Sunday, December 4, 2011

Distance learning and ESL

Can ESL be taught through distance learning?

Tara L. Narcross, Ph.D.

Language Institute Supervisor

Columbus State Community College

Copyright © 2011 - Tara L. Narcross

With the rapid growth of the Internet and the desire of many educational institutions to increase student options, cut costs and save space through the means of distance learning, it is no surprise to find some very unexpected programs offered on an online basis. I try very hard not to be a curmudgeon, but I would be a little dubious about a dental technician who had learned to make crowns only on a simulated basis, or a doctor whose instruction in surgery and bedside manner had come through lessons taken alone and in front of a computer. While there are a lot of advantages in the ability to impart and receive information through distance learning be imparted and received through distance learning, and to the great convenience of time and space options – I have taken distance courses myself and plan to take more – some subjects do not lend themselves easily to this approach. As a general rule, English as a Second Language (ESL) is one such subject, not just because of the subject itself, but because of the students who take it.

First, let’s look at the name of the subject: English as a Second Language. For teachers here in the U.S., ESL should not be thought of as English as much as a second language, which means there are many similarities to other second languages students here study – Spanish, French and so on. It involves comparing cultures, having discussions, learning day-to-day vocabulary along with grammar – and taking care of the occasional unexpected language need that suddenly arises. To do this effectively, interpersonal communication is key, and that is best done in person to have a more realistic environment. These students will be working with other people here in the U.S., and real practice with actual language is very important.

Further, many of today’s college ESL students are different from the traditional international students who are here on a student visa and will return home when they have completed their program. In many colleges and universities, the majority of the ESL population is made up of immigrants and refugees, who have a lot of very practical and immediate communication needs for their daily lives, as many of them have families and jobs. At Columbus State, for example, there are about 200 international students in any given quarter, compared to 1000 immigrant/refugee students. There are an additional 400 students each term in the College’s non-credit Basic English program, which teaches beginning through intermediate-level ESL; nearly all of the Basic English students are immigrants or refugees.

The ESL teacher imparts more than grammar and vocabulary; he or she becomes a trusted resource to help these students comprehend American life. The supportive environment and the personal touch are integral to the ESL world. In addition to working with reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, we have helped explain letters and forms written in tangled bureaucratese, advocated with a property manager for a student whose apartment was infested with bedbugs, guided students toward low-cost health resources for themselves and their children, and held their hands when they broke down in tears because a relative had just been killed in the turmoil-stricken country from which the students had fled. This sort of thing is not something easily done over the Internet.

Another difference is that many of these students have a low literacy level in their native language (L1). Research has clearly shown that students who have low literacy in L1 will have more difficulty in achieving literacy in the target language (L2). It is not just the lack of the grammar metalanguage for these students; the existence or non-existence of the L1 literacy itself appears to be a determining factor in the rate and success of acquisition of L2 literacy.

The low level of L1 literacy of many students corresponds to the fact that they did not have the opportunity to go to school much – or at all – during their early years. Some students grew up in refugee camps; others had to leave school early to work; still others came from countries where there were no free public schools. This yields a further complication for a distance-learning model of ESL: particularly at the lower skill levels, students may not know how to learn and study independently, and will need more hands-on guidance, oversight and support from the instructor until they learn study skills.

Finally, because these students are frequently low-income, there may well be no access to technology at home. According to a recent study by Connected Nation, “Only 37% of low-income minority households with children have broadband at home, and only 46% of all low-income households with children have broadband at home.” Further, “40% of low-income households do not own a computer (compared to only 9% of all others)”.1 This makes online learning more difficult, as many students must go to a library or other public access point to access their courses.

For these reasons, I strongly recommend against a fully distance-based ESL program. At the most advanced ESL level, for students who have achieved good literacy and strong independent learning skills, a hybrid course – a mix of online and in-person sessions – could be very successful, assuming the technology barrier described above is not an issue. At this level, students could improve their reading and composition skills in the E of “ESL” through online study, writing submitted electronically, Internet research, chat rooms and discussions. However, the SL component – the fact that this is a second language – needs in-person conversation, discussion, and support to facilitate truly successful learning of a language that most of the ESL students we see now will need to use in their daily lives as New Americans.

1 The Adoption Gap in Low-Income Households with Children: 2011 Residential Survey Preliminary Findings. Connected Nation, Washington, D.C., 2011.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Now that's a spoiled dog

From a student essay:
"Sometimes I take a walk for my dog."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Good to know ...

I received an e-mail yesterday regarding an alleged incident in which it was declared that the College had not violated any federal or state statues.

Monday, October 24, 2011

While I was in Atlanta ...

I saw signs for the following curiously-named businesses:

Goode Dental Care
(Well, who would want bade dental care?)

Fish Family Chiropractic
(I wouldn't have thought that fish needed chiropractors.)

Allied Ankle & Foot Care Center
(If the ankle & foot aren't allied, care is definitely called for.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Targeted cooling

From a student essay:
"The summer in my country is very hot, and there is no electricity to turn on fan or earcondition."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Studying what?

