03 October 2008

Replying to students' Emails


I get a lot of Emails from my students. As I mentioned before, I am seriously spamming my hundreds of students with thousands of messages. So I get quite a few Emails back from them, usually telling me what they are doing to improve their English in response to my tips and encouragement. I also get a lot of Emails of holiday greetings from them during the holiday season. Often they ask me what I'm going to do for the holiday. Sometimes I see my students making common errors in their messages and I would like to send them a little guidance about this problem.

Normally, I could not keep up with such a large amount of incoming messages. I can read them but to try to reply to them all can be a huge effort and I may be only able to manage the briefest of replies. It may seem a little disappointing to the students to not get an answer to their Email but what can one person do? They understand and don't expect much.

But I want to do more.

I use Microsoft Outlook to manage my Email. It downloads all my incoming messages from my GMAIL.COM account and uploads and sends my outgoing messages.


I use an Outlook function as a simple way to insert stock replies to my students messages. When my students tell me that they are reading a newspaper article everyday or are listening to podcasts from www.eslpod.com to improve their English, I have 10 different encouraging stock answers that I can choose from to reply to them. One of them is:


If I want to point out a common grammar error I have a rather longer stock reply that explains the problem, the solution and several examples.

I can give really helpful and encouraging replies to students and it only takes me about 10 seconds. If you are a busy teacher and want to give more detailed replies to your students' messages, here is how you can do it, too.


In Outlook go to TOOLS -> OPTIONS... -> MAIL FORMAT -> SIGNATURES...

There you will find a function for creating your signature in your Emails. But the great thing is that you can put any text in there that you want to be able to select and insert into your Emails. When you want to use it in an Email, first you "Reply" to the Email, choose INSERT -> SIGNATURE and then you will be presented with a drop-down menu of all your stock replies and answers that you can select from.

You may want to develop several versions of one reply so that not all students are getting exactly the same thing and you may want to update them from time to time. Of course, this is not a way to deal with all messages but I find it useful to deal with almost all of them.

It really does a lot to help the students feel closer to their teacher. It really helps the teacher to not let the messages go unanswered and to send out some encouragement and guidance.

"To be (a corrector) or not to be (a corrector), that is the question!' (with apologies to Shakespeare)

Krashen tells an interesting story of the time he studied French. He talks about how his "excellent" teacher taught grammar and taught vocabulary and corrected errors -- and how they learned through comprehensible input.


A Summer as an Intermediate French Student

By way of conclusion, I would like to report on some recent personal experiences as a student of French. The class I attended in the summer of 1978 in Los Angeles was a private class, with a small number of highly motivated, highly intelligent, and mature students. The official "method" used was the Pucciani-Hamil approach (Langue et Langage), used with much apparent success at UCLA and at many other schools. The method is "inductive", that is, students are led to induce, or guess, the rules. In a typical lesson, the teacher asks what are hopefully meaningful, interesting questions of members of the class in hopes of preparing a context for the target structure. The following exchange is a good example (taken from the instructor's manual, Pucciani and Hamel, 1974; p. 321). The purpose in this exercise is to teach the conjunction "bien que" and the fact that its presence requires that the following verb be in the subjunctive mood:

Teacher: Fait-il beau aujourd'hui?
Student: Non, il ne fait pas beau maintenant.
Teacher: Irez-vous cependant à la plage pendant le week-end?
Student: Oui, j'irai cependant à la plage pendant le week-end.
Teacher: Irez-vous à la plage bien qu'il ne fasse pas beau?
Student: Oui, j'irai à la plage bien qu'il ne ...

My excellent teacher followed this sort of pattern, and often tailored questions to individual students' interests. For example, one member of the class was a dedicated beachgoer, and the example given above was actually used with this student. My teacher also allowed some "free-play". If the student did not give her the structure she was looking for, she tolerated some "conversation", as long as it was in French (a cornerstone of the Pucciani-Hamil approach is the exclusive use of the target language in the classroom). Indeed, despite the fact that the class was a first-year (third quarter) level class, it often had the flavor of a conversation class.

