Summaries, Responses, and Short Answers…oh my! – Using Student Samples in Writing Instruction

Last year at the 2016 SETESOL conference in Louisville, Kentucky, I attended a presentation on using student samples in summary writing instruction. The presentation was given by Dr. Cui Zhang, and it consisted of a literature review and her own action research. I was intrigued by the idea because, unlike peer review where effectiveness is hit or miss and the focus could be on anything from grammar to structure, analyzing student examples allows for the precise identification and evaluation of specific aspects of a writing. This type of analysis allows students to see various ways students were able to successfully or unsuccessfully achieve a specific goal, one which they also have attempted. I recently incorporated Zhang’s ideas with not only summary writing but also response writing and short-answer writing, and I saw immediate positive results in student revisions and subsequent writing. Therefore, I wanted to share these ideas with you.

What Does the Research Say?

  • Baba, 2009: Reading comprehension plays a large role in successful summary writing, while the role of lexical proficiency varies. However, “well-structured semantic network of words and the ability to productively use this network as well as the L2 writer’s metalinguistic knowledge” also has an influence.
  • Keck, 2006: L2 writers paraphrase less and copy more of a source text than L1 writers.
  • Demaree et al., 2008: Students feel that summary writing is useful, and it is better done when there is an authentic purpose (such as preparing for an exam). Students feel the only summary writing audience is themselves and it is not very helpful for others.
  • McDonough et al., 2014: Summary writing improves over time, but requires explicit instruction and may be a lengthy process. The authors looked at reference to the source (increase), verbatim copying (increase in frequency, decrease in length), a “phrase-level modifications” (no change). According to the authors: “the path toward eliminating textual misappropriation may be both indirect and lengthy.”
  • Becker, 2016: Students who develop or practice applying a rubric show greater increases in summary writing performance.

Zhang’s Action Research

The goal of Zhang’s research was to see if students could reliably judge summaries written by their peers and then use these judgments to improve their own summary writing. Zhang worked with 9 students in a university-level ESL course. After a text was read and summaries were written, Zhang collected the summaries and chose several for analysis. They analyzed the summaries without a rubric and discussed their judgments. They read a second article and then produced another summary.

Overall, Zhang found that students could all find the weaknesses or strengths in the summaries and their own summary writing did improve, though not to the point of perfection. She recommends that summary improvement will take time. She also recommends that using previous students’ writing rather than writings from the current students may reduce some reluctance to judge their peers.

My Experiences

Summaries – In my classes, I followed a similar procedure for this article. However, I used a modified checklist rubric to help students evaluate the summaries. I gave students a handout with 4 summaries collected from students. They were modified for clarity (grammar, spelling) and were chosen because they represented very poor, fair, and great summaries. Here is an example (note: the bullets on the right were actually check boxes):

Although sleepiness is a part of life, it seems difficult for schools to start school late. The students can change their schedule to get enough sleep. Whether someone likes it or not, adequate sleep is important for our lives, and it’s especially necessary for children. The more sleep, the healthier and happier life people will have. This summary…

  • …introduced the article and the author.
  • …contained the overall main idea in the second sentence.
  • …contained all the main ideas:
    • not enough sleep
    • they are busy, puberty,
    • school should start later
    • starting school later is difficult
  • …had no extra details.
  • …had no change of meaning
  • …was written in the student’s .own words.

From the four different examples, most students were able to identify the best summary and understand what it had that the others were lacking. After the group discussions, a class discussion of each summary entailed, each time highlighting the elements that were missing or included. This was an attempt to be explicit and reinforce what a good summary contained.

After this activity, students revised their summaries. About a week later, they also wrote new summaries, and for many I saw great improvement. In particular, there were more references to the original source text (According to [author], in [title],…) and less verbatim copying. However, there were still issues with including main ideas and excluding irrelevant details. This showed me that being able to identify what is important was something that needed to be focused on more in class.

Responses – A summary is a pretty straight forward genre that requires students to simply retell important details using new words. Responses, on the other hand, are more varied in terms of content. With only minor directions (“Give your evaluation of the article”) and no instruction, student responses to this article went from clear evaluation of the original text to complete departures and explorations of students’ own, often unrelated, opinions. I saw another chance for students to analyze student samples and improve their writing.

