Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pearson test of English Academic to go live

The first new major (or so they hope) test of academic English will be rolled out next month when Pearson introduces the Pearson Test of English Academic (the acronym sounds like you're spitting out something unpleasant). Following on the success of their Versant tests of spoken English, which are entirely computer graded (with the option of in-house human grading), the PTE A will employ computer grading exclusively for all test sections, including the speaking and writing sections. I believe this is the first major test of English to do so.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

If I were popular

A few nights ago, my mother commented how surprised she had been to hear my five-year old daughter say if I were. I'm not sure I've heard it, but I'm not surprised that she would have said it. To my mother it seemed both complex and dated. My manager has also said that teaching TESL over the years there have been fewer and fewer students who say they use this form, and even some who claim never to have heard it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

When singular and plural aren't

My aunt pointed out to me a recent Scientific American article by Marc Hauser (the article link, unfortunately, only takes you to a teaser). Therein he points out that even though we think of the plural form of nouns being used for more than one, this isn't always the case.

We English speakers are somewhat inconsistent in what we decide to mark as plural. Allow me to illustrate: You is plural even when it refers to only one person. One megabit is singular even though it's 1,000,000 bits (or sometimes 1,048,576 bits). One apple is singular, but 1.0 apples is plural. Half an apple is singular, but 0.5 apples is plural. More than one apple is singular. And perhaps most confounding of all, zero apples is plural.

Hauser says this last is "actually ungrammatical" (I think that was the exact wording, though I don't have it in front of me.) Nonsense! It's perfectly grammatical. Just because the grammarians who chose the term plural for this part of our number system suffered from a lack of analysis/imagination, doesn't make the system wrong. Labels are not definitions, and they certainly are not invocations.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Launch

My brother (Michael Eden Reynolds)'s book Slant Room is being launched at Toronto's Ben McNally book store at 366 Bay St. on Tuesday, Oct 6 from 5:00-7:00. Drop by and say hello.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The state of linking verbs

I've recently realized that there is some confusion surrounding two classifications of English verbs: linking verbs vs. non-linking and stative verbs vs. dynamic verbs [see update here]. Last year, I observed a practicing teacher who didn't understand the difference. She had confounded linking verbs and stative verbs leading her to explain to the student that active verbs are modified by adverbs while linking verbs are modified by adjectives. As they went through the exercises, the students were quick to notice where the facts didn't fit her "rule" and it went downhill from there. She tried to dig herself out by appealing to what sounds right and "exceptions". I was just there as a guest, so I smiled and bit my tongue.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Verb vs preposition

"Next week, we're versing the black team." Or so says my son.

I've pointed out to him that most English speakers don't have verse as a verb, but that doesn't seem to deter him. And why should it? His friends all use it that way, and I know exactly what he means; there's no miscommunication.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Free, online tests of English

We occasionally have students show up from abroad expecting to enter a post-secondary program in a month or two only to find out that they are going to have to spend a year in the pre-college English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program. Needless to say, time and money budgets have not been prepared with EAP in mind. Visa's may have to be reworked, waiting jobs and study may have to be put off or lost, and there is a good deal of frustration all around.

All this could be avoided if only applicants were better able gauge their own English proficiency and interpret that against the requirements of the school. As a first step towards realizing this, I've gathered together a number of free online and downloadable tests that vary in their length, accuracy, and feedback. Individually, each can give international students some hint about their level, and, when taken together, are likely to give candidates quite a good picture of their proficiency.

The next step is now to begin to calibrate the tests against our own entrance requirements. It should prove to be an interesting project.

And of course, there is no intention whatsoever to use these for high stakes purposes. They are intended only as a tool to help international students plan their time here before they come over and are seriously disappointed.

I'd like to thank Russell Kent, Jim Purpura, Glen Fulcher, and the other folks from the L-Test mailing list who offered ideas.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When more cash is less cash

"Ottawa, provinces sign bilingual education deal" trumpets the Winnipeg Free Press. OK, maybe trumpets is a bit hyperbolic. What do you think about piccolo as a verb?

