Thursday, July 26, 2007

Auditing classes helps ESL students work harder

By Ross McBride - Canada

We created an academic prep ESL class for career colleges. We took our ESL students and had them audit classes in the program they would enter after the prep class within the first 2 weeks. The students had a real in-class experience where they had to take notes and then report back
to the ESL class.

All the ESL students were shocked at the speed, vocabulary, amount of reading, homework etc etc. They worked harder in the prep class as they realized how high the bar was for English language skills.

Complaints of ESL students entering mainstream American college classes

By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, US

I teach at a community college and often have some of my former students who are now in mainstream college courses stop by my office to complain about their classes. They complain that the teachers talk so quickly, that they have so much reading to do, that it’s hard to work in groups with native speakers, that the teacher tells jokes they don’t understand, that they feel marginalized, etc.

I see the situation from both sides: the side of the instructor with a lecture hall of 60 students and maybe 5 or 6 former ESL students in the bunch AND the side of the English language learner overwhelmed in the unsheltered language community. I have lots of opportunity to advise and commiserate with the students who come to my office, but now I would like to address the instructors. Some things are obvious, like watching out for cultural bias in tests, writing new, specialized terminology on the board, or providing a lecture outline or agenda that students can use to help them take notes. But it really is a delicate balancing act of aiding the non-native speaker without singling this student out in any way or having different standards for the student, and the more I think about it, I wonder what, if anything, I can advise the instructors to do!

(Instructors often feel, by the way, that if the student passed the entry exam for college level courses, then the student should be on a linguistic par in every respect with the native speaking student and that they, the instructors, shouldn’t have to do anything.)

For those of you who teach students who then go into mainstream courses, or for anyone with ideas on the topic, what tips would you give other instructors for helping these non-native speakers do well in their courses?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Testing oral English

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Anhui Province, China

When I came to teach here, although I‘d been a speaking test examiner for more than 10 years (for UCLES exams) I‘d actually never had to set an oral English exam before. I’d taught always in situations where the students were either taking no exam or were working towards an external exam. So if I did have to set tests, they were very much on the mock-exam model.

I’d never taught a modern language within a university/college setting where this was the student’s main subject (major). Although I had a short training specific to coming to this post in China, provided by the NGO who sponsor my post, I came with some sort of assumption that there would be a syllabus, there would be designated attainment targets (although not necessarily expressed in that way). Well, you all know the reality here.

I was timetabled for first year Oral English classes who were provided with one of the ORAL ENGLISH WORKSHOP series of books. If anything, I found that was worse than arriving with nothing. It implied someone somewhere thought the content of this course book was what my students should be mastering.

Anyway, after a semester of muddling along and getting some sort of impression about what might be possible, I realised that the lowest of the UCLES EFL exams I’d been a speaking test examiner for was probably within the reach of everyone in the class. I’d been warned about the tradition of everyone in the class passing the exams. Remember I’d done those UCLES tests for years.

I could remember the type of tasks set in the exam, and I produced a parallel. Those UCLES tests are taken in pairs, but I chose to give each student an individual exam - partly as a public relations exercise about oral exams within my department. I was interlocuter as well as assessor.

So I recorded all the exams and marked them from the tapes. I was right in that all my students were capable of attaining that first level in the UCLES hierarchy, which means that in a grander scheme of things they had all achieved the Council of Europe Basic User level. The descriptors for this (in summary) are:

Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very personal and family information, shopping, local geography, environment).

Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.

Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters of immediate need.

At the end of the first semester all my students could do that - although a good number could only just do it with a very sympathetic interlocutor. Others walked through it. Which gave me a good spread of marks. And on that basis I decided to model the exam at the end of the second semester on the next level up (which I’d also done examining work for). By that stage my classes had included a fair amount of group work, and so the exam was done in small, randomly selected groups of 4, not including me. This year I’ve done lots more group work, but am actually planning to give one-to-one exams at this stage instead - partly for comparison.

So my decisions were based on a combination of what was within my own capabilities as well as the students. I’m not an expert on language testing. My only teacher training is a CELTA, and in the past when I’ve had to devise and construct college tests it was done under the supervision of a very experienced head of department. But also I’m not into re-inventing the wheel.

The Council of Europe stuff - which relates to ALL the languages taught in Europe (and that includes teaching non-European languages) - is the result of mega-input from experts over heaven knows how many years now. I feel I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could devise any better sort of structure to work within - so I’m using it. I do also like it - I find it clear and easy to get my head around.

I’m also interested to find that now I’ve got hold of an English translation of the syllabus for our English & Education majors, which details Band 2, 4 and 6 targets, I’m starting to be able to relate them meaningfully to the band descriptors I’m used to using. I’ve come across this syllabus too late to affect how I teach and examine this year, but it’s certainly going to help me next year.

It also makes me realise that we tend to see the Band exam stuff from the student-obsession perspective, while underlying it there is the same sort of work I’ve been used to being aware of in a European context. Here, I realise I see the students’ type of understanding - the seeing only the tip of the iceberg - because I‘m not included in my department as a colleague with access to formal and informal discussion about all this.

From my students I have an impression of teaching that’s come down to a lowest common denominator sort of level influenced by the need to get students through those exams to allow them to graduate. But I think I can also see where my own college department is failing to meet the specifications in that syllabus, both in intention and reality. Which in itself is interesting as this is a department that an international NGO thought warranted support in its development.

Buy books or bring books?

By Tony Gilbert

Before we came to China, we spent quite a lot of money to buy ESL books in Australia as lesson/teaching resources. Feel like a bit of a fool now! Today we visited the Xin Hua Bookstore in Nanning and found some of the same Cambridge series books for about 15% of the price we paid in Australia. And lots of other books besides. For an investment of A$25 (a quarter of what we spent in Australia) we have quadrupled our ESL bookshelf. So, my advice is don't bother to bring a lot of ESL books to China, unless you are going to teach in deepest Tibet or somewhere.

Getting students to ask questions

By Karen Stanley - Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

One effective way of having students ask questions, I've found, is to sit down/stand in the corner, not saying anything, and simply wait for the students to say something. This is often after I've explained something a bit complicated, and expect that it will take students time to absorb what I've said before they can even figure out if they have questions.

Sometimes I will ask *them* a question and wait. Once in a while, no one ever says *anything*, and after waiting quite a long time (I've learned to wait quite patiently), I finally take pity on them and begin myself. Of course, I don't deal with classes of all Chinese students, and don't know how that kind of waiting would work in that type of classroom.

I have thought about using the following technique for dealing with student questions (I heard about it in a presentation some time ago), but have never actually *tried* it. I keep thinking I should (someday, of course).

The teacher hands out index cards (or small pieces of paper, since I understand index cards are hard to come by in China) at the beginning of class. During the class, students have to write down a question about something the teacher explains during the class. The students turn in the questions as they leave class. The teacher can then go through them and use them at the beginning of the next class.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Students speaking up and out

By Daniel T. Parker

This probably won't work for every class, but I recently rediscovered a solution to a problem I have about not getting questions from my college students.

