University Students’ Perception of English Activities

This paper was presented at a small conference in 2013. The conference proceeding is no longer online, therefore, I think it would be nice to share this here. In the paper, I collected feeckback from my university students on the activities I conducted for a general EFL Freshman English class. The activities include: (a) Teams-Game-Tournaments (TGT), (b) Learning Together: Dictation, (c) Concept Map Reading Comprehension and Retelling, (d) A-B Retelling, and (e) Information Gap: Video Retell and Draw.  You will find out if students’ liked these activities and what they thought about the activities. Welcome to comment and discuss with me if you have done something similar. Thanks!

Introduction

To be able to communicate in English is greatly emphasized in the English curriculum in Taiwan (Wang, 2002). Students have started learning English in the formal curriculum in 3rd grade for at least two hours a week. By the time they attend university, they have already taken approximately 1520 hours of English class. One of the challenges of University level English course for freshmen is in determining objectives of teaching to bridge what they’ve learned in high school (Chen, 2008). Most universities have focused on developing students’ reading comprehension, cultural awareness, and communicative skills in English. National Taiwan Normal University, for example, has formed a curriculum committee which is devoted to designing a well-rounded English curriculum to include four levels of freshman English curriculum, i.e., basic level, intermediate low level, intermediate high level, and advanced level English classes. For each level, textbooks were pre-assigned. Advanced level course used “John Grishham’s” fictions “The Firm, The Client, The Chamber, and A Time to Kill as their teaching material; intermediate high level course adopted “Reading for the Real World 3,” intermediate low level course adopted Issues for Today 3, and basic level course used “World Class Reading 1” as their textbook. 

English activities that were favored by the students, according to the freshmen English teaching manual designed by the National Taiwan Normal University freshman English curriculum committee in 1996, were listed separately by level, including power-point self-introduction and role-play on topics related to a unit in the textbook for intermediate high level students; recording of read aloud the text in the textbook, giving English speech on “my favorite X”, show and tell, and sharing daily happening for intermediate low students; paired read aloud, recording radio broadcast of a simplified fiction. To some extent, these activities that were favored by the students tended to focus on students’ self-expressing, and English oral speaking. Having such an exemplified example of freshmen curriculum, the researchers of the present study had carefully designed a curriculum that emphasized reading comprehension and reading strategies, vocabulary learning, listening, and speaking for freshman English class. Activities are described as follows: 

Teams-Game-Tournaments (TGT)
Teams-Game-Tournament was originally developed by David DeVries and Keith Edwards in 1989 at Johns Hopkins University. This was adopted for the purpose of English vocabulary learning in class. As research indicates that vocabulary size is one of the major keys to reading comprehension, explicit teaching and practice of vocabulary should be emphasized in class (Folse, 2004). Folse (2004) has maintained that the key to vocabulary retention and learning is the number of times of retrieval for each vocabulary taught in class. Thus, instead of giving students quizzes, Teams-Game-Tournament activity involved students to participate in tournaments for vocabulary learning. Students play vocabulary memorization games at three person tournament tables with others who have similar skill levels in a subject. To ensure equal opportunities for success, students at the tournament tables are homogeneous in their performance levels. A bumping system reassigned students to tournament tables after each round. For each round, the highest scorers at each table bring points to his or her team and advance to a higher performance level table. The lowest scorers move to a lower performance level table. Median performers are shuffled to other tables at the same level. In the end, high performing teams earn team rewards. An activity such as this is perceived to be highly interactive, fun, and effective for vocabulary learning on the part of the professor.

Learning Together: Dictation

Johnson and Johnson’s Learning Together model includes three types of cooperative learning groups: formal cooperative learning groups, informal cooperative learning groups and cooperative base groups (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). 

In the present study, cooperative base groups have been adopted for dictation activity so that as students were grouped together on a heterogeneous basis, they provide each other with help, support, encouragement and assistance when they were engaged in dictation activities. Students were asked to listen to the Studio Classroom program and write down the conversation between the foreign teachers’ explanation of the passages by group. Dictation, though a traditional teaching method, has been regarded helpful in boosting students’ overall English abilities in that it raises their awareness of what they do not understand (Kuo, 2010). The listen and write activity when done within a cooperative base gave lower leveled students the support needed when encountering portions they do not understand. 

Concept Map Reading Comprehension and Retelling

Concept mapping, proposed by researchers at Cornell University, has been recognized as an effective way to assist students visually conceptualize knowledge (Novak & Gowin, 1984; Novak & Musonda, 1991). Kao, Lin, and Sun (2008) stated that students were able to organize their knowledge and learning experiences by concept mapping which in turn result in positive learning achievements.
Thus, concept mapping was an important activity that promoted students reading comprehension as they were engaged in group work in mapping out the content of each unit in order to use the concept map for retell activity. Important concepts were captured by drawing out concept maps either for the passages in the textbook or for Studio Classroom lesson broadcasts. 

