The Fluency Dichotomy: Writing X Speaking

Writing samples - Creative Commons photo by Chuni (via Flickr)

Something has been puzzling me for a while… I teach mostly more advanced groups (B2 and on) and many of them have had experiences abroad – some have lived abroad, some have taken English courses abroad, some have been exchange students in English speaking countries, etc – so they’re quite fluent orally. I mean it, they speak very well (and not only the ones who have traveled abroad). But when it comes to their writing they just don’t seem to be able to keep up the same fluency. Of course I run into the exact opposite (students who write really well but have a hard time producing orally), but these are the exception.

I started noticing that in the writing assignments they handed in. Sometimes it seemed incredible that “that” essay full of communication breakdowns, poor punctuation, incorrect spelling and L1 dependent structures had been written by that student that spoke like a native speaker during our classes.

To corroborate my perception I have the results for the Michigan Language Certificates tests we offer at our school. I am the Michigan Test Manager and what I usually see when I receive the reports is a number of our students who have taken the test achieving top marks – High Pass – in most, if not all, the other parts of the test (oral interview, listening and GVR – Grammar, Vocabulary and Reading) and a Low Pass in writing. How can that be explained???? Isn’t fluency usually supposed to beall around? When students learn something and are able to use it comfortably in their speech wouldn’t it be natural to expect the same fluency level in writing?

I started looking for an answer… or at least trying to. I looked into their previous class records and comments from previous teachers; I talked to them; I compared writing assignments done in class to the ones I sent as a homework assignment. Something was very obvious: students who liked reading usually wrote very well – not exactly surprising eh? It was also very common for me to hear a student say: “I hate writing, it’s boring”. And then I started asking students abouthow they did when writing in Portuguese, and they said the results weren’t much better. I heard Portuguese teachers, professors at the universities complaining the same thing. It seems students are losing their ability to write cohesive, well-structured, effective texts (especially teenagers I dare say) in any language, not only English.

Is it a reflection of how little they read? Of how much time they spend on computers? At using web-search for their school projects and making use of the copy/paste dynamic duo? I am afraid so… it is like any other ability we acquire or develop in life – such as bike riding – if you don’t use that for a while your brain slowly forgets how to do it properly. And then again, have they ever learned how to write compositions? I tend to blame it much on technology, since I believe this is a more recent phenomenon. When I was in school most of us knew how to write. We had to read a long list of classic literature books, we had to research in books and big encyclopedias for school projects and write things with our own words – or else everyone would have the exact same text, since everyone has the same encyclopedias at home :-D

I’ve been working hard at improving my students’ writing skills, trying to come up with creative ideas of working with it, motivating so students don’t feel it’s that boring. I give special attention to building their vocabulary (I posted about some of these ideas before, the vocabulary bank and reviewing vocabulary); I work with sentence/paragraph structure; I do process writing; I give meaningful feedback. But so far, I have to admit I’ve had far fewer success cases than otherwise.

What’s your take on this? Do you have the same problem? Do you also think technology is (even if partially) to blame? Is there something we do? Would love to hear from other teachers. :-)

P.S. This post is the result of reflections post my presentation at IATEFL this year – on this topic, and on a webinar I’ll be presenting with some of the ideas I presented in Brighton, tomorrow, filling in for Shelly Terrell while she’s traveling. So I’m doing the American TESOL Free friday Webinar tomorrow, June 3rd, at 5PM Brasilia time (GMT-4). If you’re interested in taking part it’s free and you can access it here.

Reviewing Vocabulary

 

After a long hiatus – due mostly to problems with my internet connection at home – here I am again. I’ve been wanting to share these activities for some weeks now, ever since I did them in class, so what better time than now? There’s nothing much to them and probably many of you may have done them. But assuming other teachers are like me, and sometimes forget things and activities, the mind just goes blank once in a while (no matter how big our “pool” of ideas or experience may be), it doesn’t hurt putting these ideas out there and maybe helping someone who’s having a “teacher’s block” ;-).

