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.

Nudgework

With my teacherly black robes in mind, I’ve been giving my students a particular type of assignment recently that maximizes use of the teacher’s ability to give orders. This type of homework, which I think is worth exploring as a new teacher- and student-friendly homework paradigm, has a few qualities in common:

  • It places students in situations where input is likely.
  • It does so with directions that on the surface have little to do with language learning.
  • It involves minimal paperwork.
  • It requires little or no reporting or reflecting.

This kind of homework is ideal for low-intermediate students, particularly in a place like Southern California where it is very easy to spend one’s entire life surrounded by L1 speakers (of Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, or what have you), and a little nudge is all that might be needed to gain practically unlimited meaningful input or interaction. The goals are increasing input, building confidence, and setting up habits which will facilitate language learning throughout the students’ lives.

banking business checklist commerce

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As an example, one of my recent homework assignments requires students to get a tutor’s signature and then draw (not take) the tutor’s picture (our college offers a variety of tutoring services). There is nothing in the homework assignment that requires them to seek a specific lesson from the tutor or even to ask a question. The point of the homework is just to put the student in a situation (talking to a tutor face-to-face) where their instincts will lead them to inevitably have some kind of interaction, as well as give them the experience of having talked to a tutor and thus taking away some of their reticence to do so in the future.

This kind of homework tends to rely on human instincts to interact or to latch on to things that are interesting to them in any given situation to be effective for language learning. If a nudgework assignment is to “sit at a café for 30 minutes without your smartphone”, it’s very likely that their trip will include a conversation with a barista and incidental input from Auto Trader or Healthy Living magazines. It’s the kind of thing students could feasibly do anytime, but a directive from someone standing in front of the white board makes much more likely.

The downside is that input is simply likely with this type of assignment, not guaranteed. A much more straightforward language assignment, along the lines of “read this and then prove you read it with a detailed report”, makes input practically inescapable (and makes it much easier to talk about it as a class if everyone read the same thing). The downside of a traditional assignment is that the input will probably be of less interest to the students, and a large part of the time taken for the assignment will be devoted to proving to the teacher that the input happened rather than getting more input. Krashen isn’t the last word on these things anymore, but I still tend to think input is superior to reporting when it comes to moving the interlanguage ball forward.

In my teaching career, this nudgework idea evolved out of my Language Logs, which are a regular type of assignment I give that follow the format: “Find examples of grammar point X on the Internet or in real life. Copy and paste/post a photo on the discussion board and describe the grammatical form.” The Language Logs are still a regular part of all of my classes, but particularly in my lower intermediate classes, I wanted a kind of assignment that would facilitate more natural interaction/input and have less emphasis on metalinguistic analysis.

As a last perk, there isn’t much to grade.

input-reporting

The affective issues cliff

Some issues that exist in students’ lives affect their academic performance in ways that are unfair and impossible to ignore – kids and jobs are two massive time-sucks that interfere with schoolwork, but everything from mental illness to changing bus routes in the city mediate how well students do academically. Particularly at community colleges, which exist specifically to serve non-traditional students, teachers have a duty to incorporate some treatment of what we call “affective issues” such as anxiety, work or family obligations, or negative self-image into our courses. The duties can be written into law, as with mandated reporting of suspected abuse (a legal obligation) or simply commonly accepted but not required “best practices” such as accepting late work or generally making yourself available to meet with students outside of class. Then there are the students who don’t have anything that has been recognized as an “affective issue” but are clearly affected away from classwork and towards League of Legends, and not much in our training says we owe these students’ issues any particular redress at all.

In American healthcare, there exists a phenomenon known as the “Medicaid cliff”, which is an income threshold below which you are provided with cheap and reliable healthcare, and above which you are required to buy expensive, complicated private insurance. A lot of people decry the existence of this drop-off in public coverage even if they support Medicaid in principle (that principle being that people who cannot afford health insurance still deserve to live). The cliff comes about because our definition of “poverty” has to end somewhere, and once you’re out of poverty, the government no longer takes an active interest in how you afford to stay alive. Thus, you could have an income of 130% of the federal poverty line and qualify for single-payer health care in the form of Medicaid, or get a raise to 140% of the federal poverty line and suddenly have to buy a private health insurance plan with a $7500 deductible. Pass the magic line and you transform magically from a victim of forces beyond your control to an upstanding and responsible citizen.

