Archive for Tag: Dorothy Zemach

Monday, May 10, 2010

Should Learning English Be Fun?

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

It’s a hard question, isn’t it? Saying “yes” might imply your classes aren’t serious or useful; but who wants to be teacher who says “No”? That’s not going to be a popular answer with your classes (or perhaps even your colleagues or your boss). It’s not really a yes/no question, though; maybe it would be better expressed as “How much fun should learning English be?” A better question, but no easier to answer.

What is the question, really? The one question you should be asking about learning, and by extension, your teaching? To me, it’s “Why are my students learning English?” Although there are many different answers, depending on the students, I am going to guess that the answer most of them would give, were we to ask this directly, would not be “To have fun.”

My high school-aged son is in his second year of learning Japanese in an American high school. I heard him exclaim, one evening, that he really liked his Japanese textbook. Since I write language learning textbooks, I naturally wanted to know why, and to take a look at his book.

It’s frankly not a very exciting textbook, at least visually. It looks like ELT books from 20 or 30 years ago. Black and white, with no photographs. The line drawings are simple and are only used for exercises, not as decoration. The exercises are pretty straightforward—here’s a model, here are some substitutions, now get in pairs and do it over and over again. There are no celebrities and no references to current TV shows or movies. There are no crossword puzzles.

I asked my son what he particularly liked about his book, and he said, “It’s easy to find the vocabulary in the unit—it’s all in a list.” Was that the most exciting feature? I asked, and he said yes it was, because that made it easy to study for tests. Were the dialogues exciting? He had no opinion. Did he wish there were color pictures? No opinion. Did he find the exercises fun? “Who cares?” was his answer. I explained that when I wrote textbooks, I was repeatedly asked to design exercises that were fresh yet relevant to students’ lives, that presented the material in engaging ways—that were, in a sense, “fun.” He laughed at me. “Mom, when I want to have fun, I play the XBOX, or hang out with my friends. I don’t study Japanese. What I want is a book that explains things clearly so I can study as efficiently as possible, because I don’t have a lot of time. I just want to know the stuff and get a good grade.” When pressed, he did say that he would be happy to learn Japanese from a modern attractive textbook with fresh engaging topics—but only as long as he could learn it as well and as quickly as he could do it with his current book.

To put it another way: You’re turning 11 years old. For your birthday, would you rather have a party with pony rides and a clown who can fold balloons into whimsical shapes, or would you rather have an ESL teacher come and give a rousing lesson on the present perfect? If you’re an adult, would you rather go to a jazz club with your friends, or have a little study group that examines the way transitions are used to connect paragraphs in an essay? How about learning the proper way to cite sources using APA formatting? No? Our students, for the most part, are not trying to have “fun” in class. They’re trying to learn English.

Now, certainly there are some students who are learning English because of a strong affinity for literature, who will go on to become poets and craftspeople who work with English because of a pure love of the language. However, I think most students want English to do well in school, or get a job, or travel, or interact with other people with whom English would be the common language; and for those students, what is going to make them happiest is success. Knowing the language. The extent to which an enjoyable activity leads them to this success is what should drive our choice to use this activity, and not whether the activity is a fun game in and of itself. Fun in the classroom now with no appreciable achievement in their learning goals will give you a class of students that laughs happily in every class and is ultimately unhappy and angry at the end of the term—and rightfully so. Activities that might seem repetitious or mundane, if they result in students learning the language, are actually going to please them more.

As stated before, though, “Should learning English be fun?” is not a yes/no question. It’s not that simple. Of course if you can assist students in their goal of learning the language quickly and thoroughly, and you can do so in an enjoyable way, you should by all means do so! There is only a problem when those two goals conflict, and a teacher chooses enjoyable over useful.

