Michelle's independent resources for ESL Students at Vancouver Community College

This is a Canadian ESL blog for Intermediate and Advanced Students who want to learn and improve their English. Each PAGE above contains thousands of free English lessons, tutorials and practice exercises to help you learn and improve your English grammar, reading, listening, pronunciation, speaking, writing and editing. Some of the resources are Canadian. Others are from around the world.

The resources on this Canadian blog are all free, and I spend a lot of my time working on it, so please consider becoming a SUPPORTER. I appreciate all the support I get. It is the fuel that keeps me going.

Membership is FREE.

NOTE: To leave a comment, click on the word "comment" at the bottom of the page. A comment page will pop up.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Sounds Right: Pronunciation Made Easy

Do any of you have iPads?  You can now have the sounds of English right at your fingertips. The British Council has come up with a pronunciation chart that you can now download on your iPad. Sounds Right is the British Council's first pronunciation chart for learners and teachers worldwide. This app is for the iPad.

Features:

  • Pure vowels are arranged the same way as in the IPA chart: according to mouth shape (left to right, lips wide / round - top to bottom, jaw closed / open).
  • Diphthongs are grouped in rows according to their second sound.
 You can read more about the app and read reviews on the iTunes Preview Page.

To get an idea of the benefits this particular app can have for you click on:  iPhone and iPad 

How to download on to your iPad

You must have an iPad.

  1. Browse via the App Store on your device, search for "Sounds Right" or "British Council". Or connect your device to your computer with iTunes and go to the App Store.
  2. Click on it and install.
  3.  It will appear in your menu.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Vancouver Grey Cup 2011: 16 Facts Immigrants Should Know About Canadian Football

Although many of you still think the word football refers to the game most  Canadians call soccer,  football is another game entirely here. Today our beautiful city - Vancouver - is playing host to the 2011 Grey Cup, Canada's final football championship game.  Although it may not be as highly promoted as the American football championship, the Super Bowl, today's Grey Cup is one of the country's biggest parties. The two teams facing off against each other are the BC Lions and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.  
 
You may never become big football fans, but it never hurts to know a little about a game that many of your co-workers  enjoy talking about, especially  if you want to practice making small talk.  

Useful Facts
1.  Canada has its own professional football league called the Canadian Football League (CFL) — with a total of eight teams: B.C. Lions, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger Cats and Montreal Alouettes.

2. The Grey Cup is both the name of the Canadian Football League (CFL ) championship and the name of the trophy awarded to the victorious team. It is Canada's largest annual sports and television event, regularly drawing a Canadian viewing audience of about 3 to 4
million people. Last year year more than six million people watched the game.  

3. A football is brown and spherical-shaped with pointed ends. It’s also called a  “pigskin” because it’s made from leather.

4. Canadian footballl rules are different than in U.S. football rules. (e.g. the field in Canada  is bigger).

5. In football, 12 players, try to get the football into their opponents  end zone,  either through running or passing,defensive players try to block, or stop offensive players by tackling them. 

6   Unlike soccer players, football players  wear a lot of equipment that helps to protect players who get tackled and jumped on a lot.

7.  A football game has two 45 minute periods. The break between the two periods is called half-time. During the Grey Cup there is usually a big half-time show. 
 8.   A regulation size Canadian football field is 110 yards (100 m) long from goal line to goal line, and 65 yards (60 m) wide. The end zones are 20 yards (18 m) deep. A series of lines called "hashmarks" are marked on the field 24 yards (*22 m) in from each sideline and go the length of the field from goal line to goal line. 
 
9. At each goal line is a set of 40-foot-high (12 m) goal posts, which look like an “H” or a tuning fork.
 

10.   White lines are drawn laterally across the field every 5 yards (4.6 m) from the goal line  (these are called “yard lines”).
 

11.   Play begins with a backwards pass through the legs (the snap) to the quarterback or 

punter. He can then run with the ball, pass it, throw it, kick it, etc.
 
12.  There are three different types of kicks: a “place kick” is when a ball is held on the ground by a teammate or on a kickoff placed on a tee; a “drop kick” is kicking a ball after bouncing it on the ground; a “punt” is kicking the ball after it has been released from the kicker’s hand and before it hits the ground
 

13.  What’s a “down”? Each play constitutes a “down.” The offence must advance the ball at least 10 yards towards the opponents’ goal line within three downs (four downs in U.S. football) or the ball goes to their opponents. Once 10 yards have been gained  the offence gains a new set of three downs.

