Monthly Archives: May 2010

Why texting is good for the English language

Can examples like this really be good for the English language? David Crystal certainly thinks so and puts forward a very convincing argument.

There they all are, during their break, texting away to their hearts content. What are they writing? Who are they writing to? Why, why, why? I’m part of that last, fortunate generation that avoided this phenomenon. Through the good fortune of having been born in the 1970s, I can remember a time before cell phones and therefore don’t view them as being the one controlling force of my life. That’s not to say that I don’t ever text people, but aren’t these young ‘uns abusing the language with their ‘CUL8R’ and their ‘LOL’? One common fear amongst a community much wider than us mere language teachers is that text messaging is ‘destroying’ the English language. The use of text messaging, it is claimed, has changed the way that people talk and write essays, many believing it to be harmful to the language. As Amy O’Connor notes:

‘These types of messaging technologies are widely used among adolescents today. To cite just one personal example of this widespread usage, my friend’s daughter, who is now 11 and lives in Ireland, got a cell phone last year, and, according to my friend, ‘was the last person in her class to get one.’ This is quite an amazing change, given that ten years ago, instant messaging and text messaging were in their infancy, and cell phones were only readily available as tools for roadside assistance.’

One sign of the impending – if it was not already upon us – language catastrophe occurred in November, 2006 when the New Zealand Qualifications Authority approved the move that allowed students of secondary schools to use mobile phone text language in the end of the year exam papers. Indeed, the signs had been there as early as 2002, the dawn of time in terms of the texting era, when the use of ‘text’ language in school assignments started to become noticeable, causing many a doom monger to become concerned that the quality of English written communication was on the decline. It was also claimed that teachers and professors were beginning to have a hard time ‘controlling’ the outbreak, as though it were some uncontrollable, deadly virus.

However, the notion that text language is uncontrollably widespread and harmful is being ever increasingly refuted by research from linguistic experts, with the mighty David Crystal leading the way. Here’s what he had to say in an interview in the Guardian in September, 2008:

‘Almost every basic principle that people hold about texting turns out to be misconceived. Misspelling isn’t universal: analysis shows that only 10% of words used in texts are misspelt. Nor are most texts sent by kids: 80% are sent by businesses and adults. Likewise, there is no evidence that texting teaches people to spell badly: rather, research shows that those kids who text frequently are more likely to be the most literate and the best spellers, because you have to know how to manipulate language. If you can’t spell a word, then you don’t really know whether it’s cool to misspell it. Kids have a very precise idea of context – none of those I have spoken to would dream of using text abbreviations in their exams – they know they would be marked down for it.’

In his book, ‘Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, Crystal notes that the use of pictograms and logograms in texts are not exclusively an English language issue, but are in fact present in every language. The shortening of words by using symbols to represent the word, or symbols whose name sounds like a syllable of the word such as in ‘2day’ or ‘b4’ are commonly used in other languages as well. Texters in other languages use ‘lol’, ‘u’ and ‘gr8’, all English-based shorthands. What this suggests, perhaps, is that if there is an impending linguistic disaster resulting from texting, it may be stemming from English rather than playing a part in its demise. Another common example of ‘borrowing’ from English is the use of the symbol @. Whenever it is used in texting its intended use is with the English pronunciation. Crystal gives the example of the Welsh use of @ in “@F” pronounced ‘ataf’ meaning ‘to me’ (although my colleague Michael, a Welsh speaker, questions this).

While any form of language use must surely help the user attain literacy, there is one caveat I’d like us to consider. Young adults who use more language-based textisms (shortcuts such as ‘LOL’, ‘2nite’, etc.) in their daily writing may well end up producing worse formal writing than those who use fewer linguistic textisms. This is not to say that they don’t recognize the difference between formal and informal writing (Crystal mentions school kids thinking him mad when he asked if they use textisms in their writing), it’s just that it isn’t helping them develop formal writing skills. Is this such a bad thing? Isn’t that what school is for, after all? Additionally, the exact opposite may be true for informal writing; conceivably the act of using textisms to shorten communication words is leading people to produce more informal writing (they’re getting more writing practice), which may in turn help them to be better informal writers. It is this notion, along with other myths such as young people not knowing the correct spellings of words, which Crystal attempts to dispel in the video clip below.

