Professionalism in Taiwan’s Native English Speaking Teacher Population

The following work is research I conducted for my final project in my Problems in TESOL course at Southeast Missouri State University during the fall 2018 semester. A survey was designed and disseminated to gather data about Taiwan’s native English speaking teacher population. Survey responses reveal that a majority of NESTs in Taiwan are male, North American, have more than five years of teaching experience, and rarely have any professional certifications beyond a TEFL certificate. Data also indicates that schools are not supporting their teachers to become better educators as half of all respondents stated that their schools never provide opportunities for professional development. Recommendations are designed based on research by Patten, Parker, and Tannehill (2015) on the importance of professional development. Additional recommendations are made using findings by Kelch (2011) to improve the state of English language teaching in the Far East context.
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What is Fossilization?

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Fossilization occurs when a learner reaches a plateau in second language acquisition and stops making progress. In fossilization, nonstandard linguistic forms become seemingly permanently incorporate into an individuals L2 competence (Brown, p. 264). Vigil and Oller explain positive feedback as the cause of fossilization. For example, my daughter, whose first language is Mandarin, after seeing a doctor may tell me, “I need to eat this medicine before each meal.” I understand that she means take medicine rather than eat medicine. Eat medicine is a direct translation of the Chinese [chī yào (吃藥)]. I respond by telling her I will remind her before dinner. This positive feedback of my daughter’s utterance could be reinforcing an incorrect form of English. Am I hindering my daughter’s development of English by not correcting her at that moment? I don’t think so. I’m just delighted she chose to speak to me in English over Mandarin so I don’t correct her. When it’s time to take her medicine, I can model the proper form by telling her, “It’s time to take your medicine.” Perhaps by the time her prescription runs out she will internalize the proper form.

I think that fossilized language forms can be corrected. A change of environment such as a student studying abroad could present the language form enough times during the day to internalize the correct form. Enrolling in a class surrounded by other motivated individuals could give the speaker enough practice using the correct form to undo fossilization. I agree with H. Douglas Brown, author of Principles of Language Learning and Teaching in that stabilization may be a more appropriate term over fossilization. Fossilization implies non-changing afterwards. Fossilized trilobites will at no time come back to life but a person’s second language acquisition can reach plateaus and break through them in the correct learning environments.

Reference:

Brown, H. D. (2014). Principles of language learning and teaching: A course in second language acquisition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

The Nurture of Communication

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American linguist Noam Chomsky proposed the theory of Universal Grammar in the 1960s as a reaction to B.F. Skinner’s argument that children learn language based on reinforcement principles. Skinner’s ideas of how children acquired language were grounded in John Locke’s philosophy that the mind is a blank slate and that all knowledge comes from experience or perception. One can place Locke and Skinner on the nurture side of the nature versus nurture debate. Chomsky’s theory falls on the nature side – that humans are born with innate faculties related to the acquisition of language. I do not believe that children are born with language universals, there is no language acquisition device, and that a child’s general cognitive abilities are more than powerful enough to acquire language.

Animal communication is governed by stimulus-response. Bird calls and songs, bee dances, and non-human primate gestures and calls are all used to communicate about the present. As far as we know, they do not have the capacity for displacement. Their communication systems are non-creative and they don’t change from generation to generation. A grizzly bear will never communicate about a large salmon it caught last week, a cockatoo will never put a new spin on its song to attract a mate, and bees will never make up a story about a bee from another planet that uses its superpowers to fight evildoers. Humans have the incredible ability to communicate with language. I don’t believe that language is innate. However, our capacity for language is innate.

What are the linguistic universals? If they exist, are we born with them or simply pick them up as infants? The amount of diversity among the more than six thousand languages spoken on earth is dizzying. The word orders of languages may be subject-verb-object, subject-object-verb, verb-subject-object, verb-object-subject, object-subject-verb, or object-verb-subject. Chomsky would have us believe that all these rules are hardwired into our brains and this allows us to pick up the language of whatever community of speakers we are born into. It is difficult to fathom that our brains already have so many foundations of language pre-installed before birth. Could linguistic universals such as all languages having vowels and consonants simply be the result of humans being physically capable of creating these sounds? Roughly 100,000 years ago, human mouths began to shrink, our tongues became more flexible, and the larynx lowered. At the expense of being able to swallow large pieces of food quickly, the variety of sounds our species was able to produce vocally increased dramatically (Masterson, 2010).

