Archive for June, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

What does it Mean to be a “Good Teacher?”

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

I was recently reading an old edition of The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, and I came across an article about offering merit pay to “good teachers.” Although this has been a topic of conversation in teachers’ lounges across the US for a few years now, this particular article made me think. Is Barack Obama right when he says “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”?

Am I a “Good Teacher?”

Even though I don’t teach in the public school system or even in North America, and this question is totally moot for me, I still had an immediate, visceral reaction to the headline. My first reaction was, “Well, I think I am a good teacher, so yes, pay me more!” But, as I read the article, I started to wonder what they mean by “good teacher.” In my context, ESL, does this mean teachers’ whose students learn more quickly? Years of research has shown that there are so many other factors that influence language acquisition that it seems unfair to reward or punish teachers on that basis.

Does being a good teacher mean that students like the instructor and return week after week to class? Student retention might have more to do with the motivation and future goals of the students than the joy they get from attending the class.

Does it mean being an expert in grammar and/or language acquisition? Maybe that helps, but some of the least effective teachers I have ever observed were no slouches in the nuts and bolts of English language teaching. So, how do I know if I really am a good teacher?

According to The Globe and Mail

Research has been done in this area and, apparently, there are two resume-builders that aren’t necessarily indicative of skill as a teacher.

  • We don’t have to have a Master’s Degree to be good teachers.
  • We don’t have to have been teachers for a long time to be good teachers.

I agree with both, to an extent. I know many, many teachers who excel in the ESL classroom but who don’t have an MEd. However, as someone who reviewed resumes for a full-time teaching position, I believe that a Master’s degree shows a commitment to the field. I also think that experience in the classroom has made me a better teacher. I just don’t think it is a given, especially if the teacher is burnt out.

The Globe and Mail also reported some characteristics that Teach for America found good teachers tended to exhibit.

  • We need to have perseverance; apparently overcoming a personal or academic hardship in our own lives bodes well for us as teachers.
  • We need to take a cue from Madonna and periodically reinvent ourselves. Okay, we don’t have to learn how to Vogue or do Pilates obsessively, but regular reflection on activities and lessons plans is a good idea.
  • We need to set high standards for our students and explain what they need to do to meet them.
  • We need to get the family involved.

Obviously, Teach for America was referring to parental involvement in the public education system, but it seems to me that if a student (even an adult) is going to be really successful in their language learning, the rest of their family needs to be on board. Now, I have never called a student’s family, but making the student aware of the demands language learning may take on their time outside the class and the impact this might have on their family is a step in the right direction.

What do you do to be a “Good Teacher?”

I think I am a good teacher when I can explain something clearly to my students, when I am prepared for class and when I know the subject matter. I spend a lot of time reading articles and attending conferences to learn new teaching techniques and more about language acquisition. I know I will never be “done” learning how to be a “good teacher.” (Would you want to go to a doctor who had “finished” learning how to be a doctor and no longer read medical journals or followed current research?) I was recently asked by a student’s husband if I thought teaching was easy. My answer is that anyone who thinks it is, probably isn’t a very good teacher.

What do you think?

Anderssen, E. (2010) Should Canada offer merit pay to teachers? The Globe and Mail, February 6, 2010. (

Monday, June 21, 2010

Playing Games, Part 3

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

A Vocabulary Recognition Game: Flyswatters

Following on my previous posts, here is another game that is easy to put together, useful, and that students enjoy.

This vocabulary review game is a good one for large classes, and because it is active, it’s a good one for waking up sleepy classes or injecting a bit of energy into a lesson.

I first saw this game demonstrated at a monthly JALT meeting in Chiba in… 1988? and I’m afraid I can no longer remember the name of the presenter.  But thank you so much, whoever you were!

To play requires flashcards with words or pictures, and two flyswatters. If you check the dollar store at the beginning of summer, you can probably find cheap flyswatters in bright colors and interesting designs.

The class is divided into two teams. A large class might require two or more separate games, but each team can easily have 6-10 members (and the number needn’t be the same on each team), because play moves very quickly. The teams gather on opposite sides of a large table, and the flashcards are scattered all over the table.

