06 December 2007

How students learn for tests

When our students take the big exams are the only questions they get right the ones the teacher "taught" them? I don't think so. I would like to know how effective is teacher "teaching" as compared to indirect learning.

I think they are answering some questions on the test correctly for items that they were not "taught". If so, then how did they learn them? I believe Comprehensible Input is playing a bigger role than we realize.

Krashen tells the story of how his French teacher wanted to only speak French to them and was explaining a grammar point, in French. Finally frustrated, she told them in English. However, her effort to explain it in French, all that French speaking to explain something, actually constituted Comprehensible Input for the students and helped their French.

Every time the teacher talks to the students in the L2 is Comprehensible Input. Teachers are naturals for adjusting their English speaking so students can understand them.

So between the teacher's speaking and the student's own study they are getting a lot of CI.

Perhaps the student is reading a business text and it is talking about international finance and the teacher wants the student to learn some language about stocks, bonds, interest rates, prime lending rate, etc. Perhaps the student has some degree of success in learning some of those terms but there are many things in the text that the student was not studying but was learning such as "carry on" when it says "banks cannot carry on making risky loans" or something like that.

22 November 2007

Reverse engineering vocabulary learning

We hear a lot of advice about how to teach vocabulary, how to bring the mass of vocabulary to the student so the student has the right word when she needs it. But instead of looking at it from the mass to the useful word, let us look at it from the useful word to the mass. In other words, how did that student actually acquire that word?...a sort of lexical forensics, if you will.

I have been pondering the CET4 English test used in China. This is the most important English test in China and it's hard for Chinese to claim they know any useful amount of English if they haven't passed this test. (Following this test is the CET6 and CET8). I'm looking at an official sample test right now and have chosen a question at random to study. This is one line in a long paragraph and we know it's talking about home care for someone who is ill. This is a cloze test question and it goes like this:

The responsible one in the home ___ on with the rest of the care during the _interval_ between the nurse's visits.

(a) works (b) carries (c) looks (d) depends

The answer is "carries".

Now the question is, how did the student come to choose that word? What was the learning process that enabled that student to correctly choose that word over the others? Were those words in a vocabulary lesson? Were those words on the student's vocabulary list of words to memorize? How did our student acquire those words to be able to answer the question correctly? How did the student know she cannot say "...WORKS on with..." That sounds almost possible. How exactly did the student know it is impossible? What lesson was given to the student on this?

If we take a look at the correct word we can see in the American Heritage Dictionary there are many definitions or usages for the word "carry" plus six phrasal verbs with multiple uses as well, these being:

carry off-2
carry out-3
carry over-7
carry a (or the) torch-1
carry the ball-1
carry the day-1


carry on-4
To conduct; maintain: carry on a thriving business.
To engage in: carry on a love affair.
To continue without halting; persevere: carry on in the face of disaster. To behave in an excited, improper, or silly manner.

This makes a total of 64. Certainly, our student did not need to know every usage of "carry" to be able to choose it as the correct answer. But the student had to learn many of them. And how did she learn them, did the teacher teach them to the student?

My suspicion is that our student has not had English lessons in the multiple uses of the word "carry" that enabled her to answer correctly. Perhaps the student never had any lesson on the word "carry". I believe that once an elementary vocabulary has been reached, the vast bulk of learning takes place indirectly through vast amounts of input as suggested by Krashen in his theory of "Comprehensible Input".

Coaching for retention

"I have an intermediate ESL class in a community based adult ed setting. Although the class is offered twice a week, most can only come once or they start off with regular attendance and then disappear. I have heard of this in all kinds of settings, materials, teachers, languages, public and private instruction. Does the number of students have anything to do with it ? I will only offer once a week next semester but I'm also thinking of more practice to be done at home. Does anyone have any advice?"

You're right, this is a problem in lots of schools and training centers where the student is required to attend for some certificate or degree. But in those cases, the student may not be attending out of interest but just out of paper necessity. I think in a long-term corporate training program that it is easy to have a drop out rate of about 50%.

There are a lot of reason for this. They can range from the teacher's skills and relationship with the students, the students perception concerning the effectiveness of the course, students' personal problems and many others.

While we are beginning to see the limits of traditional classroom teaching we are presented with opportunities to make use of technologies to solve these problems, and the technology may be as simple as a telephone.

Sometimes, by benchmarking ourselves to other industries, we can adopt their solutions to similar problems. We could get some ideas from the Open University and fitness centers.

Open University has done a lot of research into this. Nearly all their training is distance and it is easy for students to drop out. They found that regular phone calls and feedback from the instructor reduced drop out significantly. [below I'll put some links]

There are many other areas where drop out or attrition is an issue. About a year ago I saw a 60-Minutes program once where a company boss was trying to help his employees get healthier to the company's reduce insurance premiums. The employees agreed to a fitness program. We all know how easy it is to NOT exercise, so he had someone calling employees as a friendly reminder and to check up on them on how they were doing on the program.

I have always wondered how that worked and if it would work for our kind of teaching. I've been researching the subject for about a year and have come across a couple helpful things.

There is a company called "Fitness By Phone" which coaches people by phone. If you are interested in the possibilities of such a method, I suggest you go to the website below and explore all the news articles written about this company. From the articles you can piece together the technique.


It seemed one of the main ways they coached their clients was by working out an exercise plan and then checking up on them if they followed the plan and talking through any issues involved in following the plan and hitting targets.

Supposedly, Stanford University has researched this sort of coaching as a way to reduce hospital visits by patients who have a difficult time to go to the hospital. This is a research paper by Stanford although I find it curious that I'm unable to locate this paper anywhere but the websites of several fitness centers. Nonetheless, it provides many useful ideas.


Of course, these ideas are not going to help every case. Our target, as teachers, will have to be to reduce attrition even if we can't eliminate it.

1. Proactive contact from the Institution: retention issues: Recent research within the Open University and elsewhere has demonstrated the importance of telephone contact in student induction, retention and performance on course. Read all about it: http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2004/Gaskell_Mills.htm

2. Here is a paper called: Persistence in Distance Education. It covers "Studies of students' reasons for dropout", "Student profile studies" and "Implications for institutional intervention". Find it at: http://www1.worldbank.org/disted/Teaching/Design/kn-01.html

Reducing attrition by triage, concern, variety, assessment

We can borrow some ideas from military medicine. I first got interested in this when I found out that banks, brokerages, telcos and insurance companies were using it to retain customers.

Triage[1] a system the military uses to judge how serious injuries are and to prioritize treatments. Companies adapted[2] triage to use in their data mining systems to highlight customers who seemed to be taking actions to leave the company. They determined some events and conditions that would take place that might indicate the customer was not going to stay. When they spot this they will approach the customer with special offers or discounts to retain them.

How could this be applied to our retention efforts?

A very simple idea would be to call a student when he/she missed class. Just say Hello and show your concern if the student is ill or whatever. This will help the student feel closer.


If two classes in a row are missed this could be the first step towards dropping out. You could call the student to just see how things are going and how does the student feel about the lessons. Of course, when there are three absences in a row then this may be a clearer indication of the student dropping out and the teacher should check to see if something is happening.

A student's "suggestions" are sometimes complaints. All the time the teacher should be listening to the students to see if the students feel the lessons are meeting their needs and if they are satisfied. Sometimes the lessons are perfect for the students but the students don't know it. In this case, the teacher may need to explain more, do more salesmanship for the reason of the approach, materials, etc.


Sometimes it is easy for students to not "feel" they are progressing. If they feel they are not making progress it makes it much easier for them to decide to quit. If they feel they are making progress they are more inclined to solve any external problems that may hinder their attendance. Language acquisition is so incremental that many students don't notice it. It's like my children. I can't see them growing day-by-day but I'm pretty sure they are.

I think it is interesting how Cambridge Interchange 3 (formerly New Interchange) has added a very short two-page "Self-Assessment" after every two units. This assessment has six questions on the things that the student had learned in the previous two units.

