22 May 2009

Teaching IELTS writing - keeping it simple

One of the big problems with all of the IELTS writing books is that they use very complex high-level examples of writing to demonstrate how it’s done. This is the most ridiculous thing!

I talked to a couple teachers who supported such an idea and they told me that the student will not learn everything from the samples but they will catch some of it.

I disagree.

If you want to learn how to ride a bicycle it will not be very useful to practice on a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle. If you want to learn to make paper airplanes the best way is not to go study how to be a space shuttle pilot.

What students need is language that is at their target level or very slightly above. This kind of language is accessible. This kind of language is highly learnable.

Here are two paragraphs from a Task 2 sample taken from IELTS Preparation and Practice by Oxford University Press. I have put some of the bits of complex language in UPPERCASE.

“It seems that salaries often DO NOT RELATE
TO skill, education or THE VALUE OF THE
EMPLOYEE TO SOCIETY. In my opinion this
is wrong, and I feel CHANGES SHOULD BE
MADE to ENSURE that people such as pop
stars do not earn such huge amounts of
money.

“If we take the example of a pop star such as
Madonna, it is HARD TO SEE in WHAT WAY she
BENEFITS SOCIETY. In fact, her BEHAVIOR could
even have a NEGATIVE EFFECT on young people
and encourage them to EXPERIMENT WITH SEX AND
DRUGS, and develop a MATERIALISTIC ATTITUDE.
In addition, her job does not require SPECIAL
SKILLS or years of training and education.
Therefore, there is no JUSTIFICATION for her
receiving so much money. Although she provides
entertainment for people, I do not think this
can be CONSIDERED ESSENTIAL.”


Look at "DO NOT RELATE TO". This sort of language is rather idiomatic and if you are going to use it you have to use it in this way. It's not the same if you say, “It seems salaries do not compare to…” or “It seems salaries are not suited to….”

Now if we look at "THE VALUE OF THE EMPLOYEE TO SOCIETY" we see some conceptual language. It is a beautiful idea which is supposed to mean that we have some sort of social duty to be a benefit to others. Of course, Madonna does have value to society, millions of dollars a year value. But this phrase is reaching for a nobler idea than that. And if we are to teach this phrase to our students so that they can use it correctly then we have to make sure they capture that nuance.

Of course, we can teach all of these phrases to our students but the problem is that when they take the writing test they will not need any of them. They will need some other phrases, other idioms. To be able to deploy the right phrase at the right time they would need to first learn thousands and thousands of phrases and be competent in using all of them. In short, they would need to be Band 8 or Band 9.

But if our students' target is Band 6 then this high level language is just clutter that will confuse them. It is unlikely they will need that particular complex language in the sample above and even if we do try to teach it to them it is likely they will get it wrong and instead of saying "experiment with sex and drugs" they may say "do experiments with making love and medicine".

So I believe we should provide our students with a lot of examples that are within their reach, examples at Band 6 and 7. We could rewrite something like the above example.

"Many people in the entertainment business get paid a huge amount of money. I think this is wrong and should be changed to make sure that they don't make too much money.

"A good example is Madonna. She doesn't really do anything to help people. In fact, some of the things she does are bad samples for young people. A lot of her music is about sex and this could cause young people to form the wrong ideas about sex. Some of her music is about drugs and may make people want to use drugs. She did not have to study for many years to learn how to do her job. So I believe there is no reason that she should get paid so much money. She is a very popular singer but I do not think this is a good reason."


In teaching IELTS, it's important that we give our students materials that are within their reach and are learnable.

15 May 2009

Understand oral English testing in schools better

1. According to research, it is too difficult for highly trained examiners to measure English proficiency spanning more than 9-10 levels. (Covering a scale of no ability to highly proficient.)

2. Even measuring 10 levels professional examiners can be wrong 27% of the time.

3. On such a scale, for classes that meet once or twice a week for 45-minutes, it may take a full year of training or more to improve one level

4. Factors weigh on the whole process which can cause inaccuracies. During some research on IELTS training it was found that after a 3-month intensive training candidates could improve half a level. However, some candidates actually scored at a lower level at the end of the training than they did at the beginning. Reasons for this were the state-of-mind of the candidate on the test day, familiarity and lack of familiarity with the subject matter of the tests, faults in the testing system (IELTS), etc. So it would be possible to test your student at the beginning of the course and then the student could do worse at the test at the end of the course. How would you give a grade in this case?