One representative from each team steps up to the table, flyswatter in hand. The teacher (or, later, a student leader) can, at the lowest level, simply call out the name of the object on the card. The first student to smack the correct card with the flyswatter “wins” the card and one point for the team. (And now you see why we use flyswatters—they can reach any point on the table, and it doesn’t hurt when the person from the other team smacks down on top!).

The person who wins the card hands her flyswatter to the next person on her team and moves to the end of the line or group (I don’t think I’ve ever had a class manage to stay in a single-file line–they get too excited and want to crowd around the table watching). The person from the other team who “lost” remains in place for a maximum of two more plays. In this way, an unsuccessful student gets more chances than a successful student—presumably, they need the practice more. But even an unsuccessful student is not put on the spot for very long. Whether a team wins or loses doesn’t depend on one person, which also reduces the pressure for each student.

Here is a game that is easy for the teacher to “fix”—if one team is winning by too great a margin, I might do something like call out the card and then simply hold the arm of the player of the winning team, or cover his eyes. In this way, the player from the other team has all the time necessary to locate the card. If you are very obvious about it, the class will accept it. After all, you have made it clear from the beginning what the purpose of the activity is—practicing vocabulary recognition. That is always the goal, and not “winning.”

You’ll notice that even though only one person plays for a team at each time, the entire team will crowd around the table to watch; even though they are observers, they are just as focused on the vocabulary as the players. You might need to remind them a few times not to point or “help” the person playing! But they will certainly be rehearsing the vocabulary in their heads. After  7-10 minutes of play, in fact, I like to stop the game and point this out to students, and ask them to notice how engaged they are and how focused on the vocabulary they are even when it is not their turn.  In this way, the students know that their time is not being wasted.

If you find that students are, in their enthusiasm, randomly slapping cards hoping to get lucky, rather than actually locating the correct card, impose a “return one card to the table for every incorrect slap” penalty.

To increase the difficulty level, you can say whole sentences with the words in them, or even short paragraphs or longer stories; you can describe the word without giving it directly; and so on.  The flashcards needn’t be picture cards—they can be single letters for young learners, or even complex linguistic terms for graduate students (for which you give a definition or example).

If you wish to have picture cards but don’t have the time to create your own, why not assign the task to students? Give each student or group a certain amount of vocabulary and some blank cards, and let them draw pictures or find them from magazines or the Internet and glue the images onto the cards. If you can, then laminate the cards so they will last longer, and keep them for use in future classes as well.

The game may look as though it is designed for children, with cards and flyswatters and constant motion, and certainly children love this game (it’s an excellent way to review colors, letters of the alphabet, and numbers). However, I’ve used it with teacher trainers and company employees and university students and other groups, who enjoyed it immensely. Adults love games too!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Can I Please Borrow your Car?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Asking for a favor is a necessary part of life, no matter what country we live in or what our native language is. From small favors, like borrowing someone’s pencil in class, to big favors, like asking a neighbor to keep an eye on our home when we are on vacation, we are constantly requesting assistance from the people in our lives. However, HOW we ask for favors differs vastly from culture to culture.

This can cause problems for students who are trying to ask for a favor in a native English-speaking culture while following the rules of their native language culture. Although the student most likely intends to be polite when asking for a big favor, if he/she is not following the steps we have come to expect in English favor asking, the request might sound too demanding or even rude. The problem is that most text books don’t teach students how to formulate a request for a big favor. While it is perfectly acceptable for someone to say, “Can I please borrow your pencil?” it is much too straight forward to ask, “Can I please borrow your car?” without any preamble, even when the “please” is thrown in and a modal is used.

The 8 Steps of a Request

According to linguists such as Trosborg (1994) and Goldschmidt (1998), native English speakers follow several steps when asking for a favor that requires someone to go outside their daily routine in a noticeable way.

