Friday, July 10, 2015

Teaching ESL Students -- A BYU-Idaho Perspective

This is the roughest of rough drafts. I'm hoping for some feedback.

I don’t remember the joke, nor even the punchline. Just how Dad said the first line:

“So, dere was dis black doot. . .” and the joke goes on. But many people stopped listening after the joke’s sixth word. And some were shaky at the second.

He told the joke everywhere. And once – only once, to my recollection – did anyone ever interrupt the joke to ask the vital question: “What’s a ‘doot’?”

The problem: Dad’s native language is Dutch, not English. Even after forty years in the United States, his accent persisted (though he denied it by saying, often “It’s does Germans who have trouble wit de ‘T-H’”).

Most people understood Dad pretty well. (Doot, by the way, is how he says the word ‘dude’.)There were times, however, where it was a good thing I or one of his other sons were there as he discussed a construction job with a potential customer. We had to interpret. And sometimes others have to interpret for us. With practice, for instance, we can pronounce the word cat with the nasally A English requires. Otherwise, we pronounce it the way Dad did: ‘cot’ as in the thing you sleep on, not the thing that sheds fur on your clothing.

Dad had many friends in the same linguistic boat. He and a neighbor would use their native Dutch to cheat at Pinochle. One fellow, Tony Lanzio, made the best chicken cacciatore in the world but was, generally, incomprehensible, as his thick Italian accent was also punctuated with French and German words he knew. (I was lucky enough to serve a mission in France; upon my return, I found Tony at least one-third easier to comprehend.)

And my French: A lot worse, I’m certain, than Dad’s or Tony’s English. Most of the people I met in France were kind in listening to the American speaking his pidgin French, and I did manage a French minor at university for my bachelor’s, but I know were I to take a full college course in French at a French school being taught by a French native, I would be intimidated beyond all reason.

So now I’m teaching students at an English-language school. Many of these students, depending on the semester, are from as far away geographically and linguistically as Russia, Ukraine, Ghana, and Brazil. They possess varying levels of English proficiency. How am I, as an English instructor, best to help them progress through the course and on their journey to greater English proficiency without crushing their spirits or giving them a free ride?

That’s what I’m hoping to find out.

So far, this has been the most helpful resource: 

It’s a site sponsored by the Frankfurt International School, an English-language school with grades (in the American equivalent) from kindergarten through 12th grade.

What impressed me the most is how closely some of the advice they offer mirrors the BYU-Idaho learning model. To wit, their answer to the question “What’s the most important thing I should know about the ESL students I teach?”:

Who they are! It is essential to know which of the non-native students in your class are ESL students and what level of ESL they are in. This will give you some idea how much English they know and will help you to have realistic expectations of what they will be able to understand and do in your lessons.

I like to think their “who they are” is more than just matching up names with English proficiency, but rather it’s knowing them on a personal level so they become Paulo or Vasily, not “that ESL student from Brazil or Russia.” In learning a different language, they’re working to break down a barrier. We should not allow a label to put up a different barrier than the one they think they’re tearing down.

Principle Five of the BYU-Idaho Learning Model states: “Learners and teachers at BYU-Idaho love, serve, and teach one another.” We are further reminded in the learning model pamphlet that “when learners and teacher view one another charitably, they create safe learning environments where all can stretch and stumble without fear. All learners – students and faculty – serve others through diligent preparation, cooperative effort, and teaching one another; thus charity replaces competition.” The foundation of such learning, charity, and love, is getting to know each other. When we learn who our students are, we’re better tuned to the spirit and begin building an environment where we can get past some of the defenses and roadblocks we all put up when we enter a new situation.

