What do Martial Arts and Language Learning Have in Common?

I step out of class dripping with sweat. My body is shaking and sore. Thirst fills my mouth. Walking into the cold night air is rejuvenating compared to the hot room I was just in. No, it’s not a language class. And no, I’m not the teacher. I’m talking about an average night at my mixed martial arts (MMA) gym.

On my drive home, while I’m mentally rehearsing hard crosses and switching from kimura to guillotine, it dawns on me that the teaching style of the gym seems very familiar. On a typical night after warming up, a technique is demonstrated to us, then we practice it slowly with a partner, increasing speed and power as we go along. The coaches answer questions and offers tweaks or tips. Our partners work with us gently, allowing us to get the form down. Towards the end of the night, we add resistance and something that simulates a more realistic – yet safe and friendly – match as we try to tackle or submit each other.

Make no mistake about it, this is PPP. It is explicit instruction and presentation, practice with feedback, and the slow removal of support (and the increase of complexity) until we have a production stage. And you know what? It works – over time. The students that have been there a while, and even some who have been there for a few months, seem to move fluently from technique to technique without effort. They can instinctively react to what their partner is doing, often times predicting what is going to come from subtle cues. They have flow, and it is automatic.

It reminds me so much of language. The unconscious and conscious ability to respond to another person. The back and forth. The flow. One of the coaches constantly says that when we are “rolling” (wrestling), our partner’s movements are telling us what they are trying to do and what we can do. It’s no surprise he says that we are having “conversations”.

Now, martial arts is a skill. What about language learning? Some would argue it is definitely not a skill, or at least not one that is a physical skills like martial arts. It is a skill that has severe interference from other languages spoken and involves a deeper level of cognitive processes. But, it is a skill nonetheless.

According to skill acquisition theory, a skill is learned by engaging in the target behavior while relying on declarative knowledge (i.e. paying attention to the rule while practicing). Strengthening and fine-tuning this knowledge through practice leads to automatizing it. Practice is the key to it. This is as true for martial arts as it is for language.

Whether this practice comes from PPP, or from TBLT, or some other model, it still remains that practice is important. And there is enough evidence that indicates that both explicit instruction (see Spada & Tomita, 2010) and PPP are in effective (see Anderson, 2016) methods of instruction (this, of course, does not speak to pre-defined, grammar-based syllabus, but rather simply a mode of instruction, whether it comes pre-planned or as a way to address and emergent language).

PPP has its issues, sure, but it has evidence and logic behind it. If you want to get good at something, you need practice and refinement, support and freedom. The next time you watch a UFC fighter, a jiu-jitsu competitor, or a proficient language user, think about how they got to where they are. It is possible that they “picked up” some of their skills along the way, but more than likely, it was a combination of instruction, feedback, and tons of practice.

Spot the teacher. Where am I?

To be or not to be or to not be: An exploration of corpora and viscera

The sentence was “Learn personal safety techniques, but I urge you to not buy a gun.” This was on a proofreading exercise looking for errors in gerund and infinitive usage. Though I had not taught it, many students highlighted the “to not buy” part and corrected it as “not to buy”. I told one of my students that either is acceptable and he said to me, “that feels weird”. This made me think of two things. This student has internalized a grammatical structure to the point where it had a sense of visceralness on par with “native speakers”. The other thought was, am I wrong? In this blog post, I will mostly focus on the latter thought, but I will come back to the more philosophical implications of the former.

To me, the placement of “not” in regards to an infinitive is fluid. It feels right to me in either place, though coming right before the verb does also have a feeling of emphasis as opposed to coming before “to”. I have been corrected on this before by a well-respected colleague I work with (one who I really enjoy getting into playful language tiffs with), but I always feel many of their corrections come down to prescriptivism and style rather that straight up grammar (we stI’ll argue about singular “they”). So, in order to answer my question of whether “to not” or “not to” is correct, I turned to my friends Google and COCA.

A Google n-gram search for “not to, to not” returned the following:

tonotgooglengram

Hmm…maybe I am wrong. “To not” barely lifts its head in recognition. But, what’s this? “Not to” seems to be falling with a slight upward tilt at around the same time “to not” makes an appearance. Is one trying to assert its dominance? That is probably a different story. “to not” exists, but may not be as common as thought, at least in books, edited by those who follow style guides

What about COCA?