So, do you agree? Your thoughts on this are very much welcome in the comment section.

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    I is for intermediate

    Another term and I find myself back entrenched in the intermediate catch-22: it can be great fun and extremely satisfying teaching students who have an impressive level of English proficiency and are truly able to express themselves in meaningful ways, yet at the same time it can be dispiriting trying your best to help students who are stuck on the great language plateau, finding progress painfully slow. Sometimes this is my favourite level to teach, at other times it can be infuriating, leaving you questioning your abilities as a teacher.

    What a happy bunchIt can be argued that the majority of English students around the world are intermediate, or at least will be. The reasons for this are manifold, but one is glaringly obvious: many people simply choose to study English to this level of competency and not beyond – for business, school, travel, entertainment, among many other reasons. Indeed, most of us teachers have probably never felt the need to go further than this in our second languages, even though language instruction is our profession. For others of course, this is the middle – intermediary if you will – phase between the beginning study and the arrival at something approaching English fluency. At this level, students are able to express themselves quite well verbally and they are usually able to converse in simple sentences about somewhat complex topics. Students are generally keen to receive both vocabulary and grammar correction.

    Now for the tricky part: this level is often characterized by students who display spoken and written error patterns ingrained from their experiences at the elementary level. Errors with verb tenses, article usage, pronunciation, and word order are widespread and the need for them to be corrected at this level is a teacher’s greatest intermediate challenge and yet is paramount for students to be able to move on without language baggage.

    Challenges faced by many intermediate students

    Reaching the intermediate level in a second language is an incredible achievement, one that we should constantly remind our students of. However, because students may be at this level for quite a while, it’s often not as easy for them to see their own daily / weekly / monthly development as it was when they were elementary English learners. At the lower levels, development is typically much more tangible. While intermediate students clearly have a reasonable ability to express themselves, we may find that they sometimes use their improving communication skills to express their irritability. In my experience, intermediate students who plan to persist with their studies frequently have moods that run the full gamut of emotions from happiness and pride through to frustration and self-doubt. You’ll often find intermediate students compared to marathon runners in the middle leg of a race; they often find it difficult to see the finish line. The fact that their greater competency allows them to see where they are can be something of a burden, as it allows them to comprehend just how much more they need to learn in order to be fluent in English.

    Students sometimes feel growing pains as they are expected to produce more English. In fact, we can compare the growing pains of intermediate students to those of teenagers, in much the same way that elementary students’ communication competencies can be likened to that of children’s. This is an immense additional benefit for students at intermediate when compared to those at elementary, because adult learners at elementary level who, in contrast to their sophisticated L1 linguistic abilities, suddenly find they are only able to communicate as effectively as a young child in their second language, can find the feeling uncomfortable, even embarrassing. Reaching the intermediate level can therefore be an empowering accomplishment for learners. The comparison to teenagehood can be taken even further. Like teenagers, intermediates also have a good idea of what they want, but they aren’t quite there yet; they are still somewhat undeveloped in their ability to communicate sophisticated ideas and emotions and sometimes they want to be ‘babied’ again, with a lot of support from us.

    Teaching the intermediate class

    Teaching students at the intermediate level can equate to fostering a philosophy of discipline. Students who can already operate well in English really need to be reminded to practice on a daily basis, while keeping their eye on their ultimate goal of English fluency. Nevertheless, I’ve always found intermediate students to be a lot of fun to teach. They have sufficient language competencies to allow their personality and, in particular, their sense of humour to really shine in their speaking and writing. Teachers may capitalize on the intermediate students’ eagerness to communicate by setting up exercises that are fun while at the same time require that little bit more from them (exercises like role plays and debates can work well at this level).

