Thursday, December 17, 2009
The Chronicle of Higher Ed. reported yesterday on new research suggesting that matching one's teaching style to students' learning style doesn't help them learn better. Most, if not all of us who teach, have been told about the importance of recognizing that our students have different learning styles (i.e. visual, kinestic, aural, etc.) and the importance of the teacher adopting congruent teaching techniques in order to reach all of our students. And I'm also guessing that just about everyone, including myself, has taken that advice at face value because it seems so self-evident there was never a reason to question it.
But now some researchers have published a paper suggesting that although each of us has a different learning style, there is no empirical evidence to support the assumption that students learn best when their teacher tries to match those individual styles. As expected, the paper has drawn critics who argue that the researchers have missed, or failed to take into account, several important papers on the importance of matching teaching style to learning style. Among them is
Extensive reading: why it is good for our students… and for us. | Teaching English | British Council | BBC
What is Extensive Reading (ER)?
Extensive Reading is often referred to but it is worth checking on what it actually involves. Richard Day has provided a list of key characteristics of ER (Day 2002). This is complemented by Philip Prowse (2002). Maley (2008) deals with ER comprehensively. The following is a digest of the two lists of factors or principles for successful ER:
- Students read a lot and read often.
- There is a wide variety of text types and topics to choose from.
- The texts are not just interesting: they are engaging/ compelling.
- Students choose what to read.
- Reading purposes focus on: pleasure, information and general understanding.
- Reading is its own reward.
- There are no tests, no exercises, no questions and no dictionaries.
- Materials are within the language competence of the students.
- Reading is individual, and silent.
- Speed is faster, not deliberate and slow.
- The teacher explains the goals and procedures clearly, then monitors and guides the students.
- The teacher is a role model…a reader, who participates along with the students.
The model is very much like that for L1 reading proposed by Atwell (2006). It has been variously described as Free Voluntary Reading (FEVER), Uninterrupted Silent Reading (USR), Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), or Positive Outcomes While Enjoying Reading (POWER).
So what are the benefits of ER?
Both common sense observation and copious research evidence bear out the many benefits which come from ER (Waring 2000, 2006). There are useful summaries of the evidence in Day and Bamford (1998: 32-39) and The Special Issue of The Language Teacher (1997) including articles by Paul Nation and others, and passionate advocacy in Krashen’s The Power of Reading. (2004). The journals Reading in a Foreign Language and the International Journal of Foreign Language Learning are also good sources of research studies supporting ER. (see references for websites) And there is the indispensable annotated bibliography, http://www.extensivereading.net/er/biblio2.html
So what does it all add up to? Read the article and find out. How does ER relate to computers or writing?
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
... and the next installment...
Why I Put Core Knowledge in the Bottom Left via Tuttle SVC by email@example.com (Tom Hoffman) on 12/14/09
E.D. Hirsch, from the Core Knowledge website:
Apologists for the current state of public schools continue to blame the persistent achievement gap between ethnic and racial groups on social conditions or on shortcomings in the innate abilities of some groups. But the proof that such social and psychological determinism is false is the fact that the achievement gap between social and racial groups has been greatly reduced in France and other democracies. If social or IQ determinism were true, then the educational success of those nations would be impossible. It is no accident that progressivism never took hold in nations which have greatly narrowed the test-score gap between groups. By criticizing progressivism, I don't of course criticize its emphasis on humane, lively, and imaginative teaching. That has been a hallmark of good education in all times and places. I mean only to criticize its all-too-successful attack on traditional academic subject matter as being boring, useless, and even soul-deadening.See discussion...
Let me remind you of the founding idea of democratic education as it was envisaged after the great democratic revolutions in Europe and America first by thinkers like Jefferson, then by Horace Mann and W.E.B. Du Bois. They wanted the focus of the schools to be on strong content in history, science, mathematics, and the arts. Those subjects were to form the common content which everyone learned. Commonality of content was the essence of the so-called "common school." The idea was that schooling should enable every person to stand on his or her own two feet, equal to every other person of similar talent and virtue, rather than, as in the past, having one's role in life determined by the status, wealth, or education of one's parents. This democratic ideal was shared by all the great founders of democratic education everywhere in the world. The common school was to be a place where children of all races and conditions would be offered the same opportunity to amplify their talents. How far short of this ideal our schools have fallen in the 20th century is highlighted by the degree to which other democracies have lived up so much better than we have to this egalitarian ideal.
