INTRODUCTION: As an instructor of ESL (English as a Second Language), my goal is to help my students master the many communication skills necessary to become proficient in English. Often we work on one or two of these communication skills at a time, but I wanted to provide my students with an experience that would help them review and integrate many of the important language skills we cover in the class.
This activity asks students to compose four questions that they want to ask their classmates (using writing skills), survey four classmates and ask them the questions (speaking, listening, & note-taking skills), understand written directions (reading), and then take the information they gathered and complete another writing task. In the course of the activity, students get practice in five skill areas (writing, speaking, listening, reading, and note taking).
Although I used this activity with ESL students, it could be used as an active way to review the content of any course. Because it asks students to create their own questions and use numerous modalities, the activity helps deepen learning. With minor adaptations, it could also be used as an icebreaker to preview course content. The activity takes about 10 minutes to introduce in Class 1 and 50-60 minutes to conduct in Class 2.
- To engage students in an active review of important course content
- To provide students with an opportunity to practice writing, listening, speaking, reading, and note-taking
- To strengthen community in the classroom
- Paper and pens for the note-taking activity
- Handout 1: Four-Question Assignment (appended below)
- Handout 2: Summary/Reflection Assignment (appended below)
1. Give students Handout 1 (Four-Question Assignment), answer students’ questions, and assign it as homework for the next class.
2. At the start of the next class, confirm that students are ready with their four questions. If anyone had problems composing four questions, ask for suggestions and examples from other students.
3. Once everyone has four questions, tell students they have 20 minutes to circulate around the class and interview four classmates, asking each person their four questions. Stress that they are getting practice in speaking, listening, and note-taking so they must ask their questions orally (and not simply show the questions on paper to a classmate). They must also take notes as they listen to classmates’ answers.
4. Tell students, “After you finish your four interviews, pick up Handout #2 from me, read the directions, and follow them. You will have about 20 minutes to write your answers on the handout.”
5. Collect Handout #2 and wrap up the activity with a short class discussion. Ask debriefing questions such as A) How confident did you feel asking and answering the questions, B) What interesting things did you learn about the subject matter and your classmates, and 3) What did you learn that will help you communicate more effectively in English [this last, of course, for ESL students]?
On the second day, students came to class prepared with questions but, unfortunately, a number of them (probably half of the class) had already asked classmates their questions and recorded the answers! Apparently some did not understand that this was to be an in-class activity. Or, perhaps they were more comfortable doing the activity outside of class. Whatever their reasons for doing the activity beforehand, I decided to do the activity as I had originally planned, encouraging them to pair up with classmates different from those they had questioned outside of class.
All 18 students —from a variety of countries including Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Turkey— were present. The first sets of pairs spoke quietly and seriously as they asked their questions and took notes. As they moved on to their second, third, and fourth partners, conversations became louder and more animated, with occasional laughter. Circulating around the room, I heard one student asking another for a more detailed answer. Students occasionally called me over to check on the spelling of words they were writing in their notes. In a couple of cases they asked me to explain vocabulary.
As students completed their work with 4 partners, they came up and asked me for the handout which I explained briefly as I gave it to them. They worked on this individually, although a few had questions for me or their neighbors. This took about 20 minutes for them to finish.
I think my students did a fine job of asking each other important, serious questions. Asking questions they had written seemed to make the experience more meaningful as they listened to their partners’ responses and took notes. Here are some examples of their questions:
- What did you learn this semester?
- How did you improve your English this semester?
- Are you satisfied with your English studies this semester?
- What has been important about this semester’s studies?
- What do you want to do next term?
- What are you going to do after you finish studying English?
- If you pass the LOEP placement test, what do you want to study?
- How will English help you reach your goals?
Question B on the handout asked them to summarize the answers they got from their classmates. This is a difficult task for ESL students to do quickly, but 11 of the 18 students did a fair job of summarizing. For example, one student wrote: “Three of my classmates came to the United States to study English. Another one came here to take care of her children. Three of my classmates want to continue their studies at this college but one of them wants to transfer to a university after this semester. Two of my classmates are going to major in English, one wants to be a computer programmer, and one wants to be an accountant. All of them plan to go back to visit their countries this year.” The other seven students wrote brief sentence summaries that were very general. Here’s an example: “Most people study very hard. Some do homework and go to the computer lab every day. When they pass the LOEP test, they’re going to take credit classes. Everybody has a goal.”
Question C asked students to answer their own questions. The answers of seven students gave me some indications that students were having a difficult semester academically. This confirmed a sense I had gotten from some of the journal entries they had written earlier. Their answers included:
- “I’m not satisfied because I didn’t study hard. I didn’t participate well in class.”
- “My class is interesting but sometimes I’m so tired because my teacher gives a lot of homework.”
- “I don’t like studying because this semester is hard for me.”
- “I’m not interested in my classes.”
- “My schedule is too long for me. I want to take all classes in the morning.”
- “My new Reading and Writing class is really difficult.”
Question D was intended to offer a preview of how the students would evaluate the help this course has given them. Half of the students gave feedback which identified things we have done that have been useful for them. Here are some examples:
- “Writing in the journal and doing homework or extra work are helping me to not be lazy.”
- “This course improved my thinking about my future life and goals.”
- “It makes me know my goals and understand what I want. I should do something and then I will have my future and I have control.”
- “I have self-confidence about my dream. I seriously think about my future.”
- “I made sure about my goals and made a plan.”
- “This course helped me organize myself.”
Overall I am pleased with the activity. The students practiced five language skills while holding meaningful discussions with classmates and sharing information on important questions related to their studies and their lives. Given the interactions while students were surveying each other as well as their written answers about themselves and their classmates, I believe this activity helped to contribute to a sense of community in our classroom.
One “Ah-ha” moment came at the beginning of Day Two when I realized that some students had already asked their questions of classmates before the class started. In hindsight, I think it would be better to tell them on the first day to write questions but leave unmentioned that they will be using the questions to interview their classmates in the next class.
I also realized that the Summary/Reflection activity was difficult for them to complete under the time constraints I imposed. I feel that had I given the assignment for homework, they would have been able to put more thought into their answers and go into more depth than they were able to do in class, especially in terms of summarizing and writing a short paragraph on what they found out from their classmates.
Some of the answers students gave in Question C (see Outcomes above) alerted me to the fact that many are having a hard time in their English courses now. Hereafter when I teach this course, I will spend more time in class focusing on their current courses and how to approach homework assignments and class participation in difficult courses.
*HANDOUT 1: Four-Question Assignment
Write 4 questions that you will ask of your classmates in our next class. Questions should follow this format:
Question #1: Write a question related to this semester’s studies. (Example: How are you going to prepare for your final exams?)
Question #2: Write a question related to future studies. (Example: What would you like to major in?)
Question #3: Write a question related to goals or dreams. (What kind of job would you like to be doing 10 years from now?)
Question #4: Write a question about anything you like. (Example: When will you go back for a visit to your country?)
*HANDOUT 2: Summary/Reflection Assignment
A. List the 4 questions you asked in the space below.
B. Write a summary of what you learned about your 4 classmates. (Use the notes that you took.)
C. Write your own answers to your 4 questions. How do your answers compare to those of your classmates?
D. What have we done in this course that has helped you with your other courses? What have we done that has helped you identify your future goals?
(Go to the other side of this paper if you need more space to answer B, C, or D.)
–Annette Greene, Faculty, ESL, Montgomery College, MD