 

As language teachers we all know that presenting words to a student is not enough to ensure he is going to learn that vocabulary. We have to help them see the context, use the vocabulary, show it again and again. These activities were used just for that – for bringing back vocabulary we’ve seen this semester and forcing students to fish them out of their brains.

 

Idea #1 – Reviewing parts of the body

My Teen 3 groups (made of 12 and 13-years olds) have seen parts of the body and we were going to have a lesson that they’d need that vocabulary again. Since I knew they had seen it before (more than once in previous semesters) I thought it’d be better to draw the vocabulary from them instead of proposing the vocabulary to be reviewed – this way I wouldn’t be limiting my students to the words I considered necessary revising. So I took blank slips of paper to class, split the students into groups of 3, gave each group a roll of masking tape, a marker and a handful of slips. Then I told them to pick one of the students to be the “model” and that they would have 5 minutes to write as many parts of the body as they could remember and stick them on the respective place on the model.

 

 

The models and their slips

 

They had a lot of fun during the activity – and we’re talking about students who have class at 8AM! It was the first activity of the class, to get them moving and out of their sleepiness. When time was up, the 4 models were lined in the front of the class and we checked the slips/parts of the body in each of them, checking if they were in the right place. With names that I know (or that I saw) the students had trouble with the spelling I would ask out loud how it was spelled and asked a student to write it on the board. The idea of letting them tell me the words they already knew worked out well. There were more parts of the body than I would have proposed, students learned words from their peers and there was an unexpected teaching opportunity. One of the groups had written “ass” and “boobs” (you never know what these kids are going to pick up from movies and songs these days!) on their slips – they had placed them correctly too ;-)! But I took that as an opportunity to say that yes, those were words used to describe those body parts but there were more appropriate ones. Surprisingly (??!!?) when elicited, nobody was able to tell me the appropriate way of calling those parts, so I taught them and wrote them on the board (bottom/butt and breasts – also eliciting the difference between breasts and chest).

 

 

Idea #2 – Parts of the Body part II

 

As a follow-up to the previous activity, the next class we had I started with another game. I took the words they had come up with on the first class, wrote them in bigger slips and stuck them on the board. I split the students into 3 groups, asked them to stand in 3 separate lines. I said out loud the use of a specific part of the body (i.e. We use this to taste, This is where thinking takes place, etc) and the first student in each line had to run and grab the slip that had the answer/correct body part written in it. Again, very energetic activity, good to wake them up for class and different from the usual “match-the-pictures-to-the-words”.

 

 

Idea #3 – Reviewing Vocabulary Seen in Texts

 

With my more advanced groups we use a lot of texts in class, all of them authentic texts (though after the Reading Challenge Course Marisa Constantinides gave I now know the activities in their great majority are not authentic!), and most times there’s a vocabulary activity. But we usually never see or work with those words again after the activity is done… So I started thinking what was the point? So I decided to review the vocabulary from the texts we had read after each unit is over. I have approached this in two different ways. For both activities I went back to the texts and made a list of the words. Then I wrote the words onto slips of paper and stuck them to the board (just like on the follow-up activity I described above).

 

 

 

Ready. Set. Go!

 

With one of the groups I gave them the definition of the word and they had to run and grab the correct slip. With the other I read a sentence using the words saying “bleeeep” where the word was – and then they had to run and grab the correct slip. In both cases I put a lot more words on the board than I asked for.

 

 

Students running for the words...

 

 

Idea #4 – Reviewing Vocabulary Seen in Texts part II

 

As a follow up to the previous activity, a couple of classes later I did another warm up with this vocabulary. I divided the class into 2 groups (there are not many students in these groups) and brought to class a powerpoint (you can see it here Warmer VOCAB HINT 2 March) where each group took turns in choosing a number from the first slide. Each number took them to a slide with a sentence using one of the words from the list/reviewed in the class I described above. This word was highlighted in the sentence. The group then had to propose a synonym, a word to substitute the highlighted word without changing the content/message of the sentence. After the group said the synonym the other group had to say whether it was adequate or not, and if not, which word would do the job. They really liked the activity and I think it was a good way to help them fix the vocabulary.

