Monday, April 21, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 4: It Just Doesn’t Sound Natural

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

In his helpful book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) points out that one of the big problems with Intermediate level learners’ speech is that, though it might be grammatically accurate and reasonably fluent, it often just doesn’t sound natural. How frustrating this must be for students who have studied English for years but still sound like learners, not users of English! That would make almost anyone throw up his or her hands in despair. After all, what does it mean to “sound natural”? Actually, it turns out this is surprisingly straightforward, as defined by Richards. To sound natural, apparently, is to integrate a lot of multi-word chunks and formulaic phrases into one’s language.

Multi-Word Chunks & Formulaic Phrases

Richards cites O’Keeffe et al. (2007) when he presents the following ranked list of the most common multi-word chunks, as identified by the CANCODE corpus of spoken English.

  1. do you know what I mean
  2. at the end of the day
  3. and all the rest of it
  4. and all that sort of thing
  5. I don’t know what it is
  6. but at the end of the
  7. and this that and the other
  8. from the point of view of
  9. a hell of a lot of
  10. in the middle of the night
  11. do you want me to do
  12. on the other side of the
  13. I don’t know what to do
  14. and all this sort of thing
  15. and at the end of the
  16. if you see what I mean
  17. do you want to have a
  18. if you know what I mean Read more »

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Just recently, I wrote a post about the importance of all students developing a robust vocabulary. In Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) stresses that often one of the barriers between Intermediate and Advanced level students is that Intermediate learners rely heavily on lower-level vocabulary. In order to break into Advanced level language learning, students need to know 5,000 to 6,000 words. To further complicate matters, “knowing” a word goes far beyond being able to fill in a gap on a quiz. Students need to be able to, among other things, pronounce it, know the grammar rules that govern its form, differentiate it from similar words (for instance, ”cup” and “mug” distinguish between words that look the same but have different meanings (such as mean, as in unkind, and mean, as in “what does that word mean?”), discriminate between different levels of formality and attitudinal meanings (as in, “ask” and “demand”).

What Goes with What

In addition to a well-developed vocabulary, students also need to be adept users of collocation patterns. This brings to mind a presentation I attended at IATEFL a few years ago about Advanced learners. The speaker, Ben Goldstein, showed a letter about a trip on the screen and asked the audience to identify the words we thought upper level students would find challenging. In other words, what would we pre-teach if we wanted to use that letter in a class? Then, he pointed out all the words that a student might think he or she knew, but really didn’t. For instance, a learner might think “get” is a pretty low-level word and it is certainly in the 1000 word list. However, when paired with “carried away”, it becomes an Advanced level lexical chunk. I found this revelation fascinating because, even though I am an experienced teacher, I had not thought to pick out those smaller words. How embarrassing! Goldstein’s presentation proved to me that even though a word might seem “easy”, I need to be more aware of how it is being used and how it might trip up my students.

What is a Teacher to Do?

So, clearly, to help students move beyond a plateau at any level, we need to provide opportunities to develop their vocabulary. As I argued in Words, Words, Words, if students don’t know a word, it doesn’t matter how good their grammar or reading skills are; they can’t communicate. Here in Belgium, I am rarely silenced by a lack of grammar; I can usually make myself understood. But, not knowing a word can stop me in my tracks. For example, we had a water leak and it caused the wood floor in my bedroom to buckle. I had to ask my neighbour how to explain “buckle” in French before I could even think of phoning the landlord to report the problem. However, Keith Folse (2004) points out that, though vocabulary is really the end all and be all of language learning, text books often don’t focus on vocabulary building and language programs rarely offer vocabulary classes.

Even though I believe these deficiencies are slowly being rectified (my former university offers several levels of vocabulary classes), it is largely left to us teachers to help students develop their word banks. In my current teaching context, I provide vocabulary work on a regular basis. Especially for my Secondary students, having the perfect past tense won’t help them at all in Science class if they don’t know what an “amoeba” is. I usually follow an abridged version of Folse’s (2013) 9 Steps that I described in the previous post. Specifically, I have students begin a lesson with a card match of target word to definition. They can work on it as a group, as some have more background knowledge than others. Then, they copy the words and the definitions into their books. It’s a bit old-school to have them copy, but I firmly believe that this helps embed the words more firmly in their memories. Then, they have to translate the words. Many of my students won’t be at an English school forever. In fact, some come only for a year or two before they finish Secondary school in their home countries. So, they need to know “amoeba” in English for now and in their L1 for later. Then, in follow up lessons, we do readings and watch videos on the topic, revisiting the words again and again. We also play games, like the memory game (students turn up cards and try to find matches) and board games to help them remember. I often make my flashcards on Quizlet, which also provides games and review activities for each set of cards.