14.  In football a goal is called a touchdown and is worth 6 points, whereas a goal is soccer
is ONE point. Fields goals are worth 3 points, and safeties are worth 2 points.

15.  Games are played outside in some parts of Canada, even in the snow.
 

16.  Our yearly championship is called the Grey Cup, named for Lord Albert Henry Earl Grey, Governor General of Canada, who donated the trophy in 1909.Each year, it’s held in a different city across Canada.


If you want to know more about Canadian football, click on the following links.   

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Proofreading Under Pressure

Are you failing your in-class writing tests because of your grammar and mechanics  mistakes? Is it your own fault because you didn't leave yourself enough time to proofread -  even once. You CAN help yourself. Here are some tips to help you learn how proofread quickly and efficiently even when you are under pressure. If you follow this advice, you will definitely improve your writing scores.   
1. Get To Know Your Own Errors
Knowledge is power. Get to know the mistakes YOU make most frequently. Analyze all your previous in-class writing tests and read your instructor's  comments  Look for the type of mistakes you usually make and count the number of times you make them. Make a list of errors starting with the most serious and the most frequent and moving to less serious and less frequent.
2. Make sure you understand why you made your errors 
Determine whether your errors are careless mistakes ordue to lack of knowledge. It is easy to edit ( correct) carless mistakes when you proofread, but you need to learn more about the ones you make because you didnd't understand the rule. If you don't know or understand the rule, talk to your instructor or a tutor the learning centre. Get some direction about where you can learn more and practice. Using your list of most important errors, write rules and sample sentences in your notebook or in the back of your dictionary.

3. Focus on your most frequent errors  
Know your list of frequent errors so that you know what to took for when you are proofreading . For example, your list might consist of the following: verb tenses, modals, subject-verb agreement, plurals, word order, sentence fragments and run on sentences. 

4. Get ready even before you write  
Place your list of most frequent errors on a post-it note on your desk while your are writing. This will remind you to proofread for these ererors,and may even help you  to avoid making some of them  as you write. 

5. Be disciplined. Don't overwrite
Be disciplined. Create a time line for your writing and proofreading and stick to it. Leave yourself at least 20 minutes to proofread if you have a 90 minute writing period. If you tend  to overwrite, force yourself  to keep it simple.  Remember LONGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER. The more you write, the more errors you will make and the less time you will have to correct them.
  
6. Make sure you leave time to proofread
Check the time often. Make sure you are sticking to your timeline. If you see that you only have 20 minutes left, start wrapping things up.

7.7. Proofread four or five times.  
You cannot check everything in one reading. You are too familiar with the material and you will end up reading for meaning. You won├Ęt know where to focus your efforts, and will miss obvious errors. 

8. Proofread for one type of error at a time. 
Proofread for ONE type of error at a time. Start with the errors you make most frequently. If you try to look for too many hings at once, you risk losing focus. It's easier to locate grammar mistakes if you aren't trying to catch punctuation or spelling errors at the same time. Besides, some of the techniques that work well for one type of mistake don't work as well for another type error.   

9. Proofread out loud - or at least loudly enough so that you can hear.     
Your ears often catch mistakes your eyes will not. Reading out loud forces you to actually say each word and lets you ear how the words sound together. Listening to your words and sentences will allow you to notice missing words such as subjects, or “be”verbs. It will help you realize that you should be using a gerund instead of an infinitive. Hearing how the words sound together will also help you realize your word order is wrong, or that  you are writing a Chinglish, or Spanglish phrase or sentence rather than an English one.

10.Read each word and sentence as slowly as you can  
Try to s-l-o-w-d-o-w- n  as you read.  If you read silently, or at normal speed, you may skip over errors, make unconscious corrections, or simply overlook them bedcause you are too familiar with the content. You won't give your eyes, or your ears enough time to spot, or hear the errors. Reading s-l-o-w-l-y forces you to concentrate on the task of proofreading.
 
