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Helping Students Help Themselves
Using Personalized Teaching Aids
by Dennis Wilhoit

No matter how effective our teaching methods may be, the key to improving our students' overall performance skills is to show genuine interest in each of our students and help them become self-sufficient. Personalized teaching aids will help tremendously in getting students to monitor their own progress in the target language and to take charge of their own learning. Although improvement in actual performance comes slowly, the students immediately give positive feed-back; and their increased level of cooperation makes for a more successful language learning environment.

Systematic vocabulary mastery

As freshmen studying English at Chinese universities, students generally have one thing in common: A limited vocabulary base. Yet they are immediately confronted with relatively complex content in a variety of textbooks. "The Systematic Vocabulary Mastery Program" (see Student notebook insert #1, next page) is designed to resolve this problem.

Fluency-oriented techniques at the beginning levels of EFL tend to cater to the functions of the right hemisphere of the brain. Visual stimuli in the form of either pictures or actions are provided, and acquisition takes place naturally. But at the intermediate level, most lexical items are too abstract to be illustrated or demonstrated, and vocabulary mastery depends primarily upon left hemisphere processing.

"Our mind is really two minds-left hemisphere and right hemisphere-therefore we ought to learn as though we were two persons. The left side of our mind is rational, logical and conscious; it explains. It is linear using parts and sequence, memorization and rules. As a result, it pigeon holes, conceptualizes, discriminates, analyzes, de-fines and works with specifics....The right mind is creative; it produces images. It sees, connects and creates patterns and clusters. It suggests, evokes, designs, creates melodies and rhythms" (Egge 1990).

Through investigation of left-brain functions, Ebbinghaus identified a "standard memory curve" (see Figure 1 ), which traces the rate of long-term memory loss for the average person (Hong 1988:50). Research has confirmed that periodic review of previously-learned material facilitates retention and recall of an increasingly higher proportion of input information. (see Figure 2* ) illustrates this phenomenon, showing that this benefit is sustained not only in the short-term memory (STM) but also in the long-term memory (LTM). Contrary to common-sense logic, the rate of memory loss is greater immediately after committing something to memory than during any period later on. Consequently, the best time for rehearsal of material may be ten minutes after it was first introduced (Brown-Azarowicz et. al, 1986:18, 24).

The Systematic Vocabulary Mastery Program has been calculated to pinpoint the optimum timing of intervals between review sessions to maximize the efficiency of time devoted to the memorization process. Subsequently, with an investment of only a few minutes daily, long term recall can be achieved.

The effectiveness of this system depends not only on the spacing of periodic reviews but also on the way vocabulary is organized. If words bearing no apparent mutual relationship are randomly listed, they may be difficult to recall. But if they are grouped or "clustered" in such a manner that they can be stored in memory, recall is much easier. Listing related words together, organizing them into meaningful and logical patterns, and then trying to visualize each entry will increase the chances for total recall at a later time.

Try to imagine a jar of hot water into which tea leaves have been poured. For a few minutes those leaves remain in suspension, but they gradually settle to the bottom. To keep the leaves in suspension, the jar has to be periodically shaken. New lexical items entering the mind are something like tea leaves poured into the jar. When the learner wishes to use one of those words to express his thoughts, there is a short period during which his mind can "reach out" and capture just the right one. Afterwards it is likely that it will be among those first words to slip from his command, "sinking to the bottom, out of reach." Shaking the jar can be likened to bringing to mind vocabulary that has been previously learned-just at the point when it is in danger of being forgotten. As long as that vocabulary is "in suspension," so to speak, the speaker has it at his command. My experience has shown that the students build vocabulary by taking the following steps:

  1. Reserve a portion of their notebooks for organizing a cumulative list of vocabulary/ definition entries under general categories,
  2. Divide that list into manageable sections of equal length.
  3. Dedicate a few minutes every day to review those sections.

Try it!

Figure 1

The personal touch in evaluation.

Periodic oral performance critique. Weekly language laboratory sessions enable the teacher to unobtrusively "listen in," assess, and monitor the student performance. Since these sessions are periodic, the teacher can write a brief critique in each student's notebook, and offer not only timely correction but also encouragement and praise!

