Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 3)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Speaking from my own experience, I think a strong argument could be made that, wherever possible, it is better to study the pronunciation of a language before you study the actual language itself. This is because listening to a language when you have no idea of its vocabulary or grammar forces you to rely 100% on your ears, which results in you hearing the language the way it really sounds. If you learn a non-phonetic language like English or Chinese by reading and writing graphic representations of the words, your brain will automatically assign sounds to those characters according to how it thinks they would be pronounced in your first language. I had that experience when trying to read Chinese words written in “pinyin.” I was fortunate in my learning of Japanese that I was able to learn the sound system before doing any formal study of the language by listening to Japanese pop songs and learning the words by heart. One great way of helping your students to understand what it means to use only their ears is to play them videos or recordings of songs in a language that none of them is familiar with. Check out this video for a famous example of someone just using their ears to copy the sounds of a foreign language. Isn’t it amazing how much it sounds like English while being completely incomprehensible!

In my last post, I discussed the importance of developing pronunciation skills in order to improve your listening ability, but I did not say exactly what skills I was talking about. That will be the topic of today’s post. There will be nothing new here for experienced teachers, but I hope it will remind people of things that they might have forgotten over the years. For newer teachers, I hope some of the points will give you ideas about how the teaching of pronunciation can be broken down into manageable (i.e., teachable) components. Read more »

Monday, July 16, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 3

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

Well, I’m back. Your inquisitor is at it again! I hope you enjoyed Parts 1 and 2  of my mini-crusade to help you, the English teacher, avoid “discomfort” when a student asks a question about grammar or usage and the answer doesn’t fall trippingly off your tongue. I also hope you learned a little something from the answers supplied in Part 2.

Now it’s time for Part 3. This time we’ll deal with sentences in which just one little word can change meaning tremendously, albeit subtly. So, without further ado, I’ll leave you to it. Please remember not to go running to a dictionary for help and not to google anything. If you can’t figure something out, that’s fine for now. Just have fun with these 16 items. The answers, of course, will appear in Part 4.

1. What’s the difference between . . .

a. Mr. Spock is a character on Star Trek.

    Mr. Spock is a character in Star Trek.

      b. Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

    A Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

      c. She’s going to have the baby.

    She’s going to have a baby. Read more »

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Star Chart

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Teaching Teenagers is a Whole New Ball Game

It is a bit of an understatement to say that there are some big differences between teaching adults and teaching teenagers. As I noted in a previous blog, this year I broke out of my teaching comfort zone and, after years (and years, and years) of teaching adults, I took a job teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) to international teenagers who hope to matriculate to mainstream classes in a British private school here in Brussels. I had a lot to learn in a very short time. I even bought a book called “Your First Year as a High School Teacher, which made the History teachers on my floor laugh.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was learning how to manage my classroom. Unlike most adults, teenagers aren’t always in the class because they actually want to be. In addition, teens have that whole “center of the universe” thing going on, as well as hormonal changes, brain development, growth spurts and all sorts of physical and emotional issues that make them difficult to teach at times. Even though I really do love my students, I cannot deny that they cry and fight and manipulate in ways I was totally unequipped for. And, let’s face it, sometimes the last thing they want to do is answer questions about a reading on coffee growers in Bolivia or take notes on what Bill Nye the Science Guy has to say about how we see colors. Read more »

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are You an Effective Teacher?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I just love attending teaching conferences. I love getting together with former colleagues, bumping into the “superstars” of our profession in the hallways, sharing ideas with enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers, checking out the publishers’ latest offerings, and, best of all, attending informative and motivating sessions. This year, I attended the TESOL 2012 Convention in Philadelphia. One of the best sessions I attended was a plenary led by the former TESOL president, Christine Coombe, called “Teacher Effectiveness in ELT.” (Dr. Coombe is an expert in this area. In fact, she even co-edited the book, “Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness in EF/SL Contexts” in 2007 with Peter Davidson, Mashael Al-Hamly and Salah Troudi.) Now, I am always looking for ways to be a better teacher. Aren’t we all?