Clearly, knowing a lot of words is an important part of transitioning from Intermediate to Advanced learner. Teachers need to be aware of this and, because it takes a long time and a lot of effort to learn new words, we also need to identify which words are useful for our students to study.

Folse, K. (2004) Vocabulary Myths, University of Michigan Press.
Goldstein, B. (2010) “Countering classroom fatigue in advanced learners”, paper presented at IATEFL 2010 in Harrogate, UK.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Question of Terminology

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I am writing this entry in response to a question that was posted by Scott on one of my older entries, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach.” Here is what Scott wrote:

Hi David,

I’m doing an MA Tesol and one of my assignments is on CLT. I’ve scoured several textbooks and about a thousand websites, but no one seems to really define what CLT actually is! Although, there are plenty of texts that say what it ISN’T. Any thoughts on how to define it?!

Here is my answer:

Hi Scott,

I’m afraid you have come up against one of the biggest problems in ELT, which is the lack of a body of universally accepted definitions and terms. Here is my own interpretation of how and why we have ended up with this state of affairs.

As any successful learner knows, languages are learned rather than taught. Learning a foreign language as an adult requires an enormous investment of time and effort, and teaching methods and materials are only a tiny part of the puzzle. However, as these are the only things that we can directly control, their importance gets blown out of all proportion.

As teaching is so relatively unimportant in the big picture of language learning, new ideas and theories about materials and methods tend to have very little impact on actual outcomes. When one new method or approach turns out to be less effective than its proponents initially claimed, this leaves the field open for the next contender. And so the cycle continues.

If you look back over the history of ELT, you will see a series of what were actually nothing more than limited insights into the learning process or good ideas for activities being put forward as all-encompassing teaching methods.

What tended to happen is the following cycle:

  1. Teachers are told that a revolutionary new method or approach has been discovered, and that what they have been doing so far is wrong and should be abandoned immediately. At this point, the new idea is usually clearly defined, easy to understand, and intuitively appealing. It is also likely to be quite idealistic and quite impractical. (Suggestopedia, anyone?)
  2. Teachers realize that the method/approach has some useful new ideas, but also that implementing it in its “pure” form would be impossible. As a result, they integrate the parts of it that they like into what they were doing before while claiming to be following the new orthodoxy. Confusion begins to arise about the new idea as teachers notice that others who are claiming to be doing the same thing as them are actually doing something quite different.
  3. Supporters of the method/approach try to justify the original idea by “toning down” some of its claims. As you very astutely noted, this defence tends to take the form of saying what the new idea / method is not rather than what it is.
  4. As the number of these “weak forms” of the initial idea increases, everyone ends up totally confused about what it actually is.

This is pretty much exactly what happened with CLT, which is why you cannot find a standard definition.

As I understand it, (and I must stress that this really is just my own interpretation), the original insight of CLT was that communication is not just the goal of language learning, but actually the method by which languages are learned. In other words, we don’t just learn in order to communicate; we communicate in order to learn.

This was definitely a useful insight, and it is difficult to argue with unless it is taken to mean, “languages can only be learned through authentic communication,” i.e., that all language teaching must be Communicative. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened with CLT.

Eventually, teachers and academics realized that students still wanted and needed plenty of “non-communicative” teaching as well, which meant that defenders of CLT had to come up with different ways of defining so that it did not sound quite so extreme.

I think I mentioned this in my original post, but I remember having a debate with a Japanese university professor about the efficacy of CLT. He was very much in favor of it, and I was very skeptical. After arguing for about an hour, we realized that we were actually talking about two very different things. He assured me that under the “latest” and “most authoritative” definition, CLT refers to any kind of teaching that over the long term aims to improve the students’ ability to communicate. So basically, just “teaching” then!

A similar problem can be seen today with Task-Based Teaching. TBT began with the idea that tasks were the best way to organize language teaching. (Once again, I should note that this is my own interpretation.) The key proposition was that the language to be taught should arise naturally from meaning-focused tasks rather than being pre-selected by the teacher. Of course, this didn’t generally work in practice, so new definitions began to emerge. These generally refer to differing degrees of incorporating tasks into a broader syllabus, something that teachers and materials writers have doing for years anyway. The problem now is that many of these teachers claim that what they are doing is Task-Based Teaching when it is nothing of the sort. If you ever have to write a paper about TBT, therefore, I’m afraid you will run into exactly the same problems of definition.

