Archive for October, 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net received a letter from a young English teacher in Iran who asked for advice on how to continue his English and teaching studies in a native-English speaking country such as the US. Below is my response to him (the name has been changed).

Dear Ibrahim,

This letter is in response to your email to the site that asks about studying abroad, particularly in the US, to become a better English teacher.

There are two main styles of writing in American English: One that starts at the beginning and works logically towards the end, and one that starts with the conclusion and then fills in the background explanation. This answer will follow the latter style.

No, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any good advice for you on how to get to the U.S. Even if the entire question of finances—air ticket, rent for an apartment, food, utilities, books, tuition, and so on—were not an issue, a visa is. This is not an easy time for people from your country to travel to mine, any more than it is for people from my country to travel to yours. In particular, it is difficult, if not downright impossible, for young, single men from many countries to get non-immigrant visas to the US. It’s beyond the scope of this letter for me to argue whether that is right or wrong, although I will say that I remember to this day the frustration I felt when my fiancé was not allowed into the US on a tourist visa so that we could marry here (instead, we married abroad).

At the same time, though, I do have a more hopeful answer for you, which is that it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English and an excellent teacher of English without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking country. Two of my favorite authors, Joseph Conrad from Poland and Ved Mehta from India, learned English as adults, and largely before they ever visited another country.

I’ve personally met enthusiastic and talented groups of teachers in countries such as Ukraine, Libya, and Algeria who had excellent English language skills, as well as excellent teaching skills, who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me. As a non-native speaker, in fact, you are a powerful and inspiring model for your students. You might be interested in the story of one of the bloggers, who is a non-native speaker of English from Poland, but teaches English at a U.S. university. 

Developing strong English and teaching skills is easier than it has ever been, thanks to improved mail services and, of course, the Internet, which makes it possible not only to read and write in English but to listen extensively to radio shows, news programs, and songs. Groups of English teachers communicate all over the world through sites such as the ones below. You can read articles about the English language and about specific classroom teaching issues. You can ask questions of other teachers and answer their questions, discuss topics, and share classroom stories and teaching techniques. You can download free resources to use in class. You can match your students to keypals or more traditional penpals in other countries so that they can practice their English as well. You can find individual teachers with whom you feel a personal connection and develop an email relationship.

Here are a few of my favorite sites: 

  • Dave’s ESL Cafe One of the classics. Active message boards and free resources. Check out the teacher forums.   
  • ELT News  This is a Japanese site (don’t worry, written all in English!). Even though Japan is not Iran, the issues that teachers face have a lot in common, and I think the site has interesting articles, interviews, reviews, and discussions. Participants from other countries are more than welcome.  
  • One Stop English  This site is run by a publisher in the UK, Macmillan, but has a lot of interesting articles and resources for both students and teachers.  
  • On Facebook, check out the page of my friends Chuck Sandy and Curtis Kelly. They raise a lot of interesting questions about the nature of teaching and learning, and there are active discussions among teachers there.  
  • and, of course, this site, You can comment, for instance, on any of the blogs posted here, and quite possibly get a personal response from the author of the blog.   
  • < /http:>Also check out the Grammar Q&A; Newsgroup on the Azar Grammar Exchange where Rachel Spack Koch and Richard Firsten answer questions about English grammar and usage.  

Actually, it turns out that I’m going to use a blended genre here for the organization of my letter. While I started with an answer to your question, I’m going to end with a more important conclusion.

As I noted, this is not an easy time between our two countries; and in fact, it’s not an easy time for many countries in the world. Now, more than ever before, it’s crucial for people to study languages other than their own. Would Americans be less afraid of Iranians if more of us studied Farsi in school? I believe so. Language is an essential clue to how people think and experience the world and express their thoughts and emotions. It’s not a question of adapting to another culture, or being overcome by a different system, but of understanding other ways.

I know it’s frustrating to sit in your home or your classroom and feel overwhelmed by world events that it seems you can’t control or even question. However, I really believe that there is nothing better that you, Ibrahim, can do to promote world peace than to teach your classes with sincerity and love. You could do this in a math, science, or history class too, but language touches on our contemporary world and lives in such deep and wide ways that I think you will have even more impact in this way.

You have a tremendous power to affect and change lives. Please see each obstacle that you face as a challenge and not a barrier. And welcome to the world of language teachers. We are so glad to have you!

