Archive for Tag: Richard Firsten

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!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wussup Wit’ Dat?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
There’s been a great deal of hoopla lately over a statement made by Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid in which he commented during the last presidential campaign that he thought Barack Obama had a good chance of winning the election because he “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Of course, people have reacted very negatively to such a statement, claiming it was basically racist. Others have added that hearing Senator Reid’s choice of words, Negro dialect, was like going through a time warp back to the mid-twentieth century. So what’s really going on, and how might this be of concern to ESOL teachers?
I don’t think that Senator Reid was saying anything that many – if not most of us – don’t think, but may not have the fortitude to openly verbalize. For quite a long time, we have struggled with the issue of how we judge people by their speech. The truth is that many of us don’t look favorably on people who speak in what are considered nonstandard dialects of English. Theoretically speaking, those people may have large portfolios and be living very “comfortably,” but if they open their mouths and speak with a Brooklyn or Cockney accent or Southern drawl, or if they use vocabulary and grammar associated with African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, sometimes referred to as Ebonics) or Chicano English, we don’t consider them polished and of high social status. That’s just the way it is. Unfortunately, we do judge books by their covers. And that was the point that Harry Reid was getting at. He wasn’t being racist; he was simply being realistic and honest.
In the 1980’s, while working as Associate Director of the English Language Institute at a university in South Florida, I was approached by many instructors who told me of their frustrations in dealing with students who wrote the way they spoke, that is, in nonstandard English. The instructors pleaded with me to create a course that would correct the problem. They felt it was a terrible disservice to the students that nobody was telling them they needed to speak and write in standard English in order to get ahead in the future. They knew their views might not be considered “pc” at that time, but their consciences wouldn’t allow them to say nothing about this problem.
I couldn’t have agreed with them more. Using nonstandard dialectal variations in the streets or with family and friends in relaxed, totally informal situations is just fine, but should we consider such language as proper for school or the workplace or government? The answer is decidedly no for many reasons, probably the most important being that we need to speak a standard form of our language in such settings so that chances for miscommunications or misunderstandings are minimized. Another important reason is to make sure that the listener is focusing on the meaning of our message rather than on any “oddities” in how we deliver the message.
I conscientiously worked on a proposal to offer a course at the university called “English as a Standard Dialect.” When the proposal was ready, I decided to test the waters by showing it to faculty members who were representative of the groups of students my colleagues had been complaining about. I figured that would be a smart move before showing the proposal to university officials for approval. The faculty members who saw what I had prepared gave me very positive feedback. Not one of them found the proposal offensive, which I found gratifying. I then presented my proposal to the dean – and that’s as far as things went. He considered the course too controversial, a political hot potato, even with the positive feedback I’d already gotten. No matter what I said, it made no difference, and he refused to let me develop the course any further. I feel that was a terrible mistake, and I’ve always felt bad that the students who needed the language skills my course could have offered them never got those skills.
The main thrust of my proposal was that there’s nothing wrong with students using their dialects in appropriate settings, but that they should learn how to code switch and use standard English in settings appropriate for that dialect as well. In other words, the course would not put down the dialects that the students used all the time, but it would offer them the skills to have an option they really needed to have at their disposal. I had been given that option when I was in elementary and junior high school back in Brooklyn, New York. All of my teachers, not just my English teachers, made it a point to teach us standard English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and when it was not appropriate to use Brooklynese. The language skills that our teachers gave us in how and when to code switch have served me well my whole life. I’m sure that’s what Harry Reid meant when he said that Barack Obama “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Senator Reid must have recognized the fact that people with enough language skills can code switch at will – which is a good thing.
This subject about having at least two dialects in English, the standard one and the dialectal variation, is something that ESOL teachers working in English-speaking countries should keep in mind. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that ESOL teachers must clearly explain the differences to their students and teach them very carefully when to use one or the other form if this is truly an issue where they are located and if their students are ready to deal with it. That’s for each teacher to determine.
Here are three very simple examples of the kinds of code switching that ESOL teachers might need to deal with at one time or another:
• In the New York City area, you get on line when waiting to do something, but in the rest of the United States, you get in line.
• In parts of New England, the word wicked means very, as in saying It’s wicked cold outside.
• In AAVE, you say He workin’, while in standard English you say He’s working. In AAVE you say He be workin’, while in standard English you say He works.
To sum up, let’s not overreact to what Senator Reid said about our current President’s language skills. True, he may have made his point somewhat crudely, but that doesn’t diminish the validity in what he said. Every English speaker or English language learner should have solid skills in using the standard dialect that is understood by everybody, but that doesn’t mean that those same people shouldn’t have the skills in one or another dialectal variation when appropriate. Da’s wussup wit’ dat.

So what’s your take on this subject? I’d love to hear your comments.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another Perspective on Dorothy Zemach’s “Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher”

By Richard Firsten 

Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I enjoyed reading Dorothy’s article written in response to some questions posed to by an Iranian English teacher who she’s named “Ibrahim.” You can’t help but feel the nurturing and supportive tone that Dorothy has created in it. One of the things I’ve always liked about most of the teachers I’ve met in our field is this caring quality that has led to teachers in other disciplines sometimes labeling us in good fun as “mother hens.” Well, that’s fine; I don’t mind that label at all, and I have a hunch that Dorothy doesn’t mind it either!

