Archive for Tag: teaching methods

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Getting the most bang for your buck

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

“Bang for the buck” is an English idiom that means the return you get for spending a fixed amount of money, time, or effort on something. It is similar in meaning to “value for money.” Bang for the buck was originally used by politicians to talk about getting the maximum amount of firepower from military spending. Some people do not like this idiom because of its history, but I think it can work as a useful metaphor for language teachers and learners.

In my experience, a lot of people focus on the question of whether a particular teaching method or study technique is “useful” or “beneficial.” However, this question is setting the bar very low (another idiom that means not aiming for a high enough target or goal). Strictly speaking, any form of teaching or study can be described as being “useful” if its effects are more than zero.

For example, if an English speaker wanted to learn French, they might choose to do so by spending three hours a day comparing the French and English translations of the Bible. Would this kind of study be beneficial to them? Undoubtedly. In fact, throughout history, more people have probably learned languages from the Bible than from any other text.

Even if we accept that there is some benefit to this kind of study, however, most language teachers and learners would feel instinctively that it would be possible to achieve better results by spending those three hours doing other things as well as (or instead of) reading the Bible. The question we should ask of any study or teaching method, then, is not “Is it useful?” but rather “How much bang am I getting for my buck?” To put it more simply, we need to ask, “If I am going to spend $X and Y hours on this, what can I do that will give me the best possible results for that level of input?”

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Question of Terminology

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I am writing this entry in response to a question that was posted by Scott on one of my older entries, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach.” Here is what Scott wrote:

Hi David,

I’m doing an MA Tesol and one of my assignments is on CLT. I’ve scoured several textbooks and about a thousand websites, but no one seems to really define what CLT actually is! Although, there are plenty of texts that say what it ISN’T. Any thoughts on how to define it?!

Here is my answer:

Hi Scott,

I’m afraid you have come up against one of the biggest problems in ELT, which is the lack of a body of universally accepted definitions and terms. Here is my own interpretation of how and why we have ended up with this state of affairs.

As any successful learner knows, languages are learned rather than taught. Learning a foreign language as an adult requires an enormous investment of time and effort, and teaching methods and materials are only a tiny part of the puzzle. However, as these are the only things that we can directly control, their importance gets blown out of all proportion.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Praise of Explaining

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

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

When I did my initial teaching course way back in 1992, our trainers made it clear that standing at the front of the class and explaining things to students was simply not the done thing. Good teachers, we were told, don’t explain things; good teachers have special techniques for “eliciting” or “facilitating discovery” of the points they want to get across.

I suspect that this was a reaction to the excessively teacher-centered methods that had gone before, and to be fair, my trainers did have a point. After all, who wants to sit in a classroom and be “talked at” day after day? As with so many things in our profession, however, this new awareness did not result in a logical “Perhaps we should do less one-way explaining” or “Perhaps we should combine explaining with other methods of instruction,” but rather the more reactionary “Right! Nobody is to explain anything anymore!”

This way of thinking was particularly noticeable in the area of vocabulary instruction. In the 1990s, no self-respecting teacher would offer students a simple translation of a new word. Well, not in an observed lesson, anyway! I remember being told that there was no need to translate words because a skilled teacher should be able to convey the meaning of any vocabulary item through other methods, such as the use of gestures or mime. I still hear this claim a lot even now: I can explain any word without using the students’ language!

Again, an argument can be made in favor of this approach, but I think it misses an extremely important point that is often overlooked in language teaching: the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Is it possible for me to do XYZ?” but rather “Is XYZ the most productive way of using the very limited time available?” It is all very well contorting yourself to demonstrate the meaning of a word like “accelerate” through exaggerated mime, but is that really the best use of the teacher’s and the students’ time?

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dare to Dictogloss!

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

If we step outside our ESL classrooms for a moment and think about the mode of language that we use most often in “real” life, we might say “speaking” by reflex, or we might pause and name one of the other three modes (listening, reading, and writing) after a second thought.

Research built up since the 1930s or so indicates that listening is actually number one.  Something like 45% of human language use amounts to listening.  Speaking comes in second at about 30% (Feyten 1991).  Keeping our ears pricked up appears to be key to daily human communication.

