Saturday, March 31, 2007

Warm-up and ice-breaking activities

By Delia Jones Siegenthaler

To start off a new class and to help people to get to know each other my favourites are:

Find someone you don¹t know very well, if possible someone you¹ve never met before. Sit opposite the person and take a good look at them. Now take a piece of paper and a pen and write down the answers to the following questions, without speaking to your partner.

1. What¹s your partner¹s favourite drink?
2. What would your partner like to give up?
3. What¹s she/he afraid of?
4. What nationality would your partner be if she/he had to change his/her nationality?
5. Is your partner a morning or an evening person?
6. What is the month of his/her birthday?
7. What kind of car does he/she drive?
8. What was your partner¹s favourite subject at school?

Now get together, share and discuss together what you have written.

Another activity is the circle of life: You draw a circle on the board and place in it a selection of dates, little pictures or symbols which represent important things in your life (eg, the day you got married, 3 little pinmen to represent your children, a candle to represent your interest in meditation and a flower for gardening, the Japanese flag for two years I spent in Japan etc.) The students have to ask questions and guess what the drawings, dates and symbols represent. I then give them white paper and a pack of coloured felt pens so they can draw their own circle of life and in groups of three the students interpret each other¹s circles and ask questions to find out more.

Another activity is called What¹s in a name? Each student prepares a 5 minute presentation on their name. Why did their parents give it to them? What does it mean? How do they feel about it? Do they have a nickname? If they marry, would they want to keep their name or take the name of their husband? How important is the choice of a name for a child? Would they ever consider changing their name? Etc etc. The students share their presentations in pairs or small groups.

Sometimes I ask students to bring an object into the classroom which they then use as a means of presenting themselves. Someone once brought a bike that they had used to travel round Indonesia on! Another good warm up activity is to bring an object of sentimental value to share with the class and answer the following questions: How did you come to own this object? Why is it of sentimental value? How important for you are objects that represent the past? Why do you think it is important for some people to keep all their letters, postcards, concert tickets and souvenirs?

You can also ask students to bring in a mystery object to class and give one object to each group, who must guess where the object comes from, what it is used for and what it is worth. Some students bring in specialist tools or pieces of equipment that they use for their particular hobby or job. One student brought in a bomb that had exploded during the war in a field where her grandmother was working in Italy and had killed several of her relatives. Her grandmother had found and picked up the shell much later. This kind of thing is a good source of discussion and brings the class closer together.

You can also ask students to bring in the best photo they have ever taken (according to their own criteria) A photo may have tremendous personal value or be of high technical merit. They must present the photo and then say why they think it is the best one they have ever taken. We then discuss the characteristics of a good photo etc.

In fact, I would describe a warm up activity as something which motivates, sparks interest and brings the class close together.

As for beginning study of a language structure, I think carefully about in which context a particular language structure is most used and then I try to use it intensively in a real communicative situation with the class.

Eg. Ann, you told me your sister was getting married in June. Has she bought her wedding dress yet? How about invitations, has she finished the guest list? Has she asked you to coordinate entertainment during the reception? Have you decided what you are going to wear? Have they chosen the menu? When you get married there are so many things you have to do!

This is to introduce (or revise the use of the present perfect with Œyet¹) You can do this before any event (birth of a baby, Christmas....Have you bought a pushchair yet? Have you made the birth announcement cards yet?
Have you chosen a name yet? Xmas: Have you done your Christmas shopping
yet? Have you decided how you are going to celebrate New Year yet? Etc.)

For the past perfect, I do something like this.

Œyou know, next week is my wedding anniversary. I will have been married 15 years.
Time really flies. I remember back in 1989 when my husband asked me to marry me.
I had travelled a lot. I had lived alone . I had had a certain number of boyfriends. I had finished my studies. I had lived abroad. I was ready to settle down.

Our first baby was born in 1984. We had partied a lot with friends. We had spent a year in America together. We had travelled round India on a motorbike. We were ready to become responsible parents.

The students are interested in the content and then once they are motivated, we analyse the use of the present perfect and its function in the context.

It would be interesting to take all the major language items on an intermediate course and think of interesting ways of contextualising them in this way, as a way of introducing them to the students. Perhaps people could contribute their ideas?!

I write a letter to students to illustrate the use of do and make and they read the letter with interest before they realise that it is a practice of when to use do and make in English. I then give them the letter with the words do and make missing.

Dear Class, ________ me a favour, and ________ an effort to be positive! When you _______ a test, don¹t worry if you ________ mistakes! ________ your homework regularly and ________ an appointment to see me if you don¹t understand something. Listen to English cassettes while you are _________ the ironing or _________ the washing-up. __________ labels in English to stick on all your furniture! ________ funny drawings to help you remember English words and expressions. __________ friends with English people on internet, _________ a cake using an English recipe. Always _______ your best and don¹t _________ a fuss when we ________ pronunciation exercises. I won¹t __________ fun of your English if you don¹t _________ fun of my French! Believe me, if you _________ all this, you will ________ progress.

I often use quotations as a warm up activity. I either split quotations, give them out and get students to find the other half of their quotation and discuss how much they agree with the quote, or I write an unfinished quote on the board and get students guessing the end: This warms them to a subject of discussion and captures their attention by exciting their curiosity.

Example: The most important thing in life is..... (knowing what¹s important) High fences make.... (good neighbours)

Hope these ideas are useful and that they haven¹t all been presented many times before. I can¹t remember where I picked them up but they are sometimes my own and sometimes adaptations of other people¹s ideas.

Giving speaking assignments

By Amanda N. Parmley - Fortune Institute of Technology, Taiwan

In my business English class, when we do the phoning unit, my students are assigned to call me and make an appointment with "Bob Jones." I pretend to be Mr. Jones' assistant. Then I call them right back, and they have to role-play being an assistant for "Susan Smith" who is out of the office.

While conversing with them on the phone, I fill out a chart giving them feedback on what I heard (so they can see if I heard is what they said), tips for what they can improve on, and things they did well. They also record in their "listening logs" (a written account of listening outside of class) what they heard (ie phone number I left with them, my message, and role-played name).

One teacher asked about getting calls at all hours of the day. What I do to prevent this is I tell them what time is ok to call. For example, I tell them I only answer the phone for my fake business on Wednesday and Thursday from 6-8 pm. They can use Skype, my cell number, or home number to reach me.

After this activity, for the remainder of the unit they have to make calls to each other and record them in their "listening logs."

At the end of course evaluations, hands down this is their favorite homework / assignment. And, they always ask if we can do it again.

I enjoy giving them the opportunity to practice their phone skills actually on the phone. But I only do it twice a semester since it is so time consuming.

For my pronunciation and public speaking courses, they submit recordings as mp3 files of different things throughout the semester to my email. I listen and then comment by Email on their recordings. I have tried using cassette tapes and "oral dialogue journals," but I found tapes to be way too time consuming and a logsitical problem in carrying them around.

I am always looking for ways to improve, so I would love to hear what others are doing this area.

Homework for speaking and pronunciation

By Beth Rathe

I assign two types of speaking homework in Speaking and Pronunciation classes.

One type involves students recording on cassette tapes, and I require that they provide text with the tape, so that I know what I'm listening to. For lower level classes, they simply write some sentences on the grammar topic we are covering, and they record a reading of the sentences. For pronunciation classes, and students who are higher levels, they choose some words or a type of grammar to practice and their recording is a short conversation with a real person, in which they try to focus on a few words or phrases in real time. I have found that students find the feedback from their tapes very helpful. Also many of them haven't heard a recording of themselves speaking English, so it can be an eye-opening experience for them in that way too.

For the other type of speaking homework, students are assigned to have a conversation or try to use English at a store or with customer service. Then, they write a journal about what they tried, and what words they learned. Although I'm not hearing them speak, I've found that some students get a lot out of this activity. One of my students in Level 2 changed her cell phone options to English and went through the English-speaking automatic checkout at the grocery store, which were challenges that she was both surprised and proud to have completed successfully.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Correcting speaking

Tony Lee - Shengda College, Zhengzhou, Henan, China

I do not correct every little mistake, and it is not immediately immediate. There are few opportunities for teacher monitored individual speaking - up to the maximum of a whole 3 minutes per person per week when a whole class (32 students) activity is involved.