While I appreciate many things in Dorothy’s article, I’m afraid I have to take exception with some of them. I’d like to comment, right off, on two points Dorothy makes:
  • “… it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English … without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking 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 … who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me.” 
Let’s Define “Excellent English Language Skills” 
It would be helpful to have a definition of what it means to say that somebody is “an excellent user of English” or has “excellent English language skills.” Such phrases are really quite open to interpretation, but I’m going to assume they mean mastery of the language. There may be some very rare individuals out there who can master English without ever living in the US or UK or other English-speaking country, but I would say that the vast majority of people, no matter how much they apply themselves, could not accomplish this for many reasons.  
Stress and Intonation Critical to Mastery
First, mastery of English does not simply deal with memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules. How can a person living in a non-English-speaking country possibly learn the nuances and subtleties of the prosodic or suprasegmental features that English has? I’m talking about the importance of stress and intonation, which can be very influential in what a sentence means. As for stress, say the following out loud and you’ll see what I mean:
  1.  Have you ever seen a catfish?
  2.  Have you ever seen a cat fish?
As for intonation, say the next two out loud:
  1.  (driver talking to passenger) What’s that in the road ahead?
  2.  (same driver talking to same passenger) What’s that in the road, a head?
Forgetting about the written form in which spacing and punctuation play all-important roles, if you’ve applied English stress and intonation properly, I imagine you’ve come up with very different renditions for those utterances! Try learning these subtleties if not surrounded all the time by English speakers. 

What About Cultural Aspects and Register?

 Second, what about all the cultural aspects of a language and the matter of communicative competence? How can a person not living in an English-speaking environment possibly learn the intricacies of register to know which vocabulary or phraseology is appropriate in different situations with different people, and deal with various levels of formality and informality? On top of that, we have the problem of applying current cultural trends to certain lexical items, things that it would be nearly impossible to be exposed to and master when not living in the context in which such things are used:
  1. (student walking into a university administrator’s office) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”
  2. (same student entering his dorm room, seeing his roommate) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”If you’re aware of communicative competence, you cringe upon hearing the first utterance, but you’re fine with the very same utterance in the second context. I don’t believe such things can be mastered outside of an English-speaking/cultural environment. 
Conrad and Mehta Learned English in English-Speaking Environments
 As for Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta, some points need clarification. Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, started to learn English when he was around 29 years old, but he didn’t do this in Poland; he did it in an English-speaking environment. He arrived in England while working on a ship and started learning English there and while in the company of completely English-speaking crews on board various vessels. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that even though Conrad mastered written English and became a great novelist in the English language, he never lost his thick Polish accent, and I have serious doubts about how well he ever mastered the prosodics of English.
Ved Mehta was born to an upper-class family in British-controlled India. Because of these two facts, I’m sure he was exposed to English at an early age.
Moreover, he started living in a completely English-speaking environment at the age of 15, so I don’t think we can use Mr. Mehta as a role model for people who want to learn English as fully as possible yet stay within the confines of their own non-English-speaking countries. This is not to say that Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta didn’t achieve great success in mastering English. They did. But I think their stories support my argument quite well.
Is Language a Window into How People Think? 
Finally, let’s look back at one other point Dorothy makes:
“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 don’t think Americans, on the whole, are afraid of Iranians; I think they’re afraid of Iranian politicians and their mindset. I can’t agree that learning a language outside of where that language is spoken will allow us to understand “other ways” except, perhaps, on a superficial level. Yes, we might gain insights into how speakers of a particular language think or view the world around them, but not to any meaningful extent. 
I remember when I was deep into learning Spanish. I wanted to know how to say I dropped it. I was told to say Se me cayó, which I found very odd because that basically means “It fell from me.” On another occasion, I wanted to know how to say I forgot and was told to say Se me olvidó, which means something very hard to put into English like “It got forgotten from me.” It dawned on me that in both cases, Spanish isn’t letting the speaker take responsibility for those acts: I didn’t drop it – it fell from me. It did that, not me. And I didn’t forget anything – it got forgotten. This is an interesting psychological observation on the part of an English speaker learning Spanish, but it’s certainly not a way to judge how all Spanish speakers think. No, just learning a language doesn’t necessarily allow us to understand “other ways.”
Advice for Ibrahim

So, Ibrahim, all I can say to you is that I hope one day you’ll be able to live for a decent period of time in an English-speaking country. Perhaps you should consider Canada. I don’t know how tough the Canadians would be on giving you a visa for an extended stay, but you might want to find out from the Canadian embassy. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will become a much more fluent speaker of English (in all aspects that such a description includes) once you’ve had the opportunity to live in a country where you’ll be surrounded night and day by English and be immersed in one of the cultures that influence the language so heavily. 

