ELT in Japan Issue 2 (March 2010)
Contents(1) Devising multiple-choice questions, quizzes and tests
(2) Semantic mapping activities for the speaking class
(3) Semantic mapping activities for the writing class
Devising Multiple-choice Questions, Quizzes and Tests
Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan
Chances are that, if you teach EFL at a tertiary level in Japan (and other parts of developed E. Asia), your students are most familiar with relatively 'conservative' types of assessment tasks. The orientation of the teaching, the classroom, and the students is to take a given stretch of L2 (English) and asked to deal with it in terms of what it could mean if re-encoded into the L1 (standard forms of Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, etc.).
This orientation even plays out in language testing here in Japan. For example, the students will have often been tested with questions that asked them to put a word, sentence or phrase of L2 (English, EFL) into L1 (standard written Japanese). The test questions and instructions themselves will be in theL1. Only the text/piece of discourse being tested will be in English. For example, if this sort of task is extended to 'reading comprehension', it is usually an underlined word, phrase or sentence of the L1 that they are tasked to put into the correct Japanese. Or they may be tested on their ability to figure out what words like 'this' or 'that' or 'it' refer back to in discourse.
There are many problems with such a limited approach to assessment. For one, the constant framework is from English (L2, SL, FL) into Japanese (L1, standard dialect), which seems to re-inforce the idea that understanding and communication only take place in Japanese, not English. A second weakness, especially with the reading comprehension questions, is that students are asked to translate parts of a text the whole of which they have no hope of reading with much comprehension. That is, the text being tested is too difficult for the majority of the students taking the test, thus rendering any tasks derived from it invalid for norm-referencing (which is why criterion-referenced tests are safer on the issue of validity if you can not norm a task or test on large populations). A third deficiency is that it doesn't prepare the students for a wider world of testing where the 'English-only' multiple-choice question is prevalent.
It could also be pointed out that the multiple-choice question itself is often seen as a 'conservative' type question, often viewed as a bane in the world of ELT and education. However, these sorts of questions dominate important language tests, such as the TOEIC, TOEFL and Eiken/Step (a multiple-level, criterion-referenced EFL test given in Japan).
In this article we will look at how to introduce students to 'English-only' multiple-choice questions and then how to use such questions to assess students and evaluate courses. The focus here will be specifically on using multiple-choice questions to construct tests that assess vocabulary learning drawn from the syllabus, materials, and content of specific EFL classes--i.e., the classes you have to teach and your students have to attend.
It is hoped that these explanations and examples will serve, for example, teachers who have to give grades to hundreds of students each semester and have limited time to do other types of testing (such as oral interviews or projects, which can be too time-consuming to manage if you teach hundreds of students).
Some suggestions for this type of testing
1. Choose the most frequent and most useful vocabulary from the syllabus, the textbooks, lesson plans and class content. When you devise and select test questions, target items, and distractors, try to stay with the most useful and most frequently used words and phrases of English. It would be better for students to learn and be tested on a new use or meaning of a core word than an obscure item, and this principle will help you to help your students better to prepare for standardized tests.
2. I find it best to draw a very large set of vocabulary from the course content and then to put it on a list. Then, I identify the most frequent items and choose from these at random if I need to reduce the list of words on the test down to a smaller number.
2. Work on making a good question/test items first, and then worry about the distractors. To quite an extent, your distractors are already there--in the textbook, on your large list of vocabulary, and even on the smaller list from which you will chose to write the test questions.
3. Distractors can take too much time to prepare if you simply try to call them up from your own English. For a faster method of choosing distractors, rely on the textbook, textbook glossaries, your list of chosen words and the most frequent words of English instead.
4. If having three distractors proves too difficult, try coming up with two good ones instead. Two good distractors are better than three bad ones. Choose distractors from your 'short list' of items and then, if these are used up, draw from the larger list or from a list like or a list of, for example, the .
5. Try holding several vocabulary tests throughout the term (which at my university is 15 class meetings once a week for 90 minutes).
6. Recycle. Vocabulary items can be recycled onto following tests, as can distractors. It is fairly easy to recycle an item by re-writing the question around it.