So how can we respect and use this in the classroom?  One typical classroom task that requires intensive, concentrated listening is dictation.  Here students listen not only for the gist, but rather for the entirety of the message, every word and sound.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The “New Car” Phenomenon

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

When I was about ten years old, my father announced one day that we were getting a new car. Now, there is very little in the world more guaranteed to arouse the interest of a 10-year-old boy and his younger brothers than a new car, and naturally, we wanted to know what my father was planning to buy. He told us that we were getting an “Opel Mantra.” This was a bit of an anticlimax, because neither my brothers nor I had ever heard of it. Later that day, however, my dad pointed one out to us when we were out shopping. Suddenly Opel Mantras were everywhere! It was as if everyone in the country had gone out and bought one at once. Of course, the actual number of these cars had not changed at all; what had changed was our awareness of them.

This “new car” phenomenon can be observed in many areas of life, and it can be a very powerful tool for language learners. In my own language studies, I have noticed a cycle that has three stages: priming, triggering, and consolidation. “Priming” is what happens when your attention is drawn to something, or when your awareness of it is raised; “triggering” is the point at which your raised awareness causes you to notice the thing in a different context; and “consolidation” is what happens when you deepen your knowledge of it through repeated exposure.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach

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

I am writing this in response to Alex’s question about why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach. Let me say before I begin that the case I want to make has already been made far more eloquently by Michael Swan in his 1985 articles in the ELT Journal. If you have not read these, please do. In my opinion, they should be compulsory reading for all language teachers.

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1)

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2)

One problem with discussing the Communicative Approach is that the term has come to mean different things to different people. I recently had a very heated discussion with a Japanese teacher of English about Communicative Language Teaching. He insisted that my interpretation was out of date, and that CLT is actually just an umbrella term for any kind of teaching where the goal is to improve the students’ ability to communicate. Under the “correct” definition, he claimed, CLT actually embraces things like Grammar-Translation and the Audio-Lingual Method.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The SHAPAL Method

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

Language learners all over the world will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have finally discovered the definitive technique for learning a foreign or second language. I am so confident of its effectiveness that I am prepared to guarantee that anyone who follows it will be successful. I can also say with a high degree of certainty that anyone who chooses not to adopt this Method will be doomed to failure.

I first became aware of the importance of the SHAPAL Method when I was talking to a Canadian who had learned Japanese. Actually, I had been following the Method myself in my own studies, but I had not fully grasped at that point just how universal it was. The Canadian in question was called Chris, and he had mastered Japanese to a higher level than any Westerner I had ever met. My own Japanese was not bad at the time, but it paled next to his command of the language. Of course, I was curious to know more about his study techniques, so I asked him, “How did you learn Japanese? Did you just Study Hard And Practice A Lot?” He looked at me quizzically and enquired, “Do you know any other way?”

Good point.

Stupid question.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Can An Online ESL/EFL Course Work?

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

Yes, I believe it can.

Some might think that an online ESL course is acceptable if nothing else is available to the student, but I don’t agree. I think online ESL courses have the potential to be just as effective as face to face courses.

Why not ESL online?

To instructors who say ESL can’t be taught online I ask “What do we value in our face to face courses that we worry won’t translate into bits and bytes?”

I’m willing to bet it’s the social aspect, the opportunity for cultural interaction and exploration, the bond among students and their instructor, the smiles and kind words, the active and collaborative learning.  We fear losing this humanity in the virtual world.

Many of us who have been students in online courses have taken “old school” online courses which look something like this:

“Read Chapter 6.” (All by yourself because there is no one with whom to talk it over and no one to whom you can address a question.)

“Then click on this link to answer the questions.” (Ten multiple choice or T/F questions that tell you “Right!” or “Try Again!” )

“Finally, go to the Discussion Forum and discuss the question provided.” (This is an artificial discussion in which you will write anything to fulfill the requirement and then provide a similarly mindless comment to a peer like “I agree with your point, Bruno” because that is how you get 5 extra points.)

End of unit.  Repeat next week.  Ho-hum.

There is no humanity in this kind online environment and only the hardy survive!   However, with the right course and activity design, the right technology tools, and some creativity, we can create courses that replicate the social aspect of the face to face courses we love.


One of the most important features of any course is interaction. Students who interact become engaged and engaged students are focused, curious, and primed to learn.  Three crucial levels of interaction are student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student- to-content/ materials (Moore).  If we think about our face to face ESL courses, this can be exemplified in pair work, the instructor involved in the lesson/ interested in the students’ lives, and the students engrossed in learning activities that address their interests and needs. The way to have a successful online ESL course is be sure these three levels of interaction are all present in the virtual environment.