For example, Book Two for Unit 3-4 asks, How well can you do these things? Very well, OK, A little: Ask and answer questions about prices. Give opinions using adjectives. Talk about preferences and make comparisons with adjectives. Etc.

The student makes a self-assessment on these points. The following these six questions are exercises on each of these points. The student can go through the exercises and see how well he/she does and what, if anything, needs further explanation. This way students can see exactly what they are learning and exactly how they are making progress.


Sometimes the students have a legitimate need. They want more variety, a couple games thrown in to spice things up and make them a bit more fun, more or less homework, etc.

There may be domestic or professional pressures making it difficult for the student to attend. Perhaps a change in the schedule or greater flexibility in the schedule can help.

[1] Dictionary definition: "Triage is a system employed in military medicine for the evaluation and classification of casualties. Its primary purpose is to categorize the wounded for treatment and further evacuation where necessary. In effect, triage consists of two main elements. First, the immediate sorting of casualties according to the nature and seriousness of their wounds and the likelihood of their ability to survive them, with or without intervention and with consideration of the available resources. Second, the establishment of priorities for treatment and subsequent evacuation, in order that medical care is provided for the greatest benefit of the largest number of casualties."

[2] http://www.intelligententerprise.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=189600083

Some things to NOT teach

It is not only important for us to know what to teach but we also must know what NOT to teach.

Our time with our students is limited. So we should definitely focus on what English will benefit our students the most in the period during and shortly after our training.

I've met teachers who say that someday the student may need a certain bit of obscure English or English skill. The problem is that it is likely that the student will forget it before he has a chance to use it. In that case, all of the teacher's and the student's time and effort is wasted.

This is the case with a friend of mine who came to China to learn Chinese. After three years of intense study at the university followed by three more years of living and working in China, she discovered she had forgotten one year of the words she had learned during her training. Because she was living and working in China and very actively used her Chinese, the only way she could forget them was that she didn't need them. She wasted one year of her life learning what she didn't need.

I think if teachers were paid by what English their students remember and are using one year after their training then many teachers would teach quite differently than they do today.

Still more on error correction

On the TESL-L mailing list, a teacher asked the question below about error correction. As it seems to be something we're interested in, I'm including my reply. - dk

"I,m an English teacher in China. I'm teaching 2 classes with 56 students each. When I teach writing, I'll use differnt methods to encourage my students to write about their own ideas. To my joy, they like writing very much though it is hard work. However, I find it very difficult for me to correct their errors. I know fluency is more important, but it dosn't mean we can ignore accuracy. Error correcting will take lots of time and energy, and the students don't want to see their composition after I correect errors. Is there anybody who can help me use a kind of more efficient method?"

This is a common problem faced by many writing teachers. We could say it is even a trap because teachers feel obligated to this idea of correcting everything.


John Truscott famously or infamously, depending on what side of the debate you are standing on, has brought up research[1] indicating that grammar correction doesn't really help students at all. So, generally speaking, all time spent at correcting is time wasted.

Truscott is in the same vein of English learning as Krashen. Indeed, Krashen has referred to Truscott's research[2]. In this direction of English learning it is understood that students learn from indirect ways of teaching, things like Extensive Reading, that the students will absorb the language through massive exposure to it at a difficulty level of i+1.

After studying Truscott's paper, and even organizing a virtual seminar for him on the TEFL-China list[3] where we interviewed him for a week, I began to pay closer attention to how my students responded to corrections.

Personally, from observing my students carefully, I've seen that my students do respond to some corrections.

But to be effective in this area, we have to understand some things first.


Our students cannot have a lesson, or even a correction, and simply "know" it. They only begin to know it. All learning in an area as complex as language takes a lot of time and repetition.

Choose your targets. Don't try to correct everything. Correct what you think will be easiest for them to learn, that they are ready to learn. Remember, it is more like teaching a baby how to walk than teaching the fine points of running to an Olympic athlete. Teach only what can be learned or you are wasting your time and frustrating your student.

When you read over the papers, understand that this is the whole class speaking to you. Through their errors they are telling you what they need to be taught. In this way you can respond and give your class exactly what they need.

Group the corrections. Choose the Top 5 errors the students were making in their papers and show them how to do it correctly. Of course, some students may have not made those errors on the paper they submitted to you. But if they didn't make this error this time they may make it next time so teach it to all of them. Even if they know, more or less, how not to make that error, such instruction will strengthen their understanding. As mentioned before, students begin to know something and slowly understand it better and better.


Do your own research. If you want to see how responsive the students are to correction, after you have taught them the 5 main errors and how to avoid them, ask the students to return their papers to you and ask them to rewrite the assignment. Collect those papers and check them. You'll find that most of them will not repeat those errors, that they have learned from the correction. About two weeks or a month later, ask them to write the very same assignment yet again. You will find that a lot of the students will not make the same errors although many may have forgotten your correction lesson and are slipping again.


Beware of the hurried writer. This guy really wastes so much teacher time. He's the guy who forgot the homework and before the homework is to be handed in just dashes off a quick paper. He makes a lot of mistakes that, if he took his time, he would not have made. He knows they are errors but they were errors made in haste. But he doesn't mind and he wants his paper to be corrected. The problem is, it takes your precious time to read his paper and deal with these errors. I refuse to check any papers unless the student has made it as perfect as he possibly can. Only then can I really help a student with what he doesn't know. Check the paper for really basic errors, simple words misspelled, obvious grammar mistakes. If you find such things, hand the paper back to the student and tell him to correct it himself until he thinks it is perfect. If you find someone hastily finishing a writing assignment make sure you don't accept it. If he doesn't have time to try to write it well, you don't have time to try to correct it.

[1] http://frenchgateway.coh.arizona.edu/F05/FREN579/truscott_grammar_writing.pdf
Also, see his webpage at his university:
Here you'll find the grammar paper plus lots of other aspects of his research into correction.

[2] http://sdkrashen.com/pipermail/krashen_sdkrashen.com/2005-April/000102.html

[3] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/teflchina
This is a group of about 900 English teachers in China or involved with teaching Chinese students. If you are a teacher in China you certainly would benefit from joining this list.

Correction or Teamwriting?

Self-correction, except for typos or some "absent-minded" errors, is very difficult for students because if they knew it was wrong they wouldn't have done it in the first place. Peer-correction isn't fun and it is difficult for students to fully trust their partner's evaluation. The question that puzzles many teachers is what is the best way to help students to improve in areas where they make a lot of mistakes?

The obvious answer is teacher-correction. But is teacher-correction effective? Recent research shows that students do not make effective use of teacher-correction. The teacher would like to imagine the student takes his corrected paper to a quite place, sits down and pulls out a dictionary and grammar book and carefully goes over the corrections. But in fact, most students only check to see how much “red” is on the paper and then file it away in their book bag never to be looked at again. Much of the teacher’s laborious work of careful correction is actually time wasted.

If self-correction, peer-correction and teacher-correction are not effective, then what is the best way to involve the student in the writing process in a corrective way? How can the student be put in a position to notice grammar or writing in a way that interacts with his previous knowledge and develops a deeper and clearer grasp of English?

I have been doing research in a new method I developed at a university and at multinational businesses where I taught managers and businessmen. I call it Teamwriting. It helps students to benefit from peers, helps students to learn not only from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others and makes the most economical and efficient use of the students’ and the teacher’s time.

I divide the blackboard space into vertical sections large enough to allow someone to stand in front of one section and large enough to contain the writing task (about one-meter wide). Then I divide the class into pairs or teams, assigning each set of students to a part of the board.

The writing tasks are everything from brainstorming a subject to writing a paragraph to writing an essay (write small). This works quite well with a class of about 20 but I've only been able to do it with a class of 40 when we had blackboards on two walls of the classroom.

Sometimes each group gets a different topic to work on or sometimes it is the same and they compete with the other groups. I get the whole class out of their seats and up to the board. Usually one student will take up the chalk while the rest of the team (from one to three others) offers suggestions and corrections during the writing process. I find this gets the students intimately involved with the language process and able to benefit from the help of some of their classmates - thus the peer-learning factor.

