Archive for November, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Misused Apostrophes: A Seeing-Thinking-Teaching-Learning Project

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

While driving home from a workshop on integrative learning the other week, I was mulling over the three topics discussed that afternoon — aspects of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Learning Pyramid, typical learning styles of millennials — when my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a bright yellow banner flapping by the side of the road. It was informing everyone that the local flea market was now open on “Sunday’s Only.”

Instead of cringing and wondering for too long about how much less unedited signs might cost, I paused, and then asked myself, “Can anything from that workshop relate to this, if I may, apostrophe disaster?” The answer sparked an idea: I could create a project which both focused on misused apostrophes and utilized the three key topics addressed at the workshop.

After all …

  • Evaluating and creating require high-level thinking skills, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    In the taxonomy, which grades instructional activities by difficulty, evaluating and creating are actually ranked as those which involve the highest-level thinking skills. Tasks which involve interpreting, judging, ranking, scoring, composing, reconstructing, or revising represent activities which typically fall into one of those two categories.

  •  Teaching others is an activity assigned to the top end of the (memory oriented) Learning Pyramid.

    A study done by National Training Laboratories revealed that the retention rate of information is highest (90%) if learners either teach the concept to others or put it to immediate use. In contrast, when learners read from books or other materials, or listen to lectures, that rate drops dramatically to 10% for reading and 5% for listening.

  • And millennials frequently use the internet to study.

    Millennials, those of Generation Y, or simply, people born between 1977 and 1998 are more technologically literate than any generation before them, and they tend to expect learning environments to incorporate the internet.

So here’s . . .  

The Project  

  • Stage 1. Having compiled a set of examples of publicly displayed misused apostrophes, including a number of examples from internet sources as well as the “Sunday’s Only” sign example, I shared the set with students, and asked them to evaluate and to revise them. One of my sources was the website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” a gold mine of photographs showing real life examples of such mistakes. Also, a quiz incorporating photos of authentic signs, banners, TV images, T-shirts, etc., most of which need editing work, available at, turned out to be very engaging.  

  • Stage 2. (Un)fortunately, campus reader boards, fliers, and even cafeteria menus can be other sources of specimens. So I asked my students to go on an “apostrophe scavenger hunt” around campus and note examples of problematic apostrophe usage. I gave them the option of working in small teams, and I encouraged them to contact the “authors” and, tactfully, to offer to edit the phrase or sentence and to inform the authors of the rule which was broken (to instruct them).

    One of my students veered off campus and found two apostrophe mistakes on the sign in front of his uncle’s body shop. The student offered to make a new sign for the shop, which pleased his uncle. The student then offered a short explanation for the change, which met with less enthusiasm. 

The students had a great time, and they were perhaps most excited when correcting and teaching native speakers of English a little thing or two about those little marks we call apostrophes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Simple Past’s Best Friend . . . The Rubber Band?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium 

There is always at least one of me at the bottom of your purse, bag, backpack or briefcase. I come free when you buy celery and when your newspapers are delivered. I am everywhere, but I also hold a magical power for students when it comes time to learning the simple past tense. What am I? An elastic band!

English is Stressful

Have you ever heard students say that they “miss-ed” their families or that they “watch-ed’ TV last night? On one hand, it is great that the students know there should be an -ed ending with simple past regular verbs. On the other hand, their mispronunciation of these verbs in the past may cause listeners to have difficulty understanding them. English is a stress-timed language. This means that pronouncing the correct number of syllables (or beats) in a word is key to “listener-friendly pronunciation.” (Gilbert, 2008). If a student adds an extra syllable or doesn’t pronounce enough syllables, listeners may have a hard time understanding the word.