Good luck to you, Ibrahim. And thank you, Dorothy, for having given Ibrahim such a nurturing and supportive answer.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Putting Grammar into Context: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

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

Okay, you’ve shown your students how to form the present perfect aspect. You’ve explained to them how since and for are used with this form. You’ve had them practice affirmative forms in statements, negative forms in statements, interrogative forms in questions. You’ve gone over long answers and short answers. You’ve had them use verbs in parentheses to change them into the present perfect and fill in the blanks of sentences.

You’re bored. You’re eyes are getting heavy. Your students are bored and feeling a bit numbed by it all. Congratulations! You’ve succeeded in treating that grammar point like it’s a fish out of water. You’ve made that grammar point into something like a formula in a chemistry class. But this isn’t chemistry. It’s language! It’s got vitality! It’s a living thing, for Pete’s sake! So let’s treat it like that!

Any grammar element you want to deal with will only be meaningful if it’s put into context, into something real and relevant and motivating to you and your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching fourth graders or college students. What matters is that they get to see how a point of grammar works in context, not just in disconnected sentences. The students need to claim it as their own and run with it. And the best way to accomplish this is by figuring out which context will be optimum for dealing with that specific grammar point.

Since the example cited here is the present perfect, let’s stick with that. Our objective today is to get the students to understand basic uses of this form, that it means something began in the past and continues up into the present or that something happened in the past and may happen again in the future. Now what kind of context will lend itself to using lots of verbs in the present perfect?

If you’ve got those fourth graders, how about introducing a discussion on how they have or haven’t helped their mothers at home from some point in the past that you decide on till now? “Clarita, how many times have you made your bed since the beginning of the week? Have you made your bed every day? What about you, Pepito? Have you taken out the garbage for your mom? You haven’t? Why not?”

If you’ve got college students, how about a discussion on movies? “Does anybody know how long movies have entertained the public? Do you know which Hollywood movie studio has made the most pictures? How many movies have you seen this month? Has your country produced lots of movies?”

Any and all of the questions above can get a good discussion going amongst your fourth graders or your college students. And backup material can be at the ready: teacher-made reading passages based on the topic at hand; written exercises full of context; hands-on activities for your students to do in class or out of class, such as conducting short interviews on the topic and reporting back to the class, or writing a short, personal narrative on the topic and reading it to classmates.

As long as your students keep using the present perfect appropriately in the discussions and in the activities you’ve devised for them to do, you’re doing your job and doing it well. You’re using the grammar point as a tool to accomplish clear communication with the focus on that overall use of language rather than just that element of grammar. And there’s a bonus to this way of elegantly working a specific grammar point into context. Your students will be forced to use other grammar points they’ve learned as well and build on their previous knowledge of grammar. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So make it real, make it meaningful, and make it live! Lift that grammar point out of isolation and put it into context. You’ll see how dynamic your grammar classes will become!

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Conversation with Amir

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

For quite awhile, I had an ongoing conversation via e-mail with a young EFL teacher from the Middle East who’d come across my blog and determined to start a dialogue with me. He’s a very bright young man who teaches English at a technological university, and the following “conversation” is based on some of that ongoing correspondence we had. I’ve copied Amir’s sections just as they were sent to me.

I’d love to hear your reactions to this conversation and receive any extra observations you can make on this subject.

Amir: Why don’t the Americans follow exactly the English way of using grammar, words, pronunciation, etc? Since I think there are two versions of one language. At the word level, for example, tap is British English and faucet is American. At grammar level, for example, the British past participle of get is got, but in American English gotten. At pronunciation level, water in British English is pronounced very different from the American one. You see that I didn’t say the opposite, that is, why don’t the British follow exactly the American … since I think English is originally English not American and so it must be better. What do you think?

Me: I think that’s a marvelous question, Amir. The easiest way for me to answer it is to turn the question around and ask you the same about Arabic. The homeland of Arabic is the Arabian peninsula, but the language spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Do you speak the same Arabic in your country that’s spoken, say, in Morocco?

Amir: Of course not.

Me: The reason for that is that languages keep evolving. In any region, the causes can include geography, the natural environment, other languages that have an influence, the arrival of immigrants, and the history of the region.

Amir: Since your answer is wonderful, it deserves a good reply, and I will do my best. Firstly, I expected you turning the question around.

Secondly, let me explain what I was talking about is the “standard English” accepted in Britain and America.

Thirdly, I’m going to talk about the Classic Arabic or standard Arabic compared with standard English.

Fourthly, I agree with you that we speakers of Arabic do not speak the same in term of pronunciation since everyone has their regional accent, but we use exactly the same words. For example, the word window has many names according to the country one lives in, and that is so-called “dialects”. But when it comes to speaking Classic Arabic, one should use the very word which is understood from the north to the south and from the east to the west.

Fifthly, at the level of grammar, it is completely the same.

Sixthly, there are dictionaries designed for British English and others for the American one. This drives me to presume that they are different. If not, why to have different dictionaries as long as the same? Likewise, in Arabic we have different dictionaries but they differ in the way words are presented but not in the content, that is, a dictionary may start with a word that another may not start with. Yet the meaning and the understanding of word is still the same.

