Quick Tip: 5 Steps for Increasing Timed Writing Fluency
by Nick David
Many English language learners find it a challenge to produce enough writing during timed essays and tests, which can hurt their overall test scores. Use these strategies to help your intermediate to advanced level students generate more time for better planning, more in-depth content, and extended opportunities for revision.
Audience: Intermediate to Advanced
One challenge many ESL writers face is not producing enough words during timed essays. When this occurs, it can negatively impact scores. But when writers learn to write more fluently in the allotted time, this can generate time for better planning, more in-depth content, and extended opportunities for revision. Here is a five-step process that has helped my students increase their writing fluency in timed essays.
1. Keep Track of the Number of Words Written
The first step is making writers aware of how much they write, on average, within a given amount of time (usually 30–45 minutes). This is easily done with word counts in computer-based writing, but this action can be more time consuming in paper essays. For paper essays, an estimate of word length can be found by counting the number of words per line, finding the average number of words over 3 or four lines, and then multiply the average word length per line by the number of lines written.
2. Focus on Fluency Over Grammatical Accuracy
Often students who write too few words are overly concerned about grammar. In order to encourage students to focus more on fluency instead, introduce a new length component into your grading rubric (usually giving full points for 250 words or more in a 30-minute essay), and reduce the weight of grammar points to incentivize students to focus on writing more fluently. You can adjust point values based on the proficiency levels of your students.
3. Track and Encourage Progress
In subsequent essays, continue to track word count, and give encouragement to students who successfully increase the number of words they write. By tracking the increase in length, students can make goals and take ownership of their own timed writing fluency.
4. Set Limits to Word Count if Needed
However, there are also limits to the importance of fluency in essays. If students become overly concerned about their essay length after they have passed the 350-word mark or more (in 30 minutes), and this concern is negatively impacting other areas of their writing, encourage students to return to other aspects of their essays that need work.
5. Reintegrate Essays With a Balanced Writing Approach
Once students are accustomed to writing more than the minimum length standard within the time allotted, return to the original rubric without the length requirement. In subsequent essays, encourage students to still focus on writing 250 words or more, but because they can now write more in a shorter period of time, teach them, for a 30-minute essay, to spend the first 5 minutes for prewriting, 20 minutes for writing, and the last 5 minutes for revising and editing. In this way, an increase in fluency buys students time to work on other areas of the timed essay writing process.
Nick David is an ESL teacher at Brigham Young University’s English Language Center, and is the assistant coordinator of BYU’s ESL Writing Lab.
Free TESOL Quarterly Article:
"Lexical Thresholds for Reading Comprehension: What They Are and How They Can Be Used for Teaching Purposes"
December 2013: Volume 47, Issue 4
In this article, "Lexical Thresholds for Reading Comprehension: What They Are and How They Can Be Used for Teaching Purposes," Batia Laufer discusses lexical thresholds: which and how many words English language learners need to know for optimal reading comprehension.
This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Volume 47, Number 4, pgs. 867–872. Subscribers can access issues here. Only TESOL members may subscribe. To become a member of TESOL, please click here, and to purchase articles, please visit Wiley-Blackwell. © TESOL International Association.
We do not need to understand every single word when we read a text. Some words are not crucial for our comprehension and can therefore be ignored. Some unfamiliar words can be inferred from the text context. If they cannot be inferred, they can be looked up in a dictionary. However, ignoring unknown words, guessing them and looking them up in a dictionary cannot compensate for lack of good vocabulary knowledge. It is possible to ignore some unknown words in a novel, or a story, but not in texts dense in academic or professional information, such as medical or legal texts. Even if we can use contextual clues successfully, not all contexts provide clues for unknown words. Moreover, readers often ignore clues when they mistakenly consider unfamiliar words as familiar. Most importantly, clues often appear in words which themselves are unknown to learners and are therefore unusable. (For a discussion of inferring words from context, see Laufer, 1997, 2005.) A good dictionary is certainly helpful for finding the meaning of unknown words, assuming the reader knows how to use the dictionary efficiently. But looking up a large number of words may consume too much time and interfere with reading fluency. Hence, neither guessing nor dictionary use strategies can compensate for insufficient knowledge of the text’s vocabulary.