Well, before drinking a cup of COCA, I noticed that the great corpus gods at Brigham Young have transformed the Google n-gram corpus into a POS-tagged database, which could give me a better look at the above search. A search for “not to [vv0*]”, that is, “not to” + base verb form gave me the following…byugooglengramnotto

…and “to not [vv0*]” gave me…

byugooglengramtonot

While the actual tokens are still worlds less for “to not” than “not to,” the increase has been almost double from 1990 to 2000 while “not to” has clearly been on a slow decline. Interesting. Six years later, this trend is likely continuing

Time to do some lines of COCA:

“not to”

cocanotto

“to not”

cocatonot

COCA mirrors the rise of “to not” from Google, especially in spoken English, though it is not absent in academic English. In fact, here are some KWIC examples of “to not” in Academic English:

cocatonotkwicacademic

All of this data tells me several things. First, “to not” is on the rise, most likely due to the fact that the ability to separate an infinitive has become more accepted and “to not” has probably rolled in through a snowball effect. Second, the placement of “not” does not necessarily imply emphasis, as can be seen in the sentences above. Third, while my speech may make some of the older generations shake their first with anger, possibly telling me I am killing English, I can now reply confidently that my speech is the vanguard of an English where “not” is as placement-fluid as “they” is gender-fluid. My speech may be a speech that is likely to boldly go where few have gone before. Or to not boldly go, because language change is really unpredictable, and this is just a tiny thing. Of course, I wouldn’t actually say any of this. I’m neither a grammar pedant nor an in-your-face defender of anything goes linguistic descriptivism.

However, the last thing it tells me is that grammar is not correct because of writers, style guides, or lines of random sentences. No, grammar correctness, and what is “correct” to a “native speaker” is something visceral. It is what “feels” right. Language is not a set of rules but a shared set of feelings about how we communicate, passed on as naturally to us as other concepts, such as love or morality. That is, we begin learning these things at or before birth from family, friends, and our environment. Of course, as second language students, language gets internalized later and in different ways, but at some point, things do get internalized. Students begin to develop gut feelings about the language based on prior experiences, whether or not we consider them correct. Language is the internal made external, and what comes out is never based on a set of rules, but what “feels” right and has felt right since we began listening to our first sounds of the language.

So, to me, both forms feel right and I am correct. To my student, one form feels right and they are correct. To teach or prescribe otherwise would be to not follow the spirit of communication and to deny the very “feeling” of being a speaker of a language.

(Updated and edited for typos and clarity.)

What Does “Intensive” Mean in “Intensive English Programs”?

I’ve worked in several contexts that have been called “intensive”. Most recently, I have spent the last three years teaching in one full-time – an “intensive English program,” or IEP. Despite knowing the pedagogy and politics of these programs, I have always wondered what the word “intensive” really means, and how teacher’s and administrator’s (and maybe student’s) interpretation of this word effects instruction.

Based on IEP organizations such as EnglishUSA and UCIEP, and communication with colleagues at other IEPs, it seems that there is a lot of variety in terms of how a program is structured, but there are also some common features.. Common features typically include 8-week terms, a minimum of 18-hours of instruction per week (required for F-1 visa holders and therefore a staple of IEPs), multiple levels of instruction per skills-based course (e.g. Reading, Grammar, Listening), faculty with a minimum of Master’s degrees, being part of or associated with a university, and being accredited by an outside organization. They also share the word “intensive” despite this word not being defined by any standards or mission statement I have seen.

What does the word “intensive” means in terms of language stud? Maybe I’m being obtuse, but, to me, this word seems to have two important definitions that, when applied to pedagogy, are at odds with each other:

  1. thorough, rigorous, in-depth, concentrated
  2. fast, accelerated, vigorous

An intense workout can be rigorous, in that it works out multiple areas of your body thoroughly. It can also mean a fast-paced workout that hits key areas of your body. Despite being described by the same word, the exercise takes on different forms and likely has different results. Applied to language learning, I’m not sure the second definition, the one that focuses on speed, is apt. Or, at least it shouldn’t be. Yes, 8-weeks is an accelerated period in which to learn language, but that is not the I’m talking about. Students are not expected to master English after 8-weeks. Eight weeks are the period in which they can hopefully improve key skills which can put them on a trajectory towards their ultimate goal of entering the university.

