Attending TESOL 2014

Steve Urick

Starting in the 2014 academic year, academic English classes have been included as part of the Shizuoka University General Education English program for the first time. In addition, the Asia Bridge program promises the addition of more courses taught in English at the university. With these changes in mind, and with the goal of gathering information that would be useful in helping us with course design and curriculum development, in March 2014 I attended the TESOL 2014 International Convention & Language Expo, which was held in Portland, Oregon. Only a small portion of the content of sessions I attended provided data that directly relates to the overall improvement of the curriculum at our university. However, I did encounter a great deal of practical information related to teaching academic English.

Two examples of sessions that provided useful pedagogical information were those conducted by Marcellino Berardo of the University of Kansas and Quiandi Liu of Northern Arizona University. Mr. Berardo’s presentation described the way in which he and his colleagues had gone about having an anthology published for use in ESL classes. He included many recommendations, some of which were things his team had learned through trial and error. For example, one cannot assume that a publisher will produce an end product that meets expectations, without carefully laying out details such as pagination from the outset. Ms. Liu’s presentation demonstrated some ways in which teachers’ and students’ perceptions can differ with regard to the efficacy of writing feedback.

Two other sessions focused on methodological issues. The session conducted by Kaitlin Gram of Missouri Southern State University and Elizabeth Gould of University of Kansas included a good amount of practical information on teaching presentation. Dianne Tyers of Advance Consulting for Education, Inc. Canada and Christina Musa of Mount Royal University, Canada presented on the notion of critical thinking. Their definition of critical thinking was somewhat limited, and did not include a model of critical literacy within which learners confront issues such as bias, ideology and power relations. However, their breakdown of the components of critical thinking based on Bloom and others constituted an effective framework of the basic elements of critical thinking.

I was particularly happy to be able to attend two sessions led by faculty at the program where I received my Masters Degree, Eastern Michigan University (EMU). Cynthia Macknish, a recent addition to the EMU faculty, presented the results from her study on written feedback for writing assignments. Comparing three types of comments, her study found that margin comments are more effective that global comments or checklists and that students did not view checklist comments as helpful. Wendy Wang (a former Professor of mine) and Kay Stremler presented on teaching cohesion through concepts beyond logical connectors.

The one presentation that related to curricular issues at Shizuoka University was part of a colloquium on expectations of university faculty in the US. Neil J. Anderson, Norman E. Evans and K. James Hartshorn introduced the results of their survey of university faculty. The survey revealed that faculty members perceive listening and reading skills as the most important language skills for students. Further, understanding course content was seen as more important for reading than applying new knowledge. Genre was seen as the most common writing challenge.

The first finding above bolsters the argument that reading and listening skills should be central to the academic English program here at Shizuoka University. One area where support for students is currently weak is the academic listening area. For the time being, four sections of the English 3 course have been designed to help students who have good basic English skills develop better academic skills, in particular listening skills. The Academic English 1 course is offered in the second semester for students at or above the sophomore level, and focuses on academic reading. Students taking this course will have an opportunity to improve their comprehension of academic texts. The issue of genre-specific writing is one that the General Education English program is not in a position to deal with. In teaching writing skills, we have no choice but to search for organizational concepts, vocabulary, rhetorical structures, and other such notions, teaching basic academic writing skills that are not genre-specific. In the Academic English 2 course, which focuses on TOEIC, such concepts are introduced, but offering other opportunities for students to work on academic writing skills should be considered.