My latest guest blogger is Brazilian teacher Cecilia Coelho, someone I follow with great interest on her blog and on twitter. Cecilia has one of those distinctive voices that comes across vividly even in only 140 characters on twitter and her blog shows what a caring, thoughtful and imaginative teacher she is. Cecilia is exactly the kind of person I want to be associated with here.
Her blog details are at the end. It’s well worth a visit.
I’ve been an EFL teacher in Recife, my hometown on the northeast coast of Brazil, for the past 17 years. I teach at a Binational Center (ABA) www.estudenaaba.com and my students are mostly teens to young adults. I have two beautiful kids, read obsessively and have recently discovered the world of twitter and blogging. Both have been an amazing boost to my professional development, and through them I have met some wonderful teachers whom I’ve been having the pleasure of sharing with. Ken is one of them, and I thank him for kindly inviting me to write this post for his blog. I was flattered by the invitation and hope I live up to his expectations!
We hear them – but do we listen?
Reflections on giving students feedback on their production.
My students sometimes have difficulty understanding closely-related words in English that in Portuguese either have only one word for it, or have two but are indiscriminately used (i.e. music/song, bring/take, watch/see, etc). I like drawing attention to those differences and the proper use of these words whenever the opportunity arises in the classroom.
It’s no different with listen and hear. Hearing is about perceiving the sound whilst listening is about paying attention to what you hear, decoding it.
So I ask you: when it comes to your students’ efforts in using English to express themselves – be it orally or in writing – do you listen or just hear them?
This dichotomy is a common “visitor” in my musings about teaching. Whether it’s listening to them speaking in class or reading a piece of writing they’ve submitted, I try to keep a balance between focusing on its content (the what they are saying) and on its accuracy (the how they do it). Whatever shape it comes in, my number one focus is on communication – would they be understood properly?
What happens most times is that when they are speaking, I rarely interrupt to correct for accuracy – I usually take note of the most relevant mistakes and go over them after the student has finished speaking. Many times I do it with the whole class – because some of the mistakes are recurrent among the other learners as well – sometimes more privately, especially if the student is shy or self-conscious. If I believe whatever mistake they’ve made hinders communication, I wait until the sentence is finished and I ask for clarification or the rephrasing of the sentence.
When it comes to their written production, I have to admit most times I find it hard not to correct for accuracy (though I do it in different ways, not just crossing the mistake out and writing the correct form), but I always pay attention to what they’ve written.
The idea for writing a post on this topic came from a student’s email to me. She’s a very bright 15-year-old student, loves English, has been studying it for a long time and is a fluent speaker (in my opinion). She wrote to thank me for taking an interest in what she wrote, for believing in her and caring. She said it really meant a lot to her. And that simple, ordinary message touched me. And it made me think…
When you correct a student’s written assignment, do you ever write any comments? If so, are those comments about the student’s language or about what they wrote? I take the time to write my opinion on what they wrote, whether I agree or disagree, asking questions that came to mind while I was reading it, giving them names and links to articles, books or other resources that are related to the topic and I think they might enjoy taking a look at.
Sometimes I do this by scribbling throughout their texts, sometimes I concentrate all in one bigger comment at the end of the paper. The way I do it doesn’t matter. My students’ response to my comments DOES matter.
What I have noticed is that if you return their work all marked with language corrections, they will (maybe) glance at it and put it away (probably forever, or at least until the end of the semester, when it will surely end up in the trash).
But if there is a comment on the actual content of what they wrote, they’ll stop and read it. Many times they’ll even do some follow up and say something else about it to you right after they’ve read it or after class. I have had students who actually wrote replies to my comments and gave the paper back to me – as in a conversation. Most students feel more motivated to put some extra effort into writing (and even speaking) to really be thorough in expressing their opinions. And in doing so they write more, and more carefully. They produce more, develop their skills, their language. Many times they write me emails about it or approach me at the end of a lesson to say they’ve read the article I mentioned on the comment and tell me what they thought about it.
Another ELT teacher, Ceri Jones (@cerirhiannon) has had interesting (and very rewarding) experiences with this (taking it a step further), and you might enjoy reading about it on her blog – Close Up http://cerij.wordpress.com/
Bottom line? Giving content feedback on my students’ production has been a much more effective tool to help them in their path to learning English. It has reached and motivated them. And the language accuracy is not left aside, since they have to use the language properly to express themselves.
What about you? Do you hear or listen to your students? Have you ever had a similar experience?
Cecilia blogs at http://cecilialcoelho.wordpress.com/