Pronunciation and the Simple Past

After we have covered the “grammar-y” part of the lesson – the formation and use of the simple past – I show a slide in my PowerPoint presentation that shows the three different pronunciations of the -ed ending: /d/, /t/ and /ɪd/. Specifically, in verbs that end with a voiced consonant sound (/b/, /g/, /ʤ/, /v/, /δ/, /z/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /l/, /r/, and /y/) and any vowel sound, the -ed ending is pronounced /d/. In verbs that end with an unvoiced consonant sound (/p/, /k/, /ʧ/, /f/, /θ/, /s/ and /ʃ/), -ed is pronounced /t/. Finally, with verbs that end with the sounds /t/ and /d/, -ed is pronounced /ɪd/.

Then, I let my students in on The Big Secret. The biggest difference between the three endings is that with /d/ and /t/ endings, we don’t add an extra syllable, but with /ɪd/, we do. Students are unfailingly delighted to learn that they don’t need to sweat the difference between /t/ and /d/ as long as they get the syllable count right. (In my opinion, students and teachers who are obsessed with exact pronunciation are the only ones who really care whether the final -ed is pronounced /d/ or /t/. Listeners certainly don’t, because the speaker can be easily understood regardless of which of the two endings they pronounce.)

Enter the Rubber Band!

When I am teaching the simple past tense of regular verbs, I bring enough elastic bands to give one to each student in the class. Students pull once on the rubber band when the verb has only one syllable, like pushed and moved, but they pull twice for verbs that have an extra syllable when the final -ed is added, like wanted and added. For these verbs, students pull hard on the rubber bands when they say the stressed syllable and only pull it a little when they say the rest of the verb. This helps them to feel the difference between a one-syllable past tense verb, like laughed and a two-syllable verb, like waited. Gilbert (2004) suggests that the elastic bands be thick, the thicker the better. Pulling on a thick elastic band requires more effort, which helps students to internalize this pronunciation skill. Students have lots of fun with this activity, and getting students laughing and moving in a grammar class is always a good thing!

Gilbert, J. (2004). “Exchanging thoughts on teaching pronunciation.” Paper presented at TESOL 2004 in Long Beach, CA, USA.

Gilbert, J. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acquiring Proficiency in English: How Much Does Geography Matter?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

I have been following with genuine interest Dorothy and Richard’s discussion on the possibility of acquiring a “full command” of English while not living in an English-speaking country. I’d like to enter that discussion by focusing on some of the issues addressed by my fellow-bloggers. 

First off, is the terminology that we use to describe the level of language command important?

Yes. Although saying that some learner has a “full command” or “mastery” of English may suffice in many contexts, I would suggest using the term “proficiency.” Academics in English language studies at the University of Cambridge have employed this term to designate success on Cambridge ESOL’s most advanced exam: The Certificate of Proficiency in English exam, and to categorize exercises and entire textbooks designed to prepare learners for that exam. The Cambridge exams are globally recognized and the term is very serviceable. According to exam materials, those who have earned the Certificate can comprehend practically everything they hear and read, can discuss complex topics “without awkwardness,” and can “express themselves precisely and fluently.” It is an exam designed for those language learners whose level of English is similar to “that of an educated native speaker.” (See .) 

Does studying English in a non-English-speaking country mean only memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules?

Absolutely not. Activities focused on successful and meaningful communication as well as on context-specific language dominate in English-language classes offered in many countries, at least many European ones. In Poland, for example, both oral and written parts of the standardized National Secondary-School Exit Exam in English include many tasks which assess students’ communicative competence. Judging from the contents of the textbooks which are most popular in Poland, The Czech Republic, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, one may conclude that it is effective communication, not “memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules” that constitutes the core of English-language curricula in these and some number of other countries. 

Can you acquire native-like pronunciation without living in an English-speaking country? 
Yes. It is widely recognized that good instruction focuses not only on fundamental grammar and vocabulary as well as register-specific grammar and vocabulary (including slang), but also on phonetics (including emphases on consonant and vowel articulation, stress patterns, and intonation units). In Polish schools (and I’m quite sure that my home country is not an exception here), all those components are regularly part of English language curricula adopted in programs designed for all levels of language competency. Most textbooks, even those for beginning learners, devote a section of every unit to practicing phonetics. Those studying to be teachers of English are very often required to take a three-year course in phonetics. 