A-B Retelling

Upon completion of concept maps, one of the important activities is for them to retell what they’ve just drawn without going back to the original text. This provides them practice in summarizing skills and retelling what they’ve just read. This is regarded as an activity that is practical in the real world since we often read news and share what we read in the newspaper to our friends and family. In this activity, students are paired up so that A retells first for one minute while B listens, then B retells for 45 seconds, followed by A retelling the same information, this time within 30 seconds. Repeated practice of retelling is an attempt to help train their oral fluency. 

Information Gap: Video Retell and Draw

Information Gap activity is an activity where students are engaged in communication to seek missing information (Ellis, 2003). Learners are involved in transferring given information from one to another. An example of an information gap is a video retell and draw activity where students are paired up in groups and one of the students in each pair views a video shown by the instructor as the other only listens without viewing the video. The task is for the student who viewed the video to describe the scenes and for the other student to draw the scene down on paper. As the video is related to the topic of the chapter in the textbook, students may be able to practice target vocabulary as well as vocabulary to describe the objects shown in the video. 

Purpose of the Study

As is shown above, the purpose of the activities designed for freshmen English course in a northern university in Taiwan includes promoting reading comprehension through concept mapping, enhancing oral expressive ability through A-B retelling and information gap video retell and draw activity, providing English input and writing exercise through dictation of Studio Classroom program within cooperative learning groups, and stimulating vocabulary recall through Team-Games-Tournament activity, all of which are considered helpful and fun and teaching goal fulfilling for English learning purposes. As these activities are well rooted in the theory of English language teaching as well as second language acquisition, they are perceived by the instructor as helpful and delightful activities for English language learning. However, the nature of the activity, whether the activity is cognitive demanding, may influence students’ motivation to participate in class, resulting in perceived usefulness of the activity to be different from that of the professors. Thus the purpose of the study is to investigate students’ perceived usefulness of English language activities. Two research question are addressed as follows:
1. Among the activities introduced in class, which ones are the ones most  favored by the students in class? Why?
2. Among the activities introduced in class, which ones are the ones least  favored by the students? Why?

Method

The present study is qualitative in nature. A group of 36 students who took the Freshmen English class in 2011 were given an open ended questionnaire in which they were asked to evaluate the English activities throughout the whole semester and to identify the ones they liked and perceived useful from the ones that were only okay and to give out reason for their opinion towards their evaluation of the English activities. Five activities included in the questionnaire were as follows: (a) Teams-Game-Tournaments (TGT), (b) Learning Together: Dictation, (c) Concept Map Reading Comprehension and Retelling, (d) A-B Retelling, and (e) Information Gap: Video Retell and Draw. 

Results and Discussion

Of all five English activities, students favored learning together dictation the most, which accounts for 51% (19/37), followed by Concept mapping, which accounts for 37% (14/37), and Information gap video retell and draw, which accounts for 24% (9/37). Team-Game-Tournament vocabulary review was only favored by five students and A-B Retell was favored by seven students. 

Dictation as group work helped enhance listening

Students believed that their English listening ability was promoted through dictating YouTube videos on topics related to the units in the textbook. Students were asked to write down verbatim of the dialogue in video clips of their own choice as a group. Their dictation was corrected in class as group activities. Students thought that although this dictation assignment was time consuming and challenging, it was indeed helpful. The following are students’ comments:

“Watching some movies in English and writing them down help enforce my ability of listening.” (student 30)
Dictation and correcting them in class by groups is what I liked best. It’s very exciting and working on dictation in a group is better than working on dictation alone. Contents are better understood and discussed in more detail. (student 32)
Finding video without transcript then use it to train listening comprehension did help me to improve my listening competency. (Student 35)

However, there were three cases where students thought this activity to be difficult. “I thought it’s kind of difficult to pick out a clip and write down its conversation or content. It’s hard to pick up the narrator’s accent for foreigners.” (student 25)”

Concept mapping helps promote reading comprehension

Although most of the time students favored group activity where they can interact with others in class, concept mapping was still favored by one third of the students. Students expressed that concept mapping helped them organize information and when they encounter difficult text, they were able to use concept maps to assist them in comprehending and summarizing the text. As students pointed out:

“Concept map” help me to understand article and the dialogue easily. (student 16).
Analyzing articles and presenting them in concept maps helped me learn. (student 10)
To draw a mind map is really useful to read an essay efficiently. (student 29)

