TESOL 2019 Highlights: Tips for Teaching Communication and Culture

Two different sessions in Atlanta addressed skills that are challenging to acquire and teach: humor competence and political correctness.

The first was a poster session presented by John Rucynski of the Language Education
Center at Okayama University in Japan. I made it a point to arrive promptly as I knew an interesting topic could gather a crowd, and I was counting on good insights from Incorporating Humor Competence Training into the Language Learning Curriculum John and his colleague Caleb Prichard have done research on evaluating and improving ELLs’ understandings of different types of humor used in the target language. They conducted two 1-hour training sessions.

John Rucynski at TESOL 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia

In their first study, they focused on detecting satirical news. Attendees at the poster session saw a sample test that challenged students to identify headlines as satirical or real news. News items could be offbeat, but still real. Content was pulled from actual sources, mainly The Onion and The Rising Wasabi.  Other possible sources such as social media and late night shows were mentioned in our small group discussion. The results from the study showed a significantly better performance by those students who were taught typical features of satirical news, namely:
– subject matter that wouldn’t normally be newsworthy;
– exaggeration and completely unrealistic ideas;
– language that is too vague or too informal for the news.
Tip: Teach students what to look for and give them practice separating real news from satirical news.

The second study focused on detecting sarcasm and verbal irony. Again, students in one group were given an advantage. They were taught to identify prosodic, verbal, and visual cues. John and Caleb used their own photos with various facial expressions as well as images from online media, including memes. (Apparently, Willy Wonka memes work effectively!)
Tip: John noted that students don’t need to learn complex vocabulary like “an averted gaze.” It’s enough to sort photos based on the emotions being expressed. Simply ask students which faces look like the speaker is being sarcastic.

On the same day, I attended another short, but informative session by Noga La’or, the Director of ESL Programs at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University. Noga presented a teaching tip titled Don’t Stop Being Polite: An ESL Lesson in Political Correctness. Noga has approached political correctness in three steps.

In part one, she teaches learners that what is acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in another. She presents about a half dozen scenarios for discussion that force students to reflect on the appropriateness of certain statements, including:
– hate speech;
– assumptions about where someone is from based on their race;
– insensitive remarks about gender or sexual orientation.
Noga’s follow-up questions are often, “Why is this offensive?” and “Is this hate speech or a personal opinion?”
Tip: Noga doesn’t hold this training in political correctness early in the semester with a new group of students. It’s better to wait until familiarity and trust have been built.

In part two, Noga asks learners to match non-PC terms to PC terms. Going over the answers is an opportunity for clarification and discussion. Noga explains that the effectiveness of the discussions depends on a teacher’s willingness to welcome questions and readiness to face the uncomfortable. Simply put, if a term is something you’d personally never say and don’t want to hear, you should explain why.
Tip: Some non-PC terms aren’t really offensive, just antiquated, like waitress.

In the final part of her training session, Noga moves deeper into questions. What questions can be offensive? This may tie back into some of the scenarios discussed earlier. As all three parts are done in a single training session, it seems that making connections and drawing comparisons would be very desirable. Noga has received positive feedback from her students, whose confidence in social settings has increased thanks to addressing political correctness directly.

The poster session and the teaching tip shared the same end goal: to build learners’ cross-cultural communicative competence. By having open discussions with their teachers, students gain cultural insights and decrease the chances of being embarrassed or causing offense in real-world situations.

I thank both presenters for their helpful information and their permission to share session highlights here with you.

Photo credit: Social, Media, Social, Network by Geralt. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/illustrations/social-media-social-network-3758364/.

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