Monday, April 21, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 4: It Just Doesn’t Sound Natural

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In his helpful book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) points out that one of the big problems with Intermediate level learners’ speech is that, though it might be grammatically accurate and reasonably fluent, it often just doesn’t sound natural. How frustrating this must be for students who have studied English for years but still sound like learners, not users of English! That would make almost anyone throw up his or her hands in despair. After all, what does it mean to “sound natural”? Actually, it turns out this is surprisingly straightforward, as defined by Richards. To sound natural, apparently, is to integrate a lot of multi-word chunks and formulaic phrases into one’s language.

Multi-Word Chunks & Formulaic Phrases

Richards cites O’Keeffe et al. (2007) when he presents the following ranked list of the most common multi-word chunks, as identified by the CANCODE corpus of spoken English.

  1. do you know what I mean
  2. at the end of the day
  3. and all the rest of it
  4. and all that sort of thing
  5. I don’t know what it is
  6. but at the end of the
  7. and this that and the other
  8. from the point of view of
  9. a hell of a lot of
  10. in the middle of the night
  11. do you want me to do Read more »

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Just recently, I wrote a post about the importance of all students developing a robust vocabulary. In Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) stresses that often one of the barriers between Intermediate and Advanced level students is that Intermediate learners rely heavily on lower-level vocabulary. In order to break into Advanced level language learning, students need to know 5,000 to 6,000 words. To further complicate matters, “knowing” a word goes far beyond being able to fill in a gap on a quiz. Students need to be able to, among other things, pronounce it, know the grammar rules that govern its form, differentiate it from similar words (for instance, ”cup” and “mug” distinguish between words that look the same but have different meanings (such as mean, as in unkind, and mean, as in “what does that word mean?”), discriminate between different levels of formality and attitudinal meanings (as in, “ask” and “demand”).

What Goes with What

In addition to a well-developed vocabulary, students also need to be adept users of collocation patterns. This brings to mind a presentation I attended at IATEFL a few years ago about Advanced learners. The speaker, Ben Goldstein, showed a letter about a trip on the screen and asked the audience to identify the words we thought upper level students would find challenging. In other words, what would we pre-teach if we wanted to use that letter in a class? Then, he pointed out all the words that a student might think he or she knew, but really didn’t. For instance, a learner might think “get” is a pretty low-level word and it is certainly in the 1000 word list. However, when paired with “carried away”, it becomes an Advanced level lexical chunk. I found this revelation fascinating because, even though I am an experienced teacher, I had not thought to pick out those smaller words. How embarrassing! Goldstein’s presentation proved to me that even though a word might seem “easy”, I need to be more aware of how it is being used and how it might trip up my students. Read more »

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Question of Terminology

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I am writing this entry in response to a question that was posted by Scott on one of my older entries, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach.” Here is what Scott wrote:

Hi David,

I’m doing an MA Tesol and one of my assignments is on CLT. I’ve scoured several textbooks and about a thousand websites, but no one seems to really define what CLT actually is! Although, there are plenty of texts that say what it ISN’T. Any thoughts on how to define it?!

Here is my answer:

Hi Scott,

I’m afraid you have come up against one of the biggest problems in ELT, which is the lack of a body of universally accepted definitions and terms. Here is my own interpretation of how and why we have ended up with this state of affairs.

As any successful learner knows, languages are learned rather than taught. Learning a foreign language as an adult requires an enormous investment of time and effort, and teaching methods and materials are only a tiny part of the puzzle. However, as these are the only things that we can directly control, their importance gets blown out of all proportion. Read more »

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 2: The Difference between Fluency and Complexity

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In his great book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) notices that another problem that contributes to the plateau that often plagues Intermediate level students lies in the difference between fluency and complexity. Again, I can really relate to this, as a French learner. For many years, I have been in such a panic to make myself understood and just communicate my thoughts and needs. I am usually okay with the simple past tense; however, if I need to do anything harder than that, I freeze up. My French linguistic system has not yet restructured to accommodate newer tenses, such as the imperfect.

