And now it begins — the quest to occupy myself with productive things to do. Writing is one that comes to mind, so here I sit.
I just finished doing some research for a private class I’m giving on writing. My student is a smart and ambitious bio-engineering student whose English skills are better than many Americans I know. This course was his idea, and it has given me a new outlook on my own writing (or lack thereof).
Certainly it has shown me that there is much more to writing that just putting pen to paper. More than having an idea or a belief that you want to share. Writing is an art form that requires you to master both form and subject — to be self-critical as well as self-confident.
Having good resources helps.
Not that long ago, I found a wonderful ESL teaching resource available for free from the New York Times. It is called The Learning Network. It has thousands of ideas for teaching all sorts of things — from using graphs in the classroom to writing contests and lesson plans for teachers. You can’t ask for a better sampling of materials!
Now, more than ever, with students learning remotely, teachers need good sources of information, not the “alternate facts” that are the pablum of so many news outlets.
I am particularly fond of the writing lessons and prompts. Even better, though, is that The NY Times and its contributors also provide expert models for all different writing styles — from reviews to opinion pieces, analytical essays, letters to the editor and articles. Great writing broken down by great writers to give students the tools they need to improve their own critical thinking and writing.
You may think using The NY Times for teaching ESL is a bit ambitious, but I disagree. Whatever your students’ level, there is something that can trigger discussion, debate and thinking. Whether it is a picture or even a comic strip, there is something that everyone can relate to. There are questions that can be asked — what is that animal, how do you say …, I think …, I don’t know …. I’m not sure …. All of these are ways to get involved with learning a language, a jumping off point, a teachable moment. After all, isn’t that what we are trying to do? Find out what we think and feel and learn to express our ideas and feelings to others?
Teaching English is more to me than just grammar and punctuation. The way we use the words — in speech and in writing — is as important as the topic we discuss. Why do we choose the word “taste” over “flavor,” for example? Why is it important to have more than one word to describe being “sad”? It is the nuances of the language that make it rich. And, if you don’t understand why you are using the words you choose, you are missing out on that richness and subtlety.
From the beginning
The very first language lesson most of us learn is how to say “hello.” How many ways can you say it? In English, you might start here: hi, hello, how are you, greetings, welcome, nice to meet you, what’s up, what’s new, what’s the word…. I could go on. Each of these expresses not just a greeting but speaks to the nature of our relationship.
As we progress through the language, we need to understand the form as well as the vocabulary. The reasons we write are complex — to inform, to debate, to argue, to motivate, to express our feelings and opinions, to feel connected. For ESL students, it also helps them practice their vocabulary and grammar in a controlled environment. It can be daunting to start speaking a foreign language. We feel foolish if we make a mistake or use a wrong word. But writing is more private. We are speaking to ourselves in a way, experimenting with the words, playing with how they interact with one another. Our pens and keyboards are an extension of our internal world. And, if we so choose, the trash can is always nearby.