The question, therefore, that you should be asking yourself when selecting textbooks and exercises and games, when designing your own activities and worksheets, is not “Is this a fun activity?” but “How is this going to help my students learn English?” Once you are sure that the activity is worthwhile in the sense of being practical, then you can refine it or spice it up or dress it up as a game. Go ahead and be entertaining—once you are sure that you are meeting the needs of students as learners of the language. Ensure that your classes are useful and efficient, and your students will be grateful and, yes, happy.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In Praise of Praise

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

My son is a good writer. I remember when he became one, back in 6th grade—when his teacher told him he was one. He hadn’t really written much at that point, so she was just going on her instincts—she could see he loved to read, and his spelling and grammar were decent, and he did have a tendency to ramble on, when writing as well as when speaking.

He’d never minded writing before, but equally didn’t find it especially appealing; it was just something one did in school. However, once his teacher told him he was a good writer, he took that on. He spent more time on his assignments and he tried harder. He even said he felt he had to do better than the other kids in his class “because she expects it of me. I’m a good writer.” Not surprisingly, through increased effort, he really did become a good writer, a skill that stayed with him throughout high school.

Such a simple thing to say to a child: “You’re a good writer.” And yet what an impact it had. A well-placed comment like that can change the shape of someone’s education, and, by extension, their career and their future.

Of course, we can’t just tell all of the learners in our classroom that they are good writers and then stand back and watch it come true. For praise to be meaningful, it has to be said 1) with sincerity and 2) at the right time.

Praise that rings false is worse than no praise at all, and students are adept at knowing when you’re saying something you don’t really believe. Even if false praise is believed, it isn’t helpful because it gives students inaccurate information. Telling a student her pronunciation is excellent when actually she is practically unintelligible will (if she doesn’t believe you) lead her to think you’re making fun of her or don’t believe she can ever get any better, or (if she believes you) keep her from working towards necessary improvements.

Praise at the right time means praise when a student is open to hearing it and could use an affirmation or an encouragement. I think there’s something special about anticipatory praise, too, like my son got—he hadn’t won a Pulitzer prize for writing at that time, and in fact, being 11, hadn’t done much writing at all. But his teacher sensed his potential, and, in effect, praised that—creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think a lot of us can remember a time in our academic lives when we were feeling just a bit uncertain about our talents or unsure of ourselves and someone we looked up to gave us the right words of encouragement.

It’s not always easy to praise students. Sometimes we don’t know them very well. Sometimes they’re actually not doing very well. Sometimes other students demand more of our time.

I’ve found that many teachers, being compassionate and nurturing, actually pay more attention to those students who are struggling. Of course, this is a wonderful thing to do. And yet—I think it’s important not to overlook the students who are doing well. It’s shortchanging them to think that good test scores and grades are reward enough. Remember that “good” students can have as many insecurities and moments of self-doubt as the outwardly less successful.

I’ll close by describing an activity I’ve often done with classes at the end of a semester or term—although there’s no reason you couldn’t do it in the middle of a course either.

Have students sit in a circle, if your numbers and room space allow; otherwise, they can keep their regular seats, but a circle where they can all make eye contact is nice. Choose one student to start, and have her (or him) thank the person on her left for something concrete. Give a few examples at the start so students get the idea—

     “Thank you for giving me the homework assignments when I forgot to copy them down” or
     “Thank you for making me laugh in class” or
     “Thank you for letting me use your dictionary.”

The person receiving the compliment says “You’re welcome,” and turns to the person on his left and gives a compliment, and so on around the circle. Note that everyone gives and receives a compliment, and that students don’t choose whom they speak to (it’s just determined by seating order).

I promise that you will be amazed, as well as touched, by the things students mention! I’ve done this with high school students, university students, businessmen, mixed groups of adults and teens… and there are always a few people moved to tears. If you can’t always praise your students, then, let them praise each other.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Sick Policy For ESL Teachers?

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

I recently subbed three ESL classes for a friend at a large US university. She’d known of her upcoming absence for at least a week, and left lesson plans and notes for me, and all necessary photocopies and papers. All I had to do was appear and conduct her lessons. I was paid for my time by the university.

