The Revealing Shift to Online Tutoring

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By Kari Karlsbjerg

An Eye-Opening Experience

At Vancouver Community College’s (VCC) Learning Centre, answering student questions is our business, and ever since the abrupt move to online instruction last March, our students have had A LOT of questions. Overnight, our usual focus on providing English, job-hunting and study-skills assistance for our students dramatically expanded to include answering questions about the new logistics of accessing their classes, questions about their kids’ schools, plus listening to their fears about the daily rising COVID-19 numbers and worries about the future. The hundreds of hours of online one-on-one EAL tutoring sessions we have done with VCC’s students over the last eight months has truly been an eye-opening experience. We have discovered firsthand the isolation of so many of our immigrant students, the challenges of the deepening digital divide, and the substantial changes required to effectively tutor students in an online setting.

Some Background

For some background, VCC students can sign up for three 30-minute online tutoring appointments every week. We provide English, career and study skills tutoring to any VCC students taking English courses from LINC to Pathways to University Transfer and all the career programs, like Hospitality. To ensure that our students received a continuity of support, we moved all tutoring services online in mid-March. We shifted to using the WCOnline video tutoring platform, which allows us to have video chats with students while simultaneously looking at their questions and papers posted on the shared Whiteboard. 

Isolation

The blurring of boundaries that naturally resulted from the location shift from campus to private online meetings in our homes resulted in students sharing far more about their lives. As the months went by, a concerning issue came to the forefront – the deep loneliness of many of our immigrant students who had few local connections and felt cut off from their homeland. It was not uncommon for us to hear that speaking with us was the only conversation they had in a week besides their limited online classroom time. On the lighter side, online sessions in their homes also lets student show us other aspects of their lives and personalities by showing us their beloved pet or special piece of art or decoration in their home. 

The Digital Divide

Online tutoring also exposed the two vastly different digital worlds of our students: one group accessing our services through the latest expensive devices using speedy Wi-Fi connections and the other group struggling to access our session using ancient used computers and unreliable, dodgy internet connections. Unfortunately, the second group rarely signed up more than once for online tutoring sessions as it was just too frustrating and discouraging for them and almost impossible for us to give them any meaningful assistance. In addition, many low-level students simply lacked the basic English skills required to book an online tutoring session. As a result, the change from face to face sessions to online ones has meant that we have sadly lost much of our LINC four and lower level students. 

Adapting

Online appointments have resulted in a few changes to our regular tutoring practice. One of the most significant is in the way we start our sessions. In person, we could incorporate body language and indicate our welcome by smiling and pulling out a chair for the student while making small talk. However, online, it is harder to give a warm and personal welcome, and it feels so cold and robotic to directly move to asking how we can help them. Therefore, we make a point of looking directly in the camera and give them a smiling welcome using their name. We use the reader-response method of tutoring writing and insist that the students make their own edits during the discussion, but their slow typing speed can make the process frustratingly slow in the online setting. On the other hand, online video chat tutoring has been revolutionary for tutoring EAL students with their pronunciation and speaking skills. The private nature of the sessions completely removes any of their previous embarrassment of practicing sounds and doing minimal pair drills in a public library setting and there have been some stunning improvements as a result. 

The Final Word

All in all, online tutoring is working out and the English tutors have been fully booked since March. We are grateful that we can continue to be the backdrop of support for our students as they progress through their years at VCC. 

A Question

How has your institute dealt with transitioning online? Share your ideas in the comment section. Let’s work together!

Kari Karlsbjerg has been an English Tutor with the VCC Learning Centre for over 12 years. In addition, shenew best-selling bilingual guidebook, Everyday Vancouver (https://everydayvancouver.ca/) which contains practical cultural information about regular daily life that Korean newcomers need to feel at home here in Vancouver. Previously, she wrote similar books on everyday life and culture for Chinese newcomers that were published in both Canada and China in: “My New Life in Vancouver “and “Vancouver 365” which are also  bilingual (English and Mandarin).

