Monday, November 23, 2015

Genre Writing, Courtesy of Nigel Caplan

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

How great is it to be an ESL/EFL teacher? To me, it’s absolutely amazing to have worked in a field for as many years as I have and to still be learning new things. I suspect you might feel that way too, no matter how long you’ve been teaching, because you are reading this blog. Anyway, a few weeks ago, there I was in a professional development workshop organized by my school, listening to the dynamic and engaging presenter Nigel Caplan talk about writing, and becoming giddy about learning something new.

Now, these days I don’t teach many writing classes, but I found what he had to say really interesting and potentially applicable to other skills. My two big “take-aways” from Nigel’s presentation were related to (1) genre writing and (2) collaborative writing. Today, I’ll share what I learned about genre writing. Read more »

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Teaching Vocabulary to Beginners: Research and Resources

Stacy1By Stacy Hagen
Co-Author, Azar-Hagen Grammar Series

Teaching vocabulary to beginners is definitely challenging! In terms of research, Betty and I have a few resources to recommend:

Keith Folse has an excellent book: Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Here’s a link to a summary of the eight myths:

Paul Nation has done extensive research on teaching vocabulary. His article on teaching beginners is short and to the point. His website may also be useful, including download links for free graded readers.

Both Folse and Nation advocate some use of the L1 to teach vocabulary.

American English at State posts short, user-friendly vocabulary lessons on their Facebook page (though I couldn’t find these lessons on their website.) If your students are on Facebook, they might enjoy these.

American English at State also offers a free app for learning English. If you are interested in other English language learning apps, here is a helpful review. At the beginning level, these programs seem to emphasize vocabulary.

Good luck! We hope these resources are helpful.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A-MAZE-ing Activities are a BALL

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Don’t you just love those professional development sessions when great teachers sit around and share practical teaching ideas? I always walk away with ideas for fresh ways to prompt student practice. Even better, instructors often remind me of old activities I used to use but now lie moldering in a file somewhere, and they often suggest ways to tweak these old activities for use in other lessons. That happened to me recently when I was at a PD session for instructors at the English Language Center at Howard Community College, where I work, and I walked out with one new idea and one resurrected idea.

One of the teachers talked about a way she promotes class involvement when reviewing grammatical forms. Now, I have experimented with using a ball in class before, but her take on this practice was fresh, at least to me. She bought a big cheap ball (in my mind, this would work very well with an inflatable beach ball), which she wrote target grammar prompts all over. She was working on forming questions with her class, so she had written question words on the ball. In the lesson, she had the class stand up in a circle and she tossed the ball to a random student. When the student caught the ball, she had her make a question with the question word that her thumbs were touching or closest to. So, if a student caught the ball like this, Read more »

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Place for the L1?

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

If there is anyone out there who reads this blog regularly, you might know that after several years of living in Belgium, I returned last fall to the USA. When I was in Belgium, I taught EAL (English as an Additional Language) in the Secondary School Immersion program at the British School of Brussels (BSB). Now, I am an ESL program coordinator and instructor at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. As I have readjusted to life in North America, I’ve noticed so many differences between my life in Europe and my life here. Some things here are great, like being able buy groceries on a Sunday and free soda refills at restaurants. On the other hand, I miss some things from Belgium, including long, slow meals out and being able to drive to a completely different country in a few hours.

Mother Tongue …

One of the things I’ve noticed as being a little different in my professional life is how teachers seem to feel about the role of the L1 in their classrooms. I first heard the term “mother tongue” while I was teaching at the BSB. Basically, as you might easily guess, the phrase refers to a person’s first language. My mother tongue is English; however, my mother was born in Canada but in a Russian-speaking community, so her mother tongue, the first language she spoke, is Russian, even though her English is much stronger than her Russian. Read more »

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Helping Students Listen to Learn

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

If you walked into a lecture hall in almost any university or college in North America, you would most likely see and hear a very diverse student body. In fact, The Wall Street Journal (Jordan, 2015) recently reported that there are more international students in US classes than ever before. While this increase is beneficial for post-secondary educational institutions for many reasons, not least of which is financial, it does present a unique set of challenges for our mainstream colleagues.

When faced with a class full of international learners, college and university instructors are often unsure how to help the ESL students who seem to be struggling in their classes. Although occasionally instructors responded to this changing study body with frustration (“Why are they in my class if they can’t speak / read / write in English?”), more frequently teachers genuinely want to help these students to be successful. They tend to realize that, just because students have finished the ESL program at our college, it does not necessarily mean that these international students are the same as the native English speakers in the class. In fact, more and more, instructors of science, math, nursing, and business at the college and university level are finding that their students benefit from differentiation and specialized support. Read more »

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Amazing Adjectives

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Descriptive adjectives can make students’ speaking and writing richer and more interesting. However, my students tend to rely on the same, worn out adjectives time and time again: good, fine, nice. You might have heard responses like this before if you also teach English and/or have teenagers.