Information gap video retell and draw

For this activity, students were paired up and one of the students were shown a Disney cartoon on the topic “Catching a Cold,” which was one of the unit from the textbook. After they watched the cartoon for one minute, their job was to retell what they saw so that their partner who did not view the video may be able to draw what was described. Students expressed that this was an interesting activity and they practiced how to describe the scenes that they say in more detail so that their partner could draw them accurately. The following comment came from a student who majored in arts:

I think that to describe what I saw after watching a video so that my partner can draw it out was a rather interesting activity. Though drawing, our describing and ability to convey what we want to say improved. Sharing the drawing afterwards was really fun. (student 8)

Team-Game-Tournament Vocabulary Review was too challenging

For this activity, students were told to create vocabulary questions in multiple choice or translation format in advance. They could test their classmates the meaning, spelling, and vocabulary use in a sentence. As they were group in threes, students each took turn and cast their questions. The other two had to compete for answering the vocabulary question. 

Of all 37 students in class, only five clearly indicated that they liked the round robin vocabulary review competition activity. One of the students pointed out the reason she liked it was because she liked to interact and get to know classmates from other departments through this activity. She thought testing others with her own questions was interesting, Jennifer indicated that this was having all the fun while learning. 

         Nine out of 37 students felt that this activity was okay. The overall reason was largely because this activity was very competitive, which requires students to retrieve vocabulary automatically. Students think that the vocabulary covered in class was not easy and retrieving the vocabulary with only context clues seemed challenging. They may not be able to locate the answers in a timely manner therefore, they felt pressured. Another reason is concerning the flow of the activity. Some students were not clear about where they should go next and thus direction was confusing. 

“I think the activities are fine. A part of them was not easy for us, but that’s what we need to learn. (student 22)
“Switching seats was a bit troublesome. (student 3)
“It’s not bad to force myself to memorize the vocabularies, but during competition my reaction time is a bit slow, but I get to know the English explanation. (student 25).
“I like the vocabulary tournament, the review and competition because it is also good for me, and also help others.”(Student 16)

A-B Retell

A-B retell activity was an activity designed to train students’ ability to retell a passage that they read to their partner. This activity involved reading comprehension skills, summary skills and speaking ability. Because each turn was given a time limit of one minute for them to summarize a paragraph, they felt pressured. This activity is regarded as cognitive demanding because while they were thinking how best to summarize a paragraph, students also had to monitor what they say to be grammatically correct. Only two students liked this activity but they expressed that they were nervous, and that the activity was challenging but useful. For those who thought this activity was only okay was that their nervousness and the time pressure overrode their perceived usefulness of this activity. Students wrote:

I like A-B take turns summarizing a paragraph with one minute. I have  great progress. Besides, I enjoy that we can practice with our group mate. 
It is a new way to learn English that I have never tried before. (Student 16)
Somehow I think A-B taking turns and summarizing is difficult. (Student 30)
Summary of an article was just ok! Maybe that’s because I’m not good at  that part! (Student 31)
Summarizing in a short time is difficult. (student 11)

Conclusion

There has been a misconception that activities involving group work and interaction with pairs were the ones that university EFL students liked best. Although this was partially true in that students did not like dictation individually, however, they liked it done in cooperative learning groups and to correct their listening dictation by discussing with their group members. And even though Concept Mapping was individual work and more academic oriented, students thought learning how to draw concept maps while reading really enhanced their reading comprehension and summary skills. What was surprisingly opposite of what the professor perceived as fun and motivating was the Team-Game-Tournament. Although this activity was carried out as a kind of game and competition, students thought it was too challenging and it gave them too much pressure. Activities that are challenging may be ones that were too competitive or too cognitive demanding by giving a time limit to complete the task, i.e. A-B Retell. Activities such as these may need more pre-task training and preparation so that students would not felt intimidated and anxious in class. 

References

Chen, C. M. (2008). University English Curriculum Dilemma and English for Specific Purposes: views on policy and practice. English Career. 

Ellis, Rod (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford Applied Linguistics. .

Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary myths: applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c2004. 

Kuo, Y. H. (2010). Using partial dictation of an English teaching radio program to enhance EFL learners’ listening comprehension. Asian EFL Journal, 47. 

Johnson D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). Learning together and alone: Cooperative : competitive, and individualistic learning (5th ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kao, G. Y. M., Lin, S. S. J., & Sun, C. T. (2008a). Breaking concept boundaries to enhance creative potential: using integrated concept maps for conceptual self-awareness. Computers & Education, 51, 1718–1728.

Novak, J. D., & Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning how to learn. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Novak, J. D., & Musonda, D. (1991). A twelve-year longitudinal study of science concept learning. American Education Research Journal, 28, 117–153.

Wang, C. (2002) Innovative teaching in EFL contexts. The case of Taiwan. IN S. J. 

Savignon (Ed.), Communicative Language Teaching in Translation: Contexts and Concerns in Teacher Education (pp. 131-153). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: