case you’re wondering what these great books are, here’s a bibliography:

Adams, N., & Childs, L. (1981). Word sponges: Enriching ways to soak up spare moments. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications.

Klippel, F. (1984). Keep talking: Communicative fluency activities for language teaching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P. (1988). Grammar practice activities: A practical guide for teachers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P., & Wright, A. (1992). Five-minute activities: A resource book of short activities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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Teaching Writing Online

I teach writing and I teacher teachers to teach writing. One thing we talk about in my pedagogy classes is how theories of teaching writing have changed over the years. In the old days, writing was just something students did at home to prove that they were able to write (ie, it didn’t matter how they got to the final product, as long as there was a final product to grade). Then process writing expressionism came into vogue, and teachers encouraged their students to get in touch with their feelings and express them (hence the name) through flowery essays and poems and freewriting. This was writing for the self, not for others. More recently, writing instruction has become more pragmatic, with the realization that students do need to write for others, namely their teachers and professors, but that we need to give them some support in getting from nothing to the final product.

Process writing pedagogy takes into account the idea that writing does not emerge fully formed from the writer’s pen (or keyboard) but that instead it develops in fits and starts as the writer wrestles with ideas, organization, and wording. Good writing teachers will help their students understand that this is a messy process and that it does not follow a clear, linear path. There are no formulas that can be followed or blanks to fill in. Academic writing, however, does follow culturally accepted forms–genres–and uses socially expected types of language–registers–within those genres. Some approaches to teaching second language academic writing explicitly focus on developing students’ ability to recognize and produce registers and genres that are valued in academic practice.

Too often, however, we forget one key part of the writing process: the modality in which we are creating texts. School writing is frequently done in pen on paper. In the high school where I observed writing classes, this was because the school only had two computer labs for 1500 students, most of whom did not have a computer at home. One of the teachers I observed made a point of reserving the computer lab at the end of a writing unit, so that the students could type their final drafts. The problem with this approach is that the students learned to see computers as merely a typewriter, something to make an already polished piece of text look nicer. All the drafting and revision took place on paper, with students copying text from one draft to the next. Few of the students I observed did much revision between drafts beyond surface level corrections to spelling and punctuation. In the college writing classes I’ve taught, I have seen my students unaware of how to change line spacing from single to double. When they submit electronic versions of their papers, I discover that they have been hitting return twice at the end of every line. I do not know if this practice, too, stems from earlier experiences of using computers as typewriters, but whatever the source, it makes me think that we need to include media literacy in writing instruction for students of all ages.

I’ve been thinking about how I would go about teaching a second language writing course online. To some extent, a writing course seems like a natural fit, given that modern students do all their writing online anyway and text-based communication is the most straightforward way of integrating instruction and feedback in an online platform. There are already valuable resources available free online, such as Writing Commons, an open-source textbook with vast options for teachers and learners. Discussion boards and blogs allow students to interact through writing, which seems like a great way to extend writing practice from just a focus on product. Tools like Microsoft Word’s Track Changes allow commentary on written texts, and wikis and Google docs are perfect for collaborative writing projects.

My concern is that having a writing course entirely online would lose the human touch that I have found essential to supporting second language writers. My students have rarely been confident about their writing. Most of them placed into my classes because they “failed” a placement test and were told they didn’t measure up to acceptable college level writers. So a big part of my teaching in the first weeks of the semester is helping students build up their confidence and think of themselves as writers who are worthy of being in college. We talk a lot, and I have students do activities in groups to get to know their classmates. I know much of this interaction could be set up in an online format, but I feel like there would be something missing–maybe that opportunity for a quick wink and a smile at a student who is surprised at his accomplishment, or the chance to bring in cookies on the day of the first timed in-class essay, to give the class something to sustain them through the stress. I like being able to walk around the room and look over students’ shoulders as they discuss meaningful issues, and I like giving them little insights into my own experiences as a college student and language learner.

I think a lot of my own experience developing as a writer (and I am most certainly still developing) is the personal connections I’ve made with colleagues and friends in writing groups over the years. Much of our learning came through unstructured interactions over sandwiches or beer, where we discussed the papers we were working on or the ideas we were struggling to explain. Sometimes those discussions ended with someone in tears or laughing out loud. Some of these discussions have been as beneficial to the other participants as they are to the writer. One of my writing groups now meets over a phone conference every week, exchanging drafts with comments via email, but I don’t think we would have been able to build as much of a trusting bond if we had not started out having drinks together at a pub in Oxford two years ago.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to say that I really want to figure out how to make an online writing environment as warm and supportive as it is possible to make a classroom that meets in person. Having used platforms like Adobe Connect in my past teaching of other classes, I think it is essential to have means like these to make sure that synchronous interactions are able as much as possible to replicate the live classroom atmosphere. I would not want to teach an entirely asynchronous course, where the only way students could see me was via prerecorded videos, and the only way I would get to know them was through typed messages in discussion boards. As new technologies advance and become more ubiquitous, I hope we are able to make these links affordable and practical.

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Filed under Teaching Online, Teaching Writing