In a paper I read recently, the respected academic Rod Ellis says that criticisms of TBT “reflect a failure to acknowledge that multiple versions of task-based teaching exist.” The same can probably be said of CLT. If this is true, however, then surely it is not possible to have any kind of meaningful debate about either of them.

To answer your original question, the reason that you were unable to find a single, universally accepted definition of CLT is simply that there isn’t one. For the purposes of writing a master’s paper on the topic, I would suggest that you discuss the difficulty you had finding a definition and conclude that, “there does not appear to be a consensus within the profession as to what CLT actually means.” Unfortunately, I guarantee that you will find teachers who tell you that an authoritative definition does indeed exist, and I also guarantee that whatever they tell you, you will have no trouble finding others who disagree with it. Such is the nature of terminology in ELT.

Hope that helps!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 2: The Difference between Fluency and Complexity

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

In his great book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) notices that another problem that contributes to the plateau that often plagues Intermediate level students lies in the difference between fluency and complexity. Again, I can really relate to this, as a French learner. For many years, I have been in such a panic to make myself understood and just communicate my thoughts and needs. I am usually okay with the simple past tense; however, if I need to do anything harder than that, I freeze up. My French linguistic system has not yet restructured to accommodate newer tenses, such as the imperfect.

Similarly with our students, they may have the passive voice down in a variety of simple tenses, but when they want to say something more complex, like “the bridge is going to be being built over the summer,” they stumble. In order to put an end to their plateau, learners need to add complexity to their output. Richards (2008) suggests that this can be accomplished in three ways: by addressing the language prior to the activity, addressing the language during the activity and addressing the language after the activity.

The Language Before the Activity

First, by address the language prior to an activity, he means pre-teaching the target language and providing students with a chance for rehearsal. Now, I am sure I am not alone when I say that I rarely begin a lesson without some sort of pre-teaching. If students are going to have a conversation about, for instance, pets, it makes sense that we teach or review pet vocabulary, right? Folse (2006) further divides this language into (1) the language in the task and (2) the language needed to complete the task. So, any animal vocabulary I would teach before my students talk about, for instance, pets would be the language in the task. However, many teachers, me included, often neglect the language needed to complete the task. For example, if the goal of the conversation were to have students rank a list of pets from most popular to least popular worldwide, the speakers would need to be comfortable with the comparative and superlative, as well as the language we use to disagree politely and to express our opinions. Without this, students will have a hard time carrying on the conversations we set for them.

Folse (2006) also backs up Richards’ (2008) claims that we need to give students ample time for rehearsal to they can move from fluency to accuracy and complexity. Folse (2006) claims that “[o]ne way to put all students – the outgoing and the reticent – on equal footing is to allow a planning phase before completing the speaking task.” This means we should give students the opportunity to write conversations before they have them. I’ve often struggled with this, as real life rarely offers conversationalists a chance for practice. However, I am convinced that if we mix opportunities for practice with occasions for spontaneous talk, it will benefit our students. In fact, one of my current students is a brilliant teenager from Korea. His vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing are fabulous. However, he is extremely reluctant to talk. I suppose if he were they chatty type, he might tell me that he is a bit of a perfectionist, and, since he can’t express himself without using simple sentences and making mistakes, he would rather not speak at all. So, I often have him write down what he wants to say and then put the paper aside and tell me. That way, he can express his thoughts more accurately and with more complexity than he would have without a planning phase.

The Language in the Activity

Second, Richards talks about addressing the language in the activity, in other words, how teachers implement the activity. For instance, do we have one student talk while all the others listen? Obviously, this does not facilitate the greatest conversation practice for the students not talking, so experts suggest groups of no more than 4 or, better yet, pairs. Folse (2006) argues that even the task we choose for them impacts their linguistic development. He claims “the “now talk to each other” pseudo-task is not acceptable.” Rather, we need to be setting specific activities rather than handing out a sheet of conversation questions. So, instead of telling my students to “talk about their pets” for 15 minutes, I should ask them to rank the most popular pets and then give them the results as reported by Google or have them compare how people treat their pets in North America with how people in their home countries treat their pets. I am not quite as anti-“talk about” as Folse, however. It seems to me that some practice on carrying on a conversation for the sake of the conversation is useful, both in the real world (I mean, I don’t usually have a task to complete when I get together with my friends for coffee) and in the conversation class. I just try to balance out the times I hand out a list of questions and give students time to talk with the times they are working together to reach a common goal.