They have achieved this by two basic policies that are directly opposed to the principles of progressive education — first, they have determined that the emphasis of schooling should fall on the academic curriculum, not on slogans about growth, critical thinking, and individually tailored study plans — and second, that all children should share a core of common intellectual capital. The most acute thinkers about democratic education, including Jefferson, Horace Mann, and Du Bois, believed that it is not intelligence that increases knowledge but knowledge that increases intelligence. Du Bois, who was himself the product of the New England common school, would have scorned the sentimental absurdity that each child must have his or her own special curriculum suited to his or her special personality. (emphasis added)
Sent to you by Vanessa via Google Reader:
Speed-reading might be useful for commercial documents, but when it comes to serious writing, it blurs out all the really interesting stuff
The celebrated academic Harold Bloom is a lightning fast reader; blink and he's probably turned the page – twice. In his prime he could churn through 1,000 pages an hour, which means he could have digested Jane Eyre during his lunch break and still had time to chew through half of Ulysses before returning to classes. I don't know about you, but that makes me feel like a slow, slack-jawed simian struggling in the frontal-lobe department.
The average reader snails through prose at a rate of about 250-300 words per minute, which roughly equates to about one page per minute. Bloom is surely cut from a rare cloth of reading comprehension because he whips through more than 16 pages per minute and still remembers almost everything he reads. For the rest of us, it's not so easy. In the World Championship Speed Reading Competition the top contestants typically read around 1,000 to 2,000 words per minute, but only manage about 50% comprehension. That's just not good enough for literature. What's the point if you're reading, say, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, with its panoply of characters, and you only understand only 50% of the text? You wouldn't be able to understand anything much at all.
Do people really attempt to speed read literature? If so, why? I guess, most simply, it is so a person can boast about how much they've read – or how often. Andrew Marr claims to have read War and Peace "at least" 15 times. Not 12 or 13, but 15. I read this and thought, well, if you took out all the passages he's skimmed over, he's probably only read it 10. Even so, it is a remarkable achievement. I found it difficult to concentrate on certain passages of War and Peace the first (and only) time I read it. I can't imagine reading over those same passages 15 times and paying attention.
Most speed reading courses teach people to read the words off the page without imagining the corresponding sounds in their minds (called subvocalisation). Skim reading is slightly different; it teaches people to read the keywords in a sentence and ignore all the smaller words, creating some kind of semantic register in shorthand. Anyone who has read that other Tolstoy tome, Anna Karenina, has probably been tempted to skim read certain passages, such as Levin's theories of Russian agrarianism. I know I was tempted, quite recently, but in my efforts to pick up the reading pace I found my attention was divided: part of my mind was thinking about Levin's thoughts and actions, as described on the page, but an equal part of my mind was devoted to the novel process of speed/skim reading. What are the keywords? I wondered. Sometimes my mind was entirely distracted by this question, and while debating which half of a subjunctive conditional I could ignore while retaining the sense of the clause, I would speed read two or three more paragraphs without taking anything in.
There is something quite unseemly about the notion of skimming over the literary canon. In some inverted, abstract sense it reminds me of liposuction: you're putting on intellectual weight without acquiring the mental health benefits, and there's always a downside to cutting corners.
Did the world's great novelists really spend years agonising over the pitch and rhythm of their sentences so some time-efficient post-modern reader could skim over the text like a political spin doctor searching for soundbites in the transcript of a ministerial speech? I don't think so. Speed reading might be an effective tool for office documents, textbooks, and letters of unrequited love, but the prose of great literature should be savoured, should it not? Part of the joy of reading comes from "hearing" our psychic palates pronouncing the words in the mind's ear; the imagined speech, "richly flavoured like a nut or an apple".
Compare this classic Dickensian opening line with the skimmed version that follows, and ask yourself, is it really worth tearing through great prose like Gordon Gecko tearing through the assets of a newly acquired company?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Best times/worst times, age wisdom/foolishness, epoch belief/incredulity, season Light/Darkness, spring hope, winter despair.
Charles Dickens, the skimmed version.
Notwithstanding the aesthetic pleasure derived from reading, how well can one appreciate the nuances of character and circumstance in a novel if one is reading 10 pages per minutes sans Bloomian comprehension skills? I'm not convinced that the average person can ever learn to read at speed and contemplate at leisure. Speed reading is a bit like trying to appreciate the sights of Paris while racing through the streets at 200 kmph.
I know this is the era in which we measure internet connection speeds in fractions of seconds and thumb SMS sentiments like "gr8 2 c u", I know this is the era of speed-living and 20-20 cricket, but I'm not convinced that we should adapt our reading habits to fit in with the speed of modern life. Rather, reading should be seen as a pleasure where time is forgotten, if only for a moment.