Alternatively, test the students on the course material at the beginning of the course. If the students are properly placed in the right level classes they should score very low on such a test but after training on the material should score very high at the end of the course.

In that it is too late at this point, the next best thing is to review the material we taught the students and find some distinct and important points that we can test on. However, if the classes consisted of "well, what does everybody want to talk about today?" it may be impossible to test the students.

Finally, the idea of scoring by student attitude or participation in the class or other student behavior focused method, to my mind, but perhaps many would disagree with me, is fraught with the most disadvantages. Such a criteria makes the test exactly one of classroom behavior, not learning or language acquisition. As the focus of most of us teachers is on the student centered classroom we are constantly questioning ourselves if we are meeting the needs and capturing the interests of our students. Some days we do better than others. Some students (especially the very bright and the very dull) are more easily bored than others. We are tempted to punish our troublemakers and reward our so-called 'good' students by the score we would give them. But again, we would be scoring the student on their behavior which is perhaps not the best way to reflect their learning in our class.

The irony is that for many schools it really doesn't matter what score you give the students because the school often does not treat the oral English class taught by a foreigner as a 'real' class. These grades often don't show up as part of their year-end scores.

Nonetheless, I think we should all be careful in how we go about making these kinds of decisions. There are certain 'automatic' impulses that we should be aware of and question. How often do we do things because that's the way everyone else does them? How often do we do things because that's the way it was done when we were students?

These things I have said in the above are with the realization that they may not exactly apply to the certain aspects of the current discussion. Without complete understanding of the situation I know I may be misunderstanding some things. I am just trying to explore various factors and considerations for the purpose of reflection.

We are the teachers and in a position of power with the students and the school. It is a great opportunity to for us to explore and discover the best ways to do things for our students and ourselves.

08 May 2009

Those #&!*% boring books!

One major problem teachers have brought up is that material is boring. Although it is quite easy to find that material is boring it actually leads us to a much more difficult but important and useful question. What material is exciting? What coursebook do you know of that makes students excited to come to class? What books have made your class the most interesting class the students attend in their school? What coursebooks give the sleepers insomnia? What coursebooks are so much fun that students who have no extrinsic interest in learning English take your course just because it's so fascinating?

03 May 2009

Grab your students with suspense!

A teacher asked for help, "A student has asked me to suggest TV shows that have easy-to-understand dialog. I'm afraid that I'm not well versed in current TV programming. Does anyone have any suggestions? We're looking for shows in the North American market."


I am always on the lookout for material that really interests my students and is at a level my students can understand, ie: Krashen's i+1.

I was recently thrilled when I discovered a DVD collection of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents - Season One". This old B&W classic (1955) from TV is absolutely great. They are 25-minutes long. The English is very basic, almost no slang, very clear speaking. Each one is a sort of suspense/mystery or thriller situation that really engages the viewer as the central character finds himself with some sort of difficult or impossible problem.

Play it in English with English subtitles and watch your students get trapped in the suspense. Monday, without introduction, I put it on during my college students' break in the middle of class. 45 out of 50 students put their headphones on and were glued to the story and I was met with sighs of disappointment when I had to turn it off after the 10-minute break was up. We watched more during the next break.

Although someone usually dies in each show, the material is so tame by today's standards of "CSI", dismembered and dripping bodies, lawyer/detective/police, "24", type of TV that is so awful today.

They are very easy and interesting to watch and, for this reason plus the fact they are so short, it is difficult to watch only one. I must confess I watched six last night while my wife watched "24" and some other things.

The series is in DVD 9 and only $22.50 from Amazon.com[1] or, if you are in China, $2.75 from your local DVD seller.

24 April 2009

Literati and Scrabble

One of the most popular on-line games on Yahoo is Literati. It is just like Scrabble. I described this game to this list several months ago and invited everyone to join me for a game which we played one night.

