Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Numbers - Pronunciation & Listening

January 17, 2017 Heather

Pronouncing numeric expressions, and understanding them when listening, is an important skill for our English language learners. After teaching about how the main stress of the expression is placed on the last syllable (either the last number or the unit, if there is one), I had them do a series of activities to practice.

Using Wikipedia, I found entries on Hammond, Indiana (the city in which our university is located), as well as other cities, such as Rome and Moscow. In the passages are many numeric and statistical facts. I had them take turns reading their respective passage aloud to their partner. Meanwhile, the partner would write down any expressions they could. During a second reading, they listened for specific facts. I must credit Renata Phelps for this activity, which she described in her article in the ITBE Link, "Numbers in Context - A DIY Activity." 

Below is the text that Student 1 would see and read to his/her partner.

After a first listening, he/she would listen again and note the following specific details.

Person 2 would then read his/her section (the second half of the article.) Overall, it seemed to be good practice. The students were pleasantly surprised at how many statistics they could write down in the first part, but they realized they had no idea what they meant. The second listening was important for them to target their listening and put the numbers in context. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Process Writing Prompts

November 14, 2016 Heather

For my advanced writing class, it has been somewhat of a challenge to come up with appropriate process prompts. I like the idea of describing a process, as it is an authentic academic task, requires advanced objective language (formal tone, passives, focus on objects and procedures rather than people, adjective clauses, etc.). It is also more challenging for students than the typical ESL topics, such as "Should cell phones be used in the classroom?" and "Culture Shock." However, it is difficult to select processes that do not required extensive research or background knowledge. So far, I have come up with two lists:

a) "Ready-to-Write" Process Prompts - For these prompts, I supply a chart or outline of content for each step. Students need to organize the information, expand and describe, include examples, and produce a polished piece with a thesis statement, topic sentences, introduction, and conclusion. These prompts work well at any time, but also for in-class assessment.

  • Modern Education: a) Elementary/Secondary Education; b) Post-secondary/University Education; and c) On-the-job training/Internships
  • The Water Cycle: a) Precipitation; b) Surface Runoff; c) Evaporation and Transpiration; d) Condensation
  • Recycling Plastics: a) Collection; b) Sorting and Cleaning; c) Melting and Re-processing
  • How Products Get to Consumers: a) Manufacturing; b) Packaging/Transportation; c) Selling at Stores
  • Air Transportation: Booking Flights; Check-in; Security Screening; Boarding 

b) "Need-Prep" Process Prompts  - These are prompts that require students to read articles or watch videos to glean information on the process in order to write their paragraph or essay. Usually, I supply them with quality resources. For these assignments, I focus on source integration (direct quotes and paraphrases), as plagiarism can be a temptation here.

  • Uber 
  • GPS
  • Starting a New Business
  • Water Cycle 
  • Product Life Cycle 

c) "Hybrid" Process Prompts - I think sometimes it may be a good idea to have students research a process and take notes. But then, for to compensate for reading/listening ability or lack of background knowledge, I will also give them a chart of information to use.

  • Product Life Cycle - I first had them watch a video (recorded business lecture), but then supplied them with the following notes to which they could compare their own with. This helped the students who were not as familiar with business topics.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEL-m4dnSlY “The Product Life Cycle” by Education Unlocked
STEP 1: Take notes

Step 2: Compare your notes with this information. Is there any information from the video you can add?

What are some examples to use for each stage?
Examples, support
Think of specific products and companies
  • ·       New product or invention
  • ·       Lots of research, development, and testing
  • ·       Not a lot of companies (maybe only one)
  • ·       Few people know about it yet
  • ·       Might be free samples to promote it
  • ·       Product is expensive to buy
  • ·       Low sales – few people buy it
  • ·       Producer/seller doesn’t make much profit yet

  • ·       Company finds cheaper ways to produce
  • ·       Company makes a large profit
  • ·       More companies start selling
  • ·       Lots of advertising
  • ·       Consumers getting excited
  • ·       Becomes really popular

  • ·       Many companies produce/sell
  • ·       Companies need to find ways to be different from competitors (colors, new features, prices, etc)
  • ·       Prices decrease
  • ·       Product is less exciting and new
  • ·       Most people have this product

  • ·       Consumers are not excited
  • ·       Consumers already have the product
  • ·       New products are more interesting (e.g. technology)
  • ·       Companies sell less
  • ·       Companies do not make a profit
  • ·       Companies should find a new product

Step 3: Organize the information

With the information on the chart, number and organize the details. See this one as an example. You don’t need to use ALL the examples you can think of à only choose two or three products you think are good support for that paragraph.