The Language After the Activity

Third, Richards mentions addressing language use after the activity. I was a bit mystified by this. I mean, after the activity, isn’t the lesson finished? But, before the students go home, Richards suggests focusing on grammatical appropriateness via activities like having students publicly share what they discussed I their groups, as Richards (2008) contends “there is an increased capacity for self-monitoring during public performances.” Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about this suggestion. I hate, hate, hate the kind of activity where each group has to share with the class a summary of their conversation. When each group is more or less repeating what the other groups have said, students simply stop listening and tune out until it is their group’s turn to talk. No one cares about what other groups had to say on a conversation topic. However, if each group is focusing on a slightly different aspect of an issue, that makes the “sharing” part at the end more interesting.

Or, better yet, if the conversation is centered on a task, like Folse describes, it can be very interesting to hear the results each group reached. For instance, there are several great conversation tasks in Rooks’ (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook that always prompt lively discussion, and we all want to hear what each group decided at the end. For instance, in “Starting a New Civilization,” the students are told that a nuclear war has broken out and only a small island will be spared. There is a group of people waiting at an Australian airport and they can take a small plane to this island, but there are 10 people at the airport and only 6 can fit on the plane. The students have to decide which 6 will survive and continue the human race. Of course, each of the candidates has both something to offer and something that people may object to. For instance, there is a man of religion, a young female singer, a policeman with a gun, an alcoholic agricultural scientist, and so on. The conversation this activity prompts is always intense, and when groups can finally reach a consensus, they are eager to share their results and hear what other groups have decided.

In addition to a public “performance”, Richards also suggests having students listen to more advanced learners or even native speakers completing the same conversational task. The point, of course, is to have the students go beyond simply passively watching. Rather, the teacher would have to set some kind of a noticing task which would prompt the students to focus on the linguistic and communicative choices the speakers make. I think this is an interesting idea, and might work if teachers could somehow make recordings in advance of lessons. For example, when I taught pragmatic functions, like favor asking or ending a conversation, I filmed native speakers doing these things and used the conversations as an awareness raising activity in my lessons.

However, I could also have shown them at the end. Obviously, this kind of post-activity task has a number of drawbacks. First, who has the time to hunt down willing native speakers in order to record them ranking pets? Second, I am not sure students wouldn’t feel a bit depressed having to compare themselves with native speakers. Even though, logically, they know they aren’t as fluent or accurate as native speakers, I would worry that subconsciously, this activity might be a bit frustrating.

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Rooks, G. (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook, Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part I: The Gap Between Production and Reception

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I was recently reading the magazine, “Runner’s World,” and I came across an article called “Reboot, Refresh” about plateauing. The article basically points out that “every runner eventually reaches a period in their training where their progress levels off.” Apparently this plateauing is inevitable, and it is easy (at least for a slowpoke like me) to understand how a straight, climbing trajectory of improvement would be physically impossible.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the plateaus that frustrate runners’ dreams of personal bests and the plateaus that we notice in our students’ English development. Just as “[o]ver the course of a running life, there are natural peaks and valleys – and flat lines in between,” I have noticed my students’ English skills grow, recede and stagnate. In my experience, this leveling off seems to happen when students are trying to move from Intermediate level to Advanced. Many of them simply give up, deciding that their language skills are sufficient for their purposes. But, some struggle on, and eventually they become advanced and then proficient users of English. So, what made the difference for those students? How do some students make it through plateaus and what can I do to help?

With those questions in mind, I did what we all do these days; I Googled “ESL plateau.” Luckily, greater minds than mine have focused on this phenomenon. Jack Richards has even written a short book on the topic, “Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning.” Richards helpfully breaks plateauing down into 5 common problems and suggests steps teachers can take. Although I found the entire book useful, I wanted to summarize his suggestions for those who don’t have time to read it for themselves.

