Thursday, May 31, 2007

Value of training

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui

I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. In reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way.

I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology - and I do wish I’d got more training, not less.

Making groupwork work

Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui, China

In my first year here I was really disappointed in how my students (mostly college freshmen) were doing group activities - or not doing them! I was stumped as to how to manage the classroom to achieve anything better. Various people gave lots of suggestions, and I want to say thank you again for all the help.

This semester all my classes are college freshmen - many barely able to say anything. This semester I got the college to get us the Cambridge Skills for Fluency Speaking (2) book, which I’m now using with them. It’s a task/activity book, unlike anything they’ve ever used or done before, and there are lots of group activities in it.

I have 7 classes, all of 30 to 35 students. Each class is now divided into 5 groups, on the basis of their exam marks from last semester’s oral classes. Each group has a manager, a secretary, a monitor (responsible for collecting and returning any written work, etc), a timekeeper and a coach. For a couple of weeks this all felt a real uphill struggle, but suddenly they’re getting their heads round this way of working and the classes are working much better. I’m asking groups
to do many activities ending up with a presentation to the whole class, which I tape and mark, and which they’re getting better and better at both doing and listening to.

During the activities I can spend a few minutes with each group, and a bit more time with one particular group. But what’s really nice is that I’m able to relate much more to the students as individuals this way - even though there are exactly the same number of students in the classroom. In their small groups, I can relate to them much more personally, and even though it’s only ever for a short time, it seems to have much more effect than when they were either in the whole class group, in pairs, or in changing groups (i.e. different people in a group from week to week). I
feel that they’re developing a different sort of working relationship with me now, as well as my getting to know each of them better. This has been an unexpected bonus and helped me greatly to start to get my head around how to teach using group-work as well as using task-based activities as the dominant method.

I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. In reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way.

I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology - and I do wish I’d got more
training, not less.

Theater games

By Stian

Theater games are often used for warming up at theater schools, but also in many other contexts. I was active in the hippie-pacifist enviroment in Sweden, and that's where a lot of this come from, we would have weekend gatherings where we would play theater-games in the evenings, practice consensus dialogue and conflict resolution (techniques I believe partly developed by the Plowshares disarmament movement to facilitate equal dialogue and constructive meetings, includes a different facilitators and different ways of facilitating the meeting).

Just as an example, a sample theater-game would be having four people in an imagined elevator on stage, each playing a character "an old lady", "a young professor" etc, and then improvising. At any time, someone from the audience can come up, tap someone on the shoulder, who then leave, and "enter" the elevator, as someone else. Thus the play goes on. To a large extent, theater-games implies improvisation, which theoretically Chinese students have a big problem with, however I have found that planned properly, it can work (like my example last week, however unplanned that was).

I have never been trained as a teacher in these, merely experienced them, and it's certainly something I want to look more into when I return "to the west", but already I think it has given me an insight into how meetings, dialogues and so on work, and how to facilitate them, groups dynamics and so on. I have been using some of this to facilitate group discussions and so on. However, I couldn't really give any specifics, since it's stuff that I have more picked up, and that jumps out at the specific moment, then theories I can describe.

But to close, I do think all these things are really relevant, and one of my plans, if I ever get the money, is to study drama, alternative pedagogy, and possibly feminist studies, and then tour the world teaching Esperanto (it is possible, I have a good friend in Holland who has been touring the world teaching Esperanto, another world language, for 16 years, using dance, music and colors, amongst others).

The English-only classroom - Explain, don't shame

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery

A teacher says:

Last week I tried what I though would be the ultimate shame. After listening to the pre-lesson babble I asked them - If your parents had been in this room for the last 5 minutes, what would they think? 30 blank looks.

Do your students know that you expect them to speak only English in the classroom, even before and after the lesson? A lot of Chinese students think of English as just another subject, like chemistry, and their chemistry teacher doesn't require them to speak about acids and phosphates before or after the lecture.

One thing that has recently helped in my classroom is to be very explicit about the English-only rule. "This room is for English only. If you are in this room, you will speak only English. It doesn't matter if I am teaching or not. It doesn't matter if it is time for a break or not. The Chinese language stays outside the door of this classroom." Any students who "need" to speak Chinese during breaks conduct their conversations in the hall. When I hear pre- or post-lesson Chinese in the classroom, I tap the offenders on the shoulder, and ask them to take it outside. Sometimes they go in the hall, sometimes they switch to English.