After the writing is done, usually terminated by a set period of time, I will examine each writing sample, one-by-one, with the entire class looking on. First, I will ask the class to offer corrections. The class really focuses on this activity. You can see every eye examining the sample trying to see if it is correct or not. Some speak up. Others may have ideas about the writing even though they may not voice them. But they're all involved. Then I will offer my corrections, if any.

Some of my classrooms are equipped with AV equipment, essentially a video camera and projector, which allow the projection of books or papers. If the classroom has this sort of equipment the students do not need to write at the blackboard but can do their teamwriting on a piece of paper that the teacher can project and correct before the class.

Teamwriting seems to be more effective than personally correcting individual writings or conferencing with students, and especially so when considering the economy of time. It allows every student to test their ideas about the language, it enables immediate feedback and is a quick, easy and engaging way to "learn from the mistakes of others".

04 September 2007

Thinking outside the book

One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I'm just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student's interest from cover to cover, it doesn't matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking "inside the book". Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let's brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Phone messages
Chat rooms
Email spam
Voice spam
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us "outside the book", what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as "The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins." To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you'd receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a "Majestic" English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us "out of the book". Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

- Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

- Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

- Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn't have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don't like, etc. ("Don't go in that dark room!...don't do it!...Ugh! I knew it!!!")

- Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

- Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

- He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

- When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. ("Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called 'Moby Dick', a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck's strategy is to become people's 'third place', the main place people go outside of home and work.")

- Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy's phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher's other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It's interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn't normally meet (and Jerry thinks it's always interesting to talk to girls).

- Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

- Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they've never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I'm the kind of person who is easily bored.

31 August 2007

Google vs British National Corpus

Tom Robb’s article on the Google corpus contrasts it with the British National Corpus(1). It seems to me that the British National Corpus is generally regarded as a cornerstone of English, a proper garden like the ones I saw in London with all the flowers and bushes arranged in neat rows in the front of everyone's homes, and Google as a wild field where anything goes and grows.

I think teachers realize the shortcomings of Google as corpus. But that does not mean that there are not some cautions that need to be applied when using the BNC. For example, using the BNC website recommended by Tom we find there are only 232 examples for "Email"(2) but 283 examples for "telegram".

Relying solely on the BNC is like driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror. The BNC will never reflect any new currently accepted language. Google will.

(1) "British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of British English from the later part of the 20th century, both spoken and written." The written part composes 90% and the spoken part 10%.
(2) Actually 43 "email" + 189 "e-mail". A comparison on Google reveals 5.6 BILLION for "e-mail" or "email" and 11.8 million for telegram.

30 August 2007

Our students, their jobs, their English

I'm working on developing a new course for a vocational college, as I mentioned before. I wanted to do some research on the students who have graduated early this year to see how they are using their English.

If students don't use their English they will lose their English. But the English they will use will be the English they need and the English they need will be determined by the jobs they find (or other special interests). If we teach the English for the kinds of jobs they will find then they will be able to (1) do these jobs well and will also (2) retain this English and not forget it.

I sent a survey questionnaire to the students who graduated earlier this year from the college. The results are interesting:

42% are working in manufacturing or trading businesses. This is by far the largest group of industries that my students have entered. This, of course, is reflective of the type of businesses present here in Guangdong.

14% have no job at present. They may have had a job for awhile but not right now.

The other students are in various industries such as: travel & tourism, teaching & education, telecommunications, banking, hotel, IT, etc.

In these jobs the students are working in a wide variety of roles, such as, administration assistant, customer service executive, data processor, engineering dept. assistant, shipping documents clerk, merchandiser, Photoshop touch-up artist, purchaser, receptionist, teacher assistant, salesperson, telegraphic transfers clerk for a bank, translator, etc.

So our students enter a wide variety of industries and have a wider variety of roles. Can we make any useful generalizations out of those industries and jobs?

Manufacturing and trade are the industries that most of these students enter (42%). So to produce an oral English course and target English to discuss products, specifications, prices and costs, quality, shipping and transportation, plus English for other more general office functions like meetings, agreeing and disagreeing, handling complaints, etc, cover most of the students' needs.

This kind of information is very helpful to not only provide direction in what the students need but what they don't need, as well. For example, previously they were using coursebooks which had units on things like the stock market and the company annual report, etc. It is likely that the students would forget much of this vocabulary before they get a chance to use it.

On a side note, half of the students say they like or even love their jobs, about a quarter think their jobs are just OK or so-so and another quarter say they don't like their jobs. So it's nice to know that most of them are happy or somewhat satisfied with the jobs they found.

07 August 2007

Making podcasts for low level English students

Here are a few ideas for making podcasts for your students:

1. Make recordings of your experiences like the time you met someone famous or thought you were going to die in an accident. Don't be boring but be simple.

2. Interview friends and other teachers. Don't rely on the friends to be simple enough or talk slowly enough. If the friend is using some language that you feel is too advanced for your students then jump in and ask your friend to define it or define it or restate it yourself.

3. Take your students on a tour to a favorite local haunt. There is a shopping mall here that is immensely popular with all students in this area. Record a tour of the location that they could listen to and use to follow your footsteps. Describe what you see, tell some funny stories and go in to the shop and talk to some clerks about their products. I did this with my notebook computer in my bag running Audacity with a microphone clipped on my shirt. Many mobile phones have recording functions on them. You can include some insights into some of the businesses or some of the fashions even if you have to look them up on the Internet. Check this out.

4. Make your case for your method. Students always want to know what is the best/fastest/easiest way to learn English. Explain how you are teaching your students. Some of our teaching methods are counter intuitive. I think Grammar-Translation makes a lot of sense but is not as good as Communicative Approach. If our teaching method is not always easily accepted by students you should take every opportunity to "sell" your teaching methods over and over.

5. Don't just make a recording on any subject but try to steer it in a way to augment units you are teaching in one of your courses. This way you can further the unit, even if you have to 'assign' the listening item, or you can use it as a collection of materials students can listen to on a voluntary basis. For example, if you have a unit discussing Human Resources you can interview a friend about their experience in hiring or with working with colleagues.

6. Record your lessons. This is normally quite boring but it can be very effective if you just extract some of the jewels, ancedotes you tell your students, special tips on learning English, fun facts, a story about your travels, etc.

I am also trying some projects along this line and am starting to post them at GCAST.

Telephone as language teaching tool

One teacher said, "I am particularly interested in SPEAKING activities for the students, and welcome ideas in this regard. Many of our Foreign language courses are very small (one teacher and one/two students), and so there would be a lot of opportunity for the student to speak."

I think podcasting may be the wrong tool for this job. I would suggest telephoning.

I've been assigning telephone homework for a couple years now. I usually ask my students to read or listen to something first and then call me and tell me about it. Very low level students will usually be able to only read it aloud. Mid-level students will be able to retell the story by paraphrasing the story they read. Advanced-level students will be able to reapply the story to their own situation. "What would YOU do if it happened to you?" "Is that situation the same in YOUR country?"

Their source material may be a copy of the English newspaper, a book they are reading or an MP3 podcast from www.podcast.com www.unsv.com

Requiring them to digest some English material first, rather than 'free talk', exposes them to some new English, grammar patterns and vocabulary, and forces them to use it as they talk to me. It also puts the talking burden on them rather than them simply asking me questions like, "What are you going to do for the summer?", "Do you like Chinese food?"

I am aware of the research and views against correcting students' spoken English but I have found correction to definitely be effective with my students with some students acquiring and maintaining correct vocabulary or pronunciation in one lesson.

In a podcast David Nunan made with Peter Neu (soon to be released), Nunan said that instant feedback is more effective than delayed feedback. That is one of the advantages of using the telephone. Additionally, making MP3's will be very cumbersome compared to a phone call. With MP3's the student has to sit down with his recording device, probably waiting for a 'good time' in a quiet room, start the program, record, edit?, convert to MP3, attach to an Email program, Email it. The teacher will need to receive it, may not listen to it right away but wait for a good time, listen, make some notes on corrections, then give the student feedback a day or a week later by Email or in the next lesson.

