Off Course: A Comparison of University and EAP Coursebook Writing Tasks – #TESOL2017

Here, you can find both my PowerPoint (in PDF format) and my handout from my presentation today (March 23) at TESOL 2017 In Seattle. My presentation looked at my research comparing university writing tasks and EAP coursebook writing tasks.

Thanks for attending or checking out my material. Comments and feedback are appreciated!

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.

Writing for the World / A World of Writing Skills: A Wikipedia Project

The following blog post is written to explore why and how I had my students writing articles for Wikipedia. It’s a somewhat long read, so I have broken it into the following sections:

RATIONALE

Writing is one of my favorite skills to teach, especially at the advanced level. However, I always feel like I am cheating the students. They spend hours planning, drafting, revising, and polishing. I read their work several times during drafting and for assessment – maybe 30 minutes total. After that, I their work never sees the light of day again. Rarely do I look at their work again unless I am building a student corpora. Rarely do students return to their own work. Their hard work, their effort, the audience (i.e. me) all of it is so disposable. Peer editing and peer review was not really an audience, and even student blogging offers an imaginary audience (no one really reads the posts except me and other students if they are required to do so). So, even these types of assignments feel disposable. This is not only something I have noticed. I first came across this concept in this article by Christina Hendricks called “Renewable assignments: Student work adding value to the world” (see also this blog post).

The idea of renewable assignments – something that was authentic, had an audience, and had a persistent quality that could be revisited time and time again – appealed to me. However, such an assignment was hard to design, hard to figure out, especially for the types of writing my students have to do: paragraphs, essays, research papers.

Earlier this year, I happened to stumble upon just the solution to my conundrum: “Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing” by Christine Tardy writing in English Teaching Forum. The article argued that writing a Wikipedia article is the perfect context in which to teach and practice academic literacy and writing skills. These include the ability to find research, evaluate sources, summarize, paraphrase, and avoid plagiarism while writing from a position of “expertise”. In addition, Tardy touches on concepts of genre awareness as another skill such a writing project would require students to develop. Being able to understand and then join an academic discourse community is a vital skill. Beyond the benefits that Tardy mentions, there are several others that become clear when thinking this project through. It allows students to have a greater focus on considering audience, writing for an authentic audience who may actually read their work, and having the ability for themselves or others to return to their work to edit or improve upon it in some way, making this Wikipedia writing project a very renewable one indeed.

I recently had the chance to employ this project in my own class. This blog post will detail what I did and offer some reflections on the process, benefits, and student reactions.

PROCEDURE

Context

This project was included as part of an advanced 8-week writing course. Whereas Tardy promotes this project as one that teachers important academic skills such as the research process, I used this project as a capstone after group and individual research papers, which was where a majority of the academic skills students would need for a Wikipedia article were taught.

Genre Analysis

Before beginning any writing or even learning the details of the assignment, I followed Tardy’s advice of examining Wikipedia. We did this by first discussing what they knew about Wikipedia, what they knew about encyclopedias (very little), discussing the various meanings of free in Wikipedia’s subtitle “the free encyclopedia”, and general guidelines of what Wikipedia expects.

Next, I select a few topics that were roughly of the same genre (e.g. coffee, tea, beer) and had students analyze the article following genre analysis questions similar to what Tardy presents:

  • What kind of information is included in the article? What kind of information is excluded?
  • Using several sample articles in your category, look for any patterns in the organization of the articles.
    • How are the articles organized?
    • What information is typically included first? Next?
    • If there are sections in the articles, do you notice any that are commonly used?
    • How much background knowledge of the topic do readers need to understand the article?
    • Is any specialized language used? If so, is it defined?
    • What kind of information has citations?

This allowed for a great discussion of what Wikipedia articles contain and how different topics might suggest different information to be included. This was my students’ first attempts at analyzing genre. Incidentally, it was also my first attempt at teaching genre analysis.

Next, I told students about the assignment and gave them the task of selecting a topic for homework. We met in a lab the next day and I gave them a “Wikipedia Article Analysis” assignment for which they had to select several topics similar to theirs and answer analysis questions like they had the day before. The goal of this assignment was to allow students to examine how topics such as theirs are written and to gather ideas for their own article’s organization, including any specialized language or even formatting they would have to include.

