20 March 2007

Does China have the worst English teachers in the world according to international test results?

Some teachers tried to tell me that China has the worst teachers and students based on the international test results of the Cambridge BEC tests. Is that true? Can we use those tests results and other tests like IELTS and TEOFL to see where the best and worst English teaching is being done?

Here are the statistics for 2004 sorted from lowest pass rate to best pass rate, or you could say from worse to best.

As you can see, China did indeed score the worst of all the other countries. Does this mean China's teachers are the worst? There is an easy test we can apply to find out the answer.

If these statistics show us that China's teachers are the worst in the world then they should also help us to see which teachers are the best in the world.

China, People's Republic of 40%
Indonesia 41%
Vietnam 45%
Brazil 58%
Hong Kong 59%
Italy 67%
France 68%
Spain 70%
India 71%
United Kingdom 74%
Argentina 78%
Bangladesh 79%
Czech Republic 79%
Switzerland 80%
Croatia 81%
Poland 81%
Russian Federation 81%
Germany 84%
Austria 86%
Portugal 89%
Canada 93%
Slovenia 95%

Is it true that Slovenia has the best teachers in the world? They scored a 95% pass rate! Incredible! Even better than Canadian teachers. How did they do that?

And what about British teachers? Is it true that Argentinean teachers are better than British teachers?

I'm afraid we can only use the pass/failure rates of the BEC (and also the IELTS) to show us the rates of those who took the test and passed or failed. It does not reflect the language ability of students in general and the teaching ability of teachers in general.

People take this test for different reasons, different goals at different ages. Only if the BEC was given to ALL High School graduates or at least a true random sampling of students who were ALL at the same level could we use them to try to interpret teaching quality. These statistics from the BEC do not answer the question on the English teaching ability of teachers in China.

But this does not mean Chinese English teachers are good. It only means these particular statistics are not going to be useful in the question.

As I said, it doesn't really matter if China came in last in the BEC tests as this sort of test is not going to tell us anything about the teaching or learning skills.

19 March 2007

ESP needs

As far as teaching students who are working, I'm terribly disappointed with the published materials for English for Special Purposes (ESP). Our school wanted to start several various ESP programs and we did a review of all the books available.

Cambridge's Information Technology ESP book, embarrassingly, has vocabulary including for "floppy disk". It is typical of many books on the market. (1) Out of date information. These books get old and are not updated. (2) Out of touch. IT people nearly always have a good technical vocabulary and perhaps to a lesser extent so do other professionals.

Of all the ESPs the biggest one and the one that attracts the most efforts of publishers is Business English. Even with Business English it is difficult to find material that is truly suitable for office workers.

I am about to start another year of teaching at an American logistics company that has centers in over 40 countries. Here is a typical Email that represents the type of English they need. This is written by one of my next students there:


Dear Mr. Cao(ABC Co.), Polly(DEF Ltd.), Charles(GHI Inc.) and Daniel(JKL),

Greetings from Susan Lau, MNO Guangzhou.

Per PQ's e-mail below, I believe you already come into production the Holiday POPs. As you know, MNO need to repack and allocate the POPs to more than 400 RST Stores in Mainland China.

Usually, we will do the following when POPs ETA MNO:
- Combine some POPs to one carton to save packaging materials. (e.g. We usually put the Translite, Standee and Hanging Mobile into one Standee wrap)
- Ask some Temp. Helper on the POP allocation(to reduce Over Time Pay for
- Catch Normal Routing Delivery to DCs, then from DC to Stores(to save delivery cost)
- 2 days repack in SUMS for 400+ stores

Therefore, we need your cooperation to deliver the POPs to MNO on or before Dec. 27, 2004. Otherwise, some POPs will be delivered by Express mail, this will bring on high delivery cost.

Any query or comments please feel free to call me or send me an E-mail.

Many thanks!

Susan Lau
Manager Trainee - MNO(GZ)

BERL Services (Guangzhou) Ltd.


Most business people have difficulty with basic English. Students should probably focus on basic English until the upper-intermediate level. At that point the technical vocabulary they need is often particular to their specific type of business and their particular company and it is unlikely that a business book will even come close to it.

What is the solution? Something the publishers have no interest in giving us.

The ultimate ESP teacher tool would be a computer program that drove a flexible template based course generator. It would be strong on basic functions and notions and grammar practice (as is needed in the sample above) and allow teachers to easily insert the vocabulary and themes needed by the ESP teacher.

Photo: My student, a manager of a cold storage logistics company, visiting one of the top supermarkets in the city with me, learning and practicing her English about...well, cold storage.

15 March 2007

It's a small world when the world becomes your classroom

A teacher wants to know what students can do to help themselves improve their English outside of class.

One of the hardest things to do with students who do not live in an English speaking country is to help them practice their spoken English. Thanks to today's modern technology, this no longer has to be a problem.

Skype is a free "telephone" program with which you can call another person computer to computer. The sound is of such a high quality it rivals a telephone call. Skype is currently the most popular downloaded program in the world. It's completely free.

Students can call each other or people all over the world to practice their English. There are some businesses which use Skype (search Skype for "hotel" or "services") which may be more ready to speak, especially to people perceived as potential customers.

Teachers can also have conference calls with students.

Additionally, for about 2 cents a minute Skype users can call normal telephones. This opens up just about every phone in the world. They could spend hours and just a few dollars practicing their English by getting information on ski trips and lodgings, cost of notebook computers and their features, and how the services of a personality consultant can makeover their life.

14 March 2007

Grammar teaching - a fading star

A teacher said, “That is what I wanted to hear - 'Communicative Language Teaching doesn't exclude grammar or even translation' !!!”

Rest assured, Grammar will never be without a job.

Up until the 1970's, Grammar used to be the mega movie star of English teaching, a true prima donna. Grammar was simply adored by all fans; teachers and students, alike. Grammar's name featured prominently on every textbook or coursebook. People memorized every aspect of Grammar. It was near worship. Then Chomsky released his blockbuster which, while not widely accepted by the entire public, marked a new era and saw Grammar's popularity begin to wane. Grammar suffered further humiliation when Krashen came along. Now many people respect Grammar just as many people regard Casablanca or Gone With The Wind, one of the greatest movies ever made. But when most people want real entertainment, they don't go to these old movies any more.

That doesn't mean Grammar is out of a job by any means. It still plays an important supporting role in many movies just like many former stars appear in smaller parts in movies and TV shows. (Alan Alda even won an Oscar for his supporting role in the new movie Little Miss Sunshine.)

As Krashen puts it:

"I recommend delaying the teaching of these rules until more advanced levels. I would first give acquisition a chance, and then use conscious knowledge to fill in some of the gaps. There is no sense teaching rules for Monitoring that will eventually be acquired. Grammar, thus, is not excluded. It is, however, no longer the star player but has only a supporting role."

More from Krashen:

In my reviews of these studies, I have concluded that they confirm the correctness of the Comprehension and Monitor Hypotheses: they show only that even after substantial grammar study, even very motivated students show only modest gains in accuracy, and these gains occur only on measures that encourage a focus on form. Truscott (1998) has arrived at very similar conclusions.

Some have interpreted this position as a claim that all grammar teaching is forbidden. Not so. There are two good reasons for including grammar in the EFL curriculum.

The first is for "language appreciation," otherwise known as "linguistics." Linguistics includes language universals, language change, dialects, etc. The second is to fill gaps left by incomplete acquisition and places in which idiolects differ from the prestige dialect. Society’s standards for accuracy, especially in writing, are 100%: We are not allowed "mistakes" in punctuation, spelling or grammar. One public error, in fact, can result in humiliation. Even well-read native speakers have gaps, places where their grammatical competence differs from accepted use.

Consciously learned rules can fill some of these gaps, which are typically in aspects of language that do not affect communication of messages. The place to use this knowledge is in the editing stage of the composing process, when appealing to conscious rules will not interfere with communication.

I recommend delaying the teaching of these rules until more advanced levels. I would first give acquisition a chance, and then use conscious knowledge to fill in some of the gaps. There is no sense teaching rules for Monitoring that will eventually be acquired.

Grammar, thus, is not excluded. It is, however, no longer the star player but has only a supporting role.

More: http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/eta_paper/02.html

13 March 2007

Teachers are dangerous examples

A teacher explained: "I am fluent in my mother tongue because I speak it all the time. But I consider myself a better French speaker as a learner of its rule which I ignored in the former."
The big problem with teachers referring to their own learning experiences is that often teachers are good students. Of course, that wouldn't be a problem if our students were good students.