Seventhly, and the most strong factor, is that Arabic is a sacred language. It is used in religious texts, especially the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions.

Me: Your original question had to do with why American English doesn’t follow British English exactly. I answered that by explaining that American English has been influenced by American Indian vocabulary and by vocabulary from every immigrant group that joined us to create the country we now have. Immigrant languages also had some influence on certain grammatical patterns, although not a strong influence.

Pronunciation in American English was first influenced by various pronunciations in the UK. Then American pronunciation was influenced by the way immigrants pronounced certain words.

I hope you get a general picture now of why American English hasn’t strictly followed British English.

As for “standard” English, this is a very tricky area. We don’t have a sacred language like Classical Arabic, so we have nothing to turn to as a reference. Nor do we have a national academy like in France and Spain that makes decrees on what is “correct” and what is “incorrect.” So what do we have?

Well, first, “standard” American pronunciation is based on how television and radio reporters, especially in the 1950s, pronounced English. One of the greatest influences on this aspect of American English was a TV news reporter named Walter Cronkite. His Midwestern pronunciation was so clear and easy to understand that it became the norm for broadcasters all around the country, and that led to its being adopted more or less by all educated speakers who made a conscious choice to speak with a “standard” pronunciation. In the UK, it was how broadcasters on the BBC sounded that became the accepted “standard” British pronunciation except for another version called RP, “received pronunciation.”

As for vocabulary, that becomes a much more difficult area to discuss. My guess is that the majority of English words are what we can consider “standard” vocabulary, and the test for that is that they’re understood by most educated American English speakers. So it doesn’t matter really if you call it a faucet, a tap, a spigot, or a spicket ― most of us will still understand what you’re talking about.

Of course we have words in one region that may not be understood by people in other regions. Those words are classified as “nonstandard.” They may have a standard counterpart, but they’re still considered nonstandard.

Here’s one example: If I say frying pan to native English speakers, they’ll understand what I’m talking about. But then there are regionalisms such as fry pan, skillet, spider.

Here’s something interesting about faucet and tap. I’m mentioning these again because I want to show you how words can become integrated so well into the standard language even though they may originally have been nonstandard. I’m from New York, and I grew up calling that device on the kitchen sink a faucet. People in some other regions call it a tap. But if I’m thirsty and I don’t want bottled water, I’ll say I’d like a glass of tap water even though for me it comes out of a faucet. So I get tap water from the faucet!

The main point is that one variety of English isn’t necessarily better or worse than any other variety. Yes, there’s something we gingerly call “standard American” or “standard British English,” but nobody’s 100% sure what that means except to say it’s the common language used by most educated people in the country.

Okay, Amir, may
be I’ve given you more information than you wanted to know.

Amir: No, I understand, and I think I know much better why you have many differences and why you don’t copy British English. Thank you, Richard.

So what’s your take on this topic? Anything to add? If something comes to mind, let me know.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Why I Like Cloze Exercises

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

Over the many years I taught ESOL, one type of exercise that I decided should become a staple kind of classroom language learning activity was the cloze procedure or cloze activity. Nobody seems to really know where the name cloze comes from, but in spite of that, it can play a very important role in any language classroom. Actually, there are two main types of cloze, the pure cloze and the modified cloze*.

The Pure Cloze: The most important use of pure cloze exercises is to test your students’ overall mastery of the language (whole language). As you’ll see, a blank may replace any kind of word; generally, it’s the competence and comprehension that your students have which will allow them to figure out what possible item can go in each blank. You’ll get more bang for your buck by using a pure cloze activity with high-intermediate and advanced students, but you might want to try simplified ones with lower level students as well.

To create one, take any passage that’s as close to 350 words in length as you can get. Leave the first and last sentences intact. Beginning with the second sentence, take out every fifth to ninth word and replace it with a blank. Make all your blanks equal in length. Only a single word is acceptable for each blank, and keep in mind that a contraction is a single word, too. If the blank falls where there’s a date, number, proper noun, or otherwise unreconstructible word, then the next word should be replaced by the blank instead. The words that are omitted should be words that your students already know.

By the way, it’s a more difficult exercise if every fifth word is omitted than if every ninth word is omitted. You’ll probably prefer to eliminate every seventh or ninth word, at least at the beginning.

As far as correcting cloze exercises that students have completed, there are two lines of thought on the subject. Some people insist that only the exact word that was eliminated should be accepted as the correct answer. Others, however, argue that any word that completes the idea appropriately should be accepted.

Just in case you’d like to know, here’s the thinking on the two methods of correction. Accepting any appropriate word while correcting a cloze seems only fair way to go with, at least on the surface. Why shouldn’t teachers accept any answer that works? Why should students be penalized for not being able to read the mind of the person who wrote the text? Well, here’s why:

1. Accepting any appropriate word makes it much harder to correct because the teacher needs to keep in mind the entire context while trying to focus on each answer. It’s also harder to correct when there are very large groups doing the activity.

