Archive for October, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two Acronyms Which All Language Teachers Need to Understand

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

I was raised in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Flatbush. What made Flatbush so typical of New York neighborhoods was what we commonly refer to today as the diversity in population found there. Talk about celebrating diversity . . . we “celebrated” it every single day. When I ran errands for my family when I was a kid, I might go to the German greengrocer’s, the Italian cobbler’s, the Jewish deli, or the small Puerto Rican grocery. My folks might get Chinese takeout or buy greeting cards at the Lebanese gift shop. What made all of these small business people so interesting was that none of them was a native speaker of English. They all communicated well enough in English to function successfully in their businesses, but they were all using what linguist Jim Cummins refers to as BICS, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills – and that’s the first acronym language teachers need to understand.

I’m sure many of you have known people such as family members, neighbors, or friends who have a good, basic command of English and can use the language in just about any informal situation, but whose language skills still leave something to be desired. These people may neglect all 3rd person singular verb forms, probably don’t use irregular verbs properly in the past all the time, may leave out the articles, and have their own peculiarities of pronunciation, just to name a few defective areas of their language skills. But the main point is that they still communicate well enough and know how to get their ideas across appropriately so that the majority of native speakers don’t have trouble understanding them. My own grandmother was a perfect example of someone like this. I used to get a kick out of some of her pronunciations and syntactic constructions. “That really argavated me!” she would say, instead of aggravated. “Write to your cousin a letter maybe,” she might say instead of “Perhaps you should write a letter to your cousin” or “Maybe you should write your cousin a letter.” And then there was the super in the apartment building I lived in as a kid who’d say in anger, “He’s a real summunubeet!” (I’m sure you can guess what he meant.)

Although Jim Cummins and other linguists have focused their attention on L2 development in children , I think we can apply these ideas to adults as well. According to the literature, it takes about two years for the average child to reach the level of communication in the new language that we refer to as BICS, so it most likely takes longer for an adult to attain that level.

But even if a speaker attains BICS and our impression is that the person does quite well in the L2, the pitfall is that we may assume that person can also do well in more formal or academic situations. Usually, however, that’s not the case. The ability to handle formal or academic language well is referred to by Cummins as CALP, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency – and this is the second acronym all language teachers need to understand. It’s claimed that children require between five and seven years to attain this level of language ability, and in adults it may take even longer. This is a daunting claim, one that many language teachers may disagree with based upon their personal experiences with students and observations of how those students can perform in the L2. I, for one, tend to agree with the concepts of BICS and CALP, although I’m not sure I agree completely with the time frames given.

Being aware of BICS and CALP makes perfect sense. I know for a fact that my grandmother and those small business owners in my Brooklyn neighborhood functioned perfectly well on a day-to-day basis in English, but I’m certain that even if they had solid educational backgrounds from “the old country,” those same people would have felt very uncomfortable and very insecure in formal or academic surroundings and in dealing with formal or academic reading.

The point is, as language teachers we should keep in mind that it takes a great deal of patience and quite a bit of time to achieve BICS and a lot more time to achieve CALP.  And even though the prospect of having to wait so long before our students can feel comfortable in their L2 in formal or academic settings is a daunting one, we need to face this reality and get our students to understand this as well so that they don’t become too frustrated because they’ve been thrust prematurely into a situation where higher language skills are required. This goes equally for adults and children, and it’s something all language teachers should keep in mind.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Small Talk. Not So Small After All?

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

Hi there!  How are you? Teaching anything new this semester?

– No, huh uh.  Mostly conversation courses.  But I like them.

– Using a good textbook?

– Yeah.  It’s full of good exercises.  But you know what?  I’m thinkin’ it really needs another chapter.

– Yeah? On what?

– Well, on the language that people use as, well, “time fillers” when they’re in the lunch room, at the bus stop, in the elevator, or wherever.

– I know what you mean.  Small talk.

– Yes, exactly.

– Yeah.  You may be right.  Well, good luck in those classes.

– You too. Bye!

– Bye!

How often is small talk a part of life in the classroom?  Perhaps not often enough.

The majority of the curricula I’ve followed, and most of the textbooks I’ve used in conversation classes, haven’t focused much on small talk, as such. Yes, there have been units on greetings, the weather, and family – typical topics for short, casual conversations.  Students have learned how to thank someone, how to apologize to people, how to ask for directions, and even how to inquire about someone’s plans for the weekend.  Yet these “how-to matters” tend to be presented as separate topics, often in different units.  They are not usually treated together, under a heading like “small talk.”

How often is small talk a part of life outside the classroom?  Daily.

Students must be able to cope with everyday small talk; they must be able to produce appropriate small talk.

Considering the frequency of its occurrence in daily conversations as well as its very real influence on how we are viewed as interlocutors, small talk could well deserve a regular place in ESL classrooms, classrooms which attend to communicative competence.

If we take account of its impact on reducing learners’ nervousness about spontaneous communication in L2, we also realize that “mastering” the art of small talk can lower students’ apprehension of speaking, which is crucial to their success.

Because people generally think that the language of small talk is “simple language,” and because small talk conversations can’t be considered demanding in terms of their length (lasting only a few minutes ordinarily), it’s crucial that language learners feel they can “handle” small talk.