Some of us were good students in school. Perhaps we even sat in the front of the class, got good grades, really enjoyed learning, perhaps found it somewhat easier than our classmates. Many of these kinds of students become teachers. But that actually skews our viewpoints of the learning process and what works and what doesn't work in the classroom.

A friend and I decided to learn Japanese. We got a book. There were no tapes. I quit after two weeks. Today, my friend has a pretty good command of Japanese. He LOVES grammar, says it's like a puzzle to him. When he was in school he used to do algebra exercises for relaxation.

Frankly, these kinds of students we don’t have to worry about. They are going to learn English with us or without us or in spite of us. (And we also have to be careful that we don't look to them as brilliant examples of our teaching skills.)

The kinds of students we have to worry about are the ones who are not doing so well in the class. The "average" learner, not naturally academically inclined nor super motivated. The kid sitting in the back of the class, or at least in the middle.

So when we as teachers use ourselves as examples we have to ask ourselves are we the right kind of example to give us insight into our students needs?

08 March 2007

Bob: Deciding on a Participation Index

After teaching some corporate students, and reluctant to hand out school-type "grades" but still needing something, I developed the idea of a "Participation Index" to have a measure of how involved the student was in the training. This experience gave me a different viewpoint on grades.

At my college I had one student who came on the first day of class and again for the final exam. I promptly forgot him after seeing him the first time and wondered who he was when I saw him the second time. The class monitors keep track of attendance. Now I have the class monitors also keep track of attendance in my Excel spreadsheet. At the most basic level, if the students are in class they are (hopefully) going to learn something. The idea is to show their "participation".

Class Interaction
But still some students are doing some other homework, reading something else, chatting with their neighbors, etc. Are they learning during this time? No. (Perhaps they already know. In that case it probably should be OK for them to do something else if it doesn't disturb others.) The idea is not to punish students but to show their "participation" in the lesson. Some MBA course instructors give scores up to 40% of the students' grades for "airtime", visibility acquired on basis of class participation. In "Alternative Approaches to Assessing Student Engagement Rates", Elaine Chapman at The University of Western Australia describes several ways of measuring participation and I'm thinking of using the one she describes as "Direct Observation".

I have 160 students and sometimes hand out homework with each class. So I usually see if the students did the homework without seeing how well they did it. The idea is that applying themselves to the work is beneficial for their learning whether they got it all correct or not. We then go over the questions and answers together and everyone self-corrects.

I want to use quizzes more effectively and more frequently to see if the students are "getting it". When I haven't done this I've been surprised how many students really didn't understand (or pay attention).

To measure the take-away from the training. I'm having lots of other thoughts on this. While the school course teaches things like how to read the corporate year end report, I have found a lot of my students go out after graduation and get jobs as Nokia phone salespeople in a discount department store or other sub-entry level job. It is likely that a lot of what they learned is lost well before they get a chance to use it. I am thinking about not only not testing their comprehension of corporate reports but steering the course away from that sort of thing and focusing more on English that they will have more hope of using soon. If they don't use it they'll lose it. But to help them keep it we should teach what they'll use.

The problem with movies in the classroom

Although I love movies I seldom use them in the classroom. The biggest problems are that the language is normal or even above normal (flavored with special accents that I have seldom come in contact with in my 20+ years around the world, or peppered with the vocabulary of special interest groups of people like maybe hip-hop). I have few real advanced students who could understand 80-90% of this, most of mine are upper or lower-intermediates.

I buy into Krashen's input hypothesis which holds that the learner improves and progresses along the 'natural order' when he/she receives second language 'input' that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence. For example, if a learner is at a stage 'i', then acquisition takes place when he/she is exposed to 'Comprehensible Input' that belongs to level 'i + 1'.

The second problem is time. Movies run to 90-120 minutes. If pauses are added that brings it to 120-150 minutes which in my situation is too long.

When I do show a movie I will preview the movie 2-3 times jotting down an outline of the movie, transcribing a few bits and also selecting certain sections to skip to cut the movie shorter. Of course, I also try to find the script on the Internet but seldom have success for the movies I have shown. But I do try to create some sort of hand out for the students to emphasize points I want to teach.

The bottom line has been that that they can take enormous amounts of time trying to prepare, show and teach from a movie.

Later I will discuss some great ways you can use movies.

What's YOUR problem?

I had an interesting discussion with some teachers in Japan about why Japanese students are so quiet in class.

But it seems odd to discuss the quietness of Japanese students with you, the reader of this blog, yes, YOU.

Why are Japanese so shy? Why do they respond so little? What is it in their culture that causes this situation? What can teachers do to make Asian students more responsive? After all, as teachers we think our students should be responsive. They should be interactive. Right? What teacher in his right mind would actually want students who are not interactive? Who would want quiet non-responsive students?

Although you and I are not students it does seem really odd that we even try to discuss this question on this blog. Why does it seem odd?...because you are probably not going to comment on this blog. You will not mention your thoughts or opinion, agreement or disagreement. YOU are going to be quiet. YOU are not going to interact. I am not upset with YOU. It’s just that I don’t understand how we can ask our students to be something that we are not going to make the effort to be ourselves, interactive.

Is it because the YOU are too timid to venture an opinion? Some people reading this page are experienced teachers, MA's or even PhD’s. It is likely we may draw some managers of various schools as well as IELTS, UCLES, TOEFL, ETS, Oxford and Cambridge University Press. We may have university professors who visit. We may have the very gurus and rock stars of our profession on this list. But still this blog is impoverished by the lack of sharing of the riches of their experience and training.

Seriously, how can we as professionals in this field ever blame the poor students in Japan for not being interactive when we are doing the very same thing everyday?

This seems odd to me. We all understand the Japanese problem. What I want to know is:

What is your problem?

Please tell us in the “Comments” section.

Break all the rules of sensitivity, politeness and courtesy

A teacher explains: "I'm sure we think we're trying to help our students, encouraging them to speak, urging them, filling in awkward silences, repeating instructions to 'clarify'. In fact we dominate and intimidate them. They can't get a word in."

This teacher and others have given some very good and practical advice. Even Edward De Bono, the father of the approach to Lateral Thinking, had trouble with this and offered no revolutionary solutions except for calling on students directly.

But I suppose I often break all the rules of sensitivity, politeness and courtesy.

I know how to warm up to a class and how to get a class to warm up to me. After being a teacher for awhile you can start to read a classroom of students like a book. (But like all good books, you do get surprised from time to time.)

I usually reach a point with my students, here in China, when I give them "the talk". I tell them what Westerners think of them. I tell them Westerners think that they are often too quiet, too reserved, afraid to make a public mistake, afraid to step out, to give their own opinion and too concerned with unity with the group. I have heard many Western managers complain about this trait. (In fact, when I was doing teacher training around China, I even heard experienced Chinese ELT teachers complain about it, too. Funny thing was, even these teachers would sit quietly when I asked a group of them a question. They were really surprised when they discovered they were doing it as well.)

I tell students about the invisible wall that is between the teacher and students or speaker and audience. I tell them why they can feel safe in not answering my questions, because they are doing what the group is doing, nothing. To various extents, all peoples do this. I even tell them the tricks I use to break down this wall at the start of each class (games, warm-ups, etc.)

Is there something wrong with Chinese culture? No. It's different. But if my students are going to be talking to the world, if they want to be able to be effective with all manners of people, they need to realize what Westerners think and expect just as much as we need to sensitize ourselves to the different ways of Asians.

I then demand that they speak up and not do the group thing to me.

Should students practice their English by posting articles to Wikipedia?

An American teacher working in Beijing said: "In our summer course, we are having students post their own ideas onto Wikipedia. One student had already done this and his article about a ski resort near his home was published but marked as incomplete."

I'm sure students get a great thrill out of contributing to something that is as famous and internationally recognized as the English version of Wikipedia. But I can't help but feel it is irresponsible for a teacher to have a number of students do such a thing and violates the expectations of the people who go to Wikipedia for facts. If one student does it, it probably won't hurt anything.

By definition, English students are learning English because their English is not "good enough". They feel their ability to communicate in English is too poor. That's why they study English. Why is their English suddenly of the caliber to contribute to an encyclopedia? And why "their own ideas"? Wikipedia is not a blog. Just because they CAN do it does not mean they SHOULD do it. It would be better for them to write to some more informal areas of the web like actual blogs.

Likewise, a mailing list like TESL-L does not allow linguistics teachers to assign students to post here as a class project or homework. Without this rule, list members would become defacto teacher's assistants to a group of students in Morocco or some such place.

Of course, Wikipedia has different language versions and the students may do an excellent job contributing to one in their own L1. There are good places for students to practice and there are bad places for students to practice. Wikipedia was not designed as a practice venue for English students.