  • ·       Company finds cheaper ways to produce - 5
  • ·       Company makes a large profit – 6
  • ·       More companies start selling – 4

o   E.g. companies making fitness trackers à Fitbit (original), now others: Nike Fuelband, Digifit iCardio, Jawbone Up
o   E.g. smart watches – Apple (original); now other companies: Samsung, etc.
  • ·       Lots of advertising – 1
  • ·       Consumers getting excited - 2
  • ·       Becomes really popular – 3

o   E.g. fitness trackers, smart watches, virtual reality games, etc.

Fitbit – fitness tracker
Smart watches
Virtual reality games
3D printers
Electric cars

Step 4: Plan your intro and concluding paragraphs

Introduction strategy (choose one or two):
__ Startling fact
__ Anecdote (briefly tell the story of a company and what happened to their product)
__ Give historical background
__ Give general background about new products

Conclusion strategy (choose one or two):
__ Give advice to new business owners
__ Make predictions about how this cycle may change in the future (with technology, as consumers change, etc.)
__ Give explanations as to why products follow this cycle? (what does this show us about human nature and consumer behavior?)
__ Talk about why knowing about this cycle is important for people and who should care about this

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Molly the Mentor" Training Video

September 08, 2016 Heather

I put together this training video to show our domestic peer mentors how to interact with ESL students in class.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Comment: Teaching grammatical voice to computer science majors (Johnson & Lyddon, 2016)

June 01, 2016 Heather

I was interested in this article for three reasons. First, after teaching an advanced writing course for many years, I know how difficult it is to teach the passive voice. I find that my students often come in with a smattering of ability to use the passive voice naturally (probably because they've picked it up from natural discourse), but struggle when we focus on it explicitly. My Arabic speakers often make errors where they use half passive and half active voicing (e.g. "He was read.."), where they insert the be verb when it's not needed. After such focus, I find that they start to insert passive structures into their papers in places that actually call for active. The second reason this article caught my attention is because I am trying to prepare my students for technical writing, much of which calls for the use of the passive voice. I hope hoping to clean something useful due to its context with computer science majors. Lastly, the subtitle of the article reads, "The case of the less proficient English learners," which clearly describes my student population.

Literature Review

I found the introduction and literature review fairly interesting and useful. They did a good job of confirming why it is still important to teach and use the passive voice. A colleague who was editing my work once told me that I should never use the passive voice, which I thought was strange since the proper use of the passive v.s. active voice simply depends on the context (choice of focus, etc.).

Apparently, in the 1980's there was a move to encourage use of the first person in academic writing in order to "allow for more personal comment, narration and stylistic variation" (p. 2). Fortunately, now things have shifted back.

"Biber and Conrad (2009) found that the use of the passive was particularly evident in research articles, especially so in the methodology sections...They conclude that the advice to avoid the use of the passive, often found in writing guides, is 'misguided' (p. 122). Swales (2006) is able to confirm through a corpus-based analysis of authorial stance across social and material science disciplines that the passive is important in reporting scientific research since it 'enables emphasis to be given to the work rather than the researcher who performs it' (p. 509)" (qtd. in Johnson & Lyddon, 2016, p. 4).

The article also provides a good overview on why exactly the passive voice is so difficult. Some of it stems from the L1. As an example, apparently in Asian languages (about which I know very little), "it is difficult or impossible for an inanimate subject to take on [the] property of agency" (p. 2). The example they gave in the article was: The thermometer measures the temperature, a sentence which could not exist in some languages. They would then want to say, We measure temperature with a thermometer. This latter sentence is one we would want to change to avoid the "we" and thus say Temperature is measured by a thermometer, which is still awkward to them since an inanimate object is still doing something. Another issue is that some verbs that are transitive in English are not in other languages, and vice versa.

Issues with the Article

First, the authors emphasize that grammar textbooks currently available do not do an adequate job in teaching anything more than form, relating to the passive construction. I disagree. The textbooks I have used in the past 10 years all cover quite extensively the meaning and use. For instance, the rules of using passive voice when a) the agent is unknown; b) the agent is assumed and it is not necessary to mention; c) we want to avoid mentioning the agent; or d) we simply want to focus on the object or action, rather than the agent. I regularly go through these patterns, along with a lot of practice. Most of this comes right from the books. I am not sure what grammar textbooks are available in Japan, however.

