Monday, August 21, 2017

Preparing for a New School Year: Lessons Learned

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

Ah, August. These are the final hurried weeks before a new school year for some of us, and for a few of us, these are the nervous, nail-biting, nauseating and sleepless weeks before our first official teaching positions.

I remember my first-day-of-school anxiety before my “maiden voyage” as a middle school English teacher over fifteen years ago. I spent much of my time trying to anticipate every possible situation and devising plans to overcome any obstacle. I hoped that if I thought of every scenario, then perhaps I would have a smooth first year. But alas, we cannot predict the unpredictable. Each class and every student are unique, an infinite number of variables that are constantly changing. Every day brings new interruptions, necessitating sudden modifications to lesson plans, adapting to unforeseen situations. I learned that flexibility was not only a skill but a necessary tool for survival.

Since my first day, I have taught in public and private schools, from elementary through college. Though many of the lessons I have learned over the years may pertain to particular situations, a few rules of thumb apply to nearly every instructor. Perhaps I can help other teachers avoid a few of the pitfalls I have encountered by sharing a little advice. Read more »

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Using Corpus Linguistics

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

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might know that I am a conference junkie. While there are plenty of great local and national conferences for me to choose from, I love going to the TESOL International Convention the best. I love flipping through the program, attending the sessions, wandering through the publishers’ exhibits, and seeing colleagues from all over the world. Every year, I try to choose to attend at least one session on a topic about which I know absolutely nothing. Sometimes I don’t even know the key words in the description.

Corpus What?

This was the case many years ago, at my first ever TESOL Conference, when I attended a session on Corpus Linguistics. The speaker was Victoria Clark, and at the risk of being overly dramatic, it was life changing. Or, at least, it was work changing. She talked about how text books (back in those days, anyways) rarely contained language that reflected how people really use language. She gave the example of the most basic and common of turns, “Thank you.” and “You’re welcome.” Nothing too controversial, right? Except, when we use Corpus Linguistics research to analyze what we actually say in response to “Thank you”, we learn that we are more likely to say things like “No problem.” “Have a good day.” and “Sure.” In fact, “You’re welcome.” is really low on the list, even below “no response”! As I walked out of the session, I resolved to start to think more critically about language and whether or not what I think I say is actually what I say. Read more »

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Colorful Writing

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

When you’ve been teaching for as long as I have, you’ve probably tried just about every teaching technique at one time or another. I have drawers full of old games and activities that I dust off from time to time for use in a class I am currently teaching. Sometimes, I attend a PD session that reminds me about an approach that I used to use years ago, too. When I was at TESOL in Seattle a few months ago, one of the sessions I attended did just that; it put a name to a strategy that I used to use years ago when I was teaching a TOEFL Prep class, Writing with Colors ©.

Colors in the TOEFL Prep Class

One of my favorite classes to teach is TOEFL Prep. The students tend to be super motivated and focused because they are on the cusp of a major life change, and they need specific scores to move on to the next chapter. It’s also challenging for me as a teacher because the students ask the most thought-provoking advanced grammar questions and because, when I was teaching it, I was always trying to come up with engaging and meaningful ways to introduce students to useful strategies for increasing their scores. Read more »

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Does It Take to Learn?

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

What can we do in our classes to facilitate student learning? What activities increase learning? Are we inadvertently doing anything to impede learning? These are certainly some of the most important questions that language teachers are (or should be) asking. After all, student learning is the whole point, right?

But, we know from our experience in front of the classroom that teaching doesn’t necessarily equal learning. How many times have you taught a grammar structure or a vocabulary word only to be met by blank stares when “reviewing” it in the following lesson. Learning is rarely a straight forward movement, and that old saying about taking a step forward and three steps back seems really apt when the topic of learning comes up.

Fortunately, researchers have some suggestions about biologically proven ways to increase student learning in our classes. In other words, there are things that we can do as teachers to help students learn more easily and more fully. In a recent professional development session delivered by Lynn (2017), she highlighted three best practices for facilitating learning in our ESL and EFL classes.

Before I share what I learned, it might be helpful to understand how learning physically happens in the brain. So, get ready for some incomprehensible figures. According to researchers, we are born with 100,000,000,000 neurons in our brains, we can grow 700 new neurons every day, and each neuron has dendrite branches (like leafless tree branches) that can make 10,000 connections each over the course of our lives. Each connection represents learning. When we learn about something, synapses, which are located in various places along the dendrite branches, fire and a new connection between two dendrite branches is made. The stronger the learning, the stronger the connection. Read more »

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Science of Using Art in Language Classrooms

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

What’s the difference between art and science?

I suppose a person’s answer will be based on her perspective. For example, when I was a Chem 101 student, I fell in love with the elegant beauty of the periodic table. Such a simple design, yet it represents an enormous amount of information. As a starry-eyed student, I felt art and science were the same. On the other hand, a politician looking to cut a state’s education budget would have a much different view of art and science.

As language instructors, we have another perspective, especially when it comes to teaching. We often mix art and science to maximize time and student success.

One of the most popular uses of art in a language class is showing students pictures to activate background knowledge. We know if students associate new knowledge with old, they will understand new concepts better and remember them longer. But I would like to talk about another way we can use pictures in language classes: We can use simple images as symbols for new ideas.

A few weeks ago, my low level adult ESOL students were learning the different forms of the simple present “be.” From experience, I knew some students would forget the three forms and would have difficulty recalling them when writing short sentences, so I decided to use a simple image to help them remember. I drew a triangle on the board and asked the students to tell me the three simple present “be” verbs. When students gave me the answers, I wrote each word on a corner of the triangle. Later, when I was helping students with their sentences, I only had to draw a small triangle to help students remember that “be” has three forms. Read more »

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Woman with a Plan

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

To Plan or not to Plan?