Can you be exposed to enough English to become in other ways proficient in the language without living in an English-speaking country?

Available evidence suggests so. There is no doubt that exposure to spoken and written English is required for the internalization of the language, and that English language input is generally more abundant in countries where it is spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. There is also no doubt that variation in register and idiom is concentrated in those countries. However, sufficient exposure to spoken and written English (both formal and more colloquial English) is demonstrably available in places beyond the borders of those countries. Where school and university curricula demand that English is the medium of instruction and all oral and written exercises, all oral and written exams, all graduate papers, and all theses must be done in English (as is customary in many Departments of English in European countries), the amount of exposure is routinely sufficient. English is mandatory in English language classrooms, but it is also commonly read, heard, and spoken in public arenas in those countries, where, I think it’s fair to say non-native speakers of English meet with native speakers of English more than occasionally. It hardly needs mentioning that various media, both monodirectional (e.g. television) and bidirectional (e.g. the Internet, with its email, chat groups, and Skype), add to the amount of English language input available in such countries. 

Is exposure to sufficient English language input- without studious attention to patterns of English grammar, vocabulary, and idiom- enough to guarantee proficiency?

Of course not. Untold millions of people have relocated to the United States from non-English-speaking countries and, after years or decades of copious exposure remain functional but less than proficient in the language. On the other hand, there have been those who have lived in non-English-speaking countries and who have been sufficiently devoted to becoming proficient, and have achieved proficiency in English. 

What are the keys to becoming proficient in English?

Immersion in the language is crucial, but clearly learners do not need to relocate to an English-speaking country to be “flooded” with English. Equally important is that the exposure is exploited in the name of English language internalization and proficiency. Attentive, devoted, motivated, and active learners take advantage of much of the input they receive.

Some years ago, a Polish friend of mine who had never taken any formal English classes, but who had “devoured” textbooks, listened to tapes and to BBC radio, watched BBC TV channels and movies, surrounded himself with reference books, and often spoke to himself in English, passed intensely competitive university entrance exams (both oral and written) with scores which were among the very hig
hest registered by that (large, Polish) university that year (and native-speakers were on those exam panels.) The scores of the only two candidates who had actually lived in an English-speaking country (England) were nowhere near as high as his scores. Was he an exception?
I have also known more than a few fellow-teachers who learned English as a foreign language in Poland and who are often mistaken for native speakers by their British or American colleagues. Are they also exceptions? Perhaps not. Are there plentiful examples of proficient non-native English speaker-writers who are from Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and elsewhere and who have briefly or never lived in an English-speaking country?
Quite likely.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another Perspective on Dorothy Zemach’s “Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher”

By Richard Firsten 

Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I enjoyed reading Dorothy’s article written in response to some questions posed to by an Iranian English teacher who she’s named “Ibrahim.” You can’t help but feel the nurturing and supportive tone that Dorothy has created in it. One of the things I’ve always liked about most of the teachers I’ve met in our field is this caring quality that has led to teachers in other disciplines sometimes labeling us in good fun as “mother hens.” Well, that’s fine; I don’t mind that label at all, and I have a hunch that Dorothy doesn’t mind it either!

While I appreciate many things in Dorothy’s article, I’m afraid I have to take exception with some of them. I’d like to comment, right off, on two points Dorothy makes:
  • “… it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English … without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking 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 … who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me.” 
Let’s Define “Excellent English Language Skills” 
It would be helpful to have a definition of what it means to say that somebody is “an excellent user of English” or has “excellent English language skills.” Such phrases are really quite open to interpretation, but I’m going to assume they mean mastery of the language. There may be some very rare individuals out there who can master English without ever living in the US or UK or other English-speaking country, but I would say that the vast majority of people, no matter how much they apply themselves, could not accomplish this for many reasons.  
Stress and Intonation Critical to Mastery
First, mastery of English does not simply deal with memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules. How can a person living in a non-English-speaking country possibly learn the nuances and subtleties of the prosodic or suprasegmental features that English has? I’m talking about the importance of stress and intonation, which can be very influential in what a sentence means. As for stress, say the following out loud and you’ll see what I mean:
  1.  Have you ever seen a catfish?
  2.  Have you ever seen a cat fish?
As for intonation, say the next two out loud:
  1.  (driver talking to passenger) What’s that in the road ahead?
  2.  (same driver talking to same passenger) What’s that in the road, a head?
Forgetting about the written form in which spacing and punctuation play all-important roles, if you’ve applied English stress and intonation properly, I imagine you’ve come up with very different renditions for those utterances! Try learning these subtleties if not surrounded all the time by English speakers. 

