Friday, July 8, 2011

The Elevator Pitch

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

I take an aerobics class several times a week. The same people tend to show up at the same class times, and after a while, we get a little friendly, although locker room chit-chat tends to revolve around exercise or the weather. However, recently, one of the women I talk to revealed that she is a high school biology teacher. That prompted me to mention that I work in education as well, in ESL. She said, “Oh, I have a number of international students in my classes. I have to go soon, but… what is one thing you could tell me about international students that you think I should know?”

Oh, my. It’s a big question, isn’t it? There is so much more to tell than just one thing! And yet… she’s out the door, and she doesn’t have time for me to cram my career and my degree into her head. She really does just want, at the moment, to know one thing. One thing that might make a difference, that isn’t too hard to understand, that can be communicated quickly.

Here’s the one thing I chose to tell her: That some of the mistakes that students make in writing that look like very simple things—mistakes with a, the, and choice of prepositions—are actually very high-level mistakes. They do not (necessarily) indicate a poor command of English, and cannot be cleared up in a few hours of study.

She knew exactly what I was talking about, and also said (since I asked) that these mistakes didn’t really obscure meaning, just made her wonder about the writers’ English ability. She asked what the solution was, and I said that it was to have those students make an American friend that they could treat to a coffee or a milkshake in return for some simple proofreading—because those are very easy mistakes for a native speaker to catch and correct, even a high school student with no ESL background.

As a parting remark, I said she should tell her international students that receiving such help was not “cheating.” She assured me she didn’t think it was dishonest; but the important thing, I felt, was to make sure that her students knew that, since if they’re from another culture they might not have any idea whether it was OK or not, and penalties in American high schools for cheating can be severe.

She thanked me for my advice, which she said she found very helpful, and the next time we ran into each other I think we talked about sore thigh muscles (that particular exercise instructor is very fond of “walking lunges”). I suppose if she has specific questions in the future, and crosses my path again, she might ask for more advice; but for the moment, she had what she needed.

Are you familiar with the concept of the “elevator pitch”? It’s a term used by aspiring writers: the idea that you should be able to quickly summarize the plot of your novel to an agent in the time it takes you both to ride the elevator to wherever you’re going. Times given for an elevator pitch are around 30 seconds to up to two minutes. They’re brief. They catch the agent’s attention, but they cover just the essentials.

It occurs to me that we have many chances in our lives to give elevator pitches for our field of knowledge and our careers. You’re at a party, and someone asks you what you do. “I teach English as a second language,” you say, and they respond with “What does that mean?” (or the one I usually get, “Wow, you must speak a lot of other languages!”). What would you say about ESL to someone unfamiliar with it, if you only had two minutes?

What would you say about teaching? How about in response to “That must be an easy job—you go home at 3:00 and you get your summers off!”?

I think it’s worth thinking about our elevator pitches in advance, before we’re put on the spot. So I invite readers of this column to take the time now to think of one idea—not even the most important idea, just one that is important at all, and/or interesting—that you would want to say about English (or teaching or grammar or ESL or materials writing or program administration or whatever your focus is) if you had only two minutes in which to say it, and then to post your “elevator pitch” below here as a comment.

Thanks to twobee for use of the elevator image. Twobee’s portfolio can be found here.

Comments

Comment from Clara Franco
July 11, 2011 at 10:09 pm

I like

Comment from Claire
July 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Dorothy, I really enjoyed your entry. People really don’t know or understand what teaching ESL is about. I would like to add another elevator pitch: Just because a student doesn’t speak English fluently does that mean he/she is not a person without an education or any kind of intelligence. This applies mostly to students at the beginning level. So many of my adult students who were bankers, dentists, managers, marketing associates, etc. in their home countries take low paying jobs that are seen as menial just because they don’t have the English skills yet. People would be surprised to know that these non-native speakers have intelligent thoughts and plans just like the rest of us.

Comment from Dorothy
July 12, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Claire, I love yours! It seems an obvious point to us, but people DO miss this. (I also like, “Someone who doesn’t know much English won’t understand it better if you yell it.”)

Comment from Claire
July 14, 2011 at 11:58 am

Dorothy, I agree with the yelling or speaking louder. When I see this happening, I can’t decide if I want to laugh (at the loud English speaker) or cry (for the non-English speaking person trying to communicate).

Comment from Tipa Thep-Ackrapong
September 6, 2011 at 3:29 am

I think one of the problems faced international students is the use of the verb to be. In Thai and Chinese, the adjective and the verb are more or less the same. The adjective is used without the linking verb. For example:
She pretty. She walk.
Therefore, English teachers should establish the different concepts between the adjective and the verb in English. One way to do that is to use the imperative mode. For example:
Put the following into the imperative mode.
1. stand up
2. patient
3. not cry
4. not rude
This kind of exercise is efficient in establishing the concept of the verb to be in English.

Comment from Dorothy
September 15, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Tipa, I like your explanations / exercise so much because they are clear and brief. I think sometimes we overwhelm our students by trying to explain every instance and every aspect of the rules and then their exceptions as well, and there’s nothing for students to hold onto firmly.

A more successful approach, in my opinion, is to explain a little, and wait. Then explain a little more, and wait. Let students ask for more when they are ready, or present more when you can see they are solid with the first bit.

Pingback from The Elevator Pitch | English Teaching Daily
September 21, 2011 at 2:00 am

[...] The Elevator Pitch [...]

Comment from Sky
October 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Hi~Dorothy,
I search your name and found this new place.
Nice home~

Comment from Dorothy
October 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Hi, Sky! Welcome. :) If you have any friends who are studying (or teaching) English, this site has a lot of nice resources for them.

Comment from Margaret
October 12, 2011 at 8:34 pm

My elevator pitch is given when I tell teachers that one of their students qualify for ESL services and they look at me and say, “I never would have guessed, they speak English so well.” My response is that when we learn a new language, it is always the conversational language we learn first and quickest, it’s a matter of survival. But, reading, writing and academic language takes longer because not only is the student learning how to use the language, they are also trying to apply it to unfamiliar subject matter.

Comment from Tipa Thep-Ackrapong
August 18, 2012 at 1:07 am

I left a comment long time ago and did not pay much attention to it. I saw a mistake I made. I should have written “one of the problems facing international students . . ..” Sorry about that!
Now, let’s talk about what I have in my mind. I like the way Azar grammar books arranges the contents, from one grammar point to another, and then communication practices follow. By this means, the students are taught to build up English grammatical concepts and can see how they complement one another. In the market, we see a lot of textbooks teaching English based on function–going shopping, going to a party etc. With this method, the students cannot build up the whole grammatical concept and have a hard time learning English. I think an English text especially for beginners should focus on a grammatical lesson and then invite the students to practice it in a conversation or writing as Azar does in her books. English lessons strictly based on the communicative approach fail in teaching English because they cram too many things in one lesson: cultural notes, idiomatic expressions, reading, speaking and writing. The exercises are too steep for learners to learn anything. Besides, because the lessons are sequenced based on function, they fail to offer a whole picture of what a grammatical concept is about. Most Thai students do not know what “its” means in the English pronoun system because they have not been taught the whole pronoun system in English!
I thank Azar grammar for not following the major trend of teaching English based on the “disorganized” communicative approach.

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