Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 2

Lower Intermediate Mixed Skills

This course is a bit of a chimera – ostensibly a pre-requisite for transfer-level writing, but in practice very similar to free adult education courses. Students are quite open about this, and the extraneousness of the course in light of the growing AESL program is part of the reason that it will no longer be offered in the fall (in addition to a law passed in CA mandating that community colleges move ESL students up to transfer level writing within 3 years). On the other hand, it’s the course that I’ve taught in at this school the longest, and I have a sentimental attachment to it. In light of that, it might not be all that useful to be combing over my curriculum for areas of potential improvement, but I still want to see what I did right and what I did wrong.

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Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 1

Advanced Academic Writing

This class is one level below transfer, which is kind of a big deal within ESL – students who pass this class are supposed to be able to hang with native-speaking teenagers in English 100 (Writing 1, English 1A, Humanities 101, or whatever your university calls it). This is the first time I’ve taught this class, and in doing my usual round of end-of-the-semester spreadsheets I’m mostly interested in what kinds of homework assignments predict overall grades, which in turn are (presumably) a good measure of English reading and writing ability. This will help me to choose assignments that are really worth doing to assign in the coming semesters and weight them appropriately.

It’s no surprise that in a writing class, writing assignments end up composing a large part of the final grade. But which writing assignments are the best predictors of the scores of all the others? To figure this out, I normalized each score (0 to 1, so some assignments don’t end up more predictive just because they were worth a lot of points), added them all up, and compared how much each individual one correlated with the total. The highest correlation is the assignment with the most predictive power for writing scores overall. This assignment turned out to be……….

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Corpus Family Feud

Since I started teaching community college ESL, I’ve set aside at least one class period in all my writing classes to teach students how to use COCA and the other BYU corpora, but I struggled for a long time to incorporate it in an intuitive way into my intermediate multi-skill classes. I think its utility is clear, but the interface (computer literacy can be a problem) and baseline metalinguistic knowledge necessary just to use it have thus far stopped me from making it a regular feature. I do, however, have one activity that uses corpora (either COCA or iWeb) that is reliably entertaining and useful for classes of any level. I call it Corpus Family Feud.

Like the real Family Feud (a TV game show, for those of you outside the US and non-fans of SNL), the point is for participants to guess the most common answers to a survey question. Unlike the real Family Feud, the questions are specifically concerned with language use, and the “survey” is of corpus data rather than 100 people randomly by phone.

Also like the real Family Feud, it’s the studio’s (i.e., the teacher’s) job to prepare the questions and collate the survey answers beforehand, and then reveal them to the participants after they have made guesses.

The basic steps are:

  1. Before class, prepare sentences with one or more blanks, and then find the most common words that fill those blanks according to corpus data. 3-5 total sentences for one session seems to be a good rule of thumb to keep interest high throughout the activity.
  2. Also before class, prepare a slideshow (I use Google Slides) that features the sentence with blanks, directions for what kinds of words go in the blanks, and the answers in list form. The answers should be set to be invisible when the slide loads and appear on subsequent clicks.
  3. During class time, announce that you are playing a game, and display the slide with the first sentence. Tell explicitly what kinds of words can be used to fill in the blank, and tell in general terms that you found the top 5 words that people actually use to fill in that blank in their real communication in the real world.
  4. Have students write down the top 5 words that they think fill that blank in the real world. Announce that they will get 1 point for each of their answers that is actually in the top 5. Tell them also that it doesn’t matter which order they put them in; they get 1 point for any answer that was in the top 5.
  5. After a few minutes, announce that you will start displaying the answers. Drum roll and display the first answer. Students will probably applaud, shriek, or say, “ohhhhh”. Remind them to keep track of how many points they have as you continue drum rolling and displaying the answers in sequence.
  6. After you’ve displayed every answer, ask the students who has 3 points, 4 points, or 5 points until you figure out who the winner is. Give the winner a piece of candy or some other gold star-equivalent. Repeat with the next sentence.