We have a couple of oral classes of 60 students. Divide that number into 100 minutes!!! The opportunities for leisurely individual appraisal and counselling are aqlmost non-existing -- so at the end of each student's speech I praise it as lavishly as possible and tell the student of ONE major problem and how to go about correcting it.

Reinforcing the importance of active listening by requiring peer appraisal and honest reporting by a randomly selected student seems to help as otherwise the rest of the class just switches off. I agree that to stop at each error would be counterproductive and I was just trying to reinforce the finding that the students do want to be corrected immediately - and I know the keen ones really do mean immediate. Students cannot get discouraged from speaking because they do not have a choice of opting out of a speech.

If it is an impromptu speech and they are obviously stuck then of course I do not allow them to stand there losing face -- I will relate cases where experienced actors have a mental blank and go on with the next speaker and give them a chance for more preparation.

We are supplied with texts and sometimes even with the corresponding tapes of such poor quality that they are useless. The students (and I) hate the books involving drill and soon get sick of a semester of 'argument' or 'discussion' or the provocatively named 'reproduction' (which for 10 microseconds led me to believe the subject might be slightly more interesting - until I opened it to the first page -- silly me) so we have been very grateful for some of the ideas we get from others.

Over concern with shyness/losing face/self esteem can hold the learning process back. These are not 10 year old kids -- they are 19 to 23 year old ADULTS. When I speak in English with some seniors (I have not taught any) who have been learning English for 10 years and find that I am forced to speak at a lower level than I speak to kindergarten kids (I have taught once or twice) back home, I wonder what harm a little losing face can do.

Students speaking more in class

By Janet Elfring

I have had the "We want to talk all the time" request from a number of people in various classes over the past two and 1/2 years and I have found that it is not always suitable for teaching and or learning. There are a fair number of fair to midling level of students who only want to come to class and gab with their friends at the level of ability they have reached. They have no desire to work and attain a higher level.

They can only all talk if I break the class up into small groups and then I am only participating with one group at a time. If I give them subjects to talk about, they may do it for awhile but they usually fall back into gossip pretty quickly. I've tried recreating the groups so they are no always with their buddies. I've had students complain to me that there is too much discussion in class and they are not progressing because they are just talking to their friends and not gaining any real instruction.

I try to get them to talk in the class as a whole, but only a certain group are really ready and willing to do that and they dominate the discussion.

Students speaking more in class

By Janet Elfring

I have had the "We want to talk all the time" request from a number of people in various classes over the past two and 1/2 years and I have found that it is not always suitable for teaching and or learning. There are a fair number of fair to midling level of students who only want to come to class and gab with their friends at the level of ability they have reached. They have no desire to work and attain a higher level.

They can only all talk if I break the class up into small groups and then I am only participating with one group at a time. If I give them subjects to talk about, they may do it for awhile but they usually fall back into gossip pretty quickly. I've tried recreating the groups so they are no always with their buddies. I've had students complain to me that there is too much discussion in class and they are not progressing because they are just talking to their friends and not gaining any real instruction.

I try to get them to talk in the class as a whole, but only a certain group are really ready and willing to do that and they dominate the discussion.

Do students really want what they say they want?

By Katy Miller

When I found students returning surveys which were almost word for word identical, I tried turning these issues into discussion topics to find out exactly what they meant by (for instance) "correct every mistake immediately) and why they thought that would be a useful approach, and found that the students didn't really know why they saw these things as important, and couldn't sustain discussion about them.

Yet every time a did a survey, back they came: correct every mistake immediately, more opportunities to speak, and how to learn English. It was interesting that once the discussion on this was over, the same problems I was experiencing as a teacher kept arising: many students were not making use of the opportunities to speak English that I was providing, most students did not easily learn from a correction of a mistake, and some seemed never to take my advice on how to learn English!!

I just wonder how much of the time students give the "cover story" response to these sorts of questions on my surveys - gave the answer that everybody knows is good to give, but hadn't really thought about them. I'm back in NZ now but I'm coming back to China in September for at least another semester (China and teaching is addictive! Just one more...)

When I get back I think I might spend a little more time explicitly discussing these things in the classroom. I think doing a contract might be a really good way of making sure the students understand the value of these ideas as learning mechanisms, rather than just spouting them off as the expected answer to a question, and might lead them to using them in their learning more effectively.

More on what students want

By Tony Lee

We can only try to be perfect. I started with a freshman oral class for the first time this semester and they certainly are different.

First thing I told them was since they are paying my salary, they are my boss. A couple of them have taken their responsibility as my boss very seriously and yesterday came to tell me what I was doing wrong.

First I was talking too much. I was their first Australian and yes I had talked for most of the first 2 hour lesson telling them all about Australia and myself. Second lesson they talked the whole time -- on a progressive story so I could gauge their ability. Speaking -- pretty good. Understanding me or each other - quite bad. So pep talk on active listening etc.

The interesting thing is at a brainstorm session they picked exactly the two top 'wants' as Eve's class - they should speak all the time and I should teach them culture. The one about correcting them immediately was already in place as I had warned them that those who were worried about losing face should leave it (face) back in their dorm. Now the trick is going to be how to satisfy two almost
completely mutually exclusive activities. My easy solution was to tell them they can't have their cake and eat it too and those who wanted more info on western culture would have to come to our apartment and look at my books, maps and photos and ask me questions.

They wanted things to debate so "who is responsibility for learning" will be more productive than some I had considered.

Sticking a tongue out, the limp handshake, hand signs and other gestures

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery

I devoted half a lesson to "gestures" in my Oral English class last term. The lesson segment mainly consisted of a class brainstorm of all the gestures students could think of. I asked them to explain the meaning of each gesture, and I confirmed whether Westerners give it the same meaning or not. Most gestures they thought of were fairly universal.

When they were starting to run out of ideas, I nodded my head vigorously, and asked what that meant. They all said, "Yes." I told them that in most parts of the world, that is the correct answer, but not in Bulgaria. When Bulgarians nod their head, they mean "no", and when they shake their head, they mean "yes". I asked the students to imagine the miscommunication that could occur between a foreigner and a Bulgarian who were not aware of the different meaning.

I then pointed out some gestures that Chinese often make, which foreigners may perceive as having a different meaning than the Chinese intend: (1) limp handshakes, (2) slightly sticking out the tongue, and (3) the Chinese signs for the numbers 6, 8, and 10. Holding hands with someone of the same sex should probably be added to this list, as well as hailing a cab; I hadn't thought of either of these at the time. Can anyone else on the list think of more gestures that should be discussed?

Here is how I explained the three gestures in my lesson:

(1) I demonstrated an especially limp handshake, then showed my wobbly hand to the class, "Doesn't it look like a fish that came out of the water and died? When you shake hands, don't give the person a dead fish. They don't want it. They will think it shows disrespect. The stronger your hand, the more a Westerner will think you are friendly and honest." Then I had each person shake hands with a partner as I went around the room doing random handshake firmness checks.

(2) I told a story in which I was supposed to go to my husband's office to bring him a paper with urgent information on it that he had left at home. I rode a bus, I took the subway, I walked to the office building, and when I saw my husband, I reached for my bag to hand him the paper,...and I realized I had forgotten my bag and the paper! I flicked my tongue out, then asked the students, "What is the meaning of that gesture?" They all recognized it as embarrassment. But then I told them that was the first time in my whole life I had made that gesture. I have only seen it in China; it doesn't exist in the West. The only gestures Westerners make with their tongue all show disrespect. So a Westerner might perceive the Chinese tongue gesture as disrespect, rather than embarrassment. If Westerners were extremely ashamed, they might lower their head or cover their eyes. But mild embarrassment is usually just laughed about.

(3) I demonstrated the numbers 1-5 by holding up the right number of fingers, then asked the students how to show me how to do "6". They all made the gesture of index, middle, and ring fingers folded down, with thumb and pinky extended. I showed them that Westerners show "6" by holding up all 5 fingers of one hand, and one finger (or the thumb) of the other hand. The Chinese gesture for "6" means "telephone" to most Westerners. I then held my hand in that form near my head, with thumb by my ear and pinky by my mouth. The students thought that was really funny. Also, the index finger and thumb extended in an L shape means "8" to Chinese and "gun" to Westerners. And crossing index and middle fingers means "10" to Chinese and "good luck" to Westerners.

