Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Friday, June 17, 2005

Finding the Right Level

by AJ

People acquire language when they understand it. Seems simple. The idea is, in fact, very simple.

But like many simple things... it is not necessarily easy.

My challenge as a teacher is to give my students understandable English at a level just a little above theirs. If my language is too difficult, they will not understand and therefore they will not acquire more language. If my language is too easy, they won't learn anything new.

How do we know we are speaking at the right level? The most direct way is to ask comprehension questions. I do this often when I use TPR storytelling. Im asking many more questions now. Im very confident that most students understand these stories.

But in other situations questions dont work well. Its fine to ask a question to the whole group when using storytelling, because I know the story is fairly simple and there will be a lot of repetition. But I dont like to ask direct questions to only one student. This makes them nervous. I do it sometimes because I need to know if they are understanding. I also, sometimes, have a student retell my story.... to see if they are hearing it and understanding it.

Im less confident about the articles we read. The TPR stories use very simple language... with some new vocabulary added. But many of the articles contain complex vocabulary. It can take some time to get through them. I fear this is boring the students.

It may be that the articles are too difficult. How do I know what is the right level?

My most recent idea is to have the students choose articles. As homework I tell them to find a short article (on any subject). They are to read the article and identify unknown vocabulary. They also must write 1-2 discussion questions about the article.

Im hoping they will choose articles that are more interesting to them and at the right level.

In class, we will use these articles as follows:

1. I may choose a few and read them aloud.... paraphrasing difficult passages.

2. I will then put them into pairs/groups. Each student will verbally summarize their article to the group.

3. Then the students will swap articles. They will read each other's articles (each of which will have a short list of new vocabulary along with a simple definition-- to aid comprehension).

4. After the pair/group has read everyone's articles, each student will lead a short discussion of their own article (using the questions they wrote).

5. I will then have the students find new partners and repeat the process again.

I tried this today with my "English for Russian Majors" class and it went fairly well. The only problem is that last week I told them to bring articles about Russia.

That was a mistake... because many of the students might not be interested in Russia or Russian news. Even if they are interested, they might not be able to find an article they like that is about Russia. As a result, many of their articles were very serious and difficult... maybe too difficult.

So for next week I told them to bring any article on any subject that interested them.

I have assigned this same homework to most of my other classes.

Im curious to see how it works.

[All classes will also be doing free reading at the end of every class period].