Anyhow, "The federal and provincial governments signed a new four-year minority-language education agreement worth more than $1 billion." This is a 1.5% increase over the previous deal. In other words, it's less than half a percent a year, well below the cost of inflation. I suppose they could have cut funds outright...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Teaching without declarative understanding

There are lots of things you do without understanding how you do them. Mostly this is not a problem. But if you are hired to teach others to do whatever it is, you run into a problem. When it comes to teaching writing, it can be a major problem. Art Scheck eloquently expresses the hollow feeling that can result in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It's something I've certainly dealt with. Personally, my approach has been to look to psychology, psycholinguistics and cognitive science for answers. Perhaps hints or notions is more like it, but it's better than having no clue at all.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Language Learner Literature Awards 2009

The 6th annual Language Learner Literature Awards have been announced. Congratulations to the winning authors, editors, and publishers! Congratulations also the Extensive Reading Foundation for running such a worthwhile event.

Young Learners:
Farley the Red Panda
Series editor: Rob Waring
Contributing writer: Sue Leather
Footprint Reading Library; Heinle
ISBN: 9781424011582
Aimed at older children at lower-intermediate level, the text combines narrative and factual information to win sympathy for the fighting spirit of a young animal and admiration for the helping humans.

Adolescent & Adult: Beginner:
Why? by Philip Prowse
Cambridge English Readers
ISBN: 9780521732956
Pioneering. Serious issues are presented in excellent, understandable prose complemented by superb illustrations. It is a good story which has a human dilemma at the heart of it.

Adolescent & Adult: Elementary:
White Fang by Jack London; Retold by Rachel Bladon
Macmillan Readers
ISBN: 978-0-2300-2673-5
A gripping story that is just as gripping in its adaptation. The technical skill of structural and lexical control is first class, and the illustrations support comprehension.

Adolescent & Adult: Intermediate:
Land of My Childhood: Stories from South Asia Retold by Clare West
Oxford Bookworms Library World Stories
ISBN: 9780194792356
These touching, engaging stories open up other worlds while making you think more about your own. Clare West is a master storyteller. Each story she retells is complete without spelling out every detail. As one reader put it, she “gives readers enough imaginary space”. An excellent collection.

Adolescent & Adult: Upper Intermediate & Advanced:
Nelson's Dream by J. M. Newsome
Cambridge English Readers
ISBN: 9780521716048
It is a heart-warming love story set against the heart-wrenching background of the impact of HIV/AIDS. By placing the problem of HIV/AIDS in such a human context, the book encourages its readers to think about and discuss what is arguably this century's greatest challenge.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Stanford Study of Writing

I don't currently teach a writing course, but I did teach a freshman composition course for two semesters and we do teach writing in our EAP program. I'm always looking for solid research about writing and the Stanford Study of Writing appears to be just that.

Paul Rogers' dissertation seeks to identify key variables related to Stanford students' writing development across their four years of college and into their first year post-graduation. Especially interested in testing the hypothesis that two particular variables, audience awareness and rhetorical understanding of sources, are significant in students' writing development, Paul developed an original, 10 point rubric to score a sample of academic writing from 40 study participants. Twenty writing instructors participated in the scoring of a sample of academic writing from 40 study participants, achieving 86.6% inter-rater reliability. Paul also coded the nearly 150 interviews conducted during the five years of the study to gather further understanding of participants' beliefs about what most contributed to their writing development. Preliminary findings indicate:

  • Participants who scored high in rhetorical awareness of audience in their freshman year showed their greatest amount of growth in subsequent years, indicating this variable as statistically significant (p>.0001).
  • Writing development is non-linear; students develop at different paces, sometimes regressing across years, particularly as they are learning the nuances of genre-specific writing within disciplines.
  • Participants reported that conversations about writing with teachers, professors, teaching assistants, and post-doctoral fellows had the greatest impact on their writing development.
  • While positive feedback appears to increase student-writers' confidence, descriptive constructive criticism may be most salient to helping students move their writing forward.
  • Students valued feedback at all stages of the writing process, but especially early on in the process when feedback clarified teacher expectations, and clearly connected to writing and revision processes.