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.