Learning English in Israel

Nahla NassarLearning English in Israel

by Nahla Nassar

 

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learning English in Israel is not easy. However, students are coming to realize how important it is to do so, the reason being that they learn English along with other two languages, Hebrew and Arabic. Western European languages, such as Spanish and German, are similar to English, which makes it easier to learn them. In case of Israel, Hebrew has a significant linguistic difference from English and Arabic is completely different from either of those (the spoken Arabic is very different from the written Arabic and some even consider them as two separate languages). Students, however, seem to understand that English is their window to the world and if they do not realize that while still at school, they do so when they become adults. When I have conversations with those who don’t know how to speak English, they always express their sadness for not putting enough effort into learning English at school.

Students here begin learning the basics of English in elementary school, starting from the alphabet, and are expected to achieve proficiency level by the end of high school. This, however, is not the case for all students as some learners do not progress past the foundations of the language. All students are expected to learn to listen, read, speak, and write in English and they receive up to 5 hours a week at school to do that. While learning the four language skills, students acquire the knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, lexis, and literature.

I think the most difficult aspect of learning English for students in Israel includes speaking the language. Unless they have English-speaking friends, they do not get to practice English much outside the classroom. Most classes include up to 40 students, which also minimizes each student’s speaking time during class. The English inspectorate (the body responsible for English teaching and learning in the country) is aware of that and has presented students with programs that promote speaking English right from the start. These include programs such as Speak Up! for the foundation level, Let’s Talk for the 7th grade and Keep Talking for the 10th grade. I have noticed that these programs help and encourage students to speak now that they have been given more hours at school to do so.

When students reach high school, they sit for the Israeli matriculation exams called the bagrut and subjects are studied in modules. High school students are divided into three levels of proficiency that are called “points” based on their level (determined by taking exams at school). Students who are 3 points sit for modules A, B, and C. Students who are 4 points take modules C, D, and E. Students who are 5 points, the highest level of English proficiency, take modules E, F, and G. Students can move to a higher level by taking two additional modules from the next point level. In order to pass, they have to take exams that involve reading comprehension, listening comprehension, written tasks, oral tasks, and literature. The reading comprehension part is composed of a text followed by a list of comprehension questions. The listening comprehension is similar in structure, so students listen to a four-minute long spoken text and then answer comprehension questions. The written task includes writing essays of different types, such as opinion or description. The oral task includes preparing a project and sitting for a speaking exam. Finally, the literature part includes reading poems, stories, and novels and submitting a literature log to receive a grade. The literature log consists of students’ response to the key components of literature which consist of the Pre-reading Activity, Basic Understanding, Analysis and Interpretation, Bridging Text and Context, Post-reading Activity and Summative Assessment. All these tasks and exams (modules) are not done at once but rather are spread over the course of three years (10th, 11th, and 12th grades) and students sit for an internal matriculation exam before sitting for an external exam. Both these exams form the final grade in English given at the end of the 12th grade.

“All learning has an emotional base.”
Plato

I chose to end my post with this quote because I have noticed that English learners in my country connect learning English with the teacher’s way of teaching and personality. You often hear things like “I love English because of my teacher.” This is the case with me as well. When I was in elementary school, I had such a wonderful teacher, who knew how to enter students’ hearts and make them love the language. It is because of her that I became an English teacher. I simply loved her lessons, which were full of fun, laughter, and an enjoyable atmosphere of learning that made me fall in love with the language. So, English teachers, wherever you are in the world, remember that learning begins with emotion, so capture their hearts before capturing their minds.

Learning English in Indonesia: A Story of a Teacher

Yitzha SarwonoLearning English in Indonesia: A Story of a Teacher

by Yitzha Sarwono

 

English, or what we call “bahasa inggris” in bahasa Indonesia, is something quite natural if not demanding in my life now, because I have been teaching in English for the past 18 years. At the moment I teach kindergarten students, and I use English to do so.

My first experience of learning the English language was interesting, challenging, demanding, and satisfying. My education in English began at home with my late grandfathers. One of them was a columnist in a women’s magazine, where he wrote articles based on stories around the world. To do that, he had many books in English. He was the first person who taught me to read at the age of four, because I demanded that (in a cute kind of way). He would bring Donald Duck comic books written in English and I would make sense of the story before I was able to read it. We both liked to do roleplays. I was really keen on becoming a news anchor back then, so reading was on my list of things to do because I wanted to be able to imitate those TVRI channel news anchors with their white papers and glasses. My other late grandfather spoke Japanese, Dutch, and English very well because he worked at a government hospital. He used to teach me songs in those languages.