The speed I’m talking about is in the sense of covering multiple units, hitting multiple curricular goals, addressing a bunch of grammar points or reading skills, or churning out essay after essay each week. I’ve seen colleagues do this. By the way published coursebooks like to cram so many units into a single book, they expect us to do this, too. However, to me, language is not learned by rushing through it.

I like to take my time when I teach, being as detailed as possible and working with language from multiple cognitive and linguistic aspects. In almost all my classes currently, we are only on the second unit after one month of instruction. Adaptation and supplementation, assessment and reteaching really slow things down – but in a good way. Most terms, I feel bad because only a portion of the coursebook actually gets used (another charge against the notion that we even need coursebooks!). In my writing classes, students spent the first several weeks on research, planning, subskills, and drafting, and now they are doing it again. We’ll be feeling time pressure at the end of the term when trying to finish our third paper. Yet, I know some instructors who try to get an essay done each week. I’m not sure how they do it! The adage of “quality over quantity” comes to mind.

The meaning of intensity as rigor and not speed was brought home to me the other day by an observer in my class who commented that my class seemed “intense in the sense that [my students had to] do/accomplish a lot during the class hour.” This was interesting. We really only had two or three activities, but those activities demanded a lot of students. It was a lesson based on reading, and this lesson involved them in vocabulary review, re-reading and highlighting, discussion, and critical thinking questions. This may seem like a lot, but we took are time and moved naturally from activity to activity, doing about three-quarters of what I had planned. They did accomplish a lot, but they also worked with a text in-depth, from multiple angles, and were challenged on both linguistic and cognitive levels. To me, this fits the very definition of intensive: thorough, rigorous, and in-depth.

As teachers – language or otherwise – time is always against us, and in that sense, there is always some element of speed to our teaching. However, it should not be a defining element of pedagogy, and it certainly should not be seen as a key aspect of intensive English programs.

 

I told my students to choose the final assessment and then left the room. You won’t believe what happened next.

This clickbait title was inspired by Michael Griffin’s own clickbaity post, “One weird trick that will get your students talking“. My post is based on my experience with the “weird trick” that Mike suggested. According to Mike:

The idea is simple; you can just turn over some of the classroom choices to students and ask them make a group decision on a particular issue. In today’s class I asked my students to decide what time we will start class next week and when we will have our midterm exam. These issues generated a lot of discussion and gave students chances to express their feelings and try persuade each other as they tried to reach a consensus.

Although he focused more on the “getting students talking” part, what I saw was the value of the students being involved in the decision-making process. When I read it, I was struggling to think of a proper project-based assessment that would meet the various needs of EAP and GE students in the same class. After reading his post, I immediately thought, “Yeah, I can do that” and then the very next day I did.

I set aside the last 20 minutes of class to this. I told the students I needed a good way of assessment that would be based on the skills they needed to learn. I gave my students several choices, and various permutations of those choices:

  • Presentations
    • Individual
    • Group
    • Secondary research
    • Primary data (student-conducted research)
  • Speaking Tests
    • Pair speaking quiz
    • Group speaking quiz
  • Other

I let them talk in groups for a few minutes in order to figure out what everything meant. I also gave them this time to ask clarifying questions. Then, I told them I was leaving for five minutes and by the time I get back, they should have figured out what they want to do.

I left. I came back five-minutes later. They had decided on something unexpected: a debate. I was a bit surprised because I hadn’t thought of this before, mostly because a debate is a very artificial task that few actually have to participate it unless you join a debate club. However, I also realized that this would teach students valuable research, persuasive/argumentative, teamwork, and discussion skills. After mulling it over for a minute, I was excited about the idea. This post will briefly describe some of the things we did to prepare for the debate.

Analyzing a Model

  • The first thing we needed was a model so that students could actually see what an debate in English looks like. The presidential debates DID NOT serve as a model, so after some YouTubing, I settled on this debate, which provided lots of source material for analyzing structure and language use. Students got to see how a formal debate was set-up, how arguments were structured, and how language was used to present, support, and refute arguments. We did several analysis activities with this debate before moving on to our own topics.