To sum up the lecture, I divided students into groups to create conversations using at least 5 of the gestures mentioned in class-- with the meanings that Westerners attach to those gestures, should there be a difference.

What students want

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery

I asked students to discuss with a partner what percent of their learning is the teacher's responsibility, and why. The answers ranged from 10% to 100%, but most were between 30% to 50%. The insights used to defend the various answers were really great, too. Since everyone admitted that the teacher had at least some responsibility, this was a good segue into creating a teacher's contract.

The list members might be interested in my students' suggestions of clauses to go in my contract, since they create a students'-view picture of the ideal English teacher. I should mention that I taught these same students last semester, so they are already familiar with my teaching style. The numbers reflect how many of the 32 students included the item in their list of suggestions.

26 - Provide more opportunities to speak English
14 - Teach more Western culture
14 - Point out mistakes and correct them immediately
12 - Show more films
8 - Work more on pronunciation
8 - Give more opportunities to talk about daily life
8 - Provide more chances to meet other native speakers
6 - Give advice on how to study English

Suggestions given by fewer than 5 people:

Give advice on reading
Take students out of the classroom
Answer e-mail quickly
Do more role plays
Ask for student suggestions
Give practical knowledge
Give advice on passing the Band 4 Exam
Be friends
More homework
More tests
More oral presentations
More games
More focus on the text
More different topics
More vocabulary
More grammar

All of these seem like pretty good ideas to me, but only the first three are actually going into my contract: I will provide as many opportunities to speak English as possible. I will teach some aspect of Western culture in every class. I will point out and correct students' mistakes immediately.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

You should be creative but you don't have to entertain

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui University of Technology, Ma’anshan, Anhui Province

I used to worry a lot about creating lessons my students would like, and that would hold their interest, but my focus has now changed. And it’s changed, I think as a result of training. I taught for several years (starting back in the 1970’s) with no teacher training qualifications - not unusual back then.

To get my present post in China I had to get a teaching qualification, so did a one-month intensive CELTA course. One of the best pieces of advice I had on that course was to work less hard - to do less for my students. One of my supervisors advised me to always keep thinking about how little I could do and how much I could get my students to do.

As un un-trained teacher, replicating many of the teaching habits of my own teachers, I would always tend to try to take full responsibility for all and everything in the lesson. And now I don’t. I try to focus on my aims and objectives for each lesson - the learning and practice opportunities being offered to the students. I try to think through exactly what processes I’m asking them to go through to get to whatever the goal of the moment is. And I expect them to work hard. And usually the lessons are judged successful. Or successful enough.

But if someone’s having a bad day and doesn’t want to participate (and I teach university, not school students), as long as they don’t inhibit others participating, I let them do that. I don’t think it’s my job to be an entertainer, though I know that teaching something in an entertaining way can help. My most entertaining contributions in a lesson always seem to be the unplanned, spontaneous ones.

My blackboard drawings often produce smiles and chuckles. My examples and illustrations tend not to be over-serious. But I don’t think my college students expect entertainment - I think they value far more actually learning and practicing and sensing their own progress. If that can be achieved by pleasurable means, all the better, but they always seem well content to get on with the tasks as long as they understand what’s wanted - and why. And I do explain more and more why we do particular types of activities, what the point of them is, to encourage the development of more self-aware learning.

So, for me the better lessons do often come from trying new things, but not in terms of trying to entertain or hold the interest of the students.

Fun ways to group students

By Daniel T. Parker

While searching and shuffling through papers in my desk, I came across a sheet of hints on dividing large groups into smaller ones, a constant activity in conversation classes and almost always a hassle... I haven't tried every one of the suggestions below, but the ones I've marked are the ones that I do like for my own classes.

Tell the students:

"Get into groups of (x) so that everyone in the group has on one item of clothing the same color as everyone else."

"Find (x) other people born in the same season as you."

"Think of the last digit of your phone number. Get together with (x) others who are thinking of the same number."

"Find (x) partners who were born in the same month as you."

"Are you wearing shoelaces? Get together with (x) other people who, like you, are wearing or not wearing shoelaces."

"Count the number of letters in your personal name; see if you have an odd or even number, then get with a partner who, like you, has an odd or even number."

"Think of the your personal name. Now think of the first vowel in your personal name. Find a partner who has the same vowel."

Things to have the students do:

Have the students raise one finger, choosing between thumb, index finger, middle finger, ring finger or little finger. They can then get into groups with people who have raised the same finger, or, if you want groups of five, you can "assemble" a complete hand (one thumb, one index finger, etc.)

Paper, scissors, rock. You can have three large groups, or as in the last suggestion, you can assemble groups of three with one paper, one scissors, one rock.

Pass out M&Ms or any small candies that come in multiple colors. Group together by color, or make rainbow groups (and let them eat the candy).

Pass out small pieces of paper bearing pictures or names of different foods (for example, hamburger/french fries/soft drink/ice cream) and put all similar foods together, or assemble "balanced meals". A variation is to assemble a pizza, so that each group has one "crust", one "sauce", one "cheese", one "onions", one "pepperoni".... as many "toppings" as you want in the group.

And one especially good one for conversation classes, a lot of fun but it takes more time....

Prepare pieces of paper with short poems or short song lyrics. Pass them out according to the number of groups you want/number of students in each group (if you want ten groups of four students each, prepare ten different poems/songs and have four copies of each). Students begin walking around and reciting the poems or singing the songs, and they must find other students who are reciting/singing the same. When they complete the group, they can sit down together, but all students must keep reciting/singing until each group has been assembled.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

News: Electronics Giants Step Up English Interviews

Korean businesses are trusting TOEIC or TOEFL test scores less and realizing the importance of oral English interview more. Read about it here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New teachers and lesson plans

By Eve Ross Beijing Institute of Machinery

A new teacher asks: “Is there a formula that if used in lesson plan development can almost guarantee a fun class? What sort of patterns or > formulas in lesson making have worked best for all of you?”

Well, there are some pretty standard formulas for lesson plan development.

A well-structured lesson makes the material easier for the students to grasp and retain. But I don't think there is a secret lesson plan formula that equals fun.

That said, here are some hints for planning fun lessons:

When you find a lesson plan that works, don't do another one just like it. Vary it somehow. Let's say you used a riddle lesson plan in which you started off class with a riddle, let students guess the answer, then had them to write their own individually. Next week, DON'T introduce limericks by starting off class with a limerick, letting students guess the last line, then having them write their own individually. That would probably be a fun lesson plan on its own, but the problem is that your presentation would be exactly the same as the previous lesson. This gets boring. Try to teach limericks in a different way than you did the riddles, for example: start out by just saying the rhythm of a limerick (daDAdadaDAdadaDUM), then say it with the words, then write a limerick as a class (you write on the board as students suggest the next line). Caveat: Chinese students take a while to get used to Western teaching techniques, so more repetition than variety will be necessary for the first few weeks at least. You'll know when they're bored and ready for a change.

Use your creativity to turn the rote practice part of your lesson into a game. A standard party game or children's game (Bingo, Jeopardy, Pictionary, Tic-Tac-Toe, 20 Questions, I Spy, Simon Says, etc.) can be adapted in order to use whatever particular language you want your students to learn.

You're an actor. I know, you thought you were a teacher, but you're an actor. Your jokes, puns, slapstick, smiles, funny faces, and general willingness to make a fool out of yourself can enliven even boring material. Even grammar, if you were called upon to teach it. And drama is good for your students, too. They have a hard time imagining themselves using oral English in real life, so sometimes you have to say, "You're the employer. You're the job applicant. Let's hear the interview." "You're the American roommate. You want to watch TV. You're the Chinese roommate. You want to do your homework." And they'll probably surprise you with a realistic dialog.

"Modern English Teacher"

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

A teacher wants to know: "Is Modern English Teacher available online or at any of the foreign language bookstores in Beijing?"

