Dr. Carmelita Ballesteros is Assistant Professor in the College of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Da-Yeh University in Changua, Taiwan. She has taught ESL/EFL, written pronunciation textbooks, and trained teachers in the Philippines and Taiwan. She has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Santo Tomas.
Some Carmelita C. Ballesteros links:
College of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Da-Yeh University
Cashew Nuts (A simple story of hurting, healing, loving and forgiving for juvenile readers, published by De La Salle University Press)
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Carmelita C. Ballesteros:
What is your main ESL activity now? What are your
principal projects, and what is on the back burner?
I am in an EFL setting right now. Taiwan, based on what I hear and read, seems to be headed towards becoming an ESL country. But at the moment, it is very much an EFL environment. Mandarin is the official language of government, education, business, and mass media.
The good news is that Taiwan's recent membership in the WTO (World Trade Organization) is driving home the need for communicative competence in English.
I'm basically a classroom teacher here. I teach a variety of oral courses, freshman composition, and some courses for English majors. My current research interests are in (1) discourse analysis in relation to the teaching of writing, (2) pronunciation teaching specific to the needs of Chinese speakers, and (3) the use of the storytelling approach in facilitating conversation fluency.
What's on the back burner? I'd like to write language teaching methodology modules for teachers in the elementary grades, junior high school, and senior high school. I hope to find a publisher one day soon. I'd like to pursue a research project on discourse analysis as a teacher's cognitive tool in responding to student drafts in composition classes. There seems to be a gap on this very important and very difficult aspect of writing pedagogy. If there's anybody out there who's already got the magic formula, please share it with the readers of ESL MiniConference Online.
How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced
your decision? What were some important formative
experiences in the early stages of your development?
I started my ESL career in the Philippines 30 years ago by chance. I really wanted to be a lawyer-journalist. But after getting my bachelor's degree in political science, I was asked to teach English courses in my university. So I took graduate studies in English, major in literature. But I've always been asked to teach language courses.
Formative experiences? As a student, I always competed and won in speech contests. I guess that's the reason I was given oral communication courses as teaching assignments in the beginning. I was also a student writer and editor. That's why I am sympathetic to young writers and handle composition courses no matter how difficult and time-consuming they are.
As a young teacher, motherhood was my best formative experience. Honest. Soon after I started teaching, I got married and became a mother. I read stories to my son and taught him the critical sounds of English. From the Filipino point of view, some critical sounds of English are /f/, /v/, and /th/. At age one, my son could produce all the critical sounds which some adults trip on. Because of this accidental learning insight, I got interested in children's acquisition of second language phonology.
After teaching children's speech and elocution in a nonformal language center, I became convinced that children can learn standard spoken English faster and more effectively than adults. At that time in the Philippines - late 70s to early 80s -- Speech/Pronunciation was taught formally only in college. But my experiences as a mother and as a teacher of young children made me realize that it made more sense to start teaching spoken English in preschool and the elementary grades than in college.
One thing led to another. Soon I was writing pronunciation textbooks for children. The first edition, preparatory to grade six, was published in the 1980s. The second edition, in the 1990s. And the third edition, very recently.
What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds
with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which
ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a
language learner yourself? What insights have you
gained in how to meet the needs of English learners
from these cultures and language backgrounds?
As a teacher, I'm most familiar with only two language backgrounds - Filipino and English. To some extent, I'm becoming familiar with Chinese right now. I studied Mandarin as a foreign language in the Philippines, but I'd lost most of it by the time I started teaching in Taiwan.
As a language learner, I'm familiar with Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Filipino, and English, of course.
As regards insights on meeting the needs of English language learners, let me contrast my ESL background and my Chinese as a Foreign Language experience in the Philippines. I have achieved communicative competence in English because I need to use it for communicative purposes. English, being one of the two official languages, is used in government, education, mass media, and business. On the other hand, I didn't achieve communicative competence in Mandarin because I never really needed to use it for communicative purposes in the Philippines. Even now that I live in Taiwan and am "immersed" in Chinese, I am not acquiring enough Chinese because I teach in English and interact with students and colleagues in English.
What am I trying to say? Communicative competence in any language depends on aptitude, motivation, and the need to communicate. I have just met an Australian lady who has already acquired fluency in everyday Mandarin after only nine months in Taiwan. How did she do it? She had to because she married a Taiwanese gentleman and she is now a member of an extended Taiwanese family!
