Assessing pronunciation

My colleague and I are revising our program’s curriculum, and we’ve hit a bit of stumbling block: pronunciation. At every proficiency level, in the “listening/speaking” curriculum, pronunciation is listed as a curriculum objective. And with great specificity, too. We’re supposed to teach word endings (like -s and -ed), minimal pair distinction, syllable structure, stress, intonation…you name it, it’s in the curriculum.

Now, our rule is, if it’s in the curriculum, it has to be assessed. So, my question is: how do you assess pronunciation? How do you determine that a student has mastered the distinction between /θ/ and /s/? Why would you fail a student for not mastering this objective, when it likely has little effect on his overall intelligibility?

It seems clear that if we’re going to keep pronunciation in the curriculum, we need to state it a little more generally. But how do you write a curriculum objective for pronunciation that’s reasonable and assessable? How do you account for different proficiency levels? How do you keep yourself from getting bogged down in the specifics of “accent” while ignoring intelligibility? I’d like our program to be as far from “accent reduction courses” as possible, while still recognizing that pronunciation is an important component of learning a second language.

Why I don’t like textbooks

Our faculty is in the middle of what we call “Curriculum Development Week.” At the end of each semester, we get together to reflect on our teaching and program policies and look ahead to what changes need to be made. It’s three straight days of meetings, so it’s not exactly fun, but it is useful.

Today, we got on the subject of textbooks. The original topic was curriculum revision, but we got a little sidetracked. Like, a 90-minute derailment about how most of us love, but some of us vehemently hate textbooks. If you’re wondering, I fall into the “vehemently hate” category.

So, why do teachers love textbooks? Well, textbooks provide a lot of structure to a class. And, I think that’s it. I am not trying to belittle their argument at all: textbooks do provide a lot of structure to a class. I also think that’s really important. I team taught once with a teacher who basically just played a lot of games with his students and called it teaching. The students had fun, but whether they learned anything was arguable.

All the same, I hate textbooks. More specifically, I hate ESL textbooks targeted for adult learners. And here’s why:

1. The textbook never quite fits the class. I always wind up with a textbook slightly above or below the level of the students in the class. Textbooks are created to serve as general an audience as possible, so it’s inevitable that they will not perfectly fit any class. I, on the other hand, can bring in my own materials which will suit my class much better.

2. The themes are generic, and often cheesy. Every textbook has a chapter on family, sports, and hobbies. Students learn useless vocabulary like “stamp collecting” or “parasailing.” Look, I’ll admit this is not true of all textbooks. But I’ve been burned a few too many times.

3. Dear god, the audio files. Ah, the thrilling conversations between Yoshi and Jose, who both speak perfect American English, despite being from Japan and Argentina, respectively. They talk about their exciting weekend plans: Yoshi wants to go hiking, but Jose prefers to watch a movie. Compromise: hiking on Saturday and movie on Sunday!

4. The language is inauthentic. The reading textbook teaches students how to infer the meaning of unknown vocabulary from context clues. A useful skill, to be sure, but the textbook kindly provides ample context clues, making the definition painfully obvious. In reality, most texts we read don’t give us such helpful clues.

Writing textbooks teach students how to write various kinds of essays: definition essays, comparison/contrast essays, classification essays. Do you know how many classification essays I wrote in college? Not one. Ever. My “favorite” writing textbook provides a sample essay about the metaphorical power of an hourglass (Time is slipping away…). In what universe do the textbook writers live that my students will have to wax poetic for five pages about an hourglass?

Listening textbooks provide lecture samples that include “authentic English,” with the perfectly-rehearsed coughs, laughs and filler words. These “mistakes” don’t sound like mistakes. They sound like they were done on purpose, which they were.

5. Textbooks are boring. I should qualify that statement by saying that textbooks are boring to me. I find them inherently dull, even the decent ones. I don’t know how to make them interesting, so I don’t like using them. I do, however, like the YouTube videos I find or the interesting articles published in the school newspaper. I like the content that my students generate in the class, when a simple discussion of American education turns into a week’s worth of writing class lesson plans.