Topic

I had students brainstorm three topics that they were individually interested in. Then, I grouped students and had them share their topics, working to choose the top 3 from the group. These suggestions were written on the board and then we all voted. “If we could go back in time, should we kill baby Hitler” was the topic chosen. At first I was hesitant, as this is seen as a very weak, unrealistic debate. I also wasn’t too sure what kind of research they could do for this debate. However, I was wrong. I realized there were a lot of areas that could be researched. After dividing the class into two teams of 5 students each (proposition and opposition), I explained the different areas they should begin researching: history, philosophy and ethics, psychology, and biology. I let them choose how they wanted to divide this work amongst themselves and had them put everything into a shared doc. I also had them draft arguments for and against the proposition.

Preparing for the End Product

While they were working on the research and arguments, I was thinking about the actual debate. I am not a debater and have never participated in a formal debate. Searching through the internet, I noticed there were numerous different styles of competitive debating. I decided on a modified Oxford-style debate that would give each student an equal and fair role. For this debate, there would have to be an audience. That would increase the reality of the task and make it more interesting for my students. They weren’t just arguing in a class. They were arguing in front of an audience of peers, and they had to sway the peers using persuasive techniques. I invited several other classes of students and booked a nice auditorium hall to make it seem more of an event than an assignment.

The debate was organized like this:

  1. Audience members would prevote for which side they agree with. They did this the day before in their own classes as their teachers prepped them on the topic of the debate.
  2. Proposition opening statements/initial arguments. (1 student, 4 mins)
  3. Opposition opening statements/initial arguments. (1 student, 4 mins)
  4. 3-minute work period to draft refutations
  5. Proposition rebuttal. (1 student, 3 mins)
  6. Opposition rebuttal. (1 student, 3 mins)
  7. Open Debate. This was a freestyle back and forth debate between two students from each team. (6 minutes)
  8. Audience Q&A (6 minutes)
  9. 3-minute work period to draft closing statements.
  10. Proposition closing statements. (1 student, 2 minutes)
  11. Opposition closing statements. (1 student, 2 minutes)
  12. Revote by audience members
  13. Vote tally and winner announcement.

Logic and Argumentation

I thought about the best way to logically teach logic and argumentation. I went about it several ways. One was to find a good model of logic that students could use to draft their arguments. I went with the Toulmin Model, which structures logical arguments based on a claim, evidence, a warrant, and optional backing. Of course I modified it to make it work for my students, but it seemed to be a great tool to help students draft strong, persuasive arguments. I taught refutation in a similar way, mixing in ideas from 4-step refutation. I also explaining that these are not debate-only techniques but can be used in academic writing as well.

Discourse Skills

I took this opportunity to integrate the textbook into the debate, as there were sections on language skills relevant to debate. However, the textbook was mostly a disappointment and instead our debate work was based on the analysis of the model debate and my own intuitions. I taught and we practiced the following discourse skills/strategies:

  • Presenting an opinion
  • Presenting evidence, citation, and discussing data
  • Agreement, concession, and disagreement
  • Politely interrupting and politely preventing interruption

Practice Debates, Debate Activities, and Debate Work

This is perhaps where I can mention several great idea that you should do if you decide on doing any debate, logic, or argumentation work with students. Easy and fun debate topics! We practiced logic, argumentation and discourse strategies with superheroes, cats vs dogs, fried vs baked chicken, bottled vs tap water, study English vs don’t study English, homework vs. no homework, and coffee. Some of the best practice debate activities we did were tennis debates and 2-minute one-on-one mini debates (followed by feedback).

Our debates on coffee were special. I did not want the team to share or clue each other in on any of the work they were doing for the main Hitler debate, so whenever we needed to do more serious debate practice, we focused on coffee. I had already given them a slew of research on the benefits and drawbacks of drinking coffee. We had done all types of practice making Toulmin arguments, concession, interrupting, etc. We even did a full practice debate in the auditorium using this topic. It gave students great practice with material they already worked on in class and were very familiar with.