 11. Read you paper backward
 Read from the last sentence to the first sentence, one word, or one sentence at a time. This helps you concentrate on sentences and words rather than on meaning, or on the paper as a whole.It is a helpful strategy to check for both sentence fragments and  spelling.
12. Cover all but one one sentence 
Use a piece of white paper to cover every thing except for the sentence you are reading. This helps reduce visual noise  (all the other surrounding words), and helps you from being distracted by other sentences. As you read each word and sentence separately, it is much easier to find individual grammar, punctuation or spelling errors. 
13. Circle every puncutation mark                                   This forces you to look at each one. As you circle, ask yourself if the punctuation is correct. "Should this be a period? Is there a complete idea, or it it only half an idea?" Ask yourself if this should be a comma, a period, or a connecting word?  Do you see several ideas that only seem to be connected with a comma?  Are you using commas where they don't belong? 
14. Don't get discouraged                                                      Learing how to proofread effectively is a learning process. It takes time to get good at it. You won't find every mistake, but if you follow these strategies, you will locdate and be able to correct many of your careless mistakes. That alone will make an enormous difference in your marks. It will also show your instructor that you care about cleaning up your paper before you hand it in.

Proofreading can make the difference between passing or failing. Isn't it worth making the effort?



My next post will focus on the most common ESL errors to proofread for and correct.


Can you add any tips I may have missed?  Let me know in the comment box.





Friday, November 18, 2011

Practice Grammar Quizzes for Final Exams


So...You've reached the end of the term and all you have left is final exams. Don't despair.  I have added a batch of multiple choice quizzes on the Grammar Page to help you review for your final exam, but don't forget to look at your own notes. I will be adding some additional material to the Reading and Listening Pages as well. Check the Homework page tomorrow as I will probably add one or two useful activities - particularly news practice and extra advice.  Read my March 23rd post to get some tips for multiple choice tests. Read all the way to the bottom for tips on Listening Tests. Tips and Stategioes for Multiple Choice Tests

    

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How Do We Solve the Cheating Problem?


I'm continuing the discussion on cheating because I can't reply to the responses in a a short paragraph. I have too much to say. 

Rickey, I agree that some students will always cheat because they don't want to put in the effort it takes to pass a course. Unfortunately, we also have good, but not "brilliant" students who cheat  because one high stakes exam determines their future. In this situation, even students who have worked extremely hard, but who can't compete with the top 2%  often feel they have nothing to lose by cheating. The high stakes create the problem. Anyone with any suggestions about how to solve this particular dilemma, please write a comment. 

Yini, I agree that some people cheat because they only want the piece of paper, not the knowledge it states they have acquired. In your comment, you assume that students actually care about what their instructor can offer them, or about the content of the course itself. Many students genuinely do want to learn, and don't cheat because they recognize that a test simply determines what they know and what they still need to learn. Unfortunately, some students are only interested in the ultimate goal - success at any price.  To these people, success and honesty don't belong in the same sentence. In fact, the concept of honesty is for "losers".

Sally, I can see that you are a true learner. However, you also bring up another reason people cheat: Cheating is the only way they can meet the high expectations of their parents or teachers. I will respond as a teacher first. I do have high expectations, but often these expectations challenge students who don't believe in themselves to put more effort into their work than they normally would. Often, these students surpass even their own expectations. However, I only place these expectations on students who are capable of achieving. Some of my students shouldn't be in my class for a variety of reasons. They were misplaced. Their previous instructor has been "too kind." Some of them have even cheated and not been caught. These students will ultimately not succeed because a gate- keeping teacher will eventually refuse to pass them on to another level.

I know that some parents have expecta- tions their children will never be able to meet, particularly parents with only one child. I've often taught hard working students whose parents expect them to accomplish miracles. They've placed all their hopes and dreams on the back of one poor 19 year old who may never have what it takes to become the scholar they want him or her to be. Unfortunately, parents living thousands of miles away have no idea how difficult it is to learn a language, or how long it takes to master it well enough to perform at the college or university level. As a result, they accuse their children of being lazy and accuse them of not working hard enough if they don't pass every English class, regardless of whether they've learned anything. Is it any wonder their children are under so much pressure that they cheat in order to  please their parents, and to avoid their strong recriminations for failing. 

Enrique, students who are caught cheating at the university level do suffer consequences. But, we are now living in an electronic world where catching the cheaters has become the issue. We're allso living in a world where stuidents help each other cheat.  As a result, no matter how much an instructor would like to trust her students, she is forced to assume that at least a few of them will cheat. This lack of trust is certainly one reason all my students must put their electronic devices on myh desk before an exam.  A few weeks ago, one of my former homestay students told me about electronic pens that have now been designed for cheaters. Of course, we North Americans haven't even heard of them yet. Some schools and universities are getting very tough, but the question remains are they tough enough. Should students get a slap on the wrist, or should the penalties be more severe?  Check out the  following article.It's an  interesting read. 10 Greatest Cheating Scandals in College History

Do have you anything to say about the issue?  Tell me what YOU think in the comment box. 