It's a great game to play with friends or students. While you play there is a little 'chat' window where you can talk about words, the weather, whatever. I think the maximum number to play is 4 or 5 but others can join in to watch the game. You could even have the extras join the players and make 'teams' so that you would have 4-5 teams.

I think any activity that works with words is helpful for students. Before a student lays out his tiles for a 4 letter word he has run through his mind hundreds of possible words. Every spelling combination that seems like it could be a word is followed by the thought "Is that a real word? What word is it and what does it mean?" It is a delightful way for students to review vast amounts of vocabulary.

I had a private class with some executives (a banker, a manufacturing CEO, a company president and a head of a law firm). They liked it when I pulled my mini-Scrabble game out but were thrilled when they learned you get points. The lawyer was so enthusiastic he was trying to cheat and the president had to guard the tiles to stop him.

Scrabble is one of the most popular games in the U.S. So I'm sure many students will enjoy it.

17 April 2009

Scrabble and Liar Liar for vocabulary practice

SPELLING AND VOCABULARY REVIEW

SCRABBLE: It's almost embarrassing to get paid money to play Scrabble but we're professionals and have to be ready to endure anything. As I've mentioned in earlier posts I like to teach from our coursebook for an hour and then like to do something else with the class. I was really surprised at how appealing Scrabble turned out to be. Especially when my students found out they could get points and win. I've had managers jumping up and down like kids and a lawyer so intent on winning he couldn't resist cheating. Students have to think of thousands of words to play this game and it's a great way to get them to review the vocabulary they know.

Photo: 40 students playing Scrabble. The game is projected on a screen. The students are divided into eight teams.


VOCABULARY STRETCHING

LIAR LIAR: Often our coursebooks have a dictionary section in the back. Give the students a couple minutes to study one page of it. Then they close their books and on a paper draw two vertical lines forming three columns. At the top of the left column they write 100. At the top of the middle column they write YES. Then put NO at the top of the right column.

The 100 is their dollars. The teacher reads a word with its' definition or with a definition from another word. The students use their dollars to place bets on how sure they are if the word and definition are true or false. They do this by marking how much they want to gamble under one of the YES?

The game is terrifically effective in winning students concentration and focus on these vocabulary words. And they have great fun in playing the game.

12 April 2009

High-speed correcting

If you find yourself with a large number of tests to correct and little time to do them you could make a cut-out template to help you.

What I like to do though is to make a recording of the answers on my computer, using the 'sound recording' feature under Windows accessories. I then play the recording, sometimes even speeding it up to 200%, and check the papers.

The advantage of recording it on the computer as opposed to a tape recorder is that you don't have to rewind to play it again.

28 March 2009

12 frequently asked questions about IELTS

As a former IELTS examiner I have been asked many questions about the test. Here are some answers:

1. "I HAVE A DOUBT, CAN WE UNDERLINE THE TEXT, WHAT WE WANT IN THE READING PARAGRAPHS. IS IT ALLOWED? OR NOT? I THOUGHT IT IS NOT ALLOWED. PLEASE CLEAR THIS.”

Yes, you can mark on the reading and listening test booklets or make notes on the writing task sheet, underline, anything you want. All this material is destroyed after the test and will not be used again.

2. "DO THE EXAMINERS COUNT HOW MANY ERRORS YOU MAKE [ON THE READING OR LISTENING TEST] AND THEN DIVIDE BY A NUMBER TO GET YOUR SCORE?”

Everyone tries to figure out the mathematical formula for converting correct answers on tests into band scores.

Some students want to take a practice test in some book and then convert the number right into a score so you can know how you would do on the test. However, the practice tests in IELTS books are not real IELTS questions (called 'items' by test designers). The number of easy and difficult questions is tremendously important in the design of an evaluation test like IELTS. There is a huge amount of research involved in designing and then testing the individual items and then the completed test.

However, many book authors will make up these questions in one afternoon. These practice tests are not designed to give you an evaluation of your English ability. They are only practice in how the test works. You cannot convert your correct answer score into an accurate band score because these are not the real tests.

