Friday, February 19, 2010

Diversity and Inequality round table

Teaching Composition to English Language Learners

Hosting a round table about teaching practices for second language students, the D&I put together a panel of teachers with experience teaching abroad and with English language learners in the U.S. Some of the concerns addressed were grammar vs. content, popular culture, the impact of understanding the culture of the student population, the role of phonics, and the assumptions about teaching in other cultures.

For the most part, the panel tended to agree that, as with most classes, engagement is an important factor. Grammar with English language learners is the same as with most composition students in that if it is the focus without context, students won't necessarily feel any more comfortable performing the language. One participant noted that she'd attended a conference presentation that statistically documented gains in classes with grammar as the focus vs. a class with content with the focus, showing marginally higher gains in the grammar-focused class--the participant noted that this was a single study, and not a ringing endorsement for grammar-based class content.

The consensus on the use of pop-culture was similar in that participants agreed that the more interested the students were in the material, the more success that the activities tended to have. With regard to music, it was recommended to ask the students to bring in their own music, or make suggestions about music in English that could be used in exercises to test recognition of vocabulary. At the same time, the participants were also open to bringing in their own choices of music and letting the discussion take its own direction, just as long as the emphasis is placed on dealing with the issues that the students bring up, even if not completely by design of the instructor (the example discussed began with a piece of music by Miles Davis spawning a discussion about Michael Jackson).

The topic of phonics accompanied a discussion about the varieties of literacy. One of the participants cited working with students who were not literate in their own language, in the sense that they did not know the grammar of their language, so it was difficult to draw a comparison to English. In this case, some of the most basic of motor skills can be addressed in order to build to discussions of grammar--something as simple as spending time on the alphabet can be much more beneficial than practical, yet much too advanced, worksheets.

A participant joked about English as being "not an ordinary language because of all its exceptions--we don't speak grammatically correct, but that's what makes it an extra-ordinary language."

Thanks to round table participants Jake Levine, Katie Silvester and Cassie Wright.

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