Assignment and Topic Selection

The assignment was to write a Wikipedia article on a topic that has not been written on before. This assignment was to include at least 3 sections of text beyond the basic background information. Because so much is already included in Wikipedia, and because some students still struggled with basic English mechanics such as grammar and spelling, I gave students the option of using either regular English Wikipedia or Simple English Wikipedia. The benefit of Simple English Wikipedia is that there are far less topics written about, making topic selection much easier.

To help students choose a topic, I gave students a few tips. First, they could choose a topic they already knew well (many of my students are former professional athletes, so sports was a natural topic) and follow articles until they find red links (i.e. Wikipedia articles without content) they could write about. Another method was to choose an aspect of their own culture to write about. If it was not included on Wikipedia already, it would make for a great article. In the end, I had a combination of both types of topics.

Drafting and Publishing

Students brought their laptops to class for the drafting process. I broke the writing into several different stages of analysis followed by writing. As students worked on each stage, I visited with each student to give feedback. This lessened the amount of feedback I would need to give later. We didn’t move on to one stage until a majority of the students had finished the first.

We began the way all Wikipedia articles begin, with the topic sentence, which consists of a definition that follows a formulaic pattern: “[Topic] is a [definition].”

Examples of topic sentences from Wikipedia:

Students’ first jobs were to write a clear definition of their topic. Writing a straight-forward definition turned out to be harder than thought and some students struggled with this more than any other part of the writing process. To help students, we drafted a sentence about our institution, including definition, together. This, combined with the Wikipedia exemplars, were very important in giving students a framework for composition.

Next, we looked at several full paragraphs from Wikipedia articles in order to determine what kind of background knowledge was needed. Students made a bullet-point outline for their background, to which I gave feedback. We also planned and wrote one together, using the definition we had written earlier about our institution. And then spent the rest of the class time (~20 mins) writing that section. Like the topic sentence, writing the background information was quite challenging, as students really had to divorce themselves from their own knowledge in order to see their topic the way a reader may see it. As I was unfamiliar with many of their topics (especially cricket), my feedback was crucial here. Students were expected to finish their background paragraphs for homework.

The next day, we met again and began looking at sections from different Wikipedia articles. We also looked at the differences between section and subsection. I had students write a list of sections and subsections that could be included in their articles. I then had them choose two or three to focus on for this particular project. I gave feedback on their section selection and then gave them the rest of class to research and write their sections.

I read each of their articles and provided content and grammar feedback. We met again to work on revising their work. In the next session, I introduced them to the Wikipedia Visual Editor. I showed them how to sign-up, use the sandbox (a practice writing area), and create a page. I also showed them how to write, link, and cite. They were very impressed with what the visual editor could do, and loved the fact that Wikipedia automatically looked up internal links to other Wikipedia articles, and that citation only required inputting information and not formatting in-text citations or a reference list (these are automatic). They also liked the ease with which you could create sections, and that the Wikipedia content box was also automatically created. I demonstrated all of these features by including my own practice article based on the paragraph we had written previously. I then gave them the remained of class time to work on their own pages.

We met in the lab one final time to clean up any formatting or language issues and finish the publication process. Some students were surprised to see warning boxes (such as issues of clarity, the article being an orphan, missing links, etc.) already on their articles. I showed students how to see the history of their article, explained that the changes could be from a person or from a bot (I honestly did not know), and that once they make the edits, they can delete the boxes). We spent the rest of the class time working on their articles. Finally, when they were satisfied and felt it was finished, students shared a link to their page with the rest of class.

REFLECTION

Tardy, author of the original article that inspired this project, meant for this to be an introduction to research. However, I used it as a capstone project. After completing this project, I feel I made the right decision. The genre analysis, very technical writing, and a new publishing environment already made students apprehensive of this project. If I had to tack on teaching about how to research, evaluate, summarize, paraphrase, and do citation as well, students would have definitely been overwhelmed. Academic writing, especially of the encyclopedic nature, requires a world of writing skills. Having this project at the end of the course allowed students to apply the skills they had already learned (and in the case of citations, modify) while being able to put more focus on genre analysis and even model text analysis. By foregrounding those skills in other assignments, students were more prepared for the challenges of writing for Wikipedia and could easily assimilate new ideas into existing conceptions of composition.