7. Work at making your distractors plausible, but remember, what is plausible for a fluent user of English might be completely different for a beginner. Also, language background can be a factor. For example, if I wrote, "She is a 'safety worker", that to most fluent users of English would be a rather obviously wrong and not a good distractor for 'safe'. But in Japanese, the word for 'safe' and for 'safety' is often the same word (anzen). So this is a plausible distractor for beginning EFL students in Japan, and most likely one that the makers of the TOEIC know about and put on their tests.
8. Try a variety of different distractors. Use semantic distractors. Use grammatical distractors. Use phonetic distractors. Use distractors that are about the same length and of around the same frequency of use. Use distractors that come from the same texts as the test items. Remember, what is a plausible distractor for someone who is at the beginning level of EFL may be hard for you to anticipate if you are a fluent user of English. One good source of distractors can be had if you take a little time to analyze the errors your own learners produce when asked to write a sentence or short paragraph.
9. Keep accumulating word lists, distractors and test questions so that you can:
-give quizzes or tests of at least 35 questions or more (preferably 50);
-give quizzes or tests at least several times throughout the term.
10. Increase your total collection of test questions by using important synonyms, synonymous phrases, and paraphrasing, since students need to get familiar with the most common ways of basically saying the same thing.
11. Make the questions and the tests 'organic' to the type of class you are teaching and the content of its syllabus. For example, if the class is a very low-level 'General English' class, try using the simplest English possible when writing your questions. If the course is a listening one, try using some short dialogues instead of single sentences. Look at current TOEIC Listening questions to see relevant examples. If the course focuses on reading, try short paragraphs instead of just single sentences. Also, make the questions more realistic, relevant and communicative by basing them on things like: facts about your local city, facts about your university campus, current events, etc. For example, if a course is Business English, why not try writing questions based on the week's business news (e.g., Toyota in trouble over safety, recalls millions of cars)?
12. Some argue that we should avoid cultural bias in our test items. However, the TOEIC, for example, assumes that students are quite familiar with American culture (often dressed up as 'global business culture'). If multiple-choice questions are given as vocabulary practice, the questions might also help introduce students to cultural learning points and help them to build up background knowledge about many aspects of American culture--or other important Anglophone cultures, such as those of the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, etc. It might depend on the goals and study-abroad opportunities your students have. I object to the American-bias of the TOEIC, but that doesn't mean it is going to go away.
13. The week before giving a multiple-choice quiz or exam, practice a set of examples with the students. Do them as a class with the examples written on the board. Also, if they are new to identifying and studying key vocabulary on their own, give them a larger list of words to study from which you will randomly select your smaller set of test items.
14. If switching instructions and questions from the usual (in Japan anyway) English-to-Japanese framework, break down your English into very short sentences and instructional steps. This is recommended for written or oral instructions. Once you have your set of instructions, try breaking them down even further into smaller steps. Even if you do not demonstrate everything you ask your students to do, remember this: if you yourself can not demonstrate what you want them to do, your instructions might be hard to understand. So at least practice demonstrations before you go to class.
15. After you have written your test and answer sheet, sit down at a separate time and take the test yourself, as if you were a student. I find this is the best time to catch mistakes and typos and saves the embarrassment of having to correct problems when students are actually taking the quiz or test.
Mutiple-choice Question Examples
(Note: the correct answer will always be 'a' in these examples, the distractors b, c, d.)
In this next section we will look at basic types of multiple-choice questions and use them as an opportunity to show distractor types as well (e.g., semantic, grammatical, phonetic, inflectional, derviational, etc.).
A. Multiple-choice basic sentence
The weather at the beginning of this week started very cold, but it should ______________ milder by the weekend.
a. become b. became c. begin d. complete
After work I like to watch T.V. programs in order to ____________.
a. relax b. look c. discuss d. describe
(Note: the TOEIC tests this sort of item a lot.)
To save electricity, when you leave the room, please turn ______________ the light.
a. off b. in c. around d. at
B. Multiple-choice dialogue
A: How is it _______________?
B: Oh, not bad. Yourself?
a. going b. doing c. meeting d. go
A: Do you think we should take our umbrellas?
