Archive for Tag: Richard Firsten

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Look at That and Watch What Happens.

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

You’ve put some questions on the board that you want your students to answer in writing so you can get an idea of their writing skills. One of the questions you’ve ask is “Do you like gardening?”

A student hands in her paper, and her answer to that question is

 

 

“Uh-oh!” you say to yourself. Right away you know you’ve got to make three corrections to that sentence, so when the student gets back her paper with your corrections, she sees the following changes you’ve made:

 

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Look at It. Listen to It. Talk about It.

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

There were lots of times during my years of ELT when I went nuts trying to think of clever ways to stimulate my students’ willingness to participate in conversations. What could I do to get them to use all the grammar and vocabulary and intonation that they were internalizing – I hoped – and make it all come together? Well, I found four gems to help me accomplish this goal and to inspire my own creativity. Three were visual; one was auditory. I wish I had created these terrific aids, but alas, I didn’t. What I did do, however, was use what I had found and then create more of the same on my own.

It was so long ago (back in the mid-1970’s, I believe) that I can’t even remember how I was introduced to this, but I started using a wonderful visual aid called Longman’s Progressive Picture Compositions, created by Donn Byrne, and published, of course, by Longman. There was a “pupil’s book” as they called it, which I didn’t use, but there were four large wall charts that could be placed on the chalk board sill, each chart showing one of four pictures that would tell a complete story together, as you can see here. I discovered that I could use these progressive pictures starting with lower intermediate students (in a more rudimentary way) and go all the way to the most advanced students in our program.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rejoinders and Exclamations(!): They Keep the Conversation Flowing

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

Ever talk on the phone and not hear the person on the other end say anything – I mean, anything at all? Unsettling, isn’t it. The reason isn’t rocket science. It’s that you’re looking for feedback, for that other person to acknowledge (1) that he or she is paying attention to you; (2) that he/she understands what you’re saying; and (3) that she or he feels there’s some kind of worth in what you’re saying. But that’s not all. You also want to know if (1) the listener agrees or disagrees with you; (2) if he or she is being “entertained” or “amused” by what you have to say; and (3) if she/he has anything worthwhile to add.

Wow! That seems like a lot to expect from a listener, and I’m not just talking about somebody on the phone. Oh, no. It can be somebody standing or sitting a few feet from you right there in front of your eyes. Even if you’re looking at the listener (unlike on “regular” phones, which don’t allow for that), you want – no need – some feedback. That’s when rejoinders and exclamations kick in and do their thing.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Questions! Questions! Questions! A New Twist on a Standard Exercise

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

One of the toughest things about learning English grammar is mastering the question-making system, which is more complex in English than in many other languages. For that reason, teachers need to spend a good deal of time teaching the various ways to make questions in English as each different way comes up in their curriculum and then reinforcing those ways to give students enough opportunity to internalize this difficult part of the language.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Not To Be or To Not Be, That is the Question

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

Back in July 2010 I wrote a piece for Teacher Talk called “Go with the Flow: Yes or No?” about some changes in what is considered acceptable, basic English. Such changes have been making the job of teaching ESOL more and more frustrating as time goes by, because lesson plans based on currently used textbooks probably aren’t keeping pace with what average educated as well as uneducated native English speakers really say these days. Well, I’ve gathered a few more of those changes, some of which are quite odd in my estimation, which have been taken from what people really say or from signs, ads, and headlines.

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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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That’s Not Really Hard, So Why Don’t They Get it?

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

Have you ever taken a course in another language? If you have, then you entered the realm of comparative linguistics without even realizing it. That’s because you would be subconsciously comparing how something is said in your native language to how it’s said in the language you were learning. So, for example, if you learned some Spanish or French, you quickly realized that the typical place to put an adjective is after the noun in those languages rather than before the noun, as we do in English. And you realized that the English phrase of the or of a closely resembles the way a genitive phrase is expressed in Spanish or French, but that there’s no equivalent of the –’s in those languages. Voilà! Comparative linguistics!

So why, then, do many ESOL teachers end up pulling the hair out of their heads when trying to teach something so seemingly easy as the use of that –’s? Why do their students often drop that inflected form and say things like the neighbor dog? The reason may not be that the students are just poor language learners; it may be due to language interference. There are languages in which the proper way to form a genitive phrase like the neighbor’s dog is to say “the neighbor dog.” This is something that would be useful for ESOL teachers to know so that they could anticipate the problem and hopefully nip it in the bud before the problem becomes fossilized.

To pursue this item a bit more as a case in point, let’s take a look at how this genitive phrase is produced in a few unrelated languages:

  • In Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia, you’d say the neighbor dog.
  • In Haitian Creole, you’d say the dog the neighbor.
  • In Arabic, you’d say dog the neighbor.
  • In Cantonese, a form of Chinese, you’d say neighbor the dog.