  1. Introducing: “Hey! How’s it going?”
  2. Warning: “I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”
  3. Disarming: “I know you are really busy right now, but …”
  4. Giving a Reason: “My husband is out of town and I am having oral surgery and there is no one to pick me up from the dentist afterwards.”
  5. Asking the Favor: “If you are free on Tuesday afternoon, would you mind giving me a ride home?”
  6. Minimizing:  “It should just take about 30 minutes.”
  7. Promising: “I’ll reimburse you for gas.”
  8. Checking – only done with positive responses to the request:  “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

We don’t always use all of the steps, but we pick and choose according to our personal preferences and the relationship we have with the listener. Of course, this is all subconscious. We don’t think, “Okay, now I am going to minimize.” These steps are just an inherent part of how native English speakers have been socialized to ask for a big favor.

Something else worthy of note is the fact that we break basic grammar rules when we ask favors by using the past tense (“I was wondering”) when we very clearly mean the present. As demonstrated by Wigglesworth and Yates (2001), we also use a lot of mitigating words (“just”) to soften the request.

Favor-Asking in the Classroom

It behooves students to learn these steps because pragmatic errors are much more dangerous than grammar errors. If a student makes a grammar mistake, the listener might just think, “Oh, that person is not a native speaker.” But, if a student makes a pragmatic error, the listener probably won’t hear a mistake, he/she may just think the speaker is rude.

Unfortunately, most text books don’t teach these steps and grammar quirks. In my class, I first ask students to think about how they ask for favors in their native language. Then, we watch a video I made of a friend asking me to watch her dogs while she goes out of town. Then, we talk about the steps she uses in the video and why she says what she does. Finally, the students write dialogues in which they ask each other for big favors.

Asking for a big favor is a delicate conversational act. If we don’t explicitly teach students how to maneuver through this linguistic terrain, we may be setting them up for a slew of negative responses.

Goldschmidt, M. (1998) “ Do me a favor: A descriptive analysis of favor asking sequences in American English,” Journal of Pragmatics, 29/2, 129-153.
Trosborg, A. (1994) Interlanguage Pragmatics: Requests, Complaints and Apologies, New York: de Gruyter Mouton.
Wigglesworth, G. and Yates, L. (2001) “Focusing on Mitigation in English,” paper presented at TESOL, St. Louis.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Playing Games, Part 2

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

A Conversation Board Game

My previous post, Playing Games, Part 1, offered my reasons for playing games in the language classroom and a description of what I feel makes a successful and useful game. However, what most teachers really want to know is, What are some good games that I can make and use? So in this and the following two posts, I will describe how to create and play some games. These can be adapted to a variety of classroom levels, and I have used them with private students and huge classes alike (though note that in larger classes, students will be playing in groups, and  you will need one set of materials per group).

This conversation board game is easy to create, but one of the most useful ones I have in my magic bag of teacher supplies. If the ones in the photos here look a bit beaten up, it’s because I’ve been using them since 1992! The originals are made of heavy cardboard that has been painted and then shellacked; the questions are written with permanent marker. I have also made color photocopies of the boards and had the copies laminated, so that I can roll them up and travel with them when necessary.

The game is a merely a series of questions, such as What do you like to do on rainy days? What is something that makes you angry? How does your family celebrate birthdays? I have simpler versions that feature only topics: children, money, television, birthdays. Students play in groups of 4-5 (more than that means that some students will fall silent).

Each student places a marker on start, and then they take turns to role a die and move their marker around the board. I buy the 8- or 12-sided dice from hobby shops to spread students around the board more; if you don’t have access to these, I recommend using two of the traditional six-sided dice.

When a student lands on a question (or topic), she speaks about it as much as she likes. She can address any aspect of the topic; it is entirely her choice. Her group members ask her questions, but do not offer their own answers or opinions. When she feels she has finished, she passes the die to the next student, and play continues.

It’s not a game that anyone can “win”—if someone reaches the end of the path, the final square says “go back,” and play reverses. I generally have students play for 20-30 minutes, but I have never had a group where any player got all the way back to start.

This is my game for the first day of class. Students get to know one another, and while they are playing, I walk around and listen to them—this is my evaluation of their English level. It provides solid practice in speaking and listening and turn-taking. An extremely simple activity, and yet just having the questions in a “game” format makes it more interesting than the standard pair interview presented on a worksheet. I’ve frequently had classes request to play the game again during other sessions.

More complex questions can of course be designed that practice only the past tense, or conditional structures, or certain vocabulary.