Read on if my point isn’t obvious enough yet.

beach blue sky cliff clouds

Photo by Danne on Pexels.com

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Best class ever, except for gathering statistics

I just turned in grades for the summer intermediate skills class I had over the summer, and set out to compile some useful statistics just as in previous semesters. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t* say much… because the scores were too high. Every assignment category, from attendance to final exams, was higher than the same class in spring semester, sometimes by ridiculous amounts. For example:

Attendance

Spring 2018: 90.09%, standard deviation 12.9

Summer 2018: 95.85%, stdev 7.5
(including one student who was out of the country for 2 weeks in a row – otherwise it’d be 97.17% and stdev 3.97)

Homework

Spring 2018: 84.36%, stdev 14.0

Summer 2018: 96.19%, stdev 7.9

Grammar quizzes

Spring 2018: 83.9% stdev 15.5

Summer 2018: 87.95%, stdev 9.7

As the standard deviations imply, there wasn’t much spread between the highest- and lowest-performing students, and even less between the many varieties of average-performing students. This was basically a good thing – there is no upside to a large spread of homework scores for pedagogy or validity. It’s not as if my homework scores failed to validly** track some educational construct because everyone was doing uniformily well.

Summer classes have a lot of perks. They meet twice as often, 4 days instead of 2, letting you take 2 days out of the week for something like student presentations without creating a yawning 2-week gap between instructional days. The students are more dedicated – only 20% of my students in summer were taking any other classes. The class meetings are shorter too, which probably helped my students, about half of which worked. Of those who worked, 19% had morning shifts, 73% had afternoon shifts, 64% evening, and 30% night (between 10 PM and 5 AM). Despite these fairly high numbers, almost everyone did almost all the homework and did about equally well on projects, quizzes, and tests.

It’s a bit of a shame for data collection, because although I haven’t cracked the statistics textbook I was convinced to buy, I did start the term with a much more complete questionnaire on my students’ jobs, as you can see. In the end, presumably because of the narrow spread in grades overall, this yielded some correlations (evening shifts were most negatively correlated with final grades) but no significant differences between working and non-working students, even at p<0.05. Scores were too similar to yield differences among different types of students.

This didn’t confirm my big hypothesis, that working students are at an unfair disadvantage given that community colleges exist specifically to serve non-traditional college students. I have, however, narrowed my hypotheses for future work surveys a bit because “hours spent using English at work” was about as negatively correlated with final grades as “total weekly working hours” (-0.46 vs. -0.39). Next semester, I will have to compare hours of English use at work to overall hours of English use to see if working students have more opportunity for input and output, and if this is so, ask why this doesn’t yield significantly higher performance on at least some types of assignments. I can anecdotally see that students who use English at work benefit from doing so. I need to plan my classes so that this is reflected in their grades, or at least not reflected negatively.

If future classes continue to find a difference between working and non-working students irrespective of whether they use English at work, it may be that the type of competence fostered by having a service industry job where you use your L2 doesn’t outweigh the necessity of somewhat narrow means of assessment in an academic ESL class. For example, it’s inevitably my working students who have the most natural grasp of which modals can be used for formal and casual requests, offers, or requests for permission, but unless they can carve out time between the end of their shift and taking care of an elderly parent to show that grasp in an assignment, their homework scores won’t be commensurate with their abilities. The lens of assessment is only focused on students when they do assignments, not when they practice modals for hours at a time every day at work.

It may help make my classes more equitable in this regard if I minimize the amount of “assignment” they have to do to prove they’ve been getting input, while still being hard enough to fake to prevent cheating. I have a type of assignment that is aimed at dragging along as much real-world practice as possible for a minimum of “assignment”, which is sometimes very close to “go get some input, then check a box when you’re done”. An example is a book report where the students choose any graded reader from our library and then turn in a pretty perfunctory worksheet that they could probably do in 5 minutes. To me, this type of assignment is justified by 1) the high ratio of interlanguage-developing work to product, 2) the promotion of available outside resources, and 3) the high motivation levels of my intermediate students, which reduce the odds of cheating (also, the low grading time). If a similar assignment said “start 3 conversations and fill out a perfunctory report afterwards”, this could reward the time my working students spend talking without pandering specifically to them.

Maybe the future of all ESL homework is “get input, and prove you got it”. At least at the intermediate (i.e., not academic writing) level, this probably maximizes opportunities for interlanguage development while minimizing what are in my view the less valid aspects of the grading process.

input.gif

*”Data” is an uncountable noun, unless you are writing for an academic journal or have a mobile datum plan like Titus Andromedon’s that just comes with the one.

**Now that we’ve split the infinitive, the only question is whether we’ll be able to fuse it in a stable way and provide unlimited, grammatical energy for the entire world.