Aha! So it may very well be that it isn’t the fact that your students just don’t have the smarts to get it; it’s probably language interference with the structure of their native languages getting in the way that’s created this problem.

If you’re an EFL teacher, getting into comparative linguistics to make teaching certain grammatical points go more smoothly is relatively easy since just about all the students you have in any class speak the same language, the native language of the country you’re working in.

If you’re an ESOL teacher working in an English-speaking country with students from lots of other countries, the task of delving into comparative linguistics is more daunting, but definitely doable. You don’t need to become fluent in any of the languages spoken by your students. If you see that some or all of your students are struggling with a certain point of grammar, all you need to do is a bit of research into how that form is structured in their languages to see whether or not it may be creating a bigger problem to teach than you might have thought. And in those cases when a certain form is a big problem for certain students, you may find it useful to give them some comparative phrases in their languages and in English to show them how to switch from one way of communicating this to the other.

I guarantee that your students will be very impressed that you’ve familiarized yourself with something in their languages and can demonstrate how it crosses over from their languages to English. You’ll definitely win brownie points with them and, in addition, you’ll become a more effective teacher!

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Flexibility of Thought-Provoking Conversations

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

One of the many challenges that all teachers face is finding ways to keep the learning experience interesting and dynamic. A good way to do this in a language classroom is to introduce thought-provoking themes or topics that students will relish discussing. Not only are such topics great for conversation practice, but they also allow for flexibility so that a teacher can apply them to focus on specific grammar points and writing assignments.

Here are two juicy themes that always get students thinking and discussing:

In Exile

Teacher speaking to class . . .

You were part of a group that tried to start a revolution in your country. You didn’t succeed and the government captured you and your group. A court has ordered that you and your group will be put into exile. You will be transported to an island where nobody lives. There are many animals and plants on the island that you can use for food, and there is a lot of fresh water. You will have to spend 15 years on the island as your punishment.

You will have no way to communicate with the outside world: no radio, no television, no phones, and there is no electricity on the island. But the government will allow your group to bring ten items – only ten – to the island to help you survive. You need to work together to decide which ten items you should bring to the island. You have 20 minutes to do this.

If you have a small group of students, treat this as a whole-class activity and let everybody discuss the topic together. As they suggest which items are important to take, list them on the board and let the whole group discuss the value or worthlessness of each item. Try to reach a consensus to create a final list of which items they will take. Make sure they clearly explain the reason they have suggested this item or that.

If you have a medium or large class, break the students into small groups, perhaps five or six students per group, with one student acting as the group secretary who will write down which ten items the group decides on. Walk around the room and eavesdrop on your students’ discussions. Help out if need be. When time is up, ask one person in each group to call out the list of items and write them on the board. Then compare the items in each group and have the class as a whole choose which ten items from all those lists should be the final list of things to take to the island.

Who’s Most Responsible?

Teacher speaking to class . . .

A young woman is married to a salesman who travels a lot on business. In fact, he’s almost never home. She’s very lonely. There’s a river that separates her town from one on the other side. While her husband is away on another business trip, she decides to go to the other town to have an adventure. She doesn’t want anybody in her town to know what she’s doing. To go to the other town, she decides to take a ferry across the river.

When she arrives in the other town, she goes to a ____ (You can fill in a place that will be appropriate for the backgrounds of your students. For example, you can say a bar or night club, a park or an outdoor café, etc.) She meets a young man there, they talk and feel a natural attraction for each other, and later she goes with him to his apartment, where she spends the night.

The next morning, she remembers that her husband is coming home that day, and she panics. She must get home right away. She runs out of the young man’s apartment and makes her way back to the ferry. But there’s a problem. She doesn’t have enough money to pay for the ferry ride back to her town and the ferryman refuses to take her if she can’t pay. She runs back to the young man and asks him for money. He gets angry, thinking she’s really a prostitute, and throws her out. She begs the ferryman to take her and she’ll pay him later, but he refuses again.

The young woman knows that there’s a bridge over the river about a mile away from the ferry. Nobody uses that bridge because there’s a dangerous mentally ill man who lives under it. She doesn’t want to use the bridge because of the danger from the man under the bridge, but she’s desperate. She must get home. When the mentally ill man sees her start to cross the bridge, he thinks she’s the Devil who has come to hurt him, so he runs over to her, attacks her, and kills her.

My question to you: Who is most responsible for the young woman’s death? Is it her husband, who was almost never home and made her feel so lonely? Is it the young man in the other town who wouldn’t give her the money to take the ferry back home? Is it the ferryman who refused to take her if she couldn’t pay him? Is it the mentally ill man under the bridge, who killed her because he thought he was protecting himself from the Devil? Or is it the young woman herself who is most responsible for her death?

Have the students discuss this question just as in the first discussion mentioned. Make sure they understand that they have to be able to defend their choices of who is most responsible for her death by giving convincing arguments.

