MATSOL 2013 Conference Highlights (continued)

On May 3, I was able to attend two academic sessions at the MATSOL Conference. Compared to the annual TESOL convention, this event is on a much smaller scale. Even so, I found the experience of looking at the schedule to be the same: I wanted to be in two places at one time. That’s a very good indicator of  the range of topics being addressed. The healthy selection of sessions to attend made choosing difficult. I was very happy with my choices, though. Here are some highlights.

Sentence Frames to Promote Critical Thinking & Access Background Knowledge. Melissa DaPonte Katz works with younger ELLS, but the concept of sentence frames is useful to ELTs in general. Melissa demonstrated how she uses sentence frames to provide scaffolding and help learners move toward higher-order thinking. She explained that “frames” are different from “stems” in that sentence stems only prompt a complete thought. In contrast, sentence frames teach language patterns; they provide linguistic structures that are relevant to the given topic. For example, to help students identify and discuss author’s purpose, Melissa has given the sentence frame: I think the author’s purpose it to ___ because ___. Other frames can be created for predicting, identifying cause and effect, comparing, and contrasting.

The use of sentence frames can elevate class discussions and help ELLs build internal templates for expressive language. Melissa noted how sentence frames bring ELLs into a classroom discussion quickly and build a learner’s confidence. She has used them in partner work, for writing journals, as an activation or closing activity, and even as part of assessment.  Melissa explained how the sentence frames keep language demands down and free up energy and space for higher-order thinking.

You can visit her school’s wiki and find more examples of sentence frames.

Exploring the Talk of TED Talks for the Classroom. Helen Solorzano, author of NorthStar: Listening and Speaking 3 and Contemporary Topics 1, talked to us about going beyond  comprehension questions and exploring other aspects of listening materials to develop students’ listening skills and strategies. Helen promotes the idea that we L2 teachers must learn to listen in a new way. We must design our listening lessons to help students listen to what is said, how it is said, and what is not said (directly).

To illustrate her approach to in-depth listening, Helen turned to TED Talks, and specifically a talk by a Google engineer, Matt Cutts. TED Talks, as you may know, are brief, inspiring performances from global TED conferences, and as the tagline states, the talks feature “ideas worth spreading.” The videos are free under a Creative Commons license, making the resource a very convenient choice for teachers.

In terms of listening to what is said, we can ask learners to focus on main ideas and details. For example, we might use true-false questions or have them complete a template for an outline of the talk. We can also focus on vocabulary. Helen shared a vocabulary profile tool and suggested its use in order to identify word frequency and determine which vocabulary to pre-teach. She reminded us that we could also give attention to idiomatic words, so students could listen for context.

Listening for aspects of discourse help students focus on how things are said. For instance, student can learn to identify the structure of TED Talks, with their ever-present discourse markers and frequent personal experience openers. How exactly do the speakers introduce themselves? Does each speaker follow the basic structure: opener-body-closer? We could ask students to give their own talk using the same organizational discourse markers. Attention can be called to verb tenses through a cloze exercise. Students could also listen for stance markers (Actually,… / It turns out…) or asides (By the way,…).  How things are said also includes pronunciation aspects, such as intonation patterns and changes in speed and emphasis.

A lesson can also focus on what is not said during a TED Talk. From references made during  a performance to implied meanings through gestures, this aspect poses its own unique challenges. Teachers can create inference questions to tackle the unsaid. Helen pointed out that it’s okay for inference questions to have more than one correct answer. This actually encourages discussion.

Helen mentioned other sites that offer rich listening materials for ELLs:

You can also visit her L2Listening blog.

I offer my sincere thanks to both Helen and Melissa for sharing their insights and suggestions.

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