Sunday, November 23, 2008

Focus on minor rules or meaning?

By Anthea Tillyer - City University of New York, USA

I am a little surprised by how concerned some teachers are about "comma splices". It seems to me that this is a tiny, tiny (and very insignificant) problem that second language writers have in English.

In fact, if my class of second language learners had this as their biggest problem when writing English, I would consider them (and me) a huge success and would take them out for a drink to celebrate.

I think this concern with "comma splices" is a typical example of teachers applying to second language writing rules that were applied to them (as first language learners). But the fact is that English is a MEANING-DRIVEN language and "comma splices" rarely interfere with meaning, especially when considered next to all the other problems that second language writers have trying to create clear meaning to their writing in English.

Another reason for the focus on comma splices by some teachers is that they are easy to teach about. They do not require any interaction with the students' ideas or writing. They are just rules. Some teachers feel much more comfortable teaching "rules" than actually dealing with meaning, ideas, and feelings.

Finally, I should point out that in the Englishes other than American, the use of the phrase "comma splice" is virtually unknown, and the reason for that is that other Englishes have no problem with sentences like

"He was not the president, he was the prime-minister."

Or this,

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness;" (Dickens).

In short, less worry about details of rules and more focus on meaning and clarity are in order. It is also useful to be less US-centric and more aware of other Englishes.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Movie "telling"

In Beijing, there's a man called "Dawei" who established a small-scale movie-theatre in his house and invited a group of special viewers, the sight-impaired, to "watch". The way he used was telling.

Each time his small cinema put on a classic Chinese or foreign movie, he let the audiences know about the movie by telling its scene. He tells almost all the necessary details from an actor's gesture to a whole war. All the audiences listen attentatively and express their satisfaction about Dawei's movie telling and say that they feel as if they were "seeing" the movie.

Actually, it isn't an easy job to "tell" a movie because of the time limit within which s/he has to convey as much information as possible to the audiences in order for them to comprehend the movie. What often appears is that some details are lost when trying to talk about others. Luckily, Mr. Dawei has mastered this pretty well by practicing a lot.

From this, I suggest that this "movie telling" be introduced to English teaching, especially  oral courses. Specifically speaking, in the oral English class, the teacher plays a movie known to the students on a DVD and picks up students to relate what they see. The movie can be divided into several part according to the scenes, and after each "scene telling", the teacher replays it and the whole class have a disscusion of the telling. In the end, students bring about a best telling version of the scene they think. Then the teacher makes a comment on it and proceeds to the next scene...

From the telling, students learn how to tell a story in English, how to pick the right or appropriate words to describe an action, an object, and how to use expressions as simple as possible since oral English prefers simplicity. They may feel time pressed to do the "telling" in the beginning period, but I believe they'll accustom to it as time passes.

In fact, it doesn't have to be movies, cartoons are OK as well. What matters is the difficulty students encounter when they perform their telling. After all, "hard" movies are no good for teaching.

Besides, this method can perhaps only be used among students with intermeidate and advanced level of English since their vocabulary and grammar is sufficient enough for the job.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Problems with games and student motivation

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau, China

Make sure the learners know the language learning objective(s) of the game but there is a bigger problem here that may negate even this approach.

The problem is that the institution does not really value spoken English and does not value the teacher of spoken English. Consequently, the learners don't either. You therefore need to use motivating forces from outside the educational institution and this is not easy. Games fit the bill but in this environment even the fun of the game can work against you.

You want the learner to directly experience the benefits of being able to speak English. If there are none for these learners. If there are none and you are teaching the branch of ESP known as ENPP, English for No Particular Purpose then you are on a limb. You might get some hooked on chatting to visiting foreigners, if there are any, and you might get some to engage in voice chat on the web, if they have the equipment. Some might be motivated by interesting discussions and some by the status of starring in a debate, though the latter can only benefit a few. I have, on occasion, offered money to the best student for a task completion, praised the winner to the skies and then, with an innocent smile, admit I lied about the money. It got enthusiastic participation and a big laugh but you can only wave your 100 Yuan about once.

In short there is no one answer to the problem. Varied activities, some games, some tasks, some hard study work, some activities that relate to the world outside seems to be the best approach to hook as many differently motivations as possible.

[Photo: Students playing the "Alibi" game. "Where were you last night at 9:00?"]

Evaluating L2 socialization skills

By Nik Bramblett - UCF, Orlando FL, USA

Sometimes we need to evaluate L2 socialization skills using an alternative assessment and not a paper test.

Here's what I would do:

(a) Work with students (using appropriate combination of whole group, breakout small-group, and/or individual/paired strategies) to develop a rubric for a role-playing activity. Discuss what "socialization skills" means and how you might measure mastery of them. Let the students decide what's important and what they will be graded on (with appropriate guidance from you as necessary, of course).

(b) Have students work in pairs or trios for the assessment... students would randomly select a social problem-solving situation from a collection that you created on cards or whatever... "You need make an important call [make up a specific scenario] and your cell phone is dead; there are two strangers nearby [perhaps it's a bus stop or whatever]. Interact with those people to solve your problem." for example. Students would have a brief period to plan/rehearse, and would then more-or-less improv a scene.

(c) Both you and the student audience would use the rubric you designed together (and reviewed clearly and modeled and practiced before these presentations began) to measure the ability of the students to perform whatever specific tasks, roles, etc. you had decided were the measurable objectives. Students' ability to effectively judge their peers' performance would (rightly) be part of the grade. This would not only measure the mastery of the skills but also the metacognition behind the skills.

Scenario-based assessment of socializing skills

By Noriko Ishihara - University of Minnesota, USA / Hosei University

[An excellent way to test students language abilities is in a realistic setting. But how can that be done? Noriko Ishihara explains.]

How to do a scenario-based assessment of socializing skills. In my view, it's very close to assessing sociolinguistic/pragmatic ability, which has usually been done with a situational approach.

In this instruction and assessment, learner language is elicited using realistic scenarios and the teacher chooses from a range of language- and culture-focused features to assess, for example,

- directness, politeness, and formality
- organization/discourse structure
- language form, semantic strategies, word choice
- tone (verbal and non-verbal cues)
- understanding and use of sociocultural norms
- the extent to which the speaker's intentions match the listener's most likely interpretation

The selected feature(s) can be assessed using various rubrics and/or checklists by the teacher and learners themselves, which can be used as rather formal assessment or part of everyday instruction/informal assessment. If anyone is interested, I'd be happy to share a paper in press that details this approach with various sample scenarios, learners language, and sample assessment using authentic learner language.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Guy Brook-Hart world tour

Guy Brook-Hart, author of the Cambridge University Press Business English book, Business Benchmark, came to China and talked to teachers about how to teach listening. Dave Kees also interviewed him. To hear the interview and some excerpts from his talk as well as talks by Jack Richards and David Nunan, go to the Insights Into TEFL podcast site.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Games to play with Scrabble letters

Here are some ideas for do-it-yourself games with Scrabble letters. You can find a set of Scrabble letters here.

By "Peg" Margaret Orleans - Japan

Boggle - Have students draw sixteen (or twenty-five) random letters and place them in a 4 x 4 (or 5 x 5) square. Give them a reasonable length of time to write down all the words of three or more letters they can find. All letters must be connected horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in order; no letter may be repeated within a single word. After the lists have been made. Have students in each group read them aloud. Duplicated words are crossed out and the remaining words are scored: three letters, 1 point; four letters, 2 points; five letters, 3 points; six letters, 5 points; seven letters or more, 10 points.

Guggenheim - Have students suggest five categories (Countries, Fruit, Animals, Movie Titles, and Months, for example). Then draw five random letters (no duplicates). On a five by five grid, students write one word/phrase for each category beginning with each letter. Give a time limit (5 minutes is usually reasonable if the categories are appropriate). Have groups share answers. Scoring: word spelled with wrong initial letter (r/l confusion, for example), -1 point; word in wrong language, -5 points; correct word given by more than one student, +1 point; unique correct word, +5 points.

Last Word - Have cards with categories (or let students suggest them). For example, Green Things, Bodies of Water, Cold Things, Things in a Stationery Shop, Pizza Toppings, etc. Students choose a random letter, and turn over a category card. Everyone begins on a signal, calling out words in the category that begin with the letter each has chosen. The teacher calls when time is up (variable time limits, from 15 seconds to 2 minutes). The player who called the last correct answer wins the round.