I’ll close with a look at a blank game board I’ve used for grammar games—this takes more effort to create, but you can also consider having students make your game cards or at least using the game over and over again if you are lucky enough to teach the same class for several terms.

This game board, as you can see, has nothing written on the squares other than a few simple game-play instructions not related to language; however, the squares are all painted one of six colors. Each color represents a type of task, and I create a stack of cards with the tasks on them. For example, yellow might indicate “spell this word.” If a student lands on yellow, he draws a card and hands it to a fellow player without looking at it, and the other player asks him to spell the word. If he succeeds, he stays where he is; if he makes a mistake, he moves back one square. Blue squares might ask a student to put a sentence in the present tense into the past, and so on. You could assign students in groups to come up with a series of tasks or exercises as homework and then have each color represent a different group’s cards.

Really, any type of drill-based language exercise can be put onto cards, where suddenly it becomes fun instead of boring. You needn’t think up all of the exercises yourself, even—copy them out of your class textbook as a review. A student who has done Exercise 13 on page 143 doesn’t want to do page 143 again. However, if items from Exercise 13 appeared on the backs of cards in a stack—well, you would be surprised at how happily students drill themselves with those items again and again!

I cannot quite get away from the issue of usefulness, however! And I would like to stress again that the use of any game must not only be clear to you, but clear to your students. You should always let a class know why they are doing what they are doing, and when the game is concluded, point out to them what language they practiced and how they practiced it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Playing Games, Part 1

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

The Place of Games in the Language Classroom

In my last post, I argued that the practical goal of learning English ought to come before (if a choice must be made between the two) the goal of having fun. In this post, I’m writing about games. A contradiction? Not at all—I hold that games are enormously practical.

This post will give my reasons for including games in the language classroom, and then in my next three posts, I will describe some games that anyone can make and adapt to a variety of different classes.

What makes an activity a “game”? Often it’s just how we dress it up. A game may be nothing more than extended pairwork asking and answering questions, but if it’s done sitting around a game board, rolling dice and moving markers, it’s a game. A time limit can make something a game: “How many vocabulary words from Unit 3 do you remember?” is just a question; “Work in groups of three. How many vocabulary words from Unit 3 can you list in two minutes before the bell rings?” feels like a game.

When selecting or designing a game, I look for these factors:

• It is useful. That is, it is clearly practicing a language point or a communication skill. Not only must I be able to articulate that to myself, but I need to be able to explain it to my students as well.

• It lasts longer than the instructions. Some games might take a while to explain or learn or set up; in that case, the amount of practice students get needs to justify that.

• It gives all students an equal amount of practice. Games purely of skill can result in the stronger students getting more practice, and that of course is not fair. Be especially wary of games that have unsuccessful students sit down or stop play early, or that reward success with extra turns.

• It does not cause hurt feelings. Many games involve “winning” and “losing”—and losing is not usually such a great feeling for anyone. Therefore, the playing of the game itself must hold the appeal, and not the winning. When I have students of mixed abilities playing together, I don’t mind at all altering the rules or outright “cheating” to level the playing field. A student cannot cheat without angering his/her classmates—but the teacher, now, she can do whatever she pleases! I’ll give a specific example of this in the context of a game in a future post.

I feel strongly that your language goal should be what drives you to select your game, and not the other way around. That is, if your language goal is “I want students to get to know each other better, feel comfortable in class, get some experience working in groups, and have some time for free conversation practice that isn’t graded,” then the conversation game I’ll describe in my next post would be a good fit for that class. However, it doesn’t work nearly so well to say, “I have this great conversation board game, so… I guess ‘conversation practice’ will be my goal for my next class.”

The games that I will describe in my next posts I made myself, with cardboard and paint and markers and cards and scissors. If you are making something that can be used more than once, I’d advise making the effort to do it well the first time, so it will last for years. If possible, laminate worksheets and flashcards. At the same time, keep your eye open for store sales and yard sales where you can pick up inexpensive game boards, dice, markers (I find little novelty erasers and coins from different countries work well), timers, and so on, so you can have them on hand when you suddenly have an inspiration for creating a game.