Every IELTS test is slightly different. They cannot make them all the exact same level of difficulty. So the correct answer to band score conversion table is different on different tests. It is not always the same and it is not a constant mathematical formula which is the same from test to test.

3. "I'VE NOTICED SINCE I JOINED THE GROUP THAT MOST PEOPLE GOT THE LEAST BAND FOR READING ABILITY! THIS ABILITY IS ONE I WAS NOT WORRIED ABOUT AT ALL, BUT AFTER FEW FELLOWS' RESULTS IN THIS LIST I'D BETTER TO GIVE MORE ATTENTION TO IT!.”

Interesting observation. Are you sure about it? That could be interesting from a research standpoint as I don't really see any reason for it. It seems that there should be no skill that is low on a regular basis.

One thing test takers need to be careful about is being overconfident.

This can cause you to lose your edge and not focus enough. You should be like tennis players. Even if they do something good or great they are always focused and totally fighting each point. When they make a great shot and the crowd cheers they never run around happily, smile, nothing.

Totally focused and fighting each step of the game. At the end, when they win, they are so relieved and only then do they accept the quality of their ability.

4. "I've got my results but I'm not happy with them because I belive that I did better job during exam. Do I have right to get access to my papers and see what I did correctly and what not?

Sorry, you will not be able to see your papers. You will not know how many things you got wrong or what you did wrong. They keep all of this secret. You can ask for your writing and speaking test to be checked again. You will have to pay for this. They will send your paper and tape to London where it will be checked by an IELTS expert.

5. "I NOTICED A TITLE FOR THE TASK2 ESSAY IN A PRACTICE BOOK. I COULDN'T EVEN FIND A START FOR THIS. CAN ANYONE HELP ME HOW TO APPROACH THIS? AS MOST POSTGRADUATE RESEARCH TODAY IS FUNDED BY INDUSTRY, THEN STUDENT GRANTS SHOULD ALSO COME FROM THE SAME SOURCE, REMEMBER TO INCLUDE EXAMPLES TO ILLUSTRATE YOUR IDEAS.”

This task does not seem authentic. It may have been made up by a book author who doesn't know the test well. I suggest you practice with more authentic tasks that some students on this list mentioned or use some samples from Cambridge which has produced three practice test books.

6. "WHAT CAN AN IELTS TEACHER DO FOR ME?”

IELTS teachers can help you to improve your score by helping you understand the essential parts of the test and help you avoid making some mistakes. In my opinion, a good IELTS training course may help your score by as much as one band.

Two researchers had a group of students take an IELTS test before the students began an IELTS training program in several different schools in two English speaking countries. After three months of training the students took the IELTS test again. On average their scores improved by half a band. Interestingly there were a couple scores that were one band less after the training.

Why the lower score? Well I don't believe that the teachers made them stupider. Actually, the IELTS testing is not a super accurate process.

Even things like your mood or level of nervousness can affect the outcome. Also the examiner may not score exactly. He has a range of levels that he can score in and not lose his job. Further, candidates are probably not exactly 5's or 6's or 7's in the speaking/ writing test. They are probably 5.8 or 6.3 or 7.5. But examiners cannot give such scores and they are actually hard for a person to detect. So you may be something like a 7.7 and one examiner would give you an 8 and another one would give you a 7.

As we can see, the IELTS teacher can only help you a little. If you need a lot of help then you need a good English teacher. This, of course, is best for you as the teacher will help you improve your English which has much more benefits for you.

Once you have taken an IELTS course and fail to get the score you want you do not need to take it again. The IELTS training teaches some specific test taking skills and understanding. Once you have learned about those you have learned them. You probably need to improve your English if you failed the test after taking an IELTS course.

The best English course for those who want to take the IELTS test is the New Interchange and Passages series published by Cambridge. (More info about this below.) This course is not only excellent for the way it teaches the student, in the task-based communicative approach, but it's also excellent in that the subject matter of the activities are subjects similar to the IELTS test (i.e.: talking about pollution, writing a letter to thank someone, etc.) Some schools claim that after attending their course you can get a Band 6 or a Band 7. The way the school usually does this is by only accepting students who are near or at those band levels already. They will not accept someone who is at Band 5 and guarantee him a Band 7. As I pointed out, a careful study of a couple of good schools showed they could only help students about half a band. If a school is going to guarantee a student at any level a score, then the school will have to be prepared to put a student through several levels of English training and some students' training will be longer than others.