Sick leave policies for ESL teachers lead to teaching while sick

However, the experience reminded me of just how unusual it was, at least at university programs in the US. Normally, at this university (as has been my experience at all of the other American universities where I have taught), an absent teacher is expected to arrange for a colleague to sub the class, free of charge—or to pay the sub out of his/her own pocket. Additionally, one is expected to prepare a lesson plan and materials—which of course is harder to do if one is sick. For this reason, many teachers—even those who have sick leave, which not all of them do—actually find it less stressful to teach while sick. I’ve known teachers with complete laryngitis who taught their lessons entirely through mime and writing, rather than miss one lesson.

Why are onerous sick leave policies unique to ESL department?

Interestingly, this system of having every class subbed by someone seems to be somewhat unique to ESL. In other departments, if a professor is sick, the department secretary hangs a note to that effect on the classroom door, and class is canceled. Students don’t seem to mind all that much, either—it’s like a personal snow day. Work is made up in the next class session or electronically through email or programs such as Blackboard.

I remember once teaching French classes at a university, and I had to miss the Wednesday before Thanksgiving for a professional conference. I asked every French teacher I could find to substitute for me, but they were all teaching at the same time. When I met with the Department Chair to explain my problem, he was nonplussed. First he asked me why I thought any students were going to show up in the afternoon before a holiday weekend (something I hadn’t even considered), and then asked me why I didn’t just cancel the classes. “But I won’t be able to make them up later,” I explained. His response was, “So?” And so I canceled the classes, and no, it didn’t seem to throw my semester into turmoil.

I’ve never known an ESL class to be canceled like that, however. Somehow, a sub is always found. I’ve worked at American universities where teachers were explicitly told when hired that they should find a “friend” on the faculty with whom they would agree to sub for. The problem is, of course, that not everyone is absent the same number of days each term. Some people get sick more often than others, or need time off every now and then to care for sick family members—which meant that some people wound up subbing a lot more often than their colleagues, which led to hard feelings. Additionally, as was the case in the French department, many classes are held at the same times, so that one can’t necessarily sub for a friend even if one wants to. And finally, the stress of preparing a lesson plan that someone else can pick up and follow is sometimes too much to cope with when one is already feeling sick enough to be considering missing a class. The solution that has been sometimes presented to me is to always have an “emergency lesson plan” at the ready, that someone could come in and teach at any point in the term—but I probably don’t need to explain here that such a thing is not always possible for every class.

Now, I do see the other side of the issue too. Students have paid money to attend a class, and have the right to expect that class will be held. It’s hard enough to cover all of one’s material in a term when everything runs smoothly; missing hours of instruction time just makes it harder. If I really thought that one of my lessons wasn’t necessary or important, then I wouldn’t have done my job as a teacher in preparing it. Still, though, I can’t subscribe to the notion that the whole system will come crashing down upon us if a class is canceled every now and then—and I do think there’s a real harm being done to teachers who feel pressured into teaching while sick (not to mention a harm to those around them).

A model sick leave policy in Rabat?

I can’t, from here, recommend a system that will work for every institution. I know that the best system I ever encountered was at the American Language Center in Rabat, Morocco: If a teacher was sick, he/she called in and said so. A lesson plan for the sub was appreciated, but not required (a detailed curriculum existed for each class, so a sub could walk in and know reasonably well what should be covered that day). Teachers were not allowed to arrange for their own substitutes (to avoid pressure on one’s friends). Instead, the Center arranged for a sub—and, the Center paid subs at 1.5 their regular rate, so subbing was actually something that a lot of people were happy to take on. So that is my model for an ideal situation, in case any program administrators are reading this blog. Let’s remember that in many universities, there is no requirement that ESL teachers alone among the faculty find subs and remunerate them out of their own pocket; it’s a custom that somehow we have all chosen, and therefore, we have the power to alter it.

Plan ahead

What I can recommend, strongly, is that every teacher interviewing for a job ask about the institution’s policy on absences, and for all currently employed teachers to think about what they would do if they had to miss a class. Is it possible to have an “anyone can do it at any time” lesson plan in reserve? Is it time to create a more detailed syllabus, just in case some day someone needed to walk into your class cold? Do you have a friend who could sub for you? Are you willing and able to sub for others? What are your personal thoughts on teaching while sick, and do your students and colleagues share those convictions? What are your legal rights?