PDQ - It is normally a card game. The dealer turns over three tiles in a row. Each round starts out with a different set of 3 letters. Be the first to shout out a word that contains those letters in order from left to right, or right to left, and you’ll win the tiles. For example, if the letters are PNA, you could shout PiNbAll, PiNeApple, or PheNomenAl. You could also yell ANteloPe, ANticiPate, or ANthroPology. If two players call out words at the same time, the longer word wins. If players agree that no word can be formed, another three tiles are placed on top of the previous three. The winner of each round keeps the tiles. Whoever hass the most tiless at the end of the game is the WNR!

Here are a few games that you can't play with Scrabble letters unless you put several sets together:

Word Ladders - (as Lewis Carroll called it) or Word Gold (as Vladimir Nobokov) referred to it.

You have to look some of these up on the Internet or work some out yourself to set as puzzles for the students and once they get the idea, they can create some of their own to challenge your and/or their classmates. The game involves choosing two words of the same length and generally opposite of each other. You move from one word to the other by changing one letter at a time, making sure that you always have an actual word. For example, you can move from LASS to MALE in the following steps:

Word Mastermind - Students play this in pairs. One thinks of a five-letter word in which no letter is repeated. (If playing with tiles, the player selects the tiles while the other player closes her eyes, and keeps the word covered or turned face-down.) The partner then attempts to duplicate the target word by guessing five-letter words (also without duplicated letters). After each guess, the first player indicates with an X each letter that is in the target word in the same position and with an O each letter that is in the target word, but not in the same position.

You can see why this is easier to play with paper and pencil--or just mentally.

For example, the partner guesses
BREAD and the score is XOOO

Of course, it usually takes a lot more guesses.

Before and After - Students find this game amazing when I demonstrate it to a class. I tell one student to think of any English word he/she likes and I will guess it.
Then I guess a word and the student tells me if my guess is before or after his/her word in the dictionary. With students who have a vocabulary of 1000 words or so, you can generally arrive at their word in about ten guesses.

After one demonstration, students can pair off and play. It's good alphabetization practice and spelling review.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Games for learning

"Peg" Margaret Orleans - Japan

[These are games you can buy or make.]

1. Would You Rather

Draw one of the 40 questions cards and read one of the five questions on it aloud. Choose how you would answer the question and secretly put the answer chip (1 or 2) in your fist. Each player guesses your answer, after which you reveal your answer by showing the chip. Each correct guesser gets one card. Discard the card you played. Play moves clockwise. If that player doesn't have a card, he/she draws one. The winner is the first player with five cards.

(In version 2 of the rules, the player reading the card tries to guess how the group will answer the question. If he/she guesses correctly, he/she wins the card. This version calls for more discussion of the question.)

Sample questions:

Would you rather go to a party with (1) a terrible haircut or (2) extremely out-of-fashion clothes? Would you rather lose (1) your memory or (2) your vision? Would you rather (1) travel the world or (2) build your dream house? Would you rather (1) call an important client by the wong name or (2) blank on your fiancee's parents' names when you are introducing them to your parents? Would you rather (1) have a mouse run up your pant leg or (2) have a wasp get caught inside your shirt?


Here's the description from the website:

"Hoopla is the outrageously fun game where every second counts, with two or more players rallying together to beat the clock. There are four categories of question cards: Cloodle (drawing, similar to Pictionary), Tongue-Tied (giving alliteration clues to a single word), Soundstage >(charades), and Tweener (giving clues in the form "it's bigger than but >smaller than," using two objects that imply the answer). If the players >manage to work through the requisite number of cards in fifteen minutes, >the game is won by all.

"This game takes five minutes to learn and just 20 minutes to play. Includes: 280 Hoopla cards, a countdown timer, a ten-sided Cranium die, and a Hoopla pad and pencil."

I think with students I would just give them the Tweener and Tongue-Tied options, though all four ways of giving clues will generate a lot of guessing. I like that the game is played cooperatively.

Sample clues:

It's taller than King Kong but shorter than the World Trade Towers. It's younger than New York City but older than the movie _Sleepless in Seattle_. (The Empire State Building)

Memphis, movie star, Mama's boy, My Baby Left Me (Elvis Presley)

Obviously many of the target words rely on the knowledge of American history and culture, so I will need to select carefully which cards to give them and/or make new cards for things they are more familiar with.


You can download the official rules of the game from this site:

Basically, the point of the game is to guess other players' preferences by choosing from the cards in your hand. If the Whoozit ranks your card highest, you get more points. Students tend to express surprise about some of the choices and ask follow-up questions.

Cards list both activities and objects (including lots of foods): walking the dog, bananas, game shows, science fiction, pickup trucks, jigsaw puzzles, fishing, hot dogs, broccoli, high heels, surfing, and flannel pajamas, to name a few.

With games like these, I generally ask students to make their own cards (and then use those cards with a similar group of students). You could ask students to write five favorite activities, five favorite objects, five favorite foods, and one thing they dislike in each category, for example.

Letting students read your mail?

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau

I've just been reading Letters (Burbidge, Gray, Levy, Rinvolucri) in the resouce Books for Teachers series and it seems to have some rather good ideas. Written in 1996, it tells how mario collected his letters unopened for a few days, brought them into class and gave them to students. He explained that he'd been to busy to open his mail and asked them to open his letters, read, summarise and suggest a course of action. It occasioned much surprise and interest.

There must be something similar you could do with emails, with the advantage that you can secretly vet the contents first and then mark them unread. You'd need to forward them enmass somehow - I wouldn't want to do it to individuals or to allow access to my account.

A second idea is to show one of those chain letters that promise wealth if you pass it on and misfortune if you don't. Then students write their own but give as content 3 phrasal verbs and meanings for the receiver to learn before passing on. you could do it with items other than phrasal verbs and you might need to check the explanations but this is a great idea for students to inform each other and can spread outside the class.

Some of the resource series are available in Chinese printed versions. If Letters is available it should be quite cheap. I like it.

Vocabulary and concept pods

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

A teacher wants some tips on teaching vocabualry without translation.

Well, this is, of course, less of a problem for TESL teachers who deal with a class of students from many nations than for TEFL teachers who usually deal with a classroom of students from the same language base.

Comprehension means building what I call concept pods for each item. In the native language the baby, in his babble stage, compresses his lips and expells a little air and repeats the process. Suprise! He is picked up and cuddled by a creature saying, "Oh, you called my name." This is what we call positive reenforcement, so the baby repeats the process. At this point the concept pod means, "I want attention." But the concept pod gets refined as it doesn't work all the time. If no one is in the room he doesn't get picked up and cuddled. If the creature in the room has a mustache and growls, "Wassa matter? Cant you say 'Papa?' it doesn't work. If the small creature giggles and says, "tee-hee, I'm your big sister," it doesn't work. All this negative reenforcement narrows the concept pod to: "I want to be cuddled by that one creature in the world who will cuddle me."

The concept pod is changing its configuration all the time. When our hero is two, his playmate says "Mama" and a strange creature picks him up. What, are there two mamas in the world? Usually he will go up to her and try a tentative Mama? "No, I'm not your Mama, I'm his Mama."

Over the years the concept pod will grow to include motherlode, mother of pearl, Mother Goose...the mental image of the birth process, and much more. Your concept pod will never match mine since we had different mothers.

Your job, as a language teacher, is to help your students form these concept pods in the target language. You can do this through context, imagery, paralinguistics, or whatever works. But if you use translation you become counterproductive. For one thing, no concept pod in one language ever replicates exactly a concept pod in another langage. So you have to teach exceptions. For another thing, translation impedes communication since the student has to go from hearing the question in the L2, translating the question into the L1, formulating the answer in the L1, translating the answer into the the L2, and, finally articulating the answer in the L2. Duh! Instead, you want to bifurcate the languages. Indeed, brain scans show that true bilinguals have the two languages in opposite sides of the brain.

So that, in brief, is why we don't allow the L1 in our classrooms.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Movies are the best

By Anna - Beijing, China

I think showing movies to the students is one of the best ways to teach English (if not the best). There's almost everything in the movies. Everything is authentic. Students at all levels need to watch movies as much as they can, provided time and money affordable. Like in my school, which has primary and high school students, we have different movies for the students. For little kids, we have Tom & Jerry, Rainbow Fish, etc.; for high school students, we have Noting Hill, Antz, Men in Black and so on. In universities, they offer a course called "advanced visual-aural-oral skills" for graduate students.