While all of this was happening, I dedicated one or two class sessions (1 hour of a two-hour class) to giving students time to work on their debates. One of these session even included an in-group debate to identify strengths and weaknesses in their arguments as well as choosing the best students for the differing roles of the formal debate.

What amazed me was that I learned my students were meeting twice a week outside of class to work on their debate. I was so impressed with their interest and motivation!

The Big Day/Reflection

The big day came. Students dressed formally. 30 students and 5 faculty attended, including the director. Mics were checked. Last minute changes to the stage were made and we were off. Students debated a difficult topic that they had not had any real prior knowledge on only a few weeks before. They debated this difficult topic in a second language. They debated in a second language in front of their peers. They debated in a second language in front of their peers for almost an hour.

Even though one team “won” the debate (kill baby Hitler) all students won because they gained a lot of valuable skills and experiences. They gained language skills, they gained research critical thinking skills, they practiced team work, they made friends, and they built confidence.

Mike’s idea of letting students choose their own assessment works. Because the students had planted the seed for the debate, they had much more invested in it than they otherwise would have. They did not complain about the hard work – in fact, they gave themselves extra work by meeting often outside of the class. They did not care about the grade because they had already decided on the value of the project when they agreed to do a debate – they choose it because they all felt they would gain something valuable that they would need in the future. They were motivated and energized throughout the process because, while I took “control” nitty gritty of the debate (language, format, the “event”), they were in charge of the content and direction that their teams would go. I was without a doubt the “guide on the side”.

I won’t do a debate each time I teach this course. I can’t. It must come up organically based on the students needs and desires. All I can do is this one weird trick and roll with whatever decision students make. The results are bound to be better than any other alternative.

2016-05-06

My students, myself, and their other instruction smiling after an intensive but successful debate!

Can TESOL Save the World? (Part V)

At the recommendation of Geoff Jordan, I recently acquired a copy of “Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching” by Mike Long (2015). I have only just cracked the book, but already I’m liking what I’m reading. This is because Long from the start puts a great onus on teachers to teach in the most effective way possible as second language learning is, in a way, a life saver. He writes that language learning is a “critical factor in determining the educational and economic life chances of” both voluntary language learners (e.g. college students, workers, etc.) and even more so the large number of involuntary language learners: “those that are forced to cross linguistic borders to escape wars, despotic regimes, disease, drought, famine, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, abject poverty, and climate change” (p. 4).

Long writes that these marginalized groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to language instruction, in particular because they do not have the money or time to afford it. He says that language teaching – through whatever means – is important for them, serving not only as a way to access better education and employment but as an act of resistance: “Know thine enemy’s language” (p. 4).

Long argues that all of these reasons are justification to make language teaching as effective and progressive as possible, allowing learners the world over to learn a language in a way that works according to the natural development of second language acquisition,  especially as evidenced by a plethora of SLA and applied linguistics research. For Long, this means following a Task-Based Language Teaching approach. I have yet to read far enough to begin discussing this approach, but his message is loud and clear: language teaching is important and, while it may not be able to solve all of the world’s problems, “it should [at least] strive not to make matters worse” (p. 4).

Whether you agree with TBLT or another methodology, Long’s is probably a sentiment we can all agree on. Language teaching is important and can not only improve lives but save them. More evidence that language teaching can help save the world.

 

The Shifting Contexts of Instruction

I’ve given my thoughts before on this blog about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), mostly disparaging it as a pedagogically unclear teaching approach, one which unnecessarily simplifies English. My thoughts on this subject seem to be shifting as I read more and more about it. I am beginning to consider, more clearly and carefully, the implications ELF research has for what gets taught and assessed in the language classroom, particularly in EAP.

A shift in my own teaching contexts likely was the catalyst for this change. About two years ago, I moved from South Korea to the USA. I switched from teaching in a homogeneous teaching context where students wanted to approximate the native speaker despite few being around, and where 95% of students were also Korean (hence little exposure to ELF), to a heterogeneous environment where students come to study from around the world and I come face to face with ELF everyday.

What has propmpted this blog post and my musing on this change are two articles. One is an article by Marek Kiczkowiak about the native-speaker/non-native speaker issue that dispels many of the assumptions I had been holding, and the other is a great article on ELF in EAP by Beyza Björkman, which I summarized on Research Bites.