The Gap between Reception and Production

Richards points out that “[l]earners may have made considerable progress in listening comprehension and reading, but still feel inadequate when it comes to speaking skills. As a French learner, I feel their pain. I can often understand, at least, the gist of what I hear and read, but I am very nervous about speaking, knowing that my grammar will inevitably be wrong and my vocabulary will be imprecise. Richards suggests that a combination of “noticing” and “focused output” can be useful to help students overcome this problem associated with plateauing. First, he recommends that teachers provide students with activities that prompt them to “notice” target structures, as this is the basis for language development. For instance, after doing a listening comprehension activity, have students return to the text for a more focused look at the language used.

Try this for 30 Days!

Helen Solorzano explained how to do this in her part of the panel discussion, “Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension,” at TESOL this past year in Dallas, Texas. She suggested using a video clip from Ted Talks to encourage students to focus on what is said, how it is said and what is not said. She used a great clip where Matt Cutts, a Google bigwig, talks about trying something new for 30 days. It’s interesting, accessible for upper intermediate students, and very inspirational. First, to help students understand what is being said, she suggests identifying vocabulary and language students may find difficult by running the transcript through, as well as pulling out idiomatic and other interesting language for student attention. As students listen to the speaker and read the transcript, the teacher points out these words and phrases and discusses the meanings. For instance, in the Ted Talk, Cutts says he was “stuck in a rut”. Certainly, though not essential to understanding the gist of the listening, this phrase presents a perfect opportunity for closer scrutiny.

Second, Solorzano argues that teachers need to spend time in the lesson addressing how things are said. In other words, we need to emphasize the importance of discourse markers (reformulations and hedges, for example), stance markers (phrases that show certainty, likelihood, and attitude) and interesting pronunciation patterns in the organization of a text. For instance, Cutts contrasts how time generally tends to “fly by forgotten,” when he was doing a 30 day challenge, the time was “much … more … memorable.” In other words, he pauses slightly between each word. Those pauses didn’t happen by accident. He wasn’t trying to figure out what to say next. They are there for a reason, and Solorzano would have us challenge the students to guess what message those pauses might be sending.

Third, she contends that students need to think about what is not being said. Specifically, it is helpful to discuss cultural references that may not be immediately clear to them. Other useful focal points also include pictures, gestures and other inferences. Again, they may not be necessary for overall comprehension, but to help students “notice” language, these kinds of discussions can be useful. For example, in Cutts’ talk, he refers to meeting John Hodgman at a party. I had no idea who that was until Solorzano told us he was the guy who used to play the PC in those Mac vs PC commercials a few years ago. It turns out he is a prolific writer. Anyway, even though knowing who John Hodgman is won’t immediately catapult Upper Intermediate students into becoming Advanced English users, this kind of systematic “noticing” of language will.

Focus on Output

Richards also argues that teachers need to offer opportunities for “focused output.” The way I understand it, this is a bit different from the communicative output that has become popular in language classrooms around the world years ago. Rather than just encouraging students to talk without a care for accuracy, “focused output” is supposed to enhance fluency by providing practice activities that stimulate automaticity. In other words, Advanced language users don’t think about what they want to say word by word, they think in chunks of speech. Students who have the chance to “practice” the same chunks over and over are more likely to remember them and use them automatically.

One way of providing this practice is in conversation circles. One of my former co-workers from Howard Community College used to do this activity with her students. When she first described it, I thought, “How dull.” But, now I soon learned that this kind of repetition was far from that for her students. For homework the night before, the students prepared notes about a topic. The teacher then had half the class make a circle and then the other half made a bigger circle around the inner circle so each person in the inner circle had a partner in the outer circle. They then talked about their topic for 3 minutes. After the 3 minute time period was up, the outer circle shifted to the left and each person came face to face with a new partner with whom they spoke about their topic for 2 minutes. Then, the outer circle shifted again, and the speakers had 1 minute to speak about their topic. The idea is that the students speak again and again on the same topic, giving them much needed access to automaticity.

Georgis, A. (2013) Reboot, refresh, Runner’s World, June 2013.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Solorzano, H. (2013) Teaching Listening: From Perception to Comprehension, paper presented at TESOL 2013, Dallas Texas.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunters & Gatherers

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the idea of a “hunter-gatherer” society. According to Wikipedia, this is a society in which “most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals.” One feature of this kind of society is the division of labour between the sexes, with men tending to be hunters, and women more likely to be gatherers. However, the Wikipedia article stresses that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian, with women having just as much power as men. This is because equal importance is given to the role of hunting and the role of gathering.