Things you can do from here:
Monday, December 14, 2009
Sent to you by Vanessa via Google Reader:
This is pretty much the universe as I see it. The upper left needs a better name or representative organization. I considered "no excuses" but I don't think that's quite it.
One thing about this graph is that each quadrant tends to be ambivalent toward the ones they share a border with and save their attacks for the ones diagonally across from them. Also the top tends to ignore or try to avoid fights with the bottom.
Things you can do from here:
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Writing samples (in form of short essay length application letters) are coming in... slowly as is their wont. Neither NS nor NNS corner the marker on writing reluctance. Reminder: design a series of short writing assignments (narrative, descriptive, process, before kicking into high gear.
Housekeeping: Google group set up; Wiki under consideration; individual students answered personally; course plan in rough draft; resources being collected and organized; design assignments for weeks 1-3; set up synchronous office hours in chat; update David and ask for changes in StudyCom listings.
"More About This Class" letter sent ~ not a Welcome letter. Odds are a number of recipients won't make it into the class because they did not expect to have to write more than a short, unedited paragraph from time to time and won't write the longer application letter.
and now about the "other" ... it's like this ~ I went to EFI Beginner mailbox to collect address and write applicants sorry not doing this anymore" message but had second thoughts. Why not start another self-paced study group? Learning from and improving on the last one ~ though still gormless of me not to have saved the files.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
understand how the mind makes sense of written language
By Stanislas Dehaene, Scientific American, November 17, 2009
Stanislas Dehaene holds the chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology at
the Collège de France, and he is also the director of the INSERM-CEA
Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit (http://www.unicog.org) at NeuroSpin, France's
most advanced neuroimaging research center. He is best known for his
research into the brain basis of numbers, popularized in his book, "The
Number Sense." In his new book, "Reading in the Brain," he describes his
quest to understand an astounding feat that most of us take for granted:
translating marks on a page (or a screen) into language. He answered
questions recently from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
COOK: How did you become interested in the neuroscience of reading?
DEHAENE: One of my long-time interests concerns how the human brain is
changed by education and culture. Learning to read seems to be one of the
more important changes that we impose to our children's brain. The impact
that it has on us is tantalizing. It raises very fundamental issues of how
the brain and culture interact.
As I started to do experimental research in this domain, using the different
tools at my disposal (from behavior to patients, fMRI, event-related
potentials, and even intracranial electrodes), I was struck that we always
found the same areas involved in the reading process. I began to wonder how
it was even possible that our brain could adapt to reading, given it
obviously never evolved for that purpose. The search for an answer resulted
in this book. And, in the end, reading forces us to propose a very different
view of the relationship between culture and the brain.
COOK: What is this "new relationship"?
DEHAENE: A classical, although often implicit, view in social science is
that the human brain, unlike that of other animals, is a learning machine
which can adapt to essentially any novel cultural task, however complex. We
humans would be liberated from our past instincts and free to invent
entirely new cultural forms.
What I am proposing is that the human brain is a much more constrained organ
than we think, and that it places strong limits on the range of possible
cultural forms. Essentially, the brain did not evolve for culture, but
culture evolved to be learnable by the brain. Through its cultural
inventions, humanity constantly searched for specific niches in the brain,
wherever there is a space of plasticity that can be exploited to "recycle" a
brain area and put it to a novel use. Reading, mathematics, tool use, music,
religious systems -- all might be viewed as instances of cortical recycling.
Of course, this view of culture as a constrained "lego" game isn't that
novel. It is deeply related to the structuralist view of anthropology, as
exemplified by Claude Levi-Strauss and Dan Sperber. What I am proposing is
that the universal structures that recur across cultures are, in fact,
ultimately traceable to specific brain systems.
In the case of reading, the shapes of our writing systems have evolved
towards a progressive simplification while remaining compatible with the
visual coding scheme that is present in all primate brains. A fascinating
discovery, made by the American researcher Marc Changizi, is that all of the
world's writing systems use the same set of basic shapes, and that these
shapes are already a part of the visual system in all primates, because they
are also useful for coding natural visual scenes. The monkey brain already
contains neurons that preferentially respond to an "alphabet" of shapes
including T, L, Y. We merely "recycle" these shapes (and the corresponding
part of cortex) and turn them into a cultural code for language.
COOK: In the book, you describe a part of the brain as the "letterbox." Can
you please explain what you mean by that?
DEHAENE: This is the name I have given to a brain region that systematically
responds whenever we read words. It is in the left hemisphere, on the
inferior face, and belongs to the visual region that helps us recognize our
environment. This particular region specializes in written characters and
words. What is fascinating is that it is at the same location in all of us -
whether we read Chinese, Hebrew or English, whether we've learned with
whole-language or phonics methods, a single brain region seems to take on
the function of recognizing the visual word.