 

 

I plan on recalling vocabulary seen more often, more consistently from now on. And I hope you enjoyed these activities. If you think of any variation for them, please share! :-)


A Fun Lesson Reviewing Adjectives

What do you look for in a friend? In a romantic partner?

 

After I used the Valentine’s Day activities in my groups I decided it would be a good opportunity to have a follow-up lesson to review adjectives and descriptions. Since we had talked about Valentine’s Day, the people we loved, etc it would be easy to link that lesson to one where we talked about what attracted us in people – and what put us off. It worked really well with my students, so I thought I’d share it here:-). I know this lesson might not work with certain age groups or cultural backgrounds. but you can use just part of it, or adapt to your students. Feel free – and share!

 

When the class started I distributed some papers (half of a blank paper), markers and tape, and told the students to tape the paper to their backs. Then I put on some music and asked them to go around writing one adjective they thought described that person. Wait, wait! Don’t start thinking the students don’t know each other that well, this won’t work. This activity works whether they’ve just met or if they’ve been studying together for a while – different outcomes, but everything works. After they have all written on each other’s papers, before I let them take the papers down to see what their friends wrote about them I ask them to say one adjective they think describe themselves. If the students start complaining it’s hard to choose just one, tell them yes, it’s hard (“So is life!” I usually say playfully to my students), but it doesn’t mean they’re just that, but that that characteristic is a predominant one in their personality.

 

Then I tell them to take the paper off their backs and look at the words the other students used to describe them. Then, into trios I have them share their views on if they see themselves the same way others saw them, possible reasons for any differences, etc… Then a quick general accountability with the whole group, asking 2 or 3 students at random about it. I usually spend some time with them reflecting upon the image we have of ourselves and the one we project, etc…

 

After that, I ask them to share what is one characteristic that attracts them in people from the opposite sex. Since the previous activity will have gotten mostly personality adjectives (and to be honest everyone always answer this with a personality trait first, maybe to show they’re not superficial ;-)) it’s very likely that’s what you’ll get as answers. Let them talk, ask them to elaborate a bit if you have an angle (Funny? Why is that? What is a funny person to you? etc). In my group, that’s what happened, to what (after everyone had spoken) I joked by saying “Ok, I’m very proud all my students are such “evolved” people who don’t care about appearances, but let’s be a bit superficial here, because usually it’s something physical that first attracts you to someone. What catches your attention - as far as physical characteristics go? I got a lot of “the smile”, “the eyes”, “the height”… We did a little brainstorm on famous people they considered attractive, and on those they knew weren’t examples of physical beauty but still had something that made them attractive. Then I say they’ve probably talked about this (what they find attractive in people) many times before, and that today we’d take a different turn. Finally I give them the worksheet and take it from there.

 

My class (a fluent group of people between 20 and 40 years old men and women) had a great time with this lesson, laughing, making comments and asking each other questions related to the topic. This was on our 4th class, and only two of them knew each other before the term started – they’re brothers. so, I hope you enjoy it too. If you use it (and feel free to change it in any way you need to adapt to your groups) I’d love to hear how it went. We all know how receiving feedback is important ;-) Here’s the worksheet:

The Laws of UNattractiveness

I Propose a Vocabulary Bank – Another Challenge!

 
How do YOU teach / learn new words?

 

Emma Herrod has one of my favorite blogs to follow. She’s very objective, filled with great ideas for activities and insightful reflections on teaching.  A couple of weeks ago Emma proposed a challenge, a Vocabulary Blogging Challenge to be more exact. In short, she asked us to share some ways we approach vocabulary teaching in class, intending to compile a list of great ideas that everyone could use to spice up their vocabulary teaching. those who have read other posts on my blog – or know me on twitter – should remember my difficulty in declining a good challenge. So here I am!

 

Well, there are so many ways I teach vocabulary to my students! I don’t think I can even remember all of them. But two activities were a bit more successful recently and they’re the ones I’ll share for this challenge. The first one is something I do with all my High Intermediate groups and it had a curious and unexpected development this semester. It’s the Vocabulary Bank.

