Wednesday, October 30, 2013

instant karma

When I was in graduate school, all teaching methods that involved instant feedback were out. If you were to jump on a student for pronouncing "three" as "tree," for example, he would stammer, make the correct "three" word again, lose his train of thought (not to mention his confidence), etc. Theory favored the affective side of it: let him speak as much as he is capable of speaking; let him string entire sentences together; correct him later, if at all, privately, and let him know that his pronunciation and/or grammar are impeding meaning, or should be worked on before the others. Naturally, those that impede meaning are more urgent than those that don't. Also, we are well aware that with much feedback in general, there is not a direct relationship between what you tell them to work on, and what actually gets improved on the following day. They like feedback, and appreciate it, and are especially grateful to know when it is responsible for their grade's being a little lower than they'd like, but, even when they apply themselves to changing their pronunciation or grammar, often they can't, at least not right away. Or, they will change it on a prepared speech, but immediately get thrown off when asked a question or expected to produce language spontaneously.

Now I am in a situation where I am teaching high-level learners; grammar and pronunciation are sometimes an issue, but usually not. The issue for them is often lack of tone, poor tone, long thought groups or poorly broken up thought groups, lack of prominence or no stress on important words. Tone, I think, is extremely important. They drift into a monotone, and people fall asleep, losing not only the information but also a sense of how important it is. Tone doesn't come naturally to speakers of other languages. They're head is full with creating sentences, recalling what they meant to say, making correct pronunciation (which, as I've said, is not bad at this level.

But a graduate student, A.H., has taken to giving them instant feedback on their DI (discourse intonation), mostly with their permission, and her partner, R.R., now jumps right in there beside her. They'll stop a student in the middle of the second sentence and say, "No tone!" or "Why are you using a rising tone? Are you unsure of yourself?" or perhaps, "Mind your prominence! Stress on the important words!"

Students, as I've said, liked this, and agreed to it willingly at first. They needed to know their faults and the sooner the better, they figured, even at the expense of obviously losing their train of thought, getting rattled in front of a crowd, etc. Generally they would be teaching in front of their peers. Generally their presentation was limited - maybe ten minutes at most. Generally they would stumble upon being corrected, but get back on their feet fairly quickly. Sometimes the fault that was pointed out would be corrected in what they produced after the feedback. In those cases, we could say it was a success. They were directed to mind an aspect of their DI (often one they weren't paying attention to); they would mind it; they would improve, and presumably they would learn the skill of considering DI simultaneously with the other things they were trying to juggle.

I stuck to my traditional method, which was to point out their weaknesses on a grading sheet, to be given them after (well after) their presentation, which often pointed out both DI weaknesses and traditional, pronunciation/grammar problems. My theory was that private, separated feedback could be handled more rationally later, could be separated from the plain view of peers, and allow their immediate observations more room to develop as they were speaking.

The instant feedback system had several negative consequences. One is interesting and worth noting. One poor girl, frustrated at being criticized for lack of tone, had adopted an uptalk kind of style. This actually is quite common. Students hear others doing it, and adopt it, and notice that they do better with uptalk than with nothing. I actually encourage it, although I know it's rather grating to the ears of a native speaker, it makes us say, "you're from the valley?" or "you're asking me?" or some such. But it is a tone, developmental as it is, and it helps them begin to hear them, hear their consequences, etc. So A.H. jumps on her for her uptalk, and says, basically, "You're giving out your syllabus (true). You're telling them how you're going to grade them (also true)...and you make it a question? WHY are you using uptalk?" The poor girl, flustered, starts over again. She realizes the feedback is intended to help her, she's not overwhelmingly embarrassed. But she really doesn't know how to vary her tones, or she would have done it. She is more embarrassed by not being able to make what she wants, than just being mistaken.

And this, in general, is probably the biggest problem. Tone becomes fluent in developmental increments, which are now disrupted, and not allowed to be half-perfect. If she develops a fear of uptalk, or picks up the disparagement on the part of native speakers in the room, she goes back to monotone. The disruption of the process sets back the entire thing, and, as a result, she can't use varying tones at all until she is entirely ready to make them all right.

