SLA and non-native teacher trainees

This series of posts will address issues I’ve come across in the development of a Second Language Acquisition (SLA) course for NNESTs in a post-graduate teacher training program in Seoul, Korea. I’ve been coordinating the course for a few years now, and we think we are finally gaining some ground in the battle against the perceived inapplicability of course content. I will share some of the major issues we’ve faced and how we’re beginning to overcome them. Though the posts will focus mainly on SLA, the approach we take can be applied to any EFL course that also teaches some academic content.

This post will describe our most recent course change, which we hope will completely change the experience students have in the course and make the practicality of content obvious.

A major challenge we face teaching language and content in a course that already has a ‘theoretical’ reputation is the difficulty of course readings. Fools are we, and we may have been, to think that students would be able to connect course content to their own teaching while only understanding the main ideas of the text. So, maybe a solution to our text difficulty problem can solve our ‘practicality’ problem as well.

I had some success with literature circles (click here) and then found Tyson Seburn’s  academic reading circles (click here). Our plan this semester is to use ARCs to solve our text difficulty and practicality problems.

I will try to update as the semester progresses as much as possible. For now, here is our assignment sheet that outlines the roles of each group member. Prior to this semester, students were reading independently and answering focus questions before class. The questions covered the key concepts of each reading.

Academic Reading Circles in SLA

What are Academic Reading Circles (ARC)?

 An ARC is an adapted version of a literature circle in which groups of students come to understand course readings in groups, or circles. Each time you read something for SLA class, you will be reading for a specific purpose that is designated by your role (see page 2). By reading for a specific purpose and then discussing what you’ve found online and in person, you will gain an understanding of the material that is far superior to reading it on your own.

What do I need to do?

  1. Prior to class, each member of the circle reads the text and posts an appropriate response to the discussion leader’s initial post (the discussion leader will post first).
  2. After the discussion leader has created the first post for their circle, each member of their circle needs to reply to the initial post (the discussion leader will ask several questions) and then add information related to their specific role.
  3. At the beginning of each class, circles will have 5-10 minutes to discuss anything confusing or interesting that came up during the online discussion.
CODE Roles and Responsibilities
DL Discussion Leader:

  • Create the blog post.
  • Create 3 comprehension questions about information in the reading.
  • Create 1 discussion question about something you are curious about in the reading or something you do not clearly understand.
  • Keep track of the time during the discussion so everyone gets a turn.
  • Remind members that they should not read exactly from the textbook.
  • Ensure that no one person dominates the discussion and everyone speaks.
HL Highlighter: Highlight at least 7 words from the text that are unknown to or seem important to understanding the main ideas of the reading; find the appropriate meaning and post a list that contains the word and your paraphrased definition.
AP Applier:Think of ways that this material can be applied in actual Korean English classrooms. Consider the following questions:

  • How does this information help an English teacher?
  • Can this information be applied to real classrooms?
  • If so, what are some examples of how this information can be applied in the classroom?
SU Summarizer:Summarize the main points of the reading (150 words or less)


The CLT Hyperbola


In the TESOL certificate program where I work (STG), students come for close to eight hours of study every Saturday. The first four hours are spent in Methodology class, then the remaining time is split between SLA and ICC. This semester’s SLA course follows four hours of Meth and often students are drained, understandably. Last week, however, many of the students realized that they misunderstood some of the major Methodology concepts and were quite distraught. My demand to connect recent SLA content to Meth only made things more confusing. After asking a few questions to find out exactly where the gap in their understanding was, I decided to run through some content I had done when I was a Methodology instructor. One of the visuals I shared really seemed to vibe with the group and other faculty members, so here I will present and explain a visual (something I put on the whiteboard) I’ve used over the last six years that ties several CLT principles together.