What About Cultural Aspects and Register?

 Second, what about all the cultural aspects of a language and the matter of communicative competence? How can a person not living in an English-speaking environment possibly learn the intricacies of register to know which vocabulary or phraseology is appropriate in different situations with different people, and deal with various levels of formality and informality? On top of that, we have the problem of applying current cultural trends to certain lexical items, things that it would be nearly impossible to be exposed to and master when not living in the context in which such things are used:
  1. (student walking into a university administrator’s office) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”
  2. (same student entering his dorm room, seeing his roommate) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”If you’re aware of communicative competence, you cringe upon hearing the first utterance, but you’re fine with the very same utterance in the second context. I don’t believe such things can be mastered outside of an English-speaking/cultural environment. 
Conrad and Mehta Learned English in English-Speaking Environments
 As for Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta, some points need clarification. Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, started to learn English when he was around 29 years old, but he didn’t do this in Poland; he did it in an English-speaking environment. He arrived in England while working on a ship and started learning English there and while in the company of completely English-speaking crews on board various vessels. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that even though Conrad mastered written English and became a great novelist in the English language, he never lost his thick Polish accent, and I have serious doubts about how well he ever mastered the prosodics of English.
Ved Mehta was born to an upper-class family in British-controlled India. Because of these two facts, I’m sure he was exposed to English at an early age.
Moreover, he started living in a completely English-speaking environment at the age of 15, so I don’t think we can use Mr. Mehta as a role model for people who want to learn English as fully as possible yet stay within the confines of their own non-English-speaking countries. This is not to say that Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta didn’t achieve great success in mastering English. They did. But I think their stories support my argument quite well.
Is Language a Window into How People Think? 
Finally, let’s look back at one other point Dorothy makes:
“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 don’t think Americans, on the whole, are afraid of Iranians; I think they’re afraid of Iranian politicians and their mindset. I can’t agree that learning a language outside of where that language is spoken will allow us to understand “other ways” except, perhaps, on a superficial level. Yes, we might gain insights into how speakers of a particular language think or view the world around them, but not to any meaningful extent. 
I remember when I was deep into learning Spanish. I wanted to know how to say I dropped it. I was told to say Se me cayó, which I found very odd because that basically means “It fell from me.” On another occasion, I wanted to know how to say I forgot and was told to say Se me olvidó, which means something very hard to put into English like “It got forgotten from me.” It dawned on me that in both cases, Spanish isn’t letting the speaker take responsibility for those acts: I didn’t drop it – it fell from me. It did that, not me. And I didn’t forget anything – it got forgotten. This is an interesting psychological observation on the part of an English speaker learning Spanish, but it’s certainly not a way to judge how all Spanish speakers think. No, just learning a language doesn’t necessarily allow us to understand “other ways.”
Advice for Ibrahim

So, Ibrahim, all I can say to you is that I hope one day you’ll be able to live for a decent period of time in an English-speaking country. Perhaps you should consider Canada. I don’t know how tough the Canadians would be on giving you a visa for an extended stay, but you might want to find out from the Canadian embassy. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will become a much more fluent speaker of English (in all aspects that such a description includes) once you’ve had the opportunity to live in a country where you’ll be surrounded night and day by English and be immersed in one of the cultures that influence the language so heavily. 

Good luck to you, Ibrahim. And thank you, Dorothy, for having given Ibrahim such a nurturing and supportive answer.