English Advantage

Opinions, Reflections, and Resources from an ESL Teacher

Category: Teaching

A Magical Moment: Goal 2 of 30

Hadn’t expected to find time to do another 30 Goals post so soon after the first one, but I had a great class today that led me to come right home and blog about a highly inspiring group of students I had once.

This was a group of students I had had before and found a bit rowdy but intelligent and serious. I was teaching them in an essay writing class. We had been talking about thesis statements the class before and I was planning to quickly review it and then move on the introductions. I had planned to have a few students share their thesis statements, critique them publicly and then move on to other things. So I asked one student to write his thesis statement on the board. And that was the last thing we did that class.

This small group of students started ripping it to shreds, constructively. They highlighted everything I had taught them and more. Including the opposing argument in the thesis, forecasting what the essay would be about, using balanced, academic language, even the grammar of the thesis statement. Did it use parallel structure? Were the verb tenses correct?. It was such a great discussion that even the slacker students started listening in and commenting.

It is wonderful when it all comes together and you see students applying what you taught them and also enjoying themselves in the process. And yes, the essays I got out of that group were as good as I could possibly have expected.

Me Manifesto: Goal 1 of 30

I’m a bit late to the game but I do like the 30 Goals project so I’m going to try to keep up. At the very least, I’ll do them on my own schedule. I hope the community aspect will encourage me to find the time to blog, which is one of my New Year’s Resolutions, along with finding time to do a lot of other things that aren’t work, sleep or zoning out. So here’s a mishmash of things that I think are important in the English language classroom, in no particular (conscious) order.

  • Humor and fun are important. Humor plays a million roles in my classroom. I use jokes to lighten the mood and make learning fun. I use self-deprecating humor to make students feel comfortable challenging me and so that they understand that mistakes aren’t bad. I use jokes and humorous stories to establish rapport. And I make silly skits and demonstrations of words or grammar points so that students will remember them. And occasional bits of irony directed at my students soften the blow of criticism or discipline. Plus if I couldn’t vent by sassing them ironically from time to time, I might become a danger to myself and others.
  • But learning isn’t always fun. Learning doesn’t have to be torturous. I always explain to students, “I’m making you do a rough draft, not just to torture you but so you learn the writing process. I’m teaching you the subjunctive because it helps you express ideas, not just because I’m mean.” But boring drills and cloze exercises and repeating the same point ten times are beneficial in moderation. So is writing and rewriting and rewriting again. Or reading the same passage over and over, analyzing words and looking up allusions, until it becomes clear to you. I believe it was Diane Larsen-Freeman who said something like, “I don’t see it as my job to entertain my students.” I am here to educate them and they aren’t all going to like everything we do.
  • Mastering something is fun. That being said, reminding students that the pain pays off with a new skill or knowledge never hurts. Telling them that they will be so happy, and their teachers so impressed, when they can write a beautiful and clear essay because they use parallel structure and linking words well is a good way to keep motivation up.
  • Technology doesn’t matter to me. It really doesn’t. I don’t see it as my job to prepare students to use the Internet. Or not. I do think students have to learn to type and I do now make them type and print their essays, double-spaced, 1 inch margins and so on so they are ready for university. That means I am happy to sit down and show them how to do that on a computer. But I don’t see why using Facebook or Twitter inherently makes learning better. I just don’t. And a lot of “technology” lesson plans are just as easily accomplished with bits of paper and a pen. I have nothing against students who like technology and I do encourage students to watch movies and videos and listen to presentations. I think flash card sites can be useful (although I learned Russian with the boring 3″x5″ kind and did just fine). But I don’t really see the inherent benefit of technology for the sake of technology.
  • Grammar is important not as a system of rules to be slavishly memorized, but as a set of tools that make meaning. I hate when students ask me, “Is I like ice cream right or I liked ice cream or I have liked ice cream right?”. I tell them, “I don’t know. What are you trying to say?” One class I taught where students had to read a book over a one month period was truly awful because there was no time to finish the book, and they didn’t get it, and they didn’t really enjoy the book at all. It ended up being me reading out loud and stopping every few pages to discuss what happened. One thing that I did get to do with it was point out grammar in use: “Look here’s a flashback. It’s further in the past. So he’s using past perfect!” “Why is he saying, I have made fire? Because he has that skill now and can use it. Present perfect to connect past to present!” If that could be a course, Read and Notice Grammar, I would be the happiest teacher in the world.
  • Learning is Holistic I’m hardly the first to notice this but you can’t teach the present perfect, then stop and teach vocab, and then go on and teach articles. Students learn a bunch of stuff at any one time. You can isolate for the purposes of practice and to clear up any mistakes, but students have to encounter and make language while juggling many different things at once.
  • Communication is the goal Some students (and teachers) get off on learning obscure grammar terms and translating difficult words. Or memorization. I don’t think that’s bad if that’s how you learn, but ultimately the goal is communication. Producing language or recognizing and understanding language. Listening and reading are part of communication after all.

I’m sure there’s a million more ideas I could come up with but I think those are the big ones that guide what I do in the classroom. Always welcome comments, suggestions and recommendations to get better as a teacher.

Google Image Search as Dictionary

I came across Word Layer, an iPhone app that teaches and tests vocabulary through pictures. Which I thought was a really good idea because it bypasses translation. However when I was looking at the screenshots, I briefly had the impression that it worked like an image dictionary – you type in a word and a picture of that thing comes up. Then I realized that we already have such a device, Google Image Search. Which made me wonder if anyone has encouraged students to use Google Image Search to look up words instead of a translator? Would that help them pick up vocabulary more quickly because they would be associating words directly with an image?

