Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Teaching Grammar with Pop Songs: Ain’t No Reason Not To

heyer_picBy Sandra Heyer
ESL Teacher and Author of the textbooks True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs
Songs and Activities for English Language Learners

Many teachers of grammar are reluctant to bring popular songs into the classroom, with good reason. Incorrect grammar is so rampant in popular music that one SAT prep guide actually has a section that gives test takers lines from pop songs and asks them to identify the grammatical mistakes. If you listen to popular music, maybe you’ve heard these lines in recent hit songs: “My mama don’t like you” (Justin Bieber); “You and me can make it anywhere” (Charlie Puth); and “It don’t matter” (Adele).

While there’s a lot that’s grammatically wrong in pop song lyrics, there’s a lot that’s grammatically right, too. Yes, Justin Bieber tells his ex, “My mama don’t like you,” but he also tells her, “You should go and love yourself.” Thank you for that reflexive pronoun, Justin! Charlie Puth assures a woman, “You and me can make it anywhere” and then vows, “I’ll be there to save the day.” Thank you, Charlie, for using the future tense with will to make a promise! And before she sings “It don’t matter,” Adele, bless her, sings, “I’m sorry for breaking your heart”—a perfect example of using a gerund as the object of a preposition. Read more »

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Good Compliment

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

Mark Twain is credited as having said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” I think the key word in his quote is “good.” For example, if a strange man whistles at a woman on the street, while that’s technically a compliment, it’s a creepy one at best, right? A “good” compliment is genuine, personalized and meant to communicate appreciation of some aspect of the recipient’s appearance, actions or possessions.

“Teacher, you are beautiful.”

Complimenting doesn’t necessarily leap to mind as something that ESL/EFL students necessarily need to learn. After all, it is not a face-threatening act and the language surrounding it is fairly straightforward. Even if a student makes grammar mistakes, it’s usually quite easy to understand the intention behind the utterance.

But, have you ever received a compliment from a student that feels a little funny? Many years ago, I taught a young man from Georgia who used to tell me that I was beautiful. I know (or hope, at least) that he was genuinely trying to be nice, but it made me uncomfortable. A similar example of a compliment gone wrong can be found in Read more »

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Starting with the WHY in Teaching and Learning

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

Have you seen Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action? If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this blog right now and watch the first 10 minutes! Go on!

Okay, you’re back. So, Sinek talked a lot about business. English teachers aren’t business people, so you might be wondering why you just spent precious minutes of your busy life watching a guy blather on about Apple and the Wright brothers. What does “the golden circle” have to do with learning about verb tenses or reading for the main idea or developing critical thinking skills? Maybe you thought, “Just a minute here. I am just trying to teach students to add the final “s” to third person singular verbs, not sell computers or lead a social justice movement or be the first to fly.”

Or maybe you heard the part about how “all the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright Brothers, they all think, act and communicate the exact same way, and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else” and you thought, “Hey now. Teachers are leaders, and some teachers are great and inspiring leaders. I want to be that kind of teacher.”

The Golden Circle in the Classroom

Here is Sinek’s “Golden Circle”:


Basically, he says that we all know WHAT we do. I know WHAT I do. I teach English. And I know HOW I do it. I know that I use a variety of methodologies and approaches in my classes, from the communicative approach to the lexical approach to total physical response. But, Sinek argues that only a very few leaders know WHY they do WHAT they do. And, here’s the kicker: according to Sinek, the leaders that start with WHY are the most successful.

So, WHY do we teach English? Why teaching, instead of banking or fighting fires or healing sick people? Why English, instead of German or French or Spanish? We’ve all got different answers for that (and I’d love to hear yours), but mine are pretty simple: I teach English because I like helping people achieve the goals they have that require some degree of English proficiency. In my former teaching context this was an obvious goal with immediate pay–off in that I was helping middle school students access the content in their mainstream classes. It was easy every day to see students improving and to see how I was making a difference. Now, I teach a spelling class. I know that by learning to spell, students are improving their reading and writing. Also, we do a lot of listening discrimination, so I am helping them improve their bottom up listening skills.