My late Papa was also responsible for my education. He used to collect cassettes with foreign music and I listened to songs from The Osmond’s, Queen, Sting, and many more. I loved reading the lyrics on the back of the cover while listening to the songs. My Papa sometimes would cover the lower part of our black-and-white TV during shows like “Little house on the prairies” or “Daktari” with white paper so I would focus on the story and listen to the actors rather than spend time reading the subtitles. Sometimes that was tough, but I got used to it in the end. Therefore, the three men in my early life were responsible for imparting the education of the English language to me. I consider it as a blessing to have been born and raised in that environment.

My first experience of learning English at school

After going through a very lovely childhood, my first steps in learning English at school started at the age of 12 when I entered junior high school. I remember the first day of lessons quite well. My teacher then, Ibu Euis, entered the room and said, “Point to the board!” Most kids were confused but I knew what I had to do. I stood up and held out my finger to point to the board. Pretty soon other kids followed me when Ibu Euis said that I was correct. She then asked us to stand somewhere, take something, and ask each other to do something. Since then, English became one of my favourite subjects, along with history and biology. As a junior high school student, I was taken to a new level in learning English. I remember writing short simple texts, such as stories and poems. I wasn’t always good at grammar but I did quite well in speaking and writing. In high school, I remember constantly getting 6 or 7 points out of 10 during grammar tests. Still, being an English teacher wasn’t one of my plans, even though I did tutor a few of my friends on the subject.

The difficulty of learning English rules

There are many differences between bahasa Indonesia and English that made the learning quite difficult for me.

  • Grammar holds the key! Most of the tests at school were about grammar. The English grammar was treated like physics or maths and you had to memorize the pattern: for example, Simple Present = Subject + Verb 1, or Present Continuous = Subject + be + Verb-ing, etc. Sometimes it was a bit frustrating because instead of writing or answering questions, the test would be about writing the grammar pattern! In this way, instead of understanding the principles, we were forced to learn only the formula. I know many of my friends hated English because of it.
  • Alphabet and phonics. In bahasa Indonesia, there is no phonetic way to read letters. Letters will sound the same when you spell them and say them. In English, as we know, it isn’t the case. Letter “C” is read as /s/ in the alphabet but as /k/ in phonics. Besides, there are many rules that can give letters different sounds (such as digraph, long vowel, short vowel, consonant cluster, and so on). For Indonesians, it’s confusing to learn that you read “cup” as \?k?p\ but “put” as \?pu?t\ – when they both look almost the same in writing… I didn’t have proper English spelling lessons back then so we were taught to memorize how something is written instead of understanding the sounds and ways of spelling them out. It was not until around year 2000 that phonics was introduced in curricula and studied to help students learn to read. So back then, reading for me was all about how I felt it should sound rather than spelling it phonetically.
  • The shapeshifting verb! In bahasa Indonesia, verbs stay the same no matter what time you are referring to. In English there are three verb forms, there are regular verbs and irregular verbs. It can all be a bit confusing sometimes. I remember having many tests back in high school that focused entirely on writing Verb 2 and Verb 3. Again, it requires memorization and it’s not always easy.
  • Gender in the subject. There is no “he” and “she” in bahasa Indonesia, so I often make a lot of mistakes when it comes to subject pronouns, especially when they are used directly in conversation. I’m getting better but still, mistakes are occasionally made.

At a later stage, I began learning the fundamental concepts and rules of English grammar. I gained a fairly good understanding of the points I mentioned above. As I moved up to university, I learnt how to use interesting expressions to write short stories and poems persuasively. Apart from this, I was also exposed to learning more advanced rules of grammar. I must mention that my English reading and writing skills were tested during this time as I started to have pen pals whom I could practice English with. This helped me to see my confidence grow as I replied to questions in English.