My second and most important concern relates to the study itself--the research question and methodology. Basically, their study aimed to see if a basic three-session module on passives was effective. In describing their "instructional approach," the authors used a lot of flowery academic language to present what is a very basic PPP (present, practice, produce) lesson plan format. Phases 1 and 2 include verbal explanations and presentation of the material using charts and diagrams. Then, Phase 3 is some type of communicative activity, followed by a reflection-type activity/self-assessment. This is how grammar is usually taught. The authors here called it concept-based instruction  (CBI), which is something I have never heard of, probably because such a notion is so completely elementary in our field. I am familiar with content-based instruction and task-based instruction. But concept-based instruction in my view seems to mean instruction in general, again harking back to the PPP model. Nothing new here.

So I ask, isn't this simply classroom research, where an instructor wants to see whether students met a certain learning outcome or whether a new teaching method was effective using a pre- and post-test? In this case, it is hardly worth publishing, in my opinion.


Johnson, N.H. & P.A. Lyddon, P.A. (2016). Teaching grammatical voice to computer science majors: The case of the less proficient language learners. English for Specific Purposes, 41, 1-11. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

ESL Writing for STEM 4 - Lab Reports

May 16, 2016 Heather
Lab reports

One of the purposes in delving into STEM writing in the first place was that one of the engineering professors at our university expressed frustration at international students not being able to adequately write lab reports. As a starting point, I gave students a very basic format consisting of introduction, experimental procedure, and results. They did two brief activities using this format. The first activity involved watching a short Youtube video of a man doing an experiment to determine how much sugar is actually in a can of soda pop. The second activity was a set of lab notes I had written up, based on a fictitious experiment to test the effectiveness of three types of hand-sanitizers. The notes included the research question, materials, brief notes on the procedure, and the results, including photos of the bacteria growth in petri dishes. The students were then able to utilize the information from the notes and what they observed from the images to draw conclusions on the most effect product. Together, these two smaller writing assignments worked well to provide my English language learners a more authentic context to describe a process and discuss the results. This also provided the groundwork for them to conduct and write about their own hands-on lab.

Planning a lab for English language learners can be challenging to due restraints in facilities, equipment, and technical know-how. Because I needed something for them to do in the classroom, I fell back on an old standby: the absorbency of diapers. From experience, I knew that students always enjoyed the process of extracting the tiny granules from a diaper and watching them expand to absorb a large quantity of dyed water. But this time, I wanted to expand the activity to compare three brands of diapers. In pairs, I had the students take one diaper from each brand—Pampers, Huggies, and Target (generic)—and first record the qualitative data on each, including softness and elasticity, as well as measure the dimensions and cost per diaper. Then, they measured the absorbency by pouring dyed water into each and recording the amount at saturation. This provided an engaging hands-on activity on which to base their paper.

In a multi-draft formal report, students included an introduction on the purpose of this experiment. The second section was a description of each diaper, based on their notes, and the third section described in detail—and using the passive voice, where possible—the procedure used to measure the absorbency. Here is an example from one student:
Once the measurement and observation were taken, each edge of diaper were cut to extract its granules which is found on the padding of the diaper. After extracting the granules, they were poured into a plastic cup. Then, colored water, which is used to give better visibility in absorbency, was added until the material was saturated. Eventually, the capacity of the water that was observed was recorded.
This student was able to effectively utilize the passive voice in describing the process.

Finally, the conclusion of their report gave a recommendation of which brand was the best buy overall.

Benefits and Challenges

In the course of the semester, my students had learned how to effectively describe a process, work that process into a simple lab report, and then move into a more developed full-length paper. A major benefit included the fact that STEM topics naturally provide good opportunities to use the grammar structures learned in class—sentence combining, transitions, and the passive voice. These topics also seemed to be engaging, since they are academic in nature and students can see the benefit of these writing tasks. The real challenge, on the other hand, was coming up with prompts that are STEM-based but did not require extensive background knowledge or research. Another issue that arises is the problem with plagiarism. Given the technical nature of these topics, students are much more inclined to take explanations and definitions from the Internet without appropriately citation. Still, using STEM topics and tasks in writing has been worthwhile, even though in some ways it targets lower on Bloom’s (1954) taxonomy of critical thinking.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

ESL Writing for STEM 3 - Process Writing

May 16, 2016 Heather
Process writing assignments

One of the rhetorical patterns in our textbook, but one which we had not previously used, is the process pattern. We had been focusing mainly on the summary/response and argument essays—again, which we thought would promote more critical thinking. However, I realized that the process essay might be more representative of some of the technical writing our students would be required to do in their STEM classes. For instance, writing lab reports would often require a section or two that describes what happened or how something works. In developing the process writing component, the main challenge was developing STEM-related prompts that did not require too much technical background information. Three of the most successful prompts were to describe a) the water cycle, b) the process of recycling plastics, and c) how a product gets to the consumer.