2. Correcting in this way takes a lot more time.

3. Using this method is only slightly more statistically reliable, so you be the judge.

The Modified Cloze: This form of the cloze can be used with students at any level and, instead of dealing with whole language competence, a modified cloze zeroes in on one particular discrete point of language that you’ve chosen to concentrate on.

To create one, write your own sentences or passages and make sure they contain the discrete point you’ve chosen to work on. The length of the sentences or the whole passage depends on your knowledge of what your students can handle. If you’re dealing with prepositions or articles or the like, eliminate whatever words are being targeted and keep the blanks equal in length throughout. If you’re dealing with verbs, draw in each blank and write the verb to be used in parentheses before or after the blank. The students will quickly learn that they’re to use the verbs in parentheses to fill in the blanks.

And as for correcting this kind of cloze, you should apply the rule of thumb that any appropriate words or verb forms that work to complete the sentences are acceptable.

Grammar textbook series have incorporated cloze activities more and more over the years because they’ve proven to be so effective, but personalizing them yourself can prove much more meaningful to your students if you choose topics or even students in your classes that they can all relate to. And nothing makes a language activity more impressive or effective than one that’s meaningful to your students!

Another wonderful thing about cloze activities is that they offer some very good reading comprehension practice. Students really need to understand what they’re reading in order to fill in those blanks appropriately. So go ahead. Make up your own cloze procedures, and see what happens.

*Richard Firsten with Patricia Killian. The ELT Grammar Book: A Teacher-Friendly Reference Guide. Alta Book Center Publishers. 2002

Friday, November 21, 2008

Prescriptivist or Descriptivist?

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

All during the years I taught ESOL, I had an ongoing battle in my mind over the philosophies that dealt with whether I should be a prescriptivist or a descriptivist as far as the rules of English grammar go. A prescriptivist basically tells you how you should say something; in other words, what’s right and what’s wrong. A descriptivist simply tells you what people say and how they say it without making any value judgments. So how conservative should I be (aka prescriptive), or how liberal (aka descriptive)? When do I know it’s okay just to say, “Hey, if it works, use it,” or when do I know if it’s safe to put my foot down and say, “No, that’s just wrong”?

One reason I kept having this battle was caused by a feeling that I was being undermined from time to time by others in the field. For example, I’d been taught to say there is if the following noun is singular and there are if it’s plural, and that’s the way I always taught existential there, which was backed up by what I always found in ESOL textbooks. Then, as the years went by, I’d hear somebody say there’s with a plural noun. I’d scoff and think to myself, “Hah! That person’s grammar is terrible!” But then I’d hear more and more people say there’s and even here’s and Where’s …? along with a plural noun. And then I noticed in a book by a well-known grammarian* that using the singular form followed by a plural noun is “acceptable” in conversational English. What?? You’ve got to be kidding! So it’s okay for me to say Where’s the files? and Here’s the files and There’s the files? Puh-leez! So does that mean I should have thrown the rule about existential there out the window years ago? Was I actually misleading my students all those years the way I taught this point of grammar?

And what about fewer vs. less? All the ESOL grammar texts I’d ever used with my students clearly stated that we should use fewer as the comparative form with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns. So that’s what I taught ― but that’s not necessarily what I heard or even found in print. Again I’d have that negative gut reaction, thinking it scandalous that so-called educated people couldn’t even use those two words properly even in TV commercials. “Less calories?” Ugh!

So I went running to a book by another well-known grammarian,** and lo and behold, what do I read on this subject? “Less is the comparative of little (used especially before uncountable nouns). Fewer is the comparative of few (used before plural nouns). Compare: I earn less money than a postman. / I’ve got fewer problems than I used to have.” So far, so good, right? But then … “Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect. I’ve got less problems than I used to have.” What was that? “SOME people consider this incorrect”? You mean lots of people consider it correct? You mean all those ESOL grammar books were misleading? Aaaarrrghh!

Well, now you get it. Now you see the quandary I was in. Or I guess I should say I’m still in. The battle hasn’t changed inside me. I mean, where do we draw the line? There isn’t an ESOL teacher alive who will claim it’s acceptable to say he is, she is, they is, so why is it acceptable to say There is three people waiting to see you? Hmm … Or is it? Could it be that it’s acceptable only when the contraction is used? Does There’s three people waiting to see you sound better? I wonder. Maybe that does sound more acceptable. I wonder. I also wonder about how nuts that seems to me!

So what should we do as ESOL teachers? Do we teach with a prescriptive approach: “Say it this way. Don’t say it that way.” Or do we just teach our students any and all deviations from what the traditional grammar textbooks have said for decades just because a certain number of native speakers use this deviation or that?

If you’d like an extreme example of the descriptive approach, I can give you one. Many moons ago when I was in grad school taking a course in modern English grammar from a well respected teacher who was born and raised in the midwestern US, I remember vividly her discussion on the use of certain modal auxiliaries. She pointed out that in some areas of the Midwest it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like I might could do it and She shouldn’t have ought to done that (although she pronounced it as She shouldn’t’ve oughta done that. Once again, maybe those contracted pronunciations sound more acceptable than when the words aren’t contracted!)