And finally… a reminder to others as well as myself that good diet, frequent exercise, and adequate sleep reduce our chances of becoming ill in the first place.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net received a letter from a young English teacher in Iran who asked for advice on how to continue his English and teaching studies in a native-English speaking country such as the US. Below is my response to him (the name has been changed).

Dear Ibrahim,

This letter is in response to your email to the site that asks about studying abroad, particularly in the US, to become a better English teacher.

There are two main styles of writing in American English: One that starts at the beginning and works logically towards the end, and one that starts with the conclusion and then fills in the background explanation. This answer will follow the latter style.

No, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any good advice for you on how to get to the U.S. Even if the entire question of finances—air ticket, rent for an apartment, food, utilities, books, tuition, and so on—were not an issue, a visa is. This is not an easy time for people from your country to travel to mine, any more than it is for people from my country to travel to yours. In particular, it is difficult, if not downright impossible, for young, single men from many countries to get non-immigrant visas to the US. It’s beyond the scope of this letter for me to argue whether that is right or wrong, although I will say that I remember to this day the frustration I felt when my fiancé was not allowed into the US on a tourist visa so that we could marry here (instead, we married abroad).

At the same time, though, I do have a more hopeful answer for you, which is that it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English and an excellent teacher of English without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking country. Two of my favorite authors, Joseph Conrad from Poland and Ved Mehta from India, learned English as adults, and largely before they ever visited another country.

I’ve personally met enthusiastic and talented groups of teachers in countries such as Ukraine, Libya, and Algeria who had excellent English language skills, as well as excellent teaching skills, who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me. As a non-native speaker, in fact, you are a powerful and inspiring model for your students. You might be interested in the story of one of the bloggers, who is a non-native speaker of English from Poland, but teaches English at a U.S. university. 

Developing strong English and teaching skills is easier than it has ever been, thanks to improved mail services and, of course, the Internet, which makes it possible not only to read and write in English but to listen extensively to radio shows, news programs, and songs. Groups of English teachers communicate all over the world through sites such as the ones below. You can read articles about the English language and about specific classroom teaching issues. You can ask questions of other teachers and answer their questions, discuss topics, and share classroom stories and teaching techniques. You can download free resources to use in class. You can match your students to keypals or more traditional penpals in other countries so that they can practice their English as well. You can find individual teachers with whom you feel a personal connection and develop an email relationship.

Here are a few of my favorite sites: 

  • Dave’s ESL Cafe One of the classics. Active message boards and free resources. Check out the teacher forums.   
  • ELT News  This is a Japanese site (don’t worry, written all in English!). Even though Japan is not Iran, the issues that teachers face have a lot in common, and I think the site has interesting articles, interviews, reviews, and discussions. Participants from other countries are more than welcome.  
  • One Stop English  This site is run by a publisher in the UK, Macmillan, but has a lot of interesting articles and resources for both students and teachers.  
  • On Facebook, check out the page of my friends Chuck Sandy and Curtis Kelly. They raise a lot of interesting questions about the nature of teaching and learning, and there are active discussions among teachers there.  
  • and, of course, this site, You can comment, for instance, on any of the blogs posted here, and quite possibly get a personal response from the author of the blog.   
  • < /http:>Also check out the Grammar Q&A; Newsgroup on the Azar Grammar Exchange where Rachel Spack Koch and Richard Firsten answer questions about English grammar and usage.  

Actually, it turns out that I’m going to use a blended genre here for the organization of my letter. While I started with an answer to your question, I’m going to end with a more important conclusion.

As I noted, this is not an easy time between our two countries; and in fact, it’s not an easy time for many countries in the world. Now, more than ever before, it’s crucial for people to study languages other than their own. Would Americans be less afraid of Iranians if more of us studied Farsi in school? I believe so. Language is an essential clue to how people think and experience the world and express their thoughts and emotions. It’s not a question of adapting to another culture, or being overcome by a different system, but of understanding other ways.