Using English by phone is a necessary skill that all people need. Many listening exercises in books have samples of phone calls but why not just do them ourselves? It is more difficult to talk by phone than face-to-face but this is something students just have to learn to do.

I like to teach by phone when I'm doing something else at the same time, often when commuting to or from work by bus or taxi or while walking. I will send a text message to my student, "Talk?" If my student is free they will call me or they will send a message back when they are free.

I have a cell phone running Windows Mobile. I may record the call so that my student can listen to it and my corrections again later. I will also open a text document on my phone that I keep on each student with new vocabulary. This way I can recycle the student's old vocabulary and add new vocabulary. Also, when I'm doing a face-to-face lesson with my student, I will often have this document open with the phone in my hand and whenever a new word comes up I will add it to the list. There are some words that my student knows but has trouble pronouncing. In this case I will write the work with a "p" next to it, for example: colleague-p.

Of course, if you are writing in your phone at the same time you are talking with your student then you need to use your phone with earphones or some sort of hands-free gear. I like the earphones with wires as the sound quality is just great and better than even using the phone without earphones.

I talk to my one-on-one students every day of the week. My small group students of 5-10 people, usually managers or department heads, have speaking homework to do once a week. I am unable to do talk to all of my 400 college students but I do invite some of my top college students to do it as a way to help them above the classroom "lesson ceiling".

I also have some special guest teachers to talk to my students. Some teachers have come to me for help with various teaching problems and have even offered to pay me something for the couple hours I helped them. I ask the teacher for a couple hours of their time to talk to my students. Sometimes your students get very comfortable with you. This is good in a way but it is not a realistic for some of the speaking challenges the student will have in speaking with strangers. So I like to have some other teachers for them to talk to, especially teachers with different accents.

Teaching in this way adds a considerable "wow" factor to your teaching and the students feel more like they are being "coached" than just "taught at". It is less trouble than messing around with MP3's and podcasts. It saves time and enables you to use some of your gap time or lost time in an effective way. It is instant. It puts the technology around us to good use. It promotes your business. My students are sometimes with other potential students when they receive my "Talk?" message and they tell these people what I'm doing.

Try it. You'll like it!

29 July 2007

The Bob System: Tracking students for formative assessment

I am often called on to teach oral English. Unlike teaching written English where the students will be submitting a lot of writing samples, oral English offers less opportunity to sample the students' English ability.

My primary interest in using the Bob System and some sort of scoring system is in formative assessment.

When I have a clear understanding of how they are doing then I have the ability to try to make my training more effective in two ways.

First, are my students "getting it"? Am I helping them to learn what will be useful for them to know?

Second, I can customize my training more to my students' specific needs. I may not be able to give each student individual training (that ability and technology will be coming in the future) but I could segment the class. I want to know who is doing well and who is doing poorly.

When I know this I can offer extra training to those who need extra help. What about students who are doing very well in the class? Sometimes there is an academic ceiling in the classroom. Bright students cannot go higher because the teacher is teaching to the "middle level" of the class. But if we know which students are doing very well and how many of them there are then we can focus on their needs better by providing extra challenge.

Tracking this sort of information can be very useful in other ways, as of Action Research in the classroom. If you are monitoring many aspects of the student's performance in the classroom and you have a student who always participates correctly, does the pairwork, groupwork, homework, listens and doesn't goof off but does not seem to progress in their English from one term to the next then that would raise some very good questions for the teacher.

Of course, finally, the data that is collected can help in summative assessment. The teacher does not need to simply rely on a final exam for a score. The teacher will have a multidimensional way to look at the students.

[Photo: Some of my 300 college students that I taught weekly last term doing pairwork. Next term I will have 400 college students each week.]

26 July 2007

15 ideas for mLearning projects

These are some things that have already been done. I don't post these here as suggestions of what you could do but to give you some ideas that you could adapt:


  1. Students have to carry out scientific enquiry in the context of their discovering and exploring of an environment. Pairs of 11-12 year olds explored a woodland and were presented at certain times with different forms of digital augmentations.
  2. Students can send SMS that appears on lecturers laptop during the class. They can anonymously ask questions without interrupting the class. The lecturer can choose to respond immediately or wait until a number of questions arise. SMS are available after class.
  3. Players use GPStracked handheld computers to experience a virtual savannah that appears to be overlaid on a football pitch sized grassy field. Players act collaboratively to carry out a series of lion missions (such as marking their territory, hiding their cubs and hunting). Aim of the game is to encourage players to understand the behaviour of lions though personal experience
  4. Students in a economics course could acess course mateiral (slides, PDF) and contribute on the discusstion board.
  5. Composition students were asked to compose and perform music on PDAs. PDAs are equipped with MIDI module and portable keyboard.
  6. Evaluate to what extent and how a PDA can help students learning. PDAs are issued for the project time with the aim of collectiing application log data. Learn more about how students use PDAs.
  7. The project aims to test "just-in-time" access to knowledge on mobile terminals for medical students. Especially when they are practicing in medical institutions.
  8. Medical practitioners on ward are equiped with PDAs to build a portfolio of evidence. A detailed evidence of clinical activities, prior learning comopetencies, course materials, certificates. Furthermore they get acess to learning resources, clinical guidelines and a learning diary.
  9. Informatics students were required to develop and eavluate their own interactive learning experiences in collaboration with fellow students. PDAs with internet functionality were lent to them to consider as their own.
  10. Course materials were distriubted in e-book format. Followed by an investigation how students use these learning materials.
  11. A collaborative treasure hunt game that requires co-ordination between spatially seperated team-members. The teams have to visit locations in an urban area to collect symbols in order to complete tasks.
  12. A collaborative problem solving application that attempts to support learners in constructing their own understanding of tshare their decisions with fellows.
  13. A application for percussion composition, allows users to create, manipulate, edit and save original pieces of percussion music through an intuitive interface.
  14. Children collect with scientific data on spot. Devices can collect data and communicate with sensors that are in the field while also providing instant feedback through on the spot data analysis.
  15. This project supports the participants in expressing their thoughts through a digital narrative. While the overall process is similar to other digital film projects, the tools used are different. The learners shoot all of their footage and record their soundtrack on smartphones. In addition, the smartphones allow the participants to make their multimedia available to collaborators by sending the images and sound via the multimedia messaging service (MMS) to a blog.

More ideas for mLearning projects

These are some things that have already been done. I don't post these here as suggestions of what you could do but to give you some ideas of how other teachers are using mLearning in the classroom. As technology improves and becomes more efficient we will be able to do more things similar to this:

"Students have to carry out scientific enquiry in the context of their discovering and exploring of an environment. Pairs of 11-12 year olds explored a woodland and were presented at certain times with different forms of digital augmentations."

"Students can send SMS that appears on lecturers laptop during the class. They can anonymously ask questions without interrupting the class. The lecturer can choose to respond immediately or wait until a number of questions arise. SMS are available after class."

"Players use GPStracked handheld computers to experience a virtual savannah that appears to be overlaid on a football pitch sized grassy field. Players act collaboratively to carry out a series of lion missions (such as marking their territory, hiding their cubs and hunting). Aim of the game is to encourage players to understand the behaviour of lions though personal experience."

"Students in a economics course could acess course mateiral (slides, PDF) and contribute on the discusstion board."

"Composition students were asked to compose and perform music on PDAs. PDAs are equipped with MIDI module and portable keyboard."

"Evaluate to what extent and how a PDA can help students learning. PDAs are issued for the project time with the aim of collectiing application log data. Learn more about how students use PDAs."

"The project aims to test 'just-in-time' access to knowledge on mobile terminals for medical students. Especially when they are practicing in medical institutions."

"Medical practitioners on ward are equiped with PDAs to build a portfolio of evidence. A detailed evidence of clinical activities, prior learning comopetencies, course materials, certificates. Furthermore they get acess to learning resources, clinical guidelines and a learning diary."

