Examples and the Teaching of ESL/EFL

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The Importance of Examples

Our students use the examples that we provide them as a major part of their learning.  They use our examples to understand English, to recall what they have memorized, to review what they are trying to learn, and to provide new vocabulary for them to use in their English communication.  Examples are also sources of information--they can give the students information and insights into whatever topic they cover.  That's right--examples are important to students not just for helping them to understanding abstractions about English syntax but as a source of words and of information that they use in other settings.

Thus, selecting and using examples is one of the most important tasks of an ESL/EFL teacher, especially when teaching English grammar.  But we do not generally put much thought or preparation into the examples that we use in our classes. We tend to make them up on the fly--and to suffer when we use incorrect or inaccurate ones and not to realize the huge impact good examples can make in the lives of our students.

A major emphasis of this course is to push us to develop strategies and resources to improve the quality of the examples that we use in our English grammar materials and courses.  Paper #2 will be a product of your reflection on the seeking of good examples.  Additionally, your discussions in your small groups about the teaching of English grammar should reflect your growing knowledge about effective use of examples as part of the Big Three of Grammar Teaching: Explanations, Examples, Exercises.

Good Examples

The chart at the end of the article about exemplification lists six features of good examples.  These features were developed through a study of the literature on the use of examples by teachers and by students.  According to that literature on exemplification, good examples are

1. accurate--linguistically accurate but more! 

2. clear--to the point and without distracting language

3. interesting--but not funny

4. usable in other contexts--not just for the classroom but for use by the students in other communication

5. contexualized--put in a setting that makes sure that the students know what you are exemplifying and also shows them how the words are used in context

6. formatted attractively and clearly--students can expect that you will provide written examples that are easy to read and attractive to look at and they can expect that you will use the blackboard well so that they can read each example easily

Content Matters

One of the implications of many of the features on this list is that content matters.  What the example is about isn't just grammar but is some real world topic.  An example can't just be pure syntax!   It has to have words, and those words have to be about something. 

For an example to be accurate..., it must present information that isn't silly, foolish, or wrong. 

For an example to be interesting..., it must present information that fits the backgrounds and needs of the learner.  Examples for a group of refugee women must surely be very different from examples for doctoral students in the Finance Department. 

For an example to be usable in other settings..., it must present information that has real world applications.  Years ago a clever ESL textbook was published that was built around an imaginary country with lots of details about population, geography, weather, and so forth.  Teachers who had been English literature majors just loved it--a story!  Students on the whole hated it--"Why," they asked, "am I putting all this energy into learning information that isn't true when I could be learning things that matter and that I can use in other settings?!"  Content matters!

Strategies to Increase the Content of Your Examples

You will have two different experiences with examples based on the amount of time that you have to prepare them: (1) some examples can be created ahead of time to include in lessons and (2) some examples must be created in class in response to student confusion or questions. 

In-Class Example Creation

The answer for increasing the content-accuracy and usability of examples made up in class is actually pretty simple: select a couple of topics that are of interest and importance to your students.  Then, use that content for the basis of whatever examples you have to create in the midst of class.  The topics need to be broad--transportation, food, weather, health, education, and so forth.

Or, use topics from your textbook readings--build on the vocabulary and information that students are already using in their study of the textbook.

Or, do both!

But don't just make up examples based on whatever content happens to pop into your mind under the pressure of trying to help your students.  Plan a content base for such examples and use it to help you do a better job with in-class exemplification.

Before-Class Example Creation

When you are planning your lessons, you need to find ways to build examples around content of interest and use to your students.  Building these examples around the same topics that you selected for the in-class examples is an excellent strategy--reviewing vocabulary and providing important content for your students.

Because you have more time, you can seek examples in other sources--other textbooks that they are using, for example.  Or the newspaper.  Or a magazine on a topic that they find interesting.  For these examples, you need to remember the final characteristic of good examples: they are attractively presented.  With word processing, you can create sets of these examples that can be photocopied or printed on your computer to use as handouts in your classes.

....and Bad Examples

Bad examples are inaccurate, wrong, dumb, silly, confusing, unusable, and hard to read.  Another feature of bad examples is the lack of context to help the students understand the grammar and/or the meaning the examples are supposed to provide. 

We have all in our teaching given bad examples.  We have written an example on the board and then realized that it was the wrong example or that it didn't work for the question or that it's content was pretty inane.  That's part of teaching--and a part that we all need to work to change in our own teaching even while forgiving ourselves for not being perfect and vowing not to fall into that particular trap again. 

There's another category of "bad" example that is mentioned in the reading passage.  Look at the following example about modal auxiliaries to see another trap we can fall into as grammar teachers.

The following table includes a set of sentences that are supposed to illustrate how the meanings of the modals change from weak advice to strong advice. What's wrong with this example of the modal auxiliary verbs?   There's a lot that's ok--it's on a topic of importance to graduate students in this class; it's attractively formatted!  There are no obvious errors in spelling or syntax.  The vocabulary is useful and not rare.  So, what's wrong? 

Modal Auxiliary Meaning: From Weak Advice to Command
You can take an elective in the summer.
You might take an elective in the summer.
You should take an elective in the summer.
You must take an elective in the summer.
You will take an elective in the summer.

The basic problem is that you have to be a native speaker or a really advanced non-native speaker to understand that these sentences are really different in meaning and that they represent a progression.  The set is a "context-less list."  There's nothing here to help a learner figure out the meanings of the modals and how to use them to communicate advice of the proper strength.




Modals Used to Ask/Give Advice

A Student Asks Various People the Same Question: What Classes Should I Take This Summer?

The following answers show different levels of advice--from weak advice to very strong advice

Advisor: You can take SLA or Classroom Practices or the Practicum or Materials Development.  They are all offered and at different times on the schedule. Your choice--do what you want to.
Friend: You should never take more than one course in the summer.
Graduate Coordinator: You have to take two courses this summer if you want an assistantship. Those are the GSU rules. No exceptions. You must take two courses to get an assistantship--even in the summer.

Here the context has been expanded to include three different speakers with different attitudes and information.  The change from one modal auxiliary to another is motivated by the different situations.  Not all grammar items require so much context but many do.  And this issue of examples and explanations in context is one that we will continue to investigate the rest of this semester.

I look forward to hearing from you.  Please send your comments and questions to me at patbyrd@comcast.net.