ESL Teaching

Sneaky micro-writing activities for students who hate writing

I’m so happy to announce my first-ever guest post on Ms.ESL. This one is by Stuart Price, a fantastic ESL teacher with about eight years teaching experience, who also happens to be my husband! Without further ado…

I love writing and I love teaching writing but since coming to Saudi Arabia, I have found it a tough task. When it comes to writing, Saudi students have a unique set of problems, apart from the ones that plague nearly all ESL students:

  • the whole Roman script thing
  • no vowels in Arabic which leads to astonishing spelling problems
  • writing from left to right and
  • a lack of ideas to put into a paragraph of short piece of writing

As well as the usual paragraph structure / ideas flow issues, this makes writing a particularly demotivating task for students here. But as I said I love writing and like a moth drawn to a flame, with the inevitable frazzled end, I can’t but try to pass on, if not my love, then at least a glimmer that it is possible to write 150 words about your last holiday or to cobble together a story from a picture board.

So I sat down and gave it some thought. And after some serious mulling I figured I would need a two-pronged approach to 1) address their structural / compositional needs and 2) increase the amount they wrote (to give them practice) but in a way that wouldn’t seem labourious, or like ‘oh-no-not-more-writing!’. (more…)

Train ESL students to speed read – Teaching scanning skills

This is the fifth in the series of techniques to help students develop and practice their reading skills. Here’s the first post on the difference between ‘reading quickly’ and skimming, the second one on raising awareness about eye movement in speed reading, the third on obscuring textual margins and tricking / teaching the brain to skim texts, and the fourth on teaching students to map texts to make scanning easier.

Teach scanning skills

The mantra for teaching reading (and every other skill) is ‘task before text’, i.e. set the task learners are expected to complete before you give them the text. The completion of the task is their objective or aim, and to achieve their aim, students must activate and use a range of skills such as skimming, scanning, and close reading.

Now, while a lot of teachers are familiar with this mantra, what they seem to do is simply hand out the questions on a piece of paper, then immediately proceed to hand out the text, set the time limit and boom – it’s time to start. (more…)

Train ESL students to speed read – Mapping the text

This is the fourth in the series of techniques to help students develop and practice their reading skills. Here’s the first post on the difference between ‘reading quickly’ and skimming, the second one on raising awareness about eye movement in speed reading, the third on obscuring textual margins and tricking / teaching the brain to skim texts.

For long sections of text, it’s useful to teach our learners to map the text. Essentially, this is a breaking down of the text into smaller digestible chunks by identifying the main idea being talked about over one or two paragraphs. When mapping a text, it’s a good idea to divide it into sections using a horizontal line between paragraphs and writing a keyword or two that sums up the main idea in the margins. (more…)

Train ESL students to speed read – Obscure the margins

This is the third in the series of techniques to help students develop and practice their reading skills. Here’s the first post on the difference between ‘reading quickly’ and skimming, and the second one on raising awareness about eye movement in speed reading.

A lot of students find it difficult to focus on keywords or move their eyes from top to bottom and bottom to top because they are so used to reading texts word for word. This is especially true if the text is perceived as challenging and students feel the need to understand it word for word.

To give the brain an additional impetus to skim and NOT read word for word, ask students to fold in the margins of their text so as to hide a little bit (half an inch or so for an A4 size paper) of the text on either side. By removing the beginning and ending of each line of the text, we are quite literally (I think the use of the word is quite justified here) forcing or tricking the brain into reading only the keywords and forcing top-to-bottom eye movement.

Next time, I’ll talk about a cool technique called mapping the text to divide long texts into more digestible chunks.

Train ESL students to speed read – Eye Movement

This is the second in the series of techniques to help students develop and practice their reading skills. Here’s the first post on the difference between ‘reading quickly’ and skimming.

Students generally read left to right, or right to left (if their L1 is Urdu or Arabic). Skimming a text involves reading from top to bottom, and then from bottom to top, and then top to bottom again. Open up an unfamiliar text on the screen (a news or blog article perhaps) and skim it quickly to decide (a) the genre (b) what it’s about (c) whether you’re interested in reading it or not. Pay close attention to the direction in which your eyes move while skimming the text. I’ve done this experiment multiple times with peers, friends, and students and found the following:

  • we read the headline or title (if there is one) word-for-word.
  • we gather contextual clues from the picture and the caption
  • our eyes wander over the text for organizational details such as sub-headings, bold, italicized or boxed text
  • we snatch keywords from various sections of the text to get an idea of text flow

All of the above only takes a reader reading in L1 about five or so seconds, depending on the length of the text. With students, I often give them an unfamiliar text in their own L1 and bring their attention to these details in the first or second reading lesson and then ask them to replicate the same process while reading in L2. Raising awareness of the automatic eye movement while skimming in L1 helps learners in translating the same skills to reading in English.

Next up, I’ll talk about a little trick I learned on a recent workshop on reading. This one really helps in tricking the brain to skim rather than read the text word-for-word.

Train ESL students to speed read – Reading quickly vs. Skimming

When I observe teachers delivering reading lessons, they often hand out a page of dense text to their students, set a gist task, and set a time limit of anywhere between 30 seconds to two minutes. For a scanning task, time limits are often too generous, allowing students to read every word of the text which defeats the purpose of scanning. And yet, invariably, students let out a collective groan when the teacher sets a time limit. “Teacher, need more time!” is the most common response. And the teacher says, “Read the text quickly!” 

Here’s what I’m thinking sitting at the back of the classroom:

  1. Do students know how to read quickly?
  2. Can they read the assigned 200 words in 30 seconds?
  3. Do they know they don’t have to read every word of the text for the given task?
  4. Has the teacher taught them skimming, scanning and speed reading in previous lessons?
  5. Have students been taught scanning skills, in case these haven’t been transferred from their L1?
  6. When reading for detail, are they aware of strategies to deal with unknown vocabulary?

(more…)

Teaching Reading and Developing Reading Skills

Reading is a dying art, they say, but I think what they are referring to is the reading of literature. In fact, people are processing more and more information off the page and on the web – much, much more so than we did in the past. Students of ESL are confronted with a vast amount of reading material on the internet every day but are we, as teachers reigning supreme in the ESL classrooms, preparing our students to confidently and efficiently interact with the plethora of reading material available to them?

Do we teach or test reading skills?

In my first couple of years of teaching ESL, I grew very comfortable doing reading and listening skills lessons – much more than when it came to teaching writing and grammar. For the most part, I ignored explicitly teaching speaking and pronunciation although every lesson obviously included some speaking and pronunciation work.

So much so, that when it came to being observed by managers, I invariably chose to teach an easy reading or listening lesson – learners spent plenty of time engaging with the texts, working in pairs and groups, there was always some vocabulary that could be culled from the text to showcase my strength in CCQing and drilling, and the lesson was rounded off with a chunky speaking task at the end: all elements of a receptive skills language lesson and communicative teaching were easily checked and the observer, students, and I all went home smiling for the rest of the evening. (more…)