In Björkman’s article, she states that there are three groups of EAP learners:

  1. students who study at a university in an English-speaking country,
  2. students who study in their own countries but the language of instruction is English,
  3. international students who study at university in a non-English speaking country who must use English to communicate (this is the ELF) context.

This third type of learner has been somewhat of a recent development, arising in the last 10 or 15 years. My initial question here is if the first and third group of learners is are really so distinct? I’m wondering if a university in an English-speaking country is not an ESL environment (as it would typically be considered) but rather an ELF environment.

A look at the makeup of any modern university in a typical native-speaking country clearly shows a shifting linguistic dynamic towards what Vivian Cook (2015) calls “multicompetence,” or, the bilingual norm (as opposed to the monolingual norm to which “native speaker” is attached). In the US, a large number of faculty, grad students, scientists, and even college presidents are non-native English speakers. Wikipedia cites a slew of statistics about this. For example, among the non-native speakers working in higher education or the sciences, 45% of all physicists are non-native, 55% of PhD engineering students are non-native, and 50% of engineering faculty is non-native. Likewise, grad students, especially in STEM, account for a 50-70% of the student population. I’m sure the situation is similar in Canada, the UK, and other native English speaking countries.

International students are also entering university at the undergraduate level as well, evident from the number of IEPs (intensive English programs) attached to universities around the nation. IEPs handle all sorts of international students, many of whom are conditionally admitted undergraduates who need to improve their English before matriculating. This is the context in which I currently teach. And clearly, it is an ELF context.

But what happens when you leave the classroom? Can the context shift from ELF, interacting with faculty and classmates from around the world, to ESL, interacting with native English-speakers in the community? One the one hand, yes, it is more of an ESL environment, especially in terms of most popular media. However, English-speaking countries tend to be quite pluralistic, and depending on the region, you might be just as likely to interact with someone from another country. Even listening to NPR (National Public Radio) in the morning, its hard not to see the US as an ELF context as many interviewees are competent non-native English speakers (who are very clear in communication but often have typical ELF issues). While some people may not like it, America is a country already at or moving towards multicompetence and is to a large degree often (but not always) an ELF context.

So, the big question is, as an instructor in an IEP situated in a context that fluctuates between ELF and ESL, embedded in EAP instruction (and, apparently being attacked by acronyms), how is my teaching affected? Well, as Björkman pointed out, while accuracy (a stated goal of ESL) is important, communicative effectiveness (the stated goal of ELF) is more so. They are not mutually exclusive and both can be focused on. The difference is focusing on what is going to make my students effective communicators in any context. The answer, according to Björkman and other ELF researchers, is going to be accuracy where it counts (e.g. question word order), pragmatic strategies that help in negotiating meaning, and exposure to different accents – including various native English accents.

I think this is a great starting point for moving more towards ELF and now I have to re-read Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core!

On Giving Feedback, or, You Have a Life, Too

At the end of February, I attended and presented at the 4th annual GATESOL IEP Mini-Conference in Atlanta. It was a wonderful conference and it was great to have an event so focused on a specific teaching content, and meet other people who teach in that same context!

Among the many great presentations I attended, one of the best was by Dr. Lauren Lukkarila called “Giving Writing Feedback: Freeing Yourself and Learners” (download the presentation and handout). Giving feedback on writing is hard. First, it’s pedagogically difficult. What you comment on, how you comment on it, how much you comment, and the question par excellence, whether you use a red pen – these are all difficult questions. Furthermore, we have to wonder how effective feedback is, especially when students tend to make the same exact mistake (grammar or content) the very next time. Second, it’s emotionally draining. How many times have you been frustrated because the student just did not do what was expected of them? How many times have you face-palmed while grading a paper? Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it’s time-consuming. Do you grade on the weekends? Do you mark papers late into the night? Why are there coffee stains on that essay? And, didn’t you fix that error last time? Didn’t you address this in class? Didn’t they log this in their error diaries? Why are they still making this mistake‽

This, of course, is just from the teacher’s perspective. Just as we struggle, our learners struggle too. First, they need to figure out what you actually want – which, despite our best efforts and rubrics, is not always clear. Then, they need to actually say it, which could be the hardest part. Our students (usually) would have little problem saying these things in their own language, but through the filter of an L2, their thoughts are muffled; they’ve been hobbled. It’s quite stressful and, as a student, it can be demoralizing.