Luckily, the technology exists to make this happen. Online courses today can provide student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction through both live and recorded voice, through synchronous or non-synchronous writing, and through live streaming webcam or webcam self-recordings.  Student-to-content interaction comes from having a variety of engaging activities and learning objects from all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Here’s a sample of some online ESL activities and objects that I have seen and a few tech tools that help in creating them. Most activities should look familiar from your face to face courses:

  • Read and discuss or listen and discuss via voice or text. (VoiceThread)
  • Learn vocabulary and grammar or complete a task using a content-rich website.
  • Small group chat via voice or text. (DimDim)
  • Recorded or live presentations. (VoiceThread, narrated Powerpoint)
  • Student created quizzes and student-led reviews.
  • Collaborative writing activities, peer review of writing. (GoogleDocs)
  • Role play, listen and repeat, listen and create. (Jing, Skype, AdobeConnectNow)
  • Drill and practice.
  • Cloze, fill-in, and multiple choice exercises with instant and meaningful feedback.
  • Timed activities for reading, writing, and speaking.

What can’t be replicated online can be approached in another way.  The key is to look at the objective of the activity, hold that objective in mind, and think how else that objective could be accomplished with the tools of the online course.  No learning objective need ever be sacrificed.


I’m not taking the position that teaching ESL online is better than teaching it face to face. However I will stand by my belief that given the right design and teacher involvement, it can be as good, as effective.

I also won’t sugar-coat course design and say it’s easy; it takes a lot of time and work up front, even if your school runs a full-service course management system like Moodle or Blackboard.  But once you have created a course, you really just need to make small or partial changes each semester; you’ll never have the huge initial time outlay again. Instead, spend your work time interacting with students online, guiding them through the course, facilitating collaborations, taking part in their activities, commenting on their work, and providing individualized feedback and help. (I can honestly say I have more contact with my students on an individual basis in my online course than in my face to face course! Who would have guessed?)

Just today I returned some paragraphs my students had written.  They had been submitted online, and I used Adobe to underline and mark up some parts. Then, using Jing I created a “screen capture” video of their paper as I recorded myself talking to the student about it and pointing things out at the same time.  Now my students not only have my markings on their paper, but  also a  recorded video of me walking them through the revisions they need, which they can watch as often as they have to.  There’s one thing, at least, that may not be easy to replicate in the time constraints of the face to face world!

Resource:  JOLT- Journal of Online Teaching

Moore, Michael G. “Three Types of Interaction.” The American Journal of Distance Education. Pennsylvania State University, 1989. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Checking the answers in a homework or in-class assignment can be one of those huge time eaters. It is a necessary evil. After all, there is little point doing an activity if students never find out if their responses are accurate or not. However, calling on students to mechanically read their answers aloud can take up a lot of valuable class time with very little pay off. It is boring, predictable and involves very limited student talk.

My goal when I spend time checking student answers is twofold. First, I want to make sure students get the correct answers. And second, I want to make sure students understand why their answers were incorrect so that they can learn from their mistakes. But how is this best accomplished?

Time for Questions

When I assign homework, I usually provide the answer key. Students do the work, check their own answers, and put a star beside the questions which they don’t understand. At the beginning of every class, I ask the class if they had any questions about the homework. We go page-by-page and students can ask their questions and get a brief explanation. This system has worked very well for me in adult classes which are low-stress. Students have to feel comfortable enough to ask questions in front of their peers without losing face.

Of course, you also have to be able to trust the students to do the work before looking at the answers! One teacher I observed who did not have the same faith in her students put several copies of her answer key on the back wall. Students came early to the class to check their answers; it was a genius way to encourage students to come on time!

Check with a Partner

In a recent edition of Voices, Nicholas Northall suggests giving students time after an activity to check their answers with a partner. “This time allows them to discuss any answers they don’t agree on and to reach a conclusion as to what the right answers are” (Northall, 2010, page 11). This pair work would best supplement, not substitute for, a traditional answer check. Students still need your final word on “right or wrong.” But during this time, the stronger students may be able to explain their own choices to their partner, thereby eliminating the need for as much teacher talk.

Write it on the Board

I once observed a teacher who had her students come up one-by-one to write the answers to the homework on the board. This was SO boring for the students, and it cut into the time the students might be using for a communicative activity. Instead, she could have had the students who came into the class early write their answers up before the class even started. Or, she could have had the students work in pairs, as described above, and then shown the answers on a PowerPoint slide or overhead projector transparency.

On the other hand, I observed another teacher who used board writing in a very valuable way. She played a listening and, as the class listened and took notes, she took her own notes. After, the students were able to compare what they had written with her answers. It was immediately clear to the students if their notes were accurate and adequate.