Researchers’ understanding of our brains continues to grow. Chomsky’s proposition, of the language acquisition device hardwired into the brains of children that propels them to learn language has been criticized recently based on our current understanding of the brain, which uses many parts to process language (Rowe & Levine, 2015, p. 233). Currently, the Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, both located in the cerebral cortex have been identified as being essential for human communication. Humans differ from other animals due to our large cerebral cortex, which unlike theirs, is wrinkled rather than smooth, giving our brains more surface area for the processing power required for learning, thinking, remembering, acquiring language, tool-making, and cooperation. Although other animals such as beavers build structures and crows use tools, humans use by far the most extensive toolkit in the animal kingdom to survive almost anywhere there is land (Buskell, 2016). Humans are exceptional animals: Members of tribes have crafted boats and colonized islands that are thousands of miles from any neighboring islands; just over sixty years since the Wright Brothers took flight astronauts landed on our closest celestial neighbor; and for better or worse, we have harnessed the power of the atom.

Skinner believes that children learn language through imitation which is then positively or negatively reinforced by their caregivers. As Chomsky noted, it is easily observable that in many cultures caregivers give positive feedback no matter how phonologically or grammatically inaccurate the utterances from the child they care for are. Chomsky would have us believe that inappropriately giving positive reinforcement for phonologically or grammatically incorrect utterances would result in children unable to successfully learn language. However, for every time that a child makes a grammatically incorrect utterance that is not explicitly corrected, he or she likely hears grammatically correct utterances several thousands of times before syntactic rules are subconsciously internalized.

Just how much language is an infant exposed to? Imagine if you will that every word spoken within hearing distance of an infant were spelled out using the letters from a can of Alphabet Soup. A single can would be used up during an extremely brief conversation that a baby may overhear, such as a parent accepting a package from a delivery person or ordering take out. Now imagine all these conversations over the course of days and weeks and months. Before long, you would have enough Alphabet Soup to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Depending on family wealth, a child may hear between 600 and 2,100 words per hour (Rosenberg, 2013). With all this input, it’s no wonder that children pick up language. Researchers have recently discovered a correlation between a child’s academic performance in the third grade with the amount of words spoken in the home from birth to three years old (Wood, 2009). The amount of language an infant hears daily is likely far greater than Chomsky imagined while he was writing his scathing review of Skinner’s 1957 release Verbal Behaviors.

From a young age, humans categorize. A couple of weeks ago, as I was loading the car to take my son to preschool I asked him to come outside. He responded that he was looking for a marker. I walked back inside and saw all of his markers, from multiple sets, neatly placed in different piles by color. I asked which color he wanted. He said he wanted an orange one. He picked up each orange marker, one by one, examining the different shades, and ultimately chose one he felt was suitable for drawing in a notebook on our daily commute. Chomsky would like us to believe that grammar is innate, that we are born with the universals of language hardwired into our brains. Could it be that just as my son categorized colors that our brains act as a large net, catching language that is spoken to us and around us, and subconsciously categorizing it?

Jean Berko tested children’s knowledge of morphological rules using nonsense materials in her groundbreaking Wug Test. She concluded, “The answers were not always right so far as English is concerned; but they were consistent and orderly answers, and they demonstrated that there can be no doubt that children in this age range operate with clearly delimited morphological rules” (Berko, 1958). These children were able to correctly apply their subconscious knowledge of inflectional endings to create plurals of nonsense words. Her work showed that young children have an implicit understanding of linguistic morphology. Children are born into language-rich environments armed with the mind’s incredible processing power. This accounts for a child’s implicit understanding of linguistic morphology.

The mighty pendulum of the nature versus nurture debate is swinging back to the nurture side under a new banner: the usage-based approach to language acquisition. In the usage-based approach, developed by Michael Tomasello, linguistic structures are learned through intention reading and pattern finding. Ghalebi and Sadighi summarize intention reading as, “…what children must do to determine the goals or intentions of mature speakers when they use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends” (2015). Tomasello, in his article, First Steps Toward a Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition summarizes pattern finding as follows:

When young children have something they want to say, they sometimes have a set expression readily available and so they simply retrieve that expression from their stored linguistic experience. When they have no set expression readily available, they retrieve linguistic schemas and items that they have previously mastered (either in their own production or in their comprehension of other speakers) and then “cut and paste” them together as necessary for the communicative situation at hand. (2001)

Tomasello’s argument provides us with a better understanding of how children acquire language. His theory cuts Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar completely out of the picture and replaces it with a child’s complex cognitive abilities. Tomasello’s continued research arms the nurture argument with modern findings and a very convincing model of language acquisition in children.