    I feel that the major aspiration of an intermediate teacher should be to endeavor to break down the fossilized error patterns that generally ought to be understood by students at this level. I think we all know that some students may become ‘linguistically lethargic’ at this level. Because they are able to quite effectively communicate the essence of their ideas, they’ll sometimes not bother to correct simple subject-verb agreement, article, pronunciation or word order mistakes even though they’re at least partially aware of them. If such bad habits aren’t overcome at the intermediate level, these students might have a difficult time moving beyond this stage. This is where we come in. Feedback is absolutely key to accomplishing this pattern-breaking. As their teacher, we may need to be dynamic in pointing students’ errors out to them while at the same time being sensitive to the delicate ego of the intermediate student.

    Writing students’ mistakes word for word and discussing these errors individually with each student is one effective way of bringing the students’ attention to their repeated mistakes. Having said that, we also need to develop techniques that allow them to recognize their mistakes for themselves, so they don’t feel that they’re constantly being criticized by the teacher. Exercises in the intermediate classroom need to be fun, challenging, and boost the students’ self-confidence. Students need to see what their hard work is doing for them in order to inspire them to continue to work at their English.

    Well, these were just a few thoughts cobbled together on a relaxing Sunday afternoon in front of the telly. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter in the comments section below.

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      Why I don’t use games in the language classroom

      ‘Language learning is hard work… Effort is required at every moment and must be maintained over a long period of time. Games help and encourage many learners to sustain their interest and work.’

      The above quote appears in the introduction to Andrew Wright, David Betteridge and Michael Buckby’s seminal 1984 work, ‘Games for Language Learning.’ For many years I wholeheartedly agreed with the first sentence while considering the second to be something of an exercise in indulgence, both for the teacher and the language learner. Rightly or wrongly, it took me many years to even consider actively employing games in my teaching. Indeed, in the formative years of my teaching career, the following statements, at least in terms of how they relate to the use of games in the classroom, while not entirely anathema to me, didn’t exactly represent my teaching ethos:

      ‘Games… help the teacher to create contexts in which the language is useful and meaningful. The learners want to take part and in order to do so must understand what others are saying or have written, and they must speak or write in order to express their own point of view or give information.

      The need for meaningfulness in language learning has been accepted for some years. A useful interpretation of ‘meaningfulness’ is that the learners respond to the content in a definite way. If they are amused, angered, intrigued or surprised the content is clearly meaningful to them. Thus the meaning of the language they listen to, read, speak and write will be more vividly experienced and, therefore, better remembered.

      If it is accepted that games can provide intense and meaningful practice of language, then they must be regarded as central to a teacher’s repertoire. They are thus not for use solely on wet days and at the end of term!’

      (Wright et al, from their Introduction, p. 1)

      Despite my many years of initial trepidation, there has always been clear pedagogic evidence out there to endorse the use of games in the language classroom. Aydan Ersöz, writing in the Internet TESL Journal in 2000, reiterated Wright, Betteridge and Buckby when noting how games may provide a well-needed and wholly justifiable respite from the otherwise arduous task of learning a language:

      ‘Language learning is a hard task which can sometimes be frustrating. Constant effort is required to understand, produce and manipulate the target language. Well-chosen games are invaluable as they give students a break and at the same time allow students to practice language skills. Games are highly motivating since they are amusing and at the same time challenging. Furthermore, they employ meaningful and useful language in real contexts. They also encourage and increase cooperation. Games are highly motivating because they are amusing and interesting. They can be used to give practice in all language skills and be used to practice many types of communication.’

      This was written only a couple of months before I first became a language teacher, yet it took me a long time to come to terms with the ideas contained therein. Reading up further on the subject of using games, I see that my notion of the classroom as a game-free zone was not unique. Indeed, Lee Su Kim, writing in Forum journal in 1995, summed up the perception that I – and quite obviously many other teachers – held in the early part of my career.