I know it’s frustrating to sit in your home or your classroom and feel overwhelmed by world events that it seems you can’t control or even question. However, I really believe that there is nothing better that you, Ibrahim, can do to promote world peace than to teach your classes with sincerity and love. You could do this in a math, science, or history class too, but language touches on our contemporary world and lives in such deep and wide ways that I think you will have even more impact in this way.

You have a tremendous power to affect and change lives. Please see each obstacle that you face as a challenge and not a barrier. And welcome to the world of language teachers. We are so glad to have you!

Best wishes,
Dorothy Zemach

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    “yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork?”

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

    Writing used to be one of the hardest skills for learners to practice on their own outside of class, back in the Dark Days before email and the Internet. Options were basically limited to keeping a written journal or exchanging letters and postcards with a pen pal and the occasional “letter to the newspaper” classroom assignment.

    Now, however, opportunities to freely practice writing abound: keypals, social networking sites, bulletin boards, chat rooms, Web sites where customers leave reviews and comments, blogs, and so on.

    So . . . writing skills must have vastly improved, right? Well, perhaps a certain degree of fluency has. However, what we also have is a host of new problems. You’re teaching a class the difference between two, too, and to, and then they come in wanting to spell all of them 2.

    I think there are two basic problems: the models students see and the attitudes they can pick up towards writing.

    Poor Writing Models Abound Online

    Certainly the level of writing they could encounter from native speakers out there in Internetland is something of a concern. Masses of writers seem unaware of (or unconcerned about) differences between your and you’re, or loose and lose, or (a pet peeve of mine) our and are. Misspellings are rampant, even in these days when most Internet browsers have a built-in spellcheck feature. Posters, even of longer blogs, may eschew punctuation and even capitalization. If students then are answering with the same language they see, we can expect similar mistakes, or at least a lot of confusion.

    Texting Shorthand Easier for Whom?

    A bigger problem though is writers (native English speaker or otherwise) who simply don’t care. “It’s only an Internet message board,” a perpetrator might say, “not an English class.” Writers who use texting shorthand point out that it’s faster. Faster to write, yes, if one is used to that. But faster to read? I don’t think so, especially not when sloppy writing and no punctuation between sentences obscures meaning. If you didn’t communicate what you intended, then your message failed, even if you got it out there in cyberspace extra fast.

    The choice then that the writer makes is whether to make things easier on him or herself or easier on his or her reader. Unless the message being written is truly a personal journal (in which case, why is it online?), there’s usually some reason to communicate to readers—to express an opinion, ask a question, give information, ask for help. It’s even likely that there will be multiple readers of messages, in which case I tell students that, as Mr. Spock would put it, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” At first, students are surprised to hear that writing sloppily is selfish; but give them some time to consider the idea, and you’d be surprised how many would agree.

    It may not be an English class, but aren’t online writers in some sense being graded? They’re certainly being judged. I can take a certain amount of informality online, but when spelling and typing errors get to a certain level, I just skip over the messages without even trying to read them. It’s even more important to me that emails sent directly to me be clear and careful. A student who’s getting a grade from me in an English class isn’t going to look good by sending “yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork im pretty sur i sent it b4”. If you think teachers don’t get emails like this, check in with a high school teacher (of any subject) sometime. However, students can’t know what level of formality you expect if you don’t tell them directly. Merely copying what native speaker classmates are doing isn’t necessarily going to steer them in the right direction.

    Appropriate Use of Informal Writing Needs to be Taught

    I don’t see many teaching materials that address informal writing except to say not to use it. That’s also a mistake, though. Any community has its own discourse, of course, and being overly formal in a chat room isn’t going to be successful either. There’s a world of difference between kthnxbai and Please accept my sincere thanks for all of your assistance.

    Students need explicit instruction to know what levels of language exist and when to use them. If you don’t have examples and materials, don’t worry—ask your students to bring you examples of written English from different Internet sites that they visit. Ask them to find English that they believe is the most correct and appropriate, as well as the least correct and appropriate, and then share and discuss the examples in class. Collect similar examples when you’re online and keep them in a file. Ask students what impressions they have of the writers and to what extent those impressions are formed by the language and the place in which it appears. Compile a class glossary of the common abbreviations and expressions they encounter online and code each one as appropriate for class or not.