Since no students completed the assignment correctly, I collected 3 student samples and wrote a fourth. I then created another check list rubric that students could use to evaluate the articles. Students discussed the responses together and then we discussed them as a class. Here is an example from the handout:

I agree with the PRO statement that people should eat less meat. First, eating less meat is healthy for us. People will be less obese and avoid disease. Second, we should eat more fruit, vegetables and cereals. These plants need to use machines and they need to use the power. People should use more solar energy, wind energy and water energy to generate electricity. Finally, we should plant more trees because the trees can help reserve the water and prevent soil erosion.
  • The student refers to a claim in the article
  • The student states whether they agree or disagree with a claim from the article.
  • The student gives reasons why they agree or disagree.
  • These reasons show good evaluation of the claim.
  • The reasons focus on the claim and not unrelated ideas.

For this rubric, I was trying to direct students to the fact that a response to an article is not simply an opinion of the topic but an analysis of the ideas contained in the article. In other words, the focus should still be on the article, not only the student’s opinion. And even when the opinion is given, it must be clearly related to the ideas in the article. This seemed like the first time students encountered such an assignment and the evaluation clearly – hence me writing a fourth example. As with the summaries, student revisions and subsequent writings showed some improvement.

Short Answer – Seeing a pattern in students writing and their familiarity with writing assignments, I preempted difficulty with short answer writing assignments and gave students explicit and step-by-step instructions in both understanding the question and writing the answer. Working with this text on driverless cars, we first looked at the default writing prompt from Newsela:

Summarize the central idea of either the PRO or the CON article in a few lines. What claims made by the author of the chosen article are not supported by evidence? Give two-three examples from the text to better illustrate your point.

We analyzed this assignment by breaking it down into parts:

  1. In your own words, write the main idea of the PRO or CON article in a sentence or two
  2. Answer this question: What claims are weak because they lack evidence?
  3. Answer this question: What are two or three examples that show there is a lack of evidence.

Students seemed genuinely surprised that the question was very complex. Therefore, this question analysis proved to be very valuable. We then discussed how to answer this question in a paragraph and wrote a model answer together. For homework, I had students consider the driverless car article as well as this article about a horseless carriage. I then gave them the choice of answering ONE of these questions:

  1. What similarities exist between horseless carriages and driverless cars? Provide two or three examples from the text to help support your point.
  2. How do technological advances like new types of automobiles affect everyday life? Use one or two examples from each article to explain past or future changes.
  3. Do you think the author of this article would share similar opinions (or tones) as the PRO or CON author? Provide two or three examples from the text to help support your point. (no students answered this question).

I collected the student examples in the next class and redistributed them to students individually. I then gave each student the following rubric:

QUESTIONS/CRITERIA POINTS
Did they try to answer all parts of the question?
Only one part: 1 point | Both parts: 2 points
Did they provide evidence from both articles?
Only one article: 1 point | Both articles: 2 points
Did they do a good job answering the question?
Yes (3 pts) No (1 pt) Maybe (2 pts)
(please explain on the back of this paper)
Did they use phrases such as “according to” or “the author states”?
Yes (1 pts) No (0 pts)
Did they give extra details that were unnecessary?
Yes (-1 pt) No (1 pt)
Did they write a summary?
Yes (-2 pts) No (1 pt)
Did they give an opinion that was unrelated to the questions?
Yes (-2 pts) No (1 pt)
Was the answer easy to understand?
Yes (1 pts) No (0 pts)
TOTAL  __ / 12

Students had about 20 minutes to read and analyze the answer they were given. I assisted students with answering questions, and I prompted students to leave clear feedback on the back of the paper. As students worked, I made sure their analyses were accurate, and if I disagreed with a student, I asked them to provide justification for me. Sometimes I had to gently nudge students to fix their analysis because they had clearly misunderstood something. However, more times than not, students noticed something that I had overlooked.

After the 20 minutes, I collected the answers and the rubrics and redistributed them to the appropriate students. I then gave students the rest of class to revise their answers, if necessary, and ask me any questions to clarify or improve their writing. For most students, there was immediate improvement. On a subsequent reading test that involved a short-answer question, I saw more answers that fully answered all parts of the questions, something they had been previously lacking.