Student Notebook Insert #2
Class of _____ Oral English Evaluation
and Personal Profile of Oral Skills
Date: 19 . . . Name (English)_____________________________
Important: After cutting off the bottom part of this page, keep the top part in your notebook. This will help you see where you need to concentrate in order to improve your speaking ability. Also, each time you take an oral examination you can compare and see whether or not you are improving.
_____ PRONUNCIATION - mispronounced word(s)/sound(s)
a) = Has few traces of foreign accent
b) = Always intelligible, though one is conscious of a definite accent
c) = Pronunciation problems occasionally lead to misunderstanding
d) = Very hard to understand; must frequently be asked to repeat
e) = Speech virtually unintelligible
_____ GRAMMAR - type of error/example
a) = Few noticeable errors in grammar or word order
b) = Occasional grammatical and/or word-order errors that do not obscure meaning
c) = Frequent errors in grammar and word order occasionally obscure meaning
d) = Misuse of words and inadequate vocabulary make conversation difficult
e) = Vocabulary limitations extreme, making conversation virtually impossible
_____ VOCABULARY - word(s)/idiom(s) misused
a) = Uses vocabulary and idioms at the level of native speaker
b) = Sometimes uses inappropriate terms and/or must rephrase ideas due to lexical inadequacies
c) = Frequently uses the wrong words; conversation restricted by inadequate vocabulary
d) = Misuse of words and inadequate vocabulary make conversation difficult
e) = Vocabulary limitations extreme, making conversation virtually impossible
_____ FLUENCY - problem area: __intonation __speed __hesitancy
a) = Speech is as fluent and effortless as that of a native speaker
b) = Speed of speech seems to be slightly affected by language problems
c) = Speed and fluency rather strongly affected by language problems
d) = Usually hesitant; often forced into silence by language limitations
e) = Speech so halting and fragmentary that conversations virtually impossible
_____ COMPREHENSION - problem area: __vocabulary __speed of speech __sentence structure
a) = Appears to understand everything without difficulty
b) = Understands nearly everything at normal speed, although occasional repetition necessary
c) = Understands most of what is said at slower-than-normal speed with repetitions
d) = Has great difficulty following what is said: Can comprehend only "social conversation" spoken slowly with repetitions
e) = Cannot understand even simple conversation English
_____= Total score
Grade Equivalents Scale Teacher's comments:
90-100 = A a = 20
a-b= 18
80-89 = B b = 16
b-c =14
70-79 = C c = 12
c-d =10
60-69 = D d = 8
c-e =6
0-59 = F e = 4

"Diagnostic testing" and "personal profile of oral skills" form. At the beginning of the first term, one means of getting acquainted with student needs is to give each student a "diagnostic test" by individual appointment. This consists of a battery of tests graded from elementary to advanced, probing virtually every area of oral proficiency. The test results help the teacher zero-in on student needs in course and lesson planning. At a later date an adaptation of the TESOL Diagnostic Test of Oral Communication, using Harris' Oral English Rating Sheet, can be attached to their notebooks (see Student notebook insert #2). This test format measures proficiency in five major categories-pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary usage, fluency, and comprehension. It gives students not just a "numerical grade," but a revealing qualitative evaluation defining relative strengths and weaknesses in concrete terms, and suggesting steps that the student should take to improve performance.

Office hours, "error chart," and individual coaching. Students appreciate a teacher's patience and sympathy with their early struggles to speak in English, but it is the counseling and coaching precisely tailored to meet their individual needs that may mean the most to them. To be effective a teacher needs to set aside regular office hours to counsel students relying on such tools as those described above to accurately assess each student.

Another valuable tool is the corrected homework in each student's notebook or portfolio. Of all the grammatical errors that students commit in written work, more than half appear in their oral production as well. (See Student notebook insert #3). If an "error chart" is used to identify and monitor the recurrence of a student's errors, concrete measures can be taken to eliminate them.

Mutual benefits

The words diagnosis, profile, and office hours are all suggestive of the doctor/patient relationship, and in this case a "language doctor" plays the role of the medical doctor. To carry this analogy a little further, an error chart can be likened to an X-ray and the periodic critique to regular check-ups. Likewise, the vocabulary assimilation program resembles a daily "diet" regimen maintained by the student. The benefits are mutual: The "patient" receives well-founded advice and the "doctor" gains professional insight that will influence learning priorities and lesson planning. These teaching aids allow the teacher to show personal interest in each student while helping students help themselves.

1 Singular-Plural They has been there for two year. They have been there for two years.
2 Word Form You seem very tire. You seem very tired.
3 Word Choice He got on the car. He got in the car.
4 Verb Tense We are here since last Tuesday. We have been here since last Tuesday.
5+ Add a Word She wants go home. She wants to go home.
5- Omit a Word He lives on the 3rd Avenue. He lives on 3rd Avenue.
6 Word Order I read twice that book. I read that book twice.
7 Incomplete Sentence I ate a candy bar. Because I was hungry. I ate a candy bar because I was hungry.
8 Spelling A car was comming. A car was coming.
9 Punctuation What do you mean. What do you mean?
10 Capitalization He is learning russian. He is learning Russian.
11 Article I ate a orange. I ate an orange.
12 Meaning not clear Where goes up? ???
13 Run-on sentence I am hungry, I would like to eat soon. I am hungry. I would like to eat soon.
The above "Key" explains the meaning of each error category in the chart below. By Keeping track of the types of error occur-
ring in wriiten homework assignments during successive time periods(divided into 1/2 term intervals), it is possible to monitor
progress throughout the year and identify weak areas where further improvement is required. Special effort should be made to
eliminate those errors which show up in oral production as well as written work-designated by the numbers in boldface, e.g.: 12
Error Chart: Written Homework
  1 2 3 4 5+ 5- 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Sep-Nov Mid-Term                            
Nov-Jan Final                            
Mar-May Mid-Term                            
May-Jul Final                            

Dennis Wilhoit teaches in the English Department of Yanbian University, China. He specializes in syllabus design and learning strategies.



  • Brown-Azarowicz, M., C. Stannard, and M. Goldin. 1986. YES! you can learn a foreign language. Passport Books.
  • Egge, D. 1990. The handbook: Teaching English in China. Hong Kong: Eurocell International, Ltd.
  • Harmer, J. 1983. The practice of English language teaching. London: Longman.
  • Hong, D. l988. Jiyi Xinlixue (Memory Psychology). Beijing: Kexue Puji Chubanshe.
  • Jenkins, J., D. Gonzalez, and K. Santopietro. 1978. English as a second language oral assessment (ESLOA). Syracuse, N.Y.: Literacy Volunteers of America.


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