As a variation, you can choose 5 words in advance, display them when you display the sentence, and ask the students to put them in order. This allows you to choose words other than the true top 5 according to corpora (which are often boring words that nobody ever thinks of, like “be” or “doing”), but requires you to give points only for correct order of words rather than giving points for any word that appears in the actual list.

For example, let’s say your intermediate multi-skill class is covering gerunds (I mean “covering” as in it came up for one reason or another, whether as a front-loaded chapter of a synthetic syllabus or as focus on form after a task). You might decide on a few chunks where gerunds are commonly used, like “I enjoy ___” or “____ is important”. These would be the questions for your game. Your slides might look like this:

I really ought to make this look more game show-like…

I display the frequencies, but this is probably unnecessary. In the variation where you supply the words, it might look like this:

Where only the ranking and frequency numbers appear on click and the words are displayed from the beginning.

Other variations I have used in the past look like this:

There is almost literally no end to the kinds of phrases or grammar you can use to play this game. Besides an excuse to use corpora in a mid-level class, this helps turn what could be an abstract grammar lesson into one that respects chunking and the conventions, rather than just the rules, of language. Have fun!

Instances of class Noun

I sometimes find my background in computer science helpful for understanding language – ironically, since computer science often uses language as a metaphor for computing functions. One case where this is true is in understanding the various ways that nouns work in world languages and the difficulties that English learners face in adapting to our particular system.

Let’s say both our learner’s L1 and English both have a similar definition of a “tiger”:

public class Tiger {

//assume I put the necessary constructors etc. here

public static int eyes=2; //static because each Tiger has the same # of eyes

public static int legs=4;

public String name;

boolean hunt(Animal prey) {

//do something

return true;

}

}

ESL teachers can probably predict what would happen if this student were called upon to write an essay on these Tigers: lots of sentences like “Tiger is the largest cat in the world” or “Tiger does not live in Africa”. It is a mistake to conclude that this student doesn’t realize that there are many tigers in the world, not just one.

English forces you to declare an instance of class Tiger before you make any reference to its number of eyes or call its hunt() function.

Tiger a_tiger = new Tiger();  //declaring an instance of class Tiger

System.out.println(a_tiger.eyes);  //printing a_tiger’s number of eyes

I know – this isn’t good coding style. At least I can take comfort in the fact that not too many people are interested in both Java and semantics. Saved from criticism by my small audience!

Still, I hope you take my point about English nouns: they refer to instances, rather than classes, by default. We demand that references to Tigers in general need to be plural, because there are many instances of Tigers (I’m just going to keep capitalizing this word) in the world, or that they be marked and elevated with the definite article the, singling out one instance of Tiger to stand for the rest. Both of these are ways of signalling to listeners that we mean something other than actual instances of Tigers, although that is what their form implies. So in English, this would cause an error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

because you can’t refer to the class itself. As in the above examples, you need to (at least appear to) talk about actual Tigers, not just the abstract idea of one.

Meanwhile, in Japanese, the same line produces no error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

It just prints “2”, as one would expect, because Japanese, unlike English, treats nouns as class references by default, as do many other languages. In fact, you can talk quite a lot about classes in Japanese without making any implied reference to actual instances of those classes.

if (Tiger.legs == Human.legs) {

System.out.println(“それはおかしいでしょう”);

}

if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {

Human.run();

}

None of this requires us to posit that Tigers or Humans are even real. We can comfortably refer to them as classes and talk about those classes’ features, even imagining interactions between one class and another, without ever letting the wheels touch the ground, so to speak, on actual, flesh-and-blood Tigers.

This requirement of English for instantiation of nouns is unintuitive for many learners. Countable nouns in English must be referred to as if they were either solitary or in groups, a distinction which we call singular/plural, even when the distinction doesn’t matter (e.g. everybody has “their” own problems). There are uncountable nouns, of course, but as any learner who’s ever gone shopping for “furniture” or “equipment” can tell you, the rules for their deployment are not prima facie clear, nor are there reliable rules for making countable nouns uncountable or vice versa as communication requires (one can refer to breads to mean “many kinds of bread”, but not equipments to mean “many types of equipment”).

