Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reading Research

It would seem that people who teach reading a lot, over many years, would be in the best position to see what works and what doesn't, in that they operate in a kind of laboratory, and can see, in the long term if not the short term, the success of their actions. Much of what scientific research proves is based on what teachers suspect in the first place, through teaching, but in fact real life puts barriers between teachers and researchers, so it's not that simple.

As a teacher I have always found it necessary to both keep up on the research and carry on rigorous in-class research on what works and what doesn't at least for my own students. My own classroom habits have shown me that it's not hard to distinguish the students who actually work through a reading from the ones who don't; and, it's rare for students who work hard on a reading to not want to tell you how they feel about it. So, a teacher who pays close attention to readers over the years can improve reading choice, tailor it to students' needs, and get readings to fit readers better with time. From this experience I judge the current state of research.

Extended Reading controversy

Krashen once said that all standardized tests, such as the TOEFL, should be abolished and replaced with programs in which students are simply given time to read, and good books to devour. The philosophy of extended reading rests on the fluency one gets simply from reading a lot of anything, starting with a good novel, and is based on the premise that since most good first-language readers became good readers by reading and getting pleasure from a number of novels, second language readers should be able to do the same. This is because fluency and confidence are necessary building blocks; the pleasure that comes from novels is a reward; and reading is really really fun if you get a good novel and a soft chair. Extended reading programs have had varying success worldwide, but the followers of the system basically devote countless hours to researching variations of Krashen's advice and hoping to turn the world's classrooms into reading libraries with soft chairs.

Here are my problems with the extended reading camp. We have tried to make students read novels and noticed that there is no such thing as "pleasure reading" in a second language. Without tests, etc., students are more likely going to fall asleep in a soft chair, than read a novel. Since novels are deliberately written for enjoyment, the more serious textbook readers consider novel-reading a painful diversion that doesn't even take them where they want to go with their reading; they feel an enormous burden (sometimes 10 pages/day), and don't ever get the pleasure out of it that they would if, for example, they were a young schoolchild.

From these programs and from experience I can say they are right about some aspects: first, volume, pure volume of reading, is the crucial variable. Students can and do make themselves read large quantities, since that's what they need, and teachers can help and reward them by noticing their hard work and passing them to a higher level (this can't be done without tests, though, since some students can pretend to read or read poorly and still look a lot like they are reading; such students skew the results and make all efforts appear to be fruitless). But, extended reading would work better if all learners were young, with plenty of time on their hands, and getting pleasure was the main reward they would expect from any given venture; they aren't, and it's not. Second, careful attention to pleasure students do get from any reading is not wasted; whether it is a textbook, news article, or low-level newspaper.

Context clues controversy

A few years ago a friend of mine got fed up with the "context clues" camp and the exercises they put into reading texts, and pointed out that if students don't know much vocabulary, they can't very well apply that skill to what they read. He knew, instinctively, that it's a skill all readers know and use all the time, but mostly when they know 90% or more of the words they are reading; it doesn't work when they are facing more than 10% of unfamiliar words. He suspected that that limit was quantifiable, and went about finding it; he set about proving his theory, and soon did.

I learned several things from this controversy, somewhat by accident. First, using context clues is something that any sentient reader does naturally; we don't have to teach people how to do it. Second, calling it "guessing" is offensively incorrect and is likely to be misunderstood by the vast majority of learners; if it's truly guessing, why bother? Third, there are some "clues" that are genuinely new to learners, such as using text organization to predict topic sentence and support; but, successful use of these skills relies more on being able to do these things as one reads, in other words, not so much being aware of the skill, but being able to practice using it while decoding language simultaneously. Thus I concluded that practice, practice, practice was a better strategy than doing context clues exercises. It is worthwhile to point out that one can use context clues, but students already know that; it's often more productive to point out where they could have done it, but didn't because they were too busy translating.

Folse, K. (2004). "Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language
Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says." TESL Reporter 37 (2), 1-13.

Folse, K. (2004). "Limitation of Context Clues in Real-World Comprehension:
A Case Study" Nexus: A Journal for Teachers in Development 7, 1.

