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March 11, 2008

The background, motivation, and learning style of Jingbo

In this endeavor, I focused upon an individual learner’s background, motivation, and learning style to get an impression of that student’s past experience studying language. After working with a few ESL students as a volunteer tutor at the East Lake branch of the Minneapolis Public Library, I decided to interview Jingbo, a Chinese student at the intermediate English level. Jingbo grew up in the southeastern region of China near Shanghai, but she’s been in Minneapolis since March of 2007 because her father found employment as a computer engineer.

In China, Jingbo studied English from middle school onward. Until she started taking classes here in Minneapolis, the focus of her studies in a classroom setting had been primarily directed at grammar skills, reading and writing. Her exposure to and practice of oral communication skills was minimal in the classroom, even though much emphasis was placed on listening comprehension. Still, I am struck by her objective description of language study in Chinese schools. While she indicated what was missing from the classroom, she never offered any negative criticism about her past teachers. Clearly she values her education and respects the teachers that have taught her.

As she’s already had plenty of practice reading and writing, she now prefers lessons that are more communicative, giving ample attention to speaking. For many language learners, the English language classroom is just as social an environment as it is educational.

Through self-guided studies outside of school, Jingbo has developed her English skills. What she missed in the classroom, she attempted to compensate for at home by listening to English conversation tapes and doing workbook exercises. With this in mind, we can appreciate why she considers herself an independent learner.

Living in a predominantly English speaking country surely motivates Jingbo to further her grasp of the language. Also, she needs to be more fluent in English because she wants to be able to find a job or get in to a college after high school graduation. Luckily, as she has become a permanent resident, she has the opportunity to learn the language as it is spoken by native speakers through oral and informal contexts. Frodesen (2001) states that “because explicit grammar instruction has not been a significant part of [permanent residents’] English language education, the knowledge that permanent residents have about English grammar tends to be implicit, similar to that of native English language speakers��? (p. 235). Still, Jingbo and other L2 language learners require grammar instruction that distinguishes the differences between the learners’ L1 language.

Some of her current high school homework included the composition of a letter in the style or voice of a character set in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as well as a book report/ interpretive vignette in the style of a graphic novel. The library provided ample examples of graphic novels for her to model her work, and in conversation I referred her to some of my favorite texts within this genre. The latter exercise may be an attempt for her teacher to incorporate visuals and task-oriented activities to promote critical thinking about the text (Richard-Amato, 2005, p. 203). Also, in a Social Studies class, I helped her in her writing of a reflective essay on her home culture. Here, her task was to create an argument comparing differences between cultures and weighing the strengths of each. Like many native English speakers her age, she had some difficulty in distinguishing parallel aspects of each culture to compare.

Jingbo practices English outside the classroom in several varied ways. She develops receptive skills by reading National Geographic and by watching films and TV shows. She chats with her Chinese friends in English via the internet, and she keeps a notebook of useful sentences as a personal reference guide. These activities utilize both receptive and productive skills. Lastly, she goes shopping; this may not be a strategy for learning English, but it gives an experiential context to the learning procedure. Also, she doesn’t seem particularly interested in dictionaries or other reference books; this, too, contributes to my feeling that she is a more independent, experiential learner. After interacting with Jingbo as a tutor, I would argue that she is an intermediate, and possibly an upper-intermediate student.

Language competence

After getting an impression of Jingbo’s learning styles and strategies from our initial conversations, observing her communicative skills within the group setting, and looking through homework samples, I conducted a series of diagnostic tasks to gauge her strengths and weaknesses in English. These tasks consisted of listening, speaking, and writing.

Listening

Jingbo performed remarkably well during the listening task. I discussed my busy weekend of entertaining guests, and how things didn’t exactly work out as planned. I talked for about 7 minutes, and when I asked her several comprehension questions she answered every question accurately. As I wanted to make this an authentic conversation, perhaps I unconsciously graded my language to her level. Here, I might also comment that my natural speaking voice is not particularly fast, so maybe the speed of my speech positively affected her understanding. While this may have created a somewhat inauthentic exercise, as I tried to enunciate clearly whereas many people she interacts with when shopping may tend to speak in one abrupt slur of sounds, I feel this demonstrates to the student the importance of understanding each other in oral communication. Indeed, Richard-Amato and Snow (2005) list this basic instructional strategy for teaching ELL students, but they suggest to “avoid distorting your delivery to the point at which it becomes unnatural and condescending" (p. 207). In general, Jingbo coped with the exercise very well even though she did make occasional odd thoughtful expressions.

Speaking

Altogether, Jingbo’s speaking was also quite fluent and mostly accurate. I simply asked her to tell me a story that had a beginning, middle, and end. She displayed a fairly wide range of vocabulary while her intonation sounded natural. These attributes prevented me from mistaking her meaning.