This is by no means universal, and our approaches to learners shouldn’t make the naïve assumption that mistakes in English countability or plurals indicate some kind of lack of comprehension that more than one Tiger exists in the world. In many languages, class reference is the default (or definite reference, which I was surprised to find is the case with Farsi), and even in the ones where it isn’t, not all share the particular plural/the cheat code for class reference found in English.

Different languages can treat “reality” differently, or sometimes just appear to. This is a major lesson from learning another language – even if that language is a programming language.

ESL Students’ Feared Selves

Part 3 of a 3-part series on possible selves (scroll down for parts 1 and 2).

If I’m being honest, these were the most fun to read, although as I stated before I can’t share any of them with you.

It’s not some kind of sadism that prompts me to say that: The descriptions in students’ responses to this final question were much more affective in content than the first two. Rather than lists of future colleges and jobs, here we had responses more along the lines of “I have no friends and I have a SAD SAD life”. Again, you can’t see them, but you can see what types of complaints were the most common, which should be just as fun. As in my last 2 posts, I combed over each entry looking for mentions of specific subjects. Because emotions were much more commonly mentioned for the feared self than for the other 2 selves, I tried sub-categorizing types of negative affect as well.

Below was the prompt, answered by my 2 multi-skill intermediate classes and 2 advanced academic writing classes over the past 2 semesters.

Imagine the worst version of you in 5 years (the opposite of the first). What happened to your English, and why didn’t you succeed? Give details. What is different in your life because you can’t use English?

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ESL Students’ Ought-to Selves

Part 2 of a 3-part series. In case you missed the last one:

As an end-of-semester assignment, I had my summer and fall classes (4 total; 2 intermediate multi-skill and 2 advanced academic writing) write about their ideal, ought-to, and feared selves. Besides being a recent buzzword in ELT, possible selves make an interesting writing assignment for both the teacher, who gets to find out his students’ motivations in a bit more detail, and the students, who get to describe their (hopeful) future lives. Now, in fairness to you, I should point out right at the start that I won’t be excerpting their writing here; I didn’t warn them that I’d be using this assignment for my blog and I am one of those teachers who doesn’t even share pictures with his students’ faces in them without asking each one of them individually. Instead of showing you what they actually wrote, I will be analyzing each of their answers for the prevalences of certain topics and concerns and then doing some basic statistics with these. As it turns out, this takes a lot longer.

My prompt for the ought-to selves section was:

“What can you, now, do every day to bring yourself closer to that future best version of you? What kind of things should you do? How should you ‘study’ or ‘practice’?”

Basically, I’m trying to get at how students think they should be behaving as ESL students – not what their goals are, but what the little ESL angel on their shoulder is telling them to do every day.

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ESL Students’ Ideal Selves

Part 1 of a 3-part series. As an end-of-semester assignment, I had my summer and fall classes (4 total; 2 intermediate multi-skill and 2 advanced academic writing) write about their ideal, ought-to, and feared selves. Besides being a recent buzzword in ELT, possible selves make an interesting writing assignment for both the teacher, who gets to find out his students’ motivations in a bit more detail, and the students, who get to describe their (hopeful) future lives. Now, in fairness to you, I should point out right at the start that I won’t be excerpting their writing here; I didn’t warn them that I’d be using this assignment for my blog and I am one of those teachers who doesn’t even share pictures with his students’ faces in them without asking each one of them individually. Instead of showing you what they actually wrote, I will be analyzing each of their answers for the prevalences of certain topics and concerns and then doing some basic statistics with these. As it turns out, this takes a lot longer.

This post will only deal with ideal selves, with ought-to selves and feared selves to come later. First, here is the prompt and example that they saw.