Overall Impressions

I found that getting students to analyze student samples was very effective at not only understanding what good writing should contain, but also at helping to clarify writing expectations, something that is often hard to communicate, especially with unfamiliar genres or complex assignments. For most of these assignments, I provided rubrics beforehand, but students often do not pay attention to them. However, even if students had focused on them, I believe that providing rubrics afterward, focusing greater applied attention on them, and then allowing students to revise their writing could have a great positive impact on their writing.

References

Baba, K. (2009). Aspects of lexical proficiency in writing summaries in a foreign language. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(3), 191-208.

Becker, A. (2016). Student-generated scoring rubrics: Examining their formative value for improving ESL students’ writing performance. Assessing Writing, 29, 15-24.

Demaree, D., Allie, S., Low, M., & Taylor, J. (2008, October). Quantitative and qualitative analysis of student textbook summary writing. In C. Henderson, M. Sabella, & L. Hsu (Eds.), AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 1064, No. 1, pp. 107-110). AIP.

Keck, C. (2006). The use of paraphrase in summary writing: A comparison of L1 and L2 writers. Journal of Second Language Writing, 15(4), 261-278.

McDonough, K., Crawford, W. J., & De Vleeschauwer, J. (2014). Summary writing in a Thai EFL university context. Journal of second language writing, 24, 20-32.

Navigating Newsela: Eight Weeks of Reading Instruction with Newsela.com

I was lucky enough to get a PRO subscription to Newsela and the chance to pilot using it as a main text source in an intermediate reading course this term. This blog post will detail my (and my students) experiences using Newsela for 8 weeks, its advantages and disadvantages, and how it could be used in your own classes.

What is Newsela?

Newsela is a visually appealing, daily news website that offers readings on current events, current issues, primary sources, historical articles, and a plethora of other categories (e.g. science, art, government, etc.). You can find historical texts in the Time Machine, speeches, biographies, important historical documents (in Primary Sources), and even Greek myths. There is enough content to fit almost any course.

Each article is offered at 5 levels, from the original level (Max) to levels as low and 4th or 5th grade. Articles are adapted in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure while keeping the essential ideas from the original. Each article also has a 4-question quiz and a writing prompt. Readers can also use highlighter/annotation tools. Newsela is useful for both extensive or intensive reading.

What is Newsela PRO?

With PRO, you have the ability to make classes, assign articles, collect students’ quiz scores, grade writing prompts, and access analytics about students’ reading behaviors. While you cannot customize the quiz, you can customize the writing prompt. You can provide annotations to students (with the ability for students to reply) and see student highlights. You also have access to PRO teacher resources, which give ideas on how to use articles in class, including activities, companion texts, etc. This includes access to suggested annotations for many articles. Finally, you can also create “Text Sets” – groups of Newsela articles. You cannot assign a set, but you can use the set to organize related readings or give students independent reading choices (note: you do have access to students’ independent reading through the PRO dashboard).

Information about an assignment in Newsela PRO

How Did I Use Newsela?

Our class had a main coursebook (21st Century Reading, level 3) and Newsela was used as an equal companion (as opposed to a subordinate supplement) to this text. Based on the articles in the coursebook, I found related articles on Newsela and assigned them as required reading and typically included discussion and activities using the articles in class. I required students to complete a quiz for each article, though this was not for a course grade but rather to test the analytics ability of Newsela PRO. I sometimes added writing prompts, but more often I gave separate writing assignments via Google Classroom. These typically required more work, space, formatting or steps than the simple Newsela writing prompt box would allow students.

What Activities Did I Do?