MET is a quarterly journal and should be one of the standard journals in the libraries of tertiary institutes where ESL is taught. I wonder wHat the reaction of your library would be if you asked them to subscribe to this and the other major ESL journals. MET is particularly useful because it is teaching based unlike some of the others which contain a proportion of articles detailing worthy research but written mainly to fill the author's publishing quota set by the author's university.

Teach them to speak as you speak

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

If you are teaching spoken English then you should teach as it is spoken. There is a myth that formal English doesn't use contractions like 'it's'. This is just not true. Listen to anyone speaking formally, say in a presentation to an audience and you'll hear plenty of contractions. You'll hear slang and other items marked as informal too, but at a lower frequency than in everyday conversation. These items are there to empathise with the audience, while the formal items are used to give a sense of occasion. Overformality antagonises the listener. The use of full forms and non use of slang certainly doesn't show a better education.

By the way, there are many more contractions and elisions in connected speech than those marked by apostrophes in written english. As well as 'it's' and 'can't' there are things like I'd've for 'I would have', where the ' in d've indicates a schwa, a weak vowel sound like the sound between 'k' and 'n' in 'spoken'. These weak forms are vitally important in spoken English as without them you lose the stresses and rhythms of spoken English. Chinese learners tend to pronounce each syllable with equal stress and this makes them hard to listen to, a bit like listening to a machine gun in slow motion.

If you teach them to speak as you speak that's a step in the right direction but it might be an idea to leave a tape recorder on at breakfast time and at work for a week or two and try and analyse how you really do speak.

Here's an interesting story. Some 20 years ago in UK I had a Chinese student who insisted he did not need English because he was studying science and he had a basic grammatical knowledge and a command of technical vocabulary for his subject. He did not feel he had a need to speak or to indulge in social chit chat.

I overheard him once as he was carrying a load of books. He couldn't get into the classroom and he asked a fellow student, an Arab, "Can you apply a torque to the door".

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

New York Times "Learning Network"

By Karen Stanley

I suggest trying out the New York Times "Learning Network".

It's a free website for teachers. Although designed for teachers in the American public school system teaching grades 3-12, many many activities are highly adaptable to ESL students.

I tend to use the daily lesson plan archives the most. Each day there is a news article with a wide range of activities planned to accompany it.

One of my favorites is an article from December, 2000: "Be That As It Maya" (You can find the particular article & lesson plan by using the "search" feature at the site and typing in MAYA.)

The article is about new discoveries at a Mayan ruin. There are warm-up activities and comprehension questions. My favorite part comes next:

Students break into groups and each group is assigned a Mayan city. They investigate the city via the internet (or other means), then write up a travel brochure as if the city were a current tourist destination. They also make postcards with a picture from the internet (I imagine they could draw one if there's limited internet access) on one side, and a message on the other mentioning something they might actually have done or seen.

There are also discussion questions, and "extension activities."

There are also archived lessons specifically for working with the newspaper. For example, in one lesson, "students explore the function of letters to the editor for both a newspaper and its readers. Each student then selects a current event about which he or she feels strongly, reads a related New York Times article and responds to it in the form of a letter to the editor."

The site also includes news summaries, a daily news quiz, the word of the day, the test prep question of the day, and more...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

TagCrowd analyzes TESL-L

created at

What do teachers talk about on the TESL-L list? This is a TagCrowd analysis of our discussion on the TESL-L list for English teachers based on word frequency.

As we start learning to live with and work in the Information Age more and more we will need to find new tools and toys. I won't say this is exactly a toy. As information heaps up, we will need things that can help us use statistical information and visualization would be one way. Things like TagCrowd will help us.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Interlanguage, Universal Grammar and Connectionist Theory

By Karen Stanley

Although a number of people had talked about the types of interim grammars someone develops in the process of learning a second language, the term "interlanguage", coined by Larry Selinker in 1972, is the name that has stuck.

Although theories involving interlanguage have evolved, developed, expanded, etc., over time, one important element is the concept of the learner trying out different hypotheses for phenomena which the learner has observed in the target language. Here's a rather simple example of a hypothesis:

When I was learning French, I initially thought that the word for dictionary was "larousse," because people were always saying to "Go get the Larousse." As French speakers on the list will know, "Larousse" is simply the publisher, and for a long time was like "Websters" used to be in the US, almost the only one anyone used.

Another I see in my students is the idea that you put "was" in front of any verb to locate the action in past time - eg, "He was go to the story yesterday." Of course, learners form many much more complex hypotheses about formation of grammatical structures, use of tenses, etc.

I personally disagree with the concept of a Universal Grammar (often referred to as UG, pronounced 'you-gee', although I sometimes privately think of it more with an "ugh" bias), developed by Noam Chomsky, as being hardwired into human beings. I think that the elements of interlanguages can all be accounted for in other ways than by thinking human beings are born with a knowledge of grammar in their brains.

I find a newer theory, now called Connectionism or Connectionist Theory, but previously referred to as PDP (parallel distributed processing - I think I've got this right). Anyway, very briefly, this bases ideas of language acquisition more on the same types of properties that allow learning in general. Part of that theory is that each repetition lays down memory, and as repetitions with all their variations build, certain connections in the brain are strengthened. People have written books on this, so two or three sentences hardly explains the whole idea.

A good basic reference textbook about many basic theories, ideas, factors, etc. of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is Rod Ellis's 1994 volume (Oxford University Press), "The Study of Second Language Acquisition." It's 824 pages, but the way he presents ideas is accessible (I think) to people without much if any formal training in SLA. ISBN 0-19-437189-1

A basic introduction to interlanguage is:

In TESL-EJ, there's an interesting review of a book on aspects of SLA in general; it includes quite a bit of actual information, but I'm not sure how easy it would be to take it all in if you don't have much background. Still, worth a look, I think:

Another general background paper that I thought might be accessible is:

One that briefly outlined 'interlanguage' and some other concepts at a pretty basic level is:

Ways of using movies

By Karen Stanley

I'd be interested in the different ways that people use particular films. The following ideas come from a 1994 presentation by Strother, Bank and Burgess.

Example one: Mrs. Doubtfire

1) Have students write an ad for the film

2) Write a letter to a parent that you know telling him/her why he/she should hire Mrs. Doubtfire

3) Write a summary of the family values you see in the film

4) Write a newspaper editorial about family abandonment

Example two: Fantasia

1) Have students listen to one of the musical segments *without* seeing the film and write down the images that they imagine. Then show that segment of the film. Depending on their level, have them either compare/contrast their images with the film's images, or simply describe the images in the film.

2) Have them watch the sorcerer's apprentice segment. Then have them write or tell the story.

Example three: Dead Poets Society

1) Have students decide -- something they liked about the film -- a part of the film that could be improved, and explain how/why -- whether or not Mr. Keating was a good English teacher -- whether they would recommend the film: why or why not

2) In pairs, one person should agree and the other disagree about each of the statements. Support your position.

-- Neil's father is to blame for his death
-- The ultimate goal of education is to help students think for themselves
-- The competitive atmosphere of a high pressure prep school like Welton Academy provides a very good learning atmosphere for its students
-- It is not healthy for young boys to be sent away to school. They need to be with their families. -- Parents should put a great deal of pressure on their sons and daughters to do well academically so that they will succeed in life.
-- Success can be measured by the prestige of the college you gain admittance to

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Simon Howell: Recommended books

By Simon Howell - Burleigh Heads Language Centre, Australia

A teacher asked for recommendations for coursebooks available in Japan.

Here are some books that I've found useful. I've always found it hard to use the same conversation book(s) for majors and non-majors but you can certainly do so if it works best for you.

For Conversation

Non-Majors: Levels of Non-Majors can really vary and are usually lower then English Majors, sometimes abysmally low. I had a lot of success with "Nice Talking To You" (2nd Ed) by Tom Kenny /Linda Woo. It's a good core textbook but like all texts, it needs to be supplemented to bring it to life. Fortunately, the topics are quite good ones and are easy to supplement with your own materials/stuff from the usual sources.