The Pronunciation Elephant in the Room

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By Tanya Ploquin

[This article was first printed in the Spring 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

I came from a theatre background where we were taught to have what was called a “mid-Atlantic” accent for all roles where the director wanted a so called “neutral” accent; not too British and not too North American. Essentially it meant not reducing to the schwa or omitting it, aspirating [t]s, avoiding contractions, and any other such “lazy” or “sloppy” pronunciation.  I loved it. Fast forward to the classroom in a private college.

He looked at me and spoke softly, “Teacher what does sonuva mean?”  I was pretty sure I knew what he meant (son of a b!@#*), but I went in for confirmation, “Where did you hear that and who said it?” He replied, “My homestay parents say it every time the puppy pees in the house. I looked in my dictionary and online, but I can’t find it.” No, a Google search couldn’t answer this one.  Ah linking, you little devil.  It made me aware—hyper aware—of linking everywhere.  Linking, it is ubiquitous in many languages, and the bane of most language learners.

I had been teaching my students what was considered proper pronunciation, but I had failed them.  I began to notice linking, reductions, and contractions everywhere.  I paid attention to the usage, and found myself shocked, both as a teacher and as a former thespian.  The difference between “I’ll do it later” and “I will do it later” could be very important. Consider the following:

Mom: Clean your room!

Child: I’ll do it later. (Continues to play a videogame)

Mom: When? Not tomorrow.

Child: I said I’ll do it later.  Don’t bug me!

(5 minutes later)

Mom: I told you to clean your room!

Child: I said I will!

It’s not only nuance in connotation where this arises.  Consider texts that have reductions.  In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for one, reductions and contractions abound.  In one academic preparation class I taught there was a quote from the novel.  My students were truly stumped by three different issues with pronunciation while reading the text:

“I just want the whole lot of you to know one thing right now. That boy’s worked for me eight years an‘ I ain’t had a speck o’trouble outa him. Not a speck.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960.

  1. of reduced to a
  2. and reduced to an, which could be further reduced to [n]
  3. out of reduced and linked to outa, which could be further reduced to ouda

Remember, this was a reading assignment.  There was no mention in any materials that the teacher should pre-teach pronunciation. The students were set up to fail, and I felt terrible.

How much and how well are we preparing our students for the “real world” of English?  We go to great lengths to bring in realia.  We do many things all in an attempt to create a sense of urgency for language.  So with menus in hand from the local pizza restaurant we plan to teach how to order food.

Friday afternoon a few of your students go to the pizza restaurant.  They are bombarded with pronunciation structures we haven’t prepared them for: choice intonation, reducing ‘and’ to ‘N’, listing intonation both finished and unfinished, and to top it all of the reduction of [t] becoming [d] when the server tells them the total $13.30.

Let’s better prepare them to understand naturalized pronunciation.  We can, and should, teach them how to distinguish between 13 and 30.

If the stress is before middle [t], it can sound like [d]

Examples: 30, 40, 50, city, water, pretty, etc.…

If the stress is after middle [t] it sounds like [t]

Examples: hotel, guitar, Victoria

Now let’s practice it with a partner. Check if you heard A or B.

A                                                         B

1) thirty                                            thirteen

2) forty                                             fourteen

3) fifty                                              fifteen

4) sixty                                             sixteen

5) seventy                                       seventeen

6) eighty                                          eighteen

If you really want to wow your students, go a step further and explain how the [nt] combination is often reduced to only [n].

Examples: seventy, ninety, internet, mountain, Toronto, etc…

I have had to accept that I am not preparing my students for the stage.  I am preparing them to be able to comprehend and decode fluent local speakers of English.  I know I can’t prepare them for every situation, but I can make them aware of how, when, and why fluent local speakers might pronounce something differently.  I won’t call it lazy pronunciation and thereby detract from the inherent value in understanding it. It’s my job to prepare them for reality, not the snobbery of what might be deemed “proper pronunciation”.  Let’s stop ignoring a huge obstacle between our students and real English. Our students can’t afford to pretend that struggles with pronunciation don’t hinder fluency or comprehension of naturalized English.

