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Reading Science Fact and Fiction

Earlier this week I submitted a proposal to the 2010 TESOL Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. The topic of this proposal concerns my success with my intermediate reading course I just finished last month. I believe it was my most successful reading course I have taught at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse yet.

I had 14 students who were at the intermediate levels according to ACTFL's proficiency guidelines. One student was from Vietnam, one from Japan, one from Kuwait, one from Taiwan, and the rest from mainland China. Their primary motivation is to enroll in non-ESL courses at UWL. Students at the intermediate level tend to be the least motivated at the ESL Institute because they are no longer new to the program and they still have at least another year to complete the ESL program. In addition, reading is usually the least favorite skill for students to practice among reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Therefore, this particular reading course usually has the least motivated students in the whole program.

Course Design
Links to the grading scale, course description and goals and be found at this link -

I selected science as the primary content because I firmly believe that content-based instruction is the among the better approaches to teaching English for academic purposes. As the primary instructor for ESL 111-001, I decided that the fall semesters would be dedicated to social sciences and the spring semesters to the sciences. As indicated in a previous blog, the fall 2008 content was the 2008 US Presidential Elections.

Course Texts
The biggest challenge for most instructors is getting students interested in the content. I assumed most students would not be interested in science, so I chose texts that might increase their appreciation for science.

The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Best Science Fiction
- Historically in our program, students have responded well to reading fiction. I found this out when using The Golden Compass as the core text for the Fall 2007 semester. When students finish the text, they are filled with a great feeling of accomplishment.

Why People Believe Weird Things
- I chose this text because many students and people in their early twenties are interested in topics on the fringes of science, such as psychic ability, UFOs, and alternative medicine. In fact, I was drawn to science recently through the skeptical angle as I became a fan of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast. I have discovered that students respond better to instructors who show enthusiasm and passion for what they are teaching, so I looked forward to teaching science through skepticism.

Reading Approach
After browsing through these texts, one will quickly learn that they are appropriate for undergraduate students or AP high school students. They are definitely not books one would expect intermediate readers to read, and I did not have this expectation. I took into consideration Krashen's Input Hypothesis, especially the i+1 theory, which means I should be using material that is slightly above their current ability.

Because the texts were much higher, I called my approach to this class i+2, but I would simplify the tasks so much by assisting them with as many reading strategies as possible. This enabled me to focus on the language more than the content, making this a language-driven content-based course. Here's how I developed their reading strategies for the science-fiction text.
  • The primary goal to read this text was to skim one short story a week to develop extensive reading skills.
  • Students had to be able to identify the setting, the main characters, the main problem or conflict, and what branch of science was referenced the most. They also had to be able to summarize the story in an outline or a 200-word summary.
  • During the first few weeks, we read the first short story "Blood Music" together.
  • We read 2-5 pages in class and another few pages for homework.
  • When they came back we discussed what they read.
  • After completing "Blood Music," most of the students felt confident enough to read one story a week on their own.
Here's how I developed their reading strategies for Why People Believe Weird Things:
  1. We spent the first couple of days previewing the text. Without reading the book, students were able to answer "What is this book about?"
  2. As an extension of previewing, I taught them the difference between skimming and scanning the prologue. After reading the prologue, students had a clearer idea of the book.
  3. I also selected an average of 5 new vocabulary words per day for students to internalize for later quizzes. My goal was to have them personalize instead of memorize the vocabulary so they would be able to use it appropriately on their own instead of simply recognizing it the next time they came across the vocabulary.
  4. I taught them how to read charts, which often summarized the sections of the chapter they were in. Sometimes they did not have to read the section if they understood the charts.
  5. The class then skimmed chapter 3 to develop their skimming skills further.
  6. Chapter 4 was dedicated to further developing scanning skills.
  7. Chapter 5 was dedicated to taking notes from a text in the form of an outline, which in turn improved their skimming and scanning skills.
  8. By then, we had run out of time so I created an activity in which students had to skim the remaining chapters of the textbook, matching the chapter to its main ideas.
My assumption that most students would not be interested in science was wrong. Out of the 14 students, only 1 adamantly disliked science, and a couple more expressed no interest in science. That left 11 students interested in the content to my surprise and delight. I think this interest greatly aided the students' motivation.

Students liked reading "Blood Music" as a class, but feared reading a whole SF short story on their own at first. However most students showed little or no resistance in the attempt to read upwards of 50 pages of i+2 reading material on their own.

By the end of the class, I had sufficient evidence that all but one student had read large chunks of authentic text extensively and independently.

Several students took time to tell me that they noticed a huge progressive leap in their reading ability. One very motivated student said that she could read The Economist more easily, understanding a great deal more than at the start of my course. Another student was surprised that when she picked up the local newspaper that she understood nearly all of it with a month remaining in the course.

At the beginning of the course, I administered my own reading diagnostic test to find their ability. I was afraid for a few students who tested lower than I expected. I thought that they would struggle all semester long and then fail the course. However this did not happen. The first month looked grim, but after that month, they showed a dramatic increase in reading ability and in-class participation. By the end of the semester, two of these students who were assessed at the novice level were demonstrating their ability to skim and scan better than their average classmate.

Unfortunately, one student failed the course, but this was mainly due to academic dishonesty, failure to follow directions, and failure to turn assignments in on time if at all. This student showed little progress throughout the course in terms of reading ability. I am not sure why this student maintained this attitude through the course.

In terms of attitude, several students who showed a dislike for the course design at the start of the semester had a completely change of attitude after the mid-term. During the second half of the course, they demonstrated a better willingness to learn and showed more respect towards me.

To conclude, I firmly believe that I have improved their ability to read and I have definitely increased their confidence to approach challenging reading material. In terms of science, I can only hope that they have developed skeptical thinking skills.

In later postings, I will discuss in more detail the development of critical thinking and skeptical thinking in the contexts of this course.


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