Azar’s Basic English Grammar does a great job of introducing students to adjectives in a couple of places. In Chapter 1, Using BE, there is a section in which students are introduced to the “be + adjective” combo and in Chapter 14, students get more practice with the syntax associated with English adjectives. However, some students need to spend a little more time experimenting with using adjectives in order to use them accurately.

A Lot of Adjectives

For many students at all levels, using a wide variety of adjectives in speaking or writing is less of a grammar problem and more of a vocabulary problem. In other words, once students learn the words old and young as beginners, they may not be motivated to learn substitutions like ancient, elderly or mature and youthful, juvenile and fresh. After all, there are so many words to learn in English, why waste time learning synonyms when the original word will do? Read more »

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Bitter End?


By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

A colleague recently forwarded me an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education called Final Exams or Epic Finales . The author, Anthony Crider, describes how his dissatisfaction with the traditional “final exam” closure of a class led him to consider alternative assessments and activities for the last day of class.

Goodbye TOEFL Style

In some ways, I can relate to Crider’s frustration. I, too, have experienced the “hushed farewell” that he and his students exchange as they are turning in their final exams. In the Spring, I taught a TOEFL Prep class, and the final exam took up the entire final day of the class. So, my last exchange with students with whom I had worked all spring to develop a relationship and of whom I was so proud, wound up being a whispered, “Have a good summer. Good luck on the ‘real’ TOEFL!” as they slunk out of the exam. In truth, I did get to make a little speech about all their hard work before the exam began, but I suspect most of them were not really listening and probably just wishing I would stop blathering so they could get on with the test. As Crider says, “[t]his is not how a course should end.” Read more »

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Listening from the Bottom Up

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

In a previous posting, Learning to Listen, I shared some important lessons I had learned from a presentation I attended at TESOL 2013. One of my biggest takeaways from that presentation was that I needed to do a much better job of incorporating bottom-up listening skill building in my ESL classes. According to research conducted by Goh (2000) the vast majority of students’ difficulties with listening were related to bottom-up skills. Moreover, Tsui and Fullilove (1998) found that less skilled listeners rely on bottom-up strategies to such a degree that their listening comprehension suffers. Therefore, all our students, but especially those who struggle with listening comprehension, benefit from more practice that develops their bottom-up listening skills.

So, what are bottom-up listening, or decoding, skills? Well, it means “using the information we have about sounds, word meanings, and discourse markers, like first, then and after that, to assemble our understanding of what we read or hear one step at a time.” (Brown, 2011, page 19) According to experts like Goh (2000), Field (2008), and Vandergrift and Goh (2012), some of the biggest problems students have with listening include the inability to segment speech into manageable chunks, to recognize individual words, even ones they easily recognize in print, in streams of speech, and to comprehend English spoken at a natural rate. Read more »

Monday, August 10, 2015

Going “Retro” in Grammar Class

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

Every few years, it seems, somebody comes up with a new approach to language teaching, a new methodology with certain strategies that will save the language-teaching world and make teaching and learning a language a total joy without anything laborious required to accomplish the goal. Well, during my 35 years plus of language teaching, I saw my fair share of these approaches and methodologies. None of them was perfect, of course. They all contained good strategies, but they had bad or impractical strategies as well. It didn’t take me too many years to realize that the best approach for me, at any rate, was to pick and choose, borrow and adapt strategies from all sorts of ways to teach and learn a language – in other words, to go eclectic. At the same time, when thinking about techniques I’d often used that got the job done, I always kept in mind that old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So just because something was supposedly new, that didn’t mean I had to forego something tried and true and replace it with what was now in vogue. Unfortunately, I think that was what many teachers actually did.

There are two things I think worth discussing from the ELT “days of yore” that I hope many of you will keep in mind and use in your teaching approaches if you’re comfortable with them. For the most part, they’re oral/listening comprehension activities.


This approach was developed by Christina Bratt Paulston and Mary Newton, two early leaders in the field of ELT. Read more »

Monday, August 3, 2015

Practicing the Present Perfect

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

I find students need lots and lots of  practice before they can use the present perfect with a degree of fluency and accuracy. Here are some of the activities I turn to when I want to spend a little more time in class on the present perfect.

Past Participle Circle

Students often struggle to memorize the past participles of irregular verbs, and they tend to need multiple opportunities to review them. A quick way to warm up once students have been introduced to the list is the Past Participle Circle. Have the students stand in a big circle. Start the game off by saying the base form of a verb. Then, the person (let’s call him/her person 2) to your left has three seconds to say the past participle of that verb. If person 2 is correct, then the person to his/her left (person 3) says the base form of a verb. But, if person 2 is incorrect, he/she sits down and is “out”. In that case, person 3 must say the past participle form of the verb and person 4 says the base form of a new verb.

In the traditional form of this game, if someone makes a mistake they are “out.” However, in a recent in-service I attended, a colleague suggested a great twist on this game that ensures that the people who are “out” continue to remain involved and engaged. If a person makes a mistake or can’t answer in time, a person who is “out” has a chance to answer and, if correct, take the place of the person who didn’t know the answer. I have found this tweak to the original game to be a lot of fun and it means the entire class keeps playing for the whole game and not just the stronger students who already know all the forms anyway. Read more »