B: Yes, the weather ______________ says it is going to rain soon.
a. forecast b. forest c. fortune d. cloud
C. Multiple-choice single sentence, match the underlined word with its synonym
Sony Corporation is a famous electronics manufacturer that was __founded__ in 1945.
a. established b. forced c. focused d. ordered
Sony Corporation __manufactures__ many different types of consumer electronics in its factories in Japan and overseas.
a. makes b. removes c. explains d. thinks
D. Multiple-choice, match the synonym, dialogue
A: Mommy! Mommy! I'm so hungry I can't stand it!
B: O.K. Calm down. I'm __preparing__ lunch right now.
a. making b. putting c. causing d. crying
E. Multiple-choice definition sentence
If you ______________ something, it means your habit is to like it.
a. prefer b. defer c. refer d. infer
_____________ is an overall economic condition of falling commodity and asset prices.
a. Deflation b. Inflation c. Decision d. Exhaustion
F. Multiple-choice definition sentence, matching synonym
Deflation is an overall economic condition of 'falling' commodity and asset prices.
a. declining b. increasing c. deciding d. protesting
G. What is ________________?
(Note: Here you give three examples illustrating the meanings, uses, nuances and common collocations of a key vocabulary item. This type of question could be very difficult to write distractors for if you try to avoid distractors that might work in one example. But remember, the correct answer has to work in all three examples, so you can use other words that work in only one sentence as distractors (for example, fix, as in 'fix a flat' instead of 'change a tire').
-Some people like to eat the same food every day for lunch, but others like to ______________ it and eat a variety of dishes.
-On the way to work today, my bicycle had a flat tire, so I had to _____________ it.
-The weather forecast in the newspaper says today will be fine but will then ____________ to rain later tonight.
What is _______________?
a. change b. turn c. fix d. return
Other question types are possible. For example, you could use a short paragraph instead of a sentence or a dialogue and selectively or randomsly cloze words or phrases. This would be good practice for an important type of TOEIC reading problem.
Many EFL teachers dislike the multiple-choice question and tests made from it. However, if you want a manageable way to assess and recycle vocabulary in large EFL classes, it is one of the best types of tests. It can be applied to all types of EFL classes, such as speaking/conversation, listening (especially standardized test listening), reading, vocabulary study, grammar review, etc. Moreover, if you teach EFL in Japan you might find that your students are not that familiar with alternative varities of multiple-choice questions for EFL, or tests, questions and tasks written only in English. .
If you write a variety of questions and stick to the syllabus and the most frequent vocabulary of English, you will probably be helping your students more than using methods of assessment that can not be scored objectively or test (punish or reward) language abilities that fall outside the scope of a course, its syllabus and textbooks. Multiple-choice quizzes and tests in English-only will also help prepare your students for important English proficiency exams like TOEIC.
Semantic Mapping Activities for the Speaking Class
Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan
In TEFL situations, when we say 'vocabulary study', the two activities that most often come to mind for students quite likely are (1) looking up words in a bi-lingual dictionary and (2) compiling and studying bi-lingual word lists. If this is what is meant by vocabulary study, it hardly could be called 'systematic'.
The weaknesses of such an approach to vocabulary are many. For example, students may use an L1-L2 dictionary to confirm the meanings of an L1 meaning in L2, and then forget the L2 item. Also, bi-lingual word lists are hard to organise; indeed, they lack any organising principle except that an L1 word should be matched with an L2 counterpart and that such items, once translated, should follow each other on a list. Little wonder then students do not find time to study and review them. What is more, the input of vocabulary to be learnt, revised, or reviewed is too limited to items (words, phrases) encountered in the textbook or specified by the teacher. Finally, and most importantly for the purpose of this introduction, the most obvious flaw is that there is very little communicative or social linguistic activity required to use a dictionary or make a bi-lingual word list.
An alternative to this is using a semantic mapping activity. Teachers can initiate and manage them for whole class vocabulary study. The activity described below is a set of tasks which can be adapted to just about any topic. The selected topic determines the possible lexical semantic focus.
The author used sushi as a topic because it is one Japanese cuisine that is internationally popular and known, and EFL students here in Japan said that they wished to be able to explain more details of it both to foreign visitors to Japan and to people overseas when the students travel abroad.