"Grammar lessons do not help children write proper"

Further to our favorite topic, Grammar Translation vs Communicative Language Teaching, I submit this piece of news. I realize it is not exactly on our topic but useful for our discussion:

Grammar lessons do not help children write proper
The Guardian
Joanne Lawson
Tuesday January 18, 2005

New findings suggest that teaching children grammar is of little use in improving their writing skills.

The study undertaken by researchers at the University of York found that teaching children old-fashioned grammar was not as helpful as teaching them skills such as how to combine short sentences into longer ones.

The funding for the research has come from the Department for Education and Skills, which undertakes regular reviews of the evidence to establish what are the best educational practices. The University of York English review team looked at the results of over 100 years of studies on formal grammar teaching, including previous government-backed reviews.

07 March 2007

Must we teach the origins of words?

Some teachers recommend teaching our students the origins of words. That brings to mind some reflections on how word origins actually get in the way of meaning sometimes, for example, with some modern word usages.

There are a lot of new words being used in ways that have little to do with their origins in my opinion and I have begun giving the "new" definitions of the words rather than what I think is the whole story of the word.

For example, a rather crass but commonly heard way in movies and popular music of speaking of a "girlfriend" is "ho" or "bitch". Is it really necessary to give all the background to those words? Can't we can just define the word and explain what kind of slang it is? It is becoming more common to hear people say a product that doesn't function well really "sucks" or it is "shit". Those are words for "bad". President George Bush, making a comment to Dick Cheney, was overheard by all when he called a certain reporter an "asshole". This is language that our president, who is a shining light of human dignity, democracy and freedom for all mankind, uses. So how can you define that word? It means someone you don't like.

I never teach these words to my students. In fact, when the subject comes up I teach them NOT to use them as they can be explosive and cause a lot of damage. But as far as telling them how they should understand the word when they hear it I no longer turn red, gag, wonder how to put it so as not to offend the more sensitive ones in attendance, and go into the whole gory ugly story.

Calling someone an "ale-soused apple john" would mean little today but in Elizabethan times it was very offensive.

I'm convinced that many young people, without fully understanding the origins, are using some of these words in a sort of innocent way and that in the future these words will be more accepted into our mainstream vocabulary. But if the word is being used frequently and if knowing the origin of the word is not really necessary then I think it may be best for us to not teach it.

Business English or Office English - There is a BIG difference

A teacher asked: "Can anyone recommend some textbooks or references that I could use in class and what is the course structure for teaching Business Communication?"

A lot depends on your students and their level.

College/university students have little idea of what kind of business English they will need and they have little or no real knowledge of English in the work place. Publishers have rolled out tons of material for these types of students which cover such a wide spectrum of business subjects, everything from stock portfolios to business travel, to be of little specific good.

On the other hand, you will find that professionals, who are already working in a business, have already mastered the vocabulary of their business but not the grammar. Here are samples of actual work Emails that I collected when researching needs at three different companies:

TO A CUSTOMER: "As per your request, we offered 7-cup & 10-cup rice cooker, single & double burner. Please kindly see the attached to re-fresh your memory. You like our product, and want to mix container of rice cooker and burner. Our Manager agreed that you can mix 4 items, 7-cup & 10-cup Rice cooker, single and double burner in trial order."

TO A CHINESE COLLEAGUE IN AMERICAN COMPANY: "Please advise the factory must check for lose color stones, the customer is complain last orders 993105, 993106, 993107, 993109, 993110, 993111 most of them the color stones are lose, please make sure factory double check for lose stones on these present orders..."

TO A CHINESE COLLEAGUE IN AMERICAN COMPANY IN CHINA: "we certify blue card of OBA or QC for those who were on board this month as per the training flow.[OBA&QC duration of OJT(red cards) are 15 working days to 20 working days ] . However we will certify blue card within this week if they had ability to working on their station. If not certification of blue card will be postponed to end of OJT by trainers. The OBA persons total 8 in A shift. We will certify their blue card in this week if they were able to work absolute. I will certify those who am I follow up persons. You certify those who are you follow up persons."

This latter type of students, the professionals, need what I call "Office English" but there is as yet no such textbook. Such a textbook would guide the student in making formal and informal business requests, confirming and checking information, accepting and rejecting suggestions, etc. Failing an Office English textbook, some of these needs are covered in General English and General Business English textbooks.

Stimulate their minds with enjoyable learning

When one teacher suggested that we should make our English lessons enjoyable another teacher countered sharply saying, "I disagree.... Are mathematics lessons enjoyable?"

A) If Bill Gates dropped a hundred dollar bill on the floor would he be gaining money or losing money if he stopped what he was working on and took the time to reach down and pick it up?

B) If it were possible to fold a sheet of paper of average thickness 55 times how thick would the result be?

I think the mind works much better when it is enjoying something interesting, don't you? Do you remember the day you first learned the Pythagorean Theorem? Probably not. Do you remember the day when you were first kissed? Probably.

I have forgotten much of the math that was forced into my brain even though there were probably many instances later when it would have helped me. I don't even remember the name of the teacher. I don't remember the day. I do remember the first time I was kissed.

I remember many interesting things from The Teaching Company audiobook lecture on mathematics and geometry with the 'unboring' title "The Joy of Thinking". The first lecture was fascinating. It was all about "counting". Answer "A" = Bill Gates would be losing money. Answer "B" = It would reach out of our solar system.

Lesson from all of this: Things that are normally boring can be made interesting and memorable.

Anyone can teach a boring lesson and demand students endure the pain in order to gain. It takes a real artist to find the key inside the student to inspire learning.

Photo: Two of my corporate English students on an English Safari with me. We're "thinking outside the [teacher] box". Instead of a lesson in our classroom we went to the local mall to talk and practice our English about...well, everything! They loved it.

Cranking up your class with the power of TV commercials

A teacher is looking for some ideas to make his classes more lively. Here are some suggestions on how to power-up his classes and get his students excited about learning English.

You said you were playing videos in English with Chinese subtitles. As I said, movies are a little bulky to use easily in English training. But the good news is that most of the time when the students say "We want movies," they really mean they want some variety. They are getting bored with the book and the routine.

I've found that commercials, especially to promote speaking, are just fantastic. Try it in your class. Download this video: FISHING

1. In your classroom divide your students into pairs and then divide the pairs into partners "A" & "B".

2. Tell "A" to watch the screen and "B" to turn around. With the sound off, show the first 31 seconds of the commercial to your "A" students.

3. Now "B" students face the screen and "A" students look away. Show the rest of the video to the "B" students.

4. Now "A" and "B" students talk to each other and try to figure out the story of the commercial. Remind them to speak to each other in English. Walk throughout the classroom checking on them and helping them. You will soon have an animated classroom full of excited students.

After they've had enough time to discuss it ask a few students to explain what their partner told them. Don't ask what they saw. Ask what their partner told them. This extends the speaking exercise as they have to orally report what they heard. Afterwards show the video again to the whole class with the sound on.

The commercial is made by McDonald's. A woman drops off her husband so he can go fishing on a wooden dock. It's clear that she doesn't approve of him fishing or perhaps doesn't approve of him in general. He gets his equipment ready and sits down to begin. He pulls out a lunch, a take-out bag from McDonald's and sets it next to him. Suddenly something huge comes out of the sea. We don't see what it but it must be a Great White Shark or similar monster. The man is terrified. Next we see the man is safe but a large section of the wooden dock, right where the McDonald's lunch was, is bitten off. That's the end of the first part, the part Student A would see. Student A doesn't know what happens next.

Now the plot twist.

Student B watches. It appears that the man has convinced his wife to go fishing with him. He helps her get set up on the dock next to him. Then he pulls out a McDonald's lunch and sets it in front of his wife and smiles. Student B doesn't understand the significance of what he has seen.

The students love this sort of thing. They are mystified. They are curious. They are eager to figure out what is happening. And they have to do it in English. It is a super fast way to get students talking and talking and talking and in English.

The disease is fatal. It's called "boredom"!

Troubleshooting a teacher's problem.

A teacher is having some problems with his classes. Despite his efforts he said his classes were too boring. Here is what he said he was doing to get his students interested in English:

1. Play English Videos with Chinese subtitles
2. Role -play
3. Use scores to stress them
4. Ask the students to recite passages
5. Organize some English contests such as speech contest, etc.

1) Beginners and lower intermediate students will always focus on the L1 subtitles. Sometimes they are unable to watch the action as they have to watch the subtitles so closely. They are long and take up a whole class or more. Watching them is a passive event. The students sit and receive information but don't have to interact with it. Finally, watching a movie is something they commonly do outside of class.