      ‘There is a common perception that all learning should be serious and solemn in nature, and that if one is having fun and there is hilarity and laughter, then it is not really learning. This is a misconception. It is possible to learn a language as well as enjoy oneself at the same time. One of the best ways of doing this is through games.’

      Hang on a minute… a misconception? Were my fears really misplaced? Could games ever become a meaningful and effective weapon in my teaching artillery? What possible use could I put a game to? Lee Su Kim went on to ram the point home to us unbelievers: ‘There are many advantages of using games in the classroom‘:

      • Games are a welcome break from the usual routine of the language class.
      • They are motivating and challenging.
      • Learning a language requires a great deal of effort. Games help students to make and sustain the effort of learning.
      • Games provide language practice in the various skills – speaking, writing, listening and reading.
      • They encourage students to interact and communicate.
      • They create a meaningful context for language use.

      All these factors are well and good, but could they not also be achieved by more traditional, less ‘gamey’ methods? Yes, in my formative teaching years I really took a lot of convincing that using games could have any value in my classes. Sure, a lot of teacher’s books had one or two ostensibly ‘fun’ activities hidden away in the resources section, but the fact that they were there rather than smack bang in the middle of the unit proper surely served to prove the hypothesis that such activities were a luxury, an add-on if you found yourself with half an hour of class time to kill, rather than something that should ever be a fundamental part of my teaching. It was, suffice to say, good to know that I had the coursebook writers on my side… or did I?
      Agnieszka Uberman, writing in Forum journal in 1998, put forward the case for the defence:

      ‘Many experienced textbook and methodology manuals writers have argued that games are not just time-filling activities but have a great educational value. W. R. Lee holds that most language games make learners use the language instead of thinking about learning the correct forms (1979:2). He also says that games should be treated as central not peripheral to the foreign language teaching programme. A similar opinion is expressed by Richard-Amato, who believes games to be fun but warns against overlooking their pedagogical value, particularly in foreign language teaching. There are many advantages of using games. “Games can lower anxiety, thus making the acquisition of input more likely” (Richard-Amato 1988:147). They are highly motivating and entertaining, and they can give shy students more opportunity to express their opinions and feelings (Hansen 1994:118). They also enable learners to acquire new experiences within a foreign language which are not always possible during a typical lesson. Furthermore, to quote Richard-Amato, they, “add diversion to the regular classroom activities,” break the ice, “[but also] they are used to introduce new ideas” (1988:147). In the easy, relaxed atmosphere which is created by using games, students remember things faster and better (Wierus and Wierus 1994:218). S. M. Silvers says many teachers are enthusiastic about using games as “a teaching device,” yet they often perceive games as mere time-fillers, “a break from the monotony of drilling” or frivolous activities. He also claims that many teachers often overlook the fact that in a relaxed atmosphere, real learning takes place, and students use the language they have been exposed to and have practised earlier (1982:29). Further support comes from Zdybiewska, who believes games to be a good way of practising language, for they provide a model of what learners will use the language for in real life in the future (1994:6).’

      So, although it seems that coursebook writers did not necessarily espouse the all out rejection of games in the classroom, the above quote does raise some important caveats, which I’ll be discussing later on. With all this evidence working against me, was it – several years into my teaching career – time to take the plunge? If I were to do so, surely I would need to think long and hard about when I would do it. Agnieszka Uberman continues:

      ‘Games are often used as short warm-up activities or when there is some time left at the end of a lesson. Yet, as Lee observes, a game “should not be regarded as a marginal activity filling in odd moments when the teacher and class have nothing better to do” (1979:3). Games ought to be at the heart of teaching foreign languages. Rixon suggests that games be used at all stages of the lesson, provided that they are suitable and carefully chosen. Games also lend themselves well to revision exercises helping learners recall material in a pleasant, entertaining way. All authors referred to in this article agree that even if games resulted only in noise and entertained students, they are still worth paying attention to and implementing in the classroom since they motivate learners, promote communicative competence, and generate fluency.’