The teacher proposed two initiating questions. They were, (1) "What is your favourite type of sushi?" and "What sushi item(s) do you always order?"
These questions seemed promising for an interesting discussion in English. However, students soon hit a 'wall' with vocabulary and found that they knew very little English for this particular topic, even though they ate sushi frequently. This is typical of vocabulary in an EFL setting, where many of the most frequent things and ideas from everyday life never make it into English learning.
The basic procedure
An initial pair work (or groups of three) discussion of several questions can be used to frame the 'problem' The problem in this case is that learners need more vocabulary from within the set of 'seafood and fish that we eat'--as well as to learn how to talk about a thing in explanatory language rather than simply trying to translate back and forth between the L1 and the FL.
The initial questions that this author used were, as stated above, "What is your favourite type of sushi?" and "What sushi item(s) do you always order?" After students attempt to ask and answer such questions, the purpose of the semantic mapping activity is more likely to have been established.
Next, write a subject such as 'sushi items' on the blackboard and prompt and encourage students to brainstorm words and phrases that fall under that description on a piece of paper or in their notebooks. I find it useful to keep this task somewhat close-ended: I specify how many items each student or group should brainstorm (usually 3-5) and impose a time limit (e.g., three minutes).
One way to assure more uniform results in note-keeping is to give each student a blank A4 or B4 piece of paper and have them fold it in half. This creates four equal-sized sections to keep notes on the four main stages of the semantic map. Students could do this individually or while they remain in the pairs or groups of three.
Generally speaking, a teacher could usually start a semantic mapping exercise with a very general topic and then try to get students to produce language that comes to mind about the chosen topic. It might also be helpful to encourage them to contribute if the teacher writes their own response on the board (in the case of this author's favourite sushi item, this happens to be 'cuttlefish' ('ika' in Japanese). At first, this might be written up as a list or mass of words and phrases. Then, the teacher could have them copy in their notebooks all the information that the entire class has come up with. (See Figures One and Two below.)
In the case of a conversation topic like 'sushi items', this author went back to the initial conversation questions and asked students to write on the board the name of their favourite. In this case, then, the author allowed for repeated items, since one student's favourite type of sushi might well be the same as a lot of others' favourite. The key at this stage is to get everyone as active as possible in thinking about a general topic and then activating their vocabulary.
If students are beginning level, then it might be necessary to accept L1 responses or to have them use dictionaries. Also, in the case of mixed level classes or topics that might tap into somewhat less common vocabulary, teachers need to decide whether or not to allow bi-lingual responses. I not only accept but encourage it because that way other students are more likely to understand the words and phrases that are being put on the board.
Making the map bi-lingual (e.g., English and Japanese) with beginning level classes has at least two benefits: (1) The entire class can potentially understand the language. (2) It is a much more efficient use of time and effort to parcel out looking up words in a dictionary than to have each student individually look up all the words they do not know now.
4. Some teachers might find it faster to have students give words and phrases orally while the teacher or a student writes items on the blackboard. In Japan, since students are reluctant to speak English in front of the entire class, this author has students individually or as group representatives go to the board to write.
5. After a raw brainstorm map has been scattered all over the board, ask the students to fill out their own initial brainstorm notes by copying the information that is on the board. Repeated items need only to be written once. Depending on how familiar students are with semantic mapping techniques for language study and practise, the teacher might suggest connections across the concepts listed on the board by drawing lines and explaining why we might associate them. The teacher might also ask students to find relationships by asking questions and giving hints. Somewhere in between, a teacher might point out a relationship and ask students to give a reason. Importantly, all such discussion and interaction requires communication. Try also getting students to read all the items out loud, repeating after your model pronunciation.
6. The next step requires the teacher to stay ahead of the students. This is a teacher-centred manoeuvre that one hopes will help to set up learning-centred activities, which one then hopes become learner-centred and personalised. The art is knowing how much support to give at any one time and when to give it so as to get the most from students without discouraging them. On the one hand, you can not challenge students beyond what they are prepared to give. On the other, if students are not engaged and challenged, they may have a hard time thinking of and writing down anything interesting about a topic.