A definite major benefit of this approach was the emphasis on audience. Not only did writing for a real audience of potentially millions serve as a motivational (and stress) factor, but being able to consider their audience’s ability to understand their topic forced students to rethink clarity, background information, and conciseness. Many students struggled with this at first, which shows me that notions of audience had not been dealt with much in their writing experience.

Students also struggled with the semi-technical nature of the writing, that is, the very matter-of-fact, straight forward, just the facts ma’am, encyclopedic style that  Wikipedia requires. Many students struggled with not interjecting their own opinion into their topics, while a few more had issues with the lack of prose of a Wikipedia article. They had wanted to add the little flourishes of language that make things like essays interesting to read – things they had been taught to use time and time again. I truly believe this was their first non-essay assignment in English ever. Conveying the idea that this was not an essay was difficult because that is much of what we teach in our institute. This emphasizes an important point, one that is not new to many: that the essay is but one genre of many and that a well-rounded EAP students should have experience writing in multiple genres (e.g. essay, summary, literature review, case report). For my own teaching, and perhaps my own program, this also highlights the need for moving beyond an essay focus and branching out to other genres, especially at the upper levels.

Finally, the idea of genre analysis in general was new to both my students and myself. As I stated above, my program focuses mostly on essays, as did my previous university. However, there are other genres of importance that students should learn about. Genre analysis, the reading of multiple exemplars of a text and then striving to write one’s own text that fits within the discourse community being studied, is, as Christine Tardy mentioned during a workshop of hers that I attended, “…complicated and nuanced and it takes a lot of time”. (At this point, I’d like to say that I just realized the author of the Wikipedia article and the speaker at this presentation I attended were the same person, but I had no clue. I literally had a “Holy shit” moment as I looked at the workshop flyer and saw the speaker’s name!). Both my and my students’ lack of experience with it did present a challenge, but given that the encyclopedia/Wikipedia genre isn’t such a deviation from the essay genre, we were able to understand its different features. Like the above reflection regarding the need for multiple genres, this also shows that not only do students need more exposure to multiple genres, but they to learn a framework for analysis. Likewise, instructors need to not only offer opportunities for genre analysis but to better learn how to deliver such opportunities in the classroom. In other words, they need more training in genre analysis.

Finally, my students themselves regarded this project as very interesting and worthwhile. I could tell many of them were motivated to explain the topics that interested them. In a follow-up survey, I asked students several questions about the project. Here is how they responded:

  • Do you think it [this project] was beneficial to you? All students answered “yes”.
  • Do you think a reader will find it useful? Every student but one answered “yes”. The other students answered “maybe”.
  • Are you satisfied with your article? Same results.
  • Will you tell other people about the article you wrote? All students answered “yes”.
  • Any comments about the Wikipedia project? Only three students left comments:
    • “It was very difficult to me, I don’t know how to use technologies I guess but I know I need it and it was challenging but at the end you feel ok with things you did”
    • “It was really interesting project, but I am still not sure that what I wrote is really useful ^^;;;;”
    • “It was very useful and good experience.”

The survey questions themselves show me that this was a positive and beneficial experience. The open-ended questions lead me to believe students did not really feel finished with their work. “At the end you feel OK with things you did” actually sounds quite negative, but I’m not sure if it can be interpreted like that. “I am still not sure what I wrote is really useful” shows me the student is still considering their readers, and although they may not feel it is useful, what they wrote adds to a greater body of knowledge in the world, which is something I think all students who completed this project should realize. They not only wrote something and put it online for the world to see, but they actually added knowledge to the world in some way. Perhaps this was something I should have stressed more in class.I learned a lot from the topics that they wrote about, things I would not have learned or heard about otherwise.

All in all, I feel that I have learned so much from this process and from the students. I feel it was extremely beneficial to both of us and it is a project I will definitely repeat in the future.