For beginners and intermediates, movies are not an easy language learning tool except for listening (and reading). There are a few simple movies that you can watch with your intermediate students in English with English subtitles that they will follow the language enough to laugh when something clever is said and shed a tear or two at the end. Try "Big" with Tom Hanks, "Trading Places" with Eddie Murphy, "Don Juan Demarco" with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando.

But even with these, they are passive events which only challenge the students' listening and reading ability. They are not as good as something that makes the students interact with the language.

2) Role plays are good if they are interesting for the students. Students seem to especially love anything with negotiation in them. Negotiation is like a game for them.

3) Scores (like death and taxes) always seem to be with us. But (like death and taxes) they should be a motivator of last resort.

4) Reciting passages is an effort of rote memory. It also doesn't require interaction between the student and the language unless the student is studying drama.

5) Speech contests are rote memory efforts with a bit of drama and a score coming up at the end. Debates would be better. Debates are a verbal game or challenge requiring student interaction with the language. For beginners and intermediates it may be best to keep the debates on fun or light-hearted topics to avoid focus on win-lose issues. For example, what is better: KFC or McDonald's? Pizza or ice cream? One million dollars or one million flowers?

Will a McTeacher steal your job?

One teacher in the USA explained: "As for Allwright's comment, surely everyone knows that the day of 'teacher proof' materials has already arrived. The trend in publishing now is to write teacher's manuals with step-by-step directions and explanations of anything likely to cause the teacher difficulty. I have written half of dozen of these myself."

A teacher in Greece declares: "Dick Allwright's views do resonate with me. Behind the perceived indispensability of packaged methods and coursebooks alike lies (lurks?) a conception of teachers as semi-skilled 'materials operators', rather than educated and trained professionals."

A McJob is "a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement."

I don't think we can call any of my blog readers a McTeacher. Just by viewing this blog shows that you are a professional and serious about your career and looking for more information to improve your skills. But let’s ask the question:

Are there McTeachers "out there"?

I'll venture answering "yes" as far as China is concerned. In China, we don't call them McTeachers. We call them backpackers. There has been a lot of discussion amongst teachers in China about the problem of the McTeachers which some teachers claim have infested the teaching jobs in China. Teachers with MA's and trying to find good jobs with decent pay blame these McTeachers for driving the wages down. A teacher working at a university with an MA will likely get only $120 more per month than a McTeacher or if working at a private training center may get paid the same.

Jack Richards referred to Apple and Jungck for a definition of deskilling published in a paper called "You don't have to be a teacher to teach this unit": "The first is what we shall call separation of conception from execution. When complicated jobs are broken down into atomistic elements, the person doing the job loses sight of the whole process and loses control over her or his own labor because someone outside the immediate situation now has greater control over both the planning and what is actually to go on.

"The second consequence is related, but adds a further debilitating characteristic. This is known as deskilling. As employees lose control over their own labor, the skills that they have developed over the years atrophy. They are slowly lost, thereby making it even easier for management to control even more of one's job because the skills of planning and controlling it yourself are no longer available. A general principle emerges here: in one's labor, lack of use leads to loss."(1)

This is not an issue to blame on publishers or material writers. It's a tribute to coursebook writers. They have made the new coursebooks so easy to use that even a McTeacher can use them. Fine. But what are you going to have to do to preserve your job?

(1) Apple,M and Jungck, S. 1990. "You don't have to be a teacher to teach this unit." Teaching, technology, and gender in the classroom. American Educational Research Journal 27(2):230

Choose between "static" or "dynamic" teaching materials

During one of my rants against coursebooks a teacher challenged me: "Dave Kees would like to see coursebooks that are more alive and dynamic. That would be wonderful. However, it is the teacher who brings life to the material. A dull teacher could make the most creative material tedious and mind-numbingly boring."

I agree with her 100%! But forgive me for my lack of clarity. I don't mean to make or conduct an engaging and interesting lesson. I mean that parts of the course can quickly and easily change according to various needs. It's time to have dynamic teaching materials.

One definition for "dynamic" in The American Heritage Dictionary describes is: "An interactive system or process, especially one involving competing or conflicting forces."

It is interesting how the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia puts it: "Refers to operations performed 'on the fly,' which are based on decisions made while the program is running rather than beforehand. The expression, 'buffers are dynamically created,' means that space is created when actually needed, not reserved ahead of time. The expression, 'data is compressed onto the disk dynamically' means that the compression algorithms are being applied when the data is being written rather than before. Contrast with static."

Hmmm, contrast with "static". Are you static or dynamic?

Photo: Get the students out of the classroom and take them to Ikea. My corporate English students learning how to talk about Ikea's innovative marketing experience at Ikea.

Are you being idiot-proofed?

Michael Swan, although a supporter of coursebooks, nevertheless warned: "The danger of ready-made textbooks is that they can seem to absolve teachers of responsibility. Instead of participating in the day-to-day decisions that have to be made about what to teach and how to teach it, it is easy to just sit back and operate the system, secure in the belief that the wise and virtuous people who produced the textbook knew what was good for us. Unfortunately this is rarely the case."(1)

Allwright explained from another perspective: "According to this view, we need teaching materials to save learners from our deficiencies as teachers, to make sure, as far as possible, that the syllabus is properly covered, and that exercises are well thought out, for example. This way of thinking might lead, at one extreme, to the idea that the 'best' teachers would have 'teacher proof' materials that no teacher, however deficient, would be able to teach badly with."(2)

Although coursebooks can be an invaluable contribution to the training of new teachers it could be argued that they "deskill" experienced teachers.

I will not say that Swan and Allwright are anti-coursebook extremists. I am not an anti-coursebook extremist but I have found myself going through some transitions.

I went through being coursebook dependent to coursebook embellisher to coursebook modifier but arriving at coursebook frustration when the coursebook didn't fit my students at all.

At this point, the teacher is faced with a quandary. He lacks the confidence that he can teach his students without a commercially prepared coursebook even though the coursebook isn't doing the job. He is unable to believe that he can make the next logical step. Why do we fear this?

As Richards points out: "[a] potentially negative consequence of the use of textbooks is that they can lead to reification. Reification refers to the unjustifiable attribution of qualities of excellence, authority, and validity to published textbooks, a tendency often supported by the promotional efforts of publishers. In promoting their products, publishers often support the idea that their books represent the theories of experts or the most recent scientific research. With our without publishers' efforts, however, there is the general expectation among teachers that textbooks have been carefully developed through consultation with teachers and specialists and through field testing, and that the exercises and activities they contain will achieve what they set out to do. In some situations, this belief may be reinforced by culturally based views on the attributes of the printed word.

Teachers in some parts of the world, for example, tend to assume that any item included in a textbook must be an important learning item for students, and that explanations (e.g., of grammar rules or idioms) and cultural information provided by the author are true and should not be questioned; they assume that they do not have the authority or knowledge to adapt the textbook. They likewise believe that activities found in a textbook are superior to ones that they could devise themselves."(3)

We should be sure that we are using coursebooks and coursebooks are not using us. Perhaps it's time to make our own.

(1) Swan, Michael 1992. The textbook: Bridge or wall? Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching 2(1):33
(2) Allwright, R. L. 1981. What do we want teaching materials for? ELT Journal 36(1):6
(3) Richards, Jack 1998. Textbooks: Help or hindrance in teaching?; Beyond Training:131

The adaptable customizable dynamic coursebook -- Are you ready for it?

In a discussion we were having Betty Azar explained: "It seems to me that a textbook that provides a solid core of good material is crucial in a classroom..."

I really don't wish to argue with Ms Azar. She is certainly my senior in this profession. I haven't used her books but they are being sold here in China and I have never heard a single criticism of them but I have heard considerable praise. As for myself, I am a mere teacher sans-MA and unpublished and holding a mere certificate with only a few years of experience under my belt.

I don't wish to argue against the coursebook. I want to advocate for a better coursebook. I would like to see coursebooks that are alive and dynamic. I would like to see coursebooks that can adapt to teachers and students. Teachers and students should not have to adapt to coursebooks.

Today's coursebooks are too static. They are written for a mass market or even for a specific market that is not the market you are teaching in. All of the business English coursebooks I have to use were written for Europe. My students are learning about entertaining in London and doing business in Poland. I'm in China. My students are not going to Poland but they may need English to negotiate a contract in Tokyo and check on suppliers in Korea. There's a new business English book that is for Asia but it's more centered in Thailand and it doesn't focus on the language well enough for my students' needs.

Why can't we have an adaptable coursebook? Why can't we have coursebook templates that a teacher can use to fill in the details specific for his class? Why can't we have a coursebook Wizard like MS Office has so that you can fill in some information and it will generate a Word document or a PowerPoint presentation or a coursebook for us? Why can't we have a coursebook format for upper intermediate students that we can use for business English and shift to logistics English and flip to warehouse English.