P.D. Fard

She is a friend of mine who set out to do research on the component skills of reading. She figured that if the testing companies (ETS, etc.) quantified and measured these skills separately, they ought to at least play out as statistically discrete. But they didn't. The essence of her research showed that, at least as far as discrete skills go, reading in its essence is an intermix of skills relying on grasp of vocabulary, such that as vocabulary grows, the skills begin intermixing rapidly, but never developing discretely. People therefore don't tend to be imbalanced in the skills; nor do they show any particular favoring of one skill over another.

(SCALAR 2007)

Vocabulary research

I used to have much more, but have only this to share. Given the importance of vocabulary, what do we do to help our students remember it, and have it available for use whenever they wish? Much has been written; it has been studied, and here's a place to start.

Llinares, G., Leiva, B., Cartaya, N., & St. Louis, R. (2008, September). Acquisition of L2 vocabulary for effective reading: Testing teachers’ classroom practice. The Reading Matrix, 8, 2

A good reading teacher:

Finds readings that will motivate students to read

Represents English as a gateway to a world of information and opportunity, and shows that to students

Finds or makes readings that are the appropriate level; works with curriculum designers to provide textbooks that aren’t limiting or narrow

Knows about students’ native language, background experience, reading experience, overall goals, and ability to put time in outside of class…

Knows what aspects of the English sound-spelling correspondence are most difficult and frustrating, and helps students overcome this barrier

Knows what in a reading will be difficult for students

Maximizes the amount students read, in class and outside of class

Is aware of different learning styles and how to maximize student learning by reaching students in different ways

Assesses regularly and effectively, using different methods, giving students different ways to learn

Integrates reading with other skills effectively, so that students spend as much time “in English” as possible

Holds students accountable for learning vocabulary steadily, accurately and effectively over time, keeping in mind their changing needs as they reach upper levels

Notices and handles effectively students with reading disabilities and other reading problems

Uses new technology effectively, keeping in mind what students will need, as well as giving them new opportunities to learn

A good teacher:

Gives good simple directions for activities
Is imaginative, cooperative, expressive, open-minded, and optimistic
Inspires both creativity and analytical ability
Makes students enthusiastic about learning
Puts himself/herself in learners’ shoes daily
Develops and nurtures students’ confidence
Pays attention to what motivates students and uses it
Sets high standards and helps students meet them
Teaches students to be independent
Makes himself/herself available to students
Varies activities so that each concept is taught in more than one way
Knows how to correct mistakes without crushing student egos
Is well organized about grading and paperwork
Keeps the class focused on the topic
Uses a variety of teaching methods
Uses visual aids or technology to make the class more interesting
Tries new lessons to add to the repertoire
Is receptive to questions, listens to students’ concerns
Treats students equally & fairly, doesn’t abuse power
Tries to create opportunities for real communication in English
Has patience and a good sense of humor
Returns assignments quickly, begins and ends class on time
Remembers students’ names
Knows his/her own learning styles and preferences as well as students’
Is aware of cultural differences, strives to learn enough not to offend
Makes a clear syllabus and sticks to its promises
Is willing and open to suggestions from peers or students
Keeps the level of anxiety down in the classroom
Deals with both more and less advanced students in ways that help both
Is student-centered
Never gives up hope on students
Broadens students’ perspective
Promotes cooperation and good relations among students in a class
Admits to limitations, isn’t afraid of not knowing or of making mistakes
Understands what the students need
Gives examples before requiring students to present
Controls time effectively
Keeps the purpose of teaching clear
Speaks well and carefully
Evaluates students’ performance throughout the course
Challenges students, but doesn’t expect perfection
Can predict students’ mistakes
Can advise students on future studies
Always upgrades himself/herself professionally, keeps learning
Can keep personal life out of the classroom if necessary