So I would say IELTS training is fast and can help a little. English training takes longer and helps a lot.

7. "INTERESTINGLY, THE EXAMINER IS CURIOUS ENOUGH TO OBSERVE YOUR HANDS AS YOUR EXPLANATIONS PROGRESS. PROBABLY HE MAY BE OBSERVING YOUR BODY LANGUAGE. FOR HEAVENS SAKE, DAVE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO OUR SCORES. AS I MENTIONED IN MY PREVIOUS MAIL, THE EXAMINER WILL SWITCH ON THE TAPE RECORDER AND WILL MAKE SURE THAT IT IS FUNCTIONING NORMAL.

ONE MORE POINT ABOUT THE EXAMINER, HE WAS NOT A FOREIGNER. HIS ACCENT IS SIMILAR TO MINE. ABSOLUTELY NO PROBLEM IN UNDERSTANDING THE QUESTIONS.”

a. Body language is not considered in your score.

b. Examiners do not have to be native English speakers. They do need to be experienced English teachers with qualifications and be at the level of a native English speaker.

8. "I ASKED THIS QUESTION TO AN EXAMINER. I WONDERED WHETHER THEY HAD OBTAINED OBJECTIVE CRITERIA FOR EVALUATION OF THE SPEAKING PART. AS I LEARNED FROM HER, THERE ARE CERTAIN DOCUMENTED CRITERIA. ADDITIONALLY, THE RECORD IS USED TO RE-LISTEN AND MARKING, AS WELL AS AN EVENT IF THE CANDIDATE CLAIMS THAT HE/SHE WAS SCORED UNFAIRLY IN SPEAKING TEST.”

The speaking test (as well as the writing) is always subjective, not objective. It is always a matter of interpretation. The examiner has a nine-level band descriptor that he uses to help him determine your band level. It has little comments on it such as: "range of vocabulary is limited" or "faulty use of cohesive devices" and things like that at different levels. The examiner is trained how to interpret those to determine your score. He gets retraining from time to time to make sure he is doing a good job.

But such testing, due to it being subjective, may only be about 75% accurate. That means that you may not get as high a score you deserve (or you may get a higher score than you deserve.) If your writing or speaking score is two bands different than your reading and listening score the testing center may automatically decide to have your writing and speaking tests 'remarked'. They will have another examiner at the center check the writing and listen to the tape again and give you scores. These will be your final scores. Sometimes this 'remarking' delays your results being issued by a couple days.

When you receive your results, if you feel the score is incorrect, you may request that your test be rescored again. In this case, you must pay something and your writing and speaking tests will be sent to London to be checked by an expert IELTS examiner. One of my candidates did this though and got a lower score than I had given him.

9. "I HAVE A STRANGE PROBLEM, I MAKE A PRACTICE FROM IELTS 1 AND IELTS 2. AND NOTICE THAT MY SCORE IN READING AND LISTENING DID NOT INCREASED, IT IS BETWWEN 3 DEGREE RANGE UP AND DOWN. I LOOK TO MY ERRORS AND I TRY TO LEARN FROM THEM, BUT ALSO NO INCREASE IN MY SCORE. PLEASE ANY ADVICE WILL BE VERY GRATEFUL.”

There are a couple reasons why this may happen:

1. The practice tests do not have the true qualities for evaluation of the real IELTS test. The real IELTS test is especially designed with an exact balance of easy and more difficult questions.

2. It's easy for your score to go up and down. It can be affected by the subject matter of the test, how well you guess the questions you don't know, how you feel, etc.

In one research project candidates were given the test and then they studied for three months and tested again. Many made a 0.5 Band improvement but a couple even did worse on the test after studying than before.

10. "ARE THE TESTS FROM IDP EASER THAN THE TESTS FROM THE BRITISH COUNCIL?”

