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September 2017 | Nuts & Bolts
Helping Students Use their English Language Skills
By David Byrum
Wouldn’t it be nice if students wanted to practice their English language skills? And that they would do so with clear and thoughtful sentences, using resources to support and present their ideas in an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining manner? Science students need to do this whenever they are writing reports or explaining a problem solution or using their knowledge in some fashion.
My experience (in schools that ranged from low-ESL populations to my last one, which had about 99% ESL) has been that most students, and especially those where English is a second or even third language, do not like to speak in front of their fellow classmates.
All students, no matter their level of English language proficiency, can learn to improve their English language skills (generally classified as: writing, reading, listening and speaking)1. if given interesting and engaging activities and projects to complete throughout the school year. Here are five examples from my chemistry classes that my students found enjoyable and meaningful to do. Perhaps yours will too!
The Assignments and Projects
Anyone past the age of 15 who has struggled to learn a new language knows that practice, practice, practice is the key to gaining some mastery of the language. So if we want our students (whether in chemistry or any other class) to become better at using the English language skills that they learn at home and in school, then they need multiple opportunities to use these skills—and have fun while doing so.
The following assignments and projects have been shown to provide these opportunities when used throughout the school year. Most of these will take students one or two out-of-class days to complete, while the final project will take at least three to four out-of-class weeks to do well. Only the final project is done with a partner; all of the others are individual assignments.
At the end of every quarter, students were given a list of presentations (shown in Table 1) from which they could choose to do one. Generally, they would have two in-class days to complete the assignment, scheduled as part of the corresponding review unit.
|Table 1: Creative Presentation Options|
|Make a poster “advertising” the most interesting information you have learned|
|Select some event or phenomenon you have studied and write a fictional, sometime humorous, almost believable story about it|
|Plan a demonstration suitable for an elementary class to explain an important idea or concept from the units you have studied|
|Create a crossword puzzle (at 12 words across by 12 words down) based on the information you have learned and give copies to each student in class to complete. Turn in these completed puzzles to receive credit for this assignment|
|Select a picture in your text or a science magazine, which deals with an idea or concept from these past units and write a short story about that picture. (To help you get started, you might consider: what might have led up to what you see in the picture? What is happening now? What may happen next?)|
|Create a poem about the subject of your choice from these units.|
|Make a model which illustrates something that you have learned.|
|Make a set of sketches illustrating something of interest to you from these units.|
|Select ten words from these past units and by using these words, write a paragraph, which uses all of the words and makes some sort of sense.|
|Select an idea or concept which interests you and write a short story along the lines of “A Day in the Life of an Atom.”|
|Translate a lab assignment, or a short science article, or one of the instructor's notes, into another language.|
|Write a letter to your fictional “Aunt Gladys” in which you describe and explain one of the topics that you have been studying.|
Students were shown a brief video from which the audio element had been removed, and then given the task of adding their own narration soundtrack. The clip was excerpted from a longer video, so it needed to have a narration that was short and to the point! The students had to have a clear idea of the states of matter and how to explain what was on the screen, and they had to be able to clearly read their narration to me as I came around to each of them in class. They usually had 3–4 out-of-class days, including weekends, to do this assignment.
3. 24/7 Lecture
Among the short assignments, this was the most enjoyable, fun, and challenging to do! I credit the NPR radio show Science Friday, with host Ira Flatow, for the example and excellent idea! Students generally had two weeks (out-of-class days) to formulate and clearly explain a concept in 24 seconds, and then summarize it in exactly seven words. This task required a clear and solid understanding of the concept, with the additional challenge of being able to clearly write, organize, and speak the English words that needed to be said! Great fun!
The Science Friday example explained mass spectrometry; the examples of students’ brief summaries included Le Châtelier’s Principle and Collision Theory.
As teachers, we know that in order to explain a concept to a student, we must have a clear understanding of the topic. Building on that experience, this project had the student create a video to both explain and show how to do a mathematical problem of their choosing from any of the course’s concepts. Because the students were all familiar with the Khan Academy videos, they already knew what needed to be done. They generally had two weeks (out-of-class days) to complete this project.
I found the 24/7 Lecture to be the most enjoyable, fun, and challenging
of the short assignments and projects to do, this animation project
produced the most amazing and creative products! Students were generally
given 3–4 weeks (out-of-class days) to complete this project. After the
projects were completed and submitted, the students watched each of
them in class. It was clear that each group of students had learned a
lot about organizing, scripting, building, and executing their ideas for
the video. And everyone watching had fun, had a good laugh when
appropriate, and appreciated each other’s efforts—including me!
The “Best of Class” project over the eight years that this project was done was the Journey to the Hydrogen Atom, in which the students animated one of themselves behaving as an electron that gains energy to move to a higher orbital to protect the world!
When and why should you encourage students to do projects like these?
to do these projects is easy: whenever they would enhance students’
learning of a concept. Scheduling perhaps one a month is a reasonable
goal. The examples offered here all involved Chemistry, but in reality,
curricula for any subject matter would benefit by including such
Why to do these projects is illustrated by a September 2016 survey of 5,300 employers in 38 countries/territories. That survey found that, for two-thirds of employers, English communication skills are important in their business. In addition, the study found that:
- “in every industry, there is a gap between the English language skills required at work and the English skills that employees have
- around half of all employers offer a better starting package to applicants with good English language skills, which can also lead to faster progression through job grades and higher salary increases (in countries and territories where English is not an official language)”2
In other words, English language skills are crucial in companies around the world, and graduates need to be better prepared to use these skills.
For more than 40 years, Bloom’s Taxonomy
has been used to guide curriculum development and student learning. The
taxonomy shows that moving to higher order thinking requires analyzing,
evaluating, creating, and being able to develop explanations and share
them with fellow students.
To achieve these
expectations, and to improve their job prospects, students need to be
able to use their English language skills—and to do that takes
meaningful and engaging practice!
It is hoped that these assignments and projects have given you some ideas of how to provide these quality practice opportunities so that your students can become more insightful readers, effective communicators, and analytical thinkers. And to have some fun!
My sincere thanks to —
- Dr. John Stiles for his constructive comments and suggestions for improving the manuscript
- The manuscript reviewers for their thoughtful comments and suggestions for improvement
- Graham K. Rogers, a teacher at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand, who sparked the idea to write this article
- From the English Club website, at https://www.englishclub.com/learn-english/language-skills.htm
- Cambridge English’s “English at Work” survey, at http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/why-cambridge-english/english-at-work/