No matter how many times I ask for questions during a lesson, I rarely receive any questions, even when I can tell that one or several students are puzzled by something. I understand that part of it is shyness concerning asking a question in front of their classmates.

Usually, I hold my classes right up until the "ten-til" mark, but a couple of weeks ago, I finished my prepared lesson about 15 minutes early. Instead of engaging the students in small talk or time-killing, I just said, ah, go on and get out of here, enjoy the extra time.

Wham. I was surrounded by five students wanting to ask questions. Since I hadn't waited until the "ten-til" mark to dismiss, they now had time to ask their questions AND get to their next class.

I remembered this having happened before, so I've tried a little experiment this week. I've been planning to end my classes 15 or 20 minutes early. In my conversation classes, all but one of my classes (and it was the night-time class) saw students coming up not to ask questions, but just to have conversation (hooray!). In both of my composition classes so far this week, I've ended up fielding several questions each time, and actually staying in class longer than I would have if I'd dismissed at my regular time.

Again, it probably won't work for highschool/middleschool classes, or maybe not even with every college class, but it seems to be getting the job done -- now, at least -- for me.

Students speaking at the front & discipline issues

Jennifer Wallace - Anhui University of Technology, Anhui Province, China

This week I'm going to finish off the activity in progress which led to individuals coming to the front of the class to speak - but that may be the end of it for this class. Last year I had one group that was so bad at group work - they'd sit totally silent! - I ended up giving it up completely with that class.

However, in contrast, with other classes I do include individuals coming to the front of the class, plus we record it - and then we listen to the recording - and I give feedback from the recording, which the students are saying is really good!

One of the reasons I've asked students to speak at the front of the class is that with this one poor class, with both pairwork and group work they often do'nt do, or do it pathetically poorly. Knowing a number of people will then follow on by speaking to the whole of the class does seem to function as some sort of incentive to use the pair/group work as a rehersal - but I'm far from sure of the value of any of this.

One teacher described his use of [throwing] chalk in maintaining classroom order. I could never do this. Many, many years ago, as a classroom assistant in a state school in the UK, a board rubber in my hand, I turned round quickly and crossly to reprimand a student. The board rubber flew out of my hand and cracked the child across the nose. I was lucky I wasn't accused of deliberately assaulting the child - if it happened now in a UK classroom I probably would be. Thowing ANYTHING at a student ANYWHERE is not acceptable, and I'm not going to do that in China for behaviour that doesn't even start to equal the problems many UK teachers face on a daily basis.

I'm being paid by a UK-based international NGO to contribute to the general up-grading of the teaching standards in this department, as well as teach English. My classes are meant to be models of successful modern methodology!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Student-centered vocabulary lists

By David Tillyer - Westchester Community College, New York, USA

For the past few semesters I've been having my Level 4 class create their own vocabulary lists each week. Their assignment from Monday to Wednesday is to come up with two or three words that they have encountered in the past week.

On Wednesday they each put their words on the blackboard. I try to limit it to 20 words as more would seem unmanageable. Each person is responsible for giving the class a definition. I then follow up with any further explanation that is needed.

I then use crossword creator to put together a crossword puzzle for the last task in our Friday class. Because all the words are customized, this provides an opportunity to make some of the clues refer to our class. This increases the "ownership" of the new words. The students enjoy and look forward to this activity and often try to work some of the words into their journals in the following week (not a mandate from me).

This is a very useful exercise and has many positive consequences. Some of the negatives are:

1. I'm on the spot on Wednesday to define words off the top of my head--not a new experience, but not easy.

2. some students participate more willingly than others-- not a new experience either

3. some of the words that appear have low frequency and some of them are irrelevant or just silly. This is our word list for this week: flustered, profile, detach, glance. homey, rim, ballpark figure, Samaritan, cunning, cunning, fragile, plot, blame, explicit, swallow, bless, tease, homemade, courtship, woo, legend.

These are not words I would have chosen and I'm not sure that they are useful words (yes, 'courtship' and 'woo' came from the same student - I don't know what he's been reading!), however, they are their words and they like the idea of putting together the list each week.

Being taught by the Direct Method

By Lida Baker - Los Angeles, California, USA

A discussion about the Direct Method takes me back more than 25 years, when I was a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. We were required to study a language we hadn't learned previously, and I picked French. The text, written by Pucciani and Hamel, followed a grammar syllabus and employed the authors' version of the Direct Method, which went like this:

Each day the teacher began the class by greeting us and making small talk for a minute or two. (I should point out that every word uttered by the teacher was in French, starting on day 1.) She then presented the day's teaching focus by embedding the grammar in a question, which she directed at a student in the class. The student would answer the question to the best of his ability, and the teacher would instruct him to write it on the board verbatim. We were not allowed to help or correct what the student wrote on the board. In fact, the question-and-answer process continued while the student was writing. Very quickly we learned to focus on what the teacher was saying, not on what the person at the board was writing.

The teacher would repeat this question-and-answer, write-the-answer-on-the-board sequence five times. Each question would have different vocabulary but the same target structure. When there were five sentences on the board, the questions and answers would stop. The teacher would call on students to read the sentences on the board and state whether they were correct or incorrect. If the sentence was incorrect, the teacher asked the student to correct it. If the student was unable to do so, the teacher called on someone else or corrected the error herself.

After going over the five sentences on the board, we would start a new question-and answer set with a slightly different focus from the one just completed (for example, the target verb might be different).

If this procedure sounds tedious, let me assure you that it was not. Student interest and participation were always very high. I attribute this to a number of factors:

1. The method was highly interactive.

2. Students got instant feedback on whether their sentences were correct or incorrect.

3. Alternating between aural-oral and board work gave students time to rest and reflect on what they were learning.

4. New language was presented in small, manageable chunks.

I recall being frustrated from time to time by the inductive presentation of the grammar. I am a "rule following" type of language learner, and it annoyed me when I couldn't find the rule. In those cases I would see the teacher after class and she would explain it to me in English.

That summer I traveled to France and, to my astonishment, was able to perform basic operations like ordering food, making a hotel reservation, and asking directions entirely in French. The method really worked. I have used it, along with other teaching techniques, to teach ESL grammar for more than 20 years.

However, I don't know how useful this version of the direct method will be for those who teach in a place like Japan. My French teachers were able to speak French exclusively because there is enormous overlap between French and English vocabulary and syntax. And of course the two languages have the same writing system.

Challenges of teaching vocabulary

Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

Using a crossword program is a convenient way to generate vocab practice from student-selected words.

I really want to add student-selected words to the prescribed academic vocabulary that comes in our text books, but my problem has always been coming up with enough practice material to make it worthwhile. A crossword program is fairly easy to get, but what to do for the next in-class practice with the words, and the one after that?