Movies can be used for different purposes. As there's almost everything in them, teachers need to direct Ss' attention to some of them. As a Chinese myself, I find watching movies most challenging. There's always a lot that I can't figure out while watching a movie. That's the exact area where the Chinese Ss need help from a foreign teacher because it has the least to do with grammar. It's all live English for which we may not find any help or explanation from our textbooks or grammar books. Besides, it's a rich resource of cultural things.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

4 more games for vocabulary

By Margaret "Peg" Orleans - China

Some games that students with very little vocabulary may be able to play and enjoy:

1. A Visit to Grandma

Students sit in circles of four to six. The first one starts with a pattern sentence like, "I'm going to visit my grandmother. In my bag I will take" and names an item (no matter how ridiculous--no need for it actually to fit in a suitcase) that begins with the letter A. The second student repeats what the first has said, adding an item that begins with the letter B, and so on around the circle and through the alphabet. (Lots of chance to practice pronunciation and listening, but students have some control since they are choosing words they understand.)

2. Dictionary Before and After

Working in pairs, one student chooses any English word she knows. The partner attempts to identify it by guessing words. After each guess, the student who has chosen the word responds with before (meaning "My word comes before your word in the dictionary) or after. One demonstration before the whole class in which you guess a student's work is usually enough for everyone
to catch on.

3. Be Write Back

Students form equally-numbered teams of about seven to ten people apiece. They line up Indian file and the last person on each team is given a slip of paper on which is written a four- or five-letter word. At the start signal, these students silently trace the word on the back of the student in front of them with their forefingers. Those students can request a repetition, if necessary. When they understand (or think they understand) what the word is, they trace it on the back of the person in front of them, and so on, until the first students race to write the word on the blackboard. (Nice change of pace for tactile learners.)

4. Tillie Williams

Maybe they won't have enough vocabulary to be able to join in when they catch on, but even the youngest of my students like this game. When I have to fill in at the last minute for a junior high teacher, I generally play this game. I begin by describing a fictitious friend named Tillie Williams, who has very strong likes and dislikes. I tell students when they understand Tillie, they should join in. Often half the class will be in on the trick, while the other half will still be baffled, but everyone can be playing actively. For example, Tillie likes swimming pools but hates lakes. She likes yellow but not orange. She'll eat apples, but not bananas. She plays tennis, but not badminton. You should frequenly repeat a refrain like, "Her name is Tillie Williams. She may be a little odd, but she's not very strange." (The trick, of course, is that she likes only things with double letters.) The clues offered above were all generated by students, once they had caught on. I try to save those with easy words for students, but Japanese has the advantage of thousands of loan words from English, so that I can use fairly high-level words that I know students will understand. You may not have that advantage with Chinese students.

Anyway, I hope some of these are useful activities for giving students a chance to speak up and feel some success with English.

Celebrity Heads - A vocabulary game

By Betty Lee - Shengda College, Zhengzhou, Henan, China

There is a game called Celebrity Heads - or something like that. In its original form the names of famous people are used and the object is to discover which celebrity you are. It is usually used by teachers as an end-of-year activity. I have used a modified version of it in all sorts of classes - maths, science,... even oral English in China.

Normally you have 3 students at the front facing the class - I think it is preferable to have seats for them.

Someone writes a word on the board behind each student. They are not to see the word.

The first student now asks the class a question requiring a "yes" or "no" answer. If the class answers "yes" the student may ask another question but if they answer "no" then the next of the 3 students may ask a question.

Continue in this manner until the first person guesses the word on the board behind them. You may continue until each guesses their word or finish then.

Reward the winner by having them write the next 3 words down or have each student who has just been "in" write the new word for the person to take their seat.

There are some skills to be learnt about choosing "good" words and also about how to ask the questions.

It lends itself well to learning new vocabulary.

My college students only had one session with it but really enjoyed themselves.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How to teach ESP & EAP to low-level students? Don't

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau

We try to teach ESP to low level students and beginners and it doesn't work. Employers and administrators demand results. They have students with little English and they need English users who can conduct business in English or get degrees etc. and so they give them to us. If we tell them that NSs have a vocabulary of 20K word families and that in real business and academic situations a lot of these words come into play, even if infrequently, they will reject our 5 year immersion courses and find someone who will promise the earth.

I don't do much ESP but I do run courses with an EAP bias. I try and keep them general but the university has some students with 1800 words or less studying business admin. and humanities subjects so they want them to write academic reports and papers and to be able to communicate sophisticated ideas.

What happens? Well, firstly, they are expected to write in a genre that they cannot read. They do not have the vocabulary to read academic journals and papers and can barely understand their textbooks. We have a textbook that tries to get around this by using texts from newspapers and magazines and then asking the learner to write essays full of "nevertheless" and "moreover".

I firmly believe that you cannot write in an academic genre unless you can read and understand that genre. Each academic genre is special to its subject. Some social sciences have more use of first person pronouns than more technical papers. A scholar who is an authority in a field can use more first person pronouns than a student. And there are many other differences.

A second problem is that if the learner has a small vocabulary they find it difficult to place the meaning, context and collocations of the sophisticated words they are being taught. They also find it difficult to see the rationale behind the "rules" they are taught to write by.

Even with more advanced students there is still a real problem. Take a learner with 6000 words plus the EAP list and subject specific vocabulary. They can read academic material and with a 95% comprehension can often guess unknown words from context. However, these unknown low frequency words they come across are not there for trivial purposes. Most of them are there because they are necessary for meaning and expression of the topic. When it comes to writing, the poor student is expected to write with the same sophistication as the NSs they compete with in the international job market and with a similar degree of expertise as found in the articles they read. When they write they will find that every 20 words there will be a word
they need but do not have.

It's a mess.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Fighting plagiarism with Google

By Chuck in China

I was helping a teacher who was grading some papers she was not sure about. She gave me the two papers and I quickly did a Google search and located both papers on the Web. She was shocked at how quickly I sniffed out the plagiarism. So she went back through all of her papers and all night she has been coming to my room and dropping off papers. Not all of them, just the ones that she, in her heightened state of awareness, found suspect.

All but one I found to be taken from the web. I found them all easily through Google. Just pick out an uncommon phrase from the paper and run it through Google and it pops up. Interestingly, all of the papers that were used came from various Chinese websites "dedicated" to English learning.

I used this method this semester when I suspected quite a few essays in my Western Lit class. I quickly found 6 plagiarists. This doesn't surprise me at all.

The quick lessons for those teaching substantive courses here is:

1. Be careful in assigning essay assignments. Don't pick a broad topic (as my colleague did) such as: "Write a persuasive essay on an important subject" or (as I did the first time I made this mistake) "Choose one of Shakespeare's sonnets, analyze it, and tell me why it appeals to you". Their are thousands of these essays floating around on the Internet on the Chinese websites alone (as a quick search of Google will show). The next time I chose an essay topic, I wanted to use O. Henry. But I first did a Google search to see which of his stories had the least number of references on the Web. I certainly wasn't going to use "Cop and the Anthem" (which all Chinese students know by heart anyway).

2. Use Google to check the originality of any essays you assign. It takes less than a minute to check each paper. You may be surprised how quick and how many plagiarists you find.

3. In my writing classes, I have decidedly swung away from giving take-home essays as assignments. Now, I give writing assignments in class to be completed in class. Apart from the plagiarism issue, it hones the students' skills in actually writing under some kind of immediate pressure. It forces them to produce good English on the spot. Also, as Chinese students who are forced to deal with the exam system here (CET, TEM, PET), a writing component is a part of all those exams so giving them time pressure to perform will help them in the short run, too.

Anyway, that's how I spent the first night of my summer vacation - tracking down plagiarism for a fellow colleague and, (I hope) imparting some useful advice for those who are new to the game here.

Self taught with DVDs

By Daniel T. Parker

I have a Korean professor friend who is perfecting his English this by watching movies on DVD. He watches at least one DVD per day and follows this formula: (1) play a few minutes of the DVD and try to transcribe everything he hears; (2) replay the same segment and try to correct any mistakes he made or add anything he left out; (3) replay the same segment again with English subtitles to check his transcription; (4) if there's any vocabulary confusion, he plays the same segment again with Korean subtitles. It takes him several hours to watch one DVD.... but he's very determined.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Learning incorrect language chunks

By Steven McMath - Guangzhou, China

"I live in a harmonious family..."

Apparently Chinese people actually say this in Chinese. I suppose it is similar to China's harmonious society. A Chinese friend expressed surprised that it wasn't good English. I suppose we just like to call a spade a spade more often.