The explicit goal of the class was learning, conscious control of structure. There was error correction, and after enough examples of the above sort had been elicited, there was explanation of the rule (in French), along with further examples if necessary.

What is particularly interesting is that many of the students felt that the obvious success of this class was due to grammar work. One excellent student (a man in his sixties) felt he needed to "firm up" his grammar before doing conversation in French, and he told me that he felt our teacher's finest quality was her ability to explain complex rules of French grammar. My hypothesis is that much of the success of the class was due to the teacher's use of teacher-talk, her ability to provide a simple code that provided nearly optimal input for acquisition. The class was conducted entirely in French, as mentioned above. Besides the actual pedagogical examples, such as exchanges of the sort given above, teacher-talk included explanation of grammar and vocabulary, the teacher's participation in the "free play" surrounding the exercises, mentioned above, occasional anecdotes, classroom management, etc. My fellow students reported that they understood nearly everything the teacher said in class. The teacher-talk, not the grammar per se, was probably what motivated the same student who needed to firm up his grammar to comment: "She gives you a feeling for French ... she makes you want to speak French." This is language acquisition, not language learning.

Grammar teaching? Try it, observe & convince yourself

I don't think I ever stated people should not teach grammar. I only said it does not work.

I never teach grammar rules. My students have had enough of that and after about 10 years they still don't have their grammar straight.

However, I do correct incorrect grammar when I hear it. So does that indicate that I believe teaching grammar works? No, to the contrary. I have students that I have corrected for over a year on pronouns of gender and they still are frequently getting the pronouns of gender wrong.

So I will not tell you to take my word for it. Don't take Krashen's word for it. Don't take Truscott's word for it. Just do it. Do it yourself. Go ahead and correct your students. Make it Action Research. Do it and observe and after you observe then reflect and you will convince yourself. Choose a clearly observeable grammar point like pronouns of gender and correct your student everytime in everyway everywhere. Keep track of how many times your student gets it right and how many times he gets it wrong.

I suggest all teachers do this.

Why I teach grammar

Why do I continue to correct their grammar? I consider it a form of Comprehensible Input. It is a feedback of their own sentence. I believe they will NOT benefit in a conscious grammar rule way: "Oh, right! Grammar rule #27: Pronouns of gender. Females = she & her, Males = he & his." Krashen brought this out very clearly in his description of learning French which I published previously.

But students will benefit from experiencing an extensive amount of correct Comprehensible English Input at a level of i+1 as explained by Krashen:

"Language acquisition is very similar to the process children use in acquiring first and second languages. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language-- natural communication--in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding. Error correction and explicit teaching of rules are not relevant to language acquisition (Brown and Hanlon, 1970; Brown, Cazden, and Bellugi, 1973), but caretakers and native speakers can modify their utterances addressed to acquirers to help them understand, and these modifications are thought to help the acquisition process (Snow and Ferguson, 1977). It has been hypothesized that there is a fairly stable order of acquisition of structures in language acquisition, that is, one can see clear similarities across acquirers as to which structures tend to be acquired early and which tend to be acquired late (Brown, 1973; Dulay and Burt, 1975). Acquirers need not have a conscious awareness of the "rules" they possess, and may selfcorrect only on the basis of a 'feel' for grammaticality."

And despite what the calculator punchers say (as one teacher said to me about acquisition through Comprehensible Input, "the number of YEARS required is going to be well into the triple digits. Your student's great-great-grandchildren will all be retired before your students will have acquired the ability to write like a 15-year-old"), students actually can learn to an intermediate level in two years if they have wife of that language (as did Guy Brook-Hart and Mert Bland) or sufficient alternative input.

What can teaching students pronouns of gender teach teachers?