1

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Is Cheating Accceptable?

 
As final exams approach, the ugly word `cheating`seems to be on many people`s lips.    According to a recent Globe and Mail article `the disproportionate number of international students accused of plagiarism or cheating on exams is raising red flags in university administrations and legal aid offices. It also raises questions as to whether schools should be doing more for stressed-out foreign students who are grappling with new educational standards, often while coping with a language barrier.
All over Canada, the U.S., Britain and other countries educators and institutions are raising the question about what is causing international students to cheat.  I would like to expand that question to what makes any student, including immigrant ESL students  cheat in high school, academic ESL programs and colleges.  
As a long time ESL instructor, I would love to say that none of my students have ever cheated,  but I would be lying. Over the past 20 years I have caught students cheating on exams, in-class essays, hand-in assignments and research papers.  Some methods have been creative, involving entire sets of signals with different coloured pens, or nose scratching, hair pulling, and ear tweaking.
Throughout the years students have openly whispered the answers to each other, looked at each other`s papers, or allowed others to look at theirs, written on their arms, used `crib sheets, or hidden electronic dictionaries in their arm sleeve.  I`ve had students memorize a complete essays out of well known composition textbooks for in class essays, or use previous essays they or someone else has written in previous classes that I have taught myself.  In these cases, students have blatantly denied having done any such thing until I produced the original essay they copied from.  

I`ve often wondered if the students think we`re too stupid to notice or care, or if they assume that nothing will happen to them if they`re caught. Every time I have caught a student cheating we've had a discussed the issue of academic dishonesty and told them the penalty for their first time offence, as well as what it will be for further offences. Some students who plagiarize directly off the Internet for research essays, or memorizing compositions plead that they didn`t know that this was not allowed, or wrong.  Others have said they were sorry and would never do it again, fully expecting that an apology would be sufficient and that they would not be penalized in any other way.  Still others have open admitted they cheated, and laughed saying that everyone does it in their country,k so why should Canada and my school be different. 

Now, I want to stress that cheaters have been in the minority in my classes. The majority of my students have been as honest as the day is long when taking my exams, or department exams. It is the cheaters who are the exception. However, they are the reason I now set up my class with all desks facing the walls , and large dividers between students dividers during exams. Why take chances, or allow the students to "accidentally help each other if I can avoid it?
Plagiarism is a much different and far more complex issue and deserves a complete post of its own. Some plagiarism actions involve genuine dishonesty. Others involve a variety of factors including students`lack of ability to paraphrase, lack of vocabulary, cultural expectations among others. If you want to know more read the following report.

"Overcoming the cultural issues associated with plagiarism for International students"
Authors: Dr. Charles Juwah, Centre for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen; Dr David Lal, Dept. of Business and Management, Aberdeen Business School, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen; Ahmed Beloucif, Dept. of Marketing, Aberdeen Business School, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen 

Getting back to cheating on exams, Topics Online Magazine for Learners of English. a publication, has devoted an entire issue to the topic of cheating.  Since this is a magazine  in which  English learners express their ideas to an online audience, it offers a student perspective as well as a photo essay on cheating. Some articles were written by students who go caught cheating. Others focus on the consequences of cheating. All of the articles are interesting.Topics Online Magazine Cheating


 1   What do YOU  think about cheating ?
 2. What do you think should be done about cheating?   

 Let me know what you think. Post your answer in the comment box. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why the Poppy?



The tradition of wearing poppies in honor of Canada's war dead takes its origin from the poem "In Flanders Fields," written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. McCrae was a Canadian Medical Officer during the First World War. His poem reflects his first hand account of what he witnessed while working from a dressing station on the bank of the Yser Canal at Ypres, in Belgium .
On April 22, the Germans used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troups in a desperate  attempt to create movement on one side or the other. Even though the effects of the gas were terrible, Canadian soldiers continued to fight without giving up, and  held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended hundreds of wounded soldiers every day where he  was surrounded by the dead and the dying. In a letter to his mother, he wrote of the Battle of Ypres.
The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds ..... And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.(Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
The day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae's closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. Unable to help his friend or any of the others who had died, John McCrae gave them a voice through his poem. It was the second last poem he was to write.


