Archive for November, 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Why I Like Cloze Exercises

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

Over the many years I taught ESOL, one type of exercise that I decided should become a staple kind of classroom language learning activity was the cloze procedure or cloze activity. Nobody seems to really know where the name cloze comes from, but in spite of that, it can play a very important role in any language classroom. Actually, there are two main types of cloze, the pure cloze and the modified cloze*.

The Pure Cloze: The most important use of pure cloze exercises is to test your students’ overall mastery of the language (whole language). As you’ll see, a blank may replace any kind of word; generally, it’s the competence and comprehension that your students have which will allow them to figure out what possible item can go in each blank. You’ll get more bang for your buck by using a pure cloze activity with high-intermediate and advanced students, but you might want to try simplified ones with lower level students as well.

To create one, take any passage that’s as close to 350 words in length as you can get. Leave the first and last sentences intact. Beginning with the second sentence, take out every fifth to ninth word and replace it with a blank. Make all your blanks equal in length. Only a single word is acceptable for each blank, and keep in mind that a contraction is a single word, too. If the blank falls where there’s a date, number, proper noun, or otherwise unreconstructible word, then the next word should be replaced by the blank instead. The words that are omitted should be words that your students already know.

By the way, it’s a more difficult exercise if every fifth word is omitted than if every ninth word is omitted. You’ll probably prefer to eliminate every seventh or ninth word, at least at the beginning.

As far as correcting cloze exercises that students have completed, there are two lines of thought on the subject. Some people insist that only the exact word that was eliminated should be accepted as the correct answer. Others, however, argue that any word that completes the idea appropriately should be accepted.

Just in case you’d like to know, here’s the thinking on the two methods of correction. Accepting any appropriate word while correcting a cloze seems only fair way to go with, at least on the surface. Why shouldn’t teachers accept any answer that works? Why should students be penalized for not being able to read the mind of the person who wrote the text? Well, here’s why:

1. Accepting any appropriate word makes it much harder to correct because the teacher needs to keep in mind the entire context while trying to focus on each answer. It’s also harder to correct when there are very large groups doing the activity.

2. Correcting in this way takes a lot more time.

3. Using this method is only slightly more statistically reliable, so you be the judge.

The Modified Cloze: This form of the cloze can be used with students at any level and, instead of dealing with whole language competence, a modified cloze zeroes in on one particular discrete point of language that you’ve chosen to concentrate on.

To create one, write your own sentences or passages and make sure they contain the discrete point you’ve chosen to work on. The length of the sentences or the whole passage depends on your knowledge of what your students can handle. If you’re dealing with prepositions or articles or the like, eliminate whatever words are being targeted and keep the blanks equal in length throughout. If you’re dealing with verbs, draw in each blank and write the verb to be used in parentheses before or after the blank. The students will quickly learn that they’re to use the verbs in parentheses to fill in the blanks.

And as for correcting this kind of cloze, you should apply the rule of thumb that any appropriate words or verb forms that work to complete the sentences are acceptable.

Grammar textbook series have incorporated cloze activities more and more over the years because they’ve proven to be so effective, but personalizing them yourself can prove much more meaningful to your students if you choose topics or even students in your classes that they can all relate to. And nothing makes a language activity more impressive or effective than one that’s meaningful to your students!

Another wonderful thing about cloze activities is that they offer some very good reading comprehension practice. Students really need to understand what they’re reading in order to fill in those blanks appropriately. So go ahead. Make up your own cloze procedures, and see what happens.

*Richard Firsten with Patricia Killian. The ELT Grammar Book: A Teacher-Friendly Reference Guide. Alta Book Center Publishers. 2002

Friday, November 21, 2008

Prescriptivist or Descriptivist?

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

All during the years I taught ESOL, I had an ongoing battle in my mind over the philosophies that dealt with whether I should be a prescriptivist or a descriptivist as far as the rules of English grammar go. A prescriptivist basically tells you how you should say something; in other words, what’s right and what’s wrong. A descriptivist simply tells you what people say and how they say it without making any value judgments. So how conservative should I be (aka prescriptive), or how liberal (aka descriptive)? When do I know it’s okay just to say, “Hey, if it works, use it,” or when do I know if it’s safe to put my foot down and say, “No, that’s just wrong”?