The ability to use language to communicate is one of several things that separate us from non-human animals. We have evolved incredibly powerful cerebral cortexes to learn and process language. We have also evolved the ability to create a wide-range of sounds. Children, using the extraordinary powers of their minds are able to subconsciously learn the language of whatever community of speakers they are born into. The recent work of Tomasello have pushed the pendulum of the nature versus nurture debate towards the nurture end of the spectrum. Time will tell if future research in fields such as linguistics, genetics, cognitive neuroscience, or evolutionary psychology pull the pendulum back to the nature side.

References

Berko, Jean. (1958) The child’s learning of English morphology, Word, 14(2-3), 150-177, doi:10.1080/00437956.1958.11659661

Buskell, A. (2016, March 03). What makes humans special? Retrieved December 02, 2017, from http://www.lse.ac.uk/philosophy/blog/2016/03/03/what-makes-humans-special/

Ghalebi, R., & Sadighi, F. (2015). The usage based theory of language acquisition: A review of major issues. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Research, 2(6), 190-195. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download? doi=10.1.1.953.491&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Masterson, K. (2010, August 11). From grunting to gabbing: why humans can talk. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php? storyId=129083762

Rosenberg, T. (2013, April 10). The power of talking to your baby. Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/the-power-of-talking-to-your-baby/

Rowe, B. M., & Levine, D. P. (2015). A concise introduction to linguistics. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Tomasello, M. (2001). First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cognitive Linguistics, 11(1-2). doi:10.1515/cogl.2001.012

Wood, D. (2009, November 10). 30,000 words: Is your child getting enough? Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.education.com/magazine/article/30000_words/

Caring Means Sharing – Resources and Materials for ESL/EFL Teachers

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If, Then… Reading Interventions Menu

Jennifer Jones is a K-12 Reading Specialist and the founder of the blog Hello Literacy. This source is a list of research-based reading interventions to help better meet the instructional needs of struggling readers. I am sharing the If, Then… Reading Interventions Menu because it is an excellent, free resource and I am confident that my others out there are teaching English language learners who also struggle to read. I find this resource valuable because our school does not employ a reading specialist and even if we did it is essential to understand what targeted interventions are at our disposal for addressing specific reading problems.

This resource is arranged in two columns: the first column lists reading challenges and the second column is comprised of a checklist of strategies to try to address that problem. For example, the fifth challenge says, “If a student struggles with accurate oral reading of punctuation, and it affects comprehension.” Suggested interventions include to, “Practice intonation with echo reading: student repeats teacher’s rendition of the passage” and “Reproduce a piece of text, eliminating punctuation; show how punctuation placement affects reading.”

I have found this resource very useful in my classroom. In our school’s pre-k program I have the pleasure of teaching our students to read in a foreign language at the same time they are learning to read in their first language. The reading interventions menu that Ms. Jones’s compiled has really helped me assist my struggling students so they do not fall behind their classmates and help them learn to read with fluency and accuracy.

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Conversation Questions for the ESL/EFL Classrooms

Although it is no longer updated, the Conversation Questions for the ESL/EFL Classroom available from the Internet TESL Journal hosts a variety of topics for teachers to choose from. There are over 200 topics including: Getting to Know Each Other, Gay Community, The Unexplained, and even a list of questions devoted to Pope John Paul II.

The number of questions in each topic varies. Many topics contain several dozen questions each. These are really handy for getting students to talk. Teachers must use discretion as obviously some topics may be inappropriate for your students’ ages, mismatched to their proficiency levels, or considered taboo in their home culture. Lists may contain individual questions that need to be edited to make them age or level appropriate.

I’ve used these lists both with students I tutor and in the classroom. I usually cut and paste the questions and make edits and deletions as needed. Then I print the list and cut the questions into individual strips. These are placed in a hat and students and myself take turns asking and answering questions. With some discretion and minor changes, these topics can be an excellent tool to encourage speaking in your ESL/EFL classroom.