Do you know there are actual computer programs that can help script writers write a script for a movie? They step the writer through the structure of a script and help him keep control of character development and story line. Is it going to win an Oscar? No. And are you going to teach the world's greatest lesson tomorrow? No. We don't need magnificent lessons. We need good lessons that are geared to the specific needs of our students.

I am making my lessons in PowerPoint. I sometimes make changes in my lesson in mid-exercise if it is not just right. I can even include pictures of my students in the lesson or pictures of our city.

Wouldn't you like to have a "Betty Azar" Wizard to step you through the process of customizing the grammar focus for your particular students? Wouldn't it be cool if a virtual "Jack Richards" was at your elbow making suggestions on more activities to reinforces some new vocabulary for tomorrow's lesson?

We don't need less Betty Azar, we need more Betty Azar. So when can we have something like this? We will have to wait until the big publishers figure out how to make money out of it. But the longer the big publishers take to do that the more we will start doing it ourselves.

Why my students hate me

One teacher confided, "The first thing I do is to explain why I'm asking for change."

I've had entire classes rebel and reject me when they thought I didn't teach enough grammar. I've been told I was the worse teacher a particular student ever had (and he was an adult.) I have taught in classrooms with a big "No Pain - No Gain!" sign over my head that the students' regular teachers had placed to make sure the students knew that learning was supposed to be an academically masochistic(1) experience.

A teacher has two options in these situations.

A) Go along with what everyone wants. After 10-12 years of grammar translation training in school they have at least reached low intermediate level -- so just give them more of it.

B) Help them learn about learning and teach them about teaching.

This is the same thing a doctor does when he introduces a new therapy, drug or treatment. He explains the research. He explains the results. He explains the problems with the older and the advantages of the newer. The doctor teaches you. He doesn't say, "Well, if your mother always said cod liver oil will heal anything, then let's try that."

We have to explain the history of English teaching and the advances that have been made in understanding how the mind and language works. We have to sell our methods and set their minds at ease. I tell my students about Dell Hymes. I tell them about Krashen. (I'm going to have to start telling them about Mert.) I don't follow a Krashen plan (nor Mert plan) but I mention these things to show them some of the ideas involved in current research. I think we have to hit the problem head on. Teach them exactly why we are going to do things differently and really sell it. Teach them exactly why they don't already know English from their previous learning experience if it was under strong Grammar Translation.

Of course, this doesn't preclude the possibility that cod liver oil is just what some people needed nor the possibility that many people learn best with a strong grammar translation method. I had an American buddy who loved grammar. To him it was like a puzzle. We picked up a how to learn Japanese book with lots of grammar in it and after three months he was speaking Japanese and I knew nothing.

But if Grammar Translation and Audio Lingual are so great then everyone in China should be speaking English fluently by now.

(1) A willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Academia resists change

Xiujuan Zhang and Hongna have pointed out the challenges that they've faced as teachers in China. If there were more support or at least tolerance for change it would not be so difficult. Changing academia is one of the hardest things in the world to do. How do you tell the teachers that they don't know?

A couple years ago we were having our annual Communicative Approach (CA) vs. Grammar Translation (GT) debate. A teacher said that although she believed CA was more effective she had to teach GT because their school expected them to do it that way. The teachers had to act against her conscience and against what she thought was in the best interest of the student in order to please their employer. And in this case this was an American teacher in New York, USA! So we can only have sympathy and admiration for our Chinese colleagues who struggle to do something different in their schools.

It was the end of my last class when she came in. She unloaded an armful of books on the desk and asked me if I had any videos or films that she could borrow to help her learn about business. I assured her I could help her and offered to leave them with one of the students to pass to her. She asked me to not do that. She explained that although she has been an English teacher for many years, she just passed a special training to allow her to teach business English but now she doesn't want students or her superiors to know that she doesn't know a thing about business. She felt very badly about being so covert about the whole thing but made it clear that showing any kind of weakness in professional skills was risky.

Teachers feel bad about inadequacies but at the same time the necessity to cover them up. It is likely they are covering them up from superiors who also are covering up inadequacies from their superiors who are also covering up inadequacies from their superiors, all in the politics of academia.

This sort of situation, which happens in certain academic situations in many places around the world, can be like that children's game where everyone makes a circle and slowly sit down until they are sitting on the knees of the person behind them while at the same time providing their knees as a seat for the person in front of them. They can even march, although, only in a circle. Lots of action but not getting anywhere. But if one person stands up then everyone falls down. The dynamics are that there is more common interest in perpetuating the system and strong risks in challenging it or rocking the boat.

Dynamics like these cannot last an instant in business where it is sink or swim and constant change and real progress are the keys to survival. Academia does not have to play the survival game.

Why it is difficult for Chinese English teachers to use the communicative approach

[Photo: Professor Li Xiao Ju and Dave]

There was tremendous resistance to the Communicative Approach (CA) when it was first introduced in China in 1980 by Professor Li Xiao Ju at a conference at the Guangzhou University of Foreign Studies. In fact I was told, only one young teacher at the conference welcomed the idea. Even though the Ministry of Education later accepted it as the approved way to teach it seems they had to back down a bit later due to some pressure.

For those who embrace CA it is an uphill battle to spread its acceptance in China. Why? Perhaps there are two reasons. Before I discuss them I'd like to set some definitions. I believe ALL teachers want their students to learn grammar. The question is how? Grammar-Translation (GT) advocates believe rule learning and a direct understanding of the mechanics of the language are essential. CA advocates believe language mechanics study is an extra step leading to complicate and even frustrate the learning of the language. They believe the best way to learn the language is to use it and the grammar will be learned internally. But in the scope of CA advocates is a range of extremities. Many hold Krashen as the most extreme.

Back to the reasons, first, there is not complete acceptance of CA amongst western teachers. Many teachers in the west believe GT to be a required part of language teaching. This has been witnessed on this list with the subject of GT vs. CA flaming up about once a year. But what I think is more interesting is what I consider the second reason of why CA has not spread around China more easily. Can Chinese teachers do it?

The question was "Can Chinese English teachers make use of the Communicative Approach?"

The skill level of Chinese teachers varies widely. With some teachers you forget they are not native English teachers because their English is flawless. But some teachers have very poor English. It is difficult for them to communicate in a conversation. They are hard to understand and it is hard for them to understand you. I'm not sure how to quantify the number of teachers at these various levels of skill. Another thing is that we must factor in some cultural factors and the politics of academia. After all of that I would guess that less than 25% of Chinese teachers could operate in a CA classroom without losing face and my guess is probably very very generous.

On the other hand, GT is a much more comfortable way of teaching. Rules are laid out, memorized and recited. Drills are given with structured sentences that require only one correct answer. The teacher does not have to score a sometimes convoluted mass of words that the student has used to describe something. The teacher has to check if the correct word is filled into the blanks. Certainly I'm over-simplifying this but I use it as an illustration.

This leads us to a bigger question. What do you do in a country with 100 million English students to teach and only a small percentage of your teachers have near native English skills themselves? Is Grammar-Translation the answer?

How to make your own coursebook

Busy teachers had little time to develop a coursebook. It's much easier to shop around and buy a book that fits the need as close as possible even though it may leave a lot to be desired. It's like food. Often it's easier to go to the store and buy a frozen TV dinner than to buy the various ingredients and cook them yourself.

So what can the busy teacher do? Beginning teachers may have no recourse to published coursebooks. However, teachers or schools with at least five years of experience should be able to do this quite easily. There are two approaches to coursebook writing. The bottom-up and the top-down.

The bottom-up approach would be to closely study the students to discover exactly what kind of English they need making no assumptions concerning grammar and vocabulary and subject matter. However, some people would consider this reinventing the wheel.

The top-down approach would be to refer to your favorite collection of coursebooks and teaching materials and take the things you like and adapt them. If you like how the business English book used some interesting business news in each unit to introduce new vocabulary with some speaking exercises built around them then adapt this idea for your medical English students and find some interesting articles on medical news to build your exercises around.

Perhaps another coursebook presents business writing in an interesting way and you can get ideas from that to do the writing component of your book for sports coaches. Do you like the way grammar exercises are presented? You can do the same but adapt them for the needs of your particular students. You can use a four skills book written for teenagers to get ideas for oral English lessons for engineers.

