Digging a tunnel

I’ve been writing and writing and wondering when it’ll end. It doesn’t, it won’t, but there’s always good reason to pause for thinking, re-reading, and letting go. Just when I thought I was going down the path of one idea (that is, providing an alternative to the deficit discourse on international students), it became apparent that chasing that idea was becoming trite and ultimately, not answering the ‘so what’ question. Lately, I’ve realised that while I’ve spent a considerable amount of effort in pursuing an idea, I have to let it go in favour of a better one.

This whole business of writing and refining your proposal is an exercise in building up stamina, finding new routes, and being persistent in moving forward. A bit like digging a tunnel – you just have to keep on digging until you’ve reached a place where it’s safe to pop your head out into the light!

tunnel

There have been times when I feel shrouded in the darkness but I always try to avoid being isolated in private intellectual thoughts. There may be some romanticised view of the solitary academic producing voluminous work in a corner of a cafe filled with the aroma of coffee (and in real life, I can actually see this in a professor I know!), but I am no lone ranger and find it dangerous to entertain thoughts of solitary confinement.

The journey may be my own, the destination of my choosing, but my travel companions and pit stops make the journey and bring me to my destination. By companions, I certainly mean more than books and the computer. I do mean people – real human beings who complain about bad weather in the same breath as waxing lyrical about Bourdieu. Sometime more weather, sometime more Bourdieu. (By the way, Bourdieu is not a type of wine.) And those seminars scattered around, social things that happen in between or in sheer serendipity, and whatever you do with people all other times.

I’m a full-time doctoral student but I’m also a full-time person interested in meaningful exchanges and changing the world. (Yes, changing the world, one word at a time, one child at a time, one friend at a time.) I will dig many tunnels yet. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.

The Academic Life I Never Imagined

The Academic Life I Never Imagined

The first time I dabbled in a thesis, I was 21 or so. It got off to a shaky start, not helped by the fact I changed my topic mid-way because I had lost passion in the initial topic. And while I was a whole lot more motivated with the newer topic, I had less time, lost focus now and then, and when I finally handed it in, felt I had let myself and my supervisor down. The honours year was disappointing for me and with less than stellar results, I decided to abandon any thoughts of academia, even though I previously thought it was a possibility.

More than 10 years later, after 5 jobs in 4 industries, I finally found myself quite settled in my current position as a lecturer in a polytechnic. I was in my element – interacting with people, particularly young people, teaching and sharing knowledge, and having a part in shaping people’s futures. I also had completed my family and the intense years of child-bearing and nursing were coming to an end. And then I started thinking about doing a Masters. I cannot remember whether it was by instinct or intent (perhaps both), the thought grew stronger and on May 2011, I embarked on the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California.

And so I moved from one intense period to another. Really intense.

The academic experience this time was not just about engaging in ideas with professors and classmates, but juggling work, family and studies at the same time. At times I wished I was singularly focused on studying, especially when it came to completing my Capstone project, a qualitative research paper on language learning and identity. But there was no escaping the multiple responsibilities I had. It meant committing a few hours each evening to study and writing – as soon as the kids went into slumberland, or as soon I could convince them to let Dad or Grandma tuck them into bed while I studied behind a closed study door. It also meant being focused during the precious snatches of time I had. The two years spent on the Master program honed this skill of multitasking, or what I would rather call focused tasking.

I completed my Master of Arts in March 2013 and am proud to say that it was the best academic and intellectual experience I’ve had so far. While I successfully completed my research paper for the program, I considered it unfinished business as I wanted to improve it so that I could have a chance at publishing it in a journal and also present it at a conference. As I learned in a learning theory class, self-efficacy boosts student learning and confidence. What a far cry from my undergraduate ending!

Now more than ever, I see myself as an academic, that is, one who is interested in pursuing the truth of education through the application of research and scholarship. Just to be clear, I have no title that is commonly associated with academics, and neither am I in a position formally related to such work. But the whole experience of doing the Master of Arts in Teaching has opened my eyes to the needs of struggling students, and has rekindled a lost love for scholarship.

I am currently preparing to present my research paper at the 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference. And so the academic thinking, academic writing and of course, focused tasking, continues. The one thing that is missing though, is the sociocultural practice of discussing ideas and collaborating on projects with like-minded folks. That was one of the defining aspects of my Master of Arts experience and I miss it each time I engage in the solitary act of being an academic, which unfortunately has been institutionalized as a typical and highly legitimate way of being.

Solitary or not, I will continue exploring this academic life that I’m growing into.