We can ask two related questions about the minimal lexis necessary for comprehension: (1) What percentage of a text’s vocabulary should readers know to comprehend the text without resorting to compensatory strategies? (2) How large should the reader’s vocabulary be in order to understand the necessary percentage of the text’s words? The minimal vocabulary in terms of the percentage of familiar words in a text and the reader’s vocabulary size is the lexical threshold required for understanding an authentic text.
Why is it important to quantify the lexical threshold? Most researchers agree that only when readers possess a critical mass of second language (L2) knowledge (lexical and grammatical) can general reading skills, such as distinguishing between main and peripheral information, between explicit and implicit material, operate most efficiently (Bernhardt & Kamil, 1995; Carrell, 1991; Clarke, 1980; Lee & Lemonnier-Schallert, 1997). Furthermore, vocabulary knowledge is a good predictor of reading proficiency, if not the best (Bernhardt & Kamil, 1995; Laufer, 1992; Nation 2001, 2006; Qian, 2002; Ulijn & Strother, 1990).
How Much of a Text’s Vocabulary Should Readers Know to Reach Adequate Comprehension?
Laufer (1989) found that the knowledge of 95% of the text’s vocabulary was usually required to score 55% on a comprehension test and suggested that 95% of lexical coverage was the lexical threshold.
This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, 47, 867–872. For permission to use text from this article, please go to Wiley-Blackwell and click on "Request Permissions" under "Article Tools."
Home Visits: Connecting With Diverse Families
by Stephanie Wessels
Conducting home visits with culturally and linguistically diverse families can be both educational and challenging; learn how to make them effective and productive for everyone.
For today’s young diverse children, the home environment plays a critical role in their cultural and linguistic development. Every family, including both native-born or newcomers to the country, has varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds and holds unique experiences, values, and beliefs towards early learning and family interactions. Home visits are an important way for understanding and connecting with culturally and linguistically diverse families. Home visits can be a vehicle for educators to learn about family households and to expand their own knowledge of their students’ lives and cultural backgrounds (Ginsberg, 2007; Sanders, 2008).
For many mainstream educators, working with families whose home language is not English can provide an exceptional challenge: they have to effectively teach students who have diverse and largely opaque literacy practices that might differ from the mainstream culture. The classroom teacher will often turn to the English Language Learner (ELL) teacher for instructional advice to gain a better understanding of the students/families. Visiting homes is an effective way for the ELL teacher to learn more about the families and their cultures. This information can be shared with other faculty and staff members to help them reach out to families. Because of this, knowledge about conducting home visits should be part of English Language Teaching (ELT) training programs.
It is essential that we begin to learn about the families’ lives so that meaningful connections between everyday and school learning can occur. Families can share their personal perspectives and their funds of knowledge that they bring to any learning situation. Moll, Armanti, Neff, and Gonzalez (1992) describe funds of knowledge as the rich and untapped intellectual resources that students, particularly those who are culturally or linguistically diverse, bring to school or any situation. This unique information gained during a home visit by the ELL teacher can be recognized and then used to extend, enrich, and infuse meaning into the school-classroom environment and curriculum for the students.
Considerations for Conducting Home Visits
When conducting a home visit where the culture environment is different than one’s own, the ELL educator will want to reflect on his/her own cultural heritage and established knowledge base. This allows the person to realize what influences his/her own beliefs and if there is a match or mismatch with cultural and linguistically diverse families. If there is a mismatch, this mismatch is often interpreted through the lens of a deficiency and is not realized as an inherent strength of the family (Heath, 1983; Compton-Lilly, Rogers & Lewis, 2012). Home visits allow people to challenge their own assumptions and learn from others. By examining one’s own cultural background, an educator can realize how a student’s culture and language can influence his/her interactions and how s/he approaches learning situations (NAYEC, 2009).