"My home town is very beautiful, is very famous and the food is delicious... "

"Today I want to talk about my washing machine..."

Again, Chinese people actually say these things in Chinese, except the washing machine bit which came from an IELTS book co-written by an New Oriental Chinese English teacher and a Chinese 'genius' who went to Oxford. The book was full of grammar mistakes as well. It took me about 2 years to get the department to stop selling it to the students.

Surprisingly students do tell me that Guangzhou is beautiful. I tell them, as much as I like Guangzhou, please look out the window for a moment. They laugh. Luckily Guangzhou people have a sense of humour and can laugh at themselves which is one reason why I like Guangzhou.

I'm asking a Chinese friend for some insights as I write this. Apparently everyone has been singing songs about how beautiful and famous their hometown is since they were small children. My Chinese friend tells me that they talk about delicious food because their lives are boring so they focus on the food. I think he is probably
over intellectualising. I think they are just obsessed with food.

One girl told me once that her home town was famous because of bamboo. Apparently Zhongshan is famous because Bruce lee came from there. Except that he didn't and having personally been interested in martial arts for years, I had never heard of that before.

I find I have no need to make fun of the expressions. They want to do well in the IELTS exam and I want to help them do so, so we have a real goal congruence. I did make fun of the girl who said her hometown was famous because of Bamboo though. I couldn't help myself. I do sometimes make fun of what they say but only for a laugh.

"My hometown is located approximately 173.5 km from the centre of Guangzhou. It has a population of 376,472 people. And a dog. It is very beautiful. It is very famous. The food is delicious. Welcome to my hometown." It gets a laugh.

The latest one that has cropped up in the last year in Guangzhou is "I come from a nuclear family". When was the last time you heard a native speaker say that?

Native English speakers and non-native English speakers

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau

I have been thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of being a NS or NNS teacher. I started to make a list but pretty soon found that neither group is homogeneous and you can't make many blanket claims. In many cases you can't even say "a majority of ...." and i had to fall back on "some".

Here's my list. Perhaps people would like to add to it.

Non-native English Speakers (NNS)

NNS advantages

1 Many NNS teachers share an L1 with their students and this means
2 they can see more clearly where the L1 is helping or hindering L2 acquisition. Having a good knowledge of both languages is a great advantage.
3 They can translate a word for students when they know that translation gives a clear idea of meaning and there is a one to one correspondence in the L1/L2.
4 They know what the learners are going through. They have experienced it themselves.
5 They know the systems in place in the countries they teach and thus they know when not to rock the boat and when things can be changed.
6 They can bond more easily with their students. They don't make cultural gaffes. They are more aware of what motivates and does not motivate in their culture.
7 When assessing material they have a better idea of what is culturally transparent for students and what is not.
8 NNS teachers who do not share the L1 of their learners encourage the learners to use the target language and have a knowledge of some of the trials and tribulations of learning the target language. When these NNS teachers have multilingual classes this really is an "English as an international language" environment and it is a very healthy atmosphere for learning.

NNS disadvantages

1 In 3rd world countries, and I'm afraid, in China, there is a shortage of EFL teachers and there are quite a number of NNS teachers who are not proficient in English and have difficulty in writing a complex sentence without errors. It's unfortunate, it's not their fault and they do not have the money or time to take action to improve their English but it does detract from their ability to teach the language.
2 In some countries teacher training is limited to a rather narrow pedagogical perspective. I know this can happen in NS courses too but my experience is that course in my own country expose you to a variety of methods even if they are biased towards one view.
3 In a homogeneous culture, especially one where nationalism and tradition are valued, it's hard to accept changes. This is even more true if the changes are felt to come from outside. Traditional language teaching in China derives in part from the grammar translation approach from the West, but once it did get taken on board it became Chinese and it's hard for young teachers to go against the tried and tested ways of their peers and superiors.
4 Some teachers teach largely in the L1.
5 Teachers who are too dependent on the learners L1 in their teaching find it very hard when they have a multilingual class. Cantonese teachers of English in Hong Kong who get mainlanders, Mandarin speakers, in their classes can find the going rather tough. Some have refused to accepted Indians and Nepalis in their classes because they do not speak Cantonese and thus cannot be taught in the same class.

Native English Speakers (NS)

NS Advantages

1 NS teachers have an intuitive knowledge of what is said and isn't said in their own dialect.
2 They are likely to have a larger vocabulary than some NNS teachers.
3 They are, with this knowledge of their own dialect, theoretically in a better position to study their own language and analyse it to see how it works.
4 They are better grounded in the metaphorical base of their language, something that CLT has ignored in the pursuit of information transfer at the cost of attitude and representational language.
5 They are often used to teaching multilingual classes.
6 A large number of NS teachers have learned another language and have experienced the problems of language learning.
7 In learning other languages they have often been exposed to different methodologies and can compare them. I learned French through grammar translation, German through the situational method, Greek via an AL textbook, Tok Pisin through contact with NS speakers of the language and Cantonese through choral repetition, a method totally divorced from meaning or communication.

NS Disadvantages

1 Some NS teachers think that being a NS is sufficient for being an EFL teacher
2 Quite a few NS teachers, myself included, have never learned any second language beyond lower intermediate or intermediate levels. They do not have experience of learning a language to an advanced level.
3 Although they can learn about the learner's L2, and this helps them identify learner problems, they do not have the resources in this area that NNS teachers possess.
4 They cannot utilise the learner's L1 as a resource in the way that NNS teachers can.
5 Although they are NS, they can be prescriptive and try and teach learners things they do not say or do in their own speech and writing. They often insist that the sentence is the prime unit of communication in spoken English and they promote and insist on prescriptive grammar rules like "no prepositions in sentence end position" and all the rest of it. Of course there are NNS teachers who also do this.
6 NS teachers can be culturally arrogant.
7 NS teachers can be cultural and linguistic imperialists. On the other hand, the cultural suppositions on which the metaphors of English (basic metaphors like the "time is space" metaphor of the going to future) are important to the language and need to be taken on by the learner. By the way, this can be done and has been done by speakers of Indian English and you can see the way in which they have adapted the metaphors of English public schools to Indian culture. Still, those teachers who try and create little England (or Little Rock or little anywhere) in Wuhan or Harbin, do English a disservice.

Absurd text books

By Mario Rinvolucri

For myself and for the kind of teaching I do with Europeans I can think of nothing more absurd that a text book. I do not take a "dinner conversation manual" with me if you invitee me for a meal.

However, the coursebook is part of capitalist reality just as much as making sure most Westerns live in debt is, so it is here to stay. This is why I wrote HUMANISING YOUR COURSEBOOK which suggest ways of making even the worst coursebook half palatable.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Teacher self-evaluation and the iconoclast

By Lesley Woodward, MA, M.Ed. - Cleveland State University IELP, Cleveland, OH USA

I have found that occasionally taping my own classroom teaching sessions was invaluable in determining my own amount of teacher talk. It's hard to overcome both our own and students' preconceived notions of what is good and bad teaching, and subjective evaluation is a skewed perception. By unobtrusive taping of segments of my classes, I had an objective account of how much teacher talk I actually generated.

In my own teacher training at Teachers College, I was lucky to be exposed to the FOCUS observation system which uses a descriptive observation system rather than the usual prescriptive checklist. I highly recommend the book, "Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching" by John Fanselow. When I first used this system, I was amazed at how consistently I did not practice what I preached. I found that I used the same strategies over and over again, that I talked most of the time, and that I tended to call on the same students. Taping segments of my own classroom teaching coupled with using FOCUS allowed me to expand and explore alternatives in teaching. By using a descriptive system, I could see my teaching in a broader conceptual framework.

I have also found that attending to "wait time" is crucial in reducing teacher talk and this is something that I have had to consciously work on throughout my long teaching career. It's so tempting to finish student sentences, and assume that we understand what a student is trying to communicate before that student has really had time to complete his or her thought, much less express it. Over the years, I have learned to intuit when a student is thinking of how to say something and when that student is just stumped for an answer. It's a fine line between waiting and embarrassing a student who just doesn't know. Over time, I learned how to perceive the difference.

John Fanselow was a wonderful though quite eccentric teacher. His book "Breaking Rules" defies a cover-to-cover reading. You have to sample it and then reflect. Most important, he moved away from the prescriptive observations which were and are so prevalent and introduced a descriptive protocol which urges teachers to move outside their usual mode of teaching ... to "break rules."