The teacher has to take the first raw map (which may look like a list or a scatter-shot posting of ideas or lists) and selectively, partially organise the information and useful vocabulary and phrases into a more organised map of topics and subtopics. Each topic selects or at least suggests its own possibilities for structuring. For example, the topic of 'sushi items' in the centre was surrounded by various types of sushi 'neta' written in both English and Japanese. 'Neta' is the various material (not always a seafood) that goes on top of the balls of vinegared rice in order to make the most popular form of sushi called 'nigirizushi' (hand-pressed); this is the sort of sushi known best in other countries, along with rolled sushi ('makizushi').
Looking at the raw map that the class had produced, the following sub-topics occurred to the author: shellfish, fish, other. Also, take note, if the first raw map has not yet yielded a lot of useful information, then another round of brainstorming is due. (See Figure Three below for an example of how the structured map was used in one particular class, with results typical of this activity.)
7. Specifying sub-topics gives the map structure and sets up the potential for a usefully productive mapping exercise. If the structure leads to a usefully productive exercise, then it will result in more sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, sub-sub-sub-topics, etc. If the chosen topic does not lend itself well to easy structuring, try simple dichotomies, such as 'good things' and 'bad things'. One variation on the sushi theme from another class was 'favourite sushi' vs. 'sushi you can not eat/do not like'.
8. Students should then be asked to fill in items that fall under the sub-topics. They also should be asked not to repeat items at this stage. For example:
Subtopic 1 shellfish
Subtopic 2 fish
Subtopic 3 other
Subtopic 1 shellfish:
Example 1 shrimp/prawn (ebi).
Subtopic 2 fish:
Example 1 mackerel (saba).
Subtopic 3 other:
Example 1 sea urchin eggs (uni).
As the map expands students will share their ideas, their knowledge, and their language. This is why the author not only tolerates but even encourages bi-lingual maps, since not all students are going to understand each others' choice of English vocabulary or the English for a topic area that falls outside standard word lists.
9. Have students on their paper or in their notebook start a second map that follows the one being constructed on the board.
10. The teacher can continue to ask the students to keep adding new items to the map as it has already been structured until there are many items under each sub-topic. Just as the entire class builds the map on the board, students should continue to record a copy in their notes.
11. As details are added, a more complex structure might yet suggest itself. In the case of 'sushi items', once it was structured to the sub-topics of 'shellfish', 'fish' and 'other', a more refined structure suggested itself because of the many examples students provided. So I re-cast the map's sub-topics as:
white-fleshed fish (shiromi)
dark-fleshed/oily/fatty fish/silvery-sided fish (hikarimono)
other types of fish:
12. Students can then start a final map using the more refined semantic map scheme, both on the blackboard and on their paper. In the case of the 'sushi items' map, this yielded a very large amount of vocabulary from the entire class. And it seemed to provide a mnemonic structure to remember more of that vocabulary when discussing the topic again. (See Figure Four below for an example of the final results of one particular class in which this activity was used.)
13. Again, have students read and repeat out loud the items on the map. Some should become written in memory by this point.
Once the map has been completed to sufficient detail and students have copied the information in their notes, it is time to try speaking activities. These can start with the more structured and transition to less structured. Recently in Japanese universities, discussion times have become more potentially interesting for cross-cultural exchange because now many students from China, Korea, Taiwan and S. Asia are attending English classes.
1. One possibility is a simple activity where students learn to talk about a word they might not know the exact translation for in simple English words, describing it. For example, this example dialogue:
A (Japanese student): Do you know the type of sushi called, 'chirashizushi'?
B (Chinese student): No, what is that?
A: I don't know the English word for 'chirashizushi', but it is a very popular type of sushi. We make it at home, because it is easy to make. We take cooked rice and then put a special vinegar on it. Then we top it with many different types of seafood and egg.
B: Yes, I have eaten that. I forgot the Japanese word for it.
This might be introduced in full dialogues or 'templates' with the key word missing.
2. Another supplementary activity might be a dialogue of about 4-7 exchanges modelling how to order sushi or a seafood dinner at a restaurant overseas.
3. An alternative or expansion to dialogues could be a set of questions about food, seafood, sushi etc. that students might use to interview each other with in pairs or groups of three.