Home visits can help to establish and build relationships between families and educators (Bradley & Schalk, 2013). When interacting with the parents, it is important to consider that most culturally and linguistically diverse families hold educators in very high regard. During the home visit, the family’s questions and conversation about their children’s education may hold different perceptions and expectations. For example, Chavkin and Gonzalez (1995) found that Latino parents perceived educating their children through nurturing, teaching values, and instilling good behavior and characteristics, whereas school and educators were expected to handle the actual academic learning. Through home visits, closer cooperation between home and school can be achieved which can limit misunderstandings (Valdez, 1996).
Culturally and linguistically diverse parents tend to have low school participation rate at school events (Floyd, 1998). There is an urgent need for increased parental involvement among Latino parents who do not speak English as a first language and for them to participate in the decision making process of their children’s education (Chavkin & Gonzalez, 1995). Research has shown that parent involvement tends to help student attendance and academic achievement (Epstein & Sheldon, 2002). An increase in academic performance can result when the parents, the school, and the community create a partnership for the benefit of the children (Delgado-Gaitan, 2001). A recent research study showed that the children whose families took part in a home-visiting program showed positive benefits once they enrolled in school, compared with their peers who did not receive regular home visits (Samuels, 2013). Home visits are a way for ELL teachers to reach out to the families and help them feel welcome when entering the school.
Suggestions for Conducting Home Visits
The following suggestions have been culled from the conducting of home visits with culturally and linguistically diverse families:
- Make appointments in advance and follow up with reminders. Try to schedule visits when key family members (primary caregivers) will be home. It sends an important message of respect to arrive on time.
- Let partners know the purpose of the visits. Assure parents that they do not need to make any special preparations for the visit.
- Offer interpreter services if needed.
- Plan on brief visits, but follow the family’s lead on how long to stay.
- Take something (e.g., books, crayons/paper, etc.) to provide an opening for sharing information and opportunities for observations (Johnston & Mermin, 1994).
- Expect the unexpected (e.g., cancellations, unfamiliar situations and surroundings, sharing of emotional and troubling information) (Kyle & McIntyre, 2000).
- If the parent offers you something to eat or drink, politely accept because the parents are observing you as well.
- Do not make quick judgments about the home environment. Every household has its own cultural values and beliefs.
- Focus on families’ cultural norms when visiting. For example, where people sit in proximity to you during the visit can mean different things in different cultures.
- Remember that parents and family members are experts about their children, so observe, listen and learn.
Home visits allow ELL educators to learn more about culturally and linguistically diverse families’ interactions and experiences and build on those activities in the educational setting. The visits can provide an amazing source of information regarding the socio-cultural processes, academic, and linguistic development of students. Home visits are a start to relationship building between teachers and parents where everyone benefits. ELL teachers benefit from learning more about their students’ interests and cultural experiences. Parents benefit from the teachers showing how much they care and value what the parents have to offer to the educational process. Students benefit the most from knowing how much their teachers and their parents care about them.
Bradley, J.F., Schalk, D. (2013). Greater than great: A teacher’s home visit changes a young child’s life. Young Children, 68(3), 70-75.
Chavkin, N., & Gonzalez, D. L. (1995). Forging partnerships between Mexican American parents and the schools. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 388 489).
Compton-Lilly, C., Rogers, R., & Lewis, T. Y. (2012). Analyzing epistemological considerations related to diversity: An integrative critical literature review of family literacy scholarship. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(1), 33–60.
Delgado-Gaitan, C., (2001). The power of community: Mobilizing for family and schooling. Boulder, CO: Riwman & Littlefield.
Epstein, L., & Sheldon, S.B. (2002). Present and accounted for: Improving student attendance through family and community involvement. Journal of Educational Research, 95, 308- 318.
Floyd, L. (1998). Joining hands: A parental involvement program. Urban Education, 33(1), 123-135.
Ginsberg, M.B. (2007). Lessons from the kitchen table. Educational Leadership, 64(6), 56-61.
Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Johnston, L., & Mermin, J. (1994). Easing children’s entry to school: Home visits help. Young Children, 49, 62-68.
Kyle, D.& McIntyre, E. (2000), Family visits benefit teachers and families-and students most of all.. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence.
Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.