In her plenary, Dr. Coombe suggested that many of the things that we would expect to impact teacher effectiveness actually don’t. Things like the age of the teacher or the reasons why we became teachers don’t have any impact whatsoever on whether a teacher is effective or not. Read more »

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tabloid Fever: Rousing Students’ Zeal for Emotion Vocabulary

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

College Life- I’ll put that one in pile A.  Recycling- Pile B.  Male-Female Communication- That one should probably also go there in pile A.  Fast Food- I’ll add that to pile B, at least for now. Celebrity Gossip- Definitely pile C.

ESL Lessons and Newspaper/ Magazine Articles: Piles A, B, and C

Like many of you, I suspect, I have developed an ESL teacher’s eye for newspaper and magazine articles.  Even when I read one out of personal interest or idle curiosity, I speculate by reflex about how I might use some of it in an ESL lesson.  I tear out and stockpile articles, or pages from articles, that strike me as worthy reading material.  In pile A go the current, student-relevant, and interestingly controversial pieces.  Pile B contains pieces on significant but comparatively stale topics, pieces I usually consider “emergency reading material.”  The pieces that end up in pile C are worth less or worthless; I can’t always decide.  We’re talking gutter press, basically.  The pages in pile C present scandalous or shocking news and they are loaded with hyperbole.  Ordinarily, I’d use pile C items only to illustrate variety in media language.

But that changed recently… Read more »

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 2

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


Welcome back! In Part 1 we took a look at some lexical problems. I asked you to correct them and then, most importantly, think about how you would explain these corrections to your students in a clear, simple fashion. So here are my changes and explanations. Let’s see how similar our work is.

1.   (at a park)

A:  See Look at that bird! She’s feeding her chicks.

B: Where? I don’t look at see her.

Explanation: We use look at when we pay visual attention to something and we’re not focusing on any movement or action, but rather just the object of our attention. This is a voluntary action. We use see simply to mean what the eyes do when the eyelids open. This is an involuntary action. Person A wants Person B to pay visual attention to the bird; that’s why she should say “Look at that bird!” Person B uses see because his eyes simply can’t find that image. Read more »

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Don’t Speak, Just Panic!

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Une Table Pour Deux

We were literally dodging raindrops as we darted into a bistro on a street corner in Paris. (One of the big advantages to living in Belgium is the ability to nip off to places like Paris for the weekend.) We were starving and all I could think about was one of those huge Parisian salads. We waited by the door for a few minutes as the waiter raced around with steaming plates. When he had a moment, he looked at us inquiringly. “Pour deux.” I said, holding up 2 fingers, just in case.

The Path from French Learner to Unconfident Speaker

One of the other advantages to living in Belgium is being immersed, at least to a limited extent, in a foreign language. For our first 3 years here, I diligently took French classroom-based lessons and shelled out for private lessons. I am the first to admit that I was never the kind of student we all love to have in our classes. My homework was done, but not with any particular care, and I rarely went above and beyond. And we all know that a few hours of lessons a week does not a fluent speaker make. Sadly, for the past year, my job has eaten up a great deal of what used to be free time, and I haven’t cracked a French text in many months. As a result, I have forgotten a lot of the vocabulary I once knew, and my confidence in my speaking has plummeted. Read more »

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Explain THIS. Part 1

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

Picture this: A teacher is standing in front of the class. A student asks a question. It suddenly dawns on the teacher that he/she doesn’t know the answer. It also goes through the teacher’s mind that it would be so much nicer if that student hadn’t shown up for class! So now what? All eyes are on the teacher, whose heart starts beating a tad faster and whose forehead is suddenly feeling quite moist. What to do? What to say?

I bet you’re grinning right now. You can relate to that scenario, can’t you? I know I certainly can! But it’s an unavoidable occurrence in our profession; an occupational hazard, as they say. We just can’t know everything about everything! So I’m going to start a mini-crusade of sorts. I’m going to dedicate a number of my pieces on “Teacher Talk” to help teachers avoid some of those uncomfortable moments like the one I’ve just portrayed.

I think the best way to approach this crusade of mine is to offer you some mini-dialogues and sentences to think about and ask you to come up with interpretations you’d give to your students. First, we’ll check out some individual words in the lexicon; later, we’ll deal with phrases, clauses, or sentences in which just one little word or one change in stress can change meaning tremendously, albeit subtly.