As I was taking notes, I cannot provide a full record of Jingbo’s speaking patterns. Still, with those errors I did notice, I could compare them with Jung Chang’s (2001) explanation of trends that most Chinese people display in their English abilities (pp. 311-12). Four particular misplaced phonemes stood out – all of these deal with consonants. The voiced dental fricative /ð/ and the voiceless dental fricative /θ/ were substituted by Jingbo according to Chang’s analysis: “/θ/ is likely to be replaced with /t/, /f/, or /s/, and /ð/ by /d/ or /z/" (p. 311). Also, when Jingbo used words that used the /v/ phoneme, she pronounced it as a /w/ or /f/ sound depending on whether the consonant preceded a vowel or not. Lastly, instead of pronouncing the /z/ phoneme, Jingbo adjusted her speech by using the /s/ phoneme. In general, these errors present themselves because the Chinese language does not utilize these particular phonemes.

In describing a purchase that she wanted to make at the store, she went to “customer service to pay it." This could either be an omission of the word “for," or confusion over the difference between “buy" and “pay." One way to address this issue is to provide mini-lessons on word families, “with many words built around a particular root", so that students can make associations among words and distinguish the particular differences among them (De Carrico, 2001, p. 287). The other errors that I noticed all dealt with tense formation, or rather the lack thereof. Twice she neglected the past participle of “ask"; she did the same to the word “know".

Writing

For the writing exercise, Jingbo wrote a letter to her good friend in China. This writing prompt was chosen to relate directly to her authentic, meaningful life experiences, instead of some arbitrary issue that she may or may not hold any meaningful positions regarding. Here, I attempted to reflect Hymes’ concept of communicative competence, and communicative language teaching, which “[promote] fluency over accuracy. . . consequently [shifting] the focus from sentence-level forms to discourse-level forms" (De Carrico, 2001, p. 286). Without question, students benefit greatly from exercises that lead to mastery of modes of discourse they will find practical or meaningful in their pursuit of pleasure, power, or virtue.

While the structure of her written composition is well composed and has a natural flow, Jingbo misunderstood the task. She was supposed to imagine that she was writing a letter to a friend after her return to China, but instead wrote about how she misses China and when she plans to return. There are several errors but overall she communicates with appropriate language. She correctly uses the present perfect, the “going to" future, and the future simple, but most of the sentences are in the present simple form. This suggests that she is uncomfortable with language expressing complex time relations. To assist her with this issue, a teacher might provide her samples of writing that include similar errors; through error recognition exercises of others’ writing, she might, as Ferris (1995) states, “become more aware of similar problems in [her] own writing" (p. 19).

The most recurring errors involve either the omission or the misuse of prepositions, so we can assume that she could benefit from further instruction on basic meanings of prepositions as well as collocations. As De Carrico (2001) notes, “‘Knowing a word’ includes not only knowing the meaning of a word, its part of speech, and its word family and other associations, but it also means knowing if its occurrence is restricted by certain collocations" (p. 293). The spelling errors were minimal, so I would not focus further instruction in her spelling. There are various grammar points that might be useful to clarify to her concerning why she should conjugate certain words appropriately.

Problem areas and suggestions

• Jingbo needs to practice using prepositions accurately; she might benefit from a grammar activities book, or notice preposition usage in literature that interests her.
• She could work on fluency by examining word families or associations, or by joining other social groups that speak primarily in English (e.g., clubs, volunteer programs, community organizing). Here, language is best developed in a meaningful, self-motivating way.
• She needs to work on problem sounds by practicing speech in her daily life, or by reaching out to language-based audio cassettes or self study books.
• She needs practice using variety of tenses and should seek out a concise, accessible textbook.

References

Chang, J. (2001). Chinese speakers. In Swan, M. & Smith, B. Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems. 2nd Edition. (pp. 310-324). Cambridge University Press.

De Carrico, J. (2001). Vocabulary learning and teaching. In Celce-Murcia, M. (Ed.) Teaching English as a second or foreign language. 3rd Edition. (pp. 285-299). Heinle & Heinle.

Ferris, D. (1995). Teaching students to self-edit. TESOL Journal, (4), 18-22.

Frodesen, J. (2001). Grammar in writing. In Celce-Murcia, M. (Ed.) Teaching English as a second or foreign language. 3rd Edition. (pp. 233-248). Heinle & Heinle.

Richard-Amato, P. & Snow, M. (2005). Instructional strategies for K-12 mainstream teachers. In Richard-Amato, P. & Snow, M. Academic success for English language learners: Strategies for K-12 mainstream teachers. (pp. 197-223). Longman.

February 28, 2008

Building classroom community around conversation and safe conflict

Reading Chapter 4 of Faltis's text, an example of working through student challenges of adjusting to new grammar rules caught my attention. As an ELL student consistently struggles with the conjugation of verbs, and their agreement with the subject they describe, the teacher decides to compare the differences between Standard English and the student's native language. This teacher writes examples of each on the board, side by side, and initiates a discussion of how each language conveys the same idea differently. This activity has a built-in function of respect for the student's culture and history of ideas, while providing them with the opportunity to compare the two languages side by side. This helps them to contextualize how the two languages differ (or, possibly, how the languages are similar) – it appeals to their authentic experiences and ties their learning of new information with the wealth of previously learned ideas. Furthermore, this exercise is not limited to the ELL classroom. All students might benefit from this sort of multicultural exchange of ideas, and without question many students benefit from grammar practice – especially, if it rings true to their experiences with each other.