“For this discussion, please answer these questions in different posts:

  • Imagine it is 2023, and you have succeeded in English in the best way. What steps did you take to get here? How do you use English now (in 2023)?
  • What can you, now, do every day to bring yourself closer to that future best version of you? What kind of things should you do? How should you “study” or “practice”?
  • Imagine the worst version of you in 5 years (the opposite of the first). What happened to your English, and why didn’t you succeed? Give details. What is different in your life because you can’t use English?

Last, reply to a classmate in at least 3 sentences.

Example first post:

In 2023, I am a college graduate. I have transferred to UCI and graduated with a major in computer engineering. I used English in all of my classes to do homework, work on group projects, and give presentations. Computer engineering was still hard, but my English helped me a lot. It also helped me to make friends and find a job. Now, I work for Blizzard Software and I design graphics for upcoming games. I use English at work, of course, but I don’t think of it as ‘practice’ anymore. Now, it’s just life.”

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I had a TESOL Certificate student

Here’s a short “before I forget”-type post.

An administrator of the TESOL Program from the nearby large, public university reached out to a bunch of the ESL faculty at my college and asked if we’d like to host a TESOL Certificate student for his/her practicum. I volunteered to host one in my intermediate multi-skill course.

(Practicum is not a word we used in my MA program, possibly because almost all of us were already working in ESL/EFL.)

I first met the student in question at a café in town in October, and as it turned out, he is already a professor in another subject and has been teaching for decades, and just wants the TESOL Certificate for something to do after retirement. This shifted my idea of what would happen next from “I beneficently guide an idealistic neophyte teacher” to “I am judged by my pedagogical and academic betters and found wanting”.

During his observations, I managed to forget I was being “observed” and ran my classes more or less normally, even ad-libbing at least a few tasks. I find that I default to gregariousness in the classroom, and just get more ostentatiously relaxed when I know I’m being watched. I heard from the TESOL student after every lesson and apparently he was surprised by some of the things that we did. I was pleased with those lessons as well – if only they were all like those!

After 3 observations, it was his turn to teach, and he prepared 3 of his own lessons on prepositions, conjunctions, and phrasal verbs at my direction. The content of his lessons would fit pretty exactly into the frame we call PPP (present, practice, produce), sometimes with the last P dropped in favor of everyone reviewing answers together from the second P. He gave PowerPoints full of abstract example sentences and demonstrated usage with a bit of “realia”, trinkets brought from home. He handed out worksheets with closed-ended grammar questions and had people work in pairs and then solicited answers.

Needless to say, this was not a modern ELT lesson. It seemed remote, pre-packaged, of little clear relevance and definitely not “student-centered“, although it was delivered with a professional touch. But given everything I’ve said about “playing the teacher role” in the past, I should have been prepared for the students’ reaction: they really liked it. Or rather, the students who don’t generally like my TBLT- or Dogme-ish lessons, the ones I might in a darker moment call ritualists in the cult of failed methods, really liked it. Students who I would have put in the bottom 1/3 of my class responded the most positively. I didn’t hear much from the students I usually get a lot of participation from, but I did see people whose engagement in the class can be described as “tertiary” work quite hard to get their worksheets done and really demonstrate concern that their answers were correct.

I don’t want this to come off as “the TESOL student succeeded despite himself”. He is an experienced teacher who delivered a lesson that understandably didn’t conform to modern ELT expectations. He also improvised when he needed to and established good rapport with the students. The thing I’m reacting to here is just that a lesson that was so different from what I usually plan worked very well with a demographic that my lessons usually succeed less with.

There were other things I noticed about his lessons, most memorably that intentionally striking academic professorspeak like “it can be compared to”, “simultaneously”, or “as a generic term for” from one’s working vocabulary at the podium is a challenge – one that I remember facing at the beginning of my career back in Japan. But my main takeaway as a teacher is that this “playing the teacher role” is even more powerful than I thought. If we take a certain amount of educational ritualism (in the form of embrace of the abstract over the personal, the effete over the practical, the comprehensible over the true, etc.) for granted in certain numbers in each one of our ESL classes, it may really behoove us to spend at least some of every week pedantically explaining grammar at people, for affective reasons if nothing else.