There should be no difference in the scores received from the BC administered test and the IDP administered test. All the procedures and training for the examiners are standardized so that examiners around the world all give the same scores, in theory. All the tests are the same.

11. "I GAVE NO EXAMPLES AND I WROTE FEWER WORDS THAN 250, AS REQUESTED.

I WROTE ABOUT 220. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? WHAT SCORE CAN I GET IF THE ESSAY IS SHORTER (BUT QUITE GOOD ....)?”

On insufficient length: IELTS writing tasks actually receive 3 sub-scores. One of these sub-scores considers if there are enough ideas and supporting material to make your argument.

220 words is quite seriously under length. (A secret is that examiners will tolerate 240 but not 239.) It's very hard for me to guess what the examiner did, but I'll suggest he gave you a 4 on that sub-score because at 4 as I recall there is a task descriptor that describes insufficient support.

Suppose you wrote very well for the rest of the essay. Your English in your message looks nearly perfect.

If he gave you 8 for your other two sub-scores then 4+8+8=20/3=6.66 or Band 7 If he gave you 6 for your other two sub-scores then 4+6+6=16/3=5.33 or Band 5 You should always write Task 2 before Task 1 to be sure you are able to have the time to complete it. Task 2 carries more weight on the test and it is therefore more important that you do it well.

On examples: You mentioned you gave no 'examples'. I'm not quite sure what you're referring to. IELTS will not ask you to do something that would require presenting facts to support your argument; i.e.: population of a country, the name of a leader, the date of some event. That is because IELTS is focused on language ability and does not want the candidate to have to present factual knowledge of events. It is not a general knowledge test, it is a language test.

Perhaps what you meant was 'evidence'. The before mentioned sub-score asks if the candidate successfully did the three things below.

ARGUMENT- a clear point of discussion which is the task itself (rephrased) and initiated in the first paragraph. This is the same as what some people call the 'thesis statement'.

IDEAS - usually 3 but sometimes 2 or 4 main supports to the Argument.

These are perhaps best employed as 'topic sentences' at the beginning of the paragraphs.

EVIDENCE - the supports to the Ideas. These are information given in the body of the paragraph. Again, this doesn't have to be facts or details but can simply be reasons to support the Idea.

A high score for Argument-Ideas-Evidence requires 1) enough information, and 2) relevant information. When I was examining and scoring papers sometimes a candidate was writing pretty well and on-topic and then all of a sudden included some off-topic information or a story. Sometimes this information was related but too focused on a small aspect of the argument. For example, in the task you described, if you began to tell a story about how an experience had a life changing effect on you.

The IELTS Task 2 works well with the universal 5-paragraph essay. Here is how it works. Lets say the task is if smoking should be made illegal, yes or no.

The Argument is should smoking be made illegal. This can be written as the introductory paragraph, paragraph 1.

Now we need 3 Ideas which we can generate through some brainstorming.

Here are 3 Ideas: smoking is bad for your personal health; illness from smoking causes a lot of financial loss to individuals, business and even the national economy; but people have a right to do things that do not harm others.

So now we will take one of those Ideas and write a Topic Sentence to start off our paragraph: "Smoking is very bad for people's health.”

That's the first sentence of the paragraph which we will follow with Evidence to make up the rest of the paragraph. "Doctors have proven that smoking can cause cancer. Cancer often .etc. etc.”

Now we have the second paragraph. Repeat this process twice using the Idea to make a Topic Sentence and supporting the Topic Sentence with Evidence to make a paragraph.

Finish it off with a conclusion or summary.

12. "THE STRANGE THING IS MY FIRST EXAM RESULTS WAS BETTER THAN SECOND ALTHOUGH I STUDIED 3 MONTHS FOR THIS EXAM. I WAS INTERMEDIATE LEVEL AT MY ENGLISH COURSE 10 MONTHS AGO FIRST EXAM RESULTS”

The truth is that the IELTS test is not perfect. IELTS examiners can be off by one band. You may have gotten too high of a score the first time. Or perhaps your score was too low the second time. Or perhaps you were more nervous or there was a task that was easier for you to write about.