During class, I use the participation points method. Participation is 25% of my students' grade. This is enough that those who care about their grade are very motivated to participate. When the students come in at the beginning of class, I hand each of them a tiny piece of paper. They write their name and student number on
it. Whenever anyone asks a good question or gives a good answer, I take their paper. When I hear someone speak Chinese, I give them their paper back. At the end of class, I spend a few moments putting participation points in my grade book for everyone whose paper I have.

I wear shoes with soft soles, so I can move silently around the classroom during group and pair work. All I need to do is clear my throat to startle back into English those students who have drifted into Chinese.

I think you just have to keep experimenting to find what motivates your students, as well as what works with your teaching style. For example, one foreign teacher I know gives a piece of candy to each student when he/she participates. I thought that might not work so well with university students, but his students have told me they love it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Encouraging English outside the classroom

by Pete Marchetto

A couple of thoughts on this one. A few students have told me that they had good intentions when it came to English-only dorms and classroom time but that it broke down after a day or two. Only the most motivated of students will manage day in, day out and they will usually succumb to peer-group pressure and give up when most of
their fellows do. They set their ambitions too high and then give up altogether.

I think the best thing in convincing the students of English-only is to give them the analogy of, say, learning how to play tennis. For an hour or two a week you, the pro., are there to show them how to hold the racket, swing it and hit the ball. But if they put the racket down for the rest of the week until they see the pro. again they won't improve. That ain't the way to learn tennis and it ain't the way to learn English.

The next thing I do is tell them a true story. (If you have no such true experience tell them this one or lie). At my last post one of the students complained she didn't like speaking English with her classmates because they laughed at her. The irony was - as I pointed out to her and all her classmates - she was the best of 'em when it came to English. She rounded her vowels properly instead of mumbling them into some convenient quasi-Chinese approximation and was careful with her difficult consonants - even if that did mean a glimpse of tongue for 'th' - and consequently, of course, she looked and sounded ridiculous to her fellows in much the same way we did when we were at school and got the knack of pronouncing Frrrrrench properly. I'm coming to the conclusion that a large proportion of pronunciation problems come from the embarrassment of saying things correctly - it sounds so odd to the Chinese ear.

Also, it is good to do is convince the students they don't need to be given a topic or an exercise in order to speak English. I've had many students tell me they can't express everyday thoughts unless in Chinese - even some teachers have told me that - but I've yet to have any university student (or teacher) want to express something to me and fail. Again, point that out to them. They are so unused to using the language in anything besides a formal exercise they genuinely believe a lot of the time that that is all they CAN use it for.

Many are concerned that errors made in the course of speaking, if not corrected, will become entrenched. For that one I ask them to think of a local three year old speaking Chinese. Do they really think that three year old will be making the same oft-repeated mistakes at the age of ten? And do they think the best thing that three year old can do to improve his or her Chinese is to stop talking it until he or she has learned more rules of Chinese grammar?

What I do, having gone through all that, is set them the task of speaking English only for one hour a day when they are together, Monday through to Friday; the same hour each day. They don't have to say anything in that hour if they don't want to... but if they want to ask to borrow a pen or draw attention to something happening outside the window then they must do it in English. I also give the monitors the task of seeing to it that THEY arrange the hour this is to be done and that they enforce it. (This is best done of course if the students spend a lot of study time in the classroom - otherwise you will have to find someone else to be 'in charge' or assign dorm-leaders if dormitory hours are chosen). I give my monitors permission to punch anyone who speaks Chinese though sadly this form of enforcement is rarely taken as seriously as I'd like it to be.

Another possibility I've toyed with - but not used - is an English-only space; say a computer room or television room which the students like to be in. (A TV room might be difficult as it will be difficult to break out of watching Chinese programmes to
comment in English and then switch back again). The price of being in there is they must converse in English. If the worst comes to the worst then select a room they have to go to every day; the dining hall perhaps, or you could take advantage of a mass break-out of food-poisoning and allocate the lavatory.

At my college all this is all easily done, admittedly; the students are used to taking orders AS orders and are highly motivated. However, at any university it's worth while convincing the students that the best resource they have for learning oral English is each other. When students complain to me that the college doesn't provide them with an English-speaking environment I tell them it's their job to create it for themselves. And should it happen - which thankfully it hasn't yet - that students at the end of a semester complain to me their English under my tuition hasn't improved as much as they'd hoped then I can always blame THEM for
not following my directions. Even if you can't convince them to do it, at least you've covered your own butt...