In many ways, I think the hunter-gatherer metaphor is one that can also be applied to language learners. Some learners are hunters, some are gatherers, and some (the most successful ones) give equal importance to both. In the field of language learning, “gathering” might be taken to mean collecting new words, phrases, and structures as you discover them. However, just as an effective gatherer of food is not someone who simply waits around to be given things, effective gatherers of language need to be constantly on the lookout for new “nourishment” for their language ability. Gatherers of food actively search for it, looking under rocks, inside holes, and even in the trees above their heads. In the same way, efficient gatherers of language have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and open to the possibilities that present themselves. A Japanese woman I know who works for a publishing company once told me that she thought the secret of successful language learners is that they constantly have their “antennae” raised. In other words, they are always sensitive to new language, and they unfailingly notice it when it appears.

Another thing that food gatherers have to do is store their findings so that they can be accessed later. There is no point, for example, in picking a delicious-looking mushroom only to find out when you get home that you have dropped it somewhere along the way. In the same way, language gatherers need a systematic approach to filing away new language as they collect it. Here in Japan, I have found that students tend to have an obsession with writing things down. I suppose that, because of the frailty of human memory, we get a sense of security from making a permanent record of something that we want to remember. The problem for most of my students is that instead of being a means to an end, writing stuff down becomes an end in itself. Many students scribble things on scraps of paper that disappear into their bag at the end of the lesson. When I ask  them what they intend to do with those scraps, the most common response is a blank look. For those students, “learning” new language simply means writing it down.

Although being a good gatherer of information is an important skill for learners, I have found that most of the very successful ones tend also to have a “hunter” mentality. These people do not just wander around close to home picking up whatever happens to be lying around, they set out on journeys with the specific intent of finding new language and bringing it home. The difference between these people and unsuccessful learners can be seen in the contrast between the questions “What do I have to do for homework?” and “What can I do for homework?”

If you talk to a successful language learner, you will inevitably find that they were highly proactive in their learning. These are the people who read extensively, who watch the same DVD over and over again until they have learnt all of the lines, and who search tirelessly for new ways to “hunt” the language they want to learn. You will also often find that these people have developed their own methods of hunting. These have normally been developed through a process of trial and error, and they benefit from (and contribute to) a heightened awareness on the part of the learner of their own learning styles as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

On the subject of strengths and weaknesses, I remember some advice that Arnold Schwarzenegger once gave to aspiring bodybuilders. He told them to “spend 90% of your time in the gym working on the weakest 10% of your body.” I would say that is probably good advice for language learners too – spend 90% of your effort on the weakest 10% of your skills. In the world of bodybuilding, people often do the exact opposite, working ceaselessly on the parts of their body that respond best, and largely ignoring the bits that are slow to respond. That is why you often see men with huge arms and chests and skinny legs! In the same way, we also often see language learners who have great pronunciation but a poor vocabulary, or great reading skills but no communicative ability.

Going back to the hunter-gatherer metaphor, I think it is possible to identify three types of learner. The first is what might be called a “passive gatherer.” These people will collect language when it is presented to them, but they do not go out of their way to look for it. The second type are “active gatherers.” These are people who search for new language and make a conscious effort to store it. Active gatherers are usually more successful than passive gatherers. The most successful language learners of all, however, are the hunter-gatherers. These are the people who not only gather what they find lying around them, but who also plan regular expeditions to new and unknown places in order to hunt their prey. Which type are you?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Words! Words! Words!

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Whenever I am at a TESOL Conference, there are a few speakers I go out of my way to see every year. Keith Folse is one of them. Whatever he is speaking about, I know I will learn something new and have a great time doing it. He is entertaining and witty and so, so smart. (Can you tell I have a bit of a TESOL crush?)

Anyway, I managed to make one of his presentations at the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas, Texas in April. It was, as always, genius! He spoke about practical activities for learning vocabulary, a great topic for me, as my students needs to master lots of academic vocabulary quickly to succeed in their mainstream secondary school classes.

Folse organized his suggestions around Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, which I had never heard of before. At any rate, he contends that if teachers structure vocabulary development around this instructional design model, students have a better chance of retaining vocabulary. At the risk of miscommunicating Folse’s message (I hope he will see this and correct me if I misspeak), I wanted to share them with you.