4. For more advanced students--and ones more comfortable using English in front of groups or the whole class--teachers can try role plays. In pairs or groups of three have one-two students play host at a sushi restaurant to one student who has the role of the foreigner who can not speak Japanese or read the menu.
Discussions on cultural differences concerning food (e.g., What is halal food? Are Buddhists vegetarian? Do you eat raw fish or shellfish in your culture? Why do Japanese prefer fish from the sea instead of fish from rivers or lakes?)
Alternative vocabulary sets
Here are some suggestions for alternative vocabulary sets that lend themselves to classification and analytic discussion. You might explore the following with your class in order to do vocabulary study and cross-cultural comparisons in English:
-special holidays and their customs
-the seasons, activities or foods and drinks linked to them
-aspects of current issues (i.e., How can we use less energy on campus? How can we
produce less waste on campus and in our daily lives?)
-things we can do for better fitness and health
-animals we can keep as pets
Some narrowing down might be necessary. What about the foods we eat to celebrate special holidays? For example, in Japan, many people eat a special type of food called 'osetchi ryori', but there are also customs around eating noodles at midnight on New Year's eve and for having 'ozoni' (miso soup with a glutinous rice cake) early in the new year.
TEFL might prove easier and more predictable both in planning and classroom execution if we could simply give the FL to our students generalisations, principles and hard-and-fast rules. However, foreign languages need to be learnt and acquired painstakingly through exposure to thousands of meaningful, inter-related examples in real communication and discourse. Unfortunately, if the FL is not used as a means of communication in the society outside our classroom, we can not assume that students will get the language experiences they need to build up and cognitively internalise the FL. Teachers must constantly, consistently, and systematically exert themselves to create language classrooms that are rich in language use and communication. However, they also have to make sure that the activities they use to do this are integrated with the specified curriculum and syllabus while also responsive to student needs and wants.
Semantic Mapping Activities for the Writing Class
Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan
Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan
Most of this activity as described below and illustrated in the figure should prove useful for people teaching EFL or ESL writing at the secondary or tertiary level, although it was developed while teaching mostly beginners and high beginners English composition in an EFL setting in Japan.
I am often assigned to teach writing and/or composition to university students in fairly large classes (sometimes more than 30 students) with mostly beginning level learners. The students are not placed according to any tested ability or proficiency. Even in the case of what are perceived to be relatively advanced sudents because they have spent a period of time in an anglophone country, I find that such students' English writing skills--especially academic ones--lag behind their displays of oral fluency.
A typical situation in Japan
Imagine as a teacher being assigned to teach things like paraphrasing, summarizing, and expository essay writing to students who struggle to write one paragraph about themselves. Some are so limited in expressive language ability that they might use a dictionary to translate something they wrote in Japanese and then find moments later that they can not actually read even the vocabulary in the piece they just produced! Most of these students use only simple sentences, no relative clauses, no subordination, no compound or complex sentences, and no cohesion devices or transitions. Paragraphs are often short lists of disconnected sentences.
Unlike having students write simple autobiographical narratives (e.g., a paragraph or short essay about their lives, family, school background, etc.), expository essay writing across cultures and languages can be even more challenging--to such an extent that students become discouraged, produce perfunctory work, or even give up altogether. Beyond statements about themselves, beginning level EFL students can get confused or discouraged with the English personal essay because, for one thing, the genre asks them to assert an authority and commitment to a point of view that they might not feel intellectually adequate or socially positioned to assert. Moreover, personal essays might incorporate elements of storytelling, diaries, personal narratives, etc., but they are not just stories following a chronology or development of an individual over time. Usually, in English, the readership demands a coherent, systematic exposition of a rather explicit point of view about something, no matter how prettily we might dress up the presentation. Readers also might be less sympathetic toward an approach that ignores their need for an upfront set of statements comprising the author's perspective and commitment.
Although of limited use in most academic settings at professional level, the personal essay is still a mainstay of language arts and composition courses in anglophone societies. Reading ability with it is also widely tested in high stakes situations (such as the TOEFL). On the positive side, the personal essay as an EFL task can provide a good rationale to use the second or foreign language in order to practice and expand active expression and communication. In other words, in an EFL setting it might seem to be a less artificial task than many requiring oral production.