Stylish Academic Writing – A Book Review

Stylish Academic Writing - A Book Review

 

A tweet by The Thesis Whisperer got me excited about a new book on academic writing, at a time when I was cobbling together analysis for my capstone project. Now as I prepare a manuscript for publication, Helen Sword’s own stylish writing about stylish academic writing provides the much needed inspiration – and challenges – to write clearly and creatively.

Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword

Helen Sword’s own stylish writing about stylish academic writing provides the much needed inspiration – and challenges – to write clearly and creatively.

Her examples of good and bad writing are deftly explained, followed by doses of sound advice and writing tips. I especially like the “Spotlight On Style” callouts which feature stellar examples of academics from a variety of disciplines who work the words to engage the audience. Sword could have well been suggesting a summer reading list for the serious writer.

My dilemma, which she also notes, is that I’m really just a novice academic, hoping for a foot into a journal or conference. Do I dare punctuate my sentences with colorful turn of phrases, only to await sniggers of rejection? And her response is this: muster up courage and don’t be afraid to try new things. Consequential academic work deserves to be written well – to engage, impress and inspire.

With that call to courage, I’m going to try out some of the writing exercises she recommends, and one of them is about making verbs come alive. So with the next bout of academic writing, I shall begin the process of being more stylish.

 

ESL Textbook Review

ESL Textbook Review


Headway Academic Skills 3: Reading, Writing, and Study Skills Student’s Book

Sarah Pilpot and Lesley Curnick

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

headway

Headway Academic Skills 3 aims to equip students in higher education with a comprehensive range of academic skills ranging from vocabulary strategies to essay planning in ten tightly packed units. It is an impressive and ambitious plan but will likely cause the student to be overwhelmed.

Description
The ten units in Headway Academic Skills 3 cover the following topics: education and learning, health and medicine, urban planning, natural resources, international trade, history conservation, modern engineering, the Olympics, describing statistics and trends, and communication and technology. Each unit covers academic skills in four main sections in the following sequence: reading, language for writing, writing and vocabulary development. In three of the units, the topic of research skills is covered as well. At the end of each unit is a review section which brings together the reading and writing skills learned in the unit. The main sections generally follow the presentation, practice and production (PPP) approach (Shehadeh, 2005, p. 14), that is, the presentation of specific language items and/or reading or writing strategies (termed “study skills” in the book) is followed by practice through exercises such as gap fill, spotting language features and completing graphic organizers, and finally the production stage where students use the target language and skills with less guidance. The review section itself serves as an overall production stage where students are expected to reproduce the language items and study skills covered in the unit more independently. The appendix contains a word list of the main vocabulary used, complete with word class and pronunciation. There is a separate Teacher’s Guide which contains tests and additional activities but is not part of this review.

Intended Audience 
According to the book summary, Headway Academic Skills 3 functions as a bridge between general and academic English, and can be used either independently or alongside a general English course. While it does not specify the proficiency level of students, the book will be helpful to both native speakers, as well as advanced ESL students who have just begun university.

Strengths and Weaknesses 
The overall goal of Headway Academic Skills 3 is to equip students in higher education with academic skills such as note-taking and essay-writing, as stated in the book summary. However, since the units are content driven rather than skills driven, there is more breadth than depth in the treatment of academic skills. One exemption is reading skills which are adequately explored in each unit, as well as reinforced across units, highlighting strategies related to external text features (e.g. skimming and scanning for information), as well as internal text features (e.g. text structure and signal words). Other skills like writing and vocabulary development, however, are not as well integrated; the language features and strategies are introduced once in the unit but are hardly mentioned again in other units, thus limiting students’ opportunities for developing those skills. Furthermore, the PPP approach, as stated by Shehadeh (2005), does not allow students to develop both accuracy and fluency in using language items as students tend to either end up focusing primarily on form and not fluency or focus primarily on meaning without incorporating the target language at all (pp. 14-15). Thus the lack of integration of academic skills across units and the weakness of the PPP approach undermine the very purpose of the book.

Apart from its main weakness of not providing integrated and appropriate opportunities for students to fully develop academic skills, the book also features topics which may be too impersonal for young adults to identify with. While the topics represent diverse cultures and are appropriate for a higher education audience, the approach taken does not lead students to be personally interested in the material. Activities revolve around the given reading passages or writing tasks with few opportunities for students to provide their viewpoints or creatively interact with the material provided. This lack of personal interaction is reinforced by the largely similar nature of the tasks such as underlining words and phrases, filling in gaps and matching items with corresponding answers.

Despite its instructional flaws, Headway Academic Skills 3 has several strengths. One of them is the use of near authentic materials such as journal articles, news reports and letter to capture the range of expository writing material a university student would likely to be exposed to. Even though some of the materials were probably re-written with a more appropriate level of grammar and vocabulary, it is more important for the materials to be more easily understood while simulating authenticity than for materials to be presented in its original but less comprehensible form, especially for students who struggle with such texts (Flowerdew & Peacock, 2001, p. 185).