COOK: But reading is a relatively recent invention, so what was the
"letterbox" doing before we had written language?
DEHAENE: An excellent question - we don't really know. The whole region in
which this area is inserted is involved in invariant visual recognition - it
helps us recognize objects, faces and scenes, regardless of the particular
viewpoint, lighting, and other superficial variations.
We are starting to do brain-imaging experiments in illiterates, and we find
that this region, before it responds to words, has a preference for pictures
of objects and faces. We are also finding that this region is especially
attuned to small features present in the contours of natural shapes, such as
the "Y" shape in the branches of trees. My hypothesis is our letters emerged
from a recycling of those shapes at the cultural level.
The brain didn't have enough time to evolve "for" reading - so writing
systems evolved "for" the brain!
COOK: How might our brains abilities, and limits, shape other human
activities, like, say mathematics?
DEHAENE: I dedicated a whole book, "The Number Sense," to our native
intuitions of numbers and how they shape our mathematics. Basically, we
inherit from our evolution only a rudimentary sense of number. We share it
with other animals, and even infants possess it already in the first few
months of life. However, it is only approximate and non-symbolic - it does
not allow us to precisely distinguish 13 from 14 objects.
Nevertheless, it gave humanity the concept of number, and we then learned to
extend it with cultural symbols such as digits and count words, thus
achieving a more precise way of doing arithmetic.
We can still find traces of this evolutionarily old system whenever we
approximate, sometimes quite irrationally - for instance when we let go of
one thousand dollars on an apartment sale (because it seems a small
percentage of the total) while bargaining hard to obtain a carpet at 40
instead of 50 dollars!
Higher mathematics must be constrained in a similar manner by our
evolutionary toolkit. Complex numbers, for instance, were deemed "imaginary"
and impossible to understand until a mathematician found that they could be
described intuitively as a plane - an easy-to-grasp concept for the brain.
COOK: What does this research tell us about how reading should be taught?
And does it tell us anything, more generally, about how best to educate?
DEHAENE: Both of my books, "The Number Sense" and "Reading in the Brain,"
point to the fact that young children are more competent than we think.
Learning is not "the furnishing of the mind's white paper," as John Locke
said. Even for an activity as novel as reading, we do not learn from
scratch, but by minimally changing our existing brain circuits, capitalizing
on their pre-existing structure. Thus, teachers and teaching methods should
pay more attention to the existing structure of the child's mind and brain.
In the case of reading, very concretely, as I explain in the book, we now
have plenty of evidence that the whole-language approach has nothing to do
with how our visual system recognizes written words - our brain never relies
on the overall contours of words, rather it decomposes all of its letters
and graphemes in parallel, subliminally and at a high speed, thus giving us
an illusion of whole-word reading. Experiments even suggest that the
whole-language method may orient learning towards the wrong brain region,
symmetrical to the visual word form area in the right hemisphere! We need to
inform our teaching with the best brain science - and we also need to
develop evidence-based education research, using classroom experiments to
verify that our deductions about teaching methods actually work in practice.
Theory, experiments on brain circuitry for reading, and education research
all currently point to the superiority of grapheme-phoneme teaching methods.
COOK: What is happening in the brain of a dyslexic? Are they reading
differently, or just more slowly?
DEHAENE: The dyslexic brain shows disorganized circuitry in the left
temporal lobe. In the majority of dyslexic children, the phonological
circuitry of the left hemisphere seems subtly disorganized, and this seems
to cause a failure to learn to properly interconnect visual letter
recognition with speech sounds. As a result, their visual word-form area
does not develop fully, or not at the normal speed, and they continue to
read serially, letter by letter or chunk by chunk, at an age where parallel
reading is well established in normal readers.
