Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Writing a film

Films are input.  When we have the subtitles on the screen, a film is simultaneously oral and written input because the students are hearing and reading at the same time.  With the teacher’s help, the input becomes comprehensible.  Eventually we will want some output from the students.
It is important not to push the students to produce before they are ready, but if the class has been engaging, most students will speak spontaneously to give their opinions about the characters and their problems.

How can we also invite them to write in the target language?  The first step would be a dictation.  In Tprs in a Year Ben Slavic explains how to give a dictation.  The classic French dictation is repeating the text, sentence by sentence, three times.  The first time the students listen to be sure that they understand.  The second time they write and the teacher includes the punctuation.  The third time they reread and correct.  The dictation should consist of phrases from the film, sentences that they have read as subtitles.  Frequent dictations will give them confidence in their ability to write the language and help train their inner monitor to avoid the most common errors.

The next step would be to ask them to write a summary of a scene that has been studied in class and summarized orally. An excellent exercise to prepare weak students for a written summary is to ask the class to do a chain summary.  It is a good idea to begin with the student that has the greatest difficulties, asking him to say what happens first in the scene.  He produces one sentence.  You ask the student next to him to repeat the sentence and add a phrase about what happens next.  The third student repeats the two previous sentences and adds one.  And so on until the scene has been summarized.  You can refuse some phrases if the student skips actions that are important.  If the student makes a minor grammatical mistake, you “echo” what he said, but correctly, and ask him to repeat it again, as if he said it correctly the first time.  Sometimes they need help, which you give them.  

By the time you reach the last student, the class will have heard the summary repeated as many times as there are sentences.  Then you ask them to take out paper and pen and to write the summary.  They should have little difficulty doing it.  Often you’ll see them looking around the room, because looking at the student who first said a sentence will help them remember what the sentence was.

When students are more confident about their ability to summarize a scene, you can ask them to do it in class.  Announce that their compositions will be graded by quantity.  Set the number of words you want and every student that writes something coherent and reaches the minimum number of words will have 10 out of 10 points.  Just as we want students to speak without stopping to think about every word, we want them to write in the same manner.  I have seen fifth year students so paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes that they took an hour to put forty words down on paper.  The technique of fluency writing has been around for a long time and has proved its usefulness.  Once students actually start to “let it flow” and write spontaneously, you will be able to see that they make far fewer mistakes than before when they sweated blood over every word.  Why?  Simply because fluency writing lets their subconscious kick in with its memory of having heard the correct form.

I collect their texts and take them home.  I read through them very quickly, underlining in green everything that is correct and acceptable.  After many years I realized that the reason students repeat the same mistakes over and over again is that we UNDERLINE MISTAKES IN RED!!  So what does the student’s visual memory remember?  The things that were underlined in red, duh! I make no comments and give no hints about what’s wrong with parts that are underlined.  I give the grade of 10/10 to all who have the required number of words and grade the others in proportion.  If they wrote 50 words instead of 100, they have 5/10.  (By the way, they are responsible for counting their words.  If they don’t, they have to settle for my rough estimate.)

I then return the texts to the students and ask them to improve them and recopy them to hand in the following week, for another grade, based on quality this time.  I ask them to hand in both the original draft and the clean, corrected and recopied version.  So when I correct them, I can see which mistakes they were able to correct on their own, and which I need to work on in class.

My colleagues said that students who came from me “knew how to write”, but they also thought that my system involved a double correction and was too much work.  I found that “quantity” grading was fast and easy, because I made no comments.  And the “quality” grading was far less laborious because the students had eliminated a lot of mistakes, and I simply rewrote the remaining errors so they would have an example to guide them in the future.  (When I first started teaching, I spent hours correcting papers with notes and explanations for every mistake.  But I soon saw the students whose papers I’d labored over longest glancing at the grade and wadding up the paper without reading any of my comments.)

I don't write anything but the grade on my students' papers.  If I write anything, it should be in the target language.  I think I did this once, writing a commentary meant to be encouraging at the top of each paper.  After I had handed back their papers, I soon found half the class lined up in front of my desk, wanting a translation!  What I have been doing for many years is using stickers bought in a teacher supply shop in the States on all papers with a passing grade.  My kids get a big kick out of them, even the twenty year olds in a post bac class; the expressions are always positive and it's genuine American culture. 

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