Monday, April 17, 2017

STEM Resources - "Practical Engineering" Youtube Channel

April 17, 2017 Heather

I stumbled across this Youtube Channel called, "Practical Engineering," videos by Grady Hillhouse. They seem really applicable, engaging, and accessible. My next project is to develop some STEM-based vocabulary and writing activities using some of these videos for my classes. Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


March 21, 2017 Heather

I'm a big picture person. In my work, I am always looking ahead and trying to make things better, and I feel most productive when managing long-term tasks and projects (i.e. getting beyond the daily grind). See my article on time management to understand my thinking here. Below I have highlighted a few of the initiatives I have taken in the past few years that highlight what I most enjoy doing. Many of them have now been taken over by other individuals, as I have moved on to other projects.

Training video for peer mentors. The ELP mentor program, in which domestic undergraduate students work as peer mentors in ELP classes, has been in existence since 2008. During that time, instructors have faced some challenges in helping these mentors to understand and fulfill their role in the classroom. For example, many mentors are unsure of how to approach students and engage them in conversation. I decided to create a video in which I would demonstrate how a mentor should act. With the aid of coworkers (in handling the camera) and iMovie, I put this video together, which was then shown in one of the mentor training sessions.

Orientation video and quiz. I put together a set of video segments (by filming my colleagues and myself) for students who may have missed the regular ELP program orientation. Students who arrive late due to visa issues are provided a link to the page where they can view the videos and answer "quiz" questions. Their results are sent back to me so I can verify that they did the activity. I just used iMovie for the editing and Google Forms to create the online quiz presentation. Below is a screenshot of part of the quiz.

In-Service workshop: Testing - Vocabulary-in-Context Items on Reading Tests. After attending a colloquium on testing, I began thinking more about our reading tests and the item types. I wanted to make the tests more consistent and to provide clearer test specifications. This turned my focus to our vocabulary-in-context items. Having created a lot of our tests myself, I became aware of the fact that sometimes we simply select words in a passage that seem unknown to our students and use them for vocabulary-in-context items. However, they may or may not actually have sufficient context clues to make them valid items. In Fall 2015, I suggested to our reading coordinator that we plan a workshop for our next in-service to train teachers on this and also look closely at some of our reading midterms and final exams. View the slideshow I created to facilitate the workshop here

Writing Workshop: Personal Statements and Resumes for Grad School Applications. Some of the course review feedback we received as part of our program review plan indicated there was some interest in help with writing graduate school applications, specifically personal statements. As this is not part of our course objectives for writing, I offered to conduct a special workshop outside of normal ELP class time to specifically teach this type of writing. I designed it to be a two-session workshop: The first day, I gave information, guidelines, and samples to go over with the students, and the second day was more of a hands-on session in the computer lab. I asked a couple fellow writing teachers to come in and help to give individualized feedback. Overall, it was a success and I hope to continue this in future semesters.

Test Specifications. This was a major project for me as testing coordinator in the academic year of 2014-2015. After receiving training at the LRC Testing Colloquium on test specifications, I returned eager to implement what I had learned. Collaborating heavily with the skill coordinators, I drafted test specifications for reading and writing exams. These included detailed item specifications and passage characteristics. For reading, I developed an initial bank of three standardized midterms and three standardized final exams for each level. As a program, we would then cycle through the tests each semester. For writing, I compiled all prompts into a bank for teachers to draw upon and worked with the writing coordinator to draft midterm and final exam templates that gave standardized directions and formats.

ELP Citizenship Award. In past years, we struggled to help some of our students rise to the expectations of our American university culture. It was clear that some of these students did not have the academic readiness, maturity, or motivation to succeed. I had the idea to recognized whatever good student behavior we did have in order to focus attention on how students should behave. Initially, I took it upon myself to coordinate and advertise this among our students and staff. Teachers would nominate and decide together on a recipient for each level, based only on citizenship, leadership, and participation (not academic achievement). I asked the program director to present the award at our final dinner at the end of the semester, and the recipients would give an acceptance speech. From the beginning, the ELP Citizenship Award has been a positive aspect of our project.

ITBE Convention Tech Showcase. After attending (and presenting at once or twice) TESOL International's Electronic Village & Technology Showcase), I thought we could do the same at our affiliate conference. In fact, I became the Vice-President of Illinois TESOL for the 2010-2011 year, which made me chair of the 2011 annual convention. As always, I wanted to find ways of making the event even better. I instigated the addition of a Tech Showcase component to our conference, allowing presenters to use just 20 minutes to highlight an effective technological tool. This worked wonderfully, and ITBE has continued to include this type of session.  Chairing the convention, by the way, is another example of my passion for big projects!

ITBE Link electronic format. Another contribution I made while on the board of ITBE was as newsletter editor. Previous to my appointment, the newsletter was still being published in PDF format, emailed as an attachment. I worked closely with our web hosting company to utilize their e-publication platform in revamping our newsletter, the ITBE Link. See the fruits of my labors (newsletters from Summer 2013 - Spring 2016).

Friday, March 10, 2017

Orientation Video & Quiz

March 10, 2017 Heather
Last year, I put together a set of video segments (by filming my colleagues and myself) for students who may have missed the regular ELP program orientation. Students who arrive late due to visa issues are provided a link to the page where they can view the videos and answer "quiz" questions. Their results are sent back to me so I can verify that they did the activity. I just used iMovie for the editing and Google Forms to create the online quiz presentation. Below is a screenshot of part of the quiz.

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: “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