 

 The idea is that I give the group 30 words throughout the semester, 1 per class (there are 36 classes in a semester in my school), add to the poster and leave them there. The students have to use at least 10 different words from the list - their choice of which word, how to use it and when – before the semester is over. My intention is that students are forced to use new words authentically, that they develop the skills of knowing when to use vocabulary they are exposed to appropriately. I think we all agree that just presenting new vocabulary to students does very little for the actual acquisition of that vocabulary. The student needs to see the words in context, being used and they have to use it themselves, to really learn it.

 

 

They can use the words they choose in either speaking or writing. I ask them to underline or highlight the word when they do it in writing, to make sure their use of the word doesn’t go unnoticed by me when I correct the writing – and therefore don’t record it in the vocab bank use log. When they use it while speaking, if I miss it, either their classmates or themselves call my attention to it. Although I have to admit I can’t remember not noticing the use in class. And it’s always a big hit among them. At the High Intermediate track the students are quite fluent, with a considerable vocabulary already. So I choose less common words most times, from books or articles I read, from vocabulary lists made for those who are studying for language tests (such as TOEFL, IELTS, etc). Sometimes a student proposes a word he has come across and believe it fit for the bank. There’s no rule for the choice of the words that go into the bank, really. Sometimes it’s just because I saw it being used beautifully :-)

 

How do I present these words? To tell you the truth, after I explain the “project” in the first day of class, and do it for a couple of classes after that, the students are the ones who ask for the new word as soon as they come into the classroom. (Who says students aren’t eager to learn??). But in those first classes – or when they don’t ask – I try to vary the way I present the words. Sometimes I am traditional and just add the word to the list, other I use it in a sentence I ask them – knowing only too well at least one of them will raise their hand and say “Teacher what does THAT mean?”, it varies. Then after they see the new word, I ask if any of them has ever heard it or know what it means. If they do, they give a definition for it and then I ask if anybody can use it in a sentence. If they’ve never heard it I try to elicit from them what function the word has (Is it a verb? An adjective? An adverb? Why do you think so?), if they think the word has a positive or negative connotation and why they think that way.

This semester's Vocabulary Bank Poster

 

 

The best thing about this ongoing project is to see the students using the words, adding them to their vocabulary, having fun while doing it, motivating each other to use, cheering each other when a friend uses one of the words. Or when a student comes to class and says he/she saw the word being used in a film, book or in the internet. And we even created a game with the vocab bank this semester – which was a fun class, with students fired up and using language (and the words!) to negotiate.

 

 

The second idea I’m sharing here can be used with many levels and groups. I play a little game as a warmer with my groups sometimes, to help students establish relationships between words that have the same root and to expand their vocabulary with words the students themselves have in their repertoire. The students sit in a circle and I start by writing one or more words on the center of the board. Then I hand the marker to one of the students and he/she has to go to the board and add a word that has the same root of one of the words, making a word web. For example, if the initial word is photo, students can come up with photographer, photograph, photographic, photogenic, etc). The first students hands the marker to the next one and it goes on until nobody can add another word to the webs on the board. It a simple, easy activity, and the teacher can choose the initial words according to what is being / has been taught in class.

 

On a final note, I’d just like to mention a vocabulary game that I keep at hand. I have a Boggle in my cabinet, in the classroom. And I use it in many ways:  as a filler for those final minutes of class when you have done everything you set out to; as a fun activity to unwind after a more boring class; when students ask for it (some of them become quite hooked on it, as you can see on the picture below :-)) or as a warmer, in the beginning of class. I usually have them sit in a circle around the boggle and when the time is up, the students take turns saying the words they came up with. They have to know the meaning of all the words they say, and sometimes I ask them to say what it means. Most times we do it as a competition, with students earning points for every word they come up with – only words with 3 or more letters (for the points we have a system that awards 1 point for a 3-letter word, 2 points for a 4-letter word, 3 for a 5-letter word and so on). It’s a great game to have at hand!

Me and my High Intermediate 4 students with their favorite word game!

 

 

As usual, I’d love to hear your ideas. How you teach vocabulary. And I can bet Emma would happily include any other ideas to her challenge! :-)