Similarly with our students, they may have the passive voice down in a variety of simple tenses, but when they want to say something more complex, like “the bridge is going to be being built over the summer,” they stumble. In order to put an end to their plateau, learners need to add complexity to their output. Richards (2008) suggests that this can be accomplished in three ways: by addressing the language prior to the activity, addressing the language during the activity and addressing the language after the activity.

The Language Before the Activity

First, by address the language prior to an activity, he means pre-teaching the target language and providing students with a chance for rehearsal. Now, I am sure I am not alone when I say that I rarely begin a lesson without some sort of pre-teaching. If students are going to have a conversation about, for instance, pets, Read more »

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part I: The Gap Between Production and Reception

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I was recently reading the magazine, “Runner’s World,” and I came across an article called “Reboot, Refresh” about plateauing. The article basically points out that “every runner eventually reaches a period in their training where their progress levels off.” Apparently this plateauing is inevitable, and it is easy (at least for a slowpoke like me) to understand how a straight, climbing trajectory of improvement would be physically impossible.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the plateaus that frustrate runners’ dreams of personal bests and the plateaus that we notice in our students’ English development. Just as “[o]ver the course of a running life, there are natural peaks and valleys – and flat lines in between,” I have noticed my students’ English skills grow, recede and stagnate. In my experience, this leveling off seems to happen when students are trying to move from Intermediate level to Advanced. Many of them simply give up, deciding that their language skills are sufficient for their purposes. But, some struggle on, and eventually they become advanced and then proficient users of English. So, what made the difference for those students? How do some students make it through plateaus and what can I do to help? Read more »

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunters & Gatherers

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the idea of a “hunter-gatherer” society. According to Wikipedia, this is a society in which “most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals.” One feature of this kind of society is the division of labour between the sexes, with men tending to be hunters, and women more likely to be gatherers. However, the Wikipedia article stresses that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian, with women having just as much power as men. This is because equal importance is given to the role of hunting and the role of gathering.

In many ways, I think the hunter-gatherer metaphor is one that can also be applied to language learners. Some learners are hunters, some are gatherers, and some (the most successful ones) give equal importance to both. In the field of language learning, “gathering” might be taken to mean collecting new words, phrases, and structures as you discover them. However, just as an effective gatherer of food is not someone who simply waits around to be given things, effective gatherers of language need to be constantly on the lookout for new “nourishment” for their language ability. Gatherers of food actively search for it, looking under rocks, inside holes, and even in the trees above their heads. In the same way, efficient gatherers of language have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and open to the possibilities that present themselves. A Japanese woman I know who works for a publishing company once told me that she thought the secret of successful language learners is that they constantly have their “antennae” raised. In other words, they are always sensitive to new language, and they unfailingly notice it when it appears. Read more »

Monday, June 24, 2013

Words! Words! Words!

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Whenever I am at a TESOL Conference, there are a few speakers I go out of my way to see every year. Keith Folse is one of them. Whatever he is speaking about, I know I will learn something new and have a great time doing it. He is entertaining and witty and so, so smart. (Can you tell I have a bit of a TESOL crush?)

Anyway, I managed to make one of his presentations at the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas, Texas in April. It was, as always, genius! He spoke about practical activities for learning vocabulary, a great topic for me, as my students needs to master lots of academic vocabulary quickly to succeed in their mainstream secondary school classes.

Folse organized his suggestions around Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, which I had never heard of before. At any rate, he contends that if teachers structure vocabulary development around this instructional design model, students have a better chance of retaining vocabulary. At the risk of miscommunicating Folse’s message (I hope he will see this and correct me if I misspeak), I wanted to share them with you.