You cannot copy the books but you can model your coursebook after them by taking the best teaching ideas from each one and customizing them to fit your students.
Why go through all of this trouble? (1) After you finish your own coursebook you will have something which fits you and your teaching philosophy and your students and their needs. (2) If you discover something doesn't fit or work well, almost like action research on steroids, you can easily modify it between classes. (3) You can easily update it and keep it current with the latest world developments (no more books that talk about sending faxes but not Emails) and developments in ELT methodology (corpus based research?).

Teachers should make their own coursebooks

Perhaps most teachers use coursebooks. They like the ease the coursebook provides. They like the authority the coursebook presents. (S1: "Why are we learning this?" S2: "Because it's in the coursebook, stupid.") They like the systematic approach of the coursebook.

At the same time they know that the coursebook they are using is boring, sometimes missing the mark, has redundant material, is using outdated methodology which is not very effective with students, etc. These teachers complain about their coursebooks but wait patiently for a better book to come along. Coursebook publishers and authors always assure us that we can always skip parts of their books, modify parts, take away or add to parts of their book. The fact is, they really don't care what we do to their books as long as we buy them. Their number one job is to sell books, not educate the world.

It is claimed that Mark Twain said, "What is the chief end of man?--to get rich. In what way?--dishonestly if he can; honestly if he must." Applied to publishers we would have to say that their chief job is to sell books any way they can and if necessary they will have to publish books that will educate people. It's a business and the goal has to be to make money, not love your student. We cannot blame the publishers for being like this.

Teachers better not hold their breath for a better coursebook. It's going to be a long time before a coursebook that is exactly right for them and their students comes along, if ever.

So what can teachers do about it? First, stop complaining! And second, make their own. After teaching for five years you should know coursebooks pretty well. You should be able to recognize the approach the book is using. You should be able to recognize how various exercises are being used to reach a certain objective. You should see how various material is being recycled to promote retention. You should also be familiar with all methodologies and their strengths and weaknesses. You should be able to critique the coursebooks on a methodological level and also be able to say what works really well with your students and what doesn't work with your students and why.

You will become a coursebook author. Of course, the only user may be yourself and your students. But finally you will have a coursebook that is an exact marriage of what your students need and the way you like to teach.

Coursebooks are failing our students

Except for new teachers, it is an overly simplistic idea that coursebooks are doing a great job of meeting the needs of our students.

No publisher or book author knows your students like you do. Look at nearly every single business English book. There are loads of stuff in there that will not help anyone. I've yet to have any students who could make full use of one of those business English books.

I mean there are entire units talking about Advertising, Marketing and Investing. My business English students were managers at Colgate in China or managers of a Japanese electronics firm in China. They were managing the factory. They had nothing to do with Advertising and Marketing. Actually, what they really needed was Manufacturing English. Where is the book on that? Sure there might be one or two but those are usually outdated and still too general. I need a book on electronics manufacturing and one on fast moving consumer personal care goods manufacturing. I had an IT English book that explained what a "floppy disk" was. Can you imagine going over the definition of a floppy disk with an IT manager?

Is nothing going to ever change? Are we going to be stuck with books forever? I learn very little from books these days. I've been studying the significance and uses of corpus from the Internet. I've recently learned a lot about the significance of Bayesian statistical theory and e-rating, the science of machine rating writing papers on the Internet. But I must admit that I am turning to books to satisfy my interest in Physics and String Theory, but those are audio books.

What is going to come after the book? That's why I think that "books" have got us in a BOX. Teachers today do need help. They need highly adaptable materials in an electronic format that they can focus to each type of students they are going to teach. If they had a basic course framework with basic teaching content that the teacher could shift to different needs. He could shift this basic course framework to teach English to doctors, English to lawyers or English to policemen. The biggest difference between the different courses would be the vocabulary.

I know that years of research goes behind the design of coursebooks but still I'm tempted to believe that the course book designers are doing something that Dave Barry would describe as "listening to a little voice in my head that makes up believable facts".

The unit themes in business English course books have a lot of redundant material that business professionals will never need. Few business people need the full scope of topics including everything from Stock Market Investing to Advertising. Now you could argue that college students who are not certain what field of business they will get involved in could make good use of this and I will grant that.

But to make that concession here in China and some other places it is getting more and more difficult. I just bumped into a student from last semester. He was real happy to tell me he found a job at Nokia. I was happy for him. Nokia is a great company. I asked him what exactly he was doing. He was a salesman working a counter in a department store. It is unlikely that he will get any English practice in that situation and the job holds little prospects.

Consequently, the English of this student and a lot of his classmates will go unpracticed and possibly much of it lost. This is not entirely an English teaching problem but it is part of the reality in which we operate. The Chinese government has announced it will reduce the number of college students in an effort to improve teaching quality and the high employment expectations of graduates. These kinds of concerns are not reserved to China. Something similar has happened in France.

At the college level what we are doing is "front loading", filling the student up on knowledge that he might need. There was no recourse to this when we were students. But today, after all the technological developments, the science and art of teaching needs to become much more flexible and targeted. We need to employ the principles of "mass customization" to be able to mass generate customized training for students and give them this training "just-in-time".

06 March 2007

Teacher knows "Father Knows Best"!

I have a sort of Krashenistic view on learning. I like to have tons of material to offer my students and let them select what particular items appeal to them. Although Krashen is focused on reading books, I think in our multimedia world we can extend that to films, TV shows, podcasts, etc. One problem is finding enough material to offer that is i + 1.

Here is a website with some "old time radio" shows. The English is about the same speed as VOA Special English but even slower, clearer and simpler and much more so compared to normal speech or movies. It would be suitable for mid to upper-intermediate students. Not all of the shows are at the same level.

Below is a sample of the dialog from "Father Knows Best" , an old radio show but very popular. Although some proper nouns are unique the rest of the dialog is fairly basic and actually very repetitive, all of which contributes greatly to comprehensibility.

Following the sample is a textual analysis, a frequency list of words used in the sample and the vocabulary levels of the words.

See how accessible this language is. Except for "poultry breeder", "gazette", "mining" and "Harvard", I think intermediate students could understand nearly everything.

Jim: Margaret
Margaret: Yes, Dear?
Jim: What’s this?
Margaret: What’s what, Dear?
Jim: This.
Margaret: Oh, that. That’s a magazine.
Jim: I know it’s a magazine but what are we doing with a copy of the “Poultry Breeder’s Bulletin and Gazette”.
Margaret: Well, we had our choice between that and “Mining Engineers Monthly Manual”.
Jim: So you took the “Poultry Breeder’s Bulletin and Gazette”?
Margaret: Naturally, we wouldn’t have any use for a magazine about mining engineers, would we?
Jim: Margaret.
Margaret: Yes, Dear.
Jim: Have you developed a sudden interest in poultry?
Margaret: No.
Jim: Poultry breeders?
Margaret: Don’t be ridiculous.
Jim: Well, you don’t just go out and buy a thing like this without some reason.
Margaret: I didn’t go out. He brought it here.
Jim: Who did?
Margaret: Well, I don’t know his name but he was a very nice boy and he’s working his way through Harvard...
Jim: You mean...we bought a subscription for this thing?
Margaret: It was only four dollars, Jim. If I knew you were going to make all this fuss...
Jim: I’m not making a fuss. It’s just that I don’t see any reason to throw money away on things we don’t need.
Margaret: People ALWAYS need magazines.
Jim: Alright, but why did you have to choose the “Poultry Breeder’s Bulletin and Gazette”?
Margaret: I told you, Dear. It’s because we couldn’t use “Mining Engineers Monthly Manual”.

Find more Father Knows Best at RADIO LOVERS.