Passivity in the Asian classroom

By Dick Tibbets - University of Macau

One teacher described his feelings about his class:

"I was very frustrated by the (to me) astonishing passivity of my students. The difference between what they were learning and could have been learning had they been more active was so great. And their (apparent) lack of motivation drained mine greatly.

"I had seen a little discussion on this list and in books about the passivity of many Asian students, and I thought I was prepared for it, but its degree and perviousness to my efforts was a great surprise."

Bob's suggestion that teachers coming to China should be advised of the passivity of students is a pretty good idea. It can still get us teachers where it hurts even after years. One of my colleagues with 15 years in Macau, teaches business studies and has a number of exchange students from europe in one of her classes. The Europeans are starting to express resentment and frustration at the slow pace of the class.

They have a much better command of English than their Chinese classmates and are also willing to chance their arm. Responses have to be dragged out of the Chinese students and it takes ages to get a response for even the most basic question.

I'm lucky. I'd taught learners from over 70 countries before I came here so I was aware of 'the Asian classroom' problem and had a context to place it in.

As to what to do about it, it depends on the age and level of the students and on other factors including luck.

I do a lot of cajoling and wheedling. And I'm quite prepared to make sarky remarks about how well their Cantonese is coming on when I hear the wrong language in group work.

I run around a lot to monitor group work and keep them at it. Groupwork tasks need a conclusion but they also have to have an element of development to take up the slack.

I make it clear at the start that I demand respect as their teacher and that that respect must be shown by deeds not sirs. I explain why I want them to do things and I try and show how this has helped them learn. My weaker students have been learning English the Chinese way for 12+ years without much success so they aren't unwilling to try it my way, they just find it unfamiliar.

I use humour and wordplay at whatever level seems appropriate. Anything to get them to realise they are learning a language not a subject.

It works.

For some students.

Importance of motivation

By Katherine Lea - IEN English, Beijing

Right now I have a new class of post graduate students who wish to study overseas for their second degrees. As with a previous class last semester the motivation of these students is HIGH HIGH HIGH. When I ask them to discuss the issues, they discuss them, when I ask them to use the grammar in a conversation they do it willingly.

What's the difference you ask? I have only taught at private colleges in China and in the last year I have primarily taught post graduate students who wish to study overseas. Their motivation is themselves because they NEED English to succeed in their goals.

I do a lot of goal setting at the beginning of the course and keep in mind each students goal. If they start to slip I remind them of the light at the end of the tunnel - THEIR GOAL - and they start working again.

For many Chinese students they don't know WHY they NEED to learn English. When they figure out their real goals (not just passing a test) they do get motivated and won't be passive.

So if you really want a rewarding experience find these students and you will have a wonderful time.

Working without materials and guidance

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery

One teacher explained his problems:

I however, have no book. No photocopying availability, no overhead, but an ample supply of chalk. And my own head. I love teaching these students, they usually respond to me quite well, I think I do quite a good job, and yet I face the task each weekend of composing next weeks classes.... the Chinese teachers keep telling me all I need to do is talk English to the students, etc).

Yes, yes, yes! I was there last semester. I had to teach three textbook-less classes: Video Conversation, Newspaper and Magazine Reading, and Advanced Writing. When I asked my supervisor what sort of conversation/reading/writing tasks do the students in these classes need to be capable of doing by the end of the term, she looked at me like she had never asked herself that question before.

She told me to just tell the students some interesting things that only native speakers know. Well, I tried to imagine what the students would need/want to learn in those areas, but I ran out of ideas about midterm. And I had had a TEFL course, so taking a course isn't the answer.

What I needed was a syllabus (in case that is an Americanism, I mean an outline of the topics for study, including a schedule of when each one will be discussed in class). It's not too late for you to create one. Try listing some general topics (dating, aliens, study habits, the future of China, clothing, health and sickness, tourism).

Plan one for each class period remaining in the semester. And start brainstorming now for interesting ways to present them. For dating, you could have pair up students to role play the worst date ever.

Students could discuss questions like (asking the boys), "what do you look for in a girlfriend?" and (asking the girls), "what do boys look for in a girlfriend?" and see if the answers match. For aliens, you could discuss whether students believe there is life on other planets, and have them draw pictures of what that life would look like, if it exists. Then, without showing their partner the picture, they must explain in English how to draw the alien. Their partner tries to draw a matching picture.

The problem is that my situation doesn't fit most of the usual teacher textbooks (where it is assumed, for example, that you teach your class all aspects of English in the same course, ie. alternating writing, speaking, reading, grammar and so on).