I know I have spent HOURS making cloze sentences, matching, and other worksheet activities for student-selected words, usually taking sentences from dictionaries and google “concordances”. Since I teach in an academic program, I also have to create tests that incorporate the student-selected words. (Teachers who do this know how time-consuming it is. Vocab practice development is such a drain that one of the first questions our instructors ask a vocab text publisher is “Does the text come with a test generator?”)

If all this is just ONE small part of ONE class, how do teachers manage this?

Making vocabulary review fun

By Brian Grover

Refreshing target vocabulary hardly takes the fun out of langauge learning. Doing so goes to the very heart of what language learning is all about, activating language and turning language into experience. Flash cards and frequency lists? You're kidding, right?

Refreshing targets can be quite simple and enjoyable. Take for example the expression "pick up". Say that it was originally introduced in the context of a dialogue that included something like "I picked up malaria in Thailand." The target is going to be immediately refreshed, multiple times in the ensuing discussion wherein students compare notes on their own travels and any maladies that they may have "picked up" en route. Of course correction will be necessary to get usage right.

Invariably one or more students in the class is going to be sick at any given time. This is a great opportunity to refresh the target within 24 hours with something like "Yoshi, it looks like you've picked up cold". That can open up a whole other topic around stuff like folk remedies which naturally leads into stuff like household hints like using salt to get red wine out of the carpet and so on. Such topics are particularly useful when teaching phrasal expressions. You are not just refreshing the target vocabulary but you're connecting it to all of the necessary grammar and of course all of the realia student brings with them to the class.

And if you want to refresh it again a few days later there are some other obvious directions to go in like how do you get to and from school? "Oh, I see, your wife picks you up?"

If you need to refresh it a week later bring in some knickknack -- like an opium pipe -- that you may have "picked up" in Macau for example. There are about a dozen different directions you can go from here including souvenir buying and associated traditions, all about travelling and of course cool words and phrases students might have "picked up" in their travels. Or you could get into a discussion of about drug use and abuse in students' home countries versus the pot growing capital of the world, British Columbia, where the teaching happens to be going on. You might be surprised to find out that you can "pick up" marijuana in Shinjuku or Shibuya quite easily though it's also almost as easy to get "picked up" by the police in doing so.

Listen to the students as this is where the real learning takes place. I would hesitate to foist flash cards or vocabulary lists on my students as I consider them anathema to learning. By working target expressions into realistic discussion those targets connect in a very powerful way with the students' own experiences and are less likely to be forgotten within a day or two than arbitrarily mandated target vocabulary.

This approach can be used with any group false beginner and above.

Helping students with vocabulary

Terry Pruett-Said - English for Academic Purposes, Macomb Community College, Michigan, USA

In my extensive/academic reading class, students have to hand in a short book report each week. As part of that book report, they have to write down 4 new vocab words with its definition, and the sentence it came from in the book. Advanced students have to also find another example sentence and write a sentence of their own.

Sometimes when we are reading in class, I just ask the students to stop and share a word with the class. At other times I ask students to write down two words each on a piece of paper I hand around. Sometimes I ask students to share one thing they've learned from what they are reading, and they often give a word.

From these methods I choose words that I think will be useful often based on the academic word list. I make a crossword puzzle. I already have many of the definitions because the students have written them. When I don't, I use my online Longman dictionary to quickly look up the definition on my computer while I'm making the crossword puzzle.

I also make questions with the vocabulary words that students have to discuss in class. Some of these usually show up on their vocabulary quiz. My vocabulary quiz usually consists of a matching exercise, a true/false exercise, a fill-in-the blank
that usually comes from sentences that I get and sometimes modify from my online Longman dictionary too. Then I add some of the questions that they had in their list. Having students choose their own words to some extent is time-consuming, but seems to be motivating.

In my writing/grammar classes students don't choose the vocabulary words. I choose them from readings in their grammar books. Again I try to choose words that will be useful to them, and I find the academic word list a good start. I give the students a dictation using sentences with the vocabulary words. Usually just three at the beginning of class, but I often try to get 2-4 vocab words in each sentence.

Sometimes I then assign homework with the vocabulary words--usually I have them write sentences with the words and sometimes definitions too. The definitions and sentences have to be the same meaning as in the reading which seems to be one of the biggest challenges. I also require students to use 2-3 of the new vocabulary words in their paragraphs and essays. The vocabulary shows up again on unit tests.

I teach at a community college and most of my students aren't in my class because they want to be, but because they have to be. These are not the students who are going to improve their vocabulary on their own. I feel in these circumstances it is really necessary to create a situation where students have to notice and learn new words. It's like chipping away at an iceberg, but every little chip adds up.

The role of vocabulary review

By Steve Kaufmann - The Linguist Institute, West Vancouver, Canada

In my experience, deliberate vocabulary review is a support activity to the main task of exposing oneself to massive input through reading and listening. Any words I study come from my reading and listening, which I have chosen.

I would find it annoying to sit through a class where a teacher is providing me with his/her examples,or forcing me to produce examples, of word or phrases chosen by the teacher. I learn better from meaningful examples from meaningful contexts, even if they reappear in a somewhat random fashion. On the other hand, any communication that takes place in the classroom is a good thing, so to that extent talking about words and phrases is good. It is just that there are so many words and phrases to learn.

Study with Flash Cards, when the words for review are chosen from content of interest to a learner, is actually quite enjoyable. I find that, and our learners find that. But it is a support activity, not "the very heart of what language learning is all about" at least in my experience.

I did a podcast recently about what might be closer to the very hear of language learning. It is entitled "Language learning is like falling in love".

The text can be found on my blog.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

"Once there was a girl who wanted to be beautiful..."

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

When I created my syllabus at the beginning of the term, I wrote down that I'd do a lesson on "embarrassing moments" today. I don't know what kind of brain spasm caused me to forget that the face issue would probably interfere with the free exchange of personally embarrassing experiences. So this morning I hurriedly tried to come up with a way to have discussions on this topic without students having to talk about themselves. The answer: make up stories about embarrassing moments.

I made six strips of paper, and on each one I wrote the first sentence of a story. I divided students into six groups, and gave each group one story strip. Each person in the group must take a turn saying the next sentence in the story. The end of the story must be "he/she was embarrassed." When the story is finished, the groups rotate story strips and do another. I alternated male/female characters in the stories so that students could practice he/she. Here are the sentences I used:

- Once there was a girl who wanted to be beautiful...
- Once there was a boy who wanted to play basketball like Michael Jordan...
- Once there was a girl who had two boyfriends at the same time...
- Once there was a boy who wanted to get married...
- Once there was a girl who wanted a certain boy to love her...
- Once there was a boy who wanted to become rich...

"What is small, round, green, and has tiny hairs all over it?"

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

I've been having good success teaching circumlocution with riddles. I start out with one of my own:

"What is small, round, green, and has tiny hairs all over it?"