25 March 2009

Business dilemmas for business speaking

For business related dilemmas, problems and issues for your students to sort out I recommend two books by Cambridge. These are part of their 'photocopiable resource' book series and has teacher instructions, etc, etc.


"BUSINESS ROLES - 12 simulations for Business English"

Two of the twelve units are:

"Polluting the river - This US fridge maker has been secretly polluting the river for decades. However, putting a stop to it may mean heavy financial or job losses..." (Actually, GE is going through some problems in NY about this right now.)

"Quality and personnel - A VCR manufacturer with factories in the Far East and Europe tries to determine why quality is so much better in one plant than in the other."


"DECISIONMAKER - 14 business situations for analysis and discussion"

Two of the fourteen units are:

"Smoke Signals - A trainee in a large cigarette company has to respond to a secret marketing strategy"

"The Hohokum Virus - A computer company responds to a blackmail threat."


Although the books are similar in that they require discussion and problem solving in English, Business Roles is essentially for role play whereas Decisionmaker is for class discussion.

22 March 2009

Favorite materials & teaching via telephone

I am using 'Discussions A-Z, A resource book of speaking activities' published by Cambridge. It's expensive, but worth it to me as I've been able to use it a lot in my training.

It has photocopiable pages. I'm teaching an IELTS class and will photocopy 3 pages for the students. During the week, the students will call me three times and we'll do a page each time. This is an English by telephone course and it works great.

The book has lots of little questions formed around a topic. For example:

TIME
What would life be like if we didn't have clocks? Would there be any advantages? etc, etc.

FAMILIES
Why do we need families?
Is the family ever likely to disappear as an institution?
Should the mother or the father be the head of the family?
etc, etc.

JOBS
Which is the easiest job?
babysitter, dentist, football player, teacher
The most tiring?
doctor, farmer, miner, tip model
etc, etc.

There's about 50 units. Each unit has teacher's instructions. My students like it very much.

I'm doing this training by phone, partially as an experiment. I've found it to go surprisingly well. I was afraid there might be trouble with clarity over the phone line but it has been very clear. Also, the student gets one-on-one conversation time with me, howbeit only 15 minutes a go.

21 March 2009

The power of One - personal tutoring for a finance manager

Linda couldn't talk to me. She had studied English for about 12 years during her schooldays. She studied grammar and memorized words.

Her friend, a finance manager in an American company, wanted to introduce me to her.
I met them at the Starbucks in the center of Guangzhou, China.

Linda was the finance manager in a state-owned enterprise in the cold food chain logistics industry. Her company was about to form a joint-venture with the international Swire Logistics company based out of Australia. She had a chance to be the Number Two person in this new company but her boss, the Number One, was going to be Australian and spoke no Chinese.

Linda was going to have to be able to talk with him in English but she couldn't talk to me. Instead, her Chinese former schoolmate, a finance manager in an American company, interpreted for us.

"Could she improve her English enough to talk with her boss and take part in meetings in six months?"

As a former IELTS examiner I put her English level around Band 3, perhaps she was about 335 on the TOEFL. She could say a few words, phrases, but couldn't make a sentence. Would I take the job?

It was going to take a lot of work but we got busy, real busy. I started seeing Linda twice a week, two hours each time. We followed a couple Interchange books but rather loosely, mostly following topics of Linda's interests. She enjoyed trying to tell me about the goings on with her boss at her state-owned enterprise. There were always some blowups or crazy antics to report.

Sometimes our lesson was what I call an English Safari, a walk through an Ikea store or one of the biggest supermarkets or malls in town. Sometimes it was playing a board game like Scrabble.

Everyday that we didn't have a lesson I would call her or she would call me and we would chat for 5-15 minutes.

Each time I saw her I gave her some readers and next time I saw her she would report to me what she thought about them and what she learned.

We always had our lessons in caf├ęs and when some foreigners would sit nearby I would strike up a conversation with them and involve Linda in the conversation.

The new words that we encountered would be written down in my computer or mobile phone and I would send them to Linda by Email or SMS later for her review. She was pretty good about writing new words in her notebook but I felt it was also good for her to get them again, later, through another media.