SLA applied to Meth

The SLA concepts I asked to connect to classroom practice were sense, meaning, complexity, and difficulty. Sense and meaning are criteria for long-term storage of the lesson’s target language content (TLC). To help students leave the class with a deep understanding of the TLC, teachers should activate schema and connect students to the context (sense) in the preview and create an authentic reason to interact with the listening/reading source (meaning). Difficult and complexity connect to the teachers choice of tasks and lines of questioning throughout the lesson. Both of which should increase in complexity (# of though processes required to answer a question, solve a problem) and difficulty (effort required to answer or solve a problem). Essentially, the teacher has to balance task complexity and difficulty with student proficiency and remember that low proficiency does not mean that the student can only REMEMBER (Bloom); low-proficiency students can also APPLY, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, and CREATE, if the difficulty level is appropriate.

The Hyperbola

Here is the whiteboard that brought it all together for my class.

hyperbola original

Input Stages

The hyperbola illustrates several concepts in the lesson. First, moving from top to bottom, it narrows and then widens. This represents the increasing focus on form or increase in the amount of detail paid to specific language content. At the top, in the lesson preview, besides pre-teaching a few vocabulary items, no attention is paid to specific TLC – the focus is purely on context, fluency, and schema activation (non-threatening personal questions related to the topic). Following the preview, students will interact with the source several times. Initial interaction with the text is brief – they identify genre and find the main idea. Next, they read or listen for details. Finally, they read or listen for specific language information. For example, students could read a request letter and identify ways that the request was made politely, or, more traditionally, listen to a recipe and list different types of ingredients. To sum up the input stages, student interaction with the source begins with a focus on meaning and ends with a focus on form.

Output Stages

The stages that follow are a mirror image of what just happened except students are expected to produce language. They began understanding the source with the main idea, focusing on meaning and ended with a focus on form. In this half, students will start with the form by isolating and practicing it. Here, using language from the text, the teacher needs to elicit its form, meaning, and use. Students can practice the form in decontextualized  exercises. Remember, this is the narrowest section of the hyperbola.

After the TLC has been isolated, students will practice and produce it in two or more activities that increase in complexity – the hyperbola widens as the focus moves from form to meaning.

In addition to the actual stages of the lesson, the hyperbola also illustrates a few other concepts the teacher needs to consider such as teacher/student-centeredness (narrow represents teacher-centered), the quantity of error correction (narrow represents the need for EC), fluency, and accuracy.

After going through this with the class, I offered one extra point to the first student to post a picture and summarize the hyperbola in our google+ community. Here is the summary:


The above hyperbola demonstrates the way a language teacher will facilitate students through input and output of TLC in a lesson.  As an instructor moves from above to below there are several factors occurring.  Moving from learner-centered tasks to teacher-centered and again to learner-centered.  There is also little error correction from the teacher during the preview as fluency is elicited in the preview.  Then when learners are focused on the isolation phase of the lesson there is error correction as accuracy is important.  Towards the practice stage into independent production students are again focused on fluency or automatization and the teacher is not focused on error correction.  If students happen to continue to show errors throughout the independent production then the instructor can re-explain the forms after the task is completed.

Into the hyperbola the preview stage is the top.  Students schema is activated.  Then for a top-down task students give information about the main idea.  Then there is an interactive processing utilizing top-down and bottom-up while students focus on the details of input.

Then language features and details are focused on after details of the input are covered in the presentation stage.  There is a bottom-up process for language isolation where accuracy is the key.

Moving on to controlled practice students use the form from the isolation with repetition or drills or exercises.  They can also begin to incorporate context into the controlled practice by the teacher having the practice related to a function or task related to the real world for communication.

After controlled practice students will do an activity for independent production of the target language content that reflects fluency and is learner-focused without the teacher involvement (or much).

The group even went on to create a cleaned-up version of the hyperbola which is something I’ve wanted to do but never got around to actually doing.

Stuff for STG

I’ve been sharing this visual with my classes for a while now, but the reception I got from this group prompted me to blog about it and share. I hope this can help you and/or your students in some way and look forward to some comments.