I have often pointed out this tendency in the development of grammatical structures, for example, present perfect continuous. A student, in trying to say "I have been going to the Rec Center" says instead "I have been go to the Rec Center," producing an intermediate, developmental form. The computer tells them that's bad, go back to square one, or, the student is corrected and set back by an aggressive grammar-cop type of ESL teacher, who jumps on him, marks him down, publicly shames him, or whatever. Bottom line: avoid that structure altogether. Avoid trying it, avoid developing it, avoid putting it out there. Correction can have an opposite effect of stifling ordinary natural developmental progress. And it certainly doesn't reward experimentation, the risk-taking required to master anything.

These may be the traditional arguments against all feedback, and they remind me a bit of the writing "Error correction wars" in which some theorists argued strenuously against all error correction, and even those who were in favor of it were reduced to saying how much and how strenuously they would couch it in positive terms, save it until the end, devalue it or absorb it into larger meaning-expression issues. That kind of feedback, in writing, was out and was staying out as far as I could tell, last I checked. Those who wanted to know principal from principle were left looking online for one of those online proofreaders.

I should mention, by the way, that A.H. and R.R. tried to set up a study; they asked students how they felt; they tried to determine whether this method worked, and how students actually felt about it. While getting accurate results on its efficacy may be extremely difficult, the controlled environment under which they asked students their true opinions might yield interesting results; I'll keep you posted.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

keep calm y'all

I have a couple of grad. assistants working for me who teach often. Today I said to them, I have a bone to pick with y'all. As I watch you, I've noticed that you use "y'all" sometimes to address the class. But other times you use "you guys". And you NEVER use "you" to refer to the class. What's up with that?

They admitted, they were avoiding "you". You grow up in Texas schools, they said, if a teacher addresses the class as "y'all", everything's fine. If the principal addresses the class as "y'all", everything is fine. If anyone uses "you" everything is NOT FINE.

So they are avoiding it at all costs. It sounds rude, short, uncaring, harsh.

Now they are well aware of the problems of "y'all" sounding hick, sounding southern, being too informal, etc. They are also well aware of the problem I told them, that even we northerners were beginning to give up on "you guys" because it only referred to half the class at any given time, and the other half was bound to be offended.

But in the north, "you" as plural is not really marked one way or the other. It's not rude, it's not formal, it's not really a problem, using it with a class, using it with friends, using it with anyone. The only problem with it is that it isn't really clear; it can refer to one person or many.

They have many ways to refer to one or many down here. "Y'all" can be used for one or many, but is used for one mostly when you don't know that one, or it is an older person, or you have to assume that the person has family or people around that you don't know about. Waitresses use "y'all" for singular; they're allowed. They have to be polite to everyone. They don't have time to sit and decide whether you are one or many. "Y'all" in that context generally refers to "you and yours" and is remarkably similar to some other languages that essentially use you-plural in polite situations. So in fact "y'all" can and does act as both singular and plural in all kinds of situations, making it as ambiguous, in number (sometimes), as "you" is up north.

But one teacher pointed out something else. There is actually a "clipped y'all" which sounds more like "yaw" or "yuh". It's singular "y'all". Even though there is a plural y'all, all-a-y'all, it's actually a quite complicated situation, and it has more to do with politeness, which always matters, than true number, which is a fluid concept (since not knowing whether someone has family, is the same as assuming that they do, and you just don't know it). We northerners shake our heads at the concept that "it's not about number."

About this "yaw" or "yuh" - I have heard it. I'll keep my ears out for it again. There aren't so many people you can even ask, as they aren't always all that aware of how they speak or why; they misreport, or give questionable data. Doesn't matter. If you live here a while, I figure, you get the hang of it. People are friendly. They like to talk.

So I told them, well, there's always "you folks" or "you lot" - I doubt they're going to go with the Pittsburgh "you'ns" or the bronx "youse" which I once, by the way, heard in Alton, IL. These are similarly marked. There's a whole lot of us who have trouble with all the options. Now that I'm Texan, I'll start having trouble with "you", because I'll begin to hear it the way they hear it - too formal, too rude. One doesn't want people thinking one doesn't care.

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