Do you plan your lessons? I wouldn’t have thought this was a question worth asking until I happened to find myself involved in a conversation with an experienced instructor who casually said he didn’t usually write up a lesson plan. His point was that the Teacher’s Resources that come with many textbooks provide such a complete step by step breakdown of the lesson, that he doesn’t feel the need to do any planning.

So, as you are reading this, what reaction are you having? Are you thinking, “Well, duh. Lesson planning is for suckers.” Or, are you thinking, as I was, “What?!?!” Even though I have been teaching for more than 20 years, it would never occur to me to step foot in front of a class full of students without having thought through what I want them to accomplish in the time I have with them.

Why Bother with a Plan?

Part of the reason I am a rabid lesson planner is simply because I am a planner in general. I plan everything: meals, vacations, weekends. My poor husband hasn’t experienced a moment of spontaneity in years. I like the comfortable feeling of walking into a class knowing what we’ll be doing in the lesson. I also think my students appreciate when I write the lesson schedule on the board so that they also have an idea of how the class will unfold. Planning makes me feel (and appear) organized and in control. Read more »

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Grammar Terminology in the ESL Classroom

GenevaGeneva Tesh is an ESL teacher, materials writer, Azar-Hagen Grammar Series contributor, and grammar enthusiast. She teaches in the Intensive English Program at Houston Community College.

Someone recently challenged me with a question. How would I define the past perfect for students if class were about to end and I had only a few minutes to jot down a definition on the board? I wrestled with the question, not because I couldn’t think of a definition, but because I couldn’t imagine writing a definition of a grammatical term on the board in an ESL classroom. What I would do instead is write a few sentences with past perfect verbs. I might write a couple more with the simple past and present perfect to illustrate how the past perfect differs from other past forms. Is it useful for students to know grammar terminology? To some extent I think it is, but in other ways I wonder if it hinders language learning.

When I think about this question, my former student Sasha comes to mind. Sasha was upset because she couldn’t understand the difference between adjective clauses and noun clauses. Oh, well that’s easy. An adjective clause describes something, whereas a noun clause acts as a noun. She shook her head in frustration, still not getting it. I carefully defined clauses, nouns, and adjectives. By this point she was exasperated, insisting that she understood the difference between a noun and an adjective, but not between a noun clause and an adjective clause. I finally came to this conclusion: it didn’t matter whether or not she could understand the terminology. She knew how to use both clauses very well in both speech and writing. We were wasting time parsing sentences and focusing on meta-language. To further illustrate my point, I asked Sasha to walk around campus and ask ten students, ideally native speakers, to explain the difference between an adjective clause and a noun clause. I suspected she would find only one or two who could do it. In fact, she found none. She talked to over a dozen native speakers, but not one could explain what adjective clauses and noun clauses were.  And yet these were native speakers who can, we assume, use a variety of complex clauses with perfect accuracy. Read more »

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How Jay Leno Made me Think

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

I have to admit that one of my guilty pleasures is silly comedies, like the ones written and directed by Judd Apatow. You might remember such classics as Trainwreck and This is 40 as well as others with titles that probably would make some blog readers uncomfortable. So, anyway, he came out with a book called Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy that contained a series of interviews with comedians who’d had the biggest impact on his own career. As I was reading it, I found, much to my surprise, that it caused me to reflect on my own career as a teacher.

In his book. Apatow talked a lot about comedians, such as Jay Leno, who shared advice and feedback as he developed as a professional standup comic and writer. This made me think about people I have had the privilege of working with and how they have impacted the trajectory of my career and my teaching practice. Read more »

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Going Beyond the Grammar Textbook: Connecting Grammar to Real Life

Jenny FettersJenny Fetters is an ESL instructor at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland.

I often help register students for classes at my language school, and when I ask prospective students, “So why do you want to take English classes?”, the answer I receive 99% of the time is, “Because I need to learn English!”. Once I get under the question and tease out the real reason, those answers become, “I need a job”, “I need a better job”, or “I want to go to college.” It becomes abundantly clear to me that one important factor that drives students’ need for English is economic. So why don’t our textbooks do a better job of speaking to that need?

Open up any intermediate or advanced grammar textbook and you’ll find a wide variety of themes around which grammar lessons are organized:  Style and Fashion, Natural Wonders, Controversial Issues, or Inventions, to name a few. Don’t get me wrong:  discussing cutting-edge technology, the environment, or even the latest fashion trends is fun. These topics lend themselves to very lively conversation in the classroom and integrate nicely with many grammatical functions. Read more »

Monday, April 24, 2017

The 5th Edition of the Blue Book

GenevaGeneva Tesh is an ESL teacher, materials writer, Azar-Hagen Grammar Series contributor, and grammar enthusiast. She teaches in the Intensive English Program at Houston Community College.

You’ve probably heard by now that Understanding and Using English Grammar has been revised this year. Several teachers have asked if they’ll need to make any major changes to their lesson plans. For the most part, no. You’ll be able to use your old syllabus and exams with just a few small exceptions. Here’s a brief look at some of the changes you’ll find in the fifth edition of UUEG.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that Chapter 1 from the fourth edition has been removed. (The charts can now be found in the Appendix.) This chapter was a general preview of all the verb tenses, with the next few chapters explaining the verbs in greater detail. UUEG CoverIn the new edition, Chapter 1 starts with simple and progressive verbs in the present and past. Chapter 2 now covers the perfect and perfect progressive tenses, Chapter 3 goes over future time verbs, and Chapter 4 is a verb tense review chapter. Because all of the information that was in Chapter 1 of the fourth edition is also presented in Chapters 1 through 4, this change shouldn’t have a big impact on what you teach in your grammar class. However, if you have the chapter numbers on your syllabus, you’ll need to make some adjustments. Read more »