One reason I kept having this battle was caused by a feeling that I was being undermined from time to time by others in the field. For example, I’d been taught to say there is if the following noun is singular and there are if it’s plural, and that’s the way I always taught existential there, which was backed up by what I always found in ESOL textbooks. Then, as the years went by, I’d hear somebody say there’s with a plural noun. I’d scoff and think to myself, “Hah! That person’s grammar is terrible!” But then I’d hear more and more people say there’s and even here’s and Where’s …? along with a plural noun. And then I noticed in a book by a well-known grammarian* that using the singular form followed by a plural noun is “acceptable” in conversational English. What?? You’ve got to be kidding! So it’s okay for me to say Where’s the files? and Here’s the files and There’s the files? Puh-leez! So does that mean I should have thrown the rule about existential there out the window years ago? Was I actually misleading my students all those years the way I taught this point of grammar?

And what about fewer vs. less? All the ESOL grammar texts I’d ever used with my students clearly stated that we should use fewer as the comparative form with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns. So that’s what I taught ― but that’s not necessarily what I heard or even found in print. Again I’d have that negative gut reaction, thinking it scandalous that so-called educated people couldn’t even use those two words properly even in TV commercials. “Less calories?” Ugh!

So I went running to a book by another well-known grammarian,** and lo and behold, what do I read on this subject? “Less is the comparative of little (used especially before uncountable nouns). Fewer is the comparative of few (used before plural nouns). Compare: I earn less money than a postman. / I’ve got fewer problems than I used to have.” So far, so good, right? But then … “Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect. I’ve got less problems than I used to have.” What was that? “SOME people consider this incorrect”? You mean lots of people consider it correct? You mean all those ESOL grammar books were misleading? Aaaarrrghh!

Well, now you get it. Now you see the quandary I was in. Or I guess I should say I’m still in. The battle hasn’t changed inside me. I mean, where do we draw the line? There isn’t an ESOL teacher alive who will claim it’s acceptable to say he is, she is, they is, so why is it acceptable to say There is three people waiting to see you? Hmm … Or is it? Could it be that it’s acceptable only when the contraction is used? Does There’s three people waiting to see you sound better? I wonder. Maybe that does sound more acceptable. I wonder. I also wonder about how nuts that seems to me!

So what should we do as ESOL teachers? Do we teach with a prescriptive approach: “Say it this way. Don’t say it that way.” Or do we just teach our students any and all deviations from what the traditional grammar textbooks have said for decades just because a certain number of native speakers use this deviation or that?

If you’d like an extreme example of the descriptive approach, I can give you one. Many moons ago when I was in grad school taking a course in modern English grammar from a well respected teacher who was born and raised in the midwestern US, I remember vividly her discussion on the use of certain modal auxiliaries. She pointed out that in some areas of the Midwest it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like I might could do it and She shouldn’t have ought to done that (although she pronounced it as She shouldn’t’ve oughta done that. Once again, maybe those contracted pronunciations sound more acceptable than when the words aren’t contracted!)

Before you shriek in horror, let me just tell you that this teacher considered such sentences perfectly acceptable since that’s how people spoke in those areas of the Midwest that she hailed from. She said such sentences didn’t bother her at all. Can you imagine? And she was teaching modern English grammar! So does that mean she was telling us we could teach such sentences as variations on how to use modal auxiliaries? Your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t ask her ― probably because I was in such a state of shock.

I seem to see a trend these days that has people poo-pooing anyone who sounds like a prescriptivist. Maybe with so many other things it’s becoming politically incorrect to tell people how they should say something. I still cringe every time I hear people say me and him when they should say he and I. Isn’t this taught anymore in public school English classes? Are language arts classes a dying art? And how does all of this affect what ESOL teachers do in their classrooms?

You know what? I’m getting very worked up right now. I think I’ll have a couple of beers to calm down. That’s right, a couple of BEERS. Countable? Uncountable? Hah! Who cares anymore?

*L. G. Alexander. Longman English Grammar. Longman. 1988
**Michael Swan. Practical English Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2005

Friday, November 14, 2008

Have You Got a Picture File?

By Richard Firsten

Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Over the many years that I taught ESOL, there were certain goals that I always wanted to achieve beyond the specific language objective for any given lesson. Those goals had to do with realism and cultural influences on the targeted language point. I especially had these goals in mind whenever I did EFL teacher training to groups in non-English speaking countries where both local teachers and students don’t have the wonderful opportunity to be immersed in a country with native English speakers and their culture on a daily basis the way ESOL teachers and students do.