Friday, October 30, 2009



I always start with a couple of observations:
1. Vocabulary is the single most important element of a student's language learning. It is underneath all of the reading skills, listening, grammar, speaking, etc. It's basic. And they need to not only know the meaning of the words; they need to know the grammar, and the forms, the sound, and how words are used. They need to be totally familiar with the words. One proof of the central nature of vocabulary is that in any given term, students can do well on vocabulary, listening, reading or grammar separately, but those who do well on vocabulary are most likely to do well in the others, and to pass the TOEFL. Vocabulary is a better overall predictor of the other kinds of success than any other single predictor (I know this from experience, but I also heard it someplace long ago, and haven't been able to track it down).
2. Most students need a system to study vocabulary. Some teachers believe that enough exposure alone will be enough, but my experience is that it won't be. I encourage students to take responsibility, to have a system, to make sure their system is all in English, and to recognize that systems for studying vocabulary must change from lower level to higher level. The system I recommend has room for a word, definition (in English) and a sentence using the word. Simple sentences can be found from their readings or from an ESL dictionary. Students should study by reading the sentences, and looking at the definitions only if necessary.
3. At the intermediate levels, students have trouble not translating every word. In other words, if they translate as they read, their grammar gets confused; it takes too long; and they lose track of word forms or things that don’t make sense from one language to another. Staying in English, in their minds, is harder at first, but ultimately beneficial and more efficient. Their vocabulary system should help them with this process, not reinforce the habit of translating every word. I always ask them: what is your system? Is it working? Are you able to stay in English as you read?
4. I encourage a number of other habits. Grab words from many sources and put them on the list. Mark the bilingual dictionary whenever you must use it (this puts a price on using it). Study vocabulary as often as possible. Revisit the question of what system is working and how well it’s working as often as necessary: it is, after all, their business, not ours.

Vocabulary game

In class, I follow a simple process. Every word that we see or read is testable, but we're only interested in the more important ones, the ones that everyone has trouble with. If they have trouble with one, or if it's important, it goes on a list which is then given to the students with plenty of time. When the list is over 24 (or about 3 per student in groups of 8), it is time to play the game. I have access to English-language definitions of the words which I generally don't show to students, though I could. Words are written, half-sheet of paper each, in magic marker on large colored paper; definitions are written on much smaller stripped paper which students can then pass along to each other. I start by giving each student three; if a couple of them have four it doesn't matter unless there are serious prizes for winners.

As the game starts I show each half-sheet and say the word; students, who are in a circle, can all see the sheet and hear the word at the same time. The game is fast; I give them no more than three or four seconds to get the definition. If students get it (they call out "mine", "got it" or the definition), they are rewarded by having that definition taken from them (when they run out, they win). Students then pass one definition to the right (students will take this advantage to pass along a definition that has been rendered useless, but that's ok; it's part of the game). The game proceeds until a player runs out; that player is the winner and gets some favor to be determined by the teacher. On a larger scale, I remember which words are gotten first-time by the students, and when that happens twice, the word is removed from the game, as new words are added on to it.
Thus the game is a regular, every-day activity that takes no more then 5-10 minutes, allows me to rearrange the chairs, and reinforces the general idea that vocabulary learning is a constant, everyday kind of activity.

I then put the vocabulary into simple quizzes, that test only the meaning, but in which the sentence given to them does not give away that meaning. The point of the quizzes is simply to see if they can carry that meaning around with them, though, in the lower level classes, I give them warning thus letting them study.

I make no restriction on how they study; I don't collect the list, or look at their sentences, or enforce the way they go about it. That's personal, I tell them; all I'm concerned about is that they know the meaning when the term is over, or at any given time in the term. By the end of the term, however, my list generally has hundreds; they are responsible for them all. And they need the English-language definitions for them. Generally those who study using native-language translations have trouble with this; I often see their study sheet as it is out right before the quiz. I can tell who studies, who doesn't and how they study, so I see patterns in students who succeed and those who don't.

I often point out, when I see an English-native list, that this kind of list is appropriate for a lower-level learner (what else could they do?) but is not appropriate for an upper-level learner. I leave it up to them; I don't want them hiding their study sheet from me; but, I tell them that their way of studying will be a constant issue in their learning and that of course I am interested in what they are doing and how well it's working.