In having students prepare to write a personal essay, if teachers want students to organize thoughts and language, both teachers and students need to be clear on WHOSE thoughts and language they are organizing. A personal essay might require the writer to organize what they immediately know and feel about a topic. A research paper will definitely require them to organize information from other sources besides what they immediately know. One transition between these two very different requirements would be getting students to share information on a common topic in a classroom. Then they can be asked to write largely the same themes and topics, but develop their own specific thesis and essay. Using whole-class activities to help students prepare for such a writing task can create a situation where a lot of vocabulary and phrases are used socially to communicate while sharing and pooling information and insights about a given topic.
Teaching with this approach also helps students to see that a general subject can be related to a number of themes, while the thesis is the particular narrow approach they, as writers, are going to take to write about a topic and theme. Choosing a thesis is a way of limiting a discussion so that the writer can communicate something intelligible and possibly unique to the reader. If the very challenging, academic-style argument/persuasive essay is the learning and language practice objective, the EFL learner, as novice writer, might be unfamiliar with what is required in English of either side of the textual interaction (the reader or the writer). Remember, too, that the argumentative mode is employed in pieces of writing that call themselves analysis or exposition; any piece of writing that purports to tell you something is true of the world is actually an argument: it is asking you to believe at least some of what the writer says she or he believes. So much of the essential elements of the personal essay actually make their way into more 'objective' forms of discourse (such as research reports and academic journal articles), and arguing and persuading in order to help a readership revise their views about a topic are important academic skills.
A typical procedure: Whole class brainstorming and raw mapping
Get students to brainstorm things about a topic--for example 'automobiles'--using a semantic map on the board (see Figure One below). I usually start with getting students to give me anything that comes to mind about the chosen topic. At first, this might be written up as a list or mass of words and phrases on the board. I start with an example of my own, and write it on the board bilingually for an EFL setting (for example, both in English and in Japanese). Then, I have them copy in their notebooks all the information that the entire class has come up with. Having them write their contributions in both L1 and L2, at least in a setting where most students share the same L1, saves time and supports better revision, review or introduction of the more difficult vocabulary beginners have not yet mastered.
Having taught in Japan for over 20 years, I am now comfortable with having students give anything they have got for such board work, including Japanese or English mixed with Japanese. I even try to come up with English translations of their Japanese if there is not enough time to have students do translation. In mixed level classes, you might ask more advanced students to help with this translation from the students' L1 to the L2, especially if you do not know much of the students' L1. It is always a good idea to require students to have bilingual dictionaries when doing such activities across L1 and L2. This is one stage where dictionaries do not necessarily slow up reading or writing processes. When students fail to deal successfully with words in either L1 or L2 having multiple meanings and uses, an additional useful step is to have them work back from the L2 to L1 using their dictionaries. It also helps to repeatedly draw their attention to the idea that a given theme helps narrow down the target meaning and uses. For example, if the given topic were 'banking and finance', we would hardly be expecting the religious denotation of 'denomination' to be used (and across languages it is typically such polysemy that leads to complete mistranslations).
Depending on how familiar students are with semantic mapping techniques, I might suggest connections across the concepts listed on the board by drawing lines and explaining why we might associate them. I might also ask students to find relationships by asking questions and giving hints. Somewhere in between, you could point out a relationship and ask students to give a reason. Importantly, all such discussion and interaction requires interaction and communication. The more you can elicit in the L2 the better.
From the teacher to the task to the student
The next step requires the teacher to assimilate what has been done so far very quickly. This is a teacher-centered maneuver that sets up learning-centered activities, which one then hopes become learner-centered and personalized. The art is knowing when and how much support to give at any one time so as to get the most from students without discouraging them. On the one hand, you can not challenge them beyond what they are prepared to give. On the other, if students are not engaged and challenged, they may have a hard time writing anything interesting about a topic.
The teacher has to take the first raw map (which may look like a list or a scattershot posting of ideas all over the board) and mentally process it. Then the teacher must partially organize the information and useful vocabulary and phrases into a more structured map of topics and subtopics. I often decide what fits based on something students have read or will read in their textbooks or a print (yes, this could be done as both language building and schema activation in support of reading as well). I also try to decide on what form the next map is going to take based on what the interests of the students are.