1. Gain learner attention of target vocabulary. Folse says there are several ways we can do this. We can present the students with a problem that prompts the target vocabulary, ask them questions that contain the vocabulary or show them an advertisement with the vocabulary. I sometimes like to start a lesson with a simple card match (word to definition or word to picture) to see what students already know and to show them what words they will need to learn. Read more »

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I often ask students whether they have any problem understanding “small” English words like “a,” “the,” “it,” “at,” and “in.” They invariably reply that they do. Luckily, I have some great advice for them:

“There’s no point in worrying about them. You’re never going to understand them properly anyway, so you might as well just give up.”

I want to stress that I am not being facetious when I say this – I genuinely mean it. As I have mentioned before, I really struggled with Japanese when I started to learn it, and it was the small words that caused me the biggest problems. Actually, if someone asked me to choose the most difficult part of Japanese, I would have to say not a word, but two single letters. Japanese has something called “particles,” and the difference between two of themwa and ga—(these are single letters in the Japanese alphabet) is completely mystifying to speakers of languages like English that don’t use the same system. Of course, this is not something that is unique to Japanese. I have observed the same phenomenon with speakers of Asian languages trying to learn English articles.

Whilst it is true to say that wa and ga are mystifying for non-Japanese, it is also true to say that they are pretty mystifying for Japanese speakers too! Of course, Japanese people can use these particles correctly, but very few could explain the rules that govern their usage. Read more »

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Helping ESL Students Hear

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

The other day we had a CPD (continuing professional development) session at my school. The topic was Teaching Hearing Impaired students. At first, I was a bit skeptical that the session would be valuable for me, as I don’t have any hearing impaired students at the moment. Nonetheless, I am always up for learning something new and usually really enjoy the opportunity for professional development. As I have said many times before, when I am “finished” learning about how to be a better teacher, it is time to get out of the business!

Hearing Aids ≠ Perfect Hearing

Anyway, I was glad I went. I had never really thought about hearing impaired students before. To my shame, I cannot even say for certain that I have never had any in my class. I had always assumed that if one of my students had a hearing problem and wore a hearing aid that their hearing problem was “fixed” and I needn’t concern myself any further. Wrong! Apparently, a hearing aid can just help improve someone’s hearing,; it doesn’t remedy the problem completely. Students who wear hearing aids still run the risk of missing some sounds, particularly those from what the speaker kept referring to as “high frequency” range, like the /ð/, /ϴ/and /f/. Imagine the frustration for a student in a pronunciation class working on differentiating between the two “th” sounds when she/he can’t even hear either of them. Read more »

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 6

More Trends in the Language

Richard Firsten

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

Well, here we are at the end of my series on observations I’ve made about changes that I see happening in English. Some of them will probably become permanent and end up being taught as either the grammatically correct forms or acceptable alternatives to traditional forms. A few, in fact, are already considered acceptable alternatives in some dictionaries and grammar books. Perhaps I should have titled this “The Heads-Up Series” since my goal has been to give you, our intrepid English teachers, a heads-up on what you may be teaching in the not-too-distant future. At any rate, let’s take a look at a few more changes I’ve observed.

·        Lay and Lie

Okay, my hardliners, in case you’re not aware of it, these days it’s considered acceptable to use either  lay or lie as the intransitive verb meaning to be in a horizontal or reclined position. The traditional distinction between the two, with lay being transitive (When I set the table, I lay a napkin on top of each dinner plate) and lie being intransitive (They got sunburned because they were lying on the beach too long) is a thing of the past, for all intents and purposes. So you can lay a napkin on a plate and lay on the beach to sunbathe. It’s interesting, though, that this change is a one-way street; it doesn’t work in reverse. You won’t hear people say A mason lies bricks or chickens lie eggs, will you?

·        The Illogic of Less

I’m sure that everybody has heard all sorts of native English speakers say phrases like less calories and less accidents. Traditionally, of course, we’re supposed to use less with uncountable nouns (and adverbs, too, for that matter). As for countable nouns, we should say fewer calories and fewer accidents. Well, more and more I hear and read phrases in which less is used with countable nouns instead of fewer. Read more »