"Informatics students were required to develop and eavluate their own interactive learning experiences in collaboration with fellow students. PDAs with internet functionality were lent to them to consider as their own."

"Course materials were distriubted in e-book format. Followed by an investigation how students use these learning materials."

"A collaborative treasure hunt game that requires co-ordination between spatially seperated team-members. The teams have to visit locations in an urban area to collect symbols in order to complete tasks."

"A collaborative problem solving application that attempts to support learners in constructing their own understanding of tshare their decisions with fellows."

"A application for percussion composition, allows users to create, manipulate, edit and save original pieces of percussion music through an intuitive interface."

"Children collect with scientific data on spot. Devices can collect data and communicate with sensors that are in the field while also providing instant feedback through on the spot data analysis."

"This project supports the participants in expressing their thoughts through a digital narrative. While the overall process is similar to other digital film projects, the tools used are different. The learners shoot all of their footage and record their soundtrack on smartphones. In addition, the smartphones allow the participants to make their multimedia available to collaborators by sending the images and sound via the multimedia messaging service (MMS) to a blog."

The Bob Project - Are we ready for mLearning?

The idea of students interacting with an automated teaching system is central to the Bob project. Many other people are promoting an idea called mLearning or Mobile Learning:

"Given its definition m-learning could very well be a new form of personal learning that never ends, allowing more and more people to realize how much of our lifetimes on this planet are truly extended adventures in personal learning.

From MasterNewMedia.org
"The advocates of lifelong learning have been advocating this very change in how we conceive, design and deliver education. Individuals are constantly learning, searching, questioning and acknowledging new information from the environment they operate in, no matter what their interest or specialization is. Unless your work assignment is something that a computer or other automated machine could take over from you, an increasing number of work activities depend on your ability to learn and familiarize yourself with a continuosly growing array of new concepts and ideas." [Photo: mLearning at a museum]

Some researchers are testing the use of SMS messaging in the classroom. That would be interesting. Instead of teachers telling the students to put their phones away they'll be saying, "Turn to page 35, take out your mobile phone and send me a message on question #6."

From Using short message service to encourage interactivity in the classroom:
"Interactivity in the classroom is reported to promote a more active learning environment, facilitate the building of learning communities, provide greater feedback for lecturers, and help student motivation. Various definitions of interactivity exist in the literature, alternately focusing on the participants, structure and technology. The PLS TXT UR Thoughts research project builds on existing definitions to define interactivity as a message loop originating from and concluding with the student. The authors chose to introduce mobile phones and short message service (SMS) within the classroom due to the ubiquity of mobile phones among students and the interactive potential of SMS. SMS is a low-threshold application used widely by students to quickly send concise, text-based messages at any time. The research presented involved students sending SMS in real-time, in class, via their personal mobile phones. Using a modem interfacing with customised software to produce SMS files, the lecturer can view the messages and verbally develop the interactive loop with students during class. The SMS are available online after class, allowing interactive loops to further develop via threaded comments."

This is an idea rather close to mine about creating an audio tour for students at a popular student location like a shopping mall. It could even be interactive through SMS or MMS.

From Supporting Mobile Language Learning outside Classrooms:
"The continuous development of wireless and mobile technologies has allowed the creation of an additional platform for supporting learning, one that can be embedded in the same physical space in which the learning is taking place. This paper describes a computer supported ubiquitous learning environment for language learning, called LOCH (Languagelearning Outside the Classroom with Handhelds). In the environment, the teacher assigns field activities to the students, who go around the town to fulfill them and share their individual experiences. The main aim of this project, called One Day Trip with PDA, was to integrate the knowledge acquired in the classroom and the real needs of the students in their daily life."

mLearning can be used by students outside the classroom to make an instant blog of what they see, feel and experience.

From Moblogging for ESOL
"M-learning is a powerful tool for ESOL (English for speakers of other languages). In a recent example, ten adult ESOL learners became ‘photo journalists’ for the college open day. They created a photo diary of events using camera phones and sent their pictures, along with captions, to an e-mail address that automatically published them to a publicly-available web site. To prepare for the event, learners looked at published photo stories on the Internet and analysed the language and content to learn about styles and structures that would be useful in writing their own photo diary. The project proved so successful in engaging learners that even the most hesitant members of the class (e.g. a lady in her 60s, who had never used a mobile phone before, and a visually impaired learner) not only took part, but also found the experience very rewarding."

And of course, mLearning is being used to teach languages.

More ideas

Are these the actual tools that we will use in The Bob Project? No. These are actual wild and crazy ideas that will help us think out of the box and find the most effective way to build Bob. If we don't get out of the box we won't go anywhere.

19 July 2007

Vocabulary review schedule - Can it work?

In the past, some teachers recommended a way to systematically review vocabulary based on a schedule where the time intervals of review would become longer and longer. I tried to figure out what that would be like for the student.

If a student 'learned' 20 words on Day 1, reviewed them the next day, then 3 days after that, 1 week after that, 2 weeks after that, 1 month after that, 2 months after that, then here is how many words the student would have to review daily.

20, Day 1
40, Days 2-4
60, Days 5-11
80, Days 12-26
100, Days 27-56
120, Days 57-116
140, Days 117-unlimited

We assume the student starts his project on Day 1 and everyday adds 20 words. If my calculations are correct, if the student stopped reviewing a word because he knew it on Day 118 (after about 4 months), then his vocabulary review load would level off at 140 words a day.

By the time he is supposed to know the word (after 117 days) he will have reviewed the word 7 times.

He will be learning new words at a rate of about 600 a month which would be more than 6000 per year.

We have to acknowledge that this would be only a passive understanding of the word, perhaps useful for reading/listening. But it could provide an 'introduction' to the word that through further contact with the word in extensive English input could turn into an active understanding of the word useful in writing/speaking.

I think such a thing would be doable but only by highly dedicated well-organized students. For most students it would probably be too challenging. Perhaps if the student limited himself to 10 or even 5 words a day it would be easier and he'd only have to review 70 or 35 words a day.

Would reviewing the word 7 times be enough to hold onto it and allow extensive exposure to kick in and help the student keep the word I don't know.

15 July 2007

Speaking evaluations made simple

This is a very complicated subject. It is not easy to conduct a speaking test but I will go over just a few things about it and touch on them lightly. There are many ways to do speaking tests. I have studied them, tried some of them and have settled on this way. It is similar to the way I was trained as an IELTS examiner with a few differences.


Design three levels of questions.

(1) Easy questions which are answered with straight factual answers. "Where are you from?" "How long have you been here?" "What did you do yesterday?" "What do you like to do on the weekends?" These questions make little demand on the student and only very low-level students will have problems with these.

(2) Moderately difficult questions demand more from the student. These are questions asking a student to describe a city or restaurant, relate the story of a movie recently seen or a book recently read. "Tell me about your last holiday? "Describe your best friend."

(3) Difficult questions are those that require the student to give an opinion and justify their opinion with reasons. "Should students be required to wear school uniforms? Why?" "Should smoking be banned in all buildings? Why?"

Be aware that some questions are not only difficult to discuss in English, sometimes they are just plain difficult to discuss at all. I once designed a question, "If you had two weeks to live, what would you do?" This question was so deep that the students became extremely thoughtful in trying to give their answers to the point that it interfered with any attempts to show fluency. Questions do not need to be so deep.

Although the question may be difficult at times, to understand the question should be simple. Remember, this is a speaking test, not a listening test. For example, "Given the opportunity to go on a round-the-world cruise or participate in a scientific exploration in Africa, which do you think could potentially be more beneficial for your career development?" Many low and mid level students would not be able to understand that question and therefore would not be able to speak on it. Make sure your questions are easily understandable.

I like to let the students ask each other the questions. This way I can focus on listening and evaluating. But I do not allow the students to prepare for the questions except for perhaps just a couple minutes before the interview.