                                 In Flanders Fields                                                                                                          by John McCrae

              
       In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
      To you from failing hands we throw
       The torch; be yours to hold it high.
          If ye break faith with us who die
     We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
                      In Flanders fields.
The poem was a great inspiration in adopting the poppy as the Flower of Remembrance in Canada, France, the U.S, Britain and Commonwealth countries. The first poppies were distributed in Canada in 1921.Today people wear the red poppies during the month of November and at war memorials on November 11th. The poppies may be worn or placed singly as wreaths.The volunteer donations from the distribution of millions of poppies is an important source of revenue for the Royal Canadian Legion that goes toward helping ex-servicemen and women buy food, and obtain shelter and medical attention.At public gatherings in Ottawa and around the country, Canadians pay tribute with two minutes of silence to the country's fallen soldiers from the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Afghanistan conflict and peacekeeping missions.

Watch and listen to this poem being read out loud. If you can, follow along, or read it at the same time - slowly and solemnly as it is meant to be read

Rembrance Day How Will You Remember?



On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Canadians are asked to pause in memory of the thousands of men and women who sacrificed their lives in military service .At public gatherings in Ottawa, and around the country, Canadians pay tribute with two minutes of silence to the country's fallen soldiers from the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Afghanistan conflict and peacekeeping missions.

Why November 11th? 

Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the official end of the World War I fighting on November 11, 1918. World War 1 was a massive conflict played out over the whole globe, but particularly in Europe, where troops from Canada supported the Allied forces.

World War I resulted in the loss of huge numbers of lives among  both civilians and military personnel. Many more people were badly injured. The war left great emotional scars in the servicemen, who had experienced it, and in the communities, whose sons, brothers, fathers, uncles and even grandfathers had died. Remembrance Day commemorates those who died in armed conflicts, particularly in and since World War I.

Symbols 

Symbols of Remembrance Day include the red poppy, which Canadians wear during the month of November and use on wreaths placed at war memorials on November 11th.

Other symbols of Remembrance Day are the war memorials, which are often near the geographical center of communities. These commemorate members of the community, who have died in military action. A particularly well-known memorial is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Ontario. The military parades held on November 11 are also symbolic of Remembrance Day.

Why Do We Forget?    

Although it is important for Canadians to take time out of their day to remember the men and women who died in war, many do not. Instead, they simply proceed as if Remembrance Day were just another holiday in which they can get a break from work or school.

A statement from Veterans Affairs says it all.

 " As most people in Canada today have never experienced war, "Remembrance" becomes a challenging concept to incorporate. How do you remember what you haven't known?

Some people have been fortunate to have had relatives; grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-grand parents, who shared their stories of war and peace. Others, our newer Canadians, have sought Canada as a new home, safe from their own war-torn motherlands. We have all studied some Canadian history in schools. But the vast majority of us, especially the youth, have no first hand or even second hand knowledge of war. And thankfully so.

But we CAN come to understand and appreciate what those who have served Canada in times of war, armed conflict and peace stand for and what they have sacrificed for their country. Today more than ever, as we witness the coffins and grieving families of the men and women serving in Afghanistan this is truer than ever.

We live in a wonderful country, full of opportunities and freedoms we often take for granted. You can be sure that Canadian Veterans do not take our situation for granted. Young men and women sacrificed all they knew, all the comforts, love and safety of home in order to defend the rights and freedoms of others. Some returned with permanent physical and emotional scars, bound to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Others never returned.

Veterans know the price paid for our freedom and they want all Canadians to share in this understanding. In fact, now, more than ever, they are passing the torch of remembrance to us, to the people of Canada, to ensure that the memory of their efforts and sacrifices will not die with them, and that an appreciation of the values they fought for will live on in all Canadians.Canadians have a reputation of being a peace loving nation, and this has been demonstrated time and time again when we have engaged in combat and peacekeeping operations for the sake of protecting humans rights, freedom and justice around the world. When you think of Canadian efforts in war and peace you come to realize that our desire to help was never motivated by greed, power or threats. It was in and of itself, a desire to protect human rights, all humans' rights.

Why Should We Remember?


So, although many of us cannot actually "remember," we owe it to those who have served to learn, to understand, and to appreciate the task they have undertaken. Generations of Canadian Veterans,have served this nation from the First World War through current missions.They step forward in our time of greatest need — because they believe in peace and security around the world. They have left their villages and cities, their farms and fishing communities, to make a difference. And they did. And today's service men and women are carrying on the tradition  If we can understand this, how can we not pause and say "thank you" in remembrance of such an accomplishment?

