Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What’s an ESOL Teacher to Do?

Richard FirstenRichard Firsten is a retired ESOL teacher, teacher-trainer and columnist

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired. During those years I was a classroom teacher, associate director of a university English language institute, and author of a number of textbooks both for students and teachers. I’m mentioning this because I want you to know how relieved I am that I’m now retired and not forced to deal with what I see going on in English these days.

Being retired, I have the luxury of time to observe how everyday native speakers are using the language in a variety of settings and contexts, and I have noticed some remarkable things going on that have taken hold where 20 years ago they never would have. The thing is, how does an ESOL teacher deal with what’s going on in grammar? Does the teacher stick strictly to what the textbooks say is standard English grammar in her/his lesson plans, or does the teacher incorporate into lesson plans the grammar changes that have taken hold even though those changes are contrary to what textbooks say? Mind you, I’m not talking about stylistic matters, only grammar.

Here’s a case in point, something that really did happen to me. I’d taught my class a lesson straight from their textbook about how certain foods are uncountable nouns, e.g., ‘bread’, ‘water’, ‘coffee’, ‘lettuce’, etc. I explained that in order to count these things, we must say ‘a loaf of bread’, ‘two glasses of water’, ‘three cups of coffee’, ‘a head of lettuce’. And then the next day two students who were in that class raise their hands in class and say, “Mr. Firsten, we ate dinner in a restaurant last night. We heard the waitress say, ‘So you want two coffees, right?’ Did she use bad grammar?” Yes, my face turned slightly red. Yes, I was at a loss for words momentarily. But then I realized I’d heard phrases like that a thousand times. So why was I teaching that my students must say ‘two cups of coffee’ and only ‘two cups of coffee’? Why wasn’t I giving them an alternative that the textbook failed to mention? Read more »

Monday, November 5, 2018

We Interrupt This Lesson…

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas.

What do you do when you are teaching a grammar concept only to find that your students don’t understand a vital underlying idea? This happened to me a few weeks ago when I was teaching level 1 students where to place adverbs of frequency in a sentence.

As you recall, AoF go before an action verb and after a “be” verb. As I was demonstrating this with sentences on the board, students seemed confused. Though we had covered the two types of verbs in a previous lesson, and then followed that lesson with other lessons practicing verbs, students seemed unsure of themselves when it came to identifying types of verbs. In order to proceed with my lesson, a small detour was required.

However, this unexpected side trip could have easily morphed into an adventure across the grammar galaxy. Verbs are their own wormhole within a wormhole. You have the 12 tenses, which can become confusing in their patterns and usage and nuances, but when you add on gerunds and infinitives, it’s almost like you’ve stepped into another dimension. Verbs acting like nouns and adjectives?

I quickly decided that the idea students really needed to know was “be” verbs (only three in present tense, which is what we were focusing on) and the seemingly endless list of action verbs. Later, I could go back and address verbs in more depth as needed. But to steer us back in the right direction, I improvised.

I made a T-chart on the board and labeled each side as “Be Verbs” and “Action Verbs.” Then I listed the three simple present “be” verbs on the board and then asked students to tell me things they do every day, like “go to work,” and “drive home.” I wrote the verbs from their phrases on the board under “Action Verbs.” (Asking students to tell me about their routines was handy because our topic for the day was “Daily Routines.”)

Then I told students we were going to play a game. Read more »

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Getting the most bang for your buck

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

“Bang for the buck” is an English idiom that means the return you get for spending a fixed amount of money, time, or effort on something. It is similar in meaning to “value for money.” Bang for the buck was originally used by politicians to talk about getting the maximum amount of firepower from military spending. Some people do not like this idiom because of its history, but I think it can work as a useful metaphor for language teachers and learners.

In my experience, a lot of people focus on the question of whether a particular teaching method or study technique is “useful” or “beneficial.” However, this question is setting the bar very low (another idiom that means not aiming for a high enough target or goal). Strictly speaking, any form of teaching or study can be described as being “useful” if its effects are more than zero.

For example, if an English speaker wanted to learn French, they might choose to do so by spending three hours a day comparing the French and English translations of the Bible. Would this kind of study be beneficial to them? Undoubtedly. In fact, throughout history, more people have probably learned languages from the Bible than from any other text.