I explain that teaching oneself to always translate every word as one reads is counter-productive; thus it's necessary to use one's system to teach oneself not to. I often explain the translation plateau (see note), and why, at an intermediate level, one should take control of vocabulary by using it often without translating. People who can't, read too slowly and have problems with word form.

Still, I don't pressure them, aside from ensuring that they put away their study list before they take the quiz. Then, I also notice the correspondence: students who do well on the grand vocabulary, at the end, do best in the class, and, especially, on the TOEFL. That end-of-term vocabulary score is the best overall measurement of their level as a student, of all the other measurements they are subject to.

Assure your students that their vocabulary acquisition is the most important element of their learning.

Assure them that there is no way you, as a single teacher, could give and test enough vocabulary to ensure their success.

Hold them responsible for every word they encounter; recycle them if possible; make sure they know each one, the second time around.

Keep tabs on their personal vocabulary learning; either they are picking it up as they go, or they aren't. If not, why not?
Students need a balance between deliberate memorization and active use of words. Too much of an imbalance will not work and will cause them to waste some of their effort.

Reading in the new millenium

There is good evidence that students will need English in a different way than they used to. In other words, the general proportion of listening to reading, or speaking to writing, may change; in addition, the functions of each might change. For example, it is clear that we are using reading and writing more informally, with the explosion of computer communication; inter-global communication is much more common and much more integrated into daily life, so that dialects (British, Australian, American) will probably be replaced by a more standard sound. In addition, with the profusion of non-natives using English in increasingly important positions, the standards of perfection may be eased, but the need to read and respond quickly and appropriately will be more important than ever.
With the increasingly important role of the computer in all aspects of life, including corporate life, education, and social life, ease of using the computer and all its functions (e-mail, blogs, text-to-speech functions, etc.) will be increasingly important.
The reading teacher should be interested in these changes for a number of reasons. First, as the world gets smaller, English becomes more important and students should be more interested in participating in the opportunities the new world offers. Second, teachers are themselves less isolated and more able to take advantage of a worldwide community of like-minded teachers, willing to share resources and skills. Research and publications become more available and accessible, along with materials, suggestions and publication opportunities, for those who know where to find them. But, most important, students entering the new global marketplace will need new skills- searching for information, uploading material, reading and responding to chatstreams, etc. The best way to prepare them for this is to get in there and use them ourselves.


The idea of using weblogs in the esl/efl classroom is based on several developments:
1. More of the world is online more of the time; students are spending more and more time by their computers;
2. Students are far more likely to read things that are immediately interesting to them, namely things their classmates have written, or things that are from their immediate community;
3. Students of all kinds need experience reading, writing, printing, uploading and editing online materials;
4. Students are becoming used to online reading material, and relate better to short online passages than to longer written ones; they will read more, more extensively, and more carefully things that are online than other things.

One of the biggest impediments to online learning is that, in general, students are more comfortable with it than teachers. This could and should change with time, but it could also change with a little preparation on the teachers’ part.
In the weblog workshop you can:
1. Make your own weblog, link it to a central presentation weblog, and put whatever things are interesting to you as a teacher;
2. Learn about setting up weblogs, so that you can set one up for any given class or topic;
3. Begin to connect to things online so that your weblog becomes an online portal to interesting things.

Leverett, T. (2008, Apr.) Teaching writing in online and paper worlds. Writing IS, Demonstration, TESOL Convention, New York NY. Script and articles:

Facebook & social networks

The purpose of focusing on social networks is not to teach students how to exploit them (they already do this quite well) but rather to help them manage a world in which reading and writing in informal online environments are central to survival and success. Teachers don’t want to intrude into what is to students personal, fun, and possibly inappropriate for classroom use, but on the other hand, if reading is easier for students in this environment, then it’s a good way to get students started, in reading, in English, on a variety of topics. Teachers can set up social networks (Nings) or places for classes to gather, share online material and write; at the same time these places can become records of student work and activity, and repositories for classroom materials.