 

Links to Student Articles

Below are links to my students’ actual Wikipedia article. I consider many of the articles to be of very good quality, though there are several that need to be cleaned up in terms of their grammar or citations. At least one needs more clarity and clarification. The nature of Wikipedia, however, is that, because it is free and open, others can come along and add, subtract, and rework what my students have done, reaffirming that this Wikipedia project is truly renewable.

 

One More Thanksgiving Lesson: Four Skills and Synthesis Writing

What do you do when you have finished a project the day before and there is one more day before a 4-day holiday? Games? Party? How about some reading and writing?

I love games and fun days “off” from teaching in the classroom, but I wanted to gives students some context and substance for the day they might be celebrating – one which seems like a big deal to many Americans: Thanksgiving.

Newsela provided the source material, which I adapted into a jigsaw, similar to my previous Thanksgiving post.

I began the lesson by asking students about the food they have heard about or eaten for Thanskgiving. I showed a picture of a Thanksgiving spread and went through some of the common foods: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, salad, pumpkin pie, etc. I then asked them why we eat these foods and had them recall the story of Thanksgiving. There were vague notions of harvests and thanking the land. I gave a very brief overview of the story of Thanksgiving, including explaining who Pilgrims and Native Americans are. Then, I introduced the activity for the day. We were going to answer the question: Did the Colonists eat the same foods in 1621 that we eat today?

I explained we would read some information, share it with each other, and then write about it.

Reading

I showed the introduction to the article on the screen so that everyone had the same background. We read and discussed it together.

I then gave students each a different section of the article to read. My adapted version can be downloaded here. In my adapted version, there were four sections: What about Turkey?, Please Pass the Eels, No Pie?, and Modern Thanksgiving.

After reading it for five minutes and me helping students with unknown vocab or concepts, I put students together in groups, jigsaw-style, so that each group member had read a different article.

Speaking and Listening

Students had to share what they had learned from their article. While listening, students had to take notes. I gave about 10 minutes for this activity. Students worked to give their information, clarify (for example, the difference between clams and mussels), and finally, ask me any questions.

Writing

Finally, for the remaining 15-20 minutes, I told students they would need to describe, in writing and using both their article and their notes, the foods eaten during the first Thanksgiving and why our modern Thanksgiving menu is different. I reminded students about writing a clear topic sentence and gave a model outline, though students were free to organize their writing in any way they wanted. I gave feedback as they wrote.

Reflection

I was actually very surprised at the quality of the work. They were able to incorporate many of their partners’ details and most write in a very logical way. I felt, though I did not explain, that this was good practice for synthesizing information, and I think I could use this similar framework for teaching synthesis in the future. I wish students had more time to write, but given the brevity of the class, what they turned in (about a paragraph) seemed very good. I will give some general feedback and return their papers in December. This activity also gave me a chance for informal assessment of writing organization, grammar, mechanics, etc., which I will definitely incorporate into our final weeks together.

Like my previous Thanksgiving lesson, this one was not “fun” in the traditional sense, but was received as very interesting and, as I explained, would make a great conversation topic for anyone sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast.

The Coming War in EAP (Writing)

I write this post at a time where Donald Trump has just won the 2016 presidential election and the future of international education is uncertain. Perhaps this has got me thinking in terms of politics and political metaphors, but the war I am talking about is more detached and niche from the current state of American politics, and even international education.

In fact, the notion of a “war” itself comes from one of Christopher Tribble’s (2016) latest articles in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, called “ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?”. It deals with the current tensions within English for Academic Purposes Writing Instruction (EAPWI, or what we could call #eapacrwri for cool hashtag purposes). The article has a particular emphasis on the native vs. non-native speaker dichotomy and its (mis)application to EAPWI, but I will save that for a future ELT Research Bites post.

