American reading and grammar: a TV and on-line hybrid

Written by: Gary Roelofs roeg@chemeketa.edu Chemeketa Community College

Abstract
The presenter will discuss the design and delivery of an intermediate-advanced reading course at a community college in Salem, Oregon, USA.

Like all instruction, this class is a work in progress; and the presenter welcomes observations that bear on the experiences described here: any empirical research that supports or refutes the usefulness of this approach; any personal experience that does the same.

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Introduction

Chemeketa is a public two-year postsecondary facility in the high-tech corridor of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. It consists of a central campus and 5 outreach campuses.

Chemeketa is a comprehensive community college and thus issues several types of diplomas: Associate of Arts, Associate of Science (the two-year “transfer” degrees for students pursuing a university education), and a variety of Certificates in technical subjects or applied sciences (e.g. one and two year programs in nursing, auto mechanics, machine tools, electronics, computer networking, vineyard management). Classes also include community education, high school completion, and Adult Basic Education. The college also contracts with local business and industry to provide short-term and ongoing training for employees both on- and off-site.(You are invited to visit the college website for a more complete description: http://www.chemeketa.edu .)

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The ESL Program

The ESL curriculum is designed to move students through a succession of courses to a level of competence that matches their personal goals. It is offered at times and locations that ensure the largest possible student participation: morning, afternoon and evening; on the main campus and satellite facilities, and at a variety of community meeting places, e.g. public schools and churches. ESL at Chemeketa is a two-tiered program: levels 1-3 present a “survival curriculum” of life skills including consumer economics, health, civics, and occupational knowledge. Students can attend the core classes of Reading/Writing and Speaking/Listening for 15 hours per week in the day program or 9 hours a week in the evening; in addition, the students have access to computer labs throughout the district and a fully equipped language lab (audio and video) on the main campus.

The second tier, levels 4-5, is a transition curriculum that presents academic and cultural experiences designed to equip the students for further study at the college. At these levels, the course offerings are more specialized and carry college credit, level 5 being the equivalent of first-year college work. The course to be described in this presentation is at a level 4 and is considered a “developmental” class at the beginning-advanced level.

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The Students

The student audience for the course has a very wide variety of backgrounds and goals. Although the students are at the same level of development in their English, their academic experience varies, at the extremes, from a few years of formal schooling in their native countries (with a few years of attendance in the first tier of the ESL program) to advanced degrees in a wide variety of fields obtained abroad. This range of experience with formal education results in a wide range of study skills.

In addition to refugees and immigrants, there are international students who are attending the Chemeketa Language and Culture Institute or the college or both..

Their goals for attending also vary widely; some will continue at Chemeketa for a one- or two-year certificate in a technical field, others for a two-year transfer degree. There is also a small number of students who have no further academic goals and are attending for personal reasons.

Their previous experience with computer technology (a significant portion of the design of the class) also varies: there are students with their own websites (two Arab students actually had their own internet server set up in their apartment); and there are students who have no computer experience at all.

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Teaching on TV

The Chemeketa instructional television system (CTV) consists of a one-way video feed from a specially equipped classroom on campus to viewing rooms at each of the outreach centers, where large monitors are located for student viewing. The students in outreach have a two-way telephone link to the classroom on the main campus for audio connection. They can be heard but not seen by the on-campus class.

And this arrangement presents some special challenges for the instructor: in planning for the 2.5 hour class, I have to continually ask myself, “What will the students in outreach be doing? Watching TV? Sleeping? Talking to each other in their first language about what they did on the weekend? Taking notes? Doing their homework?” Activities must be designed to actively engage the students in outreach (much like any classroom): group and pair work with reports to be presented orally, comparing notes after a lecture demonstration, correcting homework, problem-posing for other groups. A special teambuilding effort is necessary to make the students in outreach (groups as small as three students at times) feel a part of the class.

I learn the students’ names and visit each site at least once during the term to meet them. After the first couple of weeks, I know a bit about each student from their homework and postings on the class Webboard and can address them by name to answer questions and ask about their progress.

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Teaching Online

The online portion of the class is facilitated by the use of a class WebBoard®. Students attend two and a half hours weekly in a computer lab, either on campus or in the outreach centers (which are staffed by lab assistants to help the students). You are invited to log on as a “guest” and explore the assignments and postings of the students, bearing in mind that this part of the class is accompanied by instructions and handouts which you will not have. The online portion is not designed as a stand-alone website, but as a part of the instructional strategy.