Before you shriek in horror, let me just tell you that this teacher considered such sentences perfectly acceptable since that’s how people spoke in those areas of the Midwest that she hailed from. She said such sentences didn’t bother her at all. Can you imagine? And she was teaching modern English grammar! So does that mean she was telling us we could teach such sentences as variations on how to use modal auxiliaries? Your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t ask her ― probably because I was in such a state of shock.

I seem to see a trend these days that has people poo-pooing anyone who sounds like a prescriptivist. Maybe with so many other things it’s becoming politically incorrect to tell people how they should say something. I still cringe every time I hear people say me and him when they should say he and I. Isn’t this taught anymore in public school English classes? Are language arts classes a dying art? And how does all of this affect what ESOL teachers do in their classrooms?

You know what? I’m getting very worked up right now. I think I’ll have a couple of beers to calm down. That’s right, a couple of BEERS. Countable? Uncountable? Hah! Who cares anymore?

*L. G. Alexander. Longman English Grammar. Longman. 1988
**Michael Swan. Practical English Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2005

Friday, November 14, 2008

Have You Got a Picture File?

By Richard Firsten

Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Over the many years that I taught ESOL, there were certain goals that I always wanted to achieve beyond the specific language objective for any given lesson. Those goals had to do with realism and cultural influences on the targeted language point. I especially had these goals in mind whenever I did EFL teacher training to groups in non-English speaking countries where both local teachers and students don’t have the wonderful opportunity to be immersed in a country with native English speakers and their culture on a daily basis the way ESOL teachers and students do.

One thing I found could help me accomplish these extra goals to a large extent, and what I found was the single most useful teaching aid a teacher can have, is a picture file. A wonderful resource such as a picture file doesn’t cost much to make since all you need is magazines, some glue or tape, sturdy paper or backing material, and a pair of scissors. To put your file together, choose magazines that have lots of pictures, and cut out anything you find of interest. Don’t overlook simple pictures, because even the simplest may have various teaching points to focus on. Use large pictures in front of the entire class; use large or small ones for individual or small-group work. Trim the edges and glue the pictures onto sturdy backing sheets. (Construction paper or tag board is excellent for this purpose.) On the back of each mounted picture, list a variety of teaching points that the picture can be used for. Let’s take a look at a simple picture, one that you might think uninteresting at first glance, and I’ll show you what teaching points we can use it for.

Vocabulary Items: trees, grass/lawn, bushes, flowers, sign, walkway, driveway, roof, shingles, windows, siding, offers, housing market, credit report, mortgage, property taxes, equity

idioms: It’s a steal. / curb appeal / get the price down / down payment / Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

Grammar Points:
(Present Progressive) They’re selling their house. / People are making appointments to see the house. / The seller is asking $225,000. / The realtor isn’t getting many offers on the house. / The buyer is thinking about not renewing his contract with the realtor.
(Simple Past) The buyer signed a contract with the realtor six months ago. / Only two people made appointments to see the house last week. / The realtor said that they buyer’s price was too high.
(Simple Future) The buyer will have to lower the price. / The realtor won’t renew his contract with the buyer. / Few people will want to pay so much money for that house.

Countable and Uncountable Nouns: realtor, real estate, grass, bushes, sign, money, price, offers

Active and Passive Voice: The house was built in 1982. / They built the house in three months. / The house is being sold by a well-known realty company. / The realtor is advertising the house in local newspapers.

Prepositions / Prepostional Phrases: on the lawn, on the driveway, in front of the house, at the front door, for a down payment, at home

Non-linguistic Topics for Discussion: housing crisis, “the American dream,” foreclosures, financial responsibility, credit crisis

See how much you can do with one picture? Pictures with action scenes are great, but don’t overlook simple pictures on plain backgrounds such as the one I’ve chosen to show you here. They can be very productive, too. And one more point that’s important about a picture file is that it can be used for any level of language teaching from elementary to advanced.

Once you have a stack of pictures ready to go, number them. Then make a master list of teaching points you’ve found in the pictures. Next to each point, list the numbers of all the pictures that fit that teaching point. In other words, your master list will tell you what topics (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.) your files contain and what pictures can be used to demonstrate and work on these points. This way, when you teach a particular lesson, you can go to your master list and quickly pull out the pictures you need. Any time you add to your file, you can easily update your master list.

Here’s an additional tip about writing the teaching points that your pictures represent on the back of the pictures. When you hold up a picture and the teaching point appears on the back for you to see, you don’t have to crane your neck to look at what it is you’re holding up. The students see the picture and you see the teaching point.

And why should you create a picture file? A teacher-made picture file will suit you, your needs, your students, and the subjects you’re teaching. Commercial sets of pictures could never give you this personalized touch at a price that most teachers can afford. Moreover, if a picture goes out of date, is lost, or is destroyed, replacing it doesn’t require that you buy a new set; just find another magazine and there you have your replacement. If you don’t already have something like a picture file, I highly recommend you start making one right away. I guarantee that you’ll be glad you did.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How Do You . . . What?