In his article, Tribble outlines four major EAPWI paradigms that are now being placed at odds against each other:

  • Intellectual/Rhetorical, based on North Americans freshman comp classes, process writing, and the “essayist” tradition. Think your typical 3.5 paragraph essay.
  • Social/Genre, based on genre analysis, reading exemplar texts, and writing based on disciplinary conventions of moves and stages.
  • Academic Literacies / Critical EAP, based on challenging existing power structures (e.g. professor vs student, university vs student), “subversive discourse” (see Bensch, 2009), and assuming “alternative identities” (see Canagarajah, 2009).
  • English as a Lingua Franca Academic (ELFA), based on the rejection the unequal power structure in which students are forced to conform to native-speaker norms.

While reading the descriptions of these, I couldn’t help but notice loose parallels to major political ideologies in America. For example, the Intellectual/Rhetorical approach seems to share similar ideas to libertarianism, where individual rights are priority and only minor interventions from government are tolerated. In terms of writing, as Tribble argues (p. 31), the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition favors “individual inventiveness” in the essayist tradition, and follows rhetorical conventions without concern for discipline (read: greater society). The Social/Genre approach seems to be aligned with conservatism, favoring tradition (i.e. genre conventions) over individual inventiveness. However, it also promotes analysis, emphasis on audience, and eventually challenged , mirroring more liberal and democratic socialist approaches. The Critical EAP approach is akin to social activism or Marxism, focusing on and challenging power structures. Finally, the EFLA approach parallels anarchism, the absence of authority. Here, all native-speakers and their linguistic products are seen as overly authoritative, and any English that is to flourish must do so without any authority. Again, these are loose parallels drawn while reading with the previous election season still burning in the back of my mind.

Where social activism/anarchism and these EAPWI paradigms really depart is in, as Tribble points out, Critical EAP and EFLA having made little to no impact on pedagogy and instruction (unlike these approaches, social activism and anarchism have made important impacts on society). In fact, he wonders whether it is even worthwhile to critique from the context of pedagogy such approaches that may exist solely to raise issues rather than to be instructional. However, as ELF is making some (and what Tribble considers positive) effects on pronunciation instruction, it must mean EFLA is trying to affect pedagogy in some way. How it is doing so is unclear at this point.

Tribbles explains that Jenkins has put these approaches into a hierarchy, where the Intellectual/Rhetorical and Social/Genre approaches are seen as conforming and therefore lowest on the hierarchy and easiest to negate; Critical EAP is seen as challenging but worthy of the top-tier (Tribbles muses it may be because challenge is doomed to fail), and ELFA is at the pinnacle, seen as a paradigm shift even though, as Tribble points out, it offers no pedagogical applications, and, therefore, what paradigms are actually to be changed is quite opaque.

So, ELFA is setting itself up as the ultimate challenger and is hoping to cause disruptions in other (conformist, challenging) writing approaches. This is mostly achieved by focusing on dichotomies, especially the native vs non-native dichotomy. Tribble does a great job taking apart this notion of native vs. non-native dichotomies in EAPWI. While this is something I will write about in a future post on ELT Research Bites, I’d like to shift back to the “paradigm war” that Tribble refers to.

ELFA is not a sign of a coming war; the war has already been waging for years. The real war here is that the war between the Intellectual/Rhetorical (I/R) and the Social/Genre (S/G) approaches that have been raging for quite some time. Not only is the I/R approach winning in terms of published materials (most major EAP writing coursebooks follow the process writing and I/R approach), but they are still the dominant approach in many university-based English language programs and ESL courses (perhaps because of the coursebooks?).

What’s interesting is that the very foundation of the I/R approach, that is, freshman composition, is actually moving away from essayism and a focus on literature, and instead moving towards the genre-approach. I recently attended a talk by Christine Tardy from the University of Arizona. She talked about the rise of the genre analysis approach in freshman comp, and what is preventing it from flourishing. The subtitle of her talk, based on her research with graduate students teaching English courses, sums it up: “It’s complicated and nuanced, and it takes a lot of time.”

How do you teach genre awareness and genre-based writing if students do not know their major, are from vastly different majors, will have to write in a variety of genres during the beginning of their academic career, or have issues in their language skills that may be better addressed by more traditional approaches to writing? Is the I/R approach more generalizable than the S/G approach? Some research has pointed to the inadequacy of the I/R tradition for preparing students for academic writing. However, S/G may not effectively address these concerns.