    And don’t forget to point out that they will never be disadvantaged by being better able to switch between informal and formal English than their native speaker friends.

    Thursday, August 6, 2009

    Why I Teach the Parts of Speech

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

    Actually, I wanted to write about phrases and clauses and about teaching them as adjectives and adverbs. However, that reminded me how many teachers I’ve run into over the years who disagree that the names of parts of speech should be taught to students. I argued with a publisher over this for at least three years, actually, before being “allowed” to teach the parts of speech in a textbook for lower-level students. So let me take a brief diversion to defend this position.

    The arguments against teaching the names of the parts of speech are mainly that the terms are too difficult for students to learn, and further, that they aren’t helpful. I disagree with both of these arguments.

    Minimally, I think students should know noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, and article. With advanced students I might add in determiner. OK, that’s seven words. Is that too high a vocabulary load, especially when most of those concepts exist in the learner’s native language? I think if they can learn seven objects in the classroom, or seven modes of transportation, or seven irregular verbs, then seven parts of speech isn’t going to short out the brain.

    A larger issue is whether they’re helpful. This depends, of course, on whether the teacher uses the labels. I use them all the time. I use them to talk about

    • different word forms (accept is a verb, acceptance is the noun form of that verb);
    • the placement of different parts of speech (Your sentence “Is late again,” is missing a noun or a pronoun as the subject); and
    • the functions of subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases and so on.

    And now I’m back to where I wanted to be . . .

    It seems to me that one of the challenges of forming correct and elegant sentences in English is in knowing where to put the different elements. Where does the subject go? Where does the verb go? How about the direct object? And those are the easier things to teach.

    Where my more advanced students trip up is in knowing where to put longer elements, such as

    • in the morning,
    • running for the bus,
    • while on his way to the bakery, or
    • on the corner.

    The problem is that students don’t know what these elements are—that is, how they function. Therefore, they can’t place them correctly in a sentence.

    Pretty much, they’re adjectives and adverbs—more correctly called adjectivals and adverbials, but I use adjective phrase and adverb phrase with my students at first, and then just adjective and adverb, once we’re all on the same page.

    Suppose we have a simple sentence:

    • He fell.

    Even lower-level students have probably seen the structure subject + verb + adverb, and might be able to write a sentence such as

    • He fell slowly.

    However, the most common adverbs are actually NOT the one-word ones that end with ~ly, even though those are the easiest ones to identify. An adverb tells us where, when, why, or how. If students know that phrases can be used to talk about when, where, why, or how, then they can write

    • He fell to the ground.
    • He fell when he tripped.
    • He fell as soon as he tried to stand up.
    • He fell with a strange choking sound.

    The trick is in knowing that to the ground (where?) functions as an adverb, as do when he tripped (when?) and as soon as he tried to stand up (both when? and why?) and with a strange choking sound (how?). English allows (and even encourages!) one to combine adverb phrases and clauses, as in

    • He fell to the ground with a strange choking sound as soon as he tried to stand up.

    Getting this concept down is huge. It doesn’t bother me terribly much if a student writes

    • *He fell at the ground.


    • *He fell as soon as tried to stand up.

    Those sentences contain errors, of course, but the basic pattern of subject + verb + adverb is still there.

    Adverbs are movable elements, more so than most others. But students need to know that adverb clauses and phrases move as units, and where they move to—for instance, to the beginning of a sentence:

    • As soon as he tried to stand up, he fell.

    To take another example: A student who is writing short, careful, simple sentences and wishes to expand them might wish to add some adjectives. Students are usually taught simple one-word adjectives (that answer the question What kind of? or Which?) that come before a noun.

    • She went to the bakery.
    • She went to the new bakery.

    But how much more interesting if we can describe the
    bakery with some prepositional phrases; note that these come after the noun:

    • She went to the bakery on the corner.
    • She went to the bakery with the jumbo strawberry creampuffs.

    Again, an error in choosing the correct preposition doesn’t bother me if the student is able to modify the noun with a phrase.