For example, the topic 'automobiles' might be in a bubble at the center and then lines away from it might lead to sub-topics. I prefer dichotomies that force someone to commit to an opinion, like: 'good things', 'bad things'.
If the raw map has not yet yielded a lot of useful information, then another round of brainstorming is due before attempting to move onto the more structured, specific map. Again, I try to determine the second map based on what the students gave me in the first round of brainstorming. The second round, if necessary, might ask them to give 'good things' and 'bad things' about automobiles, for example. A third round might ask them to focus on one particular aspect that can support many other additions to the map, such as: automobiles: bad things: environmental and health problems: e.g., resource depletion, environmental/habitat destruction, air pollution, unhealthy lifestyles, etc.
As the map expands (and students practice producing the sort of vocabulary they will need to write about a topic), students share their ideas, their knowledge, and their language. This is why I still tolerate and, at times, even encourage bi-lingual maps, since not all students are going to understand each others' choice of English vocabulary.
Topic to theme, theme to thesis, and other possibilities
I then ask the students to produce possible themes from the map. Actually, I will already have led them in that direction. The benefits and demerits of the automobile, for example. The thesis requires a personal angle on a theme. For example: We could not live without automobiles. Or: We could live without automobiles. Or: The automobile has helped people more than it has hurt. Or, vice versa. Or, very specifically, approaching a thesis statement: Our city ought to block off the station area every Sunday and let only pedestrians and cyclists in. This is a thesis-like statement that most likely stems from the theme of the negative aspects of automobiles.
Another way is to start by giving two or three sample thesis statements about a given topic and have students write up their own based on the model. Then, you can launch into full-blown brainstorming on one topic and a couple of themes that the students have given you in their practice thesis statements. If students still do not get the idea of a thesis being a personal angle on a topic, I have even resorted to giving them a thesis that is half written and asking them to make a complete statement.
One main goal of whole-class semantic mapping, in addition to presenting and reviewing necessary vocabulary and calling up prior knowledge, is to move the students together towards an understanding of what a thesis statement is. Although by no means the only sort of schema possible to summarize the path to a thesis, in the case of our example, automobiles, we might look at it like this:
Automobiles have many positive and negative aspects (THEME).
There are some actions we could take to lessen the negative impact of automobiles (NARROWED THEME/SUB-THEME).
I think our city and our campus ought to have a 'no car' day once a week (THESIS).
This semantic mapping procedure to help guide students to a possible thesis is only a start. There is, of course, the potential for many different follow-on activities. One follow-on activity would be to have the students write a rough draft, strategically selecting and using the brainstormed information they have. This type of whole class brainstorming and winnowing of information toward a point of view can also be used to support discussion activities in the EFL classroom.
A whole class semantic mapping activity does not sufficiently cover how to get beginning EFL writers to re-write an entire essay from its rough draft form into something that is readable and engaging for an audience wider than students of their own English level and their composition teacher. If you are teaching beginners in EFL composition, you have to realize that such an achievement could take more than a single semester of well-planned and well-executed whole class, small group and individual activities.
When tackling an essay for the first time, many students will try to do a translation from their L1 into English, but they will then find that they cannot produce a readable, coherent piece of writing. This will be especially true where attempts to match L1 and L2 word-for-word results in very labored, unidiomatic English. For example, when one colleague's student wrote and mentally translated this sentence, "My favorite women is a pedagogy part [sic]", they most likely meant something like this, "There is a girl I really like who is a student in the College of Education". Such lexical train wrecks most definitely occur when the L1 and English are not at all related and the student has limited resources in the L2, such as moving across Japanese to English at a low beginning level of development. This sort of difficulty often brings up the need for more extensive and deeper exposure to vocabulary in the social setting of the classroom, vocabulary-rich communication which, it is hoped, can lead to students complicating and revising their mental EFL lexicons. Letting students get stuck for a bit as they attempt to translate from L1 to L2 has its uses, however, because it shows that reading and writing in L2 discourse at a level of language the learner already is comfortable with can be a far better alternative.
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