Each of these mini-dialogues or individual sentences will have errors. Find the errors, correct them as you see fit, and figure out how you would explain your corrections to your students. That’s the most important part: how to explain the differences in meaning and/or usage.

So let’s get started. Please have fun with these while you think about them – and DON’T use a dictionary. There isn’t going to be any fun in that! Read more »

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Looking for Learning

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Way back at the beginning of the academic year, my school provided a professional development session called “Looking for Learning.”* We watched some videos, did some group work and listened to a speaker talk about his company’s approach to teacher observations. I think no one really likes being observed by fellow teachers or supervisors. It’s nerve-wracking and opens teachers up to criticisms couched as helpful suggestions. Even though I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, I do get nervous about inviting other people into my classroom. I wasn’t sure the observations demonstrated by the “Looking for Learning” speaker were for me.

The Observation

My job is to prepare a multi-level, multi-age group of students for their mainstream junior high school classes. One of the biggest obstacles has been trying to figure out exactly what the students are learning and expected to produce in these classes. Ideally, I would have a free hour here and there to observe other teachers, but I was literally teaching 6 periods a day with no free time to drop in on my students in their mainstream classes. So, when the Head of Secondary announced that he was looking for volunteers to observe a teacher in a pilot of the “Looking for Learning” process, I might have actually pushed people out of the way to sign up.

First, all the teachers who were participating in the observation met first with the presenter, who had been brought back to follow up on his original session. He explained the process and repeatedly stressed that we would not be paying any attention to the teacher but rather looking for evidence of learning. “Right, right,” I thought. “Who goes into an observation and then ignores the teacher?”

The following day, I met again with the presenter and the other observer for a few minutes before we went into the music class. During that meeting, we were again instructed not to pay attention to what the teacher was doing. We went into the class and stood at the back while the teacher kicked off the lesson by eliciting from the students the main points of the previous lesson. Then, the students started to work on their compositions on the computers. At that point, the observers started to move around the room and talk to a variety of students. I managed to speak with 4 or 5 in the 20 minutes we had left for the observation. I asked them what they were doing, what they had done the lesson before, what they learned that was new, and if they found it easy or difficult. I got lots of different answers, and I wrote down the students’ names and, as accurately as possible, what they said. As I got caught up in interviewing the students, I forgot about the teacher entirely.

The next day, we met again, this time I was with the presenter, the other observer and the teacher. In this meeting, we simply reported back what the children had said. Upon listening to our notes on one student, the teacher had to place him/her on a grid to say whether the child was “learning,” “treading water” or “drowning.” At times, the teacher was not surprised by what we reported a student had said. At other times, the teacher had not anticipated the comments of a student. For instance, one student, a girl the teacher considered one of the top in the class, actually said she found the computer program that they were using in the class quite difficult. The teacher hadn’t known that before, as the student had always produced quality work.

In the end, the strangest thing about this observation was that we did not comment on the teaching at all. We were not permitted to offer any kind of judgment (positive or negative) about the lesson or the approach of the teacher. As observers, we were merely reporters, trying to find out if the students were learning or not.

Move Over “Do you Understand?”

The benefits of this approach are, in my mind, twofold. First, we all know that the students learn both because of us and in spite of us; just because we have a great lesson plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the students in the class are learning. Second, even though I have an overall idea of my students’ abilities (especially since I have a comparatively tiny class and I see the students often), I don’t always know I would be able to completely accurately assess my students “learning” at any given moment of a lesson on any given subject.

How has this changed my teaching? Not drastically, really. I am still pretty much the same instructor that I was before I stepped foot in the music class. However, I do try to make it a regular practice to stop mid-way through a random lesson (whenever I think of it, actually) and ask a few students what they are working on and if they find it easy. I have learned that it is not enough to ask students IF they understand; I have to ask them WHAT they understand.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 2)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Pronunciation is one element of language courses that often gets overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that experienced teachers know how difficult it is to learn the sounds of a foreign language as an adult, especially if that language is nothing like your own. This basically means we accept that Japanese students will always have a Japanese accent, that Koreans will always have a Korean accent, and so on. Incidentally, I always used to think in terms of learners “gaining” the accent of a foreign language, but I remember hearing a friend talking about a Japanese person he knew who had managed to “lose” her Japanese accent. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I wonder which viewpoint is more common among teachers?