We should never forget, however, that there is a great heterogeneity in
dyslexia - so some children probably suffer from other difficulties, for
instance related to the spatial organization of the word. Some children
appear to mix left and right, or to be unable to focus on the letters
sequentially from left to right without error, and this might be an
additional cause of dyslexia, though somewhat less frequent that the
COOK: And if the brain of a dyslexic is organized differently, does that
suggest that it might have other abilities -- or is dyslexia purely an
DEHAENE: This isn't fully known, but I was intrigued by recent research
which indicates that dyslexic children and adults can be better on tasks of
symmetry detection - they have a greater ability to notice the presence of
symmetrical patterns, and the evidence even suggests that this was helpful
in a group of astrophysicists to detect the symmetrical spectrum of black
My theory is that mirror recognition is one of the functions that we have
to partially "un-learn" when we learn to read - it is a universal feature of
the primate brain that is, unfortunately, inappropriate in our alphabet
where letters p, q, d and b abound. By somehow managing to maintain this
ability, dyslexics might be at some advantage in visual, spatial or even
More generally, we are touching here on the very interesting issue of
whether cultural recycling makes us lose some abilities that were once
useful in our evolution. The brain is a finite system, so although there are
overwhelming benefits of education, there might also be some losses. We are
currently doing experiments with Amazon Indians, in part to test what are
their native abilities and whether, in some domains such as geometry and
spatial navigation, they might not be better than us.
COOK: Having done all this research, to you find yourself reading
differently now, or experiencing it differently?
DEHAENE: Not really - reading has become so automatic as to be
inconspicuous: as an expert reader, you concentrate on the message and no
longer realize the miracles that are worked out by your brain! I am always
in awe, however, when I watch young children decipher their first words -
the pride on their face is a living testimony to the wonders of reading.
Writing the Application or Cover Letter
personal writing and writing the personal statement
3. Individual Goal Setting
Have students set own goals for writing class, discuss assignments, portfolio; decide which writing mode (general writing/personal communication, academic, business, techical, timed essay writing they will focus on)
a) post to discussions about writing goals
b) submit proposal for projects (assignments) for achieving writing goals; use project proposal format
4. Thinking about writing:
Kinds or modes of writing based on purpose: informative, persuasive, expressive, personal, private. Which do you use and when? How does purpose affect style and organization?
a) start a writing or learning reflection journal to write about writing
b) post to Discussions on individual learning styles, application to writing, and how students feel about writing
Writing assignment/ prompt:
Describe how you feel about writing. Do you enjoy or dread writing? Did a particular incident, experience or situation influence the way you feel about writing?
5. Writing Areas
- General writing and personal communication
- Academic Writing
- Business Writing
- Technical Writing
- Writing Timed Essays: essay questions in exams and standardized tests that will be machine scored, TOEFL and IELTS prep
6. Voice and audience
7. Topics - Parts of the Process
- Support (filling in the canvas): specific examples, facts/data, anecdotes, descriptions, concrete details, citations from sources
8. Stages of the Writing Process:
- Revision: Writing Groups and Peer Review
- Revision: Universal level for content and organization
9. Rhetorical Models: Organization models or types of essays / straight and mixed
- Process Analysis
- Compare / Contrast
- Politics and the English Language, George Orwell (1946) essay on basic rules for clear writing
- check blogs and online publications for articles (essays) about writing, writing and the internet, etc
- readings on specific topics according to students' interests and writing goals
Sample Writing Assignments
Saturday, December 5, 2009
The excessive workload generated by the assessment of exam papers in large classes and the need to give feedback in time often constitute a rather heavy burden for teachers. The online peer assessment can contribute to reduce this workload and, possibly, to improve learning quality by assigning the assessment task to students. However, this raises the question of validity. In order to study this question, we carried out an experiment of online peer assessment in which 242 students, enrolled in 3 different courses, took part. The results show that peer assessment is equivalent to the assessment carried out by the professor in the case of exams requesting simple calculations, some mathematical reasoning, short algorithms, and short texts referring to the exact science field (computer science and electrical engineering).
Publishers, writers, educators, and others have over the years developed a consensus of what standard English consists of. It includes word choice, word order, punctuation, and spelling.
Standard English is especially helpful when writing because it maintains a fairly uniform standard of communication which can be understood by all speakers and users of English regardless of differences in dialect, pronunciation, and usage. This is why it is sometimes called Standard Written English.
There are a few minor differences between standard usage in England and the United States, but these differences do not significantly affect communication in the English language.
from Common Errors in English Usage ~
What is an error in English?
The concept of language errors is a fuzzy one. I'll leave to linguists the technical definitions. Here we're concerned only with deviations from the standard use of English as judged by sophisticated users such as professional writers, editors, teachers, and literate executives and personnel officers. The aim of this site is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Over the years, I have taught or directed an intermediate class (emphasis on grammar and writing), a reading group, a self paced study group for high beginner to intermediate and, most recently, a beginner class (although one with some intermediate students). This last has morphed into a loose, blog based study/ writing group. Online asynchronous text based (no voice) classes are not well suited to absolute, beginning from scratch beginners unless they are exceptionally motivated.
I let the group lapse ... various reasons, not the least being because I could and it was so informal that doing so was easy. Also, it was time for a change ~ an new course.