In order to use the class webboard, students need to have an email account, and the first class session in the lab is dedicated to an orientation to the internet and the students’ getting such an account. There are numerous sites on the web that offer free email and the students are invited to choose from a list that I provide. Those that already have accounts are encouraged to partner with those who don’t. Having signed up for an email account, the students are ready to create their accounts for the class. Then they are ready to navigate the web and complete the assignments.

All of this presents some technical challenges for those who have never used a computer before: managing several open windows and navigating among them, select-copy-paste, “point, click and drag”, etc. And the whole dimension of reading on the web necessitates the adaptation of some old skills to a new environment: skimming the visual organization of a web page, scanning for key words, and learning the conventions used for search (I use search engines — Google — directories — Yahoo — and site searches — CNN), hyperlinks, advertisements, navigation and scroll bars, etc.

These skills are integral to the class, but not prerequisites. I use the more experienced students to tutor the others. With some simple instructions this works well: use English, don’t touch the mouse or the keyboard (use English to give instructions to the learner and point to the screen), ask questions to establish what the student knows and doesn’t, have fun, and don’t forget to smile. I have also been fortunate in finding at least one student at each remote site who can act as the tutor for the others with less experience on the web.

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The Reading

I present reading to the students as a “psycholinguistic guessing game” in which the knowledge (language as well as “world”) of the reader interacts with the text allowing the user to make predictions about what will come next. The point of view is useful in getting the students to relax—it is, after all, a game. The readings on the web are drawn from a variety of sources; but my favorite site is that of PBS—the Public Broadcasting System. There is a variety of formats and issues; the sites are well organized and professionally done, there is little advertising, and the locations are stable. In addition, there are links to audio and video sources that the students find interesting.

I also use national and local news cites, mostly to demonstrate how unfriendly news copy is to readers in terms of the conventions of connected discourse: the number of one-sentence paragraphs, the dislocation of time, and the lack of transitional devices.

However, I sometimes overestimate the problem-solving skills of my students and make web assignments that are too obscure. These assignments often fit the stereotypical teacher question pattern: “What am I thinking?” (This remains a problem in all teacher-centered education, where the person with all the answers asks all the questions.)

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The Grammar

“Grammar” is presented to the students as a set of conventions that English speakers use, not as the “rules of the language.” At a level 4, it is expected that the students have a firm grasp of the basic terminology of grammar and to confirm this, the first exercises are a review of the parts of speech and sentence types. The texts used for these early grammar review exercises are taken from websites that present Native American legends, chosen because of the universality of their themes and the simplicity of their language (a very low clause/T-unit ratio).

Sentence types are the next focus; and it is here that students begin to encounter grammatical information that aids in the understanding of text. Choosing the “main subject and verb” often helps them distinguish between main ideas and supporting details. The dependent clauses are then analyzed in terms of their function in the sentence: adjective clause, noun clause, adverb clause. The most problematic for students are the reduced relative clauses that are so common in academic writing, but so uncommon in the speech and writing of the students.

Thus, the focus for the advanced grammar exercises is the analysis of reduced relative clauses: how they function in the sentence, which types of relative clauses may be reduced and which may not, and the way in which the use of reduced relative clauses makes writing more compact or “meaningful” (that is, carrying more information with fewer words). Exercises here include both expansion of clauses (taking dependent clauses out of a sentence and transforming it into an independent clause) and reduction of clauses (e.g. transforming a radio script into a narrative—direct quotes into reported speech).

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Final Thoughts

Interactivity between the students in remote sites and the instructor and students on the main campus continues to be a problem. Taking a TV class is not an easy task for many learners, especially those who need high-context environments that include face-to-face, personal contact. But the students in remote sites who can learn in the environment imposed by TV and the Internet no longer have to be told to quit their day jobs and move to Salem. They can continue their difficult journey toward more skills in English and training-education that will equip them for more responsible, better-paying jobs.

Students build confidence in their abilities to solve complex problems, help others, and commuincate effectively with (at least one) native speaker. I used to think I was building confidence by saying, “This is easy. You can do this.” When the students found it difficult or impossible, the real message became, “Your skills [and by extension, you, yourself] are inadequate,” or “You must be stupid.” So I’ve changed to, “This is really tough, maybe impossible.” When one of the students gets it, and shares that with the others (I encourage this type of cooperation), that builds confidence.

I believe that my hidden agendas for the class are realized—reading becomes a pleasure, a guessing game; grammar becomes a tool, not a set of rules; and computers become doors to comprehensible input.

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