When students have made a few guesses, I pull a tennis ball out of my bag.

Then it's the students' turn to create their own riddles. I tell them to start with "What is..." and use adjectives. They shouldn't use their dictionaries to look up words they don't know because after they've created the riddle, they're going to tell it to everyone in the class. And their riddle won't be interesting if they use English words that their classmates don't know. It's okay if the answer is a Chinese word that they don't know how to say in English.

Students DO NOT WRITE their riddles (I didn't make that clear to the students the first time, and they started answering each others' riddles by exchanging papers, reading the riddle, and writing their answer...Hello! ORAL English, please!).

However, students should keep a written count of how many of their classmates answer correctly/incorrectly. This is a fun way to keep track of how many classmates one has left to tell the riddle to, as well as to see whose riddle is the most difficult.

A couple riddles my students came up with:

1. What is small and red, but not round? You can eat it.
2. What is full when it works and empty when it rests?


(1. strawberry 2. shoes)

Teacher x Student x Materials = ???

By Daniel T. Parker

I had a graduate school professor who taught "Teaching College Writing", among other (non-TESOL) courses.

He continually reminded us about the "affective triangle", i.e., the classroom chemistry formed by the mixture of teacher, students, and materials/methodology. His usual point was to remind us not to put too much faith and/or dependence upon a particular textbook... but basically he was saying that the same methods won't work for different teachers, and different classrooms will have different reactions to the same methods and/or the same teacher. The "disciplinarian" will be effective in some classes, the "mother" in others, the "sarge" in others...

It's frustrating. But I can't argue with his conclusions. And I would say, maybe I'm going out on a dangerous limb, but I would say that ANY teacher who says the same text and the same approach works for every class just isn't paying attention.

He was the first professor I ever heard who scoffed at degrees. He said we needed the documents ("gotta know the secret handshake") for employment reasons, but he saw teaching as an art, and would say that giving a guy a few art classes and putting a brush in his hand won't turn him into Picasso.

He wouldn't advise us to ignore cultural differences, or be careless about methods & materials, or refuse to listen to other teachers... but he would, and did, point out that every classroom we step into, every single day, is a laboratory, and we're not the cheese or the rats... we're the maze.

Keeping groupwork in English

By Chuck

There is a Chinese proverb for this (of course):

Sha Ji, Jing Hou. "Kill a chicken to scare the monkeys".

Another tactic that I use that when doing groupwork is require each group to first choose a captain (or chicken). Then I tell them that the captain's job is [here insert whatever leadership duties are necessary for the task]. Finally I tell them that the captain's MOST important duty is to make sure everyone in the group speaks only English while preparing the task. If not, I tell them, I will "kill" the captain. Then I point to each captain and ask them if they want to be the chicken that is used to scare the monkeys.

You'll find virtually zero Chinese being spoken thereafter. The captains (cum chickens) will take their role seriously. (This all might sound harsh in writing but it's all done good-naturedly. And your students will be impressed that you know "Sha Ji, Jing Hou".)

Dealing with student chatter during presentations

By Daniel T. Parker

One thing about classroom "chattering" during other students' work... I make a point to step to the corner of the room farthest from the student/students speaking. Why? Because so many Koreans speak very loud in Korean and very soft in English, I make "voice quality" a part of my grading criteria... and I tell the rest of the class that if they're talking during the presentations, I won't be able to hear the students' voices, and they'll have to give their presentation again. Yeah, I know it sounds like punishing the victims, but, it has worked, so far.

Tips on student oral presentations in the classroom

By Molly Merson

If you want the students to pay attention, something that has worked for me and other teachers in the past has been to do two things:

1. Give a quiz after every five or so presentations on what the people said and some points that you think are important about their topic. Then give an exam at the end including all presentations.

2. Require that every student must ask one question to the presenter per class about their topic. Add some of these questions to the quiz.

These things require you to pay attention, take notes, and clarify. It's also a good role model for the students to learn notetaking and interaction with the presenter. Mark points for whoever asks questions and have this and the quizzes be your entire grading system for the term.

You will need to clarify exactly what is expected of the students. One teacher here gave a lecture to students and required them to take notes, and then gave a quiz to the students and allowed them to use their notes. This helped them understand what notetaking is.

Something the students might try is to get the written information from the presenter so that they don't have to pay attention. This decreases the listening aspect of the exercise, but at least they're doing some work.

Are oral classroom presentations necessary?

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

When my students exhibited poor audience behavior during their classmates' oral presentations, I lectured them about respect, made the presenter stop until everyone was quiet, gave quizzes on the content of the presentations, wandered silently about the classroom quelling conversations, and then I finally asked myself, "Why am I working so hard to make this work?" The simple answer was to end the oral presentations. I told my students there would be no more oral presentations until I felt they were mature enough to be a polite audience. Which may not happen during my time here as a teacher.

I recognize this drastic response may not be right for everyone. Oral presentations in front of the class have value if your students need public speaking skills. But even then, I'm not sure if it really helps to speak to an audience absorbed in their own conversations. And my students were also very quick to laugh at their classmates' English pronunciation, use of Chinese fillers (nei ge), even speech impediments, making shy students even less confident about their English and their public speaking.

Also, oral presentations are not very effective in giving students chances to speak; only one is speaking while the other 30 or 60 or however many you have are silent (or gabbing in Chinese). Since ending the presentations, I've tried to replace them with more group work, in which as many students are talking at once as there are groups. Even when someone in the group is long-winded or pauses a lot or lisps, the dynamic of smaller groups seems to be much better in terms of courtesy. Just my experience.

In my lecture beginning of the term, I discussed the parallels between babies learning their first language and the best methods for learning a second language. One point was that a family tries its best to get the baby to talk, encouraging her, and being thrilled even by her imperfect attempts. When they do make corrections, they do so kindly and gently. What would happen if the baby were ignored? What would happen if her attempts to speak were mocked? She wouldn't talk much, and she wouldn't learn to speak very quickly. Compare to the classroom. Students need to be each others' family. They need to support each others' efforts to learn English, and they will all learn faster this way than if they ignore or make fun of each other. Several students mentioned to me that they realized they had not been good about this in the past, and promised to change. And I've noticed an improvement... but not enough that I'd be willing to reinstate the oral presentations.

Vocabulary notebooks

Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Anhui Province, China

Last year I had 2 classes using them in a systematic way. We built up a list of new vocabulary at the side of the blackboard in the course of the lesson. After the lesson, for each word, the students had to add 5 things: pronunciation, grammar [e.g. countable noun], dictionary definition, example sentence [not one from the dictionary], then Chinese.

I collected these in regularly and their vocab notebook work made up the largest part of their coursework mark. That might sound crazy, but I thought it was more than just the vocabulary work in itself. It showed and rewarded the student who was using an organised approach to their studies, it forced them into a different technique of learning vocabulary, and in doing it, it forced a certain amount of reflection and review of the content of the lesson [these were first year Oral English classes].