NAYEC, 2009. Where we stand on responding to linguistic and cultural diversity. Retrieved May 26, 2010 from http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/diversity.pdf
Samuels, C., (2013). Study says early home visits show school benefits. Education Week. Retrieved on from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/early_years/2013/02/study_says_early_home_visits_show_school_benefits.html
Sanders, M. (2008). How parent liaisons can help the home-school gap. Journal of Educational Research, 101(5), 287-297.
Valdez, G. (1996). Con respect: Building the bridges between culturally diverse families and schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Stephanie Wessels is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her teaching experience includes working with ELL students in the classroom. Her current research focuses on bilingual literacy programs.
NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in the TEIS Newsletter (December 2013). Used with permission.
9 Listening Strategies That Develop Active Listeners
by Rebecca Palmer
Students who use active listening strategies develop skills that enable them to monitor their own metacognitive processes; learn how to model and evaluate these strategies.
It’s not enough for students to merely listen to audio assignments. Students must use strategies that make them active, not passive, listeners. To understand the difference between active and passive listening, students need direct instruction on strategies that work (Vandergrift, 1999; Goh, 2008; Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari, 2010). To accomplish this, teachers should use time in class to model effective strategies and evaluate students’ use of them. Students who use before-, during- and after-listening strategies develop skills that enable them to monitor their own metacognitive processes.
To demonstrate good listening strategies, teachers should preselect short audio articles or lecture excerpts that are normally used in their classes and describe for students what kind of thinking they can do before, during and after listening.
Model How to Use the Strategies
Here are instructions for nine active listening strategies.
Help yourself better understand a listening assignment by thinking of things you already know about a topic. This helps your mind build connections between what you know and new information you will hear. Say to yourself things like, “This lecture about animal communication makes me think about how my dog lets me know that he needs to go outside. He runs to get a sock and brings it to me.”
Make guesses about what you may learn as you listen. Guessing helps your brain focus on the assignment. It doesn’t matter if your guesses are right or wrong. For instance, if the topic is a space mission to Mars, you might guess, “I bet it takes six months to get to Mars and it’s probably really cold. I don’t think people can survive on Mars.”
3. Talk About New Words
If there is a list of preselected vocabulary words from the assignment, go through the list and think about what you know about them. If you don’t know the words, talk about them with a friend or use a free audio dictionary such as http://www.dictionary.com. If there isn’t a preselected list of words, make sure you understand words in the title and in any introductory material. Have a brief conversation in your head to clarify key words. If you do not know what flaunting means in the title “Flaunting Your Success,” write down a synonym like showing off to refer to as you read. Sometimes, a rough sketch, such as a dollar sign in front of affluent, can give you quick help as you listen.
4. Listen for Answers
As you listen, be listening for answers to questions you have. To identify questions to ask, preview activities you need to complete after you listen or turn the title of an assignment into a question. For instance, if the title of a lecture is “The Science of Love,” you might ask, “How is science related to love?” or “What have scientists learned about love?” Looking for answers to questions gives you a reason to listen and keeps your mind active and alert.
5. Take Notes
Write notes that help you remember ideas. Outlining and layering information is always a good idea, but try other imaginative ways of taking notes: Use connected circles and shapes, create a chart, or draw a map. Use abbreviations and symbols that help you keep up with the speaker’s rate of speech; for instance, if the words memory and communication are used a lot, just use an “M” and “C” in your notes and add a reminder that explains this after you finish listening. Speakers also convey ideas in nonverbal ways. Pay attention to intonation, and if applicable, facial expressions, to take notes on a speaker’s opinions and outlooks.
6. Re-listen/Find a Fix
When you get bored or when ideas are hard, you need to find a way to get back on track. The best way to fix things is to re-listen. You don’t have to wait until the end to re-listen. Sometimes a quick backtracking and re-listening to a line or two can quickly clear up confusion. This is especially important at the beginning of an audio assignment. If you can’t re-listen, shift to a different listening strategy that helps you regain your focus. For instance, if you’ve been taking notes, and you’re becoming confused, figure out what is causing the confusion. Do you need to look up the meaning of some words, can you write down your questions, or should you try to summarize what you have understood so far?