Even if we accept that there is some benefit to this kind of study, however, most language teachers and learners would feel instinctively that it would be possible to achieve better results by spending those three hours doing other things as well as (or instead of) reading the Bible. The question we should ask of any study or teaching method, then, is not “Is it useful?” but rather “How much bang am I getting for my buck?” To put it more simply, we need to ask, “If I am going to spend $X and Y hours on this, what can I do that will give me the best possible results for that level of input?” Read more »

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Games for Vocabulary Development

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

One of my all-time favorite ELT quotes comes from Keith Folse’s 2004 book, Vocabulary Myths. He is summarizing Lewis (1993) when he points out that “[w]ithout grammar, little communication may be possible; without vocabulary, no communication is possible.” (25) This quote always reminds me of when I lived in Korea and wanted to buy rice at the little corner store. I knew the word for rice when I ordered it in a restaurant, bap, but I didn’t know that Koreans use a different word for a bag of uncooked rice. The shopkeepers kept saying they didn’t have bap. I did not believe that a corner store in Korea did not sell rice, but because I didn’t know the right word, I eventually left frustrated, perplexed and empty handed. Clearly, words are absolutely necessary for language learners.

Unfortunately, however, there is often precious little time in class devoted to vocabulary development. In fact, one of the eight myths discussed in Folse’s (2004) book is Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover second language vocabulary adequately. Research clearly shows that if we are to help our students become more capable communicators, we need to provide them with more exposure to and practice with new words. In a previous blog, I summarize one of Folse’s TESOL presentations on the topic (Words, Words, Words) that contains some practical suggestions for helping students build their word banks. However, I also wanted to share a couple of fun games I’ve used with great success in my classes.

Joanne’s Line Up Game

Years ago, I used to work with a woman named Joanne, and I was observing a lesson of hers once in which her students played this game. I loved it so much, I’ve been using it ever since.

Before the Class

  1. Write target vocabulary (at least 1 or 2 words per student) on the board.
  2. Make sure you have several colored markers.

Read more »

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Amazing Correction Race

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

Let’s face it, writing classes don’t usually scream “fun and games.” I mean, in real life, writing is usually a solitary activity. Even when I collaborate on a project with a colleague, we don’t often actually sit side by side and write. Also, writing can feel deeply personal, even when it’s academic or professional. Whenever I send off any writing I’ve done to my publisher, I always feel a bit vulnerable. And, that’s when I submit work in my L1. Imagine the bravery it takes to write in a new language, much less have a classmate peer review your work.

Clearly, getting students to relax enough to interact and write in a new(ish) language can be a tall order for any writing teacher. So, I heartily embrace any ideas for making writing lessons more engaging and fun for my students. Luckily, many years ago, when I was teaching TOEFL Prep, I stumbled upon a game that I have played with students of all ages and at all levels since then.

Read more »

Monday, August 13, 2018

Let’s Play a Game: Why Games Are Important to Our Students

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, TX.

“If I gave you one million dollars that you had to spend in one day, what would you buy?”

A question like this is typical in a simple game reviewing second conditional statements or subordinate clauses. One student reads the question, another student answers it using the grammar form that is being reviewed, then asks the next student a variation of the question. A class may even see how fast they can repeat this process for an added thrill. A simple game like this is found in nearly every ESL/EFL class.

Playing games is one surefire way to increase student engagement. Jane McGonigal quotes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011). The quote reads “One way or another, if human evolution is to go on, we shall have to learn to enjoy life more thoroughly,” (p. 17). It stands to reason that students enjoy class more if we play games, as any experienced teacher knows this. The quote comes from Csíkszentmihályi’s 1975 book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games.

Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Swiss author Johan Huizinga was originally published in German in 1944 then in English is 1949. He says, “[C]ulture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning…In the twin union of play and culture, play is primary” (p. 46). This is often demonstrated in our basic language classes where the lingua franca is still in its infant stages. Students can still play a game, even if they cannot formulate a simple sentence yet. From this game, the class culture is born. Read more »

Monday, July 30, 2018

Right from the Start: Teaching True Beginners

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

This past academic year, I taught a class that was brand new to me. It’s always weird to be doing something completely different when I’ve been teaching ESL for as long as I have (25ish years now), and that’s one of the things I love about this field. You never know where you’re going to find yourself if you say yes to stuff on a regular basis.

My instructional sweet spot is high intermediate, but I’m one of the administrators of our English Language Center, so I teach what is needed. This past year, what was needed was a teacher for a brand new academic pre-beginning all skills class. We’re talking students whose English proficiency is so limited that they can’t say where they are from, they don’t know colors, they may not be able to decode letters the alphabet, and they can’t understand basic commands. Gulp. So, way back last August, I panicked for a bit, and then I attended a professional development session, googled “teaching true beginners,” talked with my generous mentor, took a deep breath and jumped in.

It’s been quite a year. I am painfully aware that I still have a lot to learn about teaching true beginners. In my experience, pretty much any first pass with a class is destined to be a bit of a train wreck, as I experiment with supplemental materials and figure out what works and what bombs. True to form, I made lots of mistakes. But, that’s how we learn, right? And, even though I am admittedly not an expert in this area at all, I wanted to share some of my observations about the differences between teaching true beginners and teaching higher level students. Read more »

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Do You Do or Don’t You?