Best wishes,
Dorothy Zemach

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    Note to Self: Just Zip It! Let Students Conduct the Conversation

    By Tamara Jones
    ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

    Like many teachers, I am an extrovert. I love to be the center of attention, surrounded by rapt listeners hanging on my every word. This characteristic can be useful in education. After all, no one likes a teacher who mumbles, head down, while hiding shyly behind a podium.  However, in language teaching, most experts agree that too much teacher talk time (TTT) can be detrimental to students’ learning. As an English instructor, an observer of other teachers, and a French student, I know this to be true, but I still have to work really, really hard to remember to zip it. 

    The Dreaded Semi-Circle Conversation

    When I first started teaching many years ago, my idea of the perfect conversation lesson involved the students sitting in a semi-circle with me in the center directing the discussion. When I thought about it, though, I came to realize that conversations didn’t actually happen like this in real life. I don’t tend to line my friends up in a semi-circle and ask them questions one by one, do you? Therefore, this kind of teacher-led conversation does nothing to prepare students to participate in the messy, conversationalist-driven interactions of the real world. 

    Small Groups Work

    I realized that I needed to step back, zip it, and let the students negotiate the interaction by themselves. Small groups of 3 or 4 (research suggests this is the optimal size for conversation groups) can conduct natural conversations without having a moderator present. In my classes, I have only 2 rules:

    1. They can never be “done” talking — they have to keep the conversation going (they can change the topic) until the time allotted for the activity is reached, and 
    2. They can’t allow an excessively long silence (for native speakers the max is 3 seconds) to sneak into the discussion.  

    Tips and Tricks

    Keith Folse has written a fantastic book (The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press) that is just bursting with suggestions for instructors. Some of my favorite tips include having students write about what they are going to say the night before, remembering to teach the language for the task as well as the language in the task, and including a number of closed tasks that require students to work toward an answer rather than just talk about a subject.

    I also try to remember never to plan a whole-class activity that could be done just as well in small groups, and I tend to avoid the “summarize your conversation for the class” wrap-up that often bookends a lesson. In my experience, students are much less interested in what other people talked about and much more interested in talking themselves.

    Skill of Making Conversation

    Making conversation involves a set of culturally specific skills that should be taught in class to help students better maintain a discussion without teacher guidance. Students, especially those living in a native English speaking community, need to learn strategies like active listening, holding the floor, jumping in without being asked a direct question, latching on to the previous speaker’s sentence, recognizing when a speaker is releasing the floor, disagreeing, changing the subject, sharing talking time, etc. Not only will covering these skills arm students with strategies for success in the real world, but they also get the added bonus of walking out of the class having learned something new, rather than just “practiced their conversation.”

    Loosening the Zipper (a Little)

    However, although I come down firmly on the side of less TTT, especially in my own classes, I don’t think the teacher should disappear from the interaction completely. As a French student, I greatly enjoy listening to the anecdotes and personal stories of my teacher. When she wanders the room listening in on our conversations, I occasionally pull her into the discussion. Likewise, when I move from group to group, I allow myself to participate in my students’ conversations from time to time. I try not to direct the conversation myself, but I offer my opinion and show enthusiasm for or disagreement with what others say — just like I would in a social discussion. Involvement in a conversation is very different from domination, so I advocate for loosening the zipper just a little.

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Authentic Materials for Student Engagement

    By Maria Spelleri
    Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
    Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

    Why Authentic Materials?

    What’s the big deal, anyway? And why should we make an effort to incorporate them in our classes?

    Obviously, comprehension of authentic materials is our ultimate goal in English teaching. No matter who, where, or at which level we teach, all our students eventually need and want to move from the shelter of the ESL/EFL text book to the real world of English, be it in college classes, scholarly or professional research, social communities, international business, Herald-Tribune, or Harry Potter.

    That’s the “it’s good for you” reason to use authentic materials. But there’s also a “you’ll like it” reason, and it’s this reason that motivates me to use authentic materials:

    I never fail to notice a particularly engaged look in my students’ eyes when we delve into authentic materials. They “hit” the activity with gusto.

    I can only surmise the reasons–

    • First, it is a change from the regular textbook routine.
    • Second, they recognize the challenge and take pride in it.
    • Third, they know the ability to handle authentic materials is the true test of their months or years of language learning. If they can comprehend and manipulate these items, they know they are that much closer to their goal.