What do you agree and disagree with? What parts do you like best? What parts are confusing? Use symbols, such an exclamation mark (!) before an idea you like or an “X” next to something you disagree with, that help you quickly write your reactions so you won’t forget them.
Read your lecture notes several times before and after class all week. In your head, summarize what the assignment was about and test yourself on your notes. Occasionally, you will be asked to write a formal summary. You will read your summary aloud or make a recording of it.
Read and listen to other sources for more information about the topic. Learning more information makes a topic more meaningful and interesting, especially if you share these ideas with others.
Evaluate Students’ Listening Logs
To evaluate students’ progress in using the strategies, request that they keep a listening log.
One suggestion for a weekly listening log is included in the attached handouts (.docx). To further develop students’ progress, use one format for a listening log at the beginning of the term and a different format later. For instance, in the beginning, students’ entries should describe which strategies they have used and how they have used them. When students have mastered the ability to choose and use the strategies well on their own, change the format so students’ entries summarize and extend what they have learned.
With both log formats, students take part in weekly seat-hopping pair shares in which each pair shares what is in its logs for 2 minutes. When the 2 minutes are up, one student in each pair moves one or two seats to the left or right and each new pair shares information. After three or four “seat hops,” the whole class may discuss what they have learned.
The goal is for students to be aware that they are in charge of keeping their attention strong and focused on complex listening tasks.
Goh, C. (2008). Metacognitive instruction for second language listening development: Theory, practice and research implications. RELC Journal, 39, 188–213.
Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating second language listening comprehension: Acquiring successful strategies. ELT Journal, 53, 168–76.
Vandergrift, L., & Tafaghodtari, M. H. (2010). Teaching L2 learners how to listen does make a difference: An empirical study. Language Learning, 60, 470–497.
Download this article (PDF)
Rebecca Palmer is an instructor in the intensive English program at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA, where she teaches listening, speaking, reading, writing, culture, and grammar . She received her master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in secondary reading education. Her area of interest is in writing materials for L2 learners that strengthen and speed learning.
Producing Newscasts for the ESL Classroom
by Lisa Hockstein & Alexandra Dylan Lowe
ELLs often avoid watching the news because they find it too difficult. Use this fun, interactive, and interest-based collaborative learning project to introduce ELLs to TV news. Handouts included.
Watching the news on television or the Internet is a great way for students to practice their English and learn more about American culture. However, typically, when we ask our adult intermediate and advanced ELL students whether they regularly watch the news in English, fewer than one third of the hands go up. When we probe further to find out why more students don’t watch the news, they say, “Because watching the news in English is just too hard. The people on TV talk too fast and the stories are too quick.”
While this is undeniably true for many adult ELLs, the value of engaging students in authentic listening activities like watching TV news in English is too great to pass up. So we decided, “Let’s do something with the news because it’s hard!”
The following is a suggestion for how you, too, can introduce ELLs to TV news in a fun and interactive way by creating and role-playing a newscast in the classroom. This interest-based, collaborative learning project is ideal for listening and speaking classes as well as integrated skills classes that meet two or three times a week. It works for larger classes as well as small ones.
Laying the Groundwork
Week 1: Preparing Your Students
You should prepare at least three weeks ahead for your in-class newscast. Begin by asking students to create a network TV news-watching schedule for themselves for 1 week, during which they watch news in English at least three times for periods of at least 20 minutes. Ask them to record which broadcasts they watch and to capture what type of news they see. Draw their attention in advance to various types of news they are likely to hear: international, national, local, sports, health, consumer affairs, science and technology, human interest, entertainment, weather, and more. During this first week, discuss the advantages as well as the drawbacks of using closed captions to facilitate their understanding of the news.
Week 2: Watching the News
After week 1, talk about the experience of viewing TV news. In our classes, students said the news was difficult, but they agreed that by watching broadcasts several times a week, comprehension became a little easier.
During the second week, ask students to switch to a schedule of non-network news (e.g., CNN, MSNBC, Fox, BBC America). Part of the challenge is for students to find these alternatives, as cable channels will vary depending on their location and broadcast delivery system. The goal is to provide students with news material that they can compare and contrast to the broadcasts they viewed in week 1. Lastly, ask students to decide which news segments interest them the most.