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50 Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

50 Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners is a collection of field-tested, practical strategies for meeting the instructional needs of English language learners. Both Adrienne Herrell and Michael Jordan are professor emeriti at California State University, Fresno. Both are prolific writers of books for teachers, serve as educational consultants for school districts, and have presented at numerous conferences about literacy. The book includes a DVD showing teachers demonstrating some of these teaching strategies in their classrooms.

The book is divided into six main sections: Theoretical Overview, Strategies for Encouraging Active Involvement, Strategies for Language Development, Strategies for Literacy Development, Strategies for Content Instruction, and Technology Strategies for English Learners. Some of the strategies you are already familiar with such as: cloze, story reenactments, learning centers, and repeated readings. This book is an excellent resource for both novice teachers and veteran teachers. I like how the strategies in the book are easy to understand and apply. The one drawback to this book is that most of the strategies are geared towards primary school students. There is little discussion in each strategy for how to effectively use them with other age groups. A lot of the suggestions will require creative changes if implemented in secondary classrooms.

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Oxford Dominoes

Dominoes is a four-level collection of carefully graded readers geared towards upper-elementary to lower-secondary aged students. Each level has over a dozen titles and each title is also available as an e-book or as a MultiROM. The MultiROMs include a dramatized audio recording of the story as well as interactive activities to practice reading and language skills on a PC. This collection includes illustrated classics and modern, original stories. There is no doubt that with the range of titles available teachers can find books to match student interests. The artwork in each title is very appealing for students and they make great additions as either class readers or as titles available for students to read independently. Key vocabulary terms in the text are bolded and include definitions in the margins. The end of each two-to-six page chapter includes a variety of activities to check for understanding including fixing mistakes in sentences regarding the plot, completing sentences with key vocabulary items, and ordering events of the story. The end of each book includes projects that make the text more meaningful and several pages of grammar exercises that use examples that relate to the text.

There’s a lot you can do with these readers. I have one class period each week devoted to them. We typically spend three 40 minute class periods on one chapter. The first class is spent pre-teaching key vocabulary terms from the chapter and presenting questions about the plot for students to look out for. Then, I have students follow along as I play the audio dramatization from the MultiROM. Next, we take turns echo reading the first half of the chapter to help the students become more expressive readers. The second class focuses on the second half of the chapter while the third class focuses primarily on reviewing the chapter and doing the exercises at the end of each chapter. Some supplementary activities that I often use with this series include having the students create chapter summaries using blank comic book pages, creating character bios, or writing what if compositions to allow students to imagine how the story would proceed if a major element of the plot were changed somehow.

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Oxford Read and Discover

Read and Discover is a six-level, non-fiction graded reader series published by Oxford University Press. Each level of Read and Discover is comprised of ten books. The series is geared towards elementary school aged students. Book titles in this series include: Amazing Minibeasts, Machines: Then and Now, Super Structures, Free Time, All About Space, and Festivals Around the World. As you can see from the titles, this series provides expository texts in the content areas of science and social studies. Titles are also available as e-books and downloadable audio files are available. Each title is comprised of an introduction followed by eight chapters, activities pages related to each chapter, project pages, and a picture dictionary.

I like this series because of its vivid photographs and eye-catching artwork. Each chapter presents a topic and is only two pages long so students don’t feel bogged down. With each chapter, there are activity pages at the end of the book. The activities on these pages include filling in blanks, matching, and question and answer. In our school’s third and fourth grade classrooms we devote forty minutes of instructional time per week with this series and do one chapter each session. The students get a good dose of content area vocabulary and opportunities to learn about science and other cultures. Even if you don’t have plans to include this series in your curriculum, these titles make a great addition to classroom bookshelves.

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Oxford Discover

Another review of materials by Oxford University Press. They are really good at what they do so I can’t help myself! Oxford Discover is a six-level series of ESL/EFL English learning materials. Each of the six-levels include a student book, a workbook, a grammar book, a writing and spelling book and an online practice site for students. For teachers, options include a teacher’s edition, assessment CD-ROM, posters, picture cards, and the iTools DVD-ROM which contain digital class resources to be used on an interactive whiteboard.