English Majors: Communication Strategies by David Paul. Published by Thomson Learning. Quite a good book and is easy to supplement with your own materials. I have also used "Nice Talking to You" (same as above) with first year English majors, and with a bit of extra supplementing to adjust it to the level of your class it can also work very well.

Avoid the Nice Talking to You Too (2nd book in the series) at all costs. It is simply not ready to be used with a class.

For Listening

I quite like the Impact Listening series and have used Impact Listening : Book 3 with 2nd year English Majors. I haven't used Book 2 before but the level is probably ok for 1st years. I also got the students to do listening homework from Randall's Fantastic Listening Website. It's an excellent site and the students can select the topics and levels they wish to do. You can find the homework sheets I used to use at here. On their course feedback forms, almost all the students mentioned that they really enjoyed the web homework. You can also put the students in small groups / pairs to chat about the homework at the end or beginning of the class: Which topics did they do? Any new interesting vocabulary? Would they recommend their topic to another student? etc?. It's a good warmer or ending for the class and you can then easily check who is or isn't doing their homework.

Sample copies of all the books above are available from the publishers if you don't have access to a copy right now.

Class size in Hong Kong schools

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

A teacher asked: “Did anybody else read the article about small classes in the November issue of Scientific American? Basically it said that class size reduction was a waste of time and money, usually because teachers changed neither their materials nor their methods to suit the new class structures. This is definitely something I agree with. How about everybody else?”

This came up in Hong Kong back in the late 80's - early 90's. They halved some class sizes because they thought it would lead to improved language learning. The teachers, as Sci American says, carried on as normal, confronting their classes with the microphone of power held in front and being as teacher centred and exercise bent as usual.

But those of us who are used to a range of class sizes tend to adapt our approach to suit the situation. If I could get my classes of 30+ down to 20 I'd be teaching in a somewhat different way. If I had them in groups of 12 it would be different again.

Hong Kong teachers seem to dislike change more than any group I've ever come across, partly because there is a lack of commitment in the profession and partly because the teachers' English is often not good enough to cope with the demands of more communicative English that are more difficult to brush aside in smaller classes.

Common errors made by English learners in China

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

A teacher discussing common errors by Chinese English students shared some examples: “'Because he felt ill, so he went to the doctor’ instead of ‘Because he felt ill, he went to the doctor’ Because ... so and Although .... but are common errors caused by an overemphasis on translation. ‘How to say...’ instead of another gap filler, eg: ‘How can I put it’, ‘What's the word’, etc.”

How to say? and How to spell? have both become entrenched. Students often know it's not standard but it's hard to change.

Some more:

Heavy overuse of connectives - therefore, moreover, furthermore, nevertheless etc. These are used some 80 times as frequently as native speakers writing äcademic English essays. I'm teaching students to make more use of referential pronouns, synonyms and other devices for cohesion and also to use the topic and content for cohesion rather than throwing connectives in at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs. I should say that they use the connectives (apart from "on the other hand") with a correct meaning, it's just that the overuse of these marked forms makes their work harder to read.

Misuse of referential pronoun "It" in:

“Some travellers catch diseases. It is because they do not take precautions.”

I teach that in these sort of cases, Statement followed by explicit reason/explanation, it's a good rule of thumb that initial "It" refers forward, initial "This" refers back.

False passives with certain verbs:

“It was happened yesterday.” “He was arrived yesterday.”

Again an error caused by over reliance on translation. These are all common errors with Cantonese speakers, by the way. I don't know how relevant they are for Chinese with Putonghua as their first language.

I notice an extension of the verb "play" to cover an area much wider than its common use in English. This also happens with the use of school to cover tertiary education, but I think that US English accepts this more than British so I don't worry too much except when I'm trying to get a more adult approach to education.

Another: "This is base on ...."

I think the passive is hard for Chinese students because they only know the form, not the use so it's hard to recognise and fit it in.

Large class vs. small class

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, Beijing

A teacher asked, “Did anybody else read the article about small classes in the November issue of Scientific American? Basically it said that class size reduction was a waste of time and money, usually because teachers changed neither their materials nor their methods to suit the new class structures. This is definitely something I agree with. How about everybody else?”

I took a beginning Chinese class at my school in which there were 4 foreign students, including myself. The teacher sat at the front of the room, and read the textbook to us (with her face hidden behind the book so that we could neither see her mouth move nor hear her very clearly). She asked us sometimes to answer the questions at the end of the chapter, but whether we got the answer right or wrong she would say, "hao" and continue. There was no oral practice other than this. There was no written work. She did not call on us when we raised our hands to ask questions. She came to class just as the bell rang and left just as the bell rang, leaving us no time to speak to her before or after class. She never even learned our names. The three of us who were auditing stopped going after a couple of weeks. The one enrolled student continued to attend, and told us that there was no change in the teaching method even when there was only one teacher for one student! This may be an extreme example, but it is true.

I would change my teaching method if given smaller classes, though. I know because I taught classes of 10 or 15 before coming to China, and I now find myself unable to do with 35 students some of the activities I did with the smaller classes.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

On different Englishes

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

A teacher wanted to know: “What degree of familiarity should a responsible EFL teacher in China have with other Englishes?”

Our problem is that we get all geared up to be descriptive but when students give us language back we find that we need to prescribe since they need to know what is acceptable and what isn't. Many teachers go for consistency, especially in spelling, but I don't think this is an answer, especially as I think that Australian English has some UK and some US spellings.

It's rather like degrees of formality. If you mark certain items as formal and others as informal it's nice and easy but it's not real life. In real life we slip between these boundaries with the greatest of ease. Last month one of my academic colleagues, while presenting a paper to lecturers and students, used the lexical item "piss". I had a field day with this because I've said for years that most EFL learners learn to urinate before they can piss and I was proved right.

In the same way, US, UK and other Englishes are a continuum and people slip from one to another. Although I'm British I use the Australian "No worries" fairly frequently after living in an Australian English influenced environment in Papua New Guinea. My daughter uses "gotten" and many UK British use US English vocabulary and expressions alongside their "traditional" English. I think "talk with" alongside "talk to" might be one example.

Macau and Hong Kong use British English but are in an American sphere of influence. Australian English is widely used in the Pacific and has some influence up here too. There are a number of Indian English words in Hong Kong English, too. "Shroff" for the guy who you pay when you park your car is one example. So we in the South China SARs are at a crossroads and have to pay more attention to varieties of English.

In terms of power, money and number of native speakers American English wins hands down but because British English is used in many ex-colonies and as a lingua-franca in Europe it has a status and influence beyond its small native speaker base and I can still make a living. And, as Eve says, many students want to study in UK, Australia or Canada, or even in other European countries like the Netherlands or Sweden.

For this reason it is probably a good idea to accept all major varieties of English, even when mixed, but to make students aware. After all, it rarely causes a communication problem. I knew what my student wanted to say when she used "bumper jack", though I suspect she didn't and just got the words from a translation dictionary.

As for knowing whether something is UK, US or whatever English, I think it can be picked up as you go along. I'm still learning as I've never been to the US and my knowledge is all second and third hand. I think, though, that I now have some kind of intuition about students "mistakes". There are some where I immediately think it might be US usage and I hold the red/green pen back until I've checked. Or I ignore it because it doesn't seem important.

On another track and a peeve, TOEFL doesn't hold the correction pen back because it's prescriptive and designed purely for US tertiary education. I was assured by a Cambridge rep that IELTS and the FCE, CAE etc. accept major varieties of English though I wonder if they still play the consistency card. A world language really should accept variety within boundaries of global comprehension.

Teach using L2 only

By Katherine Lea

A teacher wrote: “ was the only book I found with a fairly even Chinese/English mix. We don't learn Chinese by picking up a book written entirely in Chinese (or even pinyin). Why on earth do the Chinese publishers expect students to learn English from a book written entirely in English?”

I'm sorry I can't agree with this. Most Chinese students learn some English at high school and are familiar with the Roman alphabet. Thus from the very beginning it is possible to teach entirely in English If the teacher ensures that the language level used in class is the same OR lower than that of the students.

This type of immersion teaching is very effective is getting students to communicate rapidly in English. Thus the best textbooks on the market here in China are Jack Richards "New Interchange" series which starts with the "Intro" for beginners and goes up to "3" which is for upper Intermediate level.

