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Friday, November 25, 2016

Back to Basics

While we are arming our ESL literacy class for adults with oral language and phonics skills, we also use other strategies to get them reading.

One strategy is using early-grade high-frequency word lists. Together the items on these lists make up a high percentage of the words found in early readers and words children use when they write. Being able to recognize them by sight gives a big boost to literacy learning.

Usually, the most basic list contains words whose pronunciation could be difficult to explain. For example, while the list contains go, no and so, it also includes to and do and you—three words where the sound of o is very different. Because all six words are so common, it helps just to teach them all as sight words.

You would think that this strategy would be a cinch in Sierra Leone; that learning to read by rote, or by sight, would not be a problem because it is the way reading has always been taught in Sierra Leone. However, sometimes even teaching sight words can get tough.

Here's an example: one of the words on the most basic list is the. The pronunciation of the in standard English is [ðə] before consonants and [ði] before vowels. However, by far the most prevalent pronunciation of the word in Sierra Leone English is [di]. The consonant is different from standard English, and most people do not alter the vowel according to the beginning sound of the following word. Evidence for this prevalence is the widespread use of the spelling di for the word the in texting language in Sierra Leone.

Therefore, as we alternate drilling twenty-five basic sight words with guided reading activities in our class, the word the continues to be a bone in our throats. Neither [ðə] nor [ði] sounds like a word to our learners. We have the option, of course, of saying that Sierra Leone English is our students' target language, so why not teach the word as [di], and continue substituting the [d] sound for [ð] and [t] for its voiceless counterpart, wherever th occurs?

Uh, I don't think so. It’s time to move back to oral language activities. Those early exercises with indefinite articles (“Is this a book? No, it's not a book. It's a chair.”) need to be made definite, even if we have to introduce adjective clauses in the process (“Is this the pen you gave him? No, that's the orange I gave him.”). 



Thursday, November 24, 2016

Workplace English with SELI

We've also been busy this term teaching ESL Workplace English to a selected group of employees in an organization.

The members of the class have in common that for personal, family reasons their schooling was interrupted—perhaps multiple times—in their early lives. Although all these men are skilled at their jobs, the organization, SELI and the participants all see a benefit in improving their ability to communicate with others in the organization and in enhancing their employability.

Using a variety of resources and teaching methods, we are therefore working with a group of preliterate and semiliterate English-as-an-additional-language learners. They are faced with two tasks—learning literacy and learning English—but they are quick and eager. In our latest class, our preliterate members began reading their first book, Here We Go. They're especially enjoying interpreting Claudius John's illustrations.

Much as I like teaching this class, I can't help repeating that it is a pity that in schools in Sierra Leone literacy is tied to the English language. It only means that any students who do not have the opportunity to continue their education beyond the primary or early junior secondary level, lose their literacy after a few years simply because they no longer have a reason to use English. We need to teach all students to write and read their first languages in early primary school so they will own their literacy for life.

Business English with SELI

We've been busy this term teaching an 18-session ESL course in Business English, and loving it!

It's being conducted during the working day on the organization's premises, to a group divided in two so that during our class time there is always someone in each department's office to take care of business.

Half of our course is devoted to business writing, and half to oral skills. It's a blended course, in that although we meet face-to-face twice a week, there is also an online requirement. Each member of the class is required to submit a number of assignments online at the SRWP Workshop. They post their assignments there (in a section of the page invisible to those not enrolled in the class) and also must respond online to two other pieces of writing posted by their colleagues, commenting on how well they have met the assignment's criteria.

The group is a pleasure to work with and I hope they're finding it as much of a learning experience as I am!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Along the Road there is a School

I was happy to return this week to the dependable and hard-working Young Writers club at the junior secondary United Methodist Heritage High School on Malaforia Road leading out of Kabala, in Sierra Leone's Northern Province.

The club is fortunate to be accommodated in a new classroom with ready-made furniture, but it takes more than that to build a group of persistent writers.  It takes a principal and club facilitators who see the value in each of the steps involved in the writing process, and who patiently keep encouraging the students forward until they benefit from the eventual rewards.

The principal in this school is Mrs. Daisy Sankoh, and the teachers (pictured here) are Mr. Paul M. Conteh and Mr. Sannah D. Samura. We appreciate their support and are glad to see the students' final drafts on the classroom wall for all to read!

And what are the eventual rewards that students gain from SELI Young Writers clubs?  They learn to read in English, because by the time they have finished a final draft they have read it 6 or 8 times. They learn to write in English, and learn as many of the skills associated with writing as they work on acquiring: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, avoiding repetition, moving from narrative to dialogue and back again, and so on. They learn to listen in English so they can respond to others' writing and learn to speak in English while they explain their meaning to others in their content conference groups.

We wish this Young Writers club well as they move through the 2016-2017 school year.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Encouraging Writing Teachers to Write


Have you been looking for a writing group to join that will understand your cultural references to Sierra Leone or West Africa? If so, please come to the Seli River Writing Project Workshop!

Over the years, SELI has found that most teachers in Sierra Leone were never taught the writing process—rehearsal, drafting, getting feedback, revising, editing, and then producing a final draft. This is the reason that our LYW participants work on their own personal writing during workshops. We always hope that after the training the participants will not only be more prepared to teach writing, but also continue to write, themselves.

But there is an obstacle to continuing to write: the difficulty of finding a writing group to share drafts with. This stage, which we call conferencing at SELI, is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing both for our club members and for their teachers.

We therefore are providing a forum, or a writing group, which you and the teachers can join and use from any part of the world—because it’s online! Since Sierra Leone is moving (yes, slowly, but) steadily in the direction of getting and staying online—if not so commonly yet by computer, at least by mobile phone—most of our LYW teachers will have access to this forum.

Come and join us online at the Seli River Writing Project Workshop if you are a writer and have been looking for a writing group to join that will understand your cultural references to Sierra Leone or West Africa, or will understand mixed-cultural settings in which you have lived, or live now. Register—it’s free! We welcome anyone who is willing to give other writers helpful, constructive feedback and post their own in-progress writing. Whether you are experienced and published or unsure how to begin, you are welcome. No one ever outgrows the need for feedback. We’ll help each other write.