Example 22

Summary of aims and material

The computer-based language learning material that constitutes the core of this assignment are four vocabulary exercises that are meant to prepare students for a subsequent story-writing task. The exercises were designed with adult beginner/lower-intermediate EFL students in mind in a grammar class where writing for an extended period is a common exercise to practice grammar “in use”. The four prewriting exercises, as well as the follow-up writing task, will be done in class. While the vocabulary exercises will require pair work, the writing itself will be done individually. The pedagogical ideas on which this string of exercises is based are three-fold. First, by drawing students’ attention to vocabulary items on a word-, phrase- and sentence level, their writing will show improvement both in lexis and syntax. Second, peer collaboration in the preparation stage will result in better output in the production stage. Third, I believe that the video clip that I chose as the source material is appropriate for the composition task that students will have to complete. To view the prewriting exercises and the instructions for the ensuing writing task, please visit http://www.students.ncl.ac.uk/i.barthos/page13.html and follow the links.

1. My CALL material

.. The CALL material I created for this assignment is the result of working with Hot Potatoes and Dreamweaver.

The goal of the four Hot Potatoes 6 exercises is to prepare beginner/low-intermediate EFL students for a story-writing practice in class. The exercises introduce students to vocabulary items that could be incorporated in their writings. To increase comprehensible output and create optimal opportunities for learning, students will work in pairs and the teacher will assume the role of a facilitator. Once the students do all four prewriting exercises on the computer, they will be directed to an instruction page which they can use as a referential point if needed. The writing exercise that ensues, however, will be done individually in the traditional “paper-and-pencil” way.

The inspiration for these prewriting exercises came from my own teaching practice. Amongst the different language skill areas, I also used to teach beginner EFL grammar classes to adult learners. In my grammar classes I tried to teach grammar “in use”; therefore, writing for a 15-minute period was often part of my lesson. Amongst the prompts I used in order to arouse my students’ interest and motivate them to write were short, and funny, silent animations found on YouTube (a collection of such animations can be viewed at http://www.students.ncl.ac.uk/i.barthos/page6a.html by clicking on the appropriate link; for best viewing, please refrain from using Firefox as your browser). The instructions were simple: “Tell the story in your own words. In your writing pay attention to the use of verbs. Try to use different verbs. Use the present simple tense. Try not to start every sentence with “he” or “she”.” While the students were busy writing, I reminded the class of the instructions every now and then. Upon correcting my students’ writing, however, I always felt somewhat unsatisfied with their work because I felt that their choice of words and sentence structures were repetitive, and they kept their writing relatively safe and simple for using the occasional ‘third person ‘s’’. I believed that their writing would improve both in syntax and lexis if I introduced some vocabulary work prior to writing. As a quick adjustment to my practice, I presented some vocabulary on Powerpoint slides that stayed visible during the writing task, so students could pick and choose words from the list. Nevertheless, since this did not require any active engagement with the words prior to writing, the quality of their composition showed little improvement. The four computer-based prewriting exercises aim to address this issue and to provide students with challenging engagement with the target vocabulary. 

The exercises utilize five of the six applications of Hot Potatoes 6: JQuiz, JCloze, JMix, The Masher, and JMatch. As the students progress from exercise to exercise, so does the complexity of the vocabulary they are being introduced to: from simple word units they move on to descriptive verb-adverb combinations, descriptive noun phrases and finally complex sentences.

Three of the exercises have an embedded short segment of the original animation that originates from YouTube (http://youtu.be/wvsw63bZ0jQ). By presenting the animated short film in even shorter segments and assigning a new vocabulary exercise to each part, I try to ensure that the students’ attention stays focused. This in turn will hopefully result in the expected outcome: production of a better quality written work that shows improvement in syntax and lexis.

2. The pedagogical rationale behind the exercises

2A. Vocabulary work to improve writing

The effect of vocabulary on the quality of writing has been pointed out by many in the literature. Lee’s (2003) study of intermediate ESL learners provides empirical evidence that students’ writings which follow explicit vocabulary instruction are better than pre-instruction writings because of enriched vocabulary content and improved sentence grammar. Therefore, he advocates explicit vocabulary instructions prior to writing, just like Laufner (1994, cited in Lee 2003) and Muncie (2002) did before him.  However, my prewriting exercises do not just simply aim at introducing students to some vocabulary. The choice of words is guided by aiming for lexical variation, which is one of the determiners for writing quality (Laufner and Nation, 1995). A more careful look at the vocabulary exercises reveals that they draw students’ attention to a variety of lexical items: verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions. The fact that my vocabulary exercises also include multiword phrases and complex sentences resonates with the notion of viewing vocabulary “not as single words but as phrases, sentences, and sometimes entire segments of discourse that act as single words” (Nattinger, 1985). This view would take off in later years and become central to “collocational research” (Coady, 1997) that emphasizes the importance lexical units in vocabulary instruction. It is important to mention that the words elicited in my vocabulary exercises are not necessarily new to students. They might be part of students’ passive/receptive vocabulary. The goal is to transform passive/receptive vocabulary into active/productive vocabulary. Laufner (1998) and Lee (2003) suggest using immediate production tasks that entice students into using passive and newly learnt vocabulary. The writing exercise that my four prewriting activities will culminate in is meant to provide this opportunity.