Two examples: We came into a large methods class once and sat down and began chatting as usual. The time for class to begin passed. Slowly, we became aware that John was sitting in the rear of the class, watching. He finally spoke, and taught the entire class sitting in the back of the room. Then we talked about how interactions were different if the teacher sits and different if the teacher is not front and center of the room. He also like to put "T's" on the board. He would put various aspects of pedagogy up on the board in one column, then we would be asked to brainstorm ways in which certain received wisdom was not good depending of variables. Or conversely, how practices which we thought bad could be good in certain situations. He was the ultimate iconoclast.

The last I heard, he was teaching on the Tokyo campus of Teachers College, and then that he retired. I'll never forget his classes.

For more on John Fanselow, see: ESL MiniConference Online interview with John Fanselow

Developing an on-line learning community

By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, USA

Building a learning community in an asynchronous course is a challenge but worth the effort. Of course face to face meetings at the beginning, middle and end of the course are great community-builders, but not practical for true distance learning courses where students can be miles away from the class center. Some ideas from adult classes I have both taken and instructed:

1. Request students to post a brief bio. Adults in the US mention their educational and professional background, areas of professional interest, anything interesting about one’s family, location, why they are taking the course, etc. US students always seem to end with an upbeat “I’m looking forward to learning about X in this course and getting to know other students” or something along that line. Encourage students to respond to these as people would in face to face introductions. ”The Peace Corps? How interesting! Where have you been stationed?” The instructor sometimes needs to lead the way so students know it is ok to do so.

2. Ask students to post a photo or at least a representative avatar.

3. Require students to use their real name, not a made-up user name, for on line work and communication.

4. Interaction, even asynchronous, is the key to success. Every course should have forums where students have assignments in which they respond to each other. Some courses require students to post something, but don’t require students to read and respond to others. That kills the perception of audience and interaction. Students should also be encouraged to respond informally to as many others as they wish in addition to their required response. I recently took a course in which the instructor did not want us posting to the forum other than our official, academic, works-cited response. That meant our natural instinct to agree or disagree with someone, to add to someone’s statement, or to ask for clarification or more information was quashed, and so was our interest in the course content. It was the worst on-line class I’ve ever taken. We were all just jumping through hoops to get to the end. (Also have a forum where students can communicate freely about

5. On-line courses need to be held together by the instructor who has to be a highly visible presence on the site. Good instructors join in the discussions to let others know they are present, send private emails of praise or constructive criticism to students, and continually post new links and current information that might prove interesting to the students and to demonstrate the course is alive and dynamic, not wound up on day one and let go. One of the best professors I have had on-line commented on every single thread so everyone in the class could read the professor’s reaction to each student-initiated discussion thread. I’m sure it took time, but the results were the 25 of us became a group. By the end of the course, students were saying that they would miss the group and hoped others were taking the next online course the next semester.

6. Run the course with the same degree of rigor as a classroom class. Don’t let the students think that the on-line medium means games and fun and do- what- you- want. Have definite due dates, a syllabus (or of sorts), objectives, tests, etc. If you are going to have synchronous skype-like discussion, be sure that the students know the scheduled times of these and the technology involved well in advance. In addition, have a clear behavior model in mind for these discussions. How will students take turns? How will they be graded? What will there tasks be and how will they get immediate feedback before the period is over?

Discouraging L1 usage

By Richard Turnbull

At our school, we use a red card/yellow card system like in football if the students speak their mother tongue in class. A red card means a 50p donation to our charity pot - this rarely happens, but the "threat" works and the students play along well!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Pronunciation tricks

By Daniel T. Parker

A neat little trick I've tried before is to give your students little pieces of paper to put in front of their mouths as they practice making the f/v, p/b, d/t sounds. If you have a room of students making the sounds at the same time, you can't possibly hear who's doing it right or wrong, and it's time-consuming, and possibly intimidating to the student to have them do the sounds individually. But when you're standing in front of the class, it's easy to tell whose piece of paper is fluttering and whose isn't.


Daniel T. Parker: It's possible that I've entirely lost my mind, but I just happened to land on this website tonight -- Dictionaraoke -- and I'm becoming more and more convinced that I can actually use it in listening comprehension lessons, by making tapes of the songs and taking them into class. But I'm not sure if I can quit laughing long enough to actually teach!

Dick Tibbetts: Great. Yes, I can use this to teach connected speech, stress, intonation and weak forms. Some of my students actually sound rather like this, or would if they could rapidly change gender and throw their voice at the same time. This site makes fun of 'disconnected speech' without there being any criticism of the students. First they do it like the mp3 in 2 groups, male and female, perhaps with lyrics up on the OHP, coloured for gender. Then, after we've laughed ourselves silly, we talk about why it's funny and set about identifying weak forms, stressed syllables and practice linking words. Then we sing it as it should be sung.

From Wikipedia:
The Dictionaraoke Project was conceived of in 2001 by the Snuggles Collective, a diverse group of experimental musicians communicating through the Internet. Inspired by the recent addition of spoken word audio clips to the Merriam-Webster and Microsoft Encarta online dictionaries demonstrating the correct pronunciation of each word, these artists used the samples to create artificial vocals that "sang" karaoke.

Listen to the dictionaries singing James Brown's "I Feel Good": I FEEL GOOD!

Correcting spoken English

By Terence Egan

Being of the "fluency first" school and having students with quite a low level of English (and motivation), I let many errors slip by in my first term at this school. I didn't ignore them completely, but allowed conversations to flow as best the communicator could manage.

At the beginning of second term, I feigned great horror at many of the common errors that students make in conversation. I tried to sell them on the simple notion that, if we practiced one common error as a component of each lesson, by the end of the term their English would have improved significantly and, hopefully, each student would have eradicated several of these problems from their extensive repertoires.

There was another rider to that first speech of the term. Having taught them the correct form or structure, I would not allow that mistake to be made in my class "ever again". This was my Churchillian denouement.

I began with "he" and "she", moved on to things like "I very much like (something)", "much" and "many", etc. In written exams they show that they know the rule, so it's a matter of discipline, concentration and practice.

The interesting result was that these errors, once they were enshrined in "classroom law" (or "lore" maybe) became rare - from the moment they were introduced in a lesson! By the end of the term, the students were correcting each other (without animus, of course).

Chinese students seem to like boundaries and rules. Other rules introduced in Term 2 such as "no sleeping", "no latecomers", "no Chinese" were observed with the same diligence and often policed by each other.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"English Naturally"

By Pete Marchetto

This is an idea I've come up with; if anyone else wants to follow this as a blueprint then go ahead. I should be interested to know how you get on.

I set up the 'English Naturally' idea in the first instance with printed sheets giving a broad outline of the idea for circulation amongst the students; if they email me this is what they get in return:


Two English people once told me how they learned French. They had gone to a college in France and the two of them - sharing a room - decided to try doing EVERYTHING using French and French alone. They only spoke French with each other and with other students who would let them do so. They watched French television and listened to French radio. They only read French books.

They didn't know much French before they arrived at the college and at first their idea proved a considerable strain. For a few months they fell over their words and their grammar, became frustrated, were tempted to stop altogether and start speaking English again... but they persevered. At the end of that few months they realised - to their surprise - that using French had become perfectly natural for them. They thought in French, spoke French without realising it, had come to enjoy their own favourite French television programmes and reading their favourite French authors - they were using French naturally as part of their daily lives as if it was English.

I know that many students on campus have tried to follow similar ideas with English but failed. That failure, again and again, comes from the fact that too many other students in their classes and dormitories are not willing to persevere with the idea. It's hard enough to do as it is at first, without trying to do it in a room with everyone else there speaking Chinese!

Although there are easily enough students on campus who are willing to persevere to make the idea work you are all in different departments and don't know one another. The idea of 'English Naturally' is to put you all in contact with each other.

Once you've made contact then it's up to you. You can arrange to meet other members for lunch or dinner in the canteen; meet together of an evening in the square; arrange a football or basketball match; go shopping with one another at weekends; meet one another in the holidays if you live close enough or email and telephone each other; anything you can think of, doing it all with the agreement that, whatever you do, you do it in English. The idea is not for all of you to meet as a group - though that would be good from time to time - but for all of you in the group to know who one another is and to agree that your friendships with one another are to be in English only. You can all make a list of the English language books, videos, tapes, VCDs, magazines etc. that you own so that other members can borrow them, finding things that interest them that they want to see, read or hear. There are dozens of things you can do with other members of 'English Naturally'; anything, in fact, that you would usually do in Chinese, only doing it in English instead.