Believe me, you’ll find your students get fully immersed in these discussions with lively, animated conversations. And if you choose to, you can create all sorts of exercises like open-ended sentences and modified cloze procedures based on these topics to practice specific grammar points. You can also have them work on short writing assignments to get the most bang for your ESOL buck.

Have fun with these and any other thought-provoking topics you come up with.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Go with the Flow: Yes or No?

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

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired, and over all those years I learned to enjoy the challenges of teaching grammar the most. There were rules. I taught the rules, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly by example. There were right ways to say things and wrong ways. I figured I was teaching the right ways. I mean, I followed what was stated in textbooks and sometimes consulted what the “experts” had to say. I considered myself a teacher in the know, and did my best to pass on that knowledge to my students. Nothing was fuzzy back then. Now lots of things seem fuzzy.

Let me ask you something. As ESOL teachers, at what point do we decide to teach what a great many people really say rather than what textbooks tell us we should say? Since we have no arbitrators for English the way the French do with their Académie Française, when do we determine that we should teach our students a form or a term that isn’t found in our textbooks?

Here are some examples of the kinds of utterances I often hear made by quite a cross section of native English speakers, both educated as well as uneducated. Oh, and by the way, when you look over the following utterances, don’t think that just because one may sound more “hillbilly-like” than another that it hasn’t been said by an educated speaker:

  • On December twenty-two, did you deliver the shipment as scheduled?
  • It was a moment where I found myself wondering if I was seeing things.
  • The kids threw a surprise anniversary party for Frank and I.
  • Me and him just couldn’t agree on anything.
  • They gave copies of the invoices to both Bob and myself.
  • We couldn’t figure out where he was at.
  • Two coffees, please.
  • A: Would you mind if I asked you a personal question? B: Sure. Go ahead.
  • If I knew he was injured, I would’ve taken him to the emergency room.
  • Your child just bit mine. Look at the teeth marks on my kid’s arm!
  • Because of his obesity, his heart is having to work harder than it should.
  • I’ll try and* get help.

Not the way you’d teach those elements in bold face to your students, you say? I guess you’d go with the following instead or at least most of the following:

  • December twenty-second
  • when
  • me
  • He and I
  • me
  • n/a
  • cups of coffee
  • No. or Not at all.
  • had known
  • tooth marks
  • has
  • to*

Am I right? Yet day in and day out, I hear native speakers say such utterances the way I’ve listed them above. Are we to consider so many people wrong? After all, isn’t it a rule of thumb in English that if enough people consistently say something a certain way, it becomes an acceptable alternative? And if it is an acceptable alternative, shouldn’t it be actively taught? There isn’t one thing I’ve listed that isn’t constantly said by a very large number of native speakers on a daily basis.

And then there are some cultural issues that influence the way we speak. For example, when I was a kid, I was taught that in business or polite conversation, I should address a person with the appropriate title (e.g., Mr.) and that person’s last name. At a certain point, that person might tell me to call him or her by the first name instead, or I might ask if I could do so. Nowadays, mostly with salespeople, it seems they immediately go for using my first name, and I really find that objectionable. In a business situation especially, I feel the distance created by using the title and last name is appropriate, and I also feel it shows more respect to me if I’m addressed as Mr. Firsten rather than Richard. Is it just me? Am I that much of a throwback to an earlier era?

On top of that, at least in my part of the country (Florida), I’ll often be addressed in a similar situation as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. That drives me nuts, and I immediately counter by telling the person I’m Mr. Firsten. Does that ever happen to you? And if it does, do you accept it? Do you like it?

The point is, so many people use those alternative grammatical forms or ways of addressing people in business situations that I wonder if we have an obligation to address those alternatives in our lesson planning.

What’s your opinion on these subjects? You tell me. I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will have an opinion, and I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will be interested in learning what everybody else has to say. Okay, folks, go for it! Click on the word “Comments” and tell us what you think. I myself am really anxious to hear what you’ve got to say on this very perturbing issue.

*Yes, I know that you may think there’s nothing “wrong” with saying I’ll try and get help instead of I’ll try to get help, but put try in any other form and and doesn’t work. For example, would you accept I’m trying and getting help or I’ve tried and gotten help? Hmm . . . So if it’s not right in those forms, why would you consider it right in that one form?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Multi-Purpose Exercise: The Incomplete Dialogue

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

A: Mr. Firsten, I’d like you to meet a colleague of mine, Sue Van Etten.

B: How do you do?
C: _____________________________________

Okay, I’m sure you can figure out what Speaker C says on that blank line without having to put your thinking caps on, right? You’ll probably say How do you do? or you might put Nice to meet you or some such response. That’s because your communicative competence is just that, competent!