Dr. Lukkarila has a plan to get us (teachers and learners) out of this funk. We are all dissatisfied with the feedback transaction and we need to change it. Lauren offers two important solutions:

  1. Manage expectations
  2. Let go

What this means is that we should require less whole products to give comments on. Instead, we should require more revisions as the writing develops. This allows us to give simple and quick feedback. It’s not time-consuming and when the entire product is done, it is made of the best revisions possible, so it requires no further feedback! Of course, another lesson is that we shouldn’t correct everything. Accept mistakes because students will make them again (and they can always go to the writing center for little things like that anyway). Just because we don’t correct certain mistakes doesn’t mean the student will become a failure at life. Accept mistakes and accept that not correcting doesn’t signal the four horsemen to come riding.

Dr. Lukkarila stresses that we should follow the 80/20 rule. That is, of the 10 most important things to look for in a text, two are more important than the others. And students are likely to only be able to handle / take-in / internalize / acquire two instances of feedback. So, for each revision or feedback round, focus on only two things. Focus on 20% and let go of the other 80%. Each revision round, you can shift your focus, but stay within the 20%.

Here is more of what Lukkarila said:

Managing Expectations

  1. Beliefs – Managing expectations means that we need to rethink our writing beliefs. Perhaps we are giving feedback too harshly because that’s how we were graded and we think it’s the norm. Perhaps we our applying our own subjective understanding of “good writing” to the writing of our students. Maybe we are focusing too much on accuracy, or maybe not enough? What’s better: quality or quantity? There are a lot of assumptions we may have to rethink in terms of what we expect our students to produce, including the assumptions our students might be making about writing.
  2. Needs – Managing expectations means being honest about our needs. How many hours can you reasonably spend giving feedback, considering the hours you spending planning, teaching, and on Twitter or Facebook? Are you going to have time to give feedback on everything you said you will? Can you, will you, or do you have to comment on everything? What kind of feedback do your students need? How fast do they need it?

Letting Go

  1. Require fewer whole products and more revisions.
  2. Break down writing into smaller parts – even smaller than the paragraph level. Think sentence-level stuff here.
  3. Follow the 80/20 rule
  4. “Releasing your own student writing experiences and replacing those expectations with  expectations that are realistic and respectful for your students and you.”
  5. Consider the most important whole products still will make and let go of the other products you wanted them to write.
  6. Less is more – students should receive feedback more often, and revise more times. This is only possible with less feedback.
  7. “Accept that learners can improve even when you don’t comment on everything– allow the natural acquisition process to work.”

I really like Lauren’s ideas. I think that they can be adapted and applied to almost any teaching situation and still be effective, as long as the basic principles are observed: manage expectations and let go. Of course, it’s harder than it sounds. For me, it would be hard to give feedback on only two items and let go of the other eight. I could focus on two of the other eight during the next feedback round, but eventually, we have to move on if the writing is ever to be finished. Knowing when to let go is hard. And here, the “less whole products more revisions” comes into play.

I think I already follow this mantra to some extent, focusing on quality instead of quantity (for quantity, I have my students blog). Some colleagues have their students complete six or seven essays during one term. My classes usually produce three. We take our time, go slow, and get lot’s of feedback. I try to give feedback in class and do as little as possible aside from grading out of class, but it doesn’t always work that way. I also try to break the writing down into paragraphs, for example looking at the thesis before writing the intro, and looking at an intro before allowing students to move to the body. This works well to some extent, but a class of more than 6 means I don’t have the time to work with everyone. So, I inevitably take work home and use up my free time.

I’ve been trying to make the feedback process more efficient and effective for both myself and my students. It’s difficult but I’m making progress. Compared to a year or two ago, when giving feedback was like being in prison, you can consider me a free man. However, there is still room to grow and I think I will take Lukkarila’s advice into deeper consideration.

I am a teacher, yes. But, I’m also a father, husband, and friend. I need to do my work in a way that respects and helps myself as much as it helps my students. There is no shame in that.

Please check out her presentation and handout for more information.