My advice is, don't worry about encroaching on the other aspects of English. If it's easier for you to have the students write something, then swap papers and read each other's work, and then discuss it, rather than having to pull discussion topics out of thin air, go ahead and include the reading and writing.

Most Chinese students complain that they can read and write far more words than they can say in English; that they can recite far more grammar rules than they can apply correctly when speaking. They need help relating these other things to their oral English, and that can't happen if reading, writing, and grammar are totally banished from the Oral English classroom.

DIY immersion

By Eve Ross, Beijing Institute of Machinery

I was a Linguistics major at university, meaning I needed fluency in two languages besides English. When I was a freshman, I was very aware that I was getting no practice in French outside the classroom, so for my sophomore year, I moved to a special dormitory where students learning languages room with others learning the same language, with one native speaker for each 5 learners.

Although all the learners had the same L1 (first language, English), we promised (with no particular reward or punishment in the balance) to speak French at all times in the dorm, and to cook and eat dinner together four nights a week to give us time together to practice.

It was very difficult to communicate for about a month, but then something clicked and our (mine and my roommates') oral French level skyrocketed. When I went to Paris for an internship after graduation, I was able to blend in immediately--people knew I was a foreigner but they couldn't tell that I was American (Parisians have sharp ears for picking out American accents), and that made me very proud.

I agree that when you're a freshman who can barely put sentences together, it's nearly impossible to maintain conversation in the L2 outside of planned classroom activities. But my oral English students here are sophomores.

Last year I had juniors and seniors as well. All of them could hold relaxed, fairly normal, but somewhat limited conversations from day one. Their level of English is the same or higher than my level of French was as a freshman. All the English majors are already dormmates. If I could do an L2 dorm program, so can they. But when I told them of my experience in the French-speaking dorm, they said they had already tried speaking English in the dorm, and it only lasted about a day.

"Chinese is easier," they all said with a giggle, and those who don't care as much about learning English were dragging those who do care off the L2 bandwagon, so to speak. It boils down to motivation.

Obviously, there's nothing I can do to enforce their speaking English outside of class. It's something students have to choose to do on their own if it's going to work. And, as Jennifer and others have said, we can only work with the time and resources we've been given. So my response is to enforce the English-only rule in my classroom, both in the few minutes before the start of class and during the break between the 2 consecutive hours of class. This isn't much, but I hope it helps students realize that they can use English for real-life communication, as well as contrived role plays and formal debates.

Also, when my students set their goals for this semester, they were free to choose whatever methods of improving their oral English they wanted. Some promised to memorize more vocabulary words from the dictionary, because they need to prepare for TEM4. Shall we say, less effective? However, I was very pleased to see that some of them also promised to speak English with their friends. When students that I know are friends all put this as their goal, that gave me some hope that it might actually happen. And who knows how long it may last? Hope springs eternal.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Concept pods

By Dr. Mert L. Bland, Arlington, VA, USA

A teacher in the Czech Republic is still confused by my use of the term, Concept Pod.

A concept pod is a rete (neural network) that focuses on an idea, a word, a concept (like mother). Your concept pod will be different from my concept pod since, for no other reason, we have different mothers. And while Amah and Mother may appear on the same line in a bilinual dictionary, they cannot be exact translations since there are a multitude of differences between the two, many of which are culturally based. If I'm not mistaken, we used to call our nursemaid Amah in China, but we would never call a nursemaid Mother.

So, concept = idea, pod = a cluster. Concept pod = an amorphous cluster of experientially acquired meanings focusing on a concept, reminding one of the shape of an amoeba with bumps growing here and there and others disappearing.

This is why I avoid translation like a plague. And am I the only one in the whole world who speaks of concept pods?

Friday, May 4, 2007

Dr. Bland's Ten Commandments for teaching English

By Merton Bland


A few years ago the author was assigned to the prime TESOL institution in southern Vietnam, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. What he found was quite a challenge: an educational system, centrally administrated, mired in traditional practices. The grammar/translation methodology, a legacy of the French, held sway in the classrooms, producing, in spite of six years of English in the secondary schools, a nation of graduates unable to communicate in the target language. Discussions with Vietnamese colleagues, usually trained abroad, resulted in plans for a lecture tour to the major teacher training institutions of Vietnam (including Hanoi, DaNang, Hue, and about a half-dozen others) with a message stressing alternatives to the status quo, and the present format was developed. The author was subsequently invited to speak at institutions of ideological training (Communist Party Cadre) and information diffusion (schools for journalists) previously off-limits to Westerners, as well as the teacher training institutions previously noted.

