Thursday, November 08, 2007

fluency first

Last May, I borrowed and read an old book from the communicative heyday called At the Point of Need, and wrote a small review of it at the link. It's worth rereading books from the old days because you forget where we've been and what was special about those ways of looking at things. In this case what has stayed in my mind is something that I didn't even write down, at the time I was recording my impressions of Marie Wilson-Nelson's book. One thing that stood out to me was that after a while, in her tutoring center, she didn't distinguish assignments that much; you had to write what you had to write; and furthermore, students were all on similar paths in terms of grammatical and organizational acquisition; they were on their way to fluency, some further along the path than others. But what the real obstacles were, to her students' and tutors' success, were dependence, low self-esteem, apathy, belief that it didn't matter, that one wouldn't need writing, or that one couldn't learn it. Of these, dependence was by far the most crippling. Our system teaches dependence, she said, when it should be teaching independence.

Partly in response to this, I started doing fluency exercises in my high-level class. I have lots of pedagogical justification for them; my students write endless paragraphs about whole numbers of interesting topics, which make fascinating reading and provide a window into their minds. But a lot of my reasons come directly from Wilson. I make no demands on their structure; my only demand is that they write quickly (and that they be in class to do it). I give them a choice about what they want to write about: three prompts, choose one. My assistant corrects the grammar and they publish them in good time.

The line-editing is a chore, but my assistant (and I) enjoy it. My justification for line-editing every word comes from an old teaching philosophy known as Community Learning (?)- where the idea was to just lower the pressure, help people communicate in real contexts, and gently change everything that is necessary to change in order to meet that purpose. I believe in this although I respect teachers who maintain that it's just not necessary or even possible to do this for all work. In any case, a second rationale is that the process of uploading, editing, finding things on blogs, tagging one's name, etc. are all in a sense a kind of fluency- technological fluency, fluency in the medium of writing. And a third possibly more important justification is that in the process of getting the community all in one place, looking at one set of paragraphs, which happen to speak to them and be very interesting, a lot of reading at a very appropriate level is taking place.

In the course of doing these fluency exercises several things become apparent. One is that very few of them are really afraid of the medium itself, although they have all kinds of interesting ways of dealing with things that in some cases I would have never imagined. I find out, for example, how many of them do double-space (on paper) entirely by hand, thus making a format that looks like a tornado hit a railroad track, when they put it on the blog. My point is this- that what they used to call "strategic competence" (Del Hymes 1971 ??), the mastery of the oral environment and the strategies to find what one needed to survive in it- that was missing in the people who had studied arcane (in time/on time) grammar points for fifteen years, but couldn't say "fine thank you" if you said "how are you?" -- is something that is not unique to the oral environment, but in fact equally applicable to the new media, such as blogs, chat, videocam, etc. This will be the basis of a tesol presentation that I am working on and will give in April in New York City.

By the way my students also write full essays (click on their names in the template) and will eventually link to entire research papers on their own weblogs, with abstracts on the class weblogs. This is my pride and joy, hard to keep in mind, I must say, while I'm sweltering here, in a lab, giving a midterm, and grading a stack that is threatening to rise above the height of a university-grade stapler.

More later...

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At 11:13 AM, Blogger eileen said...


I've just come across your blog and love it. Thanks for sharing so much. I imagine it's a labor of love, but it is also a wonderful resource and you deserve much praise in writing it. (It's the kind of thing I'd love to do, but never have the time for! How do you manage it?!) I have been teaching esl for years, though now, since moving to a remote-ish area, I teach only online. These are mostly graduate courses in esl teacher training. I have a lovely bunch of teachers from New Hampshire currently in an esl methodologies class which covers technology in the classroom, and I'd like very much to introduce them to your blog. I don't know if I need special premission for such a thing, but I did want to ask if that was OK with you. We certainly won't inundate you with questions-- well, maybe a few-- but it is a great model for us. Please let me know. Thanks!

At 8:37 AM, Blogger tom said...

Dear Eileen,

I hope you get this reply; sorry for the delay. Of course you may show it to them, it's public and intended for everyone and for comment though as you can see I often get waylaid & unable to answer promptly.

Actually the blog has helped me a lot as an esl/efl teacher, because it clarifies my ideas, even if I ramble as I write or don't express myself very coherently. The blog helped me slowly clarify my own ideas on all kinds of topics that slowly came out, and sometimes I would just post questions or queries that life would slowly answer for me, once I had them online. So the blog is a kind of informal history of my thinking and interests, as well as being as up-to-date in terms of who & where it's linked to, as I can possibly make it, given my time.

You will also see that blogs have done the same for me personally, with creative writing and pop art, though I haven't written my novel yet.

In answer to your question (how do you do it?) I will quote my wife, who is a scholar and writer, who was told once, a page a day is all you have to do. Just make the time; it's for yourself, after all. Don't let the world steal your last minutes!

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much. We're all finding this very useful-- talk about possiblities! What a great resource. Thanks too for such needed inspiration. Good luck with that novel! I'd like to read it when it comes out.


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