Students from those classes remember it with mixed feelings - I checked relentlessly, and the grades were strictly according to how closely you followed the given 5-steps - but admit they remembered the words without any reciting. So my conclusion is that it was successful - but hard work! I argued that with Oral English lessons there weren’t enormous numbers of new words and that this was possible [it was], and that in the process they learnt a new method of learning vocabulary.

I’m now just starting a similar thing with my present first year classes, but this time have preceded it by teaching them something about attention, short and long-term memory, and that organising vocabulary like this is one way of getting words from short-term memory into long-term memory. Thank heavens for the Internet and the ease with which you can suddenly decide you want to read up on memory and memorising! I’m aware from my own Chinese language learning that I need these memory techniques just as much as they do - my Chinese teacher could be about to get a shock as I start insisting that we do this with my Chinese lesson vocabulary, too!

Challenges to motivation

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

At the university where I teach in Beijing, I asked a student in private why he chose to major in English, since he apparently doesn't enjoy learning English. He said it wasn't his choice. His score on the English portion of the university entrance exam just happened to be higher than his score on the other sections, so he had to either major in English or not attend university. So even though he'd rather be doing something more math/science related, here he is, stuck in my English class. Similar stories for quite a few others in my classes. At Chinese universities, there's no changing your major a dozen or more times like I did in the US.

The best solution I've come up with so far has been to incorporate the topics these students are interested in into the English class somehow.

Creating a communicative classroom environment is naturally more difficult than staying in lecture mode. It might help to look at it as a choice: You can lecture directly from the textbook if you want, or you can encourage student participation if you want. Any teacher will need some compelling reasons to make the extra effort to elicit student communication.

For some it is a labor of love: we genuinely care about our students and their prospects for the future, and are convinced that our efforts to teach them English will be appreciated somewhere down the line. For some it's about career: we love the challenge of developing our teaching skills to meet with an extreme environment, providing a modern education without the cushy layer of teaching resources available in the West. Whatever motivates you (and there are more answers than just those two), remind yourself of it when times get tough. And be sure to pat yourself on the back at each minor success along the road...'cause no one else will do it for you.

Try asking the whole class to write down their suggestions for topics they'd like to cover or activities they'd like to do? Sometimes students are too shy to raise their hand or approach you, but will give you their opinion in writing when asked.

Last term, I was constrained to a certain textbook which neither I nor my students really liked (Oral Workshop: Discussion). To give my students some say in what they learned, I allowed them to vote on which chapter we should do the next week. Of course they chose the chapters they thought would be the most interesting. Complaints rarely surfaced, but when they did, I reminded them that they chose that chapter. (One student told me that she hadn't chosen the chapter; she was in the minority when the vote was taken. I told her to blame her classmates, not me. I'm just an impartial election observer.) Another idea is to have your students give oral presentations about topics of their choice.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Watching movies silently

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

At a National TESOL Conference in one of the workshops we were shown 10-15 minutes of a movie with no sound. Then we were asked to sum up the story and to guess in which country it had been filmed.

It was amazing just how much information you glean without using words. I recalled having read that 85% of communication is non-verbal and this exercise really proved it. In such an exercise you use all of your observational skills to understand. A dictionary is of no use. It's reassuring to the students who find out just how much that can understand, given the opportunity.

After all participants in the workshop had made their contributions, we were then told what the gist of the story was (we were about 90%) and that it took place in Bolivia (I had guessed Peru). Everyone seemed pleased with the outcome.

Of course you could always continue by playing the excerpt again with sound , this time listening for English, or simply use this exercise as a one time cogent example of the power and importance of the students' own abilities and how they should be used more.

Family Feud - the game

By Margaret Orleans

The game involves lots of different stages called Bullseye Round, Face-Off, Feud, and Fast-Money Round, but the basic premise is that past audiences have been surveyed and 100 answers have been arranged in order of most common. The contestants, who compete as two five-member families (the numbers can easily be adjusted) take turns trying to guess these answers for points/dollars.

Here are some sample questions. The answers will follow later, so as not to spoil the fun for you.

1. Name something that would be hard to eat with chopsticks.
2. Name something some people plan to do, but then chicken out.
3. Tell me an animal with a reputation for being stupid.
4. Name something that has a spring inside.
5. Name something that might be gray.
6. Tell me a country which still has arranged marriages.
7. Name something that a teacher thinks he already knows about a student just bcause the teacher had an older brother or sister in class.
8. Tell me something that puts a smile on a baby's face.
9. Name a North American sport team that has a bird nickname.
10. Name a person whose theories changed the world.

Looking at these questions, you will notice several things:

a. Many of them are culturally bound (and I was quite selective about these questions).
b. Any question that will generate at least half a dozen reasonable responses will do.
c. Students at almost any level can generate questions of this sort (and questions that will be much more appropriate for their classmates to use in the game).

So once you have played a round or two so that students get the hang of the game, I think the best strategy is to break them into teams and have them generate their own questions.

Then, outside the class, they can collect responses. The same hundred respondants can be asked quite a few questions, but it's best not to ask other students in the class. This is good practice for doing more complicated surveys for later projects.

Once the data has been collected, students can get back together in groups to decide which questions to use, who will play what role as game show hosts, etc. (another useful class activity with an obvious conclusion)

Okay. Have you decided your answers to the questions? Here are the ones from the answer book and the number of points attached to each one.

1. soup (47), saghetti (14), peas (10), jello (5), ice cream (3), steak (2)

2. get married (27), sky dive (16), bungee jumping (11), ask for a raise (4), diet (3), tell someone off (3), ask someone out on a date (2), buy a house (2), change careers (2), go to a dentist (2)

3. donkey/mule (31), cow (11), sheep (8), elephant (6), pig (5), turkey (5), monkey/ape (4), ox (4), possum (4), dog (3)

4. ballpoint pen (12), couch (6), flashlight (4), gun(2), jack-in-the-box (2)

5. Hair (51), sky/clouds (17), clothes/coat (6), elephant (6), cat (3), car (3), mouse (3), boat (2)

6. India (40), Japan (17), China (15), Iran (9), Italy (5), Israel (4), Spain (3), Greece (2)

7. intelligence (48), behavior (24), personality (6), about parent (3), attitudes (3), study habits (3)

8. tickle (31), being with mom/dad (17), talking to them (10), gas (9), toy/rattle (8), making faces (4), bottle (3), smiling at them (3), animal (2), clean dry
diaper (2)

9. St. Louis Cardinals (38), Baltimore Orioles (23), Toronoto Blue Jays (17), Seattle Seahwks (6), Philadelphia Eagles (4), Atlanta Falcons (3), Anaheim Mighty Ducks (2), Arizona Cardinals (2), Atlanta Hawks (2)

10. Albert Einstein (43), Newton (14), Darwin (8), Columbus (7), Ben Franklin (4), Jesus (6), Freud (3), Galileo (3), Hitler (3), Thomas Edison (3)

The game starts with one member of each family coming forward to answer the first question and attempting to control that round by naming the more popular answer. The winning team can then elect to pass or play. Whichever team plays tries to name all the answers before accruing three strikes (incorrect guesses), answering in turn. If a team strikes out, play passes to the other team. One correct answer is enough to win the round (and all the points gained by the first team) for them; one wrong answer is enough to lose the round for them.