Look me in the eye? In western countries we have no problem looking into people's eyes when speaking to them but this is something that Asians do not do. Therefore, when you conduct the speaking test with Asian students it is best to not try to look deeply into their eyes or to hold their gaze. Look elsewhere, shift your eyes around or even just focus on your band descriptors or rubric.


You can use a rubric or band descriptor to measure the student's level such as the IELTS band desciptors or the Common European Framework.

You will notice in the IELTS descriptors that at Band 4 it says:

"Is able to talk about familiar topics but can only convey basic meaning on unfamiliar topics and makes frequent errors in word choice. Rarely attempts paraphrase."

and then at Band 5 it says:

"Manages to talk about familiar and unfamiliar topics but uses vocabulary with limited flexibility. Attempts to use paraphrase but with mixed success."

That is why it is important to design your interview questions with easy, moderate and difficult topics so that the student will have to try to produce a full range of English at different challenging levels to respond accurately. The English of many students will begin to break down at the higher levels and this will allow you to see the limit of their English.

I put the band descriptors and all the students names on an Excel spreadsheet. I give the student a score for each rating catagory (Fluency and coherence, Lexical resource, Grammatical range and accuracy)
and the program averages it out into a final band score. Depending on the situation I will add formulas to work that score into a grade, average all the scores to compare one group with another or other things. Click on the picture (above) to see it enlarged.


The more realistic the task is, talking naturally about a topic the student may actually need to discuss rather than some sort of T/F or multiple choice, the more difficult it is to test. So this sort of test will always be subjective, affected by your personal judgment of the student's performance.

One thing that helps is to be sure to base your judgment as closely as possible on the rubric or band descriptors you are using. You should never compare students to each other. This will lead you off the track. Always compare to your chosen rubric.

I always record my test interviews. A couple days later I will listen to some of the interviews and rescore them without looking at the score I gave the first time. If there is a strong correlation then that is good. If you find that you are scoring much differently the second time then you need to try to understand why and may even need to rescore all your interviews. It happens that you can be in a certain mood that will cause you to score differently. (Another good reason to record is to contribue to a record of the student's progress.)

IELTS research has even shown that male interviewers will sometimes give attractive females a slightly higher score which leads to inaccuracy. If the interviewer is tired, sleepy, hungry or if the interviewer has scored several high level students in a row and suddenly gets a low level student it can affect his accuracy. To run an effective test you need to be aware of all of these things and try to guard against them effecting your judgement.

08 July 2007

Total class participation

Sometimes a few sharp students will answer all the questions I put to the class while some students want to space out, read or chat. To force total class participation I ask all the students to stand up. Then when I put a big question to them like "Give me some words about [whatever the subject we're studying]." Each student who replies with a satisfactory word can sit down. In this way everyone has to participate.

03 July 2007

Organizing speaking tests for large numbers of students

Yesterday, I did a speaking test for 200 students. It's quite a big job and took me all day. But it would have taken much longer if I had never done this before and if I wasn't organized.

Some teachers allow students to choose their partner and choose their subject. Sometimes they can do this days in advance. Consequently, some students will find a dialog and memorize it and then perform it for the test. I don't do it this way. I don't think it's very realistic.

In the workplace, people need to be able to speak English to anyone and they can't always choose the topic. So I tell my students they can choose any partner they want as long as student #1 chooses students #2 and student #3 chooses student #4, etc. I tell them they can choose their own topics to talk about. They come up to my desk and choose from several slips of paper which are facing down. The students cannot look at the paper before they choose. Consequently, they are choosing randomly. I do allow them 3-4 minutes to prepare before the interview. The topics are always things that we practiced discussing in class.

When one pair of students sits down to do their dialog for me another pair of students will come up to the desk, choose a topic and stand aside to prepare. I don't allow them to use dictionaries, notebooks, textbooks or to talk with other students during the preparation period. I sit facing the two students who are talking but behind them I can keep an eye on the next two students who are preparing for their talk. This is important because they many of them can hardly keep themselves from a bit of cheating if it is possible.

The students talk to their partner on the topic. I used to be an IELTS examiner and found it is a bit extra work to have to also be asking the students all the questions. So I like to get the students talking with each other and I listen in. If I think a student can go higher or if their dialog was too short I will jump in with a few extra questions.

While they are talking I am recording them. They hold a cheap $2 clip-on microphone that I found which works really well and is fastened at the end of a ballpoint pen. I use free program called Audacity to record the interview. Although I'm sitting right next to them, I actually listen to the students through a set of earphones. This ensures that everything is being recorded. The interview is recorded for reference in case I want or need to go back and check something or if I need to justify a score I have given.

If their dialog is too short or doesn't reveal their English skills well enough I will ask some questions to make them speak more. Answering"why" questions or questions where they have to explain or justify a viewpoint are some of the toughest questions and are good to push students to the limits.

I have some band descriptors and a list of all the students names and numbers on an Excel sheet. The band descriptors are divided into three areas of speaking (communicative range, overall fluency, accuracy & appropriacy) and four levels (levels 4-7 of a 10 level rating system) While they are talking, I scan the band descriptors and give them an initial score. I continue to listen to them and modify parts of my score as they perform better or worse.

It's very important to have a clear set of standards that the students should speak to. And while they are speaking you should be constantly checking those standards and try to measure the student to those standards as best you can.

After all of the testing is done, I will use Excel to average out the band scores and assign grades on a curve.

23 June 2007

English Safari - 10 students at the mall

I just got back from an English Safari to the mall this morning with 10 of my students. This time it was with a group of students from a training center. Most are adults with a couple young people.

I've been doing about one or two safaris with students every week. This was the biggest group. We attracted some attention. Some shoppers realized there was something special about us and some stood near to hear what we were talking about. The training center sent along a minder in anticipation of this. She gave out flyers about the school. Generally, I don't think you would want to attract too much attention as the mall management may be disturbed if you have a big crowd or are blocking entrances or aisle ways.

What do we do on an English Safari?

Well, in a way it is odd to even ask the question. After all, we are out in the real world. We are surrounded by realia. The environment is dense with the necessities and even luxuries of life. As long as everyone is speaking English about the things they do and experience there then it is improving their English.

Look at a definition of Task Based Learning:

"A task-based approach assumes that speaking a language is a skill best perfected through practice and interaction, and uses tasks and activities to encourage learners to use the language communicatively in order to achieve a purpose. Tasks must be relevant to the real world language needs of the student. That is, the underlying learning theory of task based and communicative language teaching seems to suggest that activities in which language is employed to complete meaningful tasks, enhances learning."[1]

If we are in a mall how can we not be talking about things of the real world? This is no book learning and there is no book.

But if you want to make a clear outline or have some goals to accomplish or check your students on here are some competencies taken from the "Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment". In the scale given below, A1 is beginner and C2 is the most advanced.

Can speak well about...


Themselves & others

Simple routine
Limited work and free time activities
Simple directions & instructions
Pastimes, habits, routines
Past activities

Detailed directions
Accumulated factual information on familiar matters within their field


Where they live

People, appearance [they could describe people in the mall, even mannequins]
Background, job [jobs of people who work there, what duties do they have]
Places and living conditions [nice and poor conditions, luxury]
Objects, pets, possessions [their possessions compared to those in the shop]
Events and activities [what do you need/want on holidays]
Likes/dislikes [preferences]
Plans/arrangements [what big things do they plan to buy, when, why and how often] Habits/routines [how often do they go shopping, to the restaurant, to movies, what do they usually do when they go there]
Personal experience [did anything funny or exciting ever happen when they went to a mall]

Plot of book/film, reactions [the mall has a cinema, this is a good one to talk about there]
Experiences, reaction
Dreams, hopes, ambitions
Tell a story
Basic details of unpredictable occurrences, ie: accident

Clear detailed description of complex subjects

Want more ideas?

Here are some topics related to our society, also from the Common European Framework. Nearly all of these topics can be touched on or discussed in detail during an English Safari to a mall. You could get ideas from below and together with your own ideas make a checklist and check items off as you discuss them with your Safari group. If your students show difficulty in some things you can make a note and cover it more deeply in class. Sociocultural knowledge

1. Everyday living, e.g.:
• food and drink, meal times, table manners;
• public holidays;
• working hours and practices;
• leisure activities (hobbies, sports, reading habits, media).

