Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Using Vocabulary Notebooks Part 2

This blog post is about Step 1 of my action research on using vocabulary notebooks to encourages students to use vocabulary learning strategies to write and speak more accurate and intelligible English. 
Steps in Action Research
Step 1) Identifying an issue, problem, or puzzle we wish to investigate in our own context
Step 2) Thinking and planning an appropriate action to address the concern
Step 3) carrying out the action
Step 4) Observing the apparent outcomes of the action
Step 5) reflecting on the outcomes and other possibilities
Step 6) repeating these steps again

As I wrote before, I had been teaching one general English class for a number at a university and felt that students were not making as much progress in terms of becoming more accurate and articulate users of the language as I would have liked. Before trying this intervention, my first step was to try to identify the students' problems in producing English. So I gave them the below task:
Please introduce yourself to me. Tell me why you chose to attend University X. What is your dream for after university? How do you plan to spend your 4 years here? What are your goals for this class? Also, please tell me anything else you think I should know. 

I then underlined their errors in their writing using the  error codes (I actually call them feedback codes) that I developed a few years ago. What I do is I underline errors and give them a particular marking. Students have a feedback code sheet that tells them the meaning of a particular mark and then they try to fix the mistake. Here is the abbreviated version:

Verb form (V): There are four types of V errors that mark errors related to verb usage or incompatible prepositions with verbs.
Noun Ending (NE): Errors in singular/plural or with apostrophes
Article (ART): Error in article usage.
Word Choice (WC): There are four types of WC errors which can indicate that the wrong word form, an incorrect preposition, or an unidiomatic word of phrase.
Sentence Structure (SS): There are 6 types of sentence structure errors. Sentences, phrases, or words labeled SS need more words, need less words, should be rewritten, should be moved to a different position in the sentence, or should be corrected with another sentence. 

There were students errors in their self introductions as well as the average number of words. By far the most frequent error type was SS2.

WC1 WC2 WC3 WC4 ART NE SS2 SS3 SS4 SS5 V1 V2 V3 Words
2 5 2 5 25 14 70 19 0 2 11 2 6 131.3

An SS2 is a sentence level error and basically means that the sentence the student wrote needs to be rewritten because there is an error in sentence level syntax or the phrases used do not have the meaning that the students intended. Here are some examples of SS2 errors:
  • Because of I chose to attend University X is I want to study knowledge of information and software.
  • Second is University has four major difficult each other. 
I returned the paper to the students with the handout that contained the error codes. I then asked them to fix the sentences marked with SS2 by doing the following:
1) Write the sentence  on a separate piece of paper.
2) Write what you wanted to say in Japanese (Often, I could not tell what they wanted to write so this was necessary.
3) Write the corrected sentence below the Japanese.

After they did this, I collected their work and corrected it if necessary.

Here is an example of a student's original error, the intended meaning in Japanese, their correction, and, lastly, my correction if necessary.

SS2 For example, they are thinking as important the cooperation with other medical fields and the nursing training
Japanese X大学は、他の医療分野との連携と実習を重視している。
Student University X is thinking as important the cooperation and training.
Jimbo University X is placing importance on cooperating with other medical fields and nurse training.

After doing this, I also told them that having an SS2 error was not necessarily bad because often it meant that they were experimenting with new and challenging language. I added that those students who did not have any SS2 errors might not have challenged themselves as those who did. However, I also said that if their papers had too many SS2 errors that could also be a problem. It either meant that they used a translating program to do their paper or they could have been more careful about looking up how to use unknown words before writing them. I explained to them three possible causes of SS2 errors and possible measures to take to reduce these mistakes:

Cause 1: Confusion about sentence grammar. 
Measure to take: This often happens when students try to write sentences that are more long and complicated than they have to be. One idea is to try to write more concisely or simply using the English that you know.
Example of Cause 1: I want to become a teacher to engage in about the teaching of the elderly person in the future. 
A more concise sentence: I want to become a teacher for elderly people in the future.  

Cause 2: Confusion about the meaning of a word or phrase. 
Measure to take: If you are not one percent sure about the meaning or usage of a word or phrase, look it up in a dictionary and see if the meaning or usage matches what you want to say.
Example of Cause 2: I thought that the revival advanced more. (The learner is talking about recovery from the tsunami my prefecture experienced last year)
Sentence with more appropriate vocabulary: I thought that the recovery had advanced more. 
Cause 3: Confusion about the grammar or collocations of a particular word or phrase. 
Measure to take:  Look up the collocations or how the word works grammatically in a dictionary 
Example of Cause 3: But I will try hard as possible as. 
Sentence with appropriate phrase grammar: But I will try as hard as possible.  

In summary, here is what I think the problem is: Students' most common error were sentence-level errors not superficial errors. Most often, students themselves cannot fix these errors and I need them to translate the sentence into Japanese so I can know what they were trying to say. This indicates that students can become confused over sentence structure and proper usage of certain vocabulary and phrases. 

