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

“If we take the example of a pop star such as
Madonna, it is HARD TO SEE in WHAT WAY she
even have a NEGATIVE EFFECT on young people
and encourage them to EXPERIMENT WITH SEX AND
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

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.