Convention Notes

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Kristin Lems' Homophone Games
Here are some videos that Kristin shared at her scintallating breakout session, "Getting the Joke." 

Session Highlights:  Jessica Williams, Ph.D., Professor Linguistics, University of Illinois at Chicago
by Cathy McCabe, Lecturer, WESL Institute, Western Illinois University and Member at Large ITBE Board
Jessica Williams is a major contributor to our knowledge base in teaching and learning a second language.  She is the author of numerous articles, as well as textbooks, in the SLA field and she demonstrated her wide-ranging experience in her presentation at ITBE’s 2014 Convention.  Here are a few of the points that I jotted down during the presentation:
Jessica began by suggesting that language learners need to have tasks made more accessible.  Using a tennis analogy, Jessica stated that “we need to lower the net” for language learners.  She recommended that instructors deconstruct academic tasks into components.  Just as tennis players learn the separate skills of footwork, strokes, and timing, language learners need academic tasks broken down into sub-tasks.
Jessica emphasized the importance of reading, noting that reading was the most important skill that drives lexical learning.  Reading is used to provide content and context for output activities; reading enables content learning; reading is used to teach language (i.e. text mining, grammar, vocabulary); and students read to improve reading skills.
After stressing the importance of reading, Jessica listed some of the shortcomings that exist in current reading textbooks that hamper learning, including a focus on new form-meaning connections as opposed to long-term learning of lexical items.  An example is the typical list of new vocabulary words for each unit in a text.  Another problem is that most textbooks have limited space, so they often include only short readings.  This is a problem because, in a short reading passage, the percentage of unknown words increases.  For language learners to successfully infer or guess unknown words in context, Jessica pointed out that the ratio of unknown to known lexical items should be 2/100 or 1/100. 
Jessica then went on to offer ways to “lower the net” for language learners.  She suggested easy reading for fluency, extensive reading, using glosses and/or electronic aids, and timed readings with the aim of achieving a 250 wpm goal.  She also suggested that students read on familiar topics as the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to read.  She reasons that students guess the meaning of words for comprehension, but those lexical items are not retained.  Students need multiple exposures of an item for retention.
Jessica offered several web resources.  Although I wasn’t able to get all of what she shared with us, here are a few:
Vocabulary Levels Test (on-line):
Vocabulary Profiler (breaks down text into the most frequent 1000 words, most frequent 1001-2000 words, and the Academic Word List (AWL):
Extensive Reading Foundation (information about graded readers for extensive reading):
Jessica also explained that the AWL (Academic Word List) is becoming superseded by the AVL, the Academic Vocabulary List.  This list is based on COCA or the Corpus of Contemporary English.  I wanted to learn more about the AVL, so I went home and researched it.  Here are two sites that I found related to the AVL:         
Finally, Jessica left us with some advice:
  • Teach vocabulary in non-parallel sets.  For example, don’t teach sweater, blouse, shirt.  Instead, teach sweater, closet, wear.
  • Quit guessing in context.
  • Explicit intentional learning works best--use Quizlet or Brainscape for practice.
  • Ignore low frequency words—they’re exciting and fun, but just “lexical accessorizing” and not as useful for our students
  • Create multiple exposures through meaning focused input!
As an ESL professional, I’m always looking for new ways of thinking about teaching and learning language and confirmation of my own ideas and experiences.  Jessica Williams provided both for me at this presentation.
You can find out more about Jessica Williams and get a list of her publications at:          

“Teaching ESL to Migrant Workers at America’s Racecourses” presented by Marie Friesema & Alan Seaman
by Barb Gomez

Background information on the history and evolution of teaching English to migrant workers at race courses (English for Specific Purposes or ESP) was introduced by Alan Seaman, an Associate Professor at Wheaton College in the language and learning department. After he introduced Marie Friesema and the work she did with her master's thesis, Marie told a very personal and moving story. Her research on this topic came from her experiences of teaching English to migrant workers at Chicago area race tracks. It was a story that touched the heartstrings of everyone in attendance, and it was hard to hold back the tears hearing her description of the life of these migrant workers. The horse racing industry brings in a staggering $144.3 million dollars, with sometimes $5 million to the winner of a 2-minute race! The average worker starts his day at 5 AM and doesn’t end work until 8 PM, which makes it extremely challenging to create a network of classes to teach them English. The workers in Illinois have to live in the backstretches of the race tracks and are not allowed to leave. In one setting that Marie described, there are at least 1500 migrants workers living in dormitory-type housing units. Communication is poor because of their lack of English skills. Workers have a very poor education, and some have had no formal schooling. In order to teach ESL to this very specific population, Marie had to work with very few resources. Because the workers couldn’t leave to attend ESL adult classes, Marie brought the classroom to them in any way that she could, sacrificing a lot of her own money to help with resources and food. Her determination and drive gives hope to many as she continues to advocate for this population, trying to get funding and resources for these ESL classes.


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ITBE Link - Volume 41 Number 4

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