.

HOW CAN WE REMEMBER? 

Attending Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 11 is the best-known way that we can publicly honour the men and women who served Canada in times of war, military conflict and peace. In addition, there are many other ways that we can show throughout the year that we care about the sacrifices and achievements of these one and a half million brave Canadians who served, and continue to serve, our country at home and abroad.
Remembering can take many forms: music, ceremonies, poetry, private reflection, discussion, art and shared memories from those who took part in protecting peace and freedom worldwide. In the following pages, you'll find 50 different ways that individuals and groups can share the importance of Remembrance.
More than 110,000 men and women died so that we may live in peace and freedom today. Taking an active role to remember these people, along with the Veterans who experienced the hardships of war, military conflict and peace efforts, is one way of saying "thank you."


What does this have to do with learning English?  
Learning English is much more than learning a language. It is learning about  the culture  of the country you live in, or want to communicate with. It is learning abouot values and ideals as well as behaviour and methods of communication.

Regardless of where Canadian immigrants, or international students come from, they too
have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of men and women who gave their lives for their country. Although Canada's November 11th Remembrance Day may not be the day in which immigrants or international students remember their own war dead,  I'm positive they do have a a special Memorial or Remembrance Day of their own. Given that they are now in Canada, why not choose this day as a day to remember and honour their own war dead at the same time as Canadians do? What better way to pay tribute to their own, while integrating into a community they have chosen to live in.  


Please let me know what you think about this issue? Should we stop and remember, or should we simply say that all war is bad, and those who died at war wasted their time and don't deserve our gratitude, or our memory.  Leave a comment below.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writing Test Anxiety

Picture this. You announce an in class writing test at the end of the week, and virtually every student in your Upper Advanced level class visibly shudders. One student jokingly asks,"Can you tell us the topic the day before?” You equally laughingly reply, "You know I can't do that. Then it wouldn't be a  real test ”   .

On test day, you arrive to a group of silent, frozen-faced students. Gone are the smiles and the hellos, as they stare at you awaiting to be told  what the dreaded writing topic will be. Will it be something they can write about, or is it going to be a topic that leaves them completely blank?
 
As the instructor, you think you have prepared them. The students have read several articles about the topic, worked on building topic related vocabulary, they've discussed aspects of the topic, and even retold stories. As far as you are concerned, given that you have given the tools they need,  they should be ready to write about it. 

Unfortunately, the one tool neither you, nor any other instructor seems to be able to give them is the kind of confidence it takes to pick up a pencil, brainstorm a topic they actually DO know something about and then begin writing with ease and a high comfort level .

Instead,  a dozen or more students look at the page blankly, forgetting all the vocabulary they've  acquired, along with most of the ideas they have read and discussed. Panic and anxiety have brought them to a place in which they find themselves writing, wordy and often redundant sentences with some content, but a lot of basic level errors and minimal vocabulary. Many of the sentences are either short, choppy, and poorly connected, or long, awkward and unwieldy, with the wrong connectors and a drastic need for more punctuation. 

In some cases, a burning desire to sound like the well educated professional accountants, dentists and engineers they were in their former lives, leads these students down the forbidden path of thinking in their own language. Perhaps if they think out  what they want to say in Chinese, Russian or Spanish, and just put it into English, they will communicate what they really want to say. Unfortunately, the result is more like English word soup than elegantly phrased English prose.  
The final result is frustration for both instructor and students. The instructor is frustrated  because she had much higher expectations, and didn't quite understand the underlying panic producing the final writing product. The students are frustrated because they had hoped their newly acquired vocabulary would not desert them once again. They had also prayed that finally, they would be able to convey their ideas using more details, and a relatively error free sophisticated sentence structure.  

So here's the question. How do we make our highly educated adult ESL students comfortable enough to be able to write under pressure without having full blown panic attacks that produce writing that does not reflect their true abilities. 
  • Do we have students do breathing exercises before writing tests? 
  • Do we have them perform physical exercises that might help reduce anxiety?
  • Do we brainstorm vocabulary related to the topic on the board? 
  • Do we put appropriate sentence structure words and transitions up on the board to help them remember complexityor is all of this providing too much help in a test situation?
 Should we be actively helping these students who now live and work in our country to succeed by helping therm to deal with their anxiety, or should we just expect them to  learn  to deal with their anxiety on their own, and get on with the job of writing under pressure just as native speakers do 
.
Please be the first to comment on this question.