The WHY in a Lesson Plan

When I clearly know the WHY, I can be more successful in the classroom because it means that the WHY is powering all of the curriculum and teaching decisions I make. I think sometimes it can be easy to forget this, especially when I am working on lesson planning. Sometimes, my plan for the class reads more like list of activities rather than a journey from the WHY.  For example, we always start with a warm up activity, so I plan a flyswatter game because we did a card match activity just last week and then move on to the next activity. But, maybe I should stop and ask myself WHY I want to have a warm up activity. What purpose will it serve? Maybe I want to have students review the word stress of numbers that we studied in the previous class. If that’s the case, do I want them to produce the target language or just hear it? If I want them to produce it, then I shouldn’t plan a flyswatter game because that won’t make them produce it.

This is just one example of how the WHY can really impact the activities we choose for our class. We shouldn’t plan a conversation activity just because it’s time for the students to talk. We should plan activities that genuinely move students towards their goals. And, we should make the purpose of the activities explicit. It might seem obvious to me that we are doing a gap fill in the book because it will help the students to produce the past tense more automatically which will make their speaking more fluent and their reading faster, but it’s not always so obvious to them. Saying so can provide students with a boost of motivation and a sense of purpose.

Our Students’ WHY

In order to start from the WHY, we need to know our students’ WHYs. Why are students taking my class? Why have they given up their time and money to spend time with me? Maybe for some students in some contexts, it’s because they have no choice. That’s a tough one. But, my students DO have a choice. So, on the first day of class, I introduce them to our Learning Management System by having them do a recording for me answering the question, WHY they are in my spelling class? By learning why accurate spelling is important for them, I can tailor my lessons to suit them and I can make explicitly clear how learning how to add –tion, -sion and –ssion to base words can make a difference in their lives.

Sinek reminds us that “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, so it follows that if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else?” I find my students to be pretty trusting and willing to go along with whatever it is I am asking them to do in my class, but I guess to really get them to buy into the lesson, I need to make the WHY clear.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Increasing Student Production

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

The title of this post sums up our raison d’être, right? I mean, pretty much the whole point of everything that we do in class is tied in to helping our students communicate (produce) more. This might mean that we want them to speak more or write more. But it doesn’t just mean more words coming out of their mouths or flowing from their pens. Production isn’t exactly the same as participation, is it? Students can participate in a group discussion, for instance, but if they are incomprehensible, they are not producing language. In other words, increasing production really means increasing students’ successful use of English.

The Importance of Pushed Production

A while ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a professional development workshop offered by Brad Knieriem on this very topic. The speaker, one of the full time instructors with our program, kicked off the session by having us think about why increasing production might be important. Of course, as I said before, helping students communicate more successfully is pretty much the main goal in many of my classes. But, increasing production also requires students to stretch beyond their English comfort zones.

You may already be familiar with this concept, better known as “pushed output.” (Nation & Newton, 2009) It makes sense that when students speak or write more, they become more aware of English norms. They can experiment more with new forms and they notice gaps in their linguistic abilities. Read more »

Monday, August 29, 2016

Friends on Facebook?

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

There it was, in my local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, nestled among accounts of shootings and police brutality, was an article I found so relevant to my professional context that I had to channel my mother and clip it out to take in to work. The title, Should you be Facebook Friends with Teacher?, really rang a bell with me.

I don’t have children, so I don’t need to worry about being friends with their teachers. I also don’t teach children anymore, so I don’t have to grapple with the question of friending the parents of my students. However, as a teacher of adults, I often get friend requests from my students. I also get friend requests from other teachers who are friends with their students. All these friend requests, while flattering, put me in an awkward position. I suspect I am not alone.

My Facebook Friends are my Friends

As Ciulac’s brief article in The Baltimore Sun pointed out, “Facebook is where I blow off steam to some of my dearest friends.” I am not in “teacher mode” when I am posting pictures of my husband renovating the bathroom or of my gorgeous new niece. The pictures I share on Facebook are personal, meant for friends and family who really know me. I have been known to post pictures of professional accomplishments, but Facebook gives me a chance to share my proud moments with my friends. It is not my resume. As one of the experts in Ciulac’s article argues, teachers “are entitled to a private life, as well as having their own embarrassing friends and family.” Read more »

Thursday, August 25, 2016

I am Sorry, but Apologizing in English is Really Complicated

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

Remember when you were a kid and after a fight with your brothers or sisters, your parents would make you apologize? Even though my sister and I are great friends now, when we were younger, we’d get into some terrible battles. I was older and wilier, so it was often my unkindness that was to blame. But, when we had to make up at my mother’s insistence, the “I’m sorry” I muttered could never have been mistaken for a genuine expression of contrition.