From a student essay:

"At 8:00 pm I will go to chruch studying the babble with my best friend."

Monday, September 5, 2011

E-mail summary: August 2011

Work: 1,145 (49.8 per day for the 23 business days in the month)
Personal: 133 (4.3 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)
Other (ads, etc.): 945 (30.5 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Love & marriage, or something like that

From student essays:

"In my opinion here are a lot of differences that can be seen between living as a single individual or a manned individual."

and she goes on:

"There are a lot differences between single life and marred life."

And from another student:
"It is a personal choice to be married or romaine in single."
Lettuce hope people make the right choice.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I hope she was just unclear here

Oh, my ... from a resume in which the applicant describes one of her previous jobs: "Newborn photographer. Duties: Photographing newborns, selling, taking payment."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Some more from the student essays

"The legendary writer and philosopher Charles Darwin co-wrote the book "Origin of Species" with Sigmund Freud.”

(Where did she get that??)

“Today, a lot of significant number of people are being married and still being single.”

(Often that's considered a problem.)

“Married people will be bothered by their live partners.”

(Apparently the dead ones are no trouble at all.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Something got lost here

I'm not sure if it's the subject, the verb, or the meaning that got lost here.

"Specifically using complex legal or economic methods to avoid following the laws, also to the unfair utilization of force and labor and the ability to service development in different places leading the depletion of one of the countries in exchange for access and profitably for these companies."

(From a student essay)

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be sailors

From a student essay (referring to events after the start of a civil war):
"Families started to see their children seafaring and dying."

This is a great example of someone blindly using the spellchecker's first suggestion.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Oh, what a bother

From a student essay:
"Most people migrate to countries to work without the bothers of Race, Sex or Religion."

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Student essay gems

As I mark student essays each term, every so often something jumps out that just needs to be shared. Sometimes it's a spellchecker error (blindly choosing the first thing the spellchecker suggests), a spellchecker-is-not-your-friend error (the spellchecker doesn't flag the word, because it's the wrong word, albeit spelled correctly), a traditional-style misspelling, or some other sort of proofreading, grammar or word usage error. And of course, there's also the missing-the-concept error.

So, for your reading pleasure and that of posterity, here are a few gems from recent student essays:

"Paragraph: a piece of words with the sane idea."
(Not always. I've read some pretty insane paragraphs.)

Referring to her course of study: "It also offers two-year certifictions."
(I like the term certifiction. It sounds like a useful term to describe the product of a diploma mill. It is NOT, however, applicable to CSCC's programs.)

Referring to living close to school: "It also saves me the grass, which is today very high price."
(That couldn't have been a spellchecker error; it was handwritten. I don't know how that one came about.)

Referring to ESL options at CSCC: "There is also offer Basic English that are uncrated hours."
(She meant non-credit or ungraded, I believe, but as Derek said, we do try to think outside the box.)

On the crime rate: "The mummers of crime increased."
(These are very quiet crimes.)

"I came in USA to get a great academic formation among universities that are recognized as excellent in the whore world."
(And just which universities would those be? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know.)

On why people come to the U.S.: "They want to have the right of freedom of speech wherein they can say whatever they want without being rudely interrupted."
(I felt compelled to clarify the meaning of freedom of speech for her.)

"The worst wars are the ones based on political asylum..."
(No, no, no ...)

"... amazing places that are visited by tourists such as histerical places like Lalibela..."
(I think he meant 'historical'. At least, I hope he did.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

E-mail summary: June & July

Work: 834 (37.9 per day for the 22 business days in the month)
Personal: 104 (3.5 per day for the 30 calendar days in the month)
Other (ads, etc.): 880 (28.3 per day for the 30 calendar days in the month)

Work: 1,016 (48.4 per day for the 21 business days in the month)
Personal: 102 (3.3 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)
Other (ads, etc.): 888 (28.6 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Eight ounces would be ... how much?

The other day I went to the deli counter to get eight oz. of Asian broccoli salad for Mom. The nice lass behind the counter soon handed me a small container holding just about one broccoli floret. Then the conversation went like this:
Me: I asked for eight ounces.
Her: This is eight ounces -- actually it's nine. See? (Shows me label on container.)
Me (looking at label, which reads "0.09 oz."): No, this is point-oh-nine ounces, not quite one-tenth of an ounce. Eight ounces is the same as a half pound.
Her: (quizzical look)
Me: There are 16 ounces in a pound. Eight ounces is the same as a half pound.
Her: Oh, yeah, I knew that. I thought it didn't seem like you wanted very much.
Truth is stranger and scarier than fiction.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

E-mail summary: May 2011

May e-mails
Work: 975 (44.3 per day for the 22 business days in the month)
Personal: 107 (3.5 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)
Other (ads, etc.): 849 (27.4 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Campaign 2011 -- already?!?