For the water cycle prompt, students were given a diagram which provided them with the most important vocabulary—precipitation, evaporation, runoff, water table, transpiration, and condensation (see Figure 1). From there, students were able to expand their ideas on each step, giving examples and detail. They also incorporated the transitions and signals that they had learned in earlier courses and reviewed here. Overall, the students did well with it and seemed to enjoy a fresh topic (ecology) to write about.

Figure 1. Sample prompt given.

Next, as an in-class writing assignment, students wrote a multi-paragraph essay describing how plastics are recycled. They based their essays on a three-step flow chart (see Figure 2), providing them with some key points. In this case, the aim was to assess their description skills, not their knowledge of recycling. But the students were able to use the understanding that they did have to build and develop the ideas in the prompt. Although the goal wasn’t to stimulate creative thinking, it was clear from their essays which students applied themselves to really build and develop their ideas and which students simply wrote about the basic points on the flowchart. The manufacturing prompt was of a similar nature and produced similar results in student writing.

Figure 2. Sample prompt given

ESL Writing for STEM 2 - Hands-on Short-Answer Writing

May 16, 2016 Heather
Hands-on science activities with short-answer writing

In many cases, I simply wish to give students basic writing practice using STEM-related prompts, rather than craft complete essays. I was drawn to activities from elementary school science class. Initially, I wondered if my students would find this somewhat insulting, as they were projects and topics that I remember from fourth grade. But in reality, they seemed to enjoy this. I wondered if in their country, education was not so hands-on and perhaps they did not engage in such activities.

One activity was to make homemade flashlights. After reading some articles and reviewing diagrams of electric circuits and their components, I distributed to each pair of students a AA battery, small light bulb, copper wire, paperclips, and some cardboard and tape for mounting. After they all spent some time putting it together, each group had quite a unique looking flashlight, some of which worked more successfully than others. Then, I had the students write a short paragraph explaining how their flashlight worked. Sample language would include such sentences as:

First, the electricity flowed from the battery terminal into the contact on the end of the light bulb. The filament inside the bulb illuminates and emits lights. The electricity flows out again and through the copper wire to the negative electrode on the battery. A switch on the wire can either break the circuit or let the electricity continue flowing.

Another activity involved growing bacteria cultures. I had our department order in two sets of petri dishes pre-filled with agar. In groups, the students decided which surfaces to swab for their cultures. Key vocabulary included bacteria, exposure, surface, replicate, incubate, and so on. I took the petri dishes home and left them for a couple of days inside my oven with the light on, which resulted in a nice warm environment for the bacteria to grow. Back in the classroom, they wrote answers to a series of short-answer questions, requiring the use of the target vocabulary.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

ESL Writing for STEM 1 - Bloom's Taxonomy

May 10, 2016 Heather

This is a multi-series post on my ESL writing experiences this past semester.


As educators, we wear many hats. Besides imparting knowledge and skills, it is natural for us to feel the duty to instill values and a sense of responsibility and initiative. In an intensive program, our main focus is to prepare our students for success in their mainstream classes. They need not only academic language skills, but also study skills and intercultural competence. They need to learn how to respect their peers, manage their time, and think critically. And being the noble teachers we are, we try to tackle it all. Just as a parent.

A topic that often resurfaces is critical thinking, and I believe Bloom’s Taxonomy (1954) has been the most influential work here. In many a staff meeting, I have heard the argument for more focus on critical thinking. It is true that many of our students come from educational backgrounds where little critical thinking is required of them beyond answering test questions and memorizing facts. Instructors have bemoaned the fact that students struggle to come up with “something new” and “creative” in their essays. We all nod our heads and get out Bloom’s triangle and talk about how to move them up from the basic foundation of recalling knowledge to the tip, which is synthesis and evaluation.

I do agree that helping ESL writers progress through these academic processing stages – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation – would be ideal. In order to foster the type of critical thinking involved in some of these higher-level stages, many ESL and English composition instructors adopt standard rhetorical patterns. Some standard models are the argument and summary/response models. For the past five years, I have taught an advanced ESL writing class each semester and have worked to help my students develop their arguments and bring in outside sources as support; however, it is like banging my head against the wall to get them to give any new type of argument I haven’t heard before. When they do come up with something “creative,” it is difficult to comprehend due to the language limitations.