      A couple of things leaped out at me from this particular quote and were fundamental considerations when I finally made the plunge to introduce games into my classes. Any game should be suitable for the classroom context and should be carefully chosen. Suitability can of course refer to many things, such as level of difficulty, complexity or the amount of class time they consume. Carefully choosing a game incorporates the notion that the game should be better for the particular purpose that you’ll employ it for than any alternative method. When I started exploring the use of games, I came to the decision that the way they require participants to recall information from their knowledge pool would be a useful method in enabling students to assess their vocabulary recall abilities and thus started using them in classes primarily for vocabulary revision. It seems that I was not alone in this conviction. Nguyen Thi Thanh Huyen and Khuat Thi Thu Nga, writing in the Asian EFL Journal in 2003, explain the rationale behind exploiting the game format in this way:

      ‘Games have been shown to have advantages and effectiveness in learning vocabulary in various ways. First, games bring in relaxation and fun for students, thus help them learn and retain new words more easily. Second, games usually involve friendly competition and they keep learners interested. These create the motivation for learners of English to get involved and participate actively in the learning activities. Third, vocabulary games bring real world context into the classroom, and enhance students’ use of English in a flexible, communicative way.

      Therefore, the role of games in teaching and learning vocabulary cannot be denied. However, in order to achieve the most from vocabulary games, it is essential that suitable games are chosen. Whenever a game is to be conducted, the number of students, proficiency level, cultural context, timing, learning topic, and the classroom settings are factors that should be taken into account.

      In conclusion, learning vocabulary through games is one effective and interesting way that can be applied in any classrooms. The results of [our] research suggest that games are used not only for mere fun, but more importantly, for the useful practice and review of language lessons, thus leading toward the goal of improving learners’ communicative competence.’

      There it is again, that notion of suitability. M. Martha Lengeling and Casey Malarcher, writing in Forum journal in 1997, further explored the ways in which students may benefit:

      ‘In an effort to supplement lesson plans in the ESL classroom, teachers often turn to games. The justification for using games in the classroom has been well demonstrated as benefiting students in a variety of ways. These benefits range from cognitive aspects of language learning to more co-operative group dynamics.’

      They classify the benefits as follows:

      - games lower the affective filter
      - they encourage creative and spontaneous use of language
      - they also promote communicative competence
      - games are both motivating and fun

      - games reinforce learning
      - they both review and extend learning
      - games focus on grammar in a communicative manner

      Class Dynamics:
      - games are extremely student centered
      - the teacher acts only as facilitator
      - games build class cohesion
      - they can foster whole class participation
      - games promote healthy competition

      - games can be easily adjusted for age, level, and interests
      - they utilize all four skills
      - games require minimum preparation after the initial development stage

      So, why am I reigning in on my use of games in the classroom? Well, it’s my feeling that teachers should be encouraged to use games to help practice new language in the classroom. Games can indeed teach, they offer a way to practice new structures and add genuine enjoyment to a lesson. Nevertheless, working your way through the syllabus and completing stipulated material remain quintessential to ensuring that students are covering the material set out for any particular course, semester or even a specific lesson. Games should not hinder this. It’s important that they are used as a means to an end, rather than existing in their own right. Once the core content of any given lesson has been explained and understood, and exercises that practice and utilize the new language have been completed, games can then be introduced as yet another means for enabling greater comprehension.

      When would I suggest games be used effectively in the language classroom? Well, despite the provocative title, which probably led you to think I consider games to be a bad idea, you can successfully use games in many ways, such as for a quick review, after material has been covered or as a cool-down activity at the end of a lesson to practice what has been covered (as well as to inject an element of fun). You could also use a game to practice specific new language in groups or pairs for a limited time, as a short introduction to new vocabulary or a concept, as a prompt for writing work, even as a link into a new part of the lesson. Games may even be used merely to change the pace of a lesson.

