Archive for Tag: Tamara Jones

Monday, April 21, 2014

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

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

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

Multi-Word Chunks & Formulaic Phrases

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

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

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

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

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

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

What Goes with What

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

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

The Language Before the Activity

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

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Friday, October 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Words! Words! Words!

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Helping ESL Students Hear

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

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

Hearing Aids ≠ Perfect Hearing

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

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teachingem to Linkn Blend

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

Recently, I wrote a post about teaching listening. In it, I commented on the connection between certain pronunciation skills and listening and how we need to both teach these skills and make this connection explicit in the classroom. One of these skills, linking and blending, is a way proficient English speakers connect their speech to sound fluid and, according to Hieke (1984), to make speech less articulatory complex. In other words, it sounds better and is easier to say when words are linked and blended. Long ago, I wrote about teaching sentence stress in class, another pronunciation skill essential for listeners, but I have never broached the subject of teaching strategies to help students master linking and blending. So, here is my “two cents.”

Whating and Whating?

When proficient English speakers talk, we don’t say each work distinctly and clearly. Rather, we tend to link some of our words together. For example, “come and eat” gets pushed into one word that sounds like “comneat.” We usually link words when

  • the final sound of the first word is a consonant and the initial sound of the second word is a vowel, as in “come and eat,”
  •  the final sound of the first words is a consonant and the initial sound of the second word is an unstressed pronoun starting with /h/ or /ð/ (we cut the /h/ and /ð/ to link), as in “tell him,”
  • the final and initial sounds of the two words are vowels (we insert a /w/ or /y/ sounds to make this easier), as in “my eye,”

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Learning to Listen

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

For years (and years and years), whenever I had to teach “listening”, I just popped the CD into the machine, pressed play and hoped for the best while the students scrambled to fill in the gaps, answer the questions or match the cards. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I could, and in fact, should, be doing a lot more to support my students’ listening development, but aside from listening practice and more listening practice, I was not sure what else to do. In spite of my many years of teaching and the confidence I feel helping students with speaking and pronunciation, I felt like a neophyte when it came to teaching listening. So, imagine my relief when, as the Speech, Listening and Pronunciation Chair elect, I was tasked with organizing an Academic Session at TESOL on teaching listening for the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas. It was actually Helen Solorzano who organized the session, and all I had to do was show up, take credit, and learn!

Top Down Strategies – Check!

So, here’s what I learned: it turns out that what I have been doing for all these years was, in fact, “testing” listening and not teaching it at all. I needed to back up a bit and think about listening as speech processing. Dr. Steve Brown spoke about how listening is a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. Stronger listeners make more use of top down strategies, which means they pull from their general knowledge about the context and the topic to make inferences about the listening. Happily, a lot of texts on the market encourage students to do this by including pictures and warm up questions designed to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic. As a result, even in my very primitive approach to teaching listening, I did occasionally manage to expose my students to top down listening strategies.

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

How __________ (Much/Many) Practice do Students Need to Learn Quantifiers?

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

Even though many grammar series, including grammar guru Betty Azar’s, cover quantifiers from the beginning (Basic English Grammar) to the end (Understanding and Using English Grammar), my students seem to continuously struggle with using them correctly. They moan when we review them and moan when they get them wrong in their writing. Even my most advanced students appear to be mystified by the idiosyncrasies of English quantifiers.

Students Face Several __________ (Challenge/Challenges)

The problem, in my mind, seems to be twofold. First, students have to think about count and non-count nouns. At first glance, this distinction appears totally arbitrary when you consider that money is non-count, though clearly it is something we count all the time. Throw in irregular plurals (Seriously, person/people but fish/fish? How is that at all logical?) and you can have a frustrated class on your hands.

In addition to the perils of the count and non-count divide, students also have to choose from a confusing list of quantifiers full of linguistic booby traps. For example, consider the difference in meaning between “a little” and “little”. That tiny letter can mean the difference between being able to afford to buy a coffee and going thirsty. Another hidden quantifier trap lies in what Azar calls the “singular expressions of quantity”. There is almost nothing satisfactory a teacher can say to a student who asks why we say “each student” but “each of the students” when the meaning is essentially the same. It’s enough to turn a lovely group of students into a mob of pitchfork waving villagers!

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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kneading your Way into the Passive Voice

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

Don’t you just love it when inspiration strikes in the middle of an activity and turns a so-so lesson into a great one? It doesn’t happen that often to me, actually. My “great” lessons are almost always the result of careful planning and hours spent cutting out little bits of paper, but once in a great while, it all comes together in a moment of glorious on-the-spot quick thinking.

My job at the British School of Brussels is to prepare and support my students for survival and success in their mainstream classes. I have had my eyes opened to the joys of content-based language learning, and, as a result, my lesson plans often veer away from pure grammar activities. For most of my students, the vocabulary they need for their chapter on Atoms and Elements in their Science classes supersedes their need to properly use the past perfect. However, I am always on the lookout for that perfect lesson that seamlessly blends grammar with content.

How to Make Bread

So, anyway, my “grammar and content unite” moment happened after several of my students had just begun their cooking classes. We’d done all the kitchen utensils and verbs associated with cooking to death, and I was trolling the internet for an idea that would allow me to revisit cooking in a new way. I came across a great video called How It’s Made: Bread. Now, the title alone might have got many of you thinking, “Aha! The passive!” Sadly, this did not happen to me. Not right away. After watching the video, I typed up several sentences that described the process step by step.

  • The ingredients are ground in a mill.
  • The ingredients are mixed together.