Because of the challenges in expressing new ideas, most teachers and students prefer to stick to the basic ESL topics: education, the environment, and technology, to name a few. We are all familiar with these topics. Our textbooks are built primarily around them. I suppose that many assume liberal arts topics are the right place to plant the seed of critical thinking in our students. But is there really anything new about environment, education, and technology? These are actually safe places for our students to pump out trite sentences like, “Studying abroad is beneficial because it helps students learn a new culture and language. For example, I had a friend who…”

As most of my students plan to matriculate into STEM-related undergraduate programs, I realize that in reality much of what they will be doing, language-wise, relates in fact to the lower-levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy - knowledge and comprehension. Isn’t that a better place to begin for language learners? They will need to learn critical thinking skills at some point, but perhaps it would be wiser if as language educators we focused on the main hat we wear.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Examining word-level stress patterns: Comment on Murphy & Kandil (2004)

May 02, 2016 Heather
In their study, Murphy and Kandil (2004) run an analysis on the Academic Word List (Coxhead , 2000) to categorize stress patterns. Their aim, I believe, was to determine which word-stress patterns were the most common, and thus help instructors focus their efforts on teaching those particular patterns. They developed a numeric convention to group words by their common stress patterns: 3-2 means that a word with three syllables would have its primary stress on the second syllable (e.g. commitment); 5-3-1 would be a word with five syllables, the primary stress being on the third syllable, and a secondary stress on the first syllable (e.g. theoretical). The results of their analysis shows that of the 525 headwords in the AWL, there were 39 distinct patterns, but over 90% of these words have only 14 of those word-stress patterns. Looking at their results table (p. 69), we see that the most common stress pattern is the 3-2 pattern, followed by the 2-2, 4-2, and 2-1 patterns. They conclude that knowing these patterns “should prove useful as a complementary source of information for purposes of curriculum and lesson planning and private study” (p. 73). In addition, they state, “[W]e have found that the numeric conventions for labeling stress patterns illustrated in this report are useful when working with EAP and other ESL learners” (p. 70).

As practitioners, rather than researchers, how do we apply findings like this? First of all, let us look more closely at these patterns and real examples that we would use in the classroom. For the 5-3-1 stress pattern, which was mentioned in the article along with the sample words theoretical and methodology, these two words are grouped together because they each have five syllables and a primary stress on the third syllable. But how about the word electrical? That is a four-syllable word, with its primary stress on the second syllable (4-2), so thus would be placed in a separate category, despite the fact that it shares an important attribute with theoretical, a 5-3-1. Also, we have biology, another 4-2 word, placing it in a category with electrical, rather than with methodology. This wouldn’t make a lot of sense to instructor and student alike. And how would teaching a numeric convention along with the word and its meaning be of much help except for a student who is adept at numbers and wants to memorize a 3-2 along with the word?

Perhaps theory has caught up with practice in the years since this study was published. One of my favorite pronunciation resources is Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication (Grant, 2010). Her chapter on “Using Suffixes to Predict Stress” introduces the idea that word-stress is often based on suffixes, and contrary to Murphy and Kandil’s method of counting from left to right, her rules are based on right to left. It doesn’t matter how many syllables the word is, most common suffixes call for stress on the syllable right before the suffix. Or perhaps the second syllable from the suffix (again, starting with the last syllable). Here are some examples, showing that the numeric convention is less helpful than simply knowing the suffix:

- ic
scientific (4-3)
electric (3-2)
economic (4-3)

- ion
information (4-3)
imagination (5-4)
institution (4-3)

- ology
biology (4-2)
psychology (4-2)
epistemology (6-4)

Here we can see that helping students notice that in general, the suffix usually calls for the primary stress to be just before it may be more helpful than grouping words based on total syllable counts, the way that Murphy and Kandil describe. It should be acknowledged here that they did mention in their discussion the fact that suffixes have an impact on stress. Specifically, they write, “[T]eachers may take advantages of the opportunity…to build learner awareness of the impacts of suffixation by also introducting stress patterns of related words within the same lexical family (e.g. eCONomy, ecoNOMical, ecoNOMically, and eCONomist)” (p. 71). But they fail to see that knowing which suffixes call for the stress immediately before and which do not (e.g. ic/ical vs. ist) is probably more than the importance of words being within a certain lexical family. I certainly agree, however, with the article’s premise that word-stress patterns are a very important aspect of pronunciation, especially in the realms of EAP and academic preparation. Teaching word-stress patterns, especially with suffixes, can be fun and engaging while lending itself well to various academic topics.

Murphy, J. & Kandil, M. (2004). Word-level stress patterns in the academic word list. System, 32, 61-74.
Grant, L. (2010). Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication. National Geographic Learning.