But would your students have that same competence in this formal situation? In fact, how do you even know it’s a formal situation? Well, Speaker A addresses me as “Mr. Firsten,” not “Richard.” And then there’s the use of that formal, first-time greeting, “How do you do?” These two elements tell me right off that the situation is formal. That’s because my communicative competence is working fine. And I know that a typical response to such a formal greeting is to repeat the same greeting; that’s why it’s correct for Speaker C to say “How do you do?” if she chooses to. Just imagine: in only these three lines, we’ve had to deal with both cultural and linguistic skills.

We’ve also touched on the use of punctuation as an aid to the reader. Notice that the blank line has no punctuation at the end. That’s to allow for either a question (How do you do?) or a statement (Nice to meet you). The students have choices.

A: Flowers by Devon. Frank ________________. ___________________?
B: Yes, please. _______________________________________________.
A: I’m afraid that’s job’s been taken.

I should mention right off that students should be told to read an incomplete dialogue all the way through at least two or three times before they attempt to fill in the blanks. Doing so will give them a basic idea of what the dialogue is about and what the speakers are saying. I should also mention that working on incomplete dialogues is great for pair work. Two minds are better than one.

Now, let’s discuss what our students will have to deal with if presented with these next three lines of dialogue. First off, it would be fun to see if the students can figure out whether the two people are speaking face to face or on the phone. Because of the way Frank starts off the dialogue, it should be obvious that he’s answering a phone call. In fact, we’d probably fill in that first blank with speaking or here.

And now something else that’s interesting happens. In order to figure out what will be appropriate for the next blank, the students need to be sensitive to the fact that it ends with a question mark, so a question will be required, and they need to drop down to the next line and see what Speaker B’s response is to help them figure out a proper question. Since Speaker B says “Yes, please,” it seems reasonable to assume that Frank has asked, “Can/May I help you?” “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help you?” just won’t work. But what on earth does Speaker B say next? If the students drop down again to the following line, they should be able to figure this out. Aha! Because of what Frank says now, Speaker B must have asked if he/she can apply for a job that must have been advertised, so the students can fill in this blank with something like I’d like to apply for the job of flower arranger or I’m calling about the job as a salesperson.

As you can clearly see, incomplete dialogues offer our students quite an array of practice for various language skills. Reading comprehension is right there in the forefront. Knowledge of punctuation comes in a close second. In addition, critical thinking is an overall must, including powers of deduction.

Now let’s take a look at yet another use for incomplete dialogues.

A: Who are you sending that fax ___?
B: Our main office.

A: Who are you sending that fax ___?
B: The boss. She said to get it out right away.

Here’s a great opportunity to see how much language sensitivity our students have. By reading each answer given by Speaker B, they should be able to figure out which preposition will work in each blank. The only possibility in the first blank is to. The only possibility in the second is for.

Incomplete dialogues can be as simple or as challenging as you would like them to be. They can be very controlled, honing in on one element of language (like the prepositions above), or they can be very open ended and allow students a great deal of flexibility with their answers. They can cover cultural or communicative competence (key and register) and language skills (sensitivity to punctuation, reading comprehension, and language sensitivity such as vocabulary choices). But perhaps most important of all, incomplete dialogues allow students an opportunity to play with their new language and see what does and doesn’t work in a given context.

Let’s look at one more example to show you what I mean.

A: You don’t look so good. _______________________________________?
B: I feel really dizzy and nauseous. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
A: ___________________________________________________________.
B: No, don’t do that. I don’t need paramedics!
A: ___________________________________________________________?
B: Well, if I don’t feel better soon, maybe you should take me there.
A: Okay, just let me know ________________________________________.
B: I will. And thanks.

Here are some possibilities that students could use to fill in the blanks:

A: You don’t look so good. What’s the matter? / What’s wrong? / Are you okay? / Are you all right?
B: I feel really dizzy and nauseous. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
A: I’m going to call 911. / Maybe I should call 911.
B: No, don’t do that. I don’t need paramedics!
A: Would you like me/Do you want me to drive/take you to the emergency room/the hospital?
B: Well, if I don’t feel better soon, maybe you should take me there.
A: Okay, just let me know if you want/you’d like to go / if you want me to take you (there).
B: I will. And thanks.

Just think about how many skills this dialogue covers. Besides all the ones I’ve already discussed, we now also have survival skills, being able to handle a real-world situation in the United States: knowledge of 911, what paramedics do, and emergency rooms. A dialogue like this one is a great way to find out how much or how little your students know about certain situations and how to deal with them, and they offer a great oppor
tunity to plan lessons or discussions on aspects of life in the US that students may need to know more about.

If you haven’t already done so, start incorporating incomplete dialogues into your lessons. The more you create them, the better you’ll get at writing them. And the biggest plus is that your students will have the chance to practice many linguistic and cultural skills all at the same time. It doesn’t get better than that!