Books, conversations, and films for learning English

My parents instilled in me the habit of reading. When I was 13, my late grandfather gave me the hardcover version of “The Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, because I had just seen Oliver Twist TV series and told him I wanted to know more about Charles Dickens. As a result of reading a lot of books, I was able to increase my vocabulary and develop writing skills. In addition, one of the most important English learning activities for me has always been conversation. I started speaking English with my sister, my father, and a few school friends. The experience of conversing in a foreign language was precious to me as it improved my communication skills. Watching TV, particularly TV series, has also always been an enjoyable learning experience for me. I learnt many kinds of phrases, jokes, puns, and even sarcasm from watching them.

For the most part, learning the English language has been an interesting journey for me and I am still trying to achieve a certain level of proficiency in English. I can’t say it has always been easy, but I suppose the difficulties are all part of it. One thing I notice, though, is that I do behave and act differently based on the language I speak: I’m very calm and patient speaking Javanese (my second native language); I’m quite loud, goofy, and fast as a bahasa Indonesia speaker; I’m rather serious and blabbery when I use English. There is something about the language itself that drives me to act in such a way, I suppose. Nevertheless, my journey in learning English shall never stop as there is always something fascinating about it that I can find when I dig deeper.

Learning about Peer Evaluation in Singapore

Eunice TanLearning about Peer Evaluation in Singapore

by Eunice Tan

 

Disclaimer: The diary page below was written by a teacher and cannot be said to contain 100% accurate reflections of a Singaporean student learning English.

It’s time for our daily English class again. While it’s not like I dread learning English, I sometimes think I am not improving at all. Not my teacher’s fault I think – she’s nice! But being in Secondary One this year means that there’s a big difference from the way we learn English now and the way I used to learn it in primary school. Hopefully it’s because of this new learning environment and not me.

We’re working on writing emails again today and Ms. T is introducing something called peer feedback. I think it means my friends are going to *gasp* READ MY WRITING!! Also, something I’ve been thinking since she first taught us about emails… Who writes emails anymore? Will I really need to write something like that when I start working? Why can’t we just Instagram or Whatsapp our colleagues? Ok fine, Ms. T says we’ll be practising writing emails to our Principal and I guess talking to the Principal through Whatsapp is a little strange. Email it is.

Anyway, Ms. T is telling us not only do we have to read our classmates’ emails, we have to give feedback on the email we’re in charge of. That’s fun! I totally know how to give advice, so I’ll be good at giving feedback I think. Oh wait, now she’s saying she’ll show us how to give feedback. Alright, let’s see… She’s talking about Daniel Wilson’s (who is this guy?! Maybe he has Instagram…) Ladder of Feedback and first we have to Clarify, then Value, then State Concerns and lastly, Suggest. OMG, this is impossible. Can’t I just tell my friend if I like the email or not? Oh alright, she’s giving us some help. Help is good. Very good.

The handout given to students to guide them in giving effective peer feedback

I guess those helping words are kind of useful. Giving feedback using the table like this is going to take some time though, but it makes me feel more useful and I get to do more than just write emails! Maybe that’s what Ms. T means when she says she wants us to be more engaged and take ownership of our learning. I really wonder though, if the comments that I give will help the person, and if I can give accurate comments… also, since my classmates are my peers, it’s going to be quite difficult to give extremely honest feedback because some people may take it personally.

Anyway, let’s try this. I’m excited to see what feedback my classmates give me… 

Who do you write for? Why do you write? For some time now, peer assessment has been used in Singapore public schools to communicate the idea of writing for an audience (other than the teacher). Recently, coupled with Jan Chappuis’ strategies for assessment, some Singaporean teachers are also finding out answers to questions like these: How do you know which areas of writing students need to improve in? How can we help students improve in those areas?

In a Singapore secondary school, a group of English teachers took a systematic approach to peer assessment through the use of rubrics and teacher modelling. Some classroom activities carried out included editing the rubrics commonly used by teachers to feature student-friendly language for student use, teacher demonstrations using strong and weak examples of writing, and peer feedback, which is the focus of this post.

The learning process used by some Singaporean teachers

Peer feedback was the teachers’ way of applying one of Chappuis’ strategies in helping students to improve their writing - guiding students to identify their current skill level. According to Chappuis, this can be done by “offering regular descriptive feedback during the learning.” By teaching students how to carry out peer feedback, the teachers are aiming for students to develop as self-regulated learners.