One thing I found could help me accomplish these extra goals to a large extent, and what I found was the single most useful teaching aid a teacher can have, is a picture file. A wonderful resource such as a picture file doesn’t cost much to make since all you need is magazines, some glue or tape, sturdy paper or backing material, and a pair of scissors. To put your file together, choose magazines that have lots of pictures, and cut out anything you find of interest. Don’t overlook simple pictures, because even the simplest may have various teaching points to focus on. Use large pictures in front of the entire class; use large or small ones for individual or small-group work. Trim the edges and glue the pictures onto sturdy backing sheets. (Construction paper or tag board is excellent for this purpose.) On the back of each mounted picture, list a variety of teaching points that the picture can be used for. Let’s take a look at a simple picture, one that you might think uninteresting at first glance, and I’ll show you what teaching points we can use it for.

Vocabulary Items: trees, grass/lawn, bushes, flowers, sign, walkway, driveway, roof, shingles, windows, siding, offers, housing market, credit report, mortgage, property taxes, equity

idioms: It’s a steal. / curb appeal / get the price down / down payment / Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

Grammar Points:
(Present Progressive) They’re selling their house. / People are making appointments to see the house. / The seller is asking $225,000. / The realtor isn’t getting many offers on the house. / The buyer is thinking about not renewing his contract with the realtor.
(Simple Past) The buyer signed a contract with the realtor six months ago. / Only two people made appointments to see the house last week. / The realtor said that they buyer’s price was too high.
(Simple Future) The buyer will have to lower the price. / The realtor won’t renew his contract with the buyer. / Few people will want to pay so much money for that house.

Countable and Uncountable Nouns: realtor, real estate, grass, bushes, sign, money, price, offers

Active and Passive Voice: The house was built in 1982. / They built the house in three months. / The house is being sold by a well-known realty company. / The realtor is advertising the house in local newspapers.

Prepositions / Prepostional Phrases: on the lawn, on the driveway, in front of the house, at the front door, for a down payment, at home

Non-linguistic Topics for Discussion: housing crisis, “the American dream,” foreclosures, financial responsibility, credit crisis

See how much you can do with one picture? Pictures with action scenes are great, but don’t overlook simple pictures on plain backgrounds such as the one I’ve chosen to show you here. They can be very productive, too. And one more point that’s important about a picture file is that it can be used for any level of language teaching from elementary to advanced.

Once you have a stack of pictures ready to go, number them. Then make a master list of teaching points you’ve found in the pictures. Next to each point, list the numbers of all the pictures that fit that teaching point. In other words, your master list will tell you what topics (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.) your files contain and what pictures can be used to demonstrate and work on these points. This way, when you teach a particular lesson, you can go to your master list and quickly pull out the pictures you need. Any time you add to your file, you can easily update your master list.

Here’s an additional tip about writing the teaching points that your pictures represent on the back of the pictures. When you hold up a picture and the teaching point appears on the back for you to see, you don’t have to crane your neck to look at what it is you’re holding up. The students see the picture and you see the teaching point.

And why should you create a picture file? A teacher-made picture file will suit you, your needs, your students, and the subjects you’re teaching. Commercial sets of pictures could never give you this personalized touch at a price that most teachers can afford. Moreover, if a picture goes out of date, is lost, or is destroyed, replacing it doesn’t require that you buy a new set; just find another magazine and there you have your replacement. If you don’t already have something like a picture file, I highly recommend you start making one right away. I guarantee that you’ll be glad you did.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How Do You . . . What?

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

And then there was Mustafa, my marvelous, sweet, gentle giant of a student. I nicknamed him “Mustafa Mountain.” He was a heavy-set young man in his mid-twenties who towered over me so much that I actually had to look up whenever talking to him. Mustafa had a way of not easily connecting how English works with his own thought processes, but he did a lot to show me how English can sometimes be so illogical that I think it amazing anyone can learn it well.

This is what happened the first day I met Mustafa in my low intermediate-level class at the university:

“How do you do?” I said as I stretched out my hand to shake his.
“How do I do what?” Mustafa replied.
“No, no. This is a greeting: ‘How do you do?’”
“How do I do what?”
“What’s your name?”
“Mustafa Bakhtiari. You are my new teacher, Mr. Firsten?”
“Yes, that’s right. How do you do, Mustafa?”
“Why you keep ask me how I do . . . How I do what??”
“It’s like saying ‘How are you?’ Mustafa. We say it the first time we meet somebody in a formal situation.”
“Oh, okay. I think I understand,” Mustafa said with a big smile of relief spreading across his face.
“So, how do you do?” I confidently reiterated.
“Very well, thank you,” came the unwanted response.
“No, you’re not supposed to say that in the answer, Mustafa.”
“No? Oh, so what I say?”
“How do you do?”
“Huh?” Mustafa said with the saddest look of confusion I’d ever seen on a student’s face. I closed my eyes momentarily, realizing what a dumb thing I had just done, inadvertently setting the scene for total confusion ― and I knew it.
“You are asking me that question again,” Mustafa said slowly with some consternation in his voice.
“Listen, Mustafa. When you meet somebody for the first time and the situation is formal, you say, ‘How do you do?’ Then the other person says, ‘How do you do?’ too.”
“You ask question and he ask same question. Nobody answer question.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now you’ve got it!”
“I got what?”
“Never mind. Let’s try it again, okay?”
“How do you do?”
“How do you do, too?”
“No! You don’t say, ‘How do you do, too?’ You just repeat, ‘How do you do?’!”
“Please. I am trying to learn English. Not easy!”
“I know that, Mustafa. I say, ‘How do you do?’ and you just repeat ‘How do you do?’ and nobody answers that question. You just shake hands and smile at each other, okay? And then you can continue the conversation by asking each other’s names, career interests ― whatever. Do you understand now?”
“I think yes, but not sure,” poor Mustafa replied, looking quite insecure at the moment.
“Okay, let’s try it one more time,” I said, feeling this was it. It was either now or never. Taking a deep breath, I said, “How do you do?”
“How do you do?” was Mustafa’s response. I was ecstatic! We shook hands on cue and everything seemed right with the world.
“My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?”
“What do you do, Mr. Firsten?”
“You didn’t answer my question, Mustafa. You’re supposed to answer my question to be polite.”
“You say I must repeat question. I repeat question! ‘How do you do? How do you do? What do you do? What do you do?’”
“But that’s only for ‘How do you do?’ Mustafa, not ‘What do you do?’ You can answer that question!” I could feel my blood pressure rising. The word stroke popped into my mind. “Let’s try that last part again, Mustafa. All right?”
‘Sure,” he said looking down at the floor and grumbling a little. Another deep breath. “My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“Nice to meet you,” I adlibbed.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Mustafa replied, feeling comfortable with a sentence he’d learned in his elementary ESOL classes.
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?” I went on.
“What do I do when?”
I just stared at him. I felt a little numb and kept staring. Mustafa had succeeded in sucking all the energy right out of me. I didn’t have the strength to answer his question. I knew very well where it would lead us. But I was his teacher. I had an obligation to answer his question, didn’t I?
“No, no, Mustafa. That’s not what it means.”
“That’s not what it mean? Why you ask me that if it not mean that?” I could see the frustration building up in him. It reminded me of magma rising up a lava tube in a volcano, getting ready to blow its cork and erupt.
What do you do? means ‘What’s your job or profession?’ So that’s what you should answer.”
“I don’t have job. I am student! You know I am student. All you do is ask questions they don’t mean what you ask. And you ask things you know I am not. I go home now. Maybe I see you tomorrow ― maybe!”

And with that, Mustafa turned around on his heels and walked despondently out of my classroom. I felt awful, as if somehow I’d let him down, even though I knew I hadn’t. But he did come back the next day, and he stayed in my class a whole semester, and learned a lot of English.

The last I heard, Mustafa lives in Los Angeles. We kept in touch for some years, but that didn’t last, unfortunately. He once told me that now, when somebody asks him, “What do you do?” he says, “I’m a CPA.” and always smiles as he thinks back to that crazy day in Mr. Firsten’s ESOL class in Miami.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


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

I’m going to digress a bit from my usual range of topics this week and deal a little with a topic of language that some would rather avoid dealing with. This week’s entry is really about teaching language and not about the language itself, and I hope you’ll join the discussion.

So there I was, in the midst of a really interesting university-level conversation class about Hollywood movies. One of my students had just mentioned that she thought European film makers did a much better job than their American counterparts, and suddenly Homayoon, a student from Iran, shouted out “Bulltish!” Everybody turned to him, trying to figure out what he had blurted out. At first I didn’t get it, but it suddenly hit me what he was trying to say, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Then I stood up, went to the board, and wrote the word bullshit.

“The word’s not bulltish, Homayoon; it’s bullshit.” Of course, as fate would have it, at that very moment the director of the intensive English program I was working in just happened to walk by my classroom ― with the door wide open. She stopped dead in her tracks at the door, and I could see by the look on her face that she was none too thrilled with what I had just said and what she saw on the board. She said nothing and just continued on her way, but I knew very well I’d be called into her office for a meeting to discuss this incident later that day or the next. Such timing!