Running for the Answer

Another teacher I observed turned her answer check into a fun communicative activity. She put copies of the answer key in several places around the class. She put the students into pairs; one was the “grader”, the other was the “runner”. The “graders” sat with both their assignments and their partners’ assignments. The “runners” moved between the answer key and the “graders.” telling them what the correct answers were. This format did take a bit of extra time, but the energy level in the class was high and all the students were interacting, so, in my opinion, the time was well-spent.

How do you check answers in your classes? Do you have any novel techniques for making the most out of this time? How do you make your answer checks clear and communicative?

Northall, N. (2010) What’s the answer to question 5? Voices, 216.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Peaceful Coexistence of L1 and L2 in a Language Classroom

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

“I’d like to talk to you after class,” I informed one of my 8th grade students, convinced that having missed another homework assignment, he needed to be reminded of our class expectations.  Since my teaching practicum supervisor, an unyielding believer in an exclusive use of L2 in a language classroom, was interested in observing our “after class” talk, English had to be the default language of that conversation.   I followed the English Only Rule, but sensed that the student perceived my words more as an intriguing oddity than a formal reprimand.

The use of L2 in EFL and ESL classrooms

Exclusive or predominant use of L2, a fundamental principle of the communicative approach, stresses the importance of frequent and natural exposure to the target language.  It makes sense, and there are many advantages to the approach.  Even if a school policy doesn’t impose the approach, linguistic realities may.  Like many of you, I have often had to use L2 exclusively if only because I wasn’t familiar with the L1 of each of my students.  Still, even if following the English Only Rule is generally feasible, it may not always be the best idea.  It seems to me that there is no pedagogical faux pas in brief “detours” into L1 under certain circumstances for certain good reasons.

Why and when can we use L1 in EFL and ESL classrooms?

According to Polio and Duff (1994), L1 is commonly used in foreign language classrooms to explain difficult grammar concepts, to solve problems caused by students’ lack of comprehension, to address administrative issues, and so on.  Of the eight typical causes of L1 use mentioned by these researchers, three, to my mind, stand apart clearly as good reasons.

To manage behavioral issues. Although there may always be some way to communicate pedagogical expectations without using L1, at times psychological purposes should be allowed, momentarily, to outweigh educational ones. I still believe that my 8th grader would have understood the importance of doing homework in my class much better had I spoken to him in Polish, our L1.

To communicate empathy or solidarity. Under certain circumstances it is appropriate to communicate understanding or unity to a student, and this can require appropriate, perhaps idiomatic, precision on the part of the teacher as well as full comprehension on the part of the student.  In her article “L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation,” Anne Edstrom recalls a situation which prompted her to use L1.  She had mispronounced a student’s name a few times and was worried about the way he felt.  By switching into L1, she was able to express her concern and to stress her good intentions in a timely and unambiguous manner. At one point she writes, “there are moments when my sense of moral obligation to a student, in this case concern about communicating respect and creating a positive environment, overrides my belief in maximizing L2 use” (287).

To teach the vocabulary of abstract concepts. Resorting to L1 while teaching the vocabulary of abstract concepts is naturally attractive.  In fact, it may make real sense now and then, perhaps when introducing words which have exact or near exact equivalents in L1, or perhaps when the minutes for practicing begin to evaporate as we pile on additional explanations, crowd the board with stick-figure drawings, and exhaust our muscles by over-gesturing.  At some point we begin to waste our students’ time.  Chances are that while witnessing our desperate attempts at explaining the meaning of a new word, at least one student will look the word up in a bilingual dictionary and will be happy to share his or her findings with the classmates (perhaps only to save them from boredom or frustration).

A recipe for success?

While circumspect use of L1 may accelerate the learning process, switching to students’ mother tongue should clearly be limited.  David Atkinson (1987) suggests that L1 should be used no more than five percent of the time in the foreign language or second language classroom.  In my experience, and I suspect in the experience of many other teachers of EFL or ESL, an expedient pinch here and a timely dash there of L1 is just about pedagogically right.

Any thoughts?  Any alternative recipes?

Atkinson, D. (1987). The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource? ELT Journal, 41/4, 241-248.

Edstrom, A. (2006).  L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63/2, 275-292.

Polio, C., and Duff, P. (1994). Teachers’ language use in university foreign language classrooms: A qualitative analysis of English and target language alternation. Modern Language Journal, 78, 313–326.