I want the students to use vocabulary notebooks to write down the meaning of a certain word/phrase that they want to learn and any information such as collocations, how the word works grammatically, example sentences, etc. that will help them learn to use the particular words or phrases.  I want students to become more careful users of the language so that they can be their own self-editors, improving their intelligibility in the language. In the next post, I will talk about Steps 2 and 3, planning and then taking an action.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Using Vocabulary Notebooks to Promote More Accurate Use of English Part 1

I teach a general English class to freshmen once a week at a different university to where I usually work. The theme of the class is "Global Problems" and I would call it content-based where students are reading, writing, speaking and listening to English. In years past there has been some explicit language focus but content and promoting students' communicative strategies was prioritized. This class is a one-year long class and for the past couple of years I have enjoyed a close relationship with my student and have seen them grow intellectually and increase their confidence in using English. Some students, also demonstrated improvement in their writing and speaking but actually there were too many students who, to be frank, began the class as lousy writers and speakers and ended the year that way without demonstrating much improvement.

Throughout the years I have used vocabulary notebooks in the class to encourage students to use vocabulary learning strategies. Here is an example of an entry (Click on the image to see an enlarged version):

Example entry for the vocabulary notebook
The vocabulary notebook is designed to help students learn the necessary information to be able to use a word, not just understand it. Nevertheless, looking at students' past writing, I do not think that they used the notebook the way that I intended. They recorded word information for the sake of recording it but for example, but they did not apply any of the good habits they were supposed to develop in their real-life English usage. For example, when writing a word they did not know well they did not confirm beforehand things like what prepositions could be used with the word, what the word means and when it is used, or what collocations the word has. I wanted students to become their own editors when using English. This year, I have decided to make more of an effort to encourage students to use vocabulary notebooks as a way to improve their written and spoken English. This is what you would call action research which consists of the following cycles:

1) Identifying an issue, problem, or puzzle we wish to investigate in our own context
2) Thinking and planning an appropriate action to address the concern
3) carrying out the action
4) Observing the apparent outcomes of the action
5) reflecting on the outcomes and other possibilities
6) repeating these steps again

In my next post, I will talk about the issue or problem more specifically and then action I plan to take using the vocabulary notebooks.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The past couple of years

I really have all but given up posting to this blog but surprisingly it still seems to get some hints and occasionally I will receive a comment that is actually not spam. For about a year, I have honestly wanted to post but these days I am a zombie after 9PM which had been my time for blog writing. Two kids and advancing in age will do that to you I guess. 

I am involved in English teacher education in Japan. Basically, I teach aspiring junior and senior high school teachers in Japan the ropes about teaching English. Sometimes, though, it seems that after 10 years here I myself am still learning the ropes. In addition to the teacher education classes, I also teach general English classes at a nursing school, a night school for nurses, and another university in my city. Japanese universities are fairly liberal about letting their staff work part-time at other places. 

Anyhow, last year I was teaching at the night nursing school I had a bit of a revelation. I had a class of 20 students who had full-time jobs and were absolutely exhausted by the time they came to my class. They had to study to pass their nursing exam and nursing English was not a priority for them. My goal for the class became not to necessarily teach them English but show them how to learn a foreign language so that maybe when they had the time or the need, they would have some tools to help them learn English. I poured an immense amount of time into this class thinking about how I could reach every individual student. One day, I was lamenting a little about my class on English teaching methodology and students' apparent lack of interest. Then, I thought about the nursing school class and asked myself if I was as dedicated to the students at my full-time job. I realized that I was neglecting a lot of students who were actually interested in English and losing students who had still not made up their minds about whether or not they wanted to be English teachers. I did not want to abandon the nursing students who I had grown quite attached to, but I decided to really devote more energy to my teaching methodology class. I doubled the amount of work, gave them long reading and writing assignments - commenting on the content of the writing assignments as well as having them correct their English, and completely overhauled my lectures. By the ending of the semester, I felt that the students were giving me more effort and showing more interest in teaching English. 

I am supposed to be a researcher. However, I think an important job of a teacher is to give students as much one to one help as possible because I think the feedback a teacher can give, if done right, will scaffold the learners growth. Also, if learners know that the teacher is constantly checking their work, monitoring their progress, and actually cares whether or not the learners are making progress, it will be very motivational for the learners. Spending a lot of time on classes though can limit the amount of research I can do. No matter what though, I do not have the heart to go through the motions with my classes; I think that teaching is what I like to do the most.

The late Randy Pausch gave an amazing lecture on time management. He was able to be a successful teacher and researcher as well as watch his Pittsburgh Steelers play every month and spend time with his family. His secret seemed to be that 1) he was incredibly organized and 2) he made a schedule every day of exactly what he would do and when he would do it. So far, I have partially succeeded with 1) but for me to balance my life better, I have to become better at 2).