The Commandments

(1) Do not teach English. Teach something, anything, IN English, using English as a vehicle of communication rather than an object of study. This is sometimes called the content-based curriculum.

(2) Do not teach grammar. Ingesting rules can be counterproductive: We are all familiar with students who are unable to apply rules learned through rote memorization. Instead, the grammar of English is best acquired inductively by the students formulating their own hypotheses. (This reflects Krashen's acquisition vs. learning.)

(3) Do not teach vocabulary. The schema, the concept pods which constitute the lexigraphical units of language, vary from language to language, even from person to person. No language is a direct translation of any other. Thus, vocabulary must be forged within the target language itself in a manner not unlike that of first language acquisition. To do otherwise is to risk forging the chains which prevent the bifurcation of the native and target languages and forever making your students translate in their heads word for word.

(4) Do not teach pronunciation. There is no longer any standard English. Well over two-thirds of the world's 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native speakers. Their English is certainly as acceptable as the Received Pronunciation (RP) of a tiny fraction of the British or the Broad Midwestern of Hollywood--as long as their English is comprehensible to the greatest number of persons who do not share that particular accent.

(5) Do not give tests. While testing is well embedded in many parts of the world, scaling is to be preferred to testing. Usually tests only require the regurgitation of knowledge. Scaling, placing people on a scale from beginner to educated native, has much more validity.

(6) Do not use lesson plans. Teach students, not lesson plans. Many teachers come away from their teacher training institutions with a mandated compulsion to spend hours writing lesson plans. Such planning is quite counterproductive since in an actual teaching situation the teacher must be alert to the reactions of the students--stressing pragmatic considerations, putting more time and effort where the lesson needs it and shortening or eliminating parts where the students seem to be in command of the concept being stressed. Yes, the teacher should have a general idea of the objectives of the lesson. Certainly the teacher should have available any materials which will be needed. Most importantly the teacher should leave time after the lesson to reflect on it and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. But the focus of any teaching should be on the students, not on the constraints imposed by any preconceived lesson plan.

(7) Do not use the native language in the classroom: Never, never, never! If our aim is the successful bifurcation of the native and target languages, any use of the native language is by definition counterproductive. Draw a chalkline on the doorsill and proudly use the native language outside the classroom, but create an immersion situation inside.

(8) Do not use textbooks. You know your own students better than any textbook author. Authentic materials are all around you. For example: Record the news from the VOA or the BBC. Videotape CNN or Australian TV. Bring in any expatriate Anglophone in town and have him chat with the students. Have your school subscribe to the "International Herald Tribune" or "Time" or "Newsweek." Borrow English language videos. If they have subtitles put a book in front of the bottom of the monitor to cover up those subtitles. Buy, with your own money if necessary, paperbacks. After you read them they can be the nucleus of an individualized reading program (each student reads his own book and then reports on it to the class). Have your class keep journals in English, and write their own English to English vocabulary lists. Have the class write their own book.

(9) Do not teach the microskills: reading, writing, speaking, listening. English is one language, indivisible. And English is a living language; one only dissects the dead.

(10) Do not teach. Empower your students to take responsibility for their own learning. This reflects a general trend, especially in North American education, to deemphasize the role of the teacher as the font of all knowledge and provide the students with the means to further their own educative process beyond the classroom. This is called the student-centered classroom (as opposed to the teacher-centered classroom).

Thus Hath Dr. Bland Spoke

On the international plane, a focus on communication is overtaking traditional methodologies. This is reflected in most of the commandments. On the other hand, some of the commandments, i.e. Number 4, were reactions to local controversies. Number 4 was a response to the discussions as to which English represented the standard: British (RP), Midwest American, or even, in the Vietnamese context, Australian English. The answer was none of the above, but rather a Vietinglish comprehensible to the greatest number of non-Vietnamese.
Obviously, no immediate revolution was planned, nor did one occur. The aim, rather, was to present some alternatives and allow them to foment. Someday one of those teachers-in-training will become minister of education, and perhaps he or she will remember Dr. Bland's seminar and institute some of those reforms.

(Versions of this list have appeared in other publications, including the "WATESOL Journal.")

Merton L. Bland has worked as a K-12 teacher in the USA; a US foreign service officer in Africa, Asia and Australia; and as an ESL/EFL teacher and teacher trainer in the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe. <>