      So, getting back to the title of this post… why am I suddenly so against gaming? Well, I’m not, but beware of the caveats that I mentioned previously. Firstly the fact is that many students might not actually enjoy long, time consuming games, especially if they are already having difficulties with their new language. I’m basing this first point directly on feedback I’ve received recently. Such activities, even if not exploited regularly (in my case, incorporating a game into classes twice during an eight-week period was deemed excessive by some of my students), may not be universally enjoyed. Consider it from their perspective: learners with difficulties fear that not only will they fail in the task of learning the language, but may also find themselves underperforming in a game. The consequences of such an outcome may be deflating, even humiliating to some. This does not mean that the teacher should not encourage participation, as there are positive social implications in sharing, winning and losing too. Nevertheless, a game that takes up a considerable chunk of a lesson may be quite stress inducing for some students. If you can work through the activity in a different way, would that not be kinder to such students?

      Secondly, and this is at least as important as the first point, if games are played too often (and you have to be careful here, as certain – not all, remember – students may frequently prompt the teacher to play a game whenever possible), a large number of students may feel that they are not learning at all, faulting the teacher as being a little frivolous or not taking care to prepare a real lesson (we know this almost certainly isn’t the case, as games often take more pre-planning than more ‘conventional’ lessons). Many students feel embittered if they perceive the classroom as being a place where they are playing too much; they feel that there is time wasted, and it concerns them. Remember: they may not realize how much time and effort it takes to prepare a game nor that it has genuine pedagogical value, which leads me on to a mistake I’ve been making which has, thankfully, been brought to my attention: explain the rationale behind the game.

      If a teacher plans a game, it is critical to explain the rationale of the game to the students in the class, no matter what. For example, if you were to employ a short, simple hangman or hotseat game, the teacher should swiftly – but very clearly – inform the students that this game will help them with spelling, get their brains focused on recognizing the shape and structure of new words, and will facilitate their learning of new vocabulary. In addition to making sure the students are aware of the learning benefits of the activity, preparing such an explanation will also help teachers to make sure that they know precisely why they are spending time on the game in the lesson in the first place. Such explanations are absolutely vital, as I’ve learned through experience, because they satisfy the more serious student who can feel pressured by game time, they make sure the weaker student understand that this isn’t a waste of time and also enable all of the students to comprehend that the teacher is playing for an explicit reason, has planned the game to enhance their learning, and is not just wasting time by adding a fun element to the lesson. Failure to take this fundamental step, or even merely to make the point clearly enough for all to understand, can lead to all kinds of repercussions, trust me.

      Games can be a very worthwhile teaching element. A successful game is successful for the reason that it is based on specific time allocation, it has clear relevance to the material, there is appropriateness to all members of the class, and ultimately, the enjoyment of the learners is increased through their actively engaging with the language.

      Details of the publications mentioned here:

      ‘Games for Language Learning’ (2nd. Ed.) by Andrew Wright, David Betteridge and Michael Buckby. Cambridge University Press, 1984.

      To read the articles below in full, click on their titles…

      Six Games for the EFL/ESL Classroom‘ by Aydan Ersöz.
      The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 6, June 2000.

      Creative Games for the Language Class‘ by Lee Su Kim.
      ‘Forum’ Vol. 33 No 1, January – March 1995, Page 35.

      The Use of Games For Vocabulary Presentation and Revision‘ by Agnieszka Uberman.
      ‘Forum’ Vol. 36 No 1, January – March 1998, Page 20.

      Learning Vocabulary Through Games‘ by Nguyen Thi Thanh Huyen and Khuat Thi Thu Nga.
      ‘Asian EFL Journal’ – December 2003

      Index Cards: A Natural Resource for Teachers‘ by M. Martha Lengeling and Casey Malarcher
      ‘Forum’ Vol. 35 No 4, October – December 1997, Page 42

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