At the end of this project, the teachers learnt four things about how students could improve their English writing skills. First, clear learning goals have to be set, what students are expected to write should be modelled, and scaffolding students in peer evaluation is necessary. Lastly, for this systemic approach to peer assessment to work, both students and teachers should have ample opportunities to familiarize themselves with the process.

*The project described above was a huge undertaking by a particular Singapore secondary school and as such, names of the teachers and students could not be provided. For more information, please contact the author and if possible, she will put you in contact with the teachers who led and participated in the project.

References

Chappuis, J. 2015. Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, 2e. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, pp. 11-14.

Learning English in Greece

Theodora PapapanagiotouLearning English in Greece

by Theodora Papapanagitou

 

In my previous post, I wrote about what teaching English is like in Greece. I emphasized that we are a very exam-oriented society, so teaching almost always revolves around exam preparation. In this post I am going to be a little more specific on the structure of classes and what is actually learned.

What better example could I possibly use than myself? Just like everybody else in my country, I had to learn English as a foreign language. I loved English. My first introduction to English came from my cousin, who had just come back from the States where she lived with her parents, and she didn’t speak any Greek. So she became was my first teacher, a ten-year-old girl trying to communicate with a four-year-old! I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with her and, although I did not understand the language, I still loved the way it sounded to my ears.

At the time when I was a schoolgirl, English was not part of the elementary school curriculum, so we started learning it at junior high school. This has changed over the years and nowadays Greek children begin learning their first foreign language, English, in the third grade of elementary school (8-9 years old) and their second foreign language, usually German or French, in the fifth grade (10-11 years old).

Back then, I skipped the first two years of English classes and started learning English at the age of 10, since I had learnt the basics from my cousin. At that time, everyone in Greece studied using the same textbook series called “Starting out,” published by Oxford University press. The book’s idea was learning through the story of Arthur, an English clerk, and Mary, the love of his life. I still remember how Arthur left his job, started studying at a university, and later got together with Mary – and I believe that students still love textbooks that have a story and they are eager to find out what happens next. Other than that, the book was full of pattern drills and repetitive grammar exercises. The teaching methodology in its variety as we know it now had not gone that far yet. Looking at textbooks now we can see projects, games, interactive exercises, integration of technology – everything to keep the student interested.

These days students of all grades use locally published textbooks approved by the Greek Ministry of Education. A lot of teachers also choose to take part in big educational projects like Comenius, collaborating with other schools in Europe, learning with art, movement, music, and even participating in Model United Nations conferences at the senior high school level. Of course, whether a school and a class take part depends on the teachers and the directors of the school, since it means a lot of extra work for the teachers involved.

As I mentioned before, Greek students and parents are keen on taking language exams and receiving certificates proving the achieved level. There are over 30 different institutions that offer exams of all levels and, depending on the difficulty or exam format, students are eager to pass them and get a language certificate as early as possible. Most of the schools prepare students for language level exams to receive a certificate from the Greek Ministry of Education, and students can take this exam, if they wish. This particular exam is similar to the British and American ones, testing students on their reading and listening comprehension, use of English (Grammar, Vocabulary), writing and speaking.

However, many Greek students are not satisfied with taking only this exam. They also attend private language schools in the afternoon, usually from the age of nine or even younger, so that they learn better English and get a “foreign” English certificate. It is believed that students can’t learn proper English at school (although, of course, there are a lot of school teachers who do a wonderful job).

Since there are a lot of students now who are interested in studying or working abroad, a relatively new trend in Greece is studying for IELTS or TOEFL, which usually happens over the course of 2-3 months. A popular option is taking private lessons at home with a tutor, who can adapt to the student’s needs (or not), and maybe prepare for these exams a bit earlier with their intensive courses, compared to the time students would spend studying for the same exam at a language school.

When I was a student, there was no certificate available from the Greek Ministry of Education, nor from any other institution, so I had to take the Cambridge FCE. My preparation included a lot of tests, grammar, and lots of practice. As a university student majoring in German literature I took the ECPE from University of Michigan, having my best friend, who was studying English literature at the time, as a tutor and then later I continued with a British tutor preparing for the  CPE exam. It was not much later that I decided to teach both English and German and furthered my education in that direction.

As a non-native speaker and a teacher, I have to say that you never stop learning. And whether it is with the help of endless exams and certificates or not, many Greeks do learn English. Most of them can more or less speak, understand, and communicate in the language, because they know that English is their window to the world.