It appears the electoral campaign (or possibly cam-PAIN) for 2011 is already underway. We've already received our first piece of literature (is "literature" really the right word?) for a candidate for this November's election. 

Receiving that reminded me that I'd never posted my summary of attitudes of the flyers, mailings, door hangers, etc. we received for the 2010 campaign, so here it is, for whatever it's worth:

Of the 77 items we received ...

  • 28.6% were from Democratic candidates or organizations* with a positive focus (i.e., in favor of the candidate).
  • 14.3% were from Democratic candidates or organizations* with a negative focus (i.e., against the opposing candidate).
  • 7.8% were from Republican candidates or organizations* with a positive focus (i.e., in favor of the candidate).
  • 49.4% were from Republican candidates or organizations* with a negative focus (i.e., against the opposing candidate).
* This includes the candidates themselves, their PACs or other organizations promoting the particular candidate.

That's right -- well over half of what we received focused simply on saying "my opponent is bad" rather than saying "I'm good". Not the kind of thing that really inspires confidence. 

E-mail summary: April 2011

April e-mails
Work: 860 (41.0 per day for the 21 business days in the month)
Personal: 94 (3.1 per day for the 30 calendar days in the month)
Other (ads, etc.): 736 (24.5 per day for the 30 calendar days in the month)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

More great bargains

I had scour pads on my shopping list today, and was only briefly confused by the prices:
$0.59 each
Bargain three-pack for $2.19

I bought three individual ones, thus saving $0.42 over the bargain.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Columbus, according to a student

From an essay: "Firstly, Columbus was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 on the name of Columbus ... Columbus and OHIO State are among the largest university in the world ... In conclusion, I like the city of Columbus because the city is quiet and there is not enough crime."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

March e-mails

Well, another month has passed. Time to see what my electronic communication looks like for March 2011.

Work:  903  (39.3 for each of the 23 business days in the month)
Personal:  114  (3.7 for each of the 31 calendar days in the month)
Other:  844  (27.2 for each calendar day in the month)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Get-well wish

One of my instructors has been sick for a while. She just received an e-mail from a student that said, "I hope you are done sicking."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The power of one letter

Student typo of the day: "My faith has made me a stranger young woman."
At least, I think it was a typo ...

E-mail summary: January & February 2011

January & February have been pretty crazy months around here. How much I’ve been working should be pretty clear from the e-mail summary for each month:

January e-mails
Work: 852 (40.6 per day for the 21 business days in the month)
Personal: 53 (1.7 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)
Other (ads, etc.): 944 (30.5 per day for the 31 calendar days in the month)

February e-mails
Work: 796 (39.8 per day for the 20 business days in the month)
Personal: 115 (4.1per day for the 28 calendar days in the month)
Other (ads, etc.): 844 (30.1 per day for the 28 calendar days in the month)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The llama as an educational tool

Some grammatical topics lend themselves to interesting and creative classroom activities. Expressing location using prepositions is one of them.

In my Spanish 101 classes years ago, I used to use an 11” llama (covered in real llama fur, mind you) as a teaching aid. Instead of the sorts of questions and answers in the examples in the book -- “Where is the book?” “The book is on the table”, and so forth -- We substituted “llama” for “book” and it actually kept their attention surprisingly well, simply because it was different. (This was back in a lower-tech era.)

On one particular preposition-lesson day, I came to my 7:30 a.m. class armed with textbook, overhead transparencies, lesson plans and, of course, the llama.

One of the students came in with his bicycle. He told me the lock had been damaged in a theft attempt, and he wanted to bring the bicycle in to class so it wouldn’t be outside unlocked and vulnerable. I told him that would be fine as long as I could use the bike in my lesson. He looked a little confused, but agreed.

By the end of the lesson, I was pretty sure that I had the only Spanish 101 class on campus that could say with perfect fluency, “La llama está en la bicicleta”. (‘The llama is on the bicycle.’)

Unfortunately, the llama's budding educational career was cut short once we got cats. Somehow one of the cats managed to get him down from his shelf and went to work. I came into the room to find three cats hunkered down just like their wildcat predecessors at a kill -- only this wasn't the great African savannah; it was the living room, where they surrounded small piles of sawdust stuffing and a now-headless llama.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Catching up

Oops! Boy, am I behind in my postings! I keep thinking of things I want to post, but I just haven’t sat down to do it in a really long time.

First, let’s take a look at the summary of e-mails from November and December 2010, just to get that up to date.

Work: 810 (Average of 36.8 per day for the 22 business days in the month)
Personal: 121 (Average of 4.0 per calendar day)
Facebook notifications: 208 (Average of 6.9 per calendar day)
Ads: 566 (Average of 18.9 per calendar day)

Work: 706 (Average of 30.7 per day for the 23 business days in the month)
Personal: 86 (Average of 2.8 per calendar day)
Other: 835 (Average of 26.9 per calendar day)

I’m really not sure what this says about me, my life or the world in general; maybe someday I’ll figure it out.