Obstacles to learning

By Pete Marchetto

I think the central problem with the teaching of English in China is that it's an examination subject and the examinations here seem to have precious little connection with natural use of the language focusing instead on relatively or purely academic aspects. This is what I meant when I said that a solid grounding in grammar, language history and so on are all well and good but I feel I have been of most benefit here when I have released the pent-up ability to actually USE the language.

At my last place of work a fellow teacher - Chinese - told me of a friend of hers who got 19 out of 20 in an examination and was deemed to have failed for his one wrong answer though he was an excellent student. The question asked which of the following forms was correct - 'The bird is IN the tree': 'The bird is ON the tree'. The student declared the latter correct and afterwards argued strongly that a bird perched on the exterior of the tree could be said to be on, rather than in, the tree - but this, unfortunately, didn't concur with the Chinese Manual of Prescriptive and Occasionally Inaccurate English Grammar. I don't know about everyone else in here but I'm on the side of the student in this one - I have no qualms about saying 'The bird is ON the tree'.

One of the biggest blocks I suspect all of us have to overcome is the belief students have that they can't speak English. Indeed, two of the teachers here have told me they can't use English to express themselves. I pointed out to them, as I point out to the students when they make the same complaint, that they seemed to be doing a perfectly good job of expressing themselves to me. This is what I mean by a 'pent-up' ability; the schooling they've received in English is far from useless but the ability to use the language it creates exists merely as a potential until someone comes along and encourages them to use it. Not having used it they believe themselves incapable of doing so.

In releasing that potential I have to give the students the revelation that it is fine for them to make mistakes. Inevitably mistakes are made, and many of them given that students have so rarely been called upon simply to speak. Not being chastised for mistakes, however, seems almost alarming for some of the students. If they make mistakes, they ask, and aren't corrected for them, won't those mistakes become entrenched? I point out to them that the continual mixing of he/she, for example, if corrected on each hearing, will fragment any conversation beyond its value as communication and a promotion of fluency. It's not as if the students don't know the gender rules; it's merely that lack of practice has those mistakes so oft repeated. Such problems will work themselves out, wrinkles in language that will be ironed out the more they use it and the more natural it becomes for them to use it. Correcting them each time negates the value of the practice and, ironically, of itself is liable to entrench the errors - along with many other problems - in their conversational English.

Students also worry that in having conversation with one another mistakes will become entrenched. On that issue I point out to them that parents don't stop children acquiring their native tongue speaking with other children lest they reinforce each 's errors. With further exposure to the correct use of the
language at other times again the errors are ironed out. Do they think that a four year old Chinese permitted only to speak to adults who use the language properly and never allowed to speak to other four year olds even though adults are rarely available to them in comparison to other four year olds would grow up with a better or worse grasp of Chinese? Where I will make corrections - as far as possible at the end of conversations, not within them - is in other areas such as the inappropriate use of vocabulary and common errors where something is clearly misunderstood; the excessive use of 'very', the cultural error in the frequent use of 'delicious' are two examples; the pronunciation 'clothIES' or 'clothESIES' for 'clothes'; a word poorly understood from a dictionary as recently where students in debate were gaily throwing around the word 'moribund' to describe a group of healthy dogs that were about to be put into a situation where they would almost inevitably die which fitted the dictionary definition of the word but missed out on some of its subtleties.

When someone tells me they want to improve their English I ask them bluntly whether they want to improve their English for use or for exams? If the latter I will gently suggest they find themselves a Chinese teacher. English exams in China are so abstruse that I suspect I, as a mere native speaker, erstwhile professional writer and ex-member of MENSA, would not only fail in teaching for those examinations but also be very likely - if faced with them - to fail the examinations themselves.

I realise that none of this holds anything new for anyone who has been teaching here for over six months but there are new teachers who might be saved some of the confusion all of us felt on arriving in China to teach for the first time. For those of you yet to arrive you are in for a treat; where else in the world can you get students who are unable to speak English and bring them up to the level of fairly fluent conversationalists in under a year?

Teaching takes more than subject knowledge

By Daniel T. Parker, Korea

Knowing or not knowing all the technical mumbo jumbo doesn't necessarily mean that one will or won't teach well.

Teaching requires several elements, one of which is a necessary amount of knowledge about the subject taught. How much is necessary depends largely upon the level of the learner. I teach university students in South Korea, and most of my students are in the English Language and Literature Department, and many of them take TESOL courses. One of my colleagues is an enthusiastic teacher and very personable, but can't explain grammar to writing students and can't tell the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants to conversation students. I'm not saying she can't teach! But it does frustrate some of her students; I know this because they come to me.

Earlier this week I had a student ask me a question about "approximants." I didn't remember the term, looked in my old linguistic textbook and couldn't find the term, then looked in her new textbook and found the information; bingo, I was able to craft a satisfactory explanation and offer extra examples.

On the completely other end of the coin, I have taught special courses to people who teach elementary English here in Taegu. Some of them are very good in English, some are fair, some of them can't carry on a simple conversation about time, clothing, weather, etc. Does this mean they are bad teachers? No, it's insufficient data to answer the question.

But many of them were fascinated when I started explaining where and how different sounds are made. With all of their conversation classes in college, no one had ever taught them that. It didn't mean they were able to immediately correct their own pronunciation.... but, one of my students took the time to write me a short note basically saying this: "Before, I could only tell if my student was or wasn't making the correct sound; now, I can tell them how to make it correctly."

But remember: if I go into their 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade classrooms and start talking about glottal stops, affricates, transitive verbs or passive voice, I won't have taught their students a darned thing by the time I'm kicked out.

So here's my ultimate point: being a good teacher requires more, much more, than knowledge of the subject one teaches. However, a good teacher can and will become a better teacher by learning as much as he or she can about the subject.

The English Salon FAQ

By Tsc Tempest - Tuha Petroleum Foreign Language School, China

The following FAQ addresses some commonly asked [or considered] questions relating to the setup, operation and development of English Salons, English Corners, English -Club, Teahouse, Tea Garden, Lets Talk, etc.

Q: What is an English Salon?

A: An English Salon or Corner (or any other of a myriad combination of names) is an organized activity that allows Non-Native speakers (NNS) and practitioners of English to practice and refine the art of Speaking in English. That is, to provide opportunities for NNS to use and develop their oral English communication skills. From observation English Salons can be loosely categorized into the following

1. Commercial: Run and organized by companies also offering study overseas opportunities;

2. Community Based: Setup and organized by members of the NNS community who have a burning desire to provide English speaking opportunities not offered by commercial or educational providers;

3. Educational: These are setup by Educational institutions to provide speaking opportunities for students so as to improve their English. These vary from voluntary attendance through to compulsory attendance. Where there are foreign teachers (FT) in
the educational institution, attendance by the FT is often a contractual obligation.