Now, let’s be clear, I don’t want to devalue what textbook writers do. What they do is important and really, really hard. I wouldn’t want to do it. I wouldn’t be any good at it. And I totally get why people cling to textbooks. It’s not just the teachers, students get a little freaked out when you don’t use a textbook. “How can I be learning if there’s no book?” But textbooks serve a valuable purpose. For some teachers, they provide a jumping off point, a framework to build an excellent class. That’s great.

What I find frustrating is the implication that because I don’t use a textbook, I don’t teach as well. No offense to the textbook writers/fans, but I think I teach a hell of a lot better without a textbook. Is it more work? Yes, a lot more work. And I enjoy it. Because I’m weird. But also because I know that I’m giving my students the best class I can. And isn’t that really everyone’s goal?

When one student drags the whole class down

Is it fair to place the blame on one student? I’m fairly convinced if he weren’t in the class, the atmosphere of the class would be infinitely more pleasant. The problem is this – I can tell he doesn’t care about the class at all. He’s also developed a position in the class as the class clown, so the other students love him and find him hilarious. I used to find him hilarious, too, until the 20th joke about changing the clock behind my back so I would think class is over.

And, you see, when he doesn’t want to do the work, no one wants to do the work. He rolls his eyes, and suddenly, they all seem far less excited about the activity I’ve just introduced. I call him out for his behavior, and everyone in class rushes to his defense. If they were forced to choose between him and me, they’d choose him every time.

I guess I’m posting more out of frustration than anything; I don’t know that there is a solution to this problem at this point. We have about 2 more weeks of class, so it’s unlikely anything will change between now and then.

In my experience, I’ve found that there are always 1 or 2 students in every class that set the tone for the rest of the class. Finding out who those students are and how to appeal to them is part of ensuring a successful classroom environment. And, of course, every so often, there’s a mystery student, a student even I cannot win over. That’s usually one of my biggest strengths as a teacher, that I can motivate even the most difficult cases. When I reach a road block, it makes me feel like a brand new teacher all over again, unsure of myself and constantly frustrated.

Assessment can be fun! (No, I’m not being sarcastic)

For a long time, I have hated assessment. I appreciate the need for it, but I hate standardized tests, I hate poorly written assessments, I hate how obsessed students get with grades, and most of all, I hate how often assessment takes the enjoyment and excitement out of learning. Frankly, a lot of my intense dislike for assessment comes from working with people who were obsessed with it, but not particularly concerned about the effect it had on students. I’ve worked with people who loved numbers more than they loved students, and that’s just not why I got into education.

Fortunately, I don’t work with people like that at my current job. My program director asked us to experiment a little with assessment this session, to come up with better assignments, projects, and tests that adequately assess our students’ language ability.  So, I took it as a challenge to finally sit down and plan assessment that fit both my vision for motivating and challenging my students and the program’s goal of accurately determining students’ language progress.

Here are some of the projects I tried, and why I actually had fun creating these assessments:

Online porfolios: This was my biggest project by far. I taught a reading/listening/speaking class (those skills go great together, by the way), and I had the students create blogs to showcase their work in the class.  They posted weekly reading and listening reports of articles they read and videos they watched.  They were allowed to choose the articles and videos.  For speaking, they created weekly Fotobabbles and posted them.  Because the students chose their own material for the reports and the Fotobabbles, they actually spent more time practicing these language skills than they would have if I had assigned the material.  And they were more engaged in their homework, since they basically got to create it from week to week.  And the best part for me?  I learned so much about them through the articles they shared and the pictures they posted. WIN.

Free Rice vocabulary building: I’ve always loved this website. Play a simple vocabulary game, donate rice to those in need.  Adding it to an intermediate writing class was easy and fun.  I created a group on their website, and I made it a competition for the class.  The students enjoyed competing against each other, and I think they learned a lot of useful vocabulary in the process.

Vocabulary presentations: I’ve been teaching vocabulary the same way for years, and I felt it was time to shake things up.  So, this session, I asked the students to teach the vocabulary.  I assigned vocabulary as I usually do, but this time, the students took my place.  They worked in groups to create vocabulary presentations that taught the vocabulary in unique and memorable ways.  I challenged them to think: “What would help me learn vocabulary better and use it more?” And that’s what I told them should inspire their presentations.