2. Living conditions, e.g.:
• living standards (with regional, class and ethnic variations);
• housing conditions;
• welfare arrangements.

3. Interpersonal relations (including relations of power and solidarity) e.g. with respect to:
• class structure of society and relations between classes;
• relations between sexes (gender, intimacy);
• family structures and relations;
• relations between generations;
• relations in work situations;
• relations between public and police, officials, etc.;
• race and community relations;
• relations among political and religious groupings.

4. Values, beliefs and attitudes in relation to such factors as:
• social class;
• occupational groups (academic, management, public service, skilled and manual workforces);
• wealth (income and inherited);
• regional cultures;
• security;
• institutions;
• tradition and social change;
• history, especially iconic historical personages and events;
• minorities (ethnic, religious);
• national identity;
• foreign countries, states, peoples;
• politics;
• arts (music, visual arts, literature, drama, popular music and song);
• religion;
• humor.

6. Social conventions, e.g. with regard to giving and receiving hospitality, such as:
• punctuality;
• presents;
• dress;
• refreshments, drinks, meals;
• behavioral and conversational conventions and taboos;
• length of stay;
• leave-taking.

7. Ritual behavior in such areas as:
• religious observances and rites;
• birth, marriage, death;
• audience and spectator behavior at public performances and ceremonies;
• celebrations, festivals, dances, discos, etc.

I make note of the new words we learn together. I sometimes do this on my cell phone and after the class is finished I send a copy to each student.

[1] http://iteslj.org/Articles/Rabbini-Syllabus.html

22 June 2007

What to teach? What not to teach?

A teacher in America said: "I asked my students to learn the 50 U.S. states, with capitals and what each state is commonly known for. There was some grumbling about 'Yankee imperialism' or some such comment, but it was important for context knowledge in conversation."

I think such ideas should be tested with the "You don't have anything better to teach them?" question. The same goes for teaching things like Shakespeare. All of this is great to teach students if you have taught them everything else that they need to know.

There are many Americans who cannot recite all 50 states (myself included) and don't know all of the capitals (myself included). There are many native English speakers who have not read one complete work of Shakespeare (myself included).

I'm not saying that we shouldn't teach these things to students. It's just that we should have a priority list and I suspect there are a lot of other things that our students will use everyday, every week, every month or even every year that they should learn first.

It would be nice if we could equip our students for everything. But, as our students pack their bags for their journey through life, we must make sure that we only add to their burden the things that they will use the most.

12 June 2007

Know thy student

Yesterday, I passed out a slip of paper to my college students and asked them to write two things, their English learning problem and anything else they'd like to say to me. I also asked them to put their name on the papers.

I have only done this with 200 of my students and I'll do another 100 on Wednesday but I don't expect the feedback to be very different.

The main thing they tell me is that they have a real hard time learning new words.

I believe this is because they believe when they "learn" a word then it should be "known". I've been trying to steer my students away from deeply ingrained this idea but I can see how difficult it is for them to give it up.

At best, our students can only be "introduced" to a word in much the same way we introduce one friend to another friend. At that point, the friends will only know each other's name and a couple facts like their jobs and place of origin, etc. They will only know each other about 1%. If these two newly acquainted friends got married and would spend a year together, work together, play together, go through hardships together, they would know each other more completely but still not completely know each other.

So the only way students can really learn words is by constantly coming in contact with them. That is why I favor English learning approaches that lean towards extensive contact with English such as Extensive Reading and also watching a lot of English TV, movies, etc.

The second biggest lament was learning grammar.

I am not the grammar teacher in this school so I don't know how that goes but I can imagine. It makes a lot of sense that our students should be able to learn a lot of words and then learn all the grammar rules and put it all together into sentences and communication. It makes great sense but it doesn't work. The mind is unable to mechanically put it all together at the moment of communication. Again, that is why I favor an approach which leads to massive exposure to the language as well as using language to communicate as per the Communicative Approach.

I was not surprised that my students had those feelings about vocabulary and grammar. I was surprised that despite my bringing this up with them a couple times already they are still thinking they have to do it the old way. This shows me that they haven't bought into the better idea and I haven't done a good job in helping them understand.

Photo: My students giving me feedback.

29 May 2007

How can we encourage autonomous television watching?

Some teachers speak of autonomous learning. Some teachers feel their students are too lazy. Some teachers feel students need to always be pushed to learn.

Why is it difficult to get students to study English but it is not difficult to get students to watch television?

Is it because watching television is, to put it simply, brainless? Do people have an inherent need for brainless entertainment?

Are all television programs brainless? Do viewers never learn anything useful from the tube? Is there no useful educational content in television?

Or is it that the makers of television programming have learned to be "student-centric"? Do they work under the pressure that viewers can switch to another channel with one click? Does this propel them to captivating content?

If our students could get up and leave our classrooms at anytime with no negative repercussions would it change the way we teach?

Are there any teachers out there that could compete with television? Are television programs always more engaging than English lessons?

Is there anything we can learn from television?

I am not recommending television watching or movies here, although I think those are great tools. My point is that we can learn a lot from these people, like television producers, who must, every night, attract the attention of what is a fickle public.

Rather than take the approach of making a boring processes more palatable to students, what if we really challenge ourselves to present materials as interesting as TV to make our training thoroughly engaging to the students?

I think that would motivate students to be truly autonomous.

24 May 2007

Teaching, learning and "concept pods"

One friend told me that, as a child, he mistook the line from the old Christmas song which goes, "While shepherds WATCHED THEIR FLOCKS by night..." and always ang "While shepherds WASHED THEIR SOCKS by night..."

But I think that we can say that incidental learning actually produces massive results. A tremendous amount of learning is taking place without it being taught, not only new language patterns but reinforcement and greater development of language already acquired. And I think we can say that nearly all of this learning is accurate.

This is where Mert Bland's Concept Pod Theory comes in. It starts as a nucleus of one single idea of a word. Over a period of time more and more understanding and definition and application for the word is added through a vast number of contacts and encounters with the word and experiences attached to the word. It's something like a snowball effect as more and more ideas get stuck on the word and our understanding of the word grows.

Christine Tierney is right. Some of it needs to be corrected if it is mistaken when acquired. Thus, direct teaching has a role to play in correcting bits and pieces of this massive amount of material we have not learned correctly.

Now Christine Tierney's students' word, "firstable", was a concept nonetheless. They had a clear idea of what they were trying to express with that word and the concept was valid. Thus, I think according to Mert's idea of a Concept Pod, the Concept Pod for that word was begun. They had ideas of how to use this word and how not to use it. It's complex growth had begun. However, a bit of correction was needed to the Concept Pod to realize that actually the correct thing to say is "first of all", not "firstable". On the other hand, perhaps we are watching the birth of a new word in the English language.[1]

Here in China, almost all students have trouble with the word "colleague". They want to say "col-lea-gue" as opposed to "col-league".

As Krashen says, "The study of grammar has value, however: Even those who are well-read may have small gaps in their writing competence, and conscious knowledge of some grammar rules can be helpful in filling some of these gaps (e.g. the it’s/its distinction)."

Proponents of the value of indirect learning (Comprehensible Input, Extensive Reading, what I call "Extensive Contact", etc) are not saying that all direct teaching should stop and all learning should be done indirectly. It's just that we realize the massive amount of language our students learn without it being directly taught and also realize the difficulty students have to learn even simple language rules that are directly taught, so we raise the question if "direct instruction" should support efforts towards "indirect learning" and not the other way around.

[1] http://archiver.rootsweb.com/th/read/WORDS/2000-03/0952827010

"Nucular" Bush and metathesis

Do you have a cubbord in your kitchen? I do. I suppose a long time ago it was a board, perhaps mounted on the wall, where cups were kept. Today we commonly speak of it as a cubbord but when we write it we always spell it "cupboard". The word has yielded to the way people want to pronounce it. Language is so very democratic that way.