Another strength is that the book can be adapted for use with either native English speakers or ESL students. While ESL students would probably appreciate the straightforward and simplified language used, all students will find it beneficial to learn specific reading and writing strategies. For first language students, teachers can consider using more challenging supplementary reading material for students to practice their academic skills.

Finally, Headway Academic Skills 3 does well in having visually appealing graphics and layout. For example, most of the photos used are clear, colorful and informative. In terms of the layout, the different sections are color-coded for easy reference. In addition, important information like study skills and language rules are highlighted in boxes and placed at the side so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. However, one minor complaint I have about the layout is that there is hardly any white space on each page and the limited spacing between tasks and sections. Thus the reader will find it difficult to focus on the text at first glance.

Conclusion 
Headway Academic Skills 3 succeeds in introducing a comprehensive range of reading and writing skills and strategies but falls short in providing integrated and meaningful practice across the units for students to master the skills. While the brightly colored photos and pages stand out, those elements will not be sufficient to engage students. Teachers who choose to use the book may make up for the lack of depth in the coverage of academic skills by being selective about which language items and strategies to focus on. Alternatively, teachers may design their own lessons and use the book’s activities as supplementary material. Either way, teachers should not overlook what is useful in the book for their purposes in teaching academic skills.

References 

Flowerdew, J., Peacock, M. (2001). The EAP curriculum: Issues, methods, and challenges. In J. Flowerdew M. Peacock (Eds.), Research perspectives on English for academic purposes (pp. 177-194). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Philpot, S. & Curnick, L. (2011). Headway academic skills 3: Reading, writing, and study skills student’s book. In L. Soars & J. Soars (Series Eds.), Headway academic skills. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Shehadeh, A. (2005). Task-based language learning and teaching: Theories and applications. In C. Edwards J. Willis (Eds.), Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching (pp. 13-30). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

I present my ideological stance in content area instruction by first providing background information about the students and their goals and challenges regarding attaining proficiency in academic literacy practices. I then briefly summarize my ideological stance regarding teaching students in content area instruction, followed by describing three pedagogical approaches to integrate academic literacy into my instruction so as to provide equity and access for all students to succeed in content understanding.

Background of students

 The classes I teach at the polytechnic (or technical college) in Singapore are heterogeneous – students have wide ranging abilities in academic reading and writing, as well as come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the majority of the students can be said to be passive learners. Asian students have been brought up on a diet of passive reception of information and knowledge, thus many students tend to be quiet in class, not responding actively to teachers’ questions or whole class activities because they are not confident of their ability to do so and would rather wait for the teacher to provide the answers.

Goal: Academic Literacy

Students need to master academic literacy (i.e., academic reading and writing skills) in order to be successful in school. Such skills are important not only to understand content across different subjects, but also to do well in assessments. Furthermore, as many polytechnic students continue to further their studies at the university, mastering academic literacy is important for their educational goals. Gee (2012) defines literacy as a “[m]astery of a secondary Discourse” (p. 173), thus academic literacy of reading and writing entails mastering “distinctive ways of … writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and various objects, tools and technologies[.]” (p. 152). Gee argues that the mastery of a Discourse requires both acquisition through an exposure through models and learning through having meta-knowledge about the Discourse (p. 174). Thus students should not only be successful at academic skills and assimilating its accompanying actions and attitudes, they should also be aware of how they become successful in such a Discourse (p. 175), thus facilitating their cognitive development.

Challenge: Coercive Power Relations

In terms of the teachers’ attitudes toward students’ English language proficiency levels, students whose English language standardized test scores are high are expected to excel at academic reading and writing, while students who have low scores are unquestionably assumed to continue to struggle with academic reading and writing and will have little hope of making any improvements. Furthermore, students’ use of colloquial speech – their primary Discourse, to use Gee’s (2012) terms – in class is frowned upon and is seen as a reflection of their lack of academic abilities.  Thus students’ past test scores and their functioning in their primary Discourse have a deterministic effect on teachers’ expectations of students’ future performance. This reveals the coercive power relations between teachers and students where teachers indirectly prepare students to accept the status quo regarding their academic abilities (Cummins, 2003, p. 25).

 

My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

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My Ideological Stance in a Nutshell

My position is that students need to be weaned off passive learning and engage in active learning because the complex nature of their content area (e.g. business and marketing subjects), as well as the demands of higher education and the workplace in a rapidly evolving social and economic environment. In addition, in order to promote mastery of the discourse of academic skills, teaching must be lead to both acquisition and learning of the discourse. Furthermore, students need to be empowered to master academic skills so that they can succeed in school, regardless of their existing English language proficiency and the beliefs that they themselves or others have about their ability.