Linda discovered her English was improving steadily until she found herself accidentally blurting things out in English to some of her Chinese colleagues who didn't speak English. She was understanding the Australian colleagues better and better, able to follow meetings and go out to dinner and hit the bars with them.

After six months her English was good enough. Linda got the job. And I lost mine.

11 February 2009

What students want

A teacher shared what he thought students want. I added my own thoughts.


"I HOPE THE TEACHER CAN HELP ENHANCE MY INTEREST TOWARDS ENGLISH LEARNING THROUGH VIVID METHODS, SUCH AS GAMES, SONGS, SHORT PLAYS, STORIES, ETC."

I've found that students don't want games all the time. They don't want movies all the time. But they do want a variety of activities.

"I HOPE THE TEACHER CAN CORRECT MY PRONUNCIATION." "I HOPE THE TEACHER WILL GIVE ME CORRECTION AND EVALUATION AS WELL AS ENCOURAGEMENT."

Somehow, many teachers have gotten the idea that if they correct their students the students will be discouraged. To the contrary, the students really want correction. Of course, the teacher should take care to correct the students in an encouraging way.

"I HOPE THE TEACHER WILL SHOW ME THE WAY A FOREIGNER THINKS." "I WANT TO KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT WESTERN CULTURE."

Students really want to understand how foreigners think and feel. I always had difficulty in managing this. I thought I had to include a class on culture. I realized that I did talk about cultural aspects from time to time but they students didn't realize it. So now when I talk about why or how foreigners think or some cultural background, I sort of headline it to the students by saying, "I know you are very interested in the culture of my country and this is a small cultural point." Then I continue explaining it to them. This way the students do know we talk about culture.

"I HOPE THE TEACHER WILL NOT USE COMPLICATED WORDS AND SENTENCES THAT PREVENT ME FROM UNDERSTANDING." "I HOPE THE TEACHER WILL NOT SPEAK TOO FAST."

Yes, but even though we become experts of simplifying our language, it still happens, doesn't it? In a mixed range class there will always be those who have more trouble. And sometimes these students will complain to the supervisors. To manage this and other problems in college classes, I do two things: (1) Tell everyone to ask me if they don't understand something. And when someone does ask me to clarify something I thank that person profusely as there are probably other students who also don't understand. (2) Ask the students for feedback and instead of having them return their feedback papers to me I have them post them all around the room for everyone to see. This way students can see how other students feel. If they see that they are the only ones asking for the teacher to speak slower then they can understand why the teacher may not be able to accommodate their request. (These feedbacks are useful for many other things as well.)

"I DON'T WANT THE TEACHER TO ENCOURAGE "FREE" DISCUSSION A LOT. IN THAT SITUATION ONLY STUDENTS WITH BETTER CAPABILITY TALK, WHICH WILL REDUCE THE CHANCES FOR SHY STUDENTS. IF I AM A SHY STUDENT, I WANT THE TEACHER TO GIVE ME SOME 'PUSH'."

Students often don't feel they are learning something when the topic is too open. However, I think it's good to break out on a topic that is being discussed or is related to what they are studying. For example, if the lesson refers to "niche markets" then the students could brainstorm and dream up some other possible niche markets.

"I WANT TO LEARN 'REAL' ENGLISH WITH SLANG AND IDIOMS."

Students want that. Very true. But I seldom teach them much. I think it would be fine for advanced students but not the kind of students I usually teach. Most slang has very narrow uses and my students have a lot of other English that they should learn first.

"I HOPE THE TEACHER WILL NOT FOLLOW THE TEXTBOOK RIGIDLY. BETTER BRING SOMETHING OF LIFE AND CULTURE INTO THE CLASS."

Some textbooks bring real death to students. They are so boooring. I recently had a textbook like that but I challenged myself to do interesting things with each lesson. When it was talking about hiring and was focused on a "dialog" of a job interview, I had the students read the interview and then divided the class in half, HR managers and job hunters. I posted the HR managers around the class and sent the job hunters to find a job. They didn't follow the interview at all but some of the language in the interview was helpful. They had a blast.