4. Other: These types of English Salons either do not fit into the above groups or could be sub-groups, due to the specialized nature of the targeted participants, the duration of operation or the nature of delivery of the activities of the English Salon, e.g.
a. programs targeting oratory practice (master speakers, toastmasters etc.);
b. programs aimed at improving the fluency and speed of language translation (conference speaker language services, etc.);
c. programs for young learners at either primary or pre-school level.

Q: Who attends English Salon?

A: The variety of attendees often directly reflects the management structure of the English Salon and the personal interests of the key organizers. There are English Salons for Junior School students, senior school students vocational school students, university students, private language school participants, Study Abroad Preparation school participants, and general members of the community. Some English salons are exclusively for people belonging to the particular organization responsible for the English salon, others can be open affairs, or pay per use - that is if you can pay you can attend.

Q: What role(s) do Native English Speakers (NES) take on at an English Salon?

A: This depends on the nature of the English Salon and its targeted participation group. It also depends on additional factors which have resulted in an NES attending the English Salon. The following are some common situations that a NES may find themselves in:

1. Guest Lecturer: you are invited to provide a speech, lecture or lead a panel discussion for the English salon;

2. Honored Visitor: you are usually invited off the street to come and take a look. In this case you would be the centre of attention or a key point of interest with many NES wishing to practice their English on you (sic.) This can be fun, tiring, challenging and/or confronting;

3. Friend of the Salon: You were invited once, liked the people and atmosphere, so you decide to go back on a regular basis

4. Contracted Attendee:
a. Some English salons offer FT or NES monetary inducements to attend the English Salon so that the organizers can promote the fact that their salon has access to NES. You may also be required to provide regular programs or targeted teaching activities.
b. Many Education institutions require their FT to attend English Salon as well as provide full organization and program coordination for the salons. In this situation the demands for the English salon can exceed those for regular classes - take note:
this situation is not considered additional teaching by the educational institution but your contractual obligation to be involved in the school community, as such it can be a source of conflict.

5. Host: Sometimes you may find yourself in the position of being asked by the English Salon you have been regularly attending to provide regular hosting duties. In this case, you act as the face or front [person for the salon and struggle in the background to ensure that the coordination and organizational management of the Salon is handled by the NNS committee;

6. Operator: This is what you end up as when the NNS organizational body fails or abandons its duties, leaving it all to you. Or, you decide to go it on your own and run an English Salon as part of your organization's business activities and services offered to NNS.

Q: Could you sketch out some types of English salons, how do they function?

A: The following are some of the types of speaking opportunities that shape the types of English Salons and the way they function:

1. Free Talk: This kind of English salon is typical of salons where people of many different ages and from different walks of life attend so that they may meet other NNS. This interaction is typical of a cocktail or coffee bar setting and allow participants to mingle and move around to different conversations;

2. Topic Centers: these English Salons usually operate with set discussion topics for participants to examine and develop through round table discussions;

3. Oral Workshops: these salons usually act like additional English language classes with a focus on conversational dialogues, canned dialogue practice, and formalized/ritualized speech act repetition tasks;

4. English Clubs: these are participant driven organizations that work well with students who are given some guidance, mentoring and directions to take responsibility for their own oral language practice and development. From informal conversations with university level speakers, many who actively pursue improvement activities for their language learning also actively participated in school based English Clubs.

5. Seminar, Guest Speaker: these activities revolve around a NES being asked to deliver a lecture or classroom instruction activity. Where this works well is where the seminar or lecture series focuses on the delivery of set topics and allows for some questions towards the end. Where this falls down is where FT are thrown in to a classroom full of bored kids and told to make ¡°it¡± (what ever that is) work.

Q: Where can I find resources and activities for use in my English Salon?

A: Good question, (tell me when you know the answer.) Many of the resources that are available for Debates, discussions hypothetical panel discussions, icebreakers etc., work well in English Salons that are topic driven or Free talk based. Drawing current events in the media out as discussion points are also good ideas. These work well with participants that have a good grasp of English but are of differing levels of Oral production ability. For Junior Schools and lower such activities may be beyond the participants¡¯ ability or maturity level. Tasks that focus on game like activities and develop critical listening skills are possibly more appropriate. Field
trips with assignment activities as well as report presentations may be useful, watching part of a movie then following this up with some Q&A led discussion may also be useful.

Q: What additional problems exist with developing an English Salon for lower level NNS or young learners?

A: Some major issues that need to be managed and factored into such English Salons so that they don't become problems are:

1. attention span;

2. participant maturity;

3. participant interest; AND

4. degree of homework pressure from other classes - often the participants may see the English Salon as a chance to grab a bit of slack in an otherwise highly demanding task oriented environment.

Taboo - the game

By Margaret Orleans

A game that my more advanced students like is called Taboo. A vocabulary word is written on a card. The student whose turn it is cannot say the word. Besides the word itself being banned, five common collocates are also banned.

Students then try to get a partner to understand what word they are talking about. (Actually, we play in groups of four--one gives the explanation, one watches the time--they try for as many words as possible in one or two minutes--, a third has a buzzer in case one of the taboo words is used by mistake, at which point the turn ends, and the fourth tries to figure out the target word(s). After playing a couple of round with commercially prepared cards, I get them to prepare their own cards--individually or in small groups.

Then I keep those cards to be played by another class and give them cards prepared by that second class.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Vocabulary acquisition

By Margaret Orleans

Dave and Jane Willis (authors of the CoBuild series) suggest for a pre-reading activity having students skim a new passage and identify a limited number of words (say five) that they think are the most important for them to know before reading the passage more carefully. This can lead to fruitful discussion among small groups of students, sharing explanations of words that some but not all of them know and searching for as many contextual clues as possible.

I agree that this is very fruitful because it helps students create the links that will enable them to access the words from memory through various routes (rather than just Chinese-English equivalents), but it is so time consuming that it cannot be effective by itself. It's better as a model of how they should be dealing with words when they learn them--not just simple lists that gather dust. But in fact, students need to be learning hundreds of new words every month and the best (but not always practicable) method for retaining them is through constant exposure in new contexts--which means wide reading and listening.

Teaching ideas for movies

By Margaret Orleans

[In reply to a teacher who is planning to use movie, The Sound of Music, with her students.]

I haven't taught the movie to students that age, but I would suggest that rather than having students try to re-enact scenes they've just watched, it might be better to stop at key points and have them act out what they think is coming later in the movie (if they really don't know the story already).