I just sighed and went on with that teachable moment. I explained to my students what the word meant and why it was so inappropriate for Homayoon to use it in class. (Of course the director of the program didn’t hang around to hear that part ― oh, no.) Finally, I gave the class alternatives that would be appropriate, like That’s nonsense. or That’s silly. or That’s ridiculous. I even went further, though, explaining a little about the art of tactfulness and how Homayoon could make his feelings known in a gentler, more polite way by saying things like I don’t agree. or I don’t think that’s so. or Why do you say that?

But that incident got me thinking. After classes, when most of the teachers gathered in our lounge as they usually did to de-stress before going home, I related the incident that had happened in my class and started a discussion about whether or not we had a responsibility at some point to teach intermediate or advanced students of at least college age what we commonly refer to as “four-letter words.” I wasn’t at all surprised at the heated discussion that developed. This was 1976, so it goes without saying that attitudes were quite different then from attitudes now.

That discussion continued in our teachers’ lounge for the rest of the week. Every day some new angle was brought up. One of my colleagues even mentioned how he was going to develop a whole syllabus on this subject, which he’d divide into categories like “four-letter words about parts of men’s bodies,” “four-letter words about parts of women’s bodies,” “vulgar and semi-vulgar synonyms for acceptable words,” “basic cursing,” and all the grammatical ways to use “the f word.” Some of us were in shock at his suggestions; some of us giggled out of embarrassment; some of us cheered him on. Well, the long and short of it is that he never did develop that formal syllabus, and I never created lessons on the subject matter. But I’ve always wondered if I should have.

By the way, isn’t if funny how it’s considered acceptable to say something like “the f word,” when everyone knows perfectly well what that means, but it’s not so okay to say or write the whole word? I find it curious how we seem to be accepting of such initials or abbreviations for some four-letter words. Why should an abbreviation sound more okay than the whole word? Or why should writing sh-t or saying “Shoot!” be more acceptable than writing the scatological word they stand for? We really can be kind of weird in English, can’t we!

Getting back to treating four-letter words and cursing in a formal way, one brave ESOL teacher/author took the bull by the horns ― not the bulltish by the horns ― and wrote a groundbreaking student resource book on this topic. Her name is Elizabeth Claire and her book was Dangerous English 2000*, followed a few years later by David Burke’s Slangman Guide to Dirty English**.

English may be just about the most colorful language in the world when it comes to four-letter words and cursing. And at times it feels good to curse ― at least it feels good to me. Now don’t get me wrong. I was raised in a very prim-and-proper home where such language was never used. In fact, I still remember when I came home one day and called my big brother a pimp. I didn’t know what it meant (I must have heard it on the street) but I used it to show him I was a big boy and could use grown-up words. Well, when I think about it, I can still taste the bar of soap that my mother immediately shoved into my mouth after dragging me over to the bathroom sink. Yep, she literally washed my mouth out with soap! Needless to say, I learned my lesson ― sort of. And I didn’t find out what pimp meant until years later.

But I do think there’s a time and place for cursing, and I think such language has therapeutic benefits. Perhaps it’s something you’d only want to use in private or with people you’re very close to, but whoever you are or aren’t with at that moment, cursing can really do wonders for you. My mother ― yes, the woman who washed my mouth out with soap ― learned to curse quite well after she got her driver’s license and frequently took to the road. I was grown up by then, but I used to laugh out loud sitting in the passenger’s seat next to her every time I’d hear a trail of those colorful words fly out of her mouth as she sat behind the wheel, steaming at what one reckless driver or another had just done.

So how do you feel about that marvelously colorful area of English that includes four-letter words and cursing? Do you think they play a vital role in the language, or do you think they should disappear? I’d like to know what you feel about all of this, and more importantly, I’d like to know what you think about whether this part of the language should be taught to students of an appropriate age. I’d also like to know if you’ve had a situation in class similar to the one I’ve mentioned. If you’d like to discuss how teaching should or should not get involved in this area, please join in.

(P.S. ― I did get called into the director’s office the next day, and she did read me the riot act about teaching such things. Boy, was she p—ed off at me!)

*Elizabeth Claire. Dangerous English 2000: An Indispensable Guide for Language Learners and Others, 3rd edition. Delta Publishing Co. 1998

**David Burke. Slangman Guide to Dirty English: A Guide to American Obscenities and Insults. Slangman Publishing. 2003