Anyway, as well as acknowledging the difficulty of the task of teaching pronunciation, most teachers also realize that even with a heavy accent, the majority of learners will be able to make themselves understood to proficient speakers of English. The combined effect of these two beliefs is that pronunciation often gets relegated to a once-in-a-while exercise with the sole purpose of providing a bit of variety in the course.

There are at least two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that teachers, particularly those of monolingual classes, are often very poor judges of how comprehensible their students actually are to regular speakers of the language. When I lived in New Zealand, I did the examiner training for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). As part of the workshop, we had to watch videos of candidates speaking and assign grades. What soon became clear was that teachers were giving far higher grades to students of nationalities they were familiar with. For example, two teachers who had worked in Korea gave a Korean student a high grade for her speaking, whereas the teachers who had mainly worked with European learners gave her a low one. Their reasoning was, “We can’t really understand what she is saying.”

The second reason why pronunciation deserves more attention in language courses is that a learner’s knowledge of the sounds of a language will directly affect their ability to perceive and recognize those sounds. In other words, having good pronunciation is just as important for listening as it is for speaking. My limited understanding of how recognition systems work is that they compare sensory input with stored representations of a variety of forms. For example, we learn how the word “boy” sounds, and we then create and store a template of it in our brains. When audio signals reach our ears, they are run through the database in order to find matches. The same principle applies to the recognition of words and letters. You recognize “x” as the letter that comes before “z” because the marks on this screen fit the representation of that letter that you already have stored in your brain. Of course, you would probably recognize it if I wrote it as “X” too, and even if I wrote it by hand. The human brain has an incredible tolerance for variation that allows it to recognize shapes in a way that computers cannot. That is the theory behind those weirdly shaped letters you have to input manually on some blogs in order to post a comment. The system works because humans can tolerate greater manipulation of basic forms than computers can.

Even so, there are limits to the tolerance (I am using the word here in its engineering sense) of even the human brain’s recognition systems, and these become stricter when representations of objects or phenomena resemble each other. For example, in many cases, it is impossible for us to distinguish between “1,” “l,” and “I” when written in isolation because they look so similar. When that happens, the knowledge of language and context that I described in my previous entry kicks in and allows us to make inferences that go beyond the information that is being provided by the senses.

When a language student learns a new word, they create a template for it and store that template in their database. It is quite possible that when they reproduce the word from its template, the audio signal that results will be within the limits of tolerance of proficient speakers of the language, so the learner will be able to make him or herself understood. A problem arises, however, when the focus switches to listening. Because the template the learner has created does not really match the signal produced by proficient speakers, and because the learner’s recognition system will naturally have a more limited tolerance owing to their lower mastery of the language, there is a very good chance that they will not recognize what they are hearing. It’s a bit like going to meet someone that you have never met at an airport armed only with a photograph that was taken twenty years ago. If the person doesn’t actually look like the photograph, there is a good chance that they will walk right past you without you recognizing them at all.

Like all language teachers, I constantly struggle to make myself understood to my students. I have often noticed that the reason my students cannot understand what I am saying is that they have learned an incorrect pronunciation of a particular word. The following is a typical example of a conversation in one of my classes:

Me: Can you close the curtain?

Student: ??


Student: Curtain??

Me: (gesturing) The curtain!!

Student: Ah, kah-ten!!

It is almost as if they are correcting my pronunciation to match their internal representation of the word. Every teacher in Japan knows that we can easily make ourselves understood by simply saying a word the way our students say it, and I suspect the same is true of any teacher with experience of teaching a particular language group.

My point is that learners need to learn words as accurately as possible so that the template they create reflects the audio signal that is produced when proficient speakers of the language pronounce that word. If a learner creates a template that is significantly different, it might be close enough for their recreation of it to be understood by proficient speakers, but it may not be close enough for them to recognize the word when they hear it.

As teachers, I think we need to start realizing that pronunciation is just as much a listening skill as it is a speaking one, and we need to start giving it greater prominence in our courses.