Mixed marriages cannot be a pedagogical solution, of course. Therefore, EFL teachers in all parts of the world must be creative in simulating situations which compel students to communicate in the target language.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a
new ESL teacher, what would they be?
Let me emphasize that I am giving these pieces of advice as a nonnative speaker to other nonnative speakers of English. By the way, the total number of nonnative speakers of English is double the number of native speakers. Truly, there are many Englishes around the world.
1. Keep honing your own communicative skills. It's a never-ending process. Keep reading intensively and extensively on different subject areas -- academic, recreational, political, literary, cultural, technological, business, etc. Keep talking in English. If you have nobody to talk to and you are in an EFL setting, talk to yourself 30 minutes a day. I have met some Taiwanese who are fluent in English although they have never lived in English-speaking countries. One of their learning strategies is self-talk.
2. Do action research in your classroom. Focus on one class at a time. Document everything you and your students say and do and think and feel. Keep a diary. Collect handouts, quizzes, drafts, posters, collages, etc. Why? To learn about yourself as a teacher. To learn how your students learn. To learn why some students do not learn. To learn how the learning process can become more efficient and more effective and more fun.
3. Keep yourself up-to-date with regard to the developments in English language education. Be a consumer of research so that your teaching is grounded on sound theory. Attend and present papers in local and international seminars. By doing so, you become a producer of new knowledge. Who knows where good fortune might take you? Join professional ESL/EFL organizations so that you can have a support group to turn to for encouragement.
What do you see as the most important issues
facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?
1. Teacher Training. Preservice and inservice training is sadly inept in many countries today, including the Philippines. I have been lucky because I've had good teachers from the grades up to graduate school. By the way, I was born and educated in the Philippines. I didn't acquire my English by living in an L1 country or marrying an L1 speaker. I'm an authentic, home-grown nonnative speaker of English. And I would like to pay tribute to all of my teachers.
But let me go back to teacher training. Actually, the sad state of teacher preparation in many countries is a symptom of socio-economic and political problems which are too complex to deal with in this interview. What can an ordinary teacher do? Train yourself. Be a lifelong learner. Do not wait for somebody else to "empower" you. I have always believed in bottom-up self-empowerment. I wrote my first pronunciation textbook in response to the needs of my pupils. I did not wait for someone else to help me. I helped myself because I sincerely wanted my pupils to experience the power of speech!
Don't you ever under-estimate yourself and say that you're just an ordinary teacher. I was and am still an ordinary teacher. But in all humility, I have been able to do what I have done so far because I have always helped myself. And be comforted by the assurance that as you do so, you meet other self-help believers. And you help one another along the way.
2. Curriculum Development. Perhaps, this is a more important issue than teacher training. But I think teacher training is an urgent issue. Even without "formal" curriculum documents and without "formal" instructional materials, a good teacher can teach effectively. To use a metaphor, a good parent can be a good homemaker in the most humble dwelling and in the most trying situation. But an ill-prepared parent makes a big mess even when given a palace in royal surroundings.
Going back to curriculum development, educational managers should make sure that the scope and sequence of language learning is coherent. The learning goals should be well-articulated. They should be communicated clearly to the teachers. Learning outcomes should be monitored vigilantly through collaborative instructional supervision. (Sometimes, learning goals and outcomes are poles apart.)
The method of testing language learning should match the method used in facilitating it. If the goal is communicative competence and the methodology used is the communicative approach, the assessment approach should be communicative, too. Let me use another metaphor. If a student is learning how to bike, he/she should be tested on his/her ability to bike, not on his/her ability to memorize the parts of the bike. And of course, teachers should be provided with regular preservice and inservice training on the many aspects of language education so that the curriculum becomes a living reality, not just a paper document.
3. Materials Design. Some ESL/EFL coursebooks and CD-ROMS in the international market, even those written by some methodology gurus, are advertised as communicative and interactive. But some of them are not. Classroom teachers should learn how to critique instructional materials. They should never teach to the book or CD-ROM. Most of all, they should learn how to de-construct and re-construct available materials, and then develop their own materials specific to the needs and level of their students.
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online