I have used these books successfully with Beginners and they begin talking from the first lesson.

Chinese English translation textbooks only serve to confuse students as the sentence structures, grammar etc is very different. Students can check unknown vocab in their dictionaries.

Concordancers and concordances

By Karen Stanley

A teacher asked what concordancers were and how to use them.

1) Concordancers of the type I am talking about are software. You can have your own concordancer, or some websites offer concordancing capability on the website.

2) Concordancing software can be used to search text for a particular item, much like the "Find" function in other types of software you may use. However, software packages for concordancing functions allow you to do a much broader and more complex range of searching.

Among other things, it actually collects and lists all examples it finds (you can set a maximum number of items). Mine lets me click on a listed occurrence and pull up a broader context for that item. You can have it sort found items alphabetically by the first word following, by the second word following, by the word before, or by the word that came two before.

You can allow for "wild card" endings or stems, or allow for up to a certain number of words to come between two other words. (eg: searching for 'have * been *ing' allows for adverbs - such as 'already' - and for any verb to occur as the present participle). And more.

3) Searchable texts are referred to as corpora (singular, corpus). I use fairly primitive corpora: downloaded newspaper articles, stored in separate files by register (Ann Landers in one, NY Times science section in another). I also have some corpora which are from tape scripts of various types of oral production.

The British National Corpus is huge, and encompasses an enormous range and volume of English text (both oral and written) - I haven't used it, myself. I know that CHILDE (which I also haven't used, and may have spelled incorrectly) involves child language production.

I believe the University of Michigan is making available a corpus of English produced by ESL learners (with an eye in particular to research on second language acquisition). Many corpora are 'tagged', which means someone has gone through and labeled (tagged) certain parts of the text for function (so you can search using the tags to specify limitations or range). I have never worked with a tagged corpus, but I imagine that at least some parts of speech are used as tags. Surely other things I haven't thought of and/or don't know about.

The Cobuild dictionary was produced using corpora and their website offers a "Corpus Concordance Sampler" and a "Collocation Sampler." They also (if you scroll down past the place to enter your search) have some instructions on how to best go about these kinds of searchs.

Corpus linguistics has become very big in the last few years; you see more and more research and conference presentations that involve it.

Demands of the school

By Jeff Kruse

A teacher wrote: “While teaching in China I found that the schools often make strange or extraordinary requests that don't make much sense.”

I tend to agree I think it is important to point out though, this is very dependent on where you teach. (There are exceptions thankfully.)

Often one might be teaching English in a program that has no coherence or direction, except that provided by oneself and maybe some largely useless book chosen by apparent chance.

Previously other teachers have remarked on the freedom this allows and I certainly see how this may be an advantage for the teacher. However, on the downside, it means that the students could be subject to the whims of the (newly arrived?) foreign teacher that have no relationship to the English teaching program conducted by Chinese staff nor what might be reasonably seen as the needs of students.

Two especially terrible examples of this "freedom":

1) an Australian MA who exhorted the virtues of his religion

2) an American who regularly taught USA slang.

The students hated the first and loved the second classes but I think both were equally inappropriate for these university students needs and should not have been allowed in a considered syllabus.

It is also important to note that a syllabus may define required language functions and outcomes but need not impinge upon the individual's teaching style.

Common and uncommon words

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

One teacher said, “My general advice to students is to avoid obscure words that tend to blur communication.”

Trouble is that their dictionary doesn't often tell them how obscure the word is. ‘Pullulate’ is a word that all avid H. P. Lovecraft fans will know and love. In his horror stories, Lovecraft could never avoid a pullulating seething mass or indeed an ululating mob of strange frog-like beings.

However much you try and explain that language is not like COBOL Chinese students seem to feel that all words have a clear one to one correspondence with words in Chinese and that words are for transmitting information not attitude.

This is why I'm pushing the concordancing with my students. They can see right away if the word is uncommon as only a few examples are thrown up, and with the aid of a dictionary for basic meaning and the examples in front of them they can see shades of meaning, common collocations, whether the word is commonly used with negative or positive connotation and a host of other usage features.

You can't do it all the time as it's too consuming but when a word catches a student's fancy, the concordancer is a good way to see how it's used.

Students need communicative skills

By Pete Marchetto

My favourite new vocabulary taught to me by my students is 'operose' meaning onerous. My least favourite is 'autocade', a variation on 'motorcade' which, when you look at the word parts, is an ugly one. I advised the students to use 'motorcade' instead, not that I can see them having much use for it. I also found myself getting confused by the word 'bimonthly'; did it mean twice a month or once every two months? It transpires, to my surprise and disturbance, that it can mean both.

'Bimonthly' aside, 'operose' and 'autocade' demonstrate something I've long felt in the repetitious complaint amongst some that foreign teachers are regarded as mere window-dressing. I flatter myself in thinking that even if that is how I'm regarded - and I sincerely hope I'm not - then the reality is very different. It's clear from talking to the students that they have comparatively little understanding of English as a tool for general communication having had it taught to them like Mathematics as some other purely abstruse subject.

What we expose the students to far better than their Chinese teachers sometimes seem capable of is English as it is used 90% of the time, ie: in daily conversation. I am slowly weaning my students off the idea that there is some perfect 'answer' as to how to express oneself along lines of 1 + 1 = 2; that 'often' might be pronounced with a 't' and might not; that the simplest words are usually the best; that 'delicious' used repeatedly lacks sincerity; that they, with their Chinese accents, are often more understandable to most of the English-speaking world than, say, a native English speaker who has had the misfortune to be have been born in Yorkshire and perhaps it's not worth the dozens of hours of effort to change when a certain level has been reached for that fraction of a percent of 'improvement'; dozens of things that move English away from the purely academic and into the realms of practical use and more intuitive understanding.

It's much the same with my culture classes. There is no point at all preparing facts and figures for the class because every time I do I find they know everything I've researched already and then some. That said they're still hung up on the idea that it's compulsory for meeting British people to talk about the weather, that London is perpetually foggy, that we all carry umbrellas, that Christmas is a joyful time of the year and similar nonsense.

Back to oral lessons and, when discussing them with my students, I liken them to someone learning how to paint. After a while you have to move away from learning how to mix pigments, which brush to use, how to prepare the canvas, the rules of perspective and just PAINT something. Heaven knows they only get an hour or two a week with me to do it in; the rest of the time they'll be crammed with still more book-larnin'.

I still think / hope that I'm appreciated by my department. I KNOW I'm appreciated by my students. Above and beyond that, I know the job I'm doing is valuable and so do my best to do it well by making it interesting, challenging, amusing, realistic and so on.

Two of my most pleasant memories in China are of oral lessons. One of a very slow student lacking in confidence suddenly discovering he was able to make his fellows laugh through his sense of humour in English. From that lesson on he bonded better with classmates from more sophisticated backgrounds, (his family being cave-dwellers), and became enthusiastic about expressing himself in lessons. He advanced tremendously in the months that followed.

The other was a debate in class where people became heated. I was tempted to wade in and stop the arguments but held back. To my surprise no one lapsed into Chinese and the argument came close to abuse. Things calmed down, the belligerents made up... and I realised that the instinct that had led me to let it run had been a good one; for the first time ever the students had used English out of a desperate URGE to express themselves in a genuinely emotional situation which had then to be resolved through delicate negotiation.

For those of us who don't feel valued, it doesn't mean that what we're doing isn't valuable. Just a thought...

School can't stand teachers sitting

By Nancy Bushwell

I was amazed when I was told at my second school that teachers were fined if they sat down during class! This explains why there are no teachers' chairs at my school.

I was also told that I was a foreigner, so this didn't apply to me. After I hurt my heel from too much walking, I bought a folding chair and a bicycle chain, and locked the chair to a desk when I wasn't in class.

Sitting down was doctor's orders, though I still got up and walked around at times. I couldn't teach oral English without walking around but, on the other hand, I would have difficulty teaching two classes in a row without sitting.

To this foreigner's eyes, I think it's unfair to the Chinese teachers that they can't sit, especially when they have two classes in a row. I wonder if they have ever complained?