That, however, is an important point - to do things in English you would usually do in Chinese. 'English Naturally' should use English NATURALLY. Don't set up speaking competitions, conversations with set topics, study corners or exchange text books; use English to communicate what you WANT to communicate; to read things you WANT to read and watch things you WANT to watch; to meet people when you WANT to meet them to do the things you WANT to do. Use 'English Naturally' to use English as you would use Chinese and not to do more work. Use it for fun and fun alone. It will help your studies, of course - tremendously if you do it enough - but don't think of that while you are doing it; just enjoy it.

'English Naturally' should be arranged BY students FOR students. It will be up to all of you to find other people who want to join in and to arrange things for yourselves. If you are dedicated enough to the idea it should work really well but you must be willing to BE dedicated. Start speaking Chinese with 'English Naturally' members and the whole thing will fall apart.

For 'English Naturally' to work, your commitment is everything. If you have felt the need for an English environment, now is your chance to help create one but you must do it properly and be willing to focus your time and energy on it. Remember, 'English Naturally' doesn't involve more work as such; all it means is you doing things you would naturally do - playing games, going shopping, chatting in the canteen, reading books, listening to the radio, watching VCDs - only in English and not in Chinese.

If you've always wanted an English-speaking environment then now is your chance but remember - it's not for me to create it. It's for you.

Handling troubles with the job

By Ruth McAllister - Guangzhou, China

One teacher said on working in China: "...the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!"

I think it is also important to not be taken advantage of in China or in any other job anywhere else. For example, if the school suddenly says you MUST teach 10 extra classes per week, it would not be a good idea to go with the flow. Then all subsequent teachers there would be expected to accept sudden huge changes in work load without complaining. Yes, sometimes the Chinese teachers labour under such loads. But there are also heads of dept who get by with a couple of classes a week.

I prefer to think of teaching in China in this way. Be a person with a backbone, not a jellyfish or a brick wall. Barbara Coloroso says this about parenting as well. Bend when need be but show strength when unfairness is evident. Contracts need to be respected by both sides.

Group work organization

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

In my first year in China 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.

This experience has also made me think about some of the recent discussion about our various training courses and qualifications (or lack of them). 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. On 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.

Foreign teachers in China

By Don YD Chen - Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

I have been working with foreign teachers working in Chinese institutions for many years and have alway been in good terms with them. I, as a Chinese teacher of English, fully understand their situations in this vast land, where the culture is so diverse that one can hardly avoid continuous shocks such culture shocks, food shocks or shocks of whatever one can imagine, in the first few months (or a year). Worse, there are students whose enthusiasm shrinks soon after they discover that foreign teachers are not good at teaching them 'to pass exams'.

Get ready for China

By Leslie Sirag/R.L."Seth" Watkins - Olympia, WA, USA

The first and most important thing we learned about China in our first year of teaching there is that everything we thought we knew was wrong. I don't think anything can really prepare you--the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!

Speaking of elision

By Karen Stanley - Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

I work with students teaching them elision on a regular basis right from the very beginning. Most listening-speaking books and pronunciation books include lessons on at least recognizing elided sounds starting with the lowest levels. It is possible to introduce it in an organized way, focusing on different parts of the whole system of elision. With the exercises I do, I often end up commenting on a mix of different aspects of pronunciation even though the specific lesson itself may have focused on just one or two.

One important aspect is that stress and intonation on both a sentence and word level are very important in English to being comprehensible, and if students elide their words just as ALL native speakers do ALL the time, we understand them better. Elided speech is not "slang" - it is a *regular* feature of all spoken English, although I've had native speakers tell me "I don't do that" just before doing it in their own speech.

I have found that students who have difficulty with final consonants, often because of coming from a language with a CV (consonant-vowel) syllable structure, become much more comprehensible when they use elided speech because much of English, when it is spoken, actually moves into a CV structure. That is, final consonants are often pronounced with the beginnings of the next word.

Something very important for Chinese speakers, though, is to recognize a couple of things about the length of vowel sounds; this is related to some degree to elision:

(1) vowel sounds in stressed syllables get more time than those in unstressed syllables - Chinese speakers generally want to give all vowel sounds the same amount of time, rendering their speech *much* less comprehensible, and

(2) a voiced consonant lengthens the time given to the vowel before it. Often, in fact, we don't pronounce the final consonant (it's an "unreleased" consonant, similar to a glottal stop, especially before a word that starts with a consonant), and our knowledge of whether someone said "had" or "hat" comes not from /t/ or /d/ but from how much time the 'a' gets.

One book (now out in a new edition, which I haven't seen) which presents the sounds from at least a recognition aspect is "Whaddaya say" by Nina Weinstein. However, in the first edition, although she has students learn elided forms for recognition, she tells students (more or less) to use citation (dictionary) pronunciation, which I disagree with. None of us actually pronounce one word separately from the next when we are speaking (try really doing that some time if you disagree). So, I think telling students to use citation form actually *decreases* students' comprehensibility. However, I agree that elision needs to be explained in an organized way, because getting it wrong is just as bad as getting any other aspect of pronunciation wrong.

Blurb from the book:
"Whaddya gonna git? I dunno. Wanna go fer a soda? Is this English? You bet it is--this is what English often sounds like in everyday life--and now students can understand it, too through this user-friendly listening program! The 30 humorously illustrated, workbook-size units tackle the most common reduced forms such as wanna, gonna, and gotta. Each chapter opens with a conversation (dialogue) on a "hip" topic from the Internet to bungee jumping. Students listen to the conversation spoken with careful, slow pronunciation. They contrast this pronunciation with the same segment spoken with relaxed, fast speech that uses target reduced forms. All scripts are in the book for optional "following along." After the conversation, students complete comprehension questions and a translation exercise. They then expand their practice by listening to a continued segment of the conversation, doing a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, and working in small groups to discuss final questions. Ten review tests appear at the back of the book and at the end of the audio program."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Playing Probe with students

By Joseph Lee

There is an old word board game called Probe, made by Parker Brothers. I don't know if it is available in stores now. The game is for max of four players, eight if two sets are used. Each player has a stripboard of 12 spaces. Using alphabets on cards, each player forms a word and puts them in the right order hidden (upside down) on the strip. Each space has a different number of points. The players then try to guess the others' words in turn. Each time a letter is guessed right, the guessing player would get the number of points of the space of the letter. That letter will stay exposed. The player who guesses correctly the word gets a lot of points. I came across this game not too long ago and have not used in any ESL context, so I don't know how useful it is. But I would think it might be fun to give it a try.

The games teachers play

By E. Snader

My students, sophomore English majors, enjoy TABOO. We make the rules fit the level they are at. If they are very low, they use the words provided on the card. In a class, we divide the group into three teams and become competitive. In my home, as many students as want to can join our circle and participate. The fun is in learning new words, not in keeping score for them.

The UNGAME is another card game I use sometimes when they run out of topics to talk about.

In smaller groups or with partners , SCATTERGORIES can be lots of fun.

I have 180 students and only teach them every other week. I have two afternnoons a week when they can come to my home to play games, talk, or ask questions. This is often a fun time to play word games and develop language skills in a small group.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Assessing with the Council of Europe Framework

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma'anshan, China

Lots of us are trying to develop tests appropriate for the situations we're teaching in. One document I'd recommend, because I've found it enormously helpful, is the Council of Europe Framework, which is on the Internet, as a downloadable pdf file (for which you need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your machine). I like the document for several reasons.

The work behind it is the work of a large number of experts across Europe, who've developed one framework to cover the teaching (and testing) of any of the languages taught and used in Europe - which of course includes a variety of non-European languages. In other words, the whole thing is language independent. I understand it to be very much a reflection of the most up to date understanding we have of measuring language performance. The particular document in question is the latest version, the result of many revisions.

The document addresses the fundamental questions in all this, and looks at every dimension conceivable - so I can use it as a basis for testing speaking, listening, reading, anything. It looks at things on general levels and on detailed specific levels - so you can home in on the level that is relevant for you at the moment.

Because this framework is as comprehensive as it is, it lets me think up a variety of activities for the form of my tests, activities that reflect the students experiences and what they've done in a course. But at the same time it's kept me very much on track, enabling me to see clearly what level our target it.

Because it's not language-specific, you can test yourself (there's one section on self-testing) for your Chinese to see how this sort of approach works.