Pedagogical Approach 1: Cooperative Learning

I choose cooperative learning to encourage positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and simultaneous interaction – the four basic principles of the cooperative learning approach (Kagan, 1998, p. 108) – to foster the development of active learning, academic skills and content understanding.

Sociocultural learning theory informs this approach as an important premise of cooperative learning is the social nature of the activities. Complex mental processes begin as social activities and evolve into internal mental activities which students can use independently in the future (Ormrod, 2011, p. 40). Thus cooperative learning influences the cognitive development of students. Furthermore, the use of pair and group work in cooperative learning allows a student’s learning to be scaffolded by more capable peers who offer assistance or co-constructed together with fellow similar ability peers (p. 45). In this way, the use of scaffolding in pair and group work promotes equity and access among the heterogeneous classes that I encounter.

Pedagogical Approach 2: Modeling

According to Gee (2012), “[t]eaching that leads to acquisition means to apprentice students in a master-apprentice relationship” (p. 175) through exposure to models “in natural, meaningful, and functional settings” (p. 174). In practice, this means using content-based instruction where the teaching of academic skills is done through “exposure to content that is interesting and relevant to learners” (Brinton, 2003, p. 201). For successful modeling of academic skills to take place, the selection of content should extend over several weeks. (p. 201). Furthermore, the modeling of academic skills is optimally effective when I am able to demonstrate “not only how to do a task but also how to think about the task” (Ormrod, 2011, p. 330). Such cognitive modeling can be achieved through think-alouds where I make my thinking explicit by verbalizing my thoughts while completing a task (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2011, p. 197), for example, when planning a persuasive essay. Furthermore, according to social cognitive theory, modeling not only teaches students new behaviors and skills, it also boosts their self-confidence (Ormrod, 2011, p. 334).

Pedagogical Approach 3: Using Primary Discourse

I use students’ primary Discourse as a vehicle to mediate their learning of a secondary Discourse. A person’s primary Discourse is acquired as a result of family socialization (Gee, 2012) and for many students, their primary Discourse includes oral literacy in non-standard colloquial speech.

Students’ oral literacy, however informal and deemed unacceptable, is the carrier for their personal perspectives that needs to addressed before teachers can move on less familiar literacies of reading and writing (Kern & Schultz, 2005, p. 384). By narrowly defining academic literacy as a “strict adherence to standard forms and conventions” (p. 389), students who do not meet the standards are viewed as deficient. However, by expanding the notion of literacy through linking students’ primary Discourse to the secondary Discourse of academic skills, I explore and validate how students communicate with the resources that they have, thus empowering all students, especially the low achievers. For example, encouraging students to use informal language to talk or write about their reactions to a reading passage is a way to address their unique or even culturally-specific ways of thinking. By validating their worldview, I motivate them to connect with the academic ways of thinking that I seek to teach (Delpit, 2002, p. 45).

Conclusion

Ultimately, using the three pedagogical approaches of cooperative learning, modeling and using students’ primary Discourse help to combat the coercive power relations that exist between teachers and students. I must first be conscious of such power relations, then explore more collaborative relations of power of interacting with students so as to negotiate the “acquisition of knowledge and formation of identity” (Cummins, 2003, p. 19). In other words, I must be conscious of affirming my students’ sense of identity by allowing them to be confident participants during lessons, as well as in all other interactions with me (p. 19). As Delpit (2002) so eloquently concludes, we must “reconnect them to their own brilliance and gain their trust so that they will learn from us” (p. 48).

 

This paper was written for a course in the MAT-TESOL program at USC in March 2012.

References

Brinton, D. M. (2003). Content-based instruction. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English language teaching (pp. 199-224). New York: McGraw Hill.

Cummins, J. (2005). Teaching the language of academic success: A framework for school-based language policies. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (3rd ed., pp. 3-32). Sacramento, CA: LBD Publishers.

Delpit, L. (2002). No kinda sense. In L. Delpit, (Ed.), The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 34-48). NY: The New York Press.

Gee, J. (2012). Discourses and literacies. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (4th ed.) (pp. 147-178). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kagan, S. (1998). New cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and inclusion. In J. W. Putnam and R. W. Slavin (Eds.), Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom (pp. 105-136). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Kern, R. & Schultz, J. M. (2005). Beyond orality: investigating literacy and the literary in second and foreign language instruction. The Modern Language Journal, 89(3), pp. 381-392.

Ormrod, J.E. (2011). Educational psychology: Developing learners (7th ed.). Boston, MA:  Pearson.

Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. L., & Mraz, M. (2011). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

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