Here are the vocabulary level statistics, the percentage of words in each level. For contrast I included vocabulary levels for NY Times and Voice of America Special English. (These levels could vary as the samplings I used were not very large):

K1 Words - the list of the 1000 most common words:
84.07% (NYT 71.95, VOASE 77.02)

K2 Words - the list of the 1001-2000 most common words:
2.65% (NYT 3.96, VOASE 5.18)

AWL Words - the Academic Word List:
0.88% (NYT 8.52, VOASE 4.76)

Off-List Words:
12.39% (NYT 15.56, 11.94)


Family Word List
family_[number of tokens]

K1 Words:
about_[1] all_[1] always_[1] and_[6] any_[2] away_[1] be_[13] because_[1] between_[1] boy_[1] bring_[1] but_[3] buy_[2] choose_[2] could_[1] dear_[4] develop_[1] do_[9] dollar_[1] for_[2] four_[1] go_[3] have_[4] he_[5] here_[1] i_[7] if_[1] in_[1] interest_[1] it_[5] just_[2] know_[3] like_[1] make_[2] mean_[1] miner_[3] money_[1] month_[2] name_[1] nature_[1] need_[2] no_[1] not_[9] of_[1] oh_[1] on_[1] only_[1] out_[2] people_[1] reason_[2] see_[1] so_[1] some_[1] take_[1] tell_[1] the_[3] thing_[3] this_[9] through_[1] throw_[1] to_[3] use_[2] very_[1] way_[1] we_[8] well_[3] what_[4] who_[1] why_[1] with_[1] without_[1] work_[1] would_[2] yes_[2] you_[7]
all_[1] away_[1] boy_[1] bring_[1] buy_[2] could_[1] dear_[4] go_[3] here_[1] know_[3] like_[1] make_[2] money_[1] month_[2] need_[2] only_[1] see_[1] take_[1] tell_[1] thing_[3] through_[1] throw_[1] very_[1] way_[1] well_[3] work_[1] yes_[2]

K2 Words:
copy_[1] engine_[3] nice_[1] sudden_[1] nice_[1] sudden_[1]

AWL Words:
AWL families: [1:1:2] manual_[2]

Off-list words:
alright_[1] breeder_[3] breeders_[1] bulletin_[3] fuss_[2] gazette_[3] harvard_[1] jim_[1] magazine_[3] magazines_[1] margaret_[2] poultry_[5] ridiculous_[1] subscription_[1]

Top Ten student speaking activities in order of stress

In a discussion about classroom speaking activities for students a teacher suggested: "Perhaps there is a middle ground between forcing students to speak and letting them stay completely silent."

Most people are shy or timid in unfamiliar situations. Most of us who are professional teachers have gained confidence through the expertise in what we do but may still be timid in unfamiliar situations. Some of us have reached the point where we can boldly go where angels fear to tread and are ready to laugh at our bumbling. We could say this is not an English teacher issue but a human issue that all people have to deal with.

But within the realm of the classroom, is there something we can do to help students, a middle ground as Maria put it? There are various speaking relationships that are easier than others. Here's my Top Ten list of speaking activities in order of stress:

10. Pair work with a student friend. Least stressful.

9. Group work with student friends.

8. Pair work with student who is not a friend. (I find this very effective if the problem of students not talking is they are too cliquish or cool with their buddies.)

7. Group work with fellow students who are not friends.

6. Talk with teacher.

5. Talk in front of class and teacher.

4. Talk with native English speaking strangers who are not part of the class.

3. Make an announcement to a group of people.

2. Make a presentation to a large number of people.

An the #1 most stressful speaking activity would be:

1. Give a talk to people who are hostile to the idea you are presenting, like a press conference about something controversial.

We know words but do we know "know"?

In discussing the question of how many words does someone know or need to know I think we need to begin at the beginning and ask owurselves if we know "know"?

What does "know" mean? I read your Email messages that you send to me and other teachers. Do I know you? Do I know the Frenchman who asked me to write some copy for his industrial cosmetics supply business in China? Do I know my Chinese friend I met six years ago? Do I know my wife? In other words, if I asked you, "How many people do you know?" Would you be able to reply with a figure of some degree of precision?

How do we know words? By being familiar with their dictionary definition? By being able to recognize them in a text or conversation? (Passive) By being able to use them in writing or speaking? (Active)

Do we really "know" words or are we mostly "getting to know" words and our knowledge of words is constantly developing or deteriorating depending on the amount of use and the variety of use.

Krashen's idea of getting to know words would be through a tremendous amount of input. This way the most frequently used words do not have to be taught from an artificially developed list as the student will be exposed to them in a natural way through all of the reading the student does. The student would see the words in their natural environment.

Some of my upper-intermediate students still call females "he" and males "she" from time to time. How well do they know these pronouns? They know the rule 100% but they still make systematic mistakes in usage. Do they know these words 70%?

In any given sentence how well does an intermediate level student know each individual word? If we say,

The tractor-trailer overturned on the highway.

How well would our student know those words? I’m just guessing but maybe,

The(80%) tractor-trailer(30%) overturned(60%) on(90%) the(80%) highway(90%).

Students make a lot of errors with "the". Now, "tractor-trailer" may be very unfamiliar to those who don't know American English but the student may be able to guess something from the word and understand its' a vehicle, prepositions are always a problem for students, "highway" may be somewhat familiar. Which of those words would we say the student actually "knew"?

05 March 2007

Do we need to teach the culture to teach the language?

Someone asked if culture, as related to the language, should be taught with the language. I think we can all agree the answer is "yes" and "no". This is another example where the question should be carefully framed in our discussions so that we can all be at the same starting point when we answer it.

Mert Bland, a teacher with considerable experience all over the world, answers the question if culture should be taught with the obvious first question, "which culture?", taking a perspective of EFL.

Maggie Sokolik, based in a university in California, takes a different viewpoint, but her outlook is ESL.

So let us agree on the same starting point. If we are teaching abroad we seldom know with which culture our students are going to interacting. I teach in China (another place Mert has been). The closest English speaking countries are Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines and Australia, India but my students are also very interested in America. Do I need to teach those six cultures to them? And what about a needs analysis? It is quite likely they will be visiting, calling and doing business in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand. And when they speak to Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai businessmen they will be speaking to them in English. So Mert's question is very valid, "which culture?" and the answer is correct for EFL, in the limited time frame that teachers have to teach their students it is best to stick to a basic English that would be useful for our students in all of those situations.

If we are talking about foreign students visiting, studying or living in California, should they learn about the culture of the United States as related to their English studies, I think every teacher would answer "of course".

China is in the past with "New Concept"

A teacher wrote us: "I noted recently the, I think, generally unannounced passing of LG (Louis) Alexander in June 2003. Alexander was a giant of TESOL in the early 70s when I began using his texts in TEFL situations. When I returned to the field a few years later his hour had passed and he wasn't heard of again. Too much repetition; too much focus on habit formation."

Alexander and his "New Concept" series, published in 1965 (with only superficial changes since) predating even Dell Hymes' and the Communicative Approach (is it still a new concept?) is the number one best seller in China even today. It seems like Chinese students and Chinese teachers think it is the greatest invention in English teaching since the dictionary. They erected a statue to Alexander in Beijing .

A teacher suggested an examination of methodologies of the past to see what good things from them may have been overlooked. Obviously, more work needs to be done to get the world's largest English learning population out of the past and at least to the present. So much has changed in the English teaching world since "New Concept" was published. The study of linguistics has benefited a lot from the research of Noam Chomsky, Stephen Krashen and many other researchers and modern thinkers. "New Concept" is in the past. It is the old concept. Time for a "new" new concept.

Terrific free lessons based on current news

You can find some excellent news based lessons at Breaking News English. Every couple days two lessons, simple and difficult, are produced on some news article that is hot that day. The lessons are free.

They are in HTML, Word and PDF and come with an MP3. They can be easily adapted by the teacher, shortening them or adding additional focus.

Sean Banville has done a wonderful job at this. I have created lessons in a similar fashion and it takes me all day to do half of what Sean does everyday.

A few folks producing good course as Sean has done, news based or otherwise, could threaten to put publishers out of business.

(Unfortunately, this website is blocked in China and can only be accessed by applying some sort of workaround. Ask your IT friend to help you.)

Business English lessons for low level students? Don't do it

A teacher asks for some material to teach Business English to low intermediate students.

I suggest that it is not in the students' best interest to begin studying Business English at that level for two reasons:

1. They really should get grounded in some basic English before trying to learn a specialty English like Business English. About 95% of their communications will be basic verbs and basic vocabulary.

2. There are no Business English books that can give the students the help they need in basic English at a low intermediate level.

At best they can only learn a McEnglish. This is what I call the English that McDonald's order takers have around the world. Here in China you can ask the girl for a Big Mac, fries and Coke without any problem. However, if you ask her if she thinks it will rain today she is lost.

Giving a Business English too early makes the student aware of SOME business vocabulary at the expense of a broader grasp of the language.

A great general English book is New Interchange in 4 levels from 0-3. A good approach would be to get the student up to at least the level 2 (about mid-intermediate) and then instead of doing 3 with them it would be safe to introduce Business English.

There is a world of difference in teaching college/university students and business people or professionals. The first group is quite intrigued about business and are eager to learn it. I have even been asked by these students to teach more business and less English.

The second group deals with the language of their business constantly. They actually excel at all the little buzzwords and company language of their business. My Chinese Proctor and Gamble English students used to carry on whole conversations in English in their P&G lingo and I could hardly understand a thing. However, this group invariably needs help with basic vocabulary as well as the grammar patterns to create correct proper sentences.

For example, here is the last Email sample I received as part of my needs analysis of a logistics company where I have begun teaching. It is very typical:

"Pls refer to blw details,payment has been settled by our agent. Pls kindly arrange remit to head office asap TTL:USD141.00. Tks to release cargo accordingly."