Someone also commented about examiners' ability not to be swayed - well, I think what allows me to be more objective is using a number of scales and criteria when I test. For example, this semester my college end-of-first-year students will get some marks for pronunciation (because we've done quite a bit of pronunciation work on their Oral English classes), some marks for fluency, some marks for grammar, some marks for vocabulary/lexis and some marks for coherence.

I'm also thinking about including some marks for how they deal with problems - repair work, asking for help, paraphrasing, miming, using fillers to gain thinking time and to fill a silence, and the suchlike - what's called strategic competence. My criteria for vocab/lexis and grammar will not be whether they demonstrate use of anything in particular, but in how effective they are at communicating successfully -do their errors interfere with communication, or hinder it, or render it impossible! This is because I teach college English majors - I think testing for specific aspects of these dimensions is the responsibility of other teachers in other classes. but at the same time, my students do realise that I consider grammar and lexis to be seriously important.

As regards a quick test, my experience, and the experience of other testing large numbers quickly for summer schools (in UK language schools), is that in an informal chat of around 5 minutes, grading only on a 5 point scale (with very easy to understand scoring 5) is a remarkably effective tool in the hands of a native speaker. Even on the most mundane of topics (your home town, your family), it sorts the lower from the higher from the in betweens. I did this at the beginning of this year with my 225 new students, and on subsequent reflection, having taught them now for 2 semesters, remarkably few of my initial assessments were wrong, and none were way off.

What's interesting is looking back at their subsequent development! The value for me is how much respect I have for the students who got a low rating at the beginning who would only now get a middle rating - but wow, what progress! In each band, I can see students who have really made big efforts and made progress, and I can also see students who've made almost no progress. Of those, a small number are not interested in the effort it entails (basketball etc is more important), but I also have one or two who I realise are making efforts but little progress. I think that initial testing and placement has really helped me, and I plan to do it for future Oral English classes. One thing I did was use the test results to make groups according to level, and that's been very successful as well.

Speaking of oral exams

By George -

To accurately test my students, I give them oral exams which are recorded on tape. These exams have two parts. The first part is Q&A covering things we have covered in class. They almost always have a memorized response for the basic questions. I tend to ignore these. I focus on their responses to the follow-up questions. For example, I've told them that we might discuss their grandparents, so I might ask

"Are your grandparents alive?" "How many children did they have?" How many boys and how many girls? "Do you know your aunt's and uncles?" "O.K let's talk about your youngest aunt" Here is where they begin to breakdown because they didn't think to prepare for a discussion about their youngest aunt. I've also begun by asking about a favorite middle-school teacher and then focus on the teacher they liked the least. Once I get to the real subject I'll begin with what is the person’s name, age etc. and gradually lead to more complex questions. Then I start looking for syntactic, grammar and vocabulary failure. In many cases the exam ends in 2 or 3 minutes and some have gone as long as 30 or 40 minutes. In all cases I use subjects they are familiar with: Family, School, Friends and Hometowns. If I knew more about sports I would dwell on that. I have been known to ask a student to explain what a mid-fielder, a striker or a goalie does if they play those positions in football or the role of guards, the center or forwards in basketball. I've even asked guitar playing students to explain how to play a particular song. In short they give me a guitar lesson.

To test for middle school, determine what is grade appropriate and start from there.

Again, start simple and progress to the complex. At what level do they abandon an answer or the topic entirely. The second part is a short oral reading which incorporates most of the English phonemes. I sometimes give the samples to practice with but they get a new reading for the exam. They must read cold.

Also, I've just begun developing a set of reading passages that will begin at about fifth or sixth grade level for native speakers using Flesch-Kincaid RGL measures and which become progressively more advanced. This way I can determine the level at which they begin to break down, identified by their rate of word abandonment. In the first year I will be mainly concerned with phonetic identification and reproduction. As we progress, stress and intonation will become more of a factor.

I've not seen the CET tests, so I can't comment on those. Oral exams can be quantified, but I don't like using them as the basis for a grade. I tell the school that grades should be considered as a report of a student's speaking level and how much they have improved. In my classes, the only one's who actually fail are those who only show up for exams and the rare film. Those who come to class but aren't there count as absent. Our school weeds them out pretty quick. Last term eight of my students flunked out including two who were pretty good English speakers. Six were expelled for cheating on Chinese teacher's exams.

On the value of formal teacher training

Dick Tibbets - University of Macau, Macau

In my part of the 'training' and 'qualifications' postings on this list I've been concerned to say that it is the knowledge that is important and that organised courses are probably the easiest way to get some of this knowledge. The letters, well, they're just for the CV.

If you take a course then you are accepting someone else's syllabus and, to some extent, someone else's ideas of how you should use that knowledge. You just have to hope that they know what they are doing. After all, this is what your students have to do. You are their 'someone else'.

If you design your own course of self study then you need to know which topics will be useful to you. It can work but you are a little more in the dark.

As for my background, yes it's helped me all along. When I left computer programming all those years ago, the post grad cert ed I took really did help prepare me for the classroom and once I got there a series of courses by Rinvolucri helped even more.

The experience I gained over the next 10 years teaching various types and levels of
English to learners from some 70 or so countries then fed into my MA and both the experience and the 'extra' knowledge from the MA helped when I came to Hong Kong and Macau.

I'd say that the experience is the most valuable part but it was those bursts of learning (I won't call it training as a fair bit was independent) on courses that put the experience into contexts and made it all much more useful. Teaching in this part of the world IS harder than teaching in, say, Spain or Germany. Knowledge based experience was worthwhile for me.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Vocabulary Pyramid Game

By Patricia Hedden - Winchester Public Schools, Virginia, USA

Almost every professional development workshop I've attended in the last few years has made use of Kagan structures, suitable for children or adults. A specific game (not Kagan) I picked up from a recent workshop was a hit with the adult workshop participants and has been a hit with my elementary ESL students.

It's based on the 25,000 Pyramid TV game show. All you need are a blackboard / whiteboard and prepared cards with illustrated vocabulary. The illustration is key to reinforcing and prompting meaning if necessary.

Draw a large triangle on the board, divided into three levels. The top level holds one word, the middle two words, and the bottom three words. The top level is worth 200 pts, the middle 100 pts. each, and the bottom 50 pts. each, and words into the triangle by level of difficulty. Students sit facing each other. The student who can see the triangle gives clues to their partner, identifying the level. "For 50 points, ..." Partners change positions, and you change the words on the board.

The game is a little easier if you stick to one topic in a round, for example, things we do at home or occupations. My students are fluent orally but struggled in trying to explain the meaning of the science and social studies content words, so I did quite a bit of modeling at first.

Learning from your teaching

By Lesley Woodward, MA, M.Ed. - Cleveland State University IELP, USA

I have found that occasionally taping my own classroom teaching sessions was invaluable in determining my own amount of teacher talk. It's hard to overcome both our own and students' preconceived notions of what is good and bad teaching, and subjective evaluation is a skewed perception. By unobtrusive taping of segments of my classes, I had an objective account of how much teacher talk I actually generated.

In my own teacher training at Teachers College, I was lucky to be exposed to the FOCUS observation system which uses a descriptive observation system rather than the usual prescriptive checklist. I highly recommend the book, "Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching" by John Fanselow. When I first used this system, I was amazed at how consistently I did not practice what I preached. I found that I used the same strategies over and over again, that I talked most of the time, and that I tended to call on the same students. Taping segments of my own classroom teaching coupled with using FOCUS allowed me to expand and explore alternatives in teaching. By using a descriptive system, I could see my teaching in a broader conceptual framework.

I have also found that attending to "wait time" is crucial in reducing teacher talk and this is something that I have had to consciously work on throughout my long teaching career. It's so tempting to finish student sentences, and assume that we understand what a student is trying to communicate before that student has really had time to complete his or her thought, much less express it. Over the years, I have learned to intuit when a student is thinking of how to say something and when that student is just stumped for an answer. It's a fine line between waiting and embarrassing a student who just doesn't know. Over time, I learned how to perceive the difference.

Doubts about the effectiveness of grammar teaching

By Scott Miles

Some grammar teaching advocates referred to the Norris & Ortega survey of the effectiveness of explicit grammar instruction, quoting the abstract:

"[T]he data indicated that focused L2 instruction results in large target-oriented gains, that explicit types of instruction are more effective than implicit types, and that Focus on Form and Focus on Forms interventions result in equivalent and large effects."