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

And then there was Mustafa, my marvelous, sweet, gentle giant of a student. I nicknamed him “Mustafa Mountain.” He was a heavy-set young man in his mid-twenties who towered over me so much that I actually had to look up whenever talking to him. Mustafa had a way of not easily connecting how English works with his own thought processes, but he did a lot to show me how English can sometimes be so illogical that I think it amazing anyone can learn it well.

This is what happened the first day I met Mustafa in my low intermediate-level class at the university:

“How do you do?” I said as I stretched out my hand to shake his.
“How do I do what?” Mustafa replied.
“No, no. This is a greeting: ‘How do you do?’”
“How do I do what?”
“What’s your name?”
“Mustafa Bakhtiari. You are my new teacher, Mr. Firsten?”
“Yes, that’s right. How do you do, Mustafa?”
“Why you keep ask me how I do . . . How I do what??”
“It’s like saying ‘How are you?’ Mustafa. We say it the first time we meet somebody in a formal situation.”
“Oh, okay. I think I understand,” Mustafa said with a big smile of relief spreading across his face.
“So, how do you do?” I confidently reiterated.
“Very well, thank you,” came the unwanted response.
“No, you’re not supposed to say that in the answer, Mustafa.”
“No? Oh, so what I say?”
“How do you do?”
“Huh?” Mustafa said with the saddest look of confusion I’d ever seen on a student’s face. I closed my eyes momentarily, realizing what a dumb thing I had just done, inadvertently setting the scene for total confusion ― and I knew it.
“You are asking me that question again,” Mustafa said slowly with some consternation in his voice.
“Listen, Mustafa. When you meet somebody for the first time and the situation is formal, you say, ‘How do you do?’ Then the other person says, ‘How do you do?’ too.”
“You ask question and he ask same question. Nobody answer question.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now you’ve got it!”
“I got what?”
“Never mind. Let’s try it again, okay?”
“How do you do?”
“How do you do, too?”
“No! You don’t say, ‘How do you do, too?’ You just repeat, ‘How do you do?’!”
“Please. I am trying to learn English. Not easy!”
“I know that, Mustafa. I say, ‘How do you do?’ and you just repeat ‘How do you do?’ and nobody answers that question. You just shake hands and smile at each other, okay? And then you can continue the conversation by asking each other’s names, career interests ― whatever. Do you understand now?”
“I think yes, but not sure,” poor Mustafa replied, looking quite insecure at the moment.
“Okay, let’s try it one more time,” I said, feeling this was it. It was either now or never. Taking a deep breath, I said, “How do you do?”
“How do you do?” was Mustafa’s response. I was ecstatic! We shook hands on cue and everything seemed right with the world.
“My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?”
“What do you do, Mr. Firsten?”
“You didn’t answer my question, Mustafa. You’re supposed to answer my question to be polite.”
“You say I must repeat question. I repeat question! ‘How do you do? How do you do? What do you do? What do you do?’”
“But that’s only for ‘How do you do?’ Mustafa, not ‘What do you do?’ You can answer that question!” I could feel my blood pressure rising. The word stroke popped into my mind. “Let’s try that last part again, Mustafa. All right?”
‘Sure,” he said looking down at the floor and grumbling a little. Another deep breath. “My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“Nice to meet you,” I adlibbed.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Mustafa replied, feeling comfortable with a sentence he’d learned in his elementary ESOL classes.
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?” I went on.
“What do I do when?”
I just stared at him. I felt a little numb and kept staring. Mustafa had succeeded in sucking all the energy right out of me. I didn’t have the strength to answer his question. I knew very well where it would lead us. But I was his teacher. I had an obligation to answer his question, didn’t I?
“No, no, Mustafa. That’s not what it means.”
“That’s not what it mean? Why you ask me that if it not mean that?” I could see the frustration building up in him. It reminded me of magma rising up a lava tube in a volcano, getting ready to blow its cork and erupt.
What do you do? means ‘What’s your job or profession?’ So that’s what you should answer.”
“I don’t have job. I am student! You know I am student. All you do is ask questions they don’t mean what you ask. And you ask things you know I am not. I go home now. Maybe I see you tomorrow ― maybe!”

And with that, Mustafa turned around on his heels and walked despondently out of my classroom. I felt awful, as if somehow I’d let him down, even though I knew I hadn’t. But he did come back the next day, and he stayed in my class a whole semester, and learned a lot of English.

The last I heard, Mustafa lives in Los Angeles. We kept in touch for some years, but that didn’t last, unfortunately. He once told me that now, when somebody asks him, “What do you do?” he says, “I’m a CPA.” and always smiles as he thinks back to that crazy day in Mr. Firsten’s ESOL class in Miami.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


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

I’m going to digress a bit from my usual range of topics this week and deal a little with a topic of language that some would rather avoid dealing with. This week’s entry is really about teaching language and not about the language itself, and I hope you’ll join the discussion.