Students learning obscure words from the dictionary

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

My students use some of the most obscure English words I've ever seen, many that I've never heard of...and I consider myself to have a pretty sizeable vocabulary.

My personal rule of thumb is that if I don't recognize a word, most other English speakers probably won't know it, either, so why should the student use it? Especially at this stage of language learning, when native speakers struggle to understand them, due to syntax, pronunciation, and other errors?

Whenever I ask students where on earth they found such unusual words -- ones that most native speakers don't even use -- and the answer is inevitably the same. The Dictionary.

So I ask them what concept they were looking for. They'll usually tell me a Chinese word, which I've never (so far) known how to translate.

I ask them to tell me what it means. And they have always given me a clear, concise definition. Then a rhetorical question to the student: Why not trust your instincts rather than your dictionary, and use words that both you and your audience understand?

Foreign teachers feeling a lack of support but lots of freedom

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

A teacher asks: “Does anyone here teach somewhere where they've been give a syllabus for the classes they're assigned to teach? I've not yet met up with anyone who has.”

Not only was I not given a syllabus, but the administration doesn't care whether I create one or not, or what's on it if I do.

A funny incident yesterday just proved that once again. A fellow foreign teacher has been assigned to teach next semester's continuation of the Video English class I've taught this semester. She went to the English department and asked whether they had any movies in particular they wanted her to teach.

They suggested a set of cassette tapes (audio cassettes?? for a Video class??) that includes Bill Clinton's inaugural address and recorded sessions of Canadian and UK parliament (couldn't they have gotten a spoken transcript of the unabridged Australian tax code to go along with those?).

She said no, thanks. Then, the administrator asked her, "Well, what has Eve been teaching all semester?" She suppressed a laugh, and said, "I don't know. You'd have to ask her."

They haven't asked me, of course. Aren't they even curious? Some of my classes even "matter", whereas Oral English--including Video--supposedly doesn't. They haven't told me what to teach in the Reading, Writing, or Newspaper/Magazine classes, either.

Not that I mind the freedom.

New teacher tries improvision and fun in the classroom

By Stian

I've been teaching this class for about a month with another teacher, but this is the first time I had a "free hand" and she just sat down like a student. The topic was radio and TV, and first I pretended it was a TV-show. I walked around with the blackboard eraser as a microphone, interviewing students about their favourite TV-programmes, the benefits of TV over radio and vice-versa. After a while I had a list of different program categories on the blackboard (sports, national news, international news and so on).

I then explained to the students the concept of improvisation, and asked who likes watching the news. The (poor?) student who raised his hand was given my improvised microphone and told to make a news broadcast. I provided the sound effect and intro jingle.

I was rather nervous as to how this would go, since they always prepare carefully before performing a dialogue for the other teachers, and their English level is not always great, but the student rose to the challenge! And so, with different students, we had fascinating but rather short broadcasts of international and national news, sports (featuring me as a javelin thrower with a broom in slow-motion as the excited sports journalist, aka student who had almost never spoken before the class before, described my gracious moves), and game show (with host and two contestants who had to answer questions in order to gain the prize). We also had educational TV about the use of computers in Chinese classrooms (I never supplied the topics, the students invented them off the top of their heads, except for the game show and sports), but looking back I see that I forgot the weather.

In the second class, I woke up that half of the students that had clearly been sleeping during recess with a bit of Simon says (problem is, I'm no good at hosting Simon says, since I always get so dizzy from all the jumping and head wiggling and so on, that I give up before half of the students are out. Then we did the 20 questions that were described here earlier. In the end we sang Happy birthday to a student which had her birthday today.

All in all, it was very much fun, the students responded wonderfully, it was very much improvised from my side, and I walked the thin line of making fun of myself and them (so far they think I'm hilarious, but I'm afraid someday they'll call my bluff and see that I'm just a pathetic guy a few years older than them, with no prior experience, trying to teach a university class. If every day was like this, I wouldn't need pay to do this job.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Setting up oral classroom assessment

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

Exams are coming up around here, and I've decided that the test format for my Oral English classes will be a 10-minute one-on-one conversation between each student and myself. The criteria will be holistic: fluency and intelligibility.

When a student arrives to take the exam, I will present him/her with little slips of paper and on each one will be a topic we have discussed in class this term (shopping, sports, divorce, etc.). The student selects one topic at random, like drawing straws. After a moment's reflection, the student must start the conversation with a question, such as "Do you like shopping?" or "What is your favorite sport?" or something a little more provocative, such as "Can divorce be a good thing?" and be ready for whatever answer I may give to that question.

The conversation must last 10 minutes, but can stray to other topics, if they come up naturally (as in, NOT "Let's talk about sports now," but maybe, "Do you think Michael Jordan likes to go shopping?").

Obviously this is way more touchy-feely than my students are used to. But I think it will be a good measure of their ability to hold a conversation in English, as well as an experience that will give them confidence. I hope they leave the exam thinking, "Wow, I just talked for 10 minutes straight in English with a foreigner! And we understood each other!"

In classes to prepare my students for this kind of test, I'm using a variation of The Wheel (submitted by Rae). Students sit in a double circle, with those facing outward playing the teacher and those facing inward playing a student. I gave each "student" one of the exam topics on a slip of paper. They had 2 minutes to start the conversation with the "teacher" and have the "teacher" respond. Then the "students" handed the topic to the person on their right, and the "teachers" moved to the chair on their left. Thus everyone had a new partner and a new topic. They did the same role-play, except I gave them 3 minutes so they could elaborate a little more. We did several rotations, until they were talking for 10 minutes at a stretch.

If I noticed anyone not talking, I would go over to them and try to jumpstart their conversation. However, there was really a lot of English going on!

Using L1 in the classroom

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

I constantly struggle to get students to use English rather than Chinese.

Some use of L1 helps with understanding, but in my opinion, there should be almost no need to use the L1 in class after the first year or so of L2 learning. The three exceptions I would make to that rule are:

1) grammar is such a complex beast that it's often best explained in the mother tongue.

2) occasionally an L1 "word is worth 1000 pictures". When trying to explain a new word, *after* giving as many L2 verbal definitions, synonyms, and visual examples as possible, if students still don't understand, *then* it's okay to give the L1 equivalent of the word.

3) if a focus of the English course is translation or interpretation, then L1 obviously must be used.

Use of L2 in class is especially important in an EFL context, such as here in China, where it is nearly impossible to get students to speak English among themselves (or with anyone else) outside of class. So, if the students are going to practice their oral English, it will probably only happen if the teacher encourages speaking English in class.

One idea that I got from another teacher is to assign some students to monitor the others. If anyone speaks in the L1 during oral group work, the monitor-students give that group a slip of paper, which means reduced participation points at the end of the class period. When I use this method, I find the students all speak only English, so those assigned to be monitors actually get bored, because they have no one to give the slips of paper to! However, this activity proved to my intermediate and advanced students that they can speak only in English, that L1 use for them is just because of laziness at this point.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Activities for the oral English class

By Ryan Schreck - Beijing Normal University, China

Here are some ideas that worked for me (they are not all original):

This worked well because I have large classes which makes full class discussions difficult. I wrote six or seven "debate cards" and then split the class into groups of four or six. Each group gets a different card and has about fifteen minutes to choose sides, formulate arguments, and debate. Then the groups switch cards. There is (usually) not enough time for the topics to get boring, and by the end of class they are very aware of the time limit so they try to say as much as they can in that time frame, which is good. Some topic ideas: - is true love possible on the internet - is it better to live in the country or the city - who is more important to a family, mother or father - should Chinese marry foreigners - which is better, married or single - obey your parents or follow own ideas.

Eternal Mingle
I found this somewhere on the net and it worked very well. Each student writes down one question. Any kind of question at all. Then they get up and mingle, asking their questions and each time exchanging questions. So they are constantly asking different people different questions. I thought this would be a 10 or 15 minute warm up, but they liked it so much, and the room was so full of English, that I let it go the whole period.

Alibi for Murder
The rules for this game can be found at Dave's ESL Cafe. It really is a lot of fun, especially if you urge them to ham it up and really get into character. If you introduce it well it should work even with lower level students.

