Education Opinion

Painting a Fence

By Emmet Rosenfeld — May 04, 2007 3 min read

I tried a practice prompt. On the advice of my loyal entry reader, Stephanie, I chose one related to English Language Learners. Those are the trickiest, she warns.

The trial run, below, was based on a transcription and writing sample from a (probably Hispanic) student who had read Tom Sawyer. Instead of composing in word, I used an online simulation set up by Patrick Ledesma, an FCPS National Board coach, who’s set up a tri-pane display with a timer on the bottom to give you a feel for the real thing.

I found that jumping from box to box and scrolling took more time than I thought. In fact, I didn’t finish. Below is what I managed in exactly thirty minutes. And boy was it fun. For your best marble and a horny toad, I’ll even let you take a turn. Candidates like me should go to Pat’s site for practice. Already NBCT’s are invited to comment with words of wisdom for us wannabes before we take the test for real.
Practice response to AYA/ELA: Exercise 4- Language Study (30 minutes)

A significant feature of this second-language learner’s oral discourse is that he frequently makes lengthy pauses of several seconds between ideas. The pauses do not occur between sentences, but rather between “chunks” of his story. Let me work through the sample, and try to suggest the reason for each pause. After this analysis of discourse, I will offer prescriptive teaching strategies.

The first pause is after repeating the prompt, when he is deciding how he is like Tom Sawyer. He sees a connection: both he and Tom make others do work for them, and get these others into trouble. Once this idea is expressed, there is another break, as the student sorts through his mind how to tell the story about sending his cousin for eggs. There is greater fluency in his oral narration at this point, with three consecutive sentences.

Then, there is another pause, preceding a change in direction: the student back tracks to say that had been playing in a treehouse. In other words, he is setting the scene, something he had forgotten to do at the start of the story. There is a pause at this point, perhaps as the student attempts a conditional grammatical construction: “So I tell my cousin if he go to the store (4-sec. pause) I let him play in the treehouse with me every day.”

Following is a four-sentence string, with a pause after the subject indicated by ellipsis around the pronoun “he.” The speaker may be considering, possibly subconsciously, the formation of the verb to follow: “go” pops out, instead of the form of the verb-- “goes"-- that would agree with his subject. After this hiccough, however, the joy of the story’s climax lends speed to the speech. The cousin falls and all the eggs break. There is a final pause to compose the concluding sentence, stating the reaction of the mother.

As we can see, there are various reasons for the pauses, but in essence there are two categories. Some are related to composition, others to a consideration (perhaps unconscious) of language rules like verb tense. An instructional strategy I would use to address this student’s oral discourse is to allow him to prepare for the oral recitation by making a four-square sequence drawing to plan his response. This would allow him time to consciously order the events in his mind, so that the recitation would be smoother and not include digressions related to story construction.

The strategy would also help the student with some of the unconscious decisions regarding half-understood rules, in that it would relieve him of the pressure of composition on the fly, and therefore allow him to focus more on the speaking itself. The strategy would not directly remedy his subject-verb agreement, but would perhaps allow him to speak more naturally and fluently than in this sample, where he appeared self-conscious, possibly due to awareness of the testing environment.

A significant feature of the student’s written discourse is that almost all verbs are in the present tense. Also, I don’t see evidence of paragraphing. In effect, the story is written in one sustained burst, like a string of sentences with no air.

To address this student’s written discourse, I would ask him to revise the piece by reading aloud with a partner. I would coach the peer reviewer to hold up his hand every time the reader paused or took a breath. This would make the author more aware of the rhythm of his writing, and encourage him to control it by using punctuation and paragraphs.

My rationale for this strategy is that, in the process of revision, the writer could see that he can control pace and rhythm in his written delivery to increase the dramatic power of the story in the same way that a speaker controls it in his oral delivery.

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