Critical EAP and ELF (but not ELFA) have raised valid issues, but don’t seem to be offering anything in the way of real solutions or pedagogical implications. As Tribble points out, “it is necessary to adopt paradigms that will help to meet the needs of our students, rather than attempting to introduce new paradigms which do not appear to be premised on an understanding of how academic written communication differs from speaking” (p. 40). As the new war wages in the distance, mostly in academic journals, the old war still burns bright in the hearts and minds (and hands) of teachers and students, reminding us that the search continues for the best method, even if there is no best method.

References

Benesch, S. (2009). Theorizing and practicing critical English for academic purposes. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(2), 81-85.

Canagarajah, S. (2004). Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses, and critical learning. In B. Norton, & K. Toohey (Eds.), Critical pedagogies and language
learning (pp. 116-137). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tribble, C. (2017). ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 25, 30-44.

Reading with a Purpose: Practical Ideas for Connecting Reading and Writing

There have been a number of scholars who have not only called on pursuing a more connected relationship between reading and writing, but facilitating this through reading with a purpose. If you assign reading, especially if you teach classes that focus on reading (I teach reading-only classes, you may have noticed that often the only purpose of reading is to read, maybe answer a few questions (multiple choice, true false), and maybe use the text as a springboard for related discussion or writing.

The problem here is that this approach neither represents academic reading nor serious or critical engagement with the text. Academic reading rarely approaches reading from a comprehension-check point of vue. Instead, it requires serious engagement with the text in order to learn knowledge, apply knowledge, or critically evaluate related content. In addition, academic reading is often intimately connected with writing.

Even if you do not teach English for academic purposes, our everyday purposes for reading are typically are also not represented by the coursebook. Rarely do we read to check our comprehension. We always read for a purpose: learn something new, support or refute and opinion, apply something we read to a new situation or solve a problem, and even write a blog post about what we read.

Therefore, I’ve made a more focused goal of giving as much purpose as possible to the readings we do in class. For this post, I’m going to focus on an intermediate and advanced reading classes to exemplify some of the assignments I have given and the purposes they fulfill.

Summary – Prove your understanding

Have you ever read an interesting article and then told your friend about it? Have you ever read an anger-inducing article and then wrote about it, but had to boil down the main ideas before you could pick them apart? That is summary at work. It is a very basic writing (and speaking) skill that is applicable in all sorts of situations, especially academic ones.

I make it an effort to stress summary writing for many of our readings. I tell students the purpose of their reading is to explain the article or arguments to another person using their own words and through writing. Summary writing is a very general assignment and, while it may seem like a very didactic and teacher-focused assignment (which, to a large extent it is) it is still a base skill that is needed for many other types of writing. And, it is a gentle way to introduce students to reading with a purpose.

I like to teach summarizing by having students take notes on what they are reading, and reconfigure those notes into bullet-point summaries. Once they have bullet-point summaries down, I show how they can transform those summaries into paragraph summaries. This can further be trimmed to three sentence, one sentence, and Twitter summaries!

Evaluation – Prove your point

Getting students to read and then state their opinion is nice, but it really is not making them responsible for the text. It is simply using the text as an inspiration, or what Leki and Carson (1997) call “non-text responsible writing” – something that serves “to infantilize our students, denying them a stance of engagement with serious and compelling subject matter”.

Instead of offering their opinion of a text, idea, or argument, what students can do is critically evaluate that text, or the idea from another text. For example, students in my intermediate reading class read a bland article about fast food that you could find in pretty much any coursebook. One of the paragraphs focused on the negative health effects of fast food and contained a single sentence that stated fast food restaurants are trying to address these effects by introducing healthier food. My students also read this LA Times article (from Newsela, at a slightly lower level) that presented research which claimed “that the location where foods are obtained may not be as important as the nutritional quality of the foods consumed;” in other words, overall diet played a more important role than fast food restaurants, and in fact, often influenced a person’s choice about eating fast food.

I didn’t assign any questions or quizzes about this article. I simply told students we are going to use this research-based argue to evaluate whether fast food restaurants offering healthy choices would be effective for reducing obesity. Students had to write a paragraph explaining their evaluation of this move, and support their evaluation with evidence from the reading. Some students struggled because they did not know how to use an article as support (another crucial skill). Others simply wanted to give their opinion unrelated to the article. But, after working with students, there were many successful assignments completed.

Student Example

Almost all the customers tend to choose meals that are include a lot of fats, sugar, and salt if the restaurants offer fruits, salad, and yogurt. In addition, we don’t gain weight or become obese just because we eat fast-food. According to the research, people who eat non-fast food are also overweight or obese. Therefore, fast-food restaurants that offer healthy meals would not be effective for avoiding overweight and obese. Because not only fast-foods but also other high calorie foods are the reason why we become overweight or obese.

 

Comparison – Show the connection

Being able to compare and contrast two arguments, two ideas, or two texts gives student great practice in summary, evaluation, and explanation. However, trying to find a text that is similar to the generic ones in most coursebooks is often difficult, but not impossible. In one of my advanced reading classes, the coursebook an excerpt from two books: Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman and The Struggle to Be an All-American Girl by Elizabeth Wong. These excerpts focused on students adapting to different cultures and gave my readers a great chance to explore comparison and contrast. They read both articles with the purpose of comparing the authors’ experiences. Not only did this give them a realistic purpose for reading, but it also helped them focus their reading skills, making them pay attention to things they could compare and contrast.

Student Example

Eva Hoffman and Elizabeth Wong have two similar and two different experiences with each other. The first similarity between them is adapting to a new language and culture. For example, just as  Eva became cold in her language and more careful in speaking, such as trying not to be direct and loud or using gestures closely as Canadians, so did Elizabeth. Chinese was embarrassing for her and “[her] favorite heroine never spoke Chinese”, so she probably did not like any Chinese heroines. The second similarity between Eva and Elizabeth is the loss of their mother’s authority over their children. In the same way that Eva’s mother lost her sureness of controlling her children and did not know the new rules to know what they were are doing, Elizabeth’s mother failed at in controlling her children to be Chinese and they felt more American and multicultural.

 

Students can also compare ideas within a text. Newsela offers a great number of PRO/CON articles that offer two expert perspectives on an issue. For an upcoming reading test in an advanced class, students will read this article about the $15 minimum wage controversy. Their purpose for reading this is to understand the two authors’ arguments and choose one to support based on which argument is presented the most persuasively. Their writing assignment requires them to summarize the main arguments by comparing and contrasting them, and then based on the arguments, explain which position they support.

Application – Apply your understanding

These are often my most creative assignments in terms of academic writing. They ask students to take what they have read and learned and apply it to a new situation, often offering suggestions or recommendations. This works especially well for articles that discuss research. For example, intermediate level students just read an article on the different effects of music. Instead of simply answering questions about the article (which we did do for intensive reading practice), students also had to take the research in the books and apply it to our institute. I asked students to suggest how we could use music to improve student experiences. It was made explicit that they needed to use the article to support their suggestion. This require them to read the article with a view on what is practical and could potentially apply to their (student) lives. Here is a writing that I got:

Student Example

I think ELI could use music to improve students experiences. According to the reading passage, music can affect humans in different ways. Also, it can help students when they study and have to relieve stress. If students have problem about memorizing, music can help them. Because music has strong influence on memory. For example, if ELI teachers make songs that relate with English words, students who have hard time to remember English words can memorize that more easily. Also, listening to music is good way for releasing stress and relaxing body. Research in the article The Power of Music shows that lots of doctors utilize music to reduce stress. So it is useful to ELI students who are stressful because of studying or preparing exam. And if we find songs that make us relax and feel better, it will be good for students or teachers too.

 

These are but a few examples of the different ways we can transform generic readings, ones which often have a reading-only focus, into purpose-driven writing assignments that ask students to engage with the text. This approach to reading/writing gives students crucial practice in important skills and makes reading more authentic, and in my opinion, more enjoyable.

References
Leki, I., & Carson, J. (1997). “Completely different worlds”: EAP and the writing experiences of ESL students in university courses. TESOL quarterly,31(1), 39-69.