What a great honour for me to have Naomi Ganin-Epstein, a wonderful educator from Israel, write a guest post for the blog. Ever since I connected with Naomi on Twitter, I am always happy to see her online and exchange ideas and links – she is so enthusiastic and passionate about what she does and she does a fascinating job as well. Thank you so much, Naomi!

Naomi introduces herself:

Naomi Ganin-Epstein

For the past twenty-six years I have specialized in teaching English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing pupils in Israel. I began my carreer as an elementary school teacher but have taught high-school for the last 22 years. I have a B.A. in Deaf Education, a B.E.D. in EFL and an M.A. in Curriculum Development. I’m the author of two textbooks for these pupils. I am both a teacher and a teacher’s counselor. I blog at: Visualising Ideas and on twitter: @naomishema. I live in Kiryat-Ono, Israel, with my husband and two sons.

“Google Translate” has been around for quite a while. Before that there were online bilingual dictionaries, which were, in turn, preceded by electronic dictionaries. Students have been using these to do their homework assignments for years. Therefore, I assume you are wondering why I am bringing up the impact of “Google Translate” on homework assignments at this time and whether or not I’ve been asleep till now!

photo by Gil Epshtein

In order to explain, let’s backtrack a bit.

When electronic bilingual dictionaries were first introduced many teachers were concerned that giving a student an electronic dictionary is akin to giving him /her all the answers! That is simply not true. The English language is complex, many words have multiple meanings, use of idioms is common and the grammatical structure of the language is very different from that of Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic (Israel’s official languages). A student needs a command of syntax and grammar in order to choose the right dictionary entry for a given context. In addition, he/she must be able to think in a flexible manner when translating and reorganizing words translated into meaningful chunks. Consider the following sentence:
When Dan arrived he found out that there was no room in the car left for him.
If a student chooses the first meaning appearing in the dictionary for every word in this sentence the result will be a totally incomprehensible sentence. The jumble of unrelated words would probably include “left” as a direction, “room” as something with four walls, and “found out” probably wouldn’t be found (in the electronic dictionary) at all!

Knowledge is required in order to use a dictionary efficiently and correctly–using it mechanically will not improve a student’s results. In addition, a student who hasn’t studied at all and looks up every single word in the dictionary will not finish the exam in the allotted time, even if that student is eligible for “extra time on exams”. An electronic dictionary (only a good quality one, of course!) is a very useful tool and I am delighted to have my students use it.

When computers became household items students began using online bilingual dictionaries to do their homework assignments. These were essentially the same as electronic dictionaries – both required the user to type in one word at a time.

However, “Google Translate” changed the rules of the game. Now students can type / paste entire chunks of text into it and get a translation. Regardless of what you may think of the quality of the resulting translation, we have passed the “point of no return”. The ease and speed of the translation process is too enticing. In addition, teachers cannot control which dictionary a student uses outside of class.

At first, I was not too concerned about students using “Google Translate” for homework. Until fairly recently I gave homework assignments on handouts. Students had to sit and type in the sentences they wanted to translate. Typing in the words forced them to actually look at the words and pay attention to their spelling. As that process is slow, some of the students would look at a word to see it they knew it before investing the effort to type it in.

photo by Omri Epstein

But recently I made the transition to giving online homework. I give short tasks which consist of activities usually centered on an unusual picture or video clip (more details about this can be found here). Sometimes the tasks deal with specific language points such as confusing words. No listening or speaking activities are used as my students are deaf and hard of hearing. The tasks are not based on the specific course books which the students use as I teach a myriad of levels and have divided all the pupils into four homework groups based on level (in order to preserve my own sanity!). I am very pleased with the transition – the number of students doing homework has risen dramatically and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the students feel more “noticed” since the change.

Every change is accompanied by new problems and this one is no exception to the rule. I have discovered the full impact “Google Translate” on online homework tasks. The vast majority of the students don’t even bother glancing at the reading comprehension activities – they simply copy and paste them into “Google Translate” and read them in their mother tongue.

Therefore, if “Google” is translating then I’ll start revamping (the structure of the homework assignments that is).

Here are some of the types of assignments I use and what their current status has become:

  1. Open ended questions – these are not seriously impacted by use of “Google Translate” mainly because if the student tries to use it as a shortcut to answering the questions (i.e. student writes answer in mother tongue and copies the resulting sentences in English) the result is very problematic. Example: Q: Why is this building shaped like a basket? The answer I would like to receive is: Because they produce baskets in this building. “Google Translate” ‘s answer is : “That this building produce baskets”. Google Translate DOES offer alternative translations for each word – if a student goes into details with that – I’m happy! However, giving open ended questions for every homework task is not suitable, especially for my really weak students.
  2. Sequencing sentences – one of my favorite reading comprehension homework assignments for weak learners was having them watch a short video clip and sequence the actions shown. With “copy and paste” the entire activity can now be done in mother tongue. This activity is now out!
  3. True / False sentences & Matching Pictures to Sentences– same problem! Out!
  4. Completing sentences with words and phrases from a word bank – this activity still works reasonably well if the word bank is at the bottom of the page, in a box. I’ve seen students working in class this way – they end up copying / pasting the word bank several times in order to complete the sentences. The more the students need to work with a word, the better. These students main exposure to the language is through their eyes, not their ears.
  5. Completing sentences without a word bank. I find this activity works well with the slightly stronger students. Even when the students are using “Google Tranlsator” to translate from both English and their mother tongue, completing a sentence demands demonstrating more of a command of syntax and grammar, yet is still easier (unless structured otherwise) than an open ended question. Once again I would like to emphasize that I am referring to tasks which are not centered on a text.
  6. Grammar tasks – they work well with the new translator as their focus is not on the vocabulary items in any case.
photo by Gil Epstein

Since I’m a firm believer in moving with the times, I’m turning to YOU, my online colleagues for more ideas regarding activities that actively encourage the student to use English while doing homework!