Week 3: Summarizing the News
At the end of week 2, ask your ELLs to choose a current news story of the type that really interests them. Ask them to listen to it and be ready to summarize it verbally (without reading from their notes) for the entire class. This gives students an opportunity to practice the kinds of summarizing skills they will need for the actual broadcast. Students enjoy listening to their classmates’ brief news summaries at the beginning of week 3.
Launching the Newscast Project
Present the newscast role-play assignment to your class. (See the student handouts, “Planning Your News Broadcast” (.docx) and “The TV News Show” (.docx). You’ll want to customize them for your own classrooms.) Explain that this is a collaborative group effort in which members of each news team not only prepare and deliver their individual news stories but also construct a cohesive newscast. Groups need to give themselves a name; create a tone for their newscast; decide on simple graphics (we were able to project graphics and employ short PowerPoints); and discuss dress, on-air demeanor, and props.
Put students in groups of five or six, mixing the groups in terms of gender, native language, and level of class participation. All groups should be required to include international, national, and local news stories in their broadcast; beyond that, let groups choose which types of news to report on.
Over the course of a week or two, the groups meet in class for broadcast planning meetings. One way to set this up is like this:
First planning meeting: Students decide on who’s covering which current news story; who will anchor the news show; and what the lineup of news reporters will be.
Second planning meeting: Groups fine-tune the lineup; write all the introductions and sign-offs for broadcast; iron out problems.
Third planning meeting: Students rehearse and time their segments; consult instructor on any persistent pronunciation challenges.
In advance of the news day, the class decides if it wants to have student volunteers record the newscasts “live” in the classroom using a smartphone, tablet, or video camera for a subsequent group critique.
Each group presents its broadcast in a predetermined order and without interruption. Many of the news presentations turn out to be remarkably creative. Last semester, for instance, students role-played on-air interviews with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai, with a star of the Colombian soccer team, and with the father of a crime victim, complete with costumes and props. One student offered a lightning-fast “round-up” of five of the top news stories of the week, ranging from the U.S. government shutdown in October 2013 to the release of the iPhone 5. Another student—the “entertainment reporter” on her team—offered a quick overview of free events in New York City’s Central Park.
As instructors, we each had a simple evaluation sheet (.docx) that we filled in during viewing and returned to each member of each group only after all groups had finished. You can also add a peer review component (.docx) that gives students a chance to provide anonymous written feedback to their classmates.
If the students agree to having their newscasts video-recorded in class, you can view each broadcast the following week. We would advise inviting each student to reflect on his or her own preparation and delivery before opening up to a constructive critique from other members of the groups and the class at large.
During the preparation stage, students were motivated to listen to a variety of news stories and formats and to compare and contrast them. Once in groups, students perceived they had a vital role to play, and the vast majority prepared thoroughly and rehearsed with enthusiasm. They used vocabulary relevant to TV broadcast, and coordinated their work during several planning sessions where listening and speaking were key.
In the end, the level of participation in this project was consistently high. The consensus among our students was that this was among the most engaging projects they had ever had, and students have subsequently informed us that they came to realize the benefit of following the news in English on a regular basis, and many have formed a habit of doing so. Along the way, students gained confidence in their ability to comprehend news in English which, in turn, overcame their previous perception that the news is “just too hard.”
Lisa Hockstein has taught ESL for nearly 20 years at many schools of higher learning in New York City and Westchester County. This career has brought her many wonderful experiences, including meeting people from scores of countries. Teaching has also made her a much better listener. Lisa is currently senior adjunct instructor at Westchester Community College (SUNY), and has a special interest in integrating literature and art into her classroom.
Alexandra Dylan Lowe is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught speaking and listening in the Intensive English Program, English for academic purposes, business English, accent on fluency, and a wide range of ESL levels. She writes a monthly blog for TESOL International, focusing on her primary interests in bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom and on self-directed learning strategies that students can use outside of class to accelerate their learning.