To identify such points, you can look over the script, which I'm sure is available at, though I haven't actually looked for it. At any rate, I've always found scripts there for the movies I teach (though it's best to find the actual script rather than the screenplay, since there are sometimes differences as big as whole scenes between the two versions--probably more of an issue for more recent films than for a classic like The Sound of Music).

Something else I do before teaching a movie is to run the script through a concordancer to see what words show up time after time and which words appear frequently enough and are likely to be unknown to students that they should be pre-taught, or focused on when the appear for the first time.

Since there are songs, it might also be useful to give them partial lyrics and ask them to predict what fits in the gaps (a good way to get them to understand the concept of rhyme, for example), and then check their guesses against the film. Get them to put together an additional verse of "favorite things." Get them to exhibit fear through body language, get them to make a list of things people are afraid of--or better yet pantomime items in such a list for the rest of the class to guess.

Taking a leaf from "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" have them create scenes for the characters when they are off the screen. What does Maria tell the nuns when she returns to the abbey? What does vonTrapp do and say before he returns to his home to find his children out of their uniforms.

Use Dick's suggestion from the other day and have them translate a scene into another genre.

What is English? - a Chinese perspective

By Wu Jun

As to the question of "what is English", I will tell you what most Chinese think it is. It is something that you have to learn in order to go to college. Pass the CET to be eligible for graduation, and pass many other English tests to get promotion if you work in government or government-sponsored institute. English is something that is disliked by some Chinese people who have to learn it although they can't perceive any occasion where they can use it.

How to increase vocabulary and how to pass a certain tests are the most frequently asked questions. From this we can learn what English is in their mind.

Teaching and testing vocabulary

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, Beijing, China

A previous foreign teacher had taught my students to use vocabulary notebooks, which they were doing on their own when I arrived. One problem was that the very motivated students (not all students) created unfathomably long lists, then when they looked the words up, they'd forgotten the context in which they originally heard/read the words, so they couldn't use the words in context. I suppose one solution might be to make them include the context for each word they write in their notebook. Has anyone tried this? What success?

My answer was to eliminate the need to wait too long before looking words up, so in my Reading class (3rd-year univ. students), I told the students I would be their dictionary. They'd read an article in class, and underline unfamiliar words, not stopping to look them up.

When they finished, I'd ask them the main idea of the article, and they'd usually have it right. This, I hoped, gave them the confidence to read and understand passages on exams where they couldn't use a dictionary.

Then I'd ask them which unknown words they really needed to know in order to understand the key supporting details. I'd explain these words to the class, using synonyms, collocations, Latin roots, examples, additional contexts, pantomime, chalkboard drawings, etc.

I'd do the same for words that weren't vital in understanding the article, but that students wanted to know, out of curiosity and desire to prepare for CET-6. I'd like to think my explanations were more memorable than a direct translation from the dictionary. Also, using visuals and L2 (English) to explain new L2 vocabulary helps reduce the constant need to think in L1 (Chinese), then translate.

The other problem I encountered with vocabulary notebooks was that my students weren't retaining the words they wrote in them. When the top students could recite 50 words at a time, they'd move on to the next 50, quickly forgetting the first 50 (the binge and purge method). Less motivated students' vocab notebooks simply gathered dust after words were written in them.

To counter this, I told students that every word I explained would be on a quiz the next week. The format of the quiz was sometimes fill-in-the-blanks in a passage of my own creation, but more often (less effort for me) I'd have the students write a sentence using each word correctly and in such a way that the meaning was unmistakable from context. I have a sharp eye for dictionary sample sentences, and I didn't accept them. There were periodic cumulative tests as well, notably the final exam.

Listening to lead

By George Rosecrans

Students have many different learning styles and so it is up to us to develop different teaching styles. Students are our clients, our reason for being here. If we cannot or will not accomodate their needs then we need to be in another line of work.

We don't lead them to the mountain and say go climb it. We lead them over the mountain following the path they can traverse. As native speakers, we can climb the shear rockface. They cannot so we must take them up the path they can handle. Thus, we need to do a little scouting on our own the find the appropriate path. If we are unwilling or unable to do that, then we have no business here.

Fully, 90 percent of teaching is listening. Lyndon Johnson once commented that "when you're talking you're not learning. "Listening to students is very important because they are telling us what they need even if they have trouble articulating it. I've received a lot of valuable teaching advise from my students and I always try to take their words to heart. They know, far better than we, what their needs are. The only real question is how do we meet their needs. It's up to us to help them overcome their fears and self doubts.

[Photo: Business English college students in China doing pairwork.]

Student feedback

Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, Beijing, China

My students' requests for me to change fall generally into two categories:

1) "Show us more movies, current movies, but don't make us talk about them or write about them or anything, and make sure they have Chinese subtitles", which I see as just laziness, and

2) "You need to use the [error-riddled, deadly boring] textbook more and give us lectures so we can 'get knowledge' and give us vocabulary lists so we can prepare for the [TEM4/TOEFL/etc.] and stop making us do group work", which I see as wishing I used traditional Chinese teaching methods.

Last term, I won over all but one or two of my students without changing my tactics. But I was given new classes this term who need a while to get used to foreign teaching methods, so I continue to get the above advice from my new classes. Interestingly, one of my former classes is lobbying the administration to get me to replace their current teacher of British Literature because she uses the error-riddled, deadly boring textbook (and these students can actually spot the errors now), and only gives lectures--no group work. I don't think they'd care whether I taught them had I taken their advice last term.

Word play

By Dick Tibbets - Macau University, Macau

It's quite possible to use humour in language learning with Chinese students but you have to make sure the students have a key. Nothing is more humiliating for them than to have to have the joke explained.

A lot of UK humour depends on wordplay and for learners who have been taught to view English as a very referential language, this is difficult to grasp but I work on representational language, language that engages the imagination by making sure my everyday interaction with students covers this area.

Here's a humour lesson that uses absurdity of situation rather than wordplay and worked well with an advanced class. I used Monty Python's 'Thomas Hardy begins his new novel, done as a sporting commentary'. (and he's strolling out to his desk now, pen held lightly but firmly in his right hand ... and it's the first word and it's THE, T H E, and over to you Dennis. Dennis: Well he's running true to form, in the past he's had 7 THEs, 2 As ...) from memory but you get the idea.

They listened and read the script and although they've not actually read Hardy they knew of him. They creased - they loved the way it put serious literature down. Then we looked at how the language in this genre works, when present simple is used (not as often as one might think), how the speaker works in real time, the repetition to fill time, the introduction of the expert etc.

Then they took a romantic encounter from any work of English literature they knew and re-wrote it as a sports commentary. I found a lot of attention to detail and a desire to really get it right. Some spent time watching TV sport to try and get a feel for the thing.

Some time I will try Monty Python's 'Tonight I'm going to talk about word association football ..." I'll give the text again but layer it so that they can see how the speaker slips from one collocation to another. Then they can try and do something similar, perhaps by writing sentences and challenging a partner to slip a collocation in.