1. Gain learner attention of target vocabulary. Folse says there are several ways we can do this. We can present the students with a problem that prompts the target vocabulary, ask them questions that contain the vocabulary or show them an advertisement with the vocabulary. I sometimes like to start a lesson with a simple card match (word to definition or word to picture) to see what students already know and to show them what words they will need to learn. Read more »

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I often ask students whether they have any problem understanding “small” English words like “a,” “the,” “it,” “at,” and “in.” They invariably reply that they do. Luckily, I have some great advice for them:

“There’s no point in worrying about them. You’re never going to understand them properly anyway, so you might as well just give up.”

I want to stress that I am not being facetious when I say this – I genuinely mean it. As I have mentioned before, I really struggled with Japanese when I started to learn it, and it was the small words that caused me the biggest problems. Actually, if someone asked me to choose the most difficult part of Japanese, I would have to say not a word, but two single letters. Japanese has something called “particles,” and the difference between two of themwa and ga—(these are single letters in the Japanese alphabet) is completely mystifying to speakers of languages like English that don’t use the same system. Of course, this is not something that is unique to Japanese. I have observed the same phenomenon with speakers of Asian languages trying to learn English articles.

Whilst it is true to say that wa and ga are mystifying for non-Japanese, it is also true to say that they are pretty mystifying for Japanese speakers too! Of course, Japanese people can use these particles correctly, but very few could explain the rules that govern their usage.

Even for teachers, it is often the “small” words of a language that cause the most problems. I remember talking to an experienced teacher when I started my first teaching job in Singapore. Faced with a syllabus of complicated grammar such as the past perfect tense, the passive voice, and conditionals, I asked my colleague which he thought was the most difficult to teach. He did not hesitate. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, “the most difficult thing to teach in English is the word ‘the’.” (We were teaching mainly Asian students.) With twenty years of experience under my belt, I would have to say that I completely agree with him. Read more »

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Helping ESL Students Hear

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

The other day we had a CPD (continuing professional development) session at my school. The topic was Teaching Hearing Impaired students. At first, I was a bit skeptical that the session would be valuable for me, as I don’t have any hearing impaired students at the moment. Nonetheless, I am always up for learning something new and usually really enjoy the opportunity for professional development. As I have said many times before, when I am “finished” learning about how to be a better teacher, it is time to get out of the business!

Hearing Aids ≠ Perfect Hearing

Anyway, I was glad I went. I had never really thought about hearing impaired students before. To my shame, I cannot even say for certain that I have never had any in my class. I had always assumed that if one of my students had a hearing problem and wore a hearing aid that their hearing problem was “fixed” and I needn’t concern myself any further. Wrong! Apparently, a hearing aid can just help improve someone’s hearing,; it doesn’t remedy the problem completely. Students who wear hearing aids still run the risk of missing some sounds, particularly those from what the speaker kept referring to as “high frequency” range, like the /ð/, /ϴ/and /f/. Imagine the frustration for a student in a pronunciation class working on differentiating between the two “th” sounds when she/he can’t even hear either of them. Read more »

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 6

More Trends in the Language

Richard Firsten

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

Well, here we are at the end of my series on observations I’ve made about changes that I see happening in English. Some of them will probably become permanent and end up being taught as either the grammatically correct forms or acceptable alternatives to traditional forms. A few, in fact, are already considered acceptable alternatives in some dictionaries and grammar books. Perhaps I should have titled this “The Heads-Up Series” since my goal has been to give you, our intrepid English teachers, a heads-up on what you may be teaching in the not-too-distant future. At any rate, let’s take a look at a few more changes I’ve observed.

·        Lay and Lie

Okay, my hardliners, in case you’re not aware of it, these days it’s considered acceptable to use either  lay or lie as the intransitive verb meaning to be in a horizontal or reclined position. The traditional distinction between the two, with lay being transitive (When I set the table, I lay a napkin on top of each dinner plate) and lie being intransitive (They got sunburned because they were lying on the beach too long) is a thing of the past, for all intents and purposes. So you can lay a napkin on a plate and lay on the beach to sunbathe. It’s interesting, though, that this change is a one-way street; it doesn’t work in reverse. You won’t hear people say A mason lies bricks or chickens lie eggs, will you?

·        The Illogic of Less

I’m sure that everybody has heard all sorts of native English speakers say phrases like less calories and less accidents. Traditionally, of course, we’re supposed to use less with uncountable nouns (and adverbs, too, for that matter). As for countable nouns, we should say fewer calories and fewer accidents. Well, more and more I hear and read phrases in which less is used with countable nouns instead of fewer. Read more »