Students shouldn’t have to say to themselves (as I have done!): I’ve been studying English for a few years but I still feel uncomfortable holding short and simple conversations.

But how can we teach small talk?

Certainly not in “topic isolation mode.”  Typical small talk “talking points” can be integrated.  We mix small talk with more serious conversation in real life; something similar can be done in the classroom.  Brief, casual conversations about the weather, complaints, health, appearance, family, apologies, compliments, plans, etc. should be held regularly, and can, with a little coaxing, involve most or all of our students over time.  Such conversations make great warm-up activities.

Sample Small Talk Warm-Up Activity

Keep a stock of cards with phrases like “Great party!”, “It was nice seeing you again”, “Let’s have lunch some time”, “You look busy”, or ‘‘I haven’t seen you for a while,” etc. Ask students, as they come in to class, to take one and then to mingle among classmates, initiating small talk with the phrase provided.

We can also incorporate activities that promote rapid, spontaneous responses also helps.  After all, small talk may be brief, but it is fast-paced!

Sample Activity for Eliciting Short, Fast-Paced Responses.

Also using cards with phrases or sentences representing a variety of topics, such as “Is this the only kind of dessert you have?”, “May I interest you in our new model of PC?”, “I’ve had a headache all week.”, “Where have you been all day?”, and “You OK?”, we can involve students in a kind of group task.  Students, in turn, draw a card and read out its phrase or sentence to another student in the group.  This should, on each occasion, prompt a brief conversation between the students (one lasting not more than 30 seconds or so).  We can sound a bell, clap our hands, or indicate in some other way, that a small talk conversation in progress should end and that a new one should begin.

I’ve found that material for lessons on small talk can often be gathered from everyday conversations I’ve heard or from those my students have heard.  If you start paying attention to such conversations, you may well get the impression, as I have, that the variety of small talk questions and answers is astonishing.

Need to run.  Take care!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Is the Customer Always Right?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

“We aren’t happy with our new English teacher.” This was the emphatic opinion of several of my friends who study at the same institute where I teach English. After listening to a few minutes of venting, I suggested they speak with the teacher about their concerns. They felt they couldn’t do that, so my second suggestion was that they meet with the director of the program. They did complain to the director, who spoke to the teacher, who then felt undermined and insecure for the rest of the semester.

This experience is a consequence of the student/customer divide. As teachers, we often think of the people our classes as students. We are the experts, and our teaching is informed by current and past methodologies, our own experience as language learners, and our cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Increasingly, however, in the minds of our administrators and, often, of the students themselves, they are customers. They have paid money to be in the class, and they have certain expectations about what they will learn and how they will be taught.

Not Always!

Yes, to some degree my students are customers. I work hard to meet their needs and expectations. However, ultimately, I am the teacher, and I make decisions that they may not agree with, but I believe are for the best. For instance, several years ago, when I was a much less confident instructor, I taught an Advanced Grammar class. On the first day, I had planned for the class to do an ice breaker, a survey activity. After I had demonstrated it, one student raised her hand and said that she thought they should not be wasting time with this activity. They were all adults and they wanted to learn grammar not make friends. I reacted by snatching up all the cards, my cheeks burning, and moving on abruptly to another activity. In retrospect, I realize that I should have described the benefits of lowering the affective filter at the beginning of the term and explained that in the class we would be doing a lot of pair work, so this was a necessary activity. From this experience, I learned that if I believe an activity is valuable, I need to explain its benefits to my students so that they know we are not just wasting time.

But, Sometimes!

However, I also think it is important for teachers to remain open to student suggestions. Although I am the expert, I also believe students have legitimate ideas about how they want to be taught. For instance, several years ago (around the same time as the previous example, actually) I was teaching a Conversation class. We were learning idioms and listening to a dialogue from the text. I was about to move on to the next lesson, when a student raised her hand and suggested that the class read the dialogue with a partner before moving on. My reaction was the same as before; with burning cheeks I agreed. (I don’t know why I felt so challenged.) Unlike the previous example, however, this was the right thing to do. As soon as I saw how engaged the students were as they read their dialogues, I realized that sometimes students do really know best.


One way to gauge whether or not your students are satisfied customers is by giving them a chance to anonymously evaluate you. In fact, this is a built-in aspect to end-of-semester activities in many programs. However, I have long felt that if you wait until the end of the semester to find out how your students feel, it is too late to do anything about it. I do not believe that teachers always know if they are teaching well. In my experience, some of the classes that I felt the most positive about gave me the lowest of my evaluations. So rather than be surprised at the end of the year, I give students the chance to voice their opinions several weeks in. If a student complains about something, I will either adjust what I am doing or explain to them why I won’t. For example, when I taught a TOEFL Prep class a few years ago, I would occasionally get requests for less homework. I explained to the class that they could always choose not to do all the homework, but, as they were preparing for a rigorous exam, this was what I felt was necessary to ensure their success.

So, are your classes made up of students or customers? Maybe, like me, you try to strike a balance between the two. I would love to hear your experiences. I would also love to hear interesting ideas for conducting class evaluations. I tend to rely on the anonymous questionnaire, but I would love to spice things up a little.