A teacher, implying the near impossibility of the effectiveness of Comprehensible Input, wrote:

"How many hours of standard, educated English will a native speaker have been exposed to by, say, age 15. Whatever number you pick, if you expect an EFL student to use the language at an equivalent level without error correction or grammar instruction, you'll have to find a way to get that student an equal amount of exposure. Get out your calculators, folks at ten hours exposure to English per week (a generous amount for a Chinese EFL student), the number of YEARS required is going to be well into the triple digits. Your students great-great-grandchildren will all be retired before your students will have acquired the ability to write like a 15-year-old."

Krashen's theories on the "acquisition" of language facilitated through "comprehensible input" at a level of "i+1" is not just something that sounds like a good idea until someone pulls out a calculator and does the math. Although the subject is widely debated, there is a lot of evidence that it works and you can read research after research on Krashen's website at: http://www.sdkrashen.com/.

Also, in what the teacher said, is the implied assumption that grammar teaching actually does work. There is no evidence that teaching grammar results in the student truly acquiring the grammar. A certain degree of retention is possible in the student's conscious "monitor" (an internal editor), remembering some grammar rules, but this is limited.

Clearly grammar cannot be acquired in such a conscious way. One of my favorite examples of this, which I have brought out many times before is pronouns of gender ("he", "she", "his", "hers"), a grammar rule that can be taught in ten minutes it is so simple but can take a student a year or two to master.

Grammar "teaching" doesn't work.

Grammar teaching teacher challenge!

To settle this point and answer the question, I would like to invite teachers who support grammar teaching to design a lesson or series of lessons to teach pronouns of gender in such a way that a student could "learn" it in one week or even one month in such a way that a student will use it correctly more or less consistently.

Then I suggest that teachers who do not support grammar teaching, with an open mind, try this lesson or these series of lessons with their students and see what the results are.

I have no special interests in showing that teaching grammar does not work. I receive no royalties or benefits one way or the other. My special interest in all of this is language acquisition. I want my students to have the fastest results possible. If teaching grammar brings the fastest results then I am all for it.

Welcome to my party!...Or is grammar teaching necessary?

To answer those who argue that grammar teaching is necessary, I would like you to engage in a thought experiment.

Imagine that I am having a party. There is music, snacks, drinks and many guests. All of the guests are my friends. I am delighted when you arrive.

"Hi! I'm so happy you could make it! Here, have a drink! Let me take you around and introduce you to some of my friends.

"This is Bob. He is a marine animal trainer. He's American and trained the dolphins in the Guangzhou Zoo.

"Here is Richard. He's a lawyer and the vice-president of the Guangzhou Law Association. He was one of my students.

"And this is Rauol. He is the manager of the golf course, he's from Holland.

"This is Helen. She's the Southern China manager for Cambridge University Press. She is from Hubei.

"Here is Zhou Jing. She is the general manager of Microsoft Technology Center in Guangzhou. She was one of my students and improved her English very quickly so she could attend a big Microsoft meeting in Seattle.

All of these are real people I know as friends and/or students.

OK, now a question. Who is Bob?

Maybe you don't remember.

I agree that a brief introduction to a grammar form, just like a brief introduction to someone at a party, is not going to hurt unless you mix up all the people you met. But I don't think it really does much to help you really know the grammar or be able to use the grammar.

You don't really know Bob. You don't know that the secret of his job is "hunger". You don't know he is from California. You don't know that he also worked in Taiwan and in Japan. You don't know that when he was in Japan he studied the ancient Japanese martial art of sword fighting and passed several tests to achieve mastery. You don't know that he lives with his lovely Chinese girlfriend who is also an animal trainer.

What if I didn't introduce you to Bob? What if you lived with Bob? What if you observed him while he worked? What if you went out to dinner with him and his girlfriend? What if you joined him as he practiced his sword technique with his Japanese tutor? Without any introductions, you would know Bob very well.