  • Martin Luther King, jr.
    • MLK’s birthday occurred during the beginning of our term, so I used that opportunity to introduce both Newsela and MLK via his “I Have a Dream Speech”. Students read the article in class (in the lab) and then answered discussion questions. Then, we had a whole-class discussion about race and MLK’s influence. I originally planned to extend the lesson by having students read this set and come to class prepared to discuss whether MLK’s “dream” has been realized or not. Unfortunately, time constraints forced me to skip this extension.
  • Sleep
    • Sleep was the topic of the first unit of the book, so I thought I could use Newsela to build up students topical knowledge by reading a number of sleep-related articles. Some of the instruction included identifying evidence in a text, referencing evidence, and how to write a summary.
  •  Immigrants
    • Donald Trump’s travel ban made news during this term. Students had expressed interest in discussing this topic. Instead of just giving students articles on the travel ban, I first had students gather some background on the history of immigration to the United States. Students read this article to prepare them for the discussion. In addition, students practiced their ability to understand numbers by highlighting (and writing down on a worksheet) interesting statistics and the years in which they occurred. In class the next day, we discussed the numbers and the history of immigration. Students then completed a jigsaw reading activity based on an article related to the travel ban and an article related to the wall. After discussing the articles in groups, students worked together to answer one question: Do trumps activities support the value of the United States? They had to use the immigration background article to ascertain America’s values and then compare those against Trump’s actions, making a great discussion and a great comparison activity.
  • Economics
    • The second unit that we used in the book was about economics. The article in the book begun with an interesting quote by Robert Kennedy:
      • “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
    • The focus of this unit was to understand how a nation is measured and to introduce happiness as one metric of measurement. Before reading this article, I wanted students to have a good understanding of GDP, so students read a background article, which we used to introduce the topic in class. The coursebook article was based on a TED Talk by Nic Marks and the Happiness Planet Index. Most of the week’s focus was on visual literacy and reading different charts related to this topic. However, we also worked on inferencing and applying an author’s ideas to a different text. In the coursebook article, the author identified certain things as positive or negative. So, to extend this skill, I had students read this article about global warming and then apply Marks’ perspective to it, deciding whether he would consider the article to be positive and negative, as well as offering evidence as to why. This activity was tough for students, as it required finding evidence, identifying perspective, and comparing two articles. However, it was also good practice and informed a lively discussion.
    • Continuing our work with the article in the book, we looked at how the article compared two different ideas. We then used this article to write a summary in which two ideas are compared (as opposed to a just-the-facts linear summary). To give students independent practice, we read and analyzed this PRO/CON article about meat and global warming and then students summarized it on their own following the comparison model we had done previously.
    • Finally, we extended our use of this PRO/CON article by looking at response writing as part of the summary-response genre. Typically, students take the response section to be a chance for them to give their own opinion, often disconnected from the article. So, we focused on how to choose ideas for evaluation and then how our evaluations serve as opinions. After students wrote their responses, I collected 4 exemplars and we analyzed them together in class following a rubric. Students then had a chance to rewrite their responses following this analysis.
  • Technology
    • Our next unit was about cyborgs and technology. Newsela has a great number of articles about cyborgs and people with prostheses. However, I chose to include a PRO/CON article about driverless cars because I wanted students to continue working with various perspectives and evidence and the opportunities to evaluate these against each other. We used this article to prepare for a class debate. Students read the article and then worked in groups to analyze the evidence on both sides of the debate. They then took sides and focused on developing arguments and counter-arguments. Finally, we had a tennis-style whole-class debate that was engaging for everyone.
    • We used this text and the coursebook text to learn how to correctly answer short-answer writing questions. Students had been having trouble fully answering such questions, often times providing one part or a half-answer. This was because they were not carefully reading the questions and realizing they were actually multi-part questions asking students to do several things. So, we used this article to practice that. The questions I had students answer required them to apply authors’ ideas by looking at the definition of what a cyborg is and using that to answer, in writing, whether someone using a driverless car is a cyborg. Most said yes, but some said no. They had to cite evidence from the coursebook text to support their idea.
    • As a follow-up, students read this article from 1896 about the introduction of horseless carriages (part of Newsela’s “Time Machine” series). Students worked together to compare and contrast the horseless carriage to the driverless car. Surprisingly, there were more similarities than differences.
  • Empathy
  • Assessments
    • Throughout the term, I used Newsela readings as part of formal assessments in class. I took readings and made them into quizzes to assess reading comprehension, summary writing, response, short-answer writing, etc. For the final writing assessment, I asked students to choose an article from a text set I put together that was related to cultural conflict and had students submit a summary, response, and comparison.

How Can Newsela Be Used

As my examples show, Newsela can be used in a number of ways: as a source for background reading, as a main text from which to practice various intensive reading skills, as a set of texts to build topical knowledge and expertise, as a means to integrate reading and writing at lower levels, and even as a source for articles to use with Academic Reading Circles.

Really, there are any number of ways to use Newsela. The main point being that there is always new content, and you can almost always find something interesting to read. It just takes a bit of creativity on how to best employ it in the classroom.