The outside world is full of hafta, gotta, wanna, shoppin*, cupa tea, spendaloda timonit, etc. We should be asking ourselves, “What more can I do to prepare my students for the real world?” Asking the question is the first step.  I suggest we address the pronunciation elephant in the room.  As Barack Obama said, “We’re gonna hafta make some changes.” (The transcript of President Obama’s prime time news conference July 22, 2009).

Biographical Information

From the Spring 2016 issue of the BC TEAL Newsletter:  Tanya Ploquin is a teacher, internship mentor, and teacher mentor in Vancouver.  She has a BFA from the University of Saskatchewan and her TESOL credential from Vancouver Community College.  Her interests lie in professional development and pronunciation.

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This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Ploquin, T. (2016, Spring). The pronunciation elephant in the room. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-Teal-Newsletter-Spring-2016-FINAL.pdf

 

BC TEAL Webinars: Moving Beyond Pronunciation Pairs: Teaching the Rhythm of Canadian English

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Moving Beyond Pronunciation Pairs BC TEAL Webinar Series

Are you reluctant to teach pronunciation due to the variation in your learners’ needs? Don’t be! You can create valuable aha moments for students of various backgrounds by teaching them the pronunciation features of syllable and sentence stress. They will suddenly understand why others often do not understand them, why they often don’t understand others, and why English spelling and grammar are often difficult to learn. In this webinar recording, you will learn key features of the rhythm of Canadian English, a suggested progression for teaching it, and recommendations for teaching materials.

Cari-Ann Roberts Gotta is one of BC TEAL’s regional representatives. She holds a Master’s degree in Adult Education from UBC and a TESOL diploma from Vancouver Community College. Cari-Ann has been teaching in the field of English Language Learning for the past 12 years and currently works for Selkirk College in Nelson. Over the years she has developed her interest and skills in teaching pronunciation and has shared her learning with many language instructors and literacy tutors through numerous conference and training workshops.

Slides (click on the image below):

BCTEAL pronunciation webinar

Video:

February 20 #LINCchat Summary: Teaching Pronunciation

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Understanding pronunciation is essential for successful listening and speaking yet it’s sometimes neglected in our language classrooms. In our February 20 #LINCchat, we asked questions and shared resources and ideas for introducing pronunciation-focused activities in our classes.

Thanks to the educators who shared their thoughts during this #LINCchat and those who added their thoughts after the chat: @thespreadingoak, @LINCInstructor, @TanyacowieCowie, @ElleninSaigon@salaamay, @jennifermchow, @StanzaSL, @EALStories, and @ESLlibrary.

Thank-you also to moderators, Jennifer Chow (@jennifermchow) and Bonnie Jean Nicholas (@EALstories) for facilitating the discussion and keeping us on track.

Please find a summary of this chat below. To read it, hover over the Twitter bird next to the subtopics in the image below. The interactive image was made with Canva and ThingLink.

New to #LINCchat?

If you have never participated in #LINCchat before, go to www.lincchat.ca for more information. #LINCchats occur every other Tuesday, with the occasional Friday.  If you have any ideas for topics or have comments about #LINCchat, please send @StanzaSL or @EALstories a tweet or post a message on Tutela. Please join us for our next #LINCchat on Tuesday, March 6th at 6-7 p.m. PST or 9-10 p.m. EST. Please let others know about #LINCchat. Feel free to use the #LINCchat hashtag between chats to share thoughts and links with others.


zAB6NaOy_400x400Bonnie Nicholas (@EALstories) is an enthusiastic participant in the bi-monthly #LINCchat as well as a member of the #LINCchat team along with Svetlana Lupasco (@StanzaSL), Jennifer Chow (@jennifermchow), Augusta Avram (@LINCInstructor), and Nathan Hall (@nathanghall). Bonnie teaches LINC at NorQuest College in Edmonton.