So there I was, in the midst of a really interesting university-level conversation class about Hollywood movies. One of my students had just mentioned that she thought European film makers did a much better job than their American counterparts, and suddenly Homayoon, a student from Iran, shouted out “Bulltish!” Everybody turned to him, trying to figure out what he had blurted out. At first I didn’t get it, but it suddenly hit me what he was trying to say, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Then I stood up, went to the board, and wrote the word bullshit.

“The word’s not bulltish, Homayoon; it’s bullshit.” Of course, as fate would have it, at that very moment the director of the intensive English program I was working in just happened to walk by my classroom ― with the door wide open. She stopped dead in her tracks at the door, and I could see by the look on her face that she was none too thrilled with what I had just said and what she saw on the board. She said nothing and just continued on her way, but I knew very well I’d be called into her office for a meeting to discuss this incident later that day or the next. Such timing!

I just sighed and went on with that teachable moment. I explained to my students what the word meant and why it was so inappropriate for Homayoon to use it in class. (Of course the director of the program didn’t hang around to hear that part ― oh, no.) Finally, I gave the class alternatives that would be appropriate, like That’s nonsense. or That’s silly. or That’s ridiculous. I even went further, though, explaining a little about the art of tactfulness and how Homayoon could make his feelings known in a gentler, more polite way by saying things like I don’t agree. or I don’t think that’s so. or Why do you say that?

But that incident got me thinking. After classes, when most of the teachers gathered in our lounge as they usually did to de-stress before going home, I related the incident that had happened in my class and started a discussion about whether or not we had a responsibility at some point to teach intermediate or advanced students of at least college age what we commonly refer to as “four-letter words.” I wasn’t at all surprised at the heated discussion that developed. This was 1976, so it goes without saying that attitudes were quite different then from attitudes now.

That discussion continued in our teachers’ lounge for the rest of the week. Every day some new angle was brought up. One of my colleagues even mentioned how he was going to develop a whole syllabus on this subject, which he’d divide into categories like “four-letter words about parts of men’s bodies,” “four-letter words about parts of women’s bodies,” “vulgar and semi-vulgar synonyms for acceptable words,” “basic cursing,” and all the grammatical ways to use “the f word.” Some of us were in shock at his suggestions; some of us giggled out of embarrassment; some of us cheered him on. Well, the long and short of it is that he never did develop that formal syllabus, and I never created lessons on the subject matter. But I’ve always wondered if I should have.

By the way, isn’t if funny how it’s considered acceptable to say something like “the f word,” when everyone knows perfectly well what that means, but it’s not so okay to say or write the whole word? I find it curious how we seem to be accepting of such initials or abbreviations for some four-letter words. Why should an abbreviation sound more okay than the whole word? Or why should writing sh-t or saying “Shoot!” be more acceptable than writing the scatological word they stand for? We really can be kind of weird in English, can’t we!

Getting back to treating four-letter words and cursing in a formal way, one brave ESOL teacher/author took the bull by the horns ― not the bulltish by the horns ― and wrote a groundbreaking student resource book on this topic. Her name is Elizabeth Claire and her book was Dangerous English 2000*, followed a few years later by David Burke’s Slangman Guide to Dirty English**.

English may be just about the most colorful language in the world when it comes to four-letter words and cursing. And at times it feels good to curse ― at least it feels good to me. Now don’t get me wrong. I was raised in a very prim-and-proper home where such language was never used. In fact, I still remember when I came home one day and called my big brother a pimp. I didn’t know what it meant (I must have heard it on the street) but I used it to show him I was a big boy and could use grown-up words. Well, when I think about it, I can still taste the bar of soap that my mother immediately shoved into my mouth after dragging me over to the bathroom sink. Yep, she literally washed my mouth out with soap! Needless to say, I learned my lesson ― sort of. And I didn’t find out what pimp meant until years later.

But I do think there’s a time and place for cursing, and I think such language has therapeutic benefits. Perhaps it’s something you’d only want to use in private or with people you’re very close to, but whoever you are or aren’t with at that moment, cursing can really do wonders for you. My mother ― yes, the woman who washed my mouth out with soap ― learned to curse quite well after she got her driver’s license and frequently took to the road. I was grown up by then, but I used to laugh out loud sitting in the passenger’s seat next to her every time I’d hear a trail of those colorful words fly out of her mouth as she sat behind the wheel, steaming at what one reckless driver or another had just done.

So how do you feel about that marvelously colorful area of English that includes four-letter words and cursing? Do you think they play a vital role in the language, or do you think they should disappear? I’d like to know what you feel about all of this, and more importantly, I’d like to know what you think about whether this part of the language should be taught to students of an appropriate age. I’d also like to know if you’ve had a situation in class similar to the one I’ve mentioned. If you’d like to discuss how teaching should or should not get involved in this area, please join in.

(P.S. ― I did get called into the director’s office the next day, and she did read me the riot act about teaching such things. Boy, was she p—ed off at me!)

*Elizabeth Claire. Dangerous English 2000: An Indispensable Guide for Language Learners and Others, 3rd edition. Delta Publishing Co. 1998

**David Burke. Slangman Guide to Dirty English: A Guide to American Obscenities and Insults. Slangman Publishing. 2003