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, TX.

If you have taught English for any length of time, you have heard frustrated students bemoan the cornucopia of grammar exceptions to the rules. Their frustration is easy to understand. After all, when students first start studying English grammar, the patterns are simple. As students progress, the rules become tangled until they seem to be upside down and inside out. However, if we remind students to look at grammar as a function of communication, they will have an easier time as they advance in their studies.

One example of a confusing rule is the do-insertion before action verbs in statements. This occurs when we want to stress an action by inserting do (or its forms) before a verb. For example, if you said, “Maria doesn’t want to go to the movies with us,” but Maria hears you and insists this isn’t true by saying, “Yes, I do want to go with you,” the do-insertion emphasizes that she wants to go.

Many grammar books omit the do-insertion because it would be easy for students to assume do + base verb is used all the time. We often see this when students use did + base verb for every positive simple past tense verb, alleviating any need to learn the past participles (until students advance to using past participles as adjectives). The do-insertion may also be overused since do is the auxiliary verb for yes/no questions, which leads to do as the verb for the short answer, “Do you want to discuss grammar phenomena over coffee?” “Yes, I do.”

I don’t usually teach the do-insertion to basic or low intermediate students so as not to confuse them and to prevent bad grammar habits. When I teach this concept to high intermediate or advanced students, I give the example of being reproached for not doing a required task at work or school since either of these situations are relatable. I use the example of my being required to turn in grades by a certain date. If my program director told me, “You did not turn in your grades on time,” but I know I did, I would say, “I did turn them,” to emphasize that I completed the task. Read more »

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What Modifications Would You Make for ELLs in Mainstream Classrooms? – Part 3

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

In my last 2 blog posts, I told you that one of my best friends asked me for some advice about supporting English Language learners (ELLs) in a mainstream primary school class. In addition to working as an adult ESL administrator and instructor, one night a week I teach in a local MATESOL program. So, I got pretty excited when she asked about this topic.

Her question was: What modifications and adaptations would you make for ELLs in your classroom?

In Part 1 of this blog post, I shared my thoughts on teaching vocabulary. In Part 2, I discussed the importance of knowing my learners. I had 1 other piece of advice for her as well.

Balancing BICS and CALP

Jim Cummins (1989) came up with the terms BICS and CALP to differentiate between the different kinds of language students need to master. BICS refers to Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills. It’s basically conversational language and it develops in 6 months to 2 years, in general. CALP, is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. It’s typically learned through formal instruction and relies on vocabulary and grammar that may not be used in everyday language. It takes (get this!!) 5 to 7 years to develop, and for SLIFE, it can take up to 10 years! The problem is that ELLs develop BICS and then are considered English proficient; however, they may not have developed the CALP they need to succeed with content area learning. It’s this discrepancy that has led to the proliferation of LTELs in US public schools. Read more »

Thursday, June 28, 2018

What Modifications Would You Make for ELLs in Mainstream Classes? – Part 2

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

In my last blog post, I told you that one of my best friends asked me for some advice about supporting English Language learners (ELLs) in her mainstream primary school class. In addition to working as an adult ESL administrator and instructor, one night a week I teach in a local MATESOL program. So, I got pretty excited when she asked about this topic.

Her question was: What modifications and adaptations would you make for ELLs in your classroom?

In Part 1 of this blog post, I shared my thoughts on teaching vocabulary. I had two other pieces of advice for her. Here is one of them:

Know your Learners

Educators who are unfamiliar with ELLs might often think that they are one fairly homogeneous group. Even though they might speak different L1s, they all are English learners, right? ESOL professionals, however, know differently. In fact, there are many different kinds of ELLs with many different kinds of needs (Freeman, Freeman & Mercuri, 2002). It should be said here that although I am specifically speaking about public schools in the USA, I suspect that the situation in many other countries is similar.

Educated ELLs

Some students may come from countries with solid, reliable education systems. This was certainly the situation for me when I taught middle school English as an Additional Language (EAL) at the British School of Brussels in Belgium several years ago. My ELLs generally came from well-off families, and their parents were not only literate in their L1, but also often proficient English speakers. In many instances, the topics my students were learning about in their content classes, they had already learned about in school in Japan or Korea or France. So, they could concentrate on learning the English for the topic. They were usually well-supported by their parents at home, too. One of my students’ fathers told me that he had sat with his daughter every night and brushed up on electricity or animal adaptation or the water cycle in Japanese just so he could help his daughter learn the content in English. Read more »