    This is the way I like to address syntax, especially in reading and writing, with at least intermediate and advanced students—and some beginners as well. And that is why my very lowest level students learn the names of the parts of speech—so that we can talk about what the parts of speech are and how they function.

    Sunday, March 1, 2009

    Drilling for Language

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

    The first time I studied a foreign language was in 5th grade, when my family lived in Geneva, Switzerland. My brother and I attended a private school where we essentially learned French all day, except when we were pulled out for sewing and needlework (girls) or shop (boys) or sports (everyone).

    Fresh off the plane, my brother and I began at the beginning: the alphabet, simple greetings, numbers, colors, then verb conjugations.

    We completed one lesson in the textbook each day, and the next day were called individually to the blackboard to take a quiz, either oral or written on the board. We were graded instantly, in front of the class.

    Classwork consisted mainly of copying out verb conjugations a number of times, completing written exercises, memorizing vocabulary lists, and answering surprise drill questions fired out by the teacher when we least expected it.

    Life in the ‘Language Lab’

    Every now and then we went off to a dark little room—I guess some precursor to the “language lab”—where we’d watch filmstrips that advanced one frame at a time. A slide would come up, we’d listen to the French, repeat it in chorus, and *beep*! The next slide would come.

    Years later, when I was in graduate school, it seemed fashionable to mock the audio-lingual method, rote memorization, drills, choral repetitions, and the teacher-centered classroom. Certainly a lot of what people were saying about a student-centered, communicative classroom did sound more appealing. A gentler, more human approach. Empowering. And yet… and yet… I did learn French, fluently. You could argue that some of that could have been due to my being 11 and living in a French-speaking environment for five months. But to this day I remember those film strips down to the word—and that was 34 years ago (oh, go ahead, do the math, I don’t mind).

    • Où est-ce que vous habitez, Jacques? (*beep*!)
    • J’habite rue de la Poste (*beep*!)
    • En face du cinéma. (*beep*!)

    And yes, I have the accent and intonation down too. A frequent criticism of the audio-lingual method is that students can’t substitute freely and correctly with the patterns to make original sentences; yet that certainly wasn’t true for me or my brother.

    More Fun, Less Learning

    Japanese was my second foreign language. I studied for one semester at a college in Oregon. Our teacher had us memorize a dialogue every day, practice repeatedly with a partner, and recite it in class the next day for a grade. Later, in Japan, I took classes that were much more communicative. And while they were more fun, I never seemed to make any actual progress with learning the language. Even after living there for five years, the vocabulary and patterns I know best are those I learned in the US from constant drilling and memorization.

    I later watched my husband struggle with his Japanese class. “What do you want to learn?” asked the teacher. My husband asked for a lesson on food because he was in charge of the grocery shopping. The teacher obligingly handed out a list of what must have been every vegetable ever eaten in Japan, as well as many that have never crossed its shores, and then asked the class (in Japanese), “What are your favorite dishes?” Of course no one could answer, since no one knew the words “favorite” or “dishes, ” let alone how to describe them using only a list of ingredients. The class continued with more “discussion questions” about food, and my husband came home very frustrated.

    The Payoff Is Worth the Price

    I asked him what he would have preferred. He said (yes, my husband Mr. Visual Learner and General Touchy-Feely Guy) that he would have liked a few short dialogues to memorize and then to have recited them for the entire lesson, doing just simple substitutions, until he had the material memorized cold. He conceded that it would have been dull—but said the payoff of learning the material would have been more than worth it.

    Now, I’m not advocating a boring classroom, or saying there’s no place for open-ended discussion or even “free conversation.” But I do think that when communicative language teaching came into fashion, the baby might have been thrown out with the bathwater. If our students want to learn English, then really, what is going to please them most is actually learning English—even if that means some drills, repetitions, and memorization, or even the teacher leading the class sometimes (imagine!). I don’t underestimate the part a relaxed and enjoyable classroom atmosphere can play in a student’s mood and motivation. However, it’s OK to trade some momentary fun in class today for students really knowing some language at the end of the course.