Sure, introduce me to your friends. It's not going to kill me. (Unless one of them is a killer.) But to know them I don't really need to have an introduction. I need to spend time with them, even live with them, to know them.

Spamming my students with "BOB"

A teacher asked about spamming my students, "How much time do you estimate it takes to compose and send out a message?"

I use an Excel file and a Visual Basic program I wrote called "BOB". On one Excel sheet I keep the student names, Email addresses and some other information. On the other sheet I keep the "content" for the messages like message subject and message body.

Most of my BOB messages were taken from Emails I have sent to other groups of students in times past. Indeed, some students may be receiving a message I sent them years ago but probably forgot. So in this case composing a message is very fast. But since all of the messages are short, even if I write a new one it is also very fast.


Keep in mind, each of these messages is stored in the Excel file and is reused. So once you write it, it gets used many times. The BOB program reads the student name, Email address and what message the student is on. For example:

John; john_zhou@yahoo.com; 27

Then the program will check on the content sheet and find message #27 which has a subject line for message #27 and body for #27.

BOB then creates the Email, first with the subject line and the body which begins with "Dear John," followed by my message. It ends with my signature name and my links like a regular message does.

Recently, I added a place for another line at the end of the message that I can customize. If it is a holiday time, I can send them holiday greetings. If I want to remind all of the students from one class about a homework assignment, I can do it there. If I found a new coffee shop to have my one-on-one class with a manager, I can mention it there.

It takes BOB about 3-4 seconds to make each message. After BOB is done making messages for all the students, it takes Outlook about 2 seconds to send each one out.


Teachers have a wealth of knowledge on teaching that can benefit students. The beauty of this system is that it gets maximum use out of the teachers' resource of ideas, tips and pointers. The BOB system starts all students on message #1 and then works the student, message by message, through all of the teachers ideas and tips. Every student will receive every tip from the teacher. They will miss nothing. They will receive it in measured spoonfuls every couple days.

If any teachers would like a copy of the BOB spamming program please let me know and I'll send it to you. I'll let you have about 60 of my messages that I send out. It works only with Excel and Outlook. (It may not work with Outlook Express.)

Tablet computers in the classroom

A teacher referred to my experimentation with a tablet computer so I'd like to tell everyone about that. Five years ago I bought an ACER C110 Travelmate 11 inch notebook computer. You can twist the screen on this computer and lay it down on top of the keyboard and use it like a tablet computer. It was quite small and had an external DVD drive. I bought it here in Guangzhou and it cost 16,OOO Rmb. This was rather expensive but cheaper than the larger Toshiba computer that could do the same thing. When I bought this I was intrigued about the possiblities of using a tablet in the classroom and wanted to experiment.

I still have this computer and am writing you with it now. A corner of the computer broke off due to an accident. I was running across a busy Guangzhou street and the buckle on my computer bag, heavily laden with not only my computer but those immensily weighty Interchange Teacher Books, broke and my bag hit the street hard. The corner broke off my computer and now the WiFi no longer works. My computer looks terrible today and even my students beg me to get a new one but I've grown attached to it the way an old man gets attached to an old easy chair or a favorite pair of old slippers.

But I have to say that I am not satisfied with the computer as a tablet. It was not as easy to use as I hoped to move around the classroom and make notes on students. With the computer in one hand and the special pen in the other, I could not talk with students and then very quickly look up the student on my Excel sheet and make a notation.

What I wound up doing is making notations on slips of paper and at the end of class transferring these to my computer. One of the main things I note in this way is the IELTS speaking level of the students.

I sacrificed the DVD drive for this tablet computer. My next computer, which I'm shopping for now, will have a built in drive. I think this will be more useful for me than the tablet function.

I now have a Windows Mobile phone. This phone runs Excel and I've tried to keep my student list on this. I also can write on it like a tiny tablet computer but the whole process of finding the student's name amongst 40 other names and making the notation is more cumbersome than jotting it on a slip of paper and then entering all the info in a couple minutes after class.