I had to cut my TESOL experience short this year due to the overlap with the Easter holiday, but I’m happy that I still managed to pack some take-away thoughts with me. I always jot down lots of notes at sessions I attend, and then I reflect on them back at home when I’ve had time to settle back into my regular work routine.
Let me open my mental suitcase and share two with you.
1. It’s not enough to motivate students; we need to engage them.
This is the main idea I took away from the wonderful talk by Zoltán Dörnyei of University of Nottingham. He spoke to a large crowd of TESOLers in the Arie Crown Theater at the McCormick Place convention center. The title of his presentation was Engaging ELLs in the 21st Century. He addressed the reality that learners face in this digital age. Distractions are all around, but it’s our job to create opportunities for engagement. Professor Dörnyei clarified that motivation isn’t enough to lead to successful learning outcomes. Engagement is what’s required because it requires active participation.
Professor Dörnyei’s recommendations prompted me to think about what I’m doing online and how I’m doing it. Do I create a sense of community and belonging? I certainly hope so! This has been my goal as I use comment boards, the YouTube Community Tab, and my other social media platforms. I also provide learning tasks, often with a choice of which ones to tackle, so that my mass audience can become more involved in any given lesson. They not only have access to my feedback, but they also have the chance to open up to me. I get to know a bit about my regular followers based on their participation. Likewise, they get to know me through what I share in my videos. Some get more personal interaction through an exchange of online comments, and I sense the positive response to my attention.
This talk on engagement prompted me to try a new strategy in a recent video. As I set out to teach “day after day” and similar expressions, I designed a fun quiz to test if viewers could call themselves creatures of habit. After each expression was presented, learners had to actively respond to questions by keeping track of the points they earned. It was fun to share scores in the comments. A good number of students shared personal examples using the new expressions.
2. Students are better prepared for conversation with native speakers if we teachers thoughtfully determine the value of prescriptive and descriptive language.
My good colleague Robyn Brinks Lockwood put this weighty thought in my “take-away” suitcase. Robyn presented Speaking Naturally: Preparing Students for Social, Academic, and Professional Success to a crowded room of ELTs in the Lakeside Center.
Robyn’s examples of student frustrations forced me to evaluate how I’ve tried to build conversation skills for online learners. Do I teach language to help students sound less prescriptive? Do I ever go off script and help students make sense of why I said something I wasn’t “supposed” to say? I did challenge one grammar rule by teaching “There’s” as the preferred sentence starter for lists of items when the first item is singular: There’s a couch, a rug, and a bookcase in my living room. I even used “there’s” before a plural noun phrase in one example: There’s plenty of things I don’t need.
If I look closely at the language I present in my conversation skill series on YouTube, I believe I lean less heavily toward descriptive language compared to Robyn, but something she said made me feel okay with the balance I maintain. One of her concluding thoughts was how we can build on prescriptive language and add descriptive language to our teaching. So it’s not about throwing out prescriptive language. It’s about making the kinds of choices that will make learners effective yet natural-sounding speakers. This was my goal in my latest vocabulary video, in which I teach expressions similar to “et cetera.” A viewer commented that it’s redundant to say “et cetera” twice. True. But nevertheless, American English speakers do this sometimes. We occasionally double “and so on” as well. In the same lesson, I decided to present “blah blah blah” and informal variations of etc. such as “and all that” or “and whatnot.”
Thank you to these two amazing educators for prompting me to reflect on my teaching in a very productive way!
Photo credit: Luggage, Packaging, Travel, Holiday by Tama66. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/luggage-packaging-travel-holiday-3297015/.