    It took me a while to realize I didn’t have to wait until students were advanced to use authentic materials in my classes. With careful selection and planning, I now use authentic materials at all levels. Here’s a sampling of authentic materials for all levels:

    Lower Levels

    • Visually rich materials like maps of all kinds (city, campus, building layout, special routes), government agency brochures like preparing for a hurricane, administering CPR, baby-proofing a home, and brochures for travel and attractions. I find a lot of material at AAA, the library, and social services offices.
    • Textual items students commonly encounter in the community, especially forms from places like the post office and bank, medical history forms from doctors’ offices, and job applications.
    • The local newspaper, especially classified and employment ads, movie and TV listings, and photos and captions.
    • Media such as songs and selected scenes from movies, TV sitcoms/dramas, and documentaries, selected interactive maps and graphs found on news sites like NPR.

    Intermediate and Higher Levels

    • Magazine and news articles (For my intermediates, I particularly like Reader’s Digest, the local news section of the paper, and USA Today.)
    • Short stories and selected novels, (every time you pick up something to read for yourself, take a look at through the eyes of your students).
    • Online media like “Do-It-Yourself” or “How To” videos from or , awesome radio stories from This American Life or Science Friday, both available at NPR , and for those who teach ESP, profession-related sites like the BBC medical radio program Case Notes and the large video library on all business, sales, technology, and management related issues at . There are also short instructional and demonstration movies on YouTube and sites with movie trailers.

    It’s Not So Much What as How

    The key to using authentic materials successfully is to not feel obligated to use them in the manner intended. For example, let’s say in a college-prep ESL course you were introducing students to authentic college texts. You don’t have to actually read pages from a nursing or economics text. Instead, create a treasure hunt that teaches students how to use the table of contents, glossary, and index, and in which they discover the end of chapter study guides and how the author uses side bars to explain new vocabulary.

    Or let’s say you are watching a DIY video on how to paint a ceiling. A low level class might be introduced to some vocabulary then asked to raise their hands when they hear the word mentioned in the video. An intermediate level course may have to arrange slips of paper into the correct steps they see on the video, while a higher level course may take notes and orally reformulate their own DIY demonstration.

    In one very low level class, we used a brochure that demonstrated visually and with spare text the steps to administer CPR. Students worked in pairs, each pair assigned a step revealed only to that pair. Students practiced mimicking the action of their step and learning how to say (1 or 2 short statements only) what they were doing. Then the whole class got up and had to organize themselves in correct order only by mimicking their steps and saying their sentences. It was a challenge for sure, but the students were deeply involved in the task and in getting each other to repeat their step. I, too, was engrossed by watching how they worked it out.

    Bottom Line

    Authentic Materials are not easy or “no-prep” teaching tools, but the challenge to the student and the student’s level of engagement are well worth the effort. Start looking at everything you encounter during your day with the view of “How could I use this in class?” and don’t forget to be open-minded about creative uses for what you find!

    Saturday, October 3, 2009

    Grammar and Lexis: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

    By Patty Heiser
    TA Coordinator and Lecturer
    International and English Language Programs
    University of Washington Educational Outreach

    Dear Director:

    You are not alone in this dilemma of situating grammar within your IEP! I commend you for placing your students and their needs first while maintaining full confidence in your well-trained instructors.

    My suggestion is to gently guide the instructors along a path they may find to be not so different from what they know and are already used to, that is, teaching grammar and lexis. I imagine that you have instructors who are strong proponents of teaching vocabulary. If you can show them the logical connection between teaching grammar along with lexis, then you have half the battle won.

    How might you do this? One way would be to use an in-service to show this connection of teaching grammar along with lexis in writing. Many words and phrases in writing have their own grammatical patterns. Depending on the level of the class, you could focus on the words and phrases that help organize ideas at either the sentence or paragraph level.

    For example, if the students were writing about the causes and/or effects of changes in the global economy, the instructors could focus on cause/effect lexical items such as due to or as a result of, both of which are followed by noun phrases. In organizing ideas at the paragraph level, the students would look at the grammar used with transitional expressions like in addition to, which help combine and organize ideas in a paragraph and work as important signals to the reader: “In addition to the down turn in the economy, the rise in oil prices has impacted the economy at the macro level.”

    Your instructors will feel comfortable using grammar terminology to help organize ideas in writing. At the same time, the students will be able to leverage their strong understanding of grammar to improve their writing skills.

    Some texts which might be valuable resources for your instructors, along with the Azar texts you already use, include: 

               This text is wonderful for working with the genres, or patterns of
               writing, and has excellent activities for instructors and their

      I have included ideas here for the road to teaching writing through grammar. Once down this road, my guess is that your instructors will be open to applying grammar in teaching the other skill areas. In fact, I think they will see such positive advances in their students’ skills that we just may see your instructors themselves presenting at upcoming TESOL conferences on using grammar as a springboard for communicative language teaching!