Construct validity vs. a tight ship

I have a fantasy where I’m one of those hardass disciplinarian teachers, the kind whose students march in synchronized rows to the auditorium where I’m given some kind of award that these kinds of teachers always seem to get. While I’m standing at the podium of my real-life classroom daydreaming like this, one of my students turns in a piece of paper with a coffee stain on it after walking into class 40 minutes late, and while imperfect, the assignment shows clear development in language control and engagement. Suddenly, my “runs a tight ship” fantasy collides with my inner applied linguist, which naturally wants to reward development, even as my inner disciplinarian threatens to complain about me to my inner department head.

Being a strict teacher sometimes works against the construct validity of  grades. That is, enforcing one’s lateness, makeup, and assignment format policies drags the crosshairs of one’s grades away from “English ability” (however one defines that) and toward “not annoying the teacher by making them put out small fires all semester” or more charitably “being a responsible person in general”.

This problem comes to vex me when I’m looking at a well-written paper turned in 30 minutes late without a cover sheet or a proper MLA header. Is the difference between A and C supposed to be the ability to follow abstract rules in principle? Where is that in the course outline, or to take a wider perspective, in any definition of linguistic competence?

I honestly can’t imagine a class where this (taking points away for non-language-related violations) doesn’t happen at all – and I can imagine my colleagues’ frowns of consternation that I would even consider loosening late work policies in favor of some persnickety notion of validity we all last heard about in our MA programs – but I’ve noticed a trend in my work recently of lots of points hinging on things like “finding parking before class” or “understanding the difference between submitting in Google Classroom and submitting on Canvas” which I don’t remember being a prominent part of any theory of SLA. After all, I do have more eggs in the basket of “effective pedagogue” than “well-oiled adjunct faculty cog”.

Below is a partial list of things that have been at times worth more points in my classes than any variety of English competence, hidden point-stealers from beyond the realm of language ability:

  •  “Please read and follow the directions for this assignment” Actually, “being able to read an assignment” is clearly part of the competence that should be tested in an academic English class – but assignmentese tends to have its own idiom and in my view needs to be taught explicitly as its own topic. Ditto for lines like “work must be accomplished without external assistance beyond what is available to all students in the language lab” in the syllabus.
  • “Please turn this assignment in on time” There is a clear relationship between accomplishing a specific language-related task within a time limit and linguistic competence. That said, I don’t think that extends to assignments that took all weekend and are being turned in 15 minutes late on Monday morning.
  • “If you don’t understand the directions, email me instead of waiting for the due date to ask a question in person” There is an unhealthy tendency to run all competences in ESL through the bottleneck of writing on computers, but I don’t really see a way around this particular issue. After a sour experience with a student who abused the ability to contact me, I don’t give students any other ways to reach out.
  • “Write your name” I do give points for people who forgot to write their names after I ask the class who this mysterious person named “Essay 2” is, but I definitely also give them a hard time about it. Some teachers don’t give points for work that is not gradable on time for any reason, and I certainly empathize. Not writing your name is essentially hijacking a few minutes of class time and precious mental resources of the teacher’s that could be going toward his seldom-read blog.
  • “Have friends that you can ask for help for days that you were absent” Given that Canvas, while equally available to everyone and therefore “fair”, is nonetheless intimidating to the point of inaccessibility for some low-intermediate ESL students, a lot of assignments’ scores depend instead on having a friend who will collect homework sheets for you, explain them for you, and sometimes turn them in for you. If you don’t use Canvas and don’t have friends like this in class, your competence as reflected in grades will drop.

Parts of this list make me react the same way my colleagues probably would: “You can’t seriously be talking about accepting…” or “Well, SOME teachers may not want their students to be responsible, but in MY classes…” and I understand this. I just want to point out that being responsible isn’t one of the areas of linguistic competence we all learned in grad school.