It has been observed that “the whole world has turned to Twitter,” and this is mostly said disparagingly, as if people don’t read anything longer than 140 characters, or are unable to handle complex thoughts. Untrue. As the world turns toward constant connectivity, and geography becomes less relevant, such sites as Twitter become main gathering places of people of almost any common interest.
Look at it this way: If you could attract a gathering of any given group of people, all of whom had the same exact interest as you (teaching reading, for example)- wouldn’t you? Well, you can- and your students can too.
In an Edmodo workshop, you can:
1. set up a small Twitter, so that you and your students (or you and your fellow teachers) can experience the benefits of common connectivity;
2. Use it for the purposes of dropping interesting online links that you and your fellow teachers could use in the future…

Leverett, T. (2009, March). Uncharted but breathtaking: Using chat in the ESL/EFL writing class. TESOL Convention, Denver CO. Script and articles:

Content-based programs

These were quite popular after the Krashen years, and never really went away, partly because they were successful and popular, and partly because it is difficult to change a program entirely, so people don't want to do it unless there are really good reasons for it. It has probably not been proven statistically or conclusively that they are better than skills-based programs; in fact, in content-based programs, teachers tend toward skills-based activities, while in skills-based programs, teachers tend toward content-based activities.

The theory of content-based programs is simple. While investigating a single topic thoroughly, students get immersed in that topic, as they would in an academic setting. They learn vocabulary and grammar in the service of pursuing real, authentic information and soon get immersed in the topic itself, forgetting how painful it is just to study vocabulary and grammar (for example) for its own sake. In pursuing an academic subject as they would if in an academic class, they get immersed in the vocabulary of that subject, get enough repetition of that vocabulary to have some success in dealing with related topics, build a better general vocabulary from there.

For example, our highest level leads students through an environmental textbook, giving both readings and listenings in the same "Core" course, ten hours a week. The writing class, another eight, leads students to use the material to write an environmental research paper so that they can use what they have read, yet hopefully write something that is not plagiarized but uses the concepts of the core class. Our second-highest level is similar but uses more behavioral psychology topics.

The obvious problem with devoting 18 hours a week to a single topic is that students might get tired of it; they also might feel that certain topics unfairly benefit those who happen to have a background in that topic (this happens when we switch to business. We've also used astronomy, economics, anthropology, and sociology). One justification is that in the university (where we are), students will be required to take one science class anyway, or perhaps one humanities class, as an overview or introduction; what we ask of them is presumably not so different, and actually broadens their horizons. On the other hand, a valid criticism is that after 8 weeks, they know a lot about environmentalism, but nothing about twenty or so other topics that may appear on the TOEFL; we are but scratching the surface of the sum total of everything they will need.

The one obvious advantage is that a movie can now supplement the textbook in a major way: by providing a background and by allowing students to hear all the words they are reading, sometimes repeatedly. This cannot be done or isn't done in skills-based programs.

My own philosophy on the nature of the curriculum is stated above; it is that it is not as important, by itself, as it seems. In our program teachers tend toward saying, "Now we'll do listening", while, in a skills-based course, a Reading teacher tends to say, "The next few readings will be about X" thus setting up a kind of context-based class anyway. Thus students seem to do well in both programs, and it's barely worth changing. Most of the programs that changed over to content-based programs have stayed that way. Textbooks have straddled the line, trying to serve everyone. Most people assume and live with a large amount of crossover material in skills books.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Edmodo workshop

Edmodo is a private Twitter. You may not know what Twitter is, but you can find out by going to it. Twitter is good in several ways: You can speak in short sentences; you can chat; you can have instant access (through phone); you can connect to anyone in the world instantly; you can restrict connections to people you are most interested in. I use Twitter to learn what technology can do for teachers and classes.

The problem with Twitter is that your students may already use it, and, anyone can use it and even will come and find you, or maybe bother you, through your other connections or even through your students' connections. So, Edmodo is a way to have the benefits of Twitter but to have some control, so that only you and your class has a certain space.

How do you use it most effectively? I say, first try it with other teachers. Become comfortable with it. Learn how to sign in and sign them in.

For our edmodo, go to Edmodo and sign in as a student with access code xly289. Our group is called "Arequipa". That's all you have to know. You may have to have a logon name; if you speak, we will know you by that. Participate. Do the assignment; tell us what you think.