Newsela & Newsela PRO: Disadvantages

While I am a huge fan of Newsela and have found it to be immensely helpful in this course and others, it is not without its issues.

For Newsela PRO, I found it to be extremely convenient to be able to assign and track students’ reading assignment fromNewsela PRO’s binder feature. I liked seeing analytics such as how long they read for, their quiz scores at various levels, and their independent reading. However, I found the Write prompt to be less useful than giving assignments on Classroom – it is far too limited and suitable only for the most basic prompts, ones that require little to no feedback or revision.

In addition, while the analytics were interesting, I am not so sure about their accuracy. One of my students was ranked in the highest percentile on Newsela based on quiz scores yet he was average or below average in terms of reading quizzes and writing assessments given in class. I’m not sure how to make sense of this discrepancy. Is Newsela too easy? Am I too difficult? In addition, some of my higher level students (in class) scored lower than expected on Newsela, often times owing to understanding the quiz questions, which can sometimes be difficult for students.

Example analytics from a student’s reading profile

Is the PRO account worth it? In general, if your program is willing to pay for the PRO account, then I would definitely go for it. However, don’t let money stand in your way of using this great resource – what they offer for free is completely adequate and can be exploited to almost the same level as I have outlined above.

Are there any other issues with Newsela? Sure. Their app on iPhone and Android is terrible. Students had a lot of issues with it, including the app not refreshing to show new assignments. They often had to log out and log back in to see assignments. On both the app and the website, the Binder was not always easy for students to use. They often didn’t know they had assignments waiting for them. Newsela should definitely add some way for students to be notified of assignments, or at least make it more noticeable.

In addition, Newsela’s cookies are terrible. By this, I mean that I am constantly having to log-in to the website. It never remembers me and keeps me logged in. This is very minor, but it is quite annoying to always have to log in.

Finally, in terms of content, sometimes the adapted levels are too simple and consist only of simple sentences. While this is easy to read, the overuse of simple sentences seems limiting. Using complex sentences with adverbials or subordinating conjunctions would not necessarily increase difficulty. Doing so would allow students to see how ideas relate more clearly. Using these kinds of structures combined with simple lexis could serve as a way to introduce students more slowly to features of academic and higher level discourse.

Student Reactions

Again, issues aside, I have an overall positive assessment of Newslea, but, what about my students? I had 14 students in my class and I surveyed them on using Newsela. Here are the questions and responses.

What are some reasons you liked Newsela?

New information, new vocabulary
Fun topics
A lot of interesting tipics
I read some article to improve my reading and know news in English.
I like simple web site system
have different level
I can choose the level in each aticle.
Fresh and advanced topic.
easy to know what level you are
Because newsela has many subjects in diffrente fileds
The activities
I can search meaning easly
You can change the levels, which is very nice to those low level readers such like me. I felt Newsela is very friendly to me.

What are some reasons you disliked Newsela?

Newsela has some negative topics
Too much difficult issue
Article is long

Think about Newsela and the textbook. Which did you like more and why?

Textbook, it’s more easy to understand than Newsela
Newsela because it is more clearly than the book
Newsela more simple with the quiz
I am prefer to Newsela because it is clearly for understanding.
I like Newsela more then text book because it can be change the reading level.
textbook have video
Newsela is more interesting.
Anytime, anywhere I can read or study English, especially I can choose appropriate level for me.
Newsela APP. is the best tool I like.
Newsela. Because that makes you clearly to know which level is more suit to yourself.
I like newsela for tha same reason I wrote it in the previous question
I will choose Newsela because there are a lot of interesting articles and you can make activities
Newsela
Newsela, because I have more choices.

Conclusion

I hope I have made it clear that Newsela is a very useful tool for any reading or writing course, at almost any level. I will continue to promote Newsela as both a supplement and replacement for the coursebook. I will continue to work on different ways to use Newsela in the EAP classroom, including integrating reading and writing at lower levels.

While preparing to use Newsela PRO, I became a Newsela Certified Educator, so you may even see me presenting about some of these ideas at ELT-related conferences! It is my hope that students can engage with content that is recent, relevant, and interesting. I hope that students engage with this content through reading, informed writing, and informed discussion. I see Newsela as an important tool to help make this happen.

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.