In an article in Slate magazine, "Why Does Bush Go "Nucular"?"[1], there is a discussion of "metathesis", switching of two adjacent sounds. Bush always says "nu-cu-lar" instead of "nu-clee-ar". It goes on to say, "...Bush's usage is so common that it appears in at least one dictionary. Merriam-Webster's, by far the most liberal dictionary, includes the pronunciation, though with a note identifying it as 'a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.'"

You can often tell how fluent an English learner is by a one word answer to the question, "Do you speak English?" An intermediate level student may reply, "Yes". But often the advanced speaker will reply, "Yeah". The difference between "yes" and "yeah" can reveal fluency, familiarity and comfort with the language. I don't think any teacher teaches "yeah". I've never seen it in a coursebook. Yet if we could survey the oral English of native speakers around the world, I believe we would find it firmly established in our oral lexicon. No doubt teachers became alarmed when "yeah" began creeping into our language. I remember my English teacher forbidding us from using it despite the Beatles assuring us, "She loves you! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"

Is there life after coursebooks?

In some postings last year I discussed many teachers feelings of frustrations with coursebooks.

A friend of mine, visiting from the USA, told me that many professors in universities have stopped using commercial textbooks and make their own books for their students. Indeed, while obviously a great believer in the coursebook, while visiting China, Jack Richards, the other of Interchange by Cambridge University Press, said there was a growing movement in Australia to not use commercially prepared coursebooks. He said that people are beginning to think you are not a very good teacher if you have to use a commercial coursebook.

I recently came across this podcast by Richard Baraniuk[1], a Rice University professor, with some brilliant insight about the possibilities of what life would be like after commercial coursebooks.


Students learn "untaught" language

Students do learn and fluently use language that is "untaught" to them. They do this through Comprehensible Input. Although Jack Richards does provide models of "yeah" in his dialogs he doesn't "teach" students to use it.

I don't think that we can attribute the widespread use of "yeah" to Jack Richards, Interchange books or any other practice of direct teaching. It is an "untaught" language feature.

Another example is what Jack Richards[1], in discussing the nature of conversation, calls conversational routines. Examples Richards gives are:

This one's on me.
I don't believe a word of it.
I don't get the point.
You look great today.
What will you have to drink?
Nearly time. Got everything?
Check please!
After you.
Guess I'll be making a move.
I see what you mean.
Let me think about it.
Just looking, thanks.
I'll be with you in a minute.
It doesn't matter.
No harm done.

How do students learn these things? They are examples of untaught learning. These sorts of examples clearly show how effective Comprehensible Input can be.

[1] Jack Richards, The Language Teaching Matrix, Conversationally speaking, p.75, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Improv "games" in the classroom

Many people are interested in using drama in the English classroom. A terrific source for improvised drama is at Improv Encyclopedia:

They call these "games" but they are spontaneous role-plays. It is truly a LIMO (Little In Much Out) activity. With little input from the teacher much can be gotten out of the students.

Unlike a play, there is no script. All the teacher has to do is to set up the drama situation and then the participants carry on from there. The teacher does not have to make copies of a script for everyone to follow. It allows communicative practice albeit often in a fanciful situation. Some adaptation will be required. The nonverbal games will not be useful.

Here is one of the first games from the first category. I have chosen it rather randomly and I'm sure there are even better:



How it Works

Great high-tempo exercise. 1 player up front. He's the goalie. The other players all think of an opening line for a scene, and a character. When everyone has their opening line and character, we bombard the goalie with these offers, one at a time. Goalie needs to react right away to an offer, acknowledging the opening and character, snap into an opposite character and reply to the opening. Immediately after that the next player comes up with his or her offer.

This exercise is good for teaching players to react right away, and to snap into a character almost without thinking.


Well, I don't think we are going to generate such fast reactions out of our students but it will help them to be quicker. It is great fun and students will use English in an enjoyable way.

This could be done in groupwork or in front of class. The so-called goalie could be a student or even the teacher if done in front of the class. If it is the teacher, it will help the students see various responses. Other students think of situations and fire them at the goalie to which the goalie is to make a ropy. For example:

A: "Father, Father, the house is on fire!"
Goalie: "Quick! Call the fire department!"
B: "Listen, John! I told you to have that report on my desk this morning!"
Goalie: "Sorry, Boss. But I was sick yesterday."
C: "Hey, John, why weren't you at the basketball game last night?"
Goalie: "Titanic was on TV last night and I had to watch it again."
D: "Sweetheart, you forgot our wedding anniversary!"
Goalie: "No I didn't, here's a diamond ring!"

This game may not fit into a particular lesson but can add a bit of English fun to warm up the class.

07 May 2007

Is English learning golf?

At teacher compared learning various sports to practicing and drilling in English learning when he said, "This is like saying that the only way for a goalie to get better at soccer is by playing soccer games. Golf players should never go to driving ranges, because they can't get a sense of the lie of the land there. Tennis players should never practice against a wall because the wall won't spin the ball the way another player will. Baseball players should spurn hitting practice because it lacks the context of the position of the players."

No, I don't think it's the same. Can we really compare becoming proficient in English to becoming proficient in sports? Wouldn't we say that English communication is infinitly more complex than sports?

Take golf, for example, the number of variations for a putt are highly limited compared to the number of variations in expressing something in English. In fact, many skills in sports are dependant on the player being able to replicate the motions the same way every time.

That is why repetitious practice can help players. They practice their swing over and over and over until they are like a machine. Of course, in the game, the lay of the land may require some judgements in how to hit the ball but those judgments are calculated into the stroke that the player has mechanically practiced.

Perhaps there are only a few ways to sink a putt but there can be a hundred ways to explain you are going to the store to buy some sugar. I'm sure Tiger Woods would disagree but I believe language is more complex than golf and they cannot be learned in the same way.

Drilling and repeating is not effective. Students can learn English by using English following Krashen's theories of Comprehensible Input.

20 April 2007

Confessions of a white American racist

I posted a message from a school in China which was looking for a teacher. Because the school director expressed a 'preference' for a female teacher in her 30's a teacher came to the conclusion that "This job is obviously from a racist school, not to mention sexist, to say nothing of age prejudice."

I found this response laughable. It's kind of a knee-jerk politically correct automoton response, isn't it? I think so. Especially since I must be, according to such definitions, such a deranged dirty hideous bloody racist. Now don't get me wrong. I won't say there is not a detremental manifistation of racism but not all racial preferences are evil.

OK, I'll just admit it. I have 'preferences', too.

First of all, he is way too old fashioned. He is living back in the days of the black-white racial strife as carried out in the USA as well as some other places. I'm one of the new breed of racists. Our breed can even indulge in 'reverse' racism.

But perhaps I am not alone. Perhaps you are one, too. Take the test with me:

You might be a racist if...

You want to eat in a good Chinese restaurant. You know nothing else about the restaurants except that one restaurant is staffed by white Americans from Arkansas but you choose the one staffed by Chinese from China.

You want to study the Torah. You know nothing about the teachers except one is a blonde blue-eyed guy from Sweden named Sven but you choose the guy from Israel named Mordecai.

You want to learn the art of Japanese flower arrangement. You know nothing about the teachers except that one teacher is a white guy from Scotland but you choose a teacher from Kobe, Japan.

You want to learn Chinese martial arts. You know nothing else about the schools except that one school is staffed by white Londoners but you choose a school that is staffed by Chinese from Shaolin, China.

You want to study Buddhism. You know nothing about the teachers except one is a white guy from Miami but you choose the guy from India.

You are intensely interested in authentic African music. You know nothing about the schools except one is in Alaska staffed by a bunch of white guys but you choose the one in Nigeria staffed by a group of native Nigerians.

I don't know how you answered those questions. Perhaps you closed your eyes and just pointed to choose an answer to ensure your sense of racistic morality. But I would vote AGAINST the white guys in every single one of those examples.

Call me a white American racist.