Rocket Ship (I'm looking for a better name for this one)
The earth is going to explode but there is a rocket ship that can take ten people to the moon where they will start a new civilization. It is up to them to choose the best assortment of people. If you want, allow them to take people living or dead, but I always stress the importance of teachers! (and don't be surprised if somebody chooses Hitler or bin Laden - they usually have some pretty creative reasons.)

A warm up activity that works well is competitive brainstorming. Get them into groups and announce a topic (things that are round, things that fly, etc.) and let them go for about three or four minutes, with one person acting as secretary. Do two or three of these at the beginning of early morning classes or after lunch and it will wake them right up.

And finally, I just found a good website. It is Weekly Web Poll I'm not sure exactly how I am going to use these, but there are plenty of possibilities. And the variety of polls is very wide, from superficial stuff about friendship and birthday celebrations to cloning and time travel. I think a few of these can be put together to make an interesting and fun two hour lesson.

So, hopefully some of these ideas will come in handy as the term winds to a close. And I especially hope that many, many more of you will take the time to share just one lesson plan with the rest of us, be it oral, reading, writing, listening, or other. We (or at least I) can always use the help.

The difference between academic and journalistic writing

By Daniel T. Parker - Keimyung University, Taegu, South Korea

A teacher asks about the difference between academic writing and journalistic writing.

Aha, I finally get to put my 14 years of journalism to some good use.

A major difference is the writing style. Academic English is much more formal and structured, with paragraphs that rely upon topic sentences and supporting sentences. In journalism, a paragraph is often only one sentence (this is to keep the paragraph from looking too long when written in column style for newspapers).

The level of diction is different. Academic English, especially on the collegiate level, asks for a more formal level of diction. Journalism, however, must appeal to the public. Here's a depressing note -- journalists in America are often trained to write to the 4th-grade level of education as some adults are not so literate. In other words, keep your words as simple as possible.

Another difference is the use of commas. Traditionally, comma usage in newspapers, especially, was kept to a minimum, for a comma, after all, is another character that takes up space -- and that is the prime consideration in journalism, to pack as much information in as little space as possible.

Journalists are trained to write in the "inverted pyramid" style. Without going into painful detail, this basically means that the most important and interesting details are crammed into the top of the article. This is for two purposes; first, the realization that your reader will probably NOT read all of your article before drifting to another story (unlike the academic reader, who is typically expected to finish the essay) and also because the editor may come along and decide to trim your story, and the old (pre-PC) days, it was easier to trim a story by simply lopping off the last few paragraphs.

This causes the idea of the "lead" or "lede" paragraph, where the rule of thumb (for straight news reporting, anyway) is to provide the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and/or HOW information in the first sentence (which is why these are often referred to as the reporters' questions).

Finally, I'd like to point out that there are differences between journalistic areas, for example, a feature story writer or editorial writer can take more liberty than a "straight" news reporter, and a sports writer will typically use more hyperbole (inflated language) than anyone else in the newsroom ("The upstart Diamondbacks stunned the aging Yankees...") These differences are problems for composition teachers in American colleges, for American college freshmen are usually much more familiar with journalistic writing than academic essays, and it's sometimes difficult to convince them that what is "proper" for one audience is not for another.

As to the idea about words being left out of headlines, yes, the rule of thumb is to avoid use of the "be" verb or its variants.

I've seen many ESL/EFL reading textbooks that include or focus upon journalistic readings. I think it's very helpful for reading purposes, but, again, for writing purposes, the teacher has to be careful, especially in the area of support sentences for paragraphs.

Hope this helps. In addition to teaching conversation and (academic) composition at Keimyung University in Taegu, South Korea, I'm also assuming the role of English advisor for the university's English language newsmagazine, "The Gazette."

Searching for word meanings and importance of learning vocabulary in context

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

A teacher has a question: "What is a Ktoex machine? I got this term in an English newspaper. I want to know what kind of machine itis. Thanks."

When I first read your question, I didn't know what a Ktoex machine was. I hope you won't be offended, but I'd like to model the process I went through to find out what it is. Maybe you can use the process yourself the next time you come across a word that isn't in your dictionary. First, I went to, typed "ktoex" and could not find it. I went to, typed "ktoex" and could not find it.

Then I noticed that "kt" is not a common way to begin an English word. So, I thought maybe you misspelled Ktoex when you copied it from the newspaper. I tried "Toex" at, and found a company that makes gates and fences, and also learned that "toEx" is a mathematical term. I also tried "Kotex" at, and found that it is a company that makes feminine products.

When I can't find an exact meaning of a word in the dictionary or on the internet, I usually just try to make my best guess from context. However, you didn't provide any context from the newspaper article where you found this word.

Was it an article about construction or home security? Then maybe a "K-Toex" machine is something that automatically opens a model K gate, made by the Toex company.

Was it an article about physics, math, or advanced scientific technology? Then the "K-toEx" machine is probably a machine that works based on the "toEx" principle in mathematics, combined with something abbreviated "K".

Was it an article about girls or women's health? Then maybe the "Kotex" machine is something that dispenses feminine products.

I hope this information helps you to guess the meaning of the word.

Note to English teachers, how not to learn vocabulary:

This experience reminded me of something I deal with in class. I have several students who regularly read the China Daily or TIME magazine on their own time, and write down every word they don't know in a notebook.

When they've accumulated about 50 words, they sit down with their dictionary, look up all the words, write the phonetics and Chinese translation next to them, and try to memorize. If they can't find a word in the dictionary, they come to me, point to the word in their notebook and ask me, "What's meaning?".

Most of the time, the words they ask me about are as baffling as "Ktoex". I ask the students for some context, and they don't remember. I try to think out loud through the guessing process, as I did above, and the students have no patience for that. They want me to give them one definition that they can memorize, and they want it RIGHT NOW.

I've tried explaining the futility of memorizing vocabulary out of context, but it doesn't get through. Can anyone think of a very clear way to put across to them that they're wasting their time with the vocab memorizing initiative? Or should I let them continue deluding themselves that this significantly improves their English? (I mean, I've seen words in their notebooks that later come up in class, but they don't know them well enough to recognize them, let alone define or--heaven forbid!--use them.)

Changing students' classroom expectations about lectures and dictionaries

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery

My students expected me to stand and lecture the whole time, and they complained almost constantly for the first month or so that "we're not learning" and "you're not teaching us". When I asked what they meant, they said, "you're not explaining what the text means and telling us the answers." I said, "Do you want to know the answers, or do you want to learn English?" It was the first time someone told them there was a distinction.

Progress was made on the day I took away their dictionaries. As they filed into class, I told them to put their all dictionaries on my desk. Of course there was a huge pile. Then, I had them read a story I had printed from the internet (not from the textbook, which they've already written translation for in all the margins). I told them to underline any words they didn't know, and keep reading. When they had finished, I asked them the main idea, and they got it right! I made a really big deal about that. "You understood! Without your dictionary! Hurray!!" Then, we went through each of the words they didn't know, and I walked them through the guessing-from-context procedure. As they guessed the words, I did the song and dance again, "You learned the meaning without the dictionary! Yes!" They got the message.

Also, every time I explain a word or expression, I use at least one visual example. Sometimes physical action, sometimes a picture drawn on the blackboard, depending on what a given word lends itself to. The students loved to giggle at me demonstrating things like "stagger" and "off-key", but they would always look in their dictionaries (I did give them back) to double-check the translation.

Just yesterday, we came nearer to a cure for dictionaryitis. I took the list of unknown vocabulary that students had turned in from an outside reading assignment, and I gave each student two words from that list. Each student was to become an expert on the two words, then teach them to the class using 1. the definition in English, 2. a sentence in English, and 3. a visual example. So, when they presented, I just sat in an empty student seat, and watched...and there was no whining about my "not teaching" them. It was downright inspirational to me to see one student explain "intercept" by drawing a soccer diagram where one player kicks the ball toward another, but a third player takes it away. The whole class nodded and murmurred the Chinese equivalent of "Aha!". And I didn't see anyone reach for
their dictionary! It was the kind of moment that makes the English teacher in me want to jump up and shout, "YES! Exactly right! Way to make it real!"