Prove That Translators Suck

This is just a really good idea my director had that I’m going to try tomorrow to stop my students from using their little pocket translators. I’m curious if anyone has ever tried anything like this and how it turned out.

The idea is to take a short text and then translate it into your students’ language via Google Translate, or whatever service your students love and show them the result. I took it a step further, as I don’t speak their language(s), and translated it back into English. Since the two English paragraphs are now wildly different, and even contradict each other, I’m hoping that will at least cast some doubt in their minds on the power of translators, so that they’ll actually start thinking.


Quick question for other teachers. Have you ever dealt with widespread sophisticated cheating methods? I’m not talking about trying to sneak peeks at the book or whispering answers to each other. I’m talking about having friends waiting with cellphones to ask questions to, preparing cheat sheets in advance based on earlier tests, one student taking the test quickly and feeding answers to another who “has to go to the bathroom” early in the test, in short, conspiracy and organization in cheating.

The issue is that I never know how deep the cheating goes. I can vaguely tell when I am grading the tests based on odd phrases and weird mistakes that show up on several different papers. But that’s all circumstantial evidence. And I don’t know how to prevent it at all.

Any advice on setting up tests to bust cheating and dealing with suspicious behavior would be really welcome.

What is the Dogma of Dogme?

Couldn’t resist the pun and I’m sure I’m not the first.

Interesting post up, Questions which dog me (a much better wordplay), on Management’s Pique, a blog I hadn’t read before. The post basically asks what the heck dogme is. There have been a lot of responses and I think it’s interesting that most of the comments agree that dogme can’t be defined strictly.

I made a comment there but I figured I’d repost the essence of it here as well:

I have seen teachers use methodologies to justify everything that happens in the classroom. Did you start out the class planning to play a song, but the students wanted to listen to other songs and you ended up just playing pop music all class, then the class was tailored to their interests and increased motivation.

If you end up fielding a question about why Americans are so fat and end up answering all their questions and talking for an hour about America, they got good input.

I once did a class on

I’m not trying to be judgmental here or claim that everything I do in the classroom is perfect. Or that there aren’t benefits to straying from the coursebook or syllabus. Even when I am forced to do a class based on a strict syllabus, I find it impossible to achieve the aims of the syllabus/coursebook without extra materials and free conversation. I’m just trying to open up the question of what is useful to do in the classroom and what is not so I can be a better teacher.

It seems to me that dogme, because people talk so much about what it is not and because it seems to have a Zen/emptiness/improv vibe to it, is open to justifying anything you do in the classroom as dogme and therefore good. So it does seem to me that it would be useful to have a more clear definition of what dogme is, or a list of activities that are more dogme and activities that aren’t.

Just my two cents. I ask primarily because I’m intrigued by dogme and I like the idea of taking the teacher and pre-made materials out of classroom interaction and work as much as possible, but I also want to make sure my students are learning in my class.


If you haven’t seen post by Jason Renshaw, definitely check it out for ideas on making coursebooks more flexible and giving students and teachers more choice. The comments are great as well.

I put my vision for a flexible text in the comments, but to reiterate here, I would love to have an electronic textbook (seems to me it could be a CD-ROM or a web-based service) that allowed you to plugin what you want to do for your lesson: i.e.
Level: Pre-Int
Area: Vocab
Skill: writing
Theme: Cities
and have it spit out the appropriate materials. But the next teacher, whose class has the vocab down but needs grammar help, could seek basically the same lesson, but with the materials designed to practice grammar rather than vocab.

When I do design my own materials, or seek out other people’s lesson plans, it’s usually because I feel my students need a certain kind of practice. Often it’s because the text is lacking something that my particular class needs. Maybe I already did the book section on past simple, but my students need more practice pronouncing “-ed” (In Kazakhstan they tend to go Lawrence Olivier on “-ed” and make it into an extra syllable, “wAlk-Ed”). Or maybe the way prepositions of place are presented in the book isn’t intensive enough, or doesn’t really relate to the theme of the lesson, so I want a better presentation in a specific context.

But my colleague down the hall, working with the same text, has different problems. His class has perfect pronunciation but can’t remember which verbs are regular in the past and which aren’t so he needs a good old-fashioned worksheet that makes them conjugate verbs over and over. It would be awesome to have a text that could produce the same basic lesson but with different kinds of materials to adjust to different classes and students.

If you added the ability of students to choose what kind of homework they want to do, that would be brillant. For example, a student has just completed unit 1. He or she goes home, logins in to the e-text and has a choice of homework that provides practice in writing or reading or listening, grammar or vocab, idioms or standard English…

Now this is more or less what a lot of textbooks try to do. They try to give you a lot of materials in different forms that hang together more or less coherently and as a teacher your job is to pick and choose. But in order to provide materials to suit everyone everywhere, the text would have to be massive. And there are a lot of the reasons why teachers don’t pick and choose: the “textbook-must-be-followed” culture that affects teachers, students, administrators and parents alike, lack of time, lack of ability (maybe) but most likely lack of confidence. And the feeling that a course should have some kind of coherent structure, something going through the book provides.

A textbook that is cheaper to publish because it’s online or on a disk and that allows teachers to customize materials while still being based on one syllabus seems like an ideal solution.