Krashen has written about this in his Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use book. Some of the main problems:

1. The bulk of the reviewed studies only test declarative or 'learned' knowledge (multiple choice questions, find the mistakes, etc.) rather than any measure of procedural use (able to use the grammar in unrehearsed speaking or writing).

We all know that students can be taught for a grammar test. I teach at one of the top universities in Korea and thus my freshman students are among the top 2% in the whole country. They have all aced (or nearly aced) the English portion of the entrance exam which has a grammar component. Yet they cannot use the grammar very well in their speaking or writing. Language teaching isn't just about test preparation. If our teaching does not affect students' actual performance, then we haven't done them much good.

2. The bulk of the studies included in the survey do not have delayed post tests.

Students may remember the instructed grammar for a test, but forget it weeks or months later. Studies with delayed post tests generally show a drop in knowledge and usage, and it is not uncommon to see all gains disappear after a few months. If the knowledge doesn't stick, then can we say the instruction was that useful?

3. Few comparison groups had anywhere near sufficient comprehensible input.

Some studies compared explicit instruction groups to those that simply had nothing (neither grammar instruction nor sufficient comprehensible input). Others had comparison groups with just a few hours of comprehensible input.

Studies which do not address these issues are simply not that useful in regards to the debate on explicit vs. implicit grammar approaches.

There is just a handful of studies covered in the the Ortega-Norris survey which do not have the problems listed above. Krashen reviews those studies in detail in his book and he makes a fairly strong argument that Norris and Ortega's conclusions are overstated.

Having followed this current TESL-L online debate over the past few months, I wonder how many people have actually looked at the studies which compare programs with explicit grammar teaching and those which just provide comprehensible input. Grammar teaching (or non-teaching) is a big issue in our field and I think it is worth taking the time to look into it directly rather than just rely on the conclusions of other scholars.

I'd like to post on a few studies (starting with this post) which compare explicit instruction with a comprehension-based learning group. If nothing else, I just want to show that this whole issue is not as cut and dried as some people would like to believe.

The Harley (1989) study which Norris and Ortega include in their review is one of the very few studies which does not have the problems noted above.

Harley compared to groups that were a part of a French immersion program in Canada. The experimental group had 12 hours of work with passe compose and imparfait over 8 weeks. The comparison group simply continued their immersion program with no explicit focus on these grammar items.

Here are the results:

Interview Test:....Pre test..Post test.....Delayed Post test (3 months) Experimental.........42% ......57%................ 63%
Comparison.......... 44.5%.... 48%................ 60%

Considering that 12 hours were spent on 2 grammar forms, and that the questions in the interview specifically cued those grammar forms, it is no surprise that the students would recall their grammar instruction and use it in the interview. Nonetheless, the scores are still not that impressive and with the delayed test the immersion group has closed the gap (there were no statistically significant differences on scores at the delayed test).

Harley (and presumably Norris and Ortega) look at these results as a victory for explicit instruction. I look at this and think that this is not a very good return for 12 hours of valuable class time. Normal classrooms cannot devote 12 hours for just two grammar points and again, the differences between the groups are no longer statistically significant after 3 months. What was really gained? And note that the immersion only group is progressing along fairly well despite not having any explicit instruction.

There were two other tests in Harley's study as well:

Cloze:...........Pre test..Post test.....Delayed Post test

Again, statistically significant gains that are shown on the immediate post test were lost on the delayed post test, as the comparison group closes the gap simply by continuing their immersion program.

Composition......Pre test..Post test.....Delayed Post test

The students' writing was rated on a 5 point scale for grammatical accuracy. Neither the post or the delayed post scores showed statistically significant differences between the two groups. Again. the 12 hours of grammar instruction did not deliver much to get excited about.

Furthermore , in the speaking and cloze tests these small gains seem to be disappearing, so where is the support for the idea that the instructed students are at any advantage even in the long run (the often proclaimed idea that explicit grammar instruction helps students attain the form more quickly)?

There is another issue that is often overlooked in these studies. Hours devoted to grammar instruction and practice do little to benefit other areas of language acquisition. Sure, the students in Harley's study might have picked up a little vocabulary or grammar incidentally while they were focusing on the passe compose and imparfait, but most likely not a whole lot. The question is, what did the comparison group get for that 12 hours of extra input in which they were exposed to much more language? The research results above show that they were slowly but surely developing the target grammar forms despite no explicit instruction, and thus assuredly they were also developing many other grammar forms as well. For vocabulary learning, they most likely received a lot more vocabulary exposure during that 12 hours than the grammar focused group, meaning that their vocabulary was probably developing more effectively as well. And of course, their listening and reading skills were also most likely benefited more from that 12 hours of input in comparison to the grammar group.

So I think one could make a strong case that in the sum total of language acquisition among these two groups, the input only group actually came out well ahead.

Of course, this is just one study and there are others that should be discussed.

Harley, B. 1989. "Functional Grammar in French Immersion: A Classroom Experiment." Applied Linguistics 10:331-59 Norris, J. & Ortega, L. Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50:3, September 2000, pp. 417-528.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Explaining grammar

By Betty Azar

In reference to recent discussions: Keith Folse, Karen Stanley, and Michael Swan understand what it means to "teach grammar" -- a concept that too often seems to get twisted to mean something other than what we who teach grammar mean when we talk about it.

When students ask "Why?" they are really asking "How does this work?" -- and they deserve an answer if they feel that this grammar information will help them. Teachers can either lead students to discover this information or provide this information through explanation, or both (as is usually the case in real classrooms).

I've often wondered what teachers who refuse any kind of grammar component in their classes say to students when students ask questions about grammar.

My students were always full of questions, really good questions -- I can't imagine saying to them: "Oh, you don't need to know that" or "There's really no answer to that" or "That's just the way it is, so don't worry about it."

What a disservice to students. And how disrespectful of their learning strategies. Like Michael Swan, I'd go find a different mechanic/doctor/piano teacher/what-have-you. Like Keith Folse, I'd fire that teacher. Like Karen Stanley, I'd answer the question by showing how grammar patterns convey meaning.

There is nothing more natural than for adult students to ask questions about how English works. Somehow the naturalist movement in language teaching made what is completely natural -- students asking questions about grammar and finding it helpful to figure out how patterns work -- seem misguided or irrelevant or somehow "not natural." Fortunately for students, the naturalist movement is now a passing bandwagon. Today grammar teaching and communicative teaching are becoming more and more integrated in a variety of innovative and effective ways.

Betty Azar is a teacher and the author of several English grammar workbooks that are a staple in the ESL teaching industry.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A delightful parody on how some teachers see grammar teaching

By Michael Swan

As the leader of a small team working on methods of teaching grammar at the Notker Balbulus Language Institute in Edinburgh, I have been following various contributions to the recent debate with considerable interest. In most respects, they characterise our practice with remarkable accuracy. We do indeed require our students to learn grammar rules by heart; and we not only make them recite the rules in chorus, but are training some of the students to sing them in four-part harmony. Many of the rules we teach were, as they point out, devised by mediaeval monks; we find that these have a rich deep patina which one simply cannot find in today's rules. In this connection, we have been fortunate in discovering, in Oxford's Bodleian Library, an unpublished manuscript containing a veritable storehouse of arcane rules relating to Middle English word order which we are currently incorporating into our teaching programmes. Labelling we regard as essential, and any of our students can identify an indefinite past progressive subjunctive determiner at 200 paces in a dim light. We steadfastly refuse to allow our learners access to comprehensible input; an account of some interesting early work using incomprehensible input can be found in the paper 'The Use of Sensory Deprivation in Foreign Language Teaching (Swan and Walter 1983) in English Language Teaching Journal 36/3. We take very seriously the translation component of 'grammar-translation' (sometimes neglected in today's permissive times), and our students spend a good deal of their time translating English texts not only into their mother tongues, but also into Latin, Sanskrit, Classical Greek and Old Church Slavonic. The one area where they are somewhat ahead of us is in the matter of etching conjugations into our students' brains, referred to in their latest posting. This is an exciting and promising direction to explore, and we have indeed tried several approaches, using Spanish and Serbian (since English has no conjugations). However, our results have been disappointing and in some cases unfortunate, and we have come to the conclusion that, sadly, this is a technique which will have to wait for advances in neurosurgery for its successful implementation.

Michael Swan is a writer specializing in English language teaching and reference materials. His interests include pedagogic grammar, mother-tongue influence in second language acquisition, and the relationship between applied linguistic theory and classroom language-teaching practice, and he has published a number of articles on these topics. And he has a great sense of humor.