by Alison Ramsay
Weaning students from their dictionaries is often a first step toward improving their English. The struggle for comprehension is half won when a student acquires the confidence to read a paragraph straight through despite not knowing all the words. The student may even surprise herself by bursting into conversation with a professor.
"Confidence-building sounds very touchy-feely," said longtime English professor Ritva Seppanen, "but it's very important -- though it's no substitute for learning."
"We suggest they try a kind of reading that doesn't matter for their courses, such as a Reader's Digest article," said Juliet Dunphy, a learning and study skills specialist with Counselling and Development. "They may be scared to take risks in their learning."
"Since they do watch TV," Seppanen said, "I suggest they put on the closed captioning, if they have that capability. Being on the Internet is also good; it's more than just pictures. Writing is not an isolated skill -- you have to see and hear English as well."
Part of a student's difficulty may be cultural. "In North America, we give the reader everything bold and up front," Dunphy said. "To be so bold is considered rude in some cultures. Some teachers are aware of that, and some aren't."
A recent pattern of teaching that focuses on meaning and not grammatical accuracy also causes confusion. "Clarity is paramount," Sepannen said. "Content is important, but it has to be expressed in a coherent fashion."
ESL teacher Marlene Gross said, "We try to help our students understand how ideas are organized and communicated in English, which is often different from their mother tongue." This may involve pointing out what are appropriate ways of supporting an argument. Where students need more help than can be provided in the classroom, tutorials are available.
Basic English courses focus on punctuation, sentence structure, subject and verb agreement, among other basics. Sepannen has students proofread and edit one another's work. Gross often begins by having students discuss the topic. It loosens them up to realize others are at the same level of competence. Also, they inevitably take a position that needs explaining or defending, which trains them to organize their thoughts.
Mary Silas packs some tangible tools when she heads to one of her technical writing classes for computer science and engineering students.
"You make things as authentic as possible," she said. "If they're trying to describe a screwdriver, or a cog, I bring one to class. I'll bring a circular from Canadian Tire with a description of the tool, or a set of instructions on how to assemble something."
Silas shows the students that virtually everything is either a thing or a process. She removes some of the complexity by having students brainstorm, write down all the points of a process, then divide the work to tackle it point by point.
She tests their ability to communicate by having them describe the making of a paper airplane, then takes their instructions home and tries to build it. If she is forced to resort to her own reasoning, the instructions have failed. Students are delighted by the results: green and purple planes flying around the classroom.
By term's end, students are able to describe how a nuclear power plant operates, how water is purified, or how the heating and ventilation system works at Concordia.
She also tells her students to prepare for a job interview by memorizing the necessary information so well ("What are your goals? Your strengths? Your weaknesses?") that their responses are spontaneous. "Some people can think on their feet, and some can't. Preparing yourself is good."