The Oxford Discover series is aimed towards elementary school students. The topics are appropriate for this age of learners and the artwork and photographs are suitable for this group. I like this series because the readings include locales all around the world and students are introduced to people and characters of several different cultures. The content of the main student book is organized around nine Big Questions. These serve as a theme for the subsequent two units. Each unit starts by introducing vocabulary followed by a pre-reading primer that highlights a reading strategy. This is followed by a two page fictional story or informative article. Next is a page devoted to reading comprehension. The following page of each unit are the Grammar in Use sections. These introduce students to the target grammar focus of the unit with a song.

The workbook has a variety of activities to support the material in the student books. The grammar books expand on each unit’s Grammar in Use section. They start with a short story or dialogue and ask students to underline or circle target words related to the grammar focus. With each page of the unit, the activities in the grammar book become more and more challenging. The Writing and Spelling books in the series have a variety of activities to support student writing by guiding them through the writing process from brainstorming, planning, writing, and editing. My students usually respond very positively to the videos that are on the iTools DVD-ROM for each Big Question. Oxford University Press produced a fantastic and thorough product with the Discover series and it can serve as the foundation to build an English language learning program’s curriculum around.

Measuring Meaning with Dictocomps

A dictocomp is an assessment tool that focus on meaning. To give a dictocomp the teacher must prepare a paragraph or short story containing vocabulary and key sentence structures that the students have already been exposed to. The teacher reads the selection several times at a normal speed. Students do not write until after the teacher has finished reading for the last time. Students try to write the story as they remember it while trying to keep the original meaning and event sequence.

Below is an example of a dictocomp as well as scoring criteria:

Preparing for the Storm

Mr. Huang is the proud owner of a beautiful bed and breakfast across the street from a popular beach in Pingtung County. Last summer, a large typhoon was forming in the Pacific Ocean and heading slowly in his direction. A week before its expected landfall, he made several phone calls to families who booked his bed and breakfast and cancelled their bookings. One family accepted a refund and two families rescheduled for later that summer. He spent the next few days preparing for the storm. He took in all the patio furniture, he cleared storm drains, and he trimmed the trees on his property. A day before the storm arrived, he closed his storm shutters and locked his doors before he drove to his sister’s apartment in Taichung City.

While at his sister’s apartment, he had fun. He played UNO with his niece and nephew. After the children fell asleep, Mr. Huang played Mahjong with his sister, her husband, and their family friend.

After the typhoon left, Mr. Huang said goodbye to his sister’s family and drove back south to Pingtung County. He was relieved that his bed and breakfast wasn’t damaged. He worked hard his first day back cleaning debris from his property and helping his neighbors.

This dictocomp was designed for a group of fourth grade English language learners at a private language school central Taiwan. This group had been learning English since they were five years old and received eight hours of supplemental English instruction per week. The less-frequently encountered words in this dictocomp were key vocabulary items in two related units in their Oxford Discover 4 textbook that they were completing at the time (Unit 15 – Forces of Nature and Unit 16 -Safety and Supplies). This dictocomp was designed to assess students on key vocabulary and concepts of the two most recent units of their textbook.

The following key concepts were what I felt would be essential in a student summary:

  1. Mr. Huang owns a bed and breakfast [across the street from a beach] [in Pingtung county].
  2. A large typhoon formed [last summer].
  3. Mr. Huang cancelled bookings [one family accepted a refund] [two families rescheduled for a later date].
  4. Mr. Huang prepared for the storm [took in patio furniture] [cleared storm drains] [trimmed trees].
  5. He [closed the storm shutters] [locked the doors] drove to his sister’s apartment [in Taichung City].
  6. At his sister’s house he had fun. [played Uno (with his niece and nephew)] [played Mahjong (with his sister, her husband, and their family friend)].
  7. After the typhoon left, he [said goodbye to his sister’s family] drove back to Pingtung County.
  8. The bed and breakfast wasn’t damaged.
  9. He worked hard his first day back [cleaning debris] [helping neighbors].

Since this group of students had no experience with dictocomps, I used this as a learning experience and recording grades simply as a means of measuring improvement the next time we used a dictocomp. The information in the brackets are additional information about each key concept. Students received full points if they included all nine of the key elements in their summary. Information from any of the brackets were used for make up points for each key concept a student missed in his or her summary. For example, if a student included 7 out of 9 key concepts (missing concept #3 and #7) but included information from two of the bracketed material he or she would have received full points.