As we gain each others’ trust, we’re able to teach, be teachable, and learn. We should strive to develop relationships with our students where we are mutually perceived, as was Ammon, as being “wise, yet harmless.” We encounter this phrase in Alma Chapter 18:22 where Ammon’s underlying goal is to preach the gospel. Rather than marching in with the scriptures in one hand and fire and brimstone coming out of his mouth, Ammon spends much time gaining the trust of King Lamoni and his servants, by becoming a servant to them and by getting to know them through service. Even after Ammon has the king’s attention by defending his flocks at the waters of Sebus, he maintains his efforts of “servant leadership” by going first to feed the king’s horses – following the king’s instruction – rather than following the servants into the king’s chamber to hear their bragging about his feats. “Surely,” King Lamoni says in verse 10 of that same chapter, “there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man, for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.”

Trust gained, Ammon can then be that wise, yet harmless teacher, who teaches King Lamoni and all his household and where none worry about making mistakes or being laughed at. They’re all learning, being taught by someone they know and someone they respect and love.

A tall order for teachers?

Maybe. I know I struggle with getting to know my students. But those I do get to know on a more personal level, they’re the ones who write to me after the semester is over and thank me for being their teacher. Maybe the struggle is worth it.

The Frankfurt school does, of course, offer other important information as teachers work with ESL students. But I like to think that these suggestions work in concert with teachers getting to know their students and helping them to feel comfortable in this teaching environment.

Firstly, the school recommends this: “For written work, it is important that feedback is concentrated on the content quality of the answer rather than on its grammatical accuracy. It is discouraging for students who have worked hard to give a good answer to have their work covered in red ink for mistakes that are peripheral to the main purpose of the assignment. There is also the danger that they may get the message that surface accuracy is more important than conveying ideas or showing understanding.”

“However, written work can generally be corrected without causing the student embarrassment in front of his or her peers, and you may well wish to draw attention to one or two of the grammatical mistakes that could interfere with understanding. It is also not unreasonable, for example, to expect the verbs in a piece of writing about a historical event to be in the past tense.”

Let’s look at how we might follow this advice once we get to know our students.

I have a good friend who, late last year, worked as a beta reader for a novel I’ve written. A beta reader reads a novel as it’s being worked on, to help the author get a sense of perspective on the book, to see its strengths and weaknesses. The author then takes the feedback from the beta readers to continue editing the book. As a rough draft, I knew the book likely had grammatical errors in it. But I wasn’t interested in having my grammar corrected. I wanted, rather, to know whether the story made sense, and whether it was worth the effort to continue working on the book. My faithful beta reader sent back some critical, yet constructive feedback that led me to re-write the book in a radical way, taking it through an additional two drafts before I sent it back to her and to other readers.

Had she focused on grammar and punctuation without making many comments about storyline, character, pacing and plot, I might have assumed the book was ready to go to agents after I fixed the grammatical mistakes. However, I have built a relationship of trust with this reader, and she was kind enough to reciprocate with the honesty I needed to fix the book (at least I hope I’ve fixed it; we’ll see what she says this time around). She gave me what I needed: a look at the bigger picture.

That’s the kind of feedback we can offer our students after we’ve gotten to know them and know what kind of feedback they want – this goes for ESL students as well as English native speakers.
Oh – how do we know what they want? Well, let’s go back to the Frankfurt school, which says: “Consider asking the student what kind of feedback he or she would like. Some students may welcome the chance to focus on their grammar mistakes with a view to eradicating them in future pieces of written work. Other students, however, will just completely ignore your corrections - and you can save your precious grading time!”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We can knock ourselves out to offer constructive suggestions on a rough draft, and some students will take them to heart, while others will correct the grammar and just turn in the same paper. That’s their right as free thinkers. But knowing what kind of advice or feedback our students want, whether they’re ESL or not, will help us get to know our students better and give them a more valuable learning experience at BYU-Idaho.

Those people who got to know my father eventually got to understand his Dutch accent, and could laugh along with the jokes he told even if he pronounced the words in odd ways. Learning French helped me and my sister better communicate with Dad’s friend Tony Lanzio, who mixed many languages together as he spoke. And just as getting to know these two men helped those who interacted with them gain a better understanding of their lives and efforts, so too can we get to know our students better to be better servant leaders to them.

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