I would say the key business vocabulary here is: details, payment, settled, agent, remit, head office, release cargo; all used quite well. However there are lots of grammar errors.

Business English for pre-employed students is much different than for students who are professionals.

Our students are not cultural virgins

Many teachers have laid out their viewpoints on the appropriateness of the teacher speaking frankly about personal feelings on various issues.

I can understand that some teachers, sensitive to being charged with "cultural imperialism" or not being "politically correct", would carefully control their communications to remain absolutely neutral on these issues.

But I think the cultural imperialism of today is a little different than the cultural imperialism of 50 or 60 years ago. My students show up in class wearing Nike shoes and a copy of an NBA magazine in their bag. I often have to ask them to put away their MP3's which are loaded with songs by Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. I have to ask them to discontinue their excited discussions about the most recent cool American movie adventure so they can direct their attention to my class.

And I teach in China!

It is not much different at my business English classes at various American, French or Japanese joint ventures here in China. The difference only being the product, now it's cars, houses, travel abroad, technology gadgets or MBA programs. Rather than magazines it’s the latest business book by Jack Welch or Tom Peters.

Due to the "small world" dynamics of the Internet movies and TV, our students have already been exposed to culture worldwide. They have already made cultural choices. They are not culture virgins. Now they want some deeper understanding of it, some explanation.

About half of the classes that I begin in China are met with the request that I devote a certain amount of time to teach "western culture" every week. This does not mean that they think western culture is superior to their own but it does indicate that they feel they don't know enough about it and want to improve their understanding.

What is the teacher's role in this? I do not believe the teacher should always remain a neutral and passive instrument on this subject. After establishing that this is the teacher's personal opinion the teacher should feel free to explain what and why he or she thinks or feels something as well as offer the other side of the argument.

Our students are not young naïve sheltered cultural virgins and are capable of making their own independent choices and forming opinions which might even frequently and surprisingly include the assessment that the "teacher is a jerk" for thinking that way.

It seems to me that some arguments are elevating the English teacher's role to that of high priest of all knowledge or to something like Plato's Cave scenario.

If we are not talking about children then we should treat our students like adults who can, will and have already made up their own minds about ethics, morality and culture.

There are far too many wars going on around the world because people don't understand each other or fall prey to the demonization efforts of others. Especially when students request it teachers can be ambassadors of understanding. And as on teacher implies, why can't the teacher also be a realia?

"Here is why I'm against the Iraq war...Here is why George Bush is for the war." Our students know these are opinions and not the universal oracle of knowledge speaking. We are not doing some Stanley Milgram experiment on them. "Teacher, just obey and administer the shock!"

Teachers could be so bold as to state "Here is why I am a Christian." I sure wish I had some teacher in my school who told me, "Here is why I am a Muslim" because currently there are some raging misunderstandings going on over these matters and all kinds of crazy opinions are flying around.

I'd certainly be interested in talking with a real live Muslim in my classroom about his religion instead of relying on media reports and politicians. (After I hear his views I'll go look it up somewhere on my own.) I have a friend who is a black American Muslim and often use her as a substitute teacher when necessary. She gives my students a different perspective than the fat white American viewpoint which I embody.

I don't think our students, especially adult students but also many teenagers, are so malleable that we are going to brainwash them in our ninety-minute a week class with them. That is why I claim they are not cultural virgins. Teachers should not be afraid to give their own opinions and use themselves as a form of realia as long as they do it in an explanatory manner without being combative.

04 March 2007

Should we teach our students Shakespeare?

Some teachers advocate the teaching of Shakespeare to our students. Shakespeare had a tremendous impact on the English language. There are many idioms and turns of phrase that originated in the writings of Shakespeare. So they feel teaching the old bard would really benefit our students.

It may be useful for a very small portion of advanced English students who are interested in literature studies. It is difficult to see how lower level students, business or non-literature academic students would benefit from such studies as it is likely they have many other basic English needs to develop.

If we take a look at a sample of Shakespeare and the complexity of the language we can see why. Here are the opening lines of Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

We can see how archaic Shakespearean English is to any contemporary purpose beyond the study of literature. As EFL professionals, we speak at length on the desirability of authentic English samples to use with our students. Personally, as I am not a literature teacher, I would sooner use any ole studio hammered dialog over dear William's finest.

Sitting here in China I wonder if we haven't realized that there has been a divide in the motivation behind English learning today. Some students are intensely interested in understanding the historic culture and the roots of the English language. But I would suggest that 95% or 3-4% more of our students are learning it for employment or travel purposes. I think Shakespeare teaching belongs to the first camp.

Why should it not be taught to the second group? I think it would be nice to teach it to the second group...after they have learned how to introduced themselves and a friend, go the bank, negotiate a contract, make a report to the police about being robbed, give a presentation, make a marriage proposal and talk intelligently with a doctor about their patent foramen ovale. Alas, we may never have time to teach it to this group whose motivation is related to practical daily purposes in our short 3-9 month courses.

01 March 2007

Two-course strategy to teaching IELTS

My strategy for teaching IELTS is:

1) ENGLISH SKILLS: If there's enough time, work to improve the student's English level through English training.

2) TEST PREP: Help the student gain an understanding of how the IELTS test functions. There are various books that deal specifically with the IELTS, how the speaking part works, the two tasks of the writing part, etc. (I always teach my students how to do a 5-paragraph essay for the 250-word Task 2.)

I think of it as two courses and think it's best taught as two courses. The first one is actually teaching English and the second one is teaching how the functions of how the IELTS test works.


I have found that Interchange by Cambridge Universtity Press hits on almost all of the types of content that IELTS does such as the environment, education, work, news, movies, food, people, etc. In addition, it is teaching skills for reading, writing, listening, speaking. There are some examples below from New Interchange level 3.


The second course can be a short and it's rather easy for the students to get the point of how different parts of the test work. Once they have this test-prep course they should understand it. I believe this one bit of training can help a candidate improve their score by one band level. I suppose some people would question that assertion so let's look at it another way. This training can help a candidate avoid making mistakes that could cost him one band level.

Now if they should fail to get the score they want in IELTS they do not have to take this second course, the test-prep course, again. Not scoring high enough, means that their English level is not high enough and they need to work on their English skills which is a much bigger job.

For this effort I have used various test-prep books for IELTS. All of the ones I have tried have been useful but I guess I wasn't relying on them so completely, using them more as a framework to work from, as I have a lot of things about the test that I have learned and use that as a resource when teaching IELTS. So I have no strong recommendations to make on IELTS test-prep books but am interested to hear other's recommendations on those as well.


Personality types and qualities; relationships; "turn ons and turn offs". Describing personalities; expressing likes and dislikes; expressing agreement and disagreement; complaining Relative descriptions of people; making inferences. Writing about a best friend. "Friends Again – Forever!": Reading a narrative about friendship. "Personality types": Interviewing a classmate to find out about personality.

Unusual and exceptional jobs; job skills; summer jobs. Giving opinions about jobs; describing and comparing jobs Gerund phrases as subjects and objects; comparisons with -er / Writing about career advantages and disadvantages. "Strategies for Keeping Your Job": Reading advice about behavior in the workplace. "The best and the worst": Finding out about classmates' summer or part-time jobs.

The media; news stories; exceptional events. Describing past events; narrating a story. Listening to news broadcasts; listening to a narrative about a past event; making up stories. Writing a newspaper story. "Strange but True": Reading tabloid news stories. "A double ending": Completing a story with two different endings.

Cultural comparisons and culture shock; customs; tourism and travel abroad. Expressing emotions; describing expectations; talking about customs; giving advice Noun phrases containing relative living listening to descriptions of and opinions about customs. Writing advice for a visitor to your country. "Culture Check" Reading and completing a questionnaire. "Culture clash": Comparing customs in different countries.

The environment and world issues. Identifying and describing problems; offering solutions. Listening to people talk about problems, solutions, and accomplishments. Writing about local issues and offering solutions. "The Threat to Kiribati: Reading about an island that is sinking into the sea. "Community planner": Solving some small-scale environmental problems.

Historic events and people; biography; the future. Talking about historical events; giving opinions about the future. Listening to historical facts; listening for opinions about public figures; listening to predictions. Writing a biography.
"The Global Village": Reading about political and technological changes. "History buff": Taking a history quiz.

Milestones and turning points; behavior; regrets. Describing yourself in the past; describing regrets about the past; describing hypothetical situations. Listening to descriptions of important events; listening to regrets and explanations. "If You Could Do It All Again": Reading about three people's life choices. "If only . . . .": Imagining different possibilities for yourself.