Finding the Words to Say Sorry

But, why was that? Isn’t it enough just to say the words, “I’m sorry” when we’ve done something harmful to another person? Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Let’s assume that we are talking about genuine apologies here, not my coerced childhood apologies to my sister. According to Trosborg (1987), the language we use for an apology depends on the severity of the complaint (e.g. bumping into a stranger on the street versus running over a neighbor’s pet) and the relationship between the apologizer and the apologizee (e.g. a woman in a yoga class versus a supervisor at work). Read more »

Monday, August 15, 2016

Offers they CAN Refuse

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

“How about lunch next week?”
“Are you interested in attending the training on Friday morning?”
“Are you free to get together tomorrow for coffee?”
“I’m having a party Saturday night at my house. Can you come?”

As an ESL instructor in North America, one of my most fervent hopes is that my students develop a social life that includes hanging out with other American students. I know from experience that cultivating relationships with proficient speakers is a great way to acquire language. When I lived in Russia many (many, many) years ago, it was my desire to communicate with my Russian friends that motivated me to navigate the complexities of Russian grammar, not the grades I received in in my language classes.

The Problem with Making Plans

However, making plans with proficient English speakers can be a process fraught with invisible pitfalls. As I described in previous blogs (The Art of Yes, But … and Can I Please Borrow your Car?), language learners not only need to know the grammar of the language they are using, they also need to know about the unconscious linguistic maneuvers speakers make when they are doing something in that language. Read more »

Monday, July 11, 2016

English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos (Part 4)

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

In previous blog posts, I shared my own personal struggles with spelling, I described the class I have been teaching for a year, I shared some hard-learned lessons about teaching spelling to international students, and I listed some of the key elements to an intermediate level spelling curriculum.

This is all well and good, you may be thinking, but isn’t teaching a spelling class about the most boring thing you could ever do? Not at all! Because spelling is a tough, personal, and challenging mental activity, it’s really important that my classes be as active and interactive as possible. I want my students to be moving, laughing, talking and learning. So, now I want to describe some of the activities I used in my spelling class to help liven things up and give students multiple exposures to spelling “rules” to ensure greater retention.

Activity #: What Color do you Hear?

As I mentioned in Part 2 of this blog series, students have a really hard time hearing the difference between certain vowel sounds. If they can’t distinguish between /ɪ/ and /iy/, how in the world can they begin to spell words containing either of those sounds? To provide students with extra practice with this, we play “What Color do you Hear?” Read more »

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

How to give a good presentation

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

In a previous post, I shared a video on “How not to give a presentation.” That was a humorous attempt to highlight some of the mistakes that people most commonly make when they give presentations at conferences. Shortly after that, I did a lecture on “How to give a good presentation” at a Japanese university, and I posted it on You Tube so that students who couldn’t attend that day would be able to watch it later. I didn’t really think about it after that, but I noticed recently that it has had almost 200,000 views, so I decided to do a shorter, edited version, since so many people seem to be interested in the topic.

Here is the new video. If you prefer to read about it, the main points are summarised below.

When you give a presentation, it is important to remember that your audience Read more »

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos (Part 3)

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

The “rules” of English spelling can appear to be so random and unreliable, they drive students (and at least one teacher) to distraction. Since I’ve started teaching an intermediate-level spelling class, I’ve had to re-learn some of these “rules” in order to help my students make sense of the chaos that is English orthography. I don’t call them “rules” in my class, though. When I did, my students were very quick to complain that with so many exceptions, they were hardly “rules.” Instead, we refer to them as “tips.” That just seemed to make everyone a lot happier.

So, in a previous blog post, I shared some ‘lessons learned” about teaching spelling. Here, I want to share some of the things I think ESL/EFL students need to know to be strong spellers.

Tip #1 – Some Consonant Sounds have Wacky Spellings
Sometimes consonant sounds are easy to spell. For instance, /m/ is usually spelled with an “m” or sometimes an “mm.” But, some consonant sounds are trickier. Students need to learn that /f/ can be spelled “f,” “ff,” “ph” and Read more »