Group speaking exam: This one was a lot of fun, and the students told me they really enjoyed it.  For their final speaking exam, the students worked in groups of three (they chose their group members), and they had a discussion about a pre-arranged topic.  Most of these students are headed to the university, where being able to discuss academic readings and current events is a necessary skill.  I gave the students a list of possible topics.  They showed up on test day and chose one of the topics at random and had a group discussion for about 20 minutes.  I loved hearing their thoughts on overpopulation, the role of the society vs. the individual in the obesity epidemic, and the power of educating women all over the world.

It was wonderful to see how well the students responded to assessments that required them to think, not just regurgitate whatever I had taught them.  They all agreed it was hard work, but they were more motivated than I’d ever seen them.  Who knew assessment could be such a great motivator?

A typical class day…

“Okay, guys, for this exercise, you do not need to copy the sentences.  Just plug in the correct vocabulary word.  Got it?  Don’t copy the sentences.  It’s a waste of time.  Don’t copy the sentences.”

5 minutes later…

“Teacher, do we need to copy the sentences?”

Am I a weird teacher?

An interesting (to put it mildly) encounter with a grad student I’m mentoring got me thinking about this.  I’ve long known that my views on education are not run of the mill.  I am not, nor will I ever be, a traditional teacher.  It’s funny how often that freaks people out.

In this conversation with the student, it occurred to me that education is a lot like religion: we all have very specific ideas about what it is and what it should be, and if your ideas are different from mine, then your ideas are wrong.  Which, of course, is ironic, since isn’t it the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain ideas you disagree with and open yourself up to other points of view?

This student and I clashed on various issues, but one area where we clearly could not see eye to eye was homework.  I’ve blogged about homework before and turned it over in my mind many times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I kind of hate homework.  So, I don’t give much of it.  She was convinced that students will not learn if they’re not given homework.  I am convinced that students will not learn if they don’t want to.  If my homework makes them want to learn, then they will learn.  But if my homework does nothing more than fill up the hours they spend out of my class, it may actually have the exact opposite effect.  I believe I defended my position well, but I know she left that conversation still certain that I am wrong about homework.

This conversation with her dredged up all these latent feelings of guilt I have about not giving homework.  I, too, grew up with the idea that homework is necessary and beneficial.  When I thought about giving it up, I almost couldn’t because I was sure it made me a bad teacher.  But I’ve traded piles of homework for in-class assignments and projects that more authentically assess my students’ progress in English.  I’m not the “homework police” anymore, so I can actually enjoy my students more.  I’ve learned more about them, and I feel better equipped to speak to their linguistic ability.

But, you know, it’s funny, those same students who used to complain about having too much homework now complain about not having any homework.  It’s like homework is the security blanket of education; we don’t feel like we’re learning without it.  My students now have more time outside of class to use their English.  They can go have coffee with that new American friend or go check out that movie they’ve been wanting to see.  There’s not as much homework to get in the way.  Of course, they don’t see it that way.  I’m just the weird teacher who doesn’t give a lot of homework.

The current letter I want to post on my office door

Dear Students:

It is never a good strategy to blame your teacher for your poor decisions.  Believe it or not, I did not actually create an assignment so impossibly difficult that you had no other recourse but to have a friend do the work for you. That is called cheating. It is always wrong. It is never acceptable. Not ever. Even 5 year-olds know this.  Some of you have children around this age.  Ask them.

I also did not tell you to procrastinate on that big project, nor did I lead you to believe that procrastinating would not result in frustration and a failing grade. When I gave you the assignment weeks in advance, I actually did so because I expected the assignment to take you a significant amount of time.

Surprising as it may be, it is not my fault that you spent hours doing the assignment incorrectly.  My directions are not so absurdly complicated that they cannot be followed. They are worth reading at least once, however.

When apologizing to me, you probably should have stopped after “I’m sorry.” The part about how I caused your incompetence was a spectacularly poor move.  I was already frustrated and disappointed.  But now I’m angry.  And that, I think it’s fair to say, is your fault.

Sincerely,

Your teacher

(I probably shouldn’t have waited to publish my first blog post of the New Year until a few weeks into classes, when the frustration sets in. But thank you for indulging me.)