Within the concluding statements in Fu's My Trouble is My English, she recognizes the flawed nature of schools and teachers that do not know how to teach students struggling with developing new language skills. Instead Fu asserts that too many teachers, especially those in high schools, focus too much of their attention on students' achievements on standardized tests. They feel pressured to drill students on the jargon "required" to pass these tests instead of guiding them through meaningful explorations of ideas. These teachers are curriculum-centered as opposed to student-centered.

Fu also mentions how students benefit greatly from speaking – conversation supports the social growth of ELL students, and provides practice speaking. Conversation provides opportunities for excellence as well as mistakes; with the awareness of mistakes students have meaningful experiences that help reinforce the importance of doing something right.

One of the great challenges as a teacher is building community within the classroom. Fu states, “In order to encourage [students] to speak up and participate in class activities, teachers have to build classrooms into friendly communities through constant group sharing and cooperative group activities" (Fu, 198-9). Conversation and sharing of multicultural experiences can help encourage students to think of the classroom as a place where they can hash out conflicts in safe, engaging, and interesting ways. Perhaps the building of organic communities within classrooms might provide the intrinsic motivation for students to perform well on the standardized tests so far removed from the reality of their experiences and interests.

February 14, 2008

Reflections on Fu's "My Trouble is My English"

Considering the challenges of the Laotian youths, in Fu’s study My Trouble is My English, to successfully adjust to cultural differences in American schools, in addition to the challenges of becoming fluent in the English language in all required subject matter, as educators how can our hearts not go out to them? It’s really amazing how each student struggles to personally fit into this new culture. Tan resists the rudeness and superficial interests of his peers, the artificiality of school-related tasks (e.g., the formulaic book reports for English class, and the exercises in the ESL classroom), and the disparate emphases of schooling between his new home and Laos. Paw longs to excel in her classes, but also resists conformity, and (quite literally) wants to test out the water (and observe) before she decides what her place is in this new culture. Cham has become taken in by the glamorous images, and false promises, perpetuated in the capitalistic American trash culture, and wants to become wealthy and leisurely, but misses the greater ideological principles that this country was supposedly founded upon. Meanwhile, Sy has moved from 2nd grade to 6th grade within one year, so there’s a lot of uncertainty in what’s ahead in both the near future, as well as the distant future.

Generally, I think the strongest point we can take from this reading is how ineffective worksheets, and other inauthentic busywork tasks, are in establishing sound pedagogical strategies in working with English language learners (ELL) in American high schools. Fu rightly recognizes Rosenblatt’s thoughts on creating authentic learning experiences for students that engage their personal feelings and experiences, such that they make connections between the material they’re learning and the material they already know. She also points out that Vygotsky “believed [that] learning happens in areas where learners have already mastered part of the knowledge" (p. 75). As Tan reveals in his narrative of escaping from Laos into the refugee camps of Thailand, his story has enormous significance and power to his experience, as well as to those hearing it for the first time. He should be working on his writing through these narratives, arguments, and positions that he already holds, not simply regurgitating a text whose vocabulary is too confusing (only because he chose a more difficult text that he was somewhat interested in). For one less tangible reason, if his fellow students could share in this narrative, more of them would respect his experiences and where he comes from. Hopefully, this exercise could lead to him opening up more with his new peers in school.

It’s also important to recognize the cultural differences that make it difficult for these students to adjust to our own culture. Paw reveres her teachers, and doesn’t feel that it’s her place to speak freely in class – she feels that in her culture, it’s not her place to talk, as a girl. Poor Sy lost his only friend Dick after he was reprimanded by a teacher for mimicking his friend’s behavior – his response to the teacher’s reaction was very much a remnant from Laotian culture (respect for teachers). Most importantly, all of these students are very self-conscious of their speaking ability, and how other students will assume that they’re less intelligent based on their lack of fluency. Absolutely imperative to any language practice is just getting out there and doing it – becoming brave and struggling until you feel you can at least spit out most of what you’re thinking. Cham has the right idea in pushing himself to read aloud before the class, despite his strong accent; he clearly longs to be accepted in this new culture and assimilate within it.

I cannot say that the text surprised me all that much. After living in Japan for a year, and traveling in Central America, I know how it feels to struggle with a language – that it’s often easier to be passive in your actions (e.g., waiting your turn). Of course, I have no idea what it’s like to be forced to leave your country in search of freedom. Overall, it’s important to recognize the many challenges students in ELL/ESL programs face in adapting to a new culture while learning a language.