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Shameless (Self) Promotion

I got interviewed for a great blog primarily on children’s literature called Wontok Check out some of my philosophy of teaching and how I failed a ninth-grade class (as a teacher, I failed them. Not that I gave them all Fs).

Also I met Heidi via the TESOL Core Certificate Course. I had heard bad things about online classes and awful things about CELTA and other teaching certificates. That they were too basic or taught only one style of teaching, a lot of touchy-feely stuff, the instructors were all bitter failed ESL teachers who accepted no dissent. The TESOL course was none of these things. Great instructors who never told us anything but really helped us use our experience and basic principles of teaching to discover how to be better teachers. Fabulous readings, including the Don Snow book Heidi plugs on the interview page. And the class was primarily driven by online discussion which meant I learned a lot from teachers all over the world.

Already I’ve had great results from this course. I started a new student a few weeks ago and instead of my usual plan of going mainly by the textbook with a few supplementary materials here and there, I was encouraged to do a learner needs and interests analysis. We spent 90 minutes talking about what he wanted from English, what he liked to do in class, how he used English, what he was interested in. It built great rapport with him, I had more output from him that I could use to evaluate his English than if I had given him a test of some kind and I can design lessons that are interesting and useful to him. I think I’ve mentioned the TESOL course before, but even with 6 years of teaching experience under my belt, I’ve taken so much out of just the first part.

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Break the Ice with the Language

I’m currently enrolled in the TESOL Fundamentals of English Certificate course and one of my fellow students posted the most wonderful metaphor on teaching beginning students:

You have to help the students break the ice with the language

For me that brought up the perfect image of shy students terrified to make a mistake or overwhelmed by how little they know, trying to just get to know English. It’s a lot like being at a party with a group of people you don’t know. At first, it’s terrifying, but gradually you break the ice and later you become good friends.

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Intensive and Extensive Speaking

This is part of my series on Intensive and Extensive Learning.

  • Part I is Intensive and Extensive Reading
  • Part II is on Intensive and Extensive Listening
  • Intensive and Extensive Speaking
  • The TOEFL Speaking Test mostly gives students practice in extensive speaking. Basically students are given a topic and they have to talk about it for a short period of time. The topic may be a simple one like “Describe your favorite teacher” or “Is it better to live in the city or the country?”. Other tasks expect you to listen to a conversation and summarize it, or read a short text and explain it. But in either case, the same extensive speaking skills are used–students have to generate language themselves and organize it into a short monologue. We give students practice in this all the time when we ask them, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” or “Tell me about your family”. This is good practice for students to practice and to learn to and for more advanced students it’s an easy task. For beginner or intermediate students, assigning a short speech is best when the students are first taught appropriate vocabulary or given a clear model and guidelines. Topics like this are actually useful for testing how well students are learning new vocab or new sentence structures or if students have a topic that they want to discuss.

    Part two of the IELTS speaking test also asks students to speak for two minutes on a set topic. However parts 1 and 3 provide valuable practice in dialogues. While the examiner has a set list of questions to ask the student, the test is more of a conversation or dialogue between two people than a strict test. For example, a TOEFL task might ask students to discuss their town. The student would answer:

    I am from Astana. It has been the capital of Kazakhstan since 1998. The population is 600,000 but it is growing. In Astana there are many beautiful buildings like Ak Orda and Bayterek. Bayterek is a tower with a golden globe on top and you can go to the top and see the whole city from there…

    The IELTS speaking section might go more like:

    Examiner: Tell me about your hometown.
    Student: I am from Astana.
    Examiner: Is it a city or a village?
    Student: It’s a city. It’s the capital of Kazakhstan.
    Examiner: Is it a big city or not?
    Student: I think it’s a very big city. 600,000 people live there and also it’s the capital so it has to be a big city.
    Examiner: 600,000 doesn’t sound very big. What’s the biggest city in Kazakhstan?
    Student: Oh, Almaty has 1 million people living in it. But I think Astana is the second biggest or maybe Karaganda.
    Examiner: Oh interesting. So I guess Astana is fairly big.
    Student: I don’t understand.
    Examiner: I meant that for Kazakhstan, Astana is big. If it’s the second biggest city in the country, then it’s fairly big. So, now what is your favorite part of Astana?
    Student: The Left Bank, I think. It’s very beatiful and Ak Orda is there.
    Examiner: What’s Ak Orda?

    Notice that in a dialogue the student cannot prepare very much because he or she doesn’t know what the questions are going to be. So students have to learn to improvise. They can’t prepare a speech or write down their lines and just read them. So they have to think and speak at the same time. Also in a dialogue, if a student makes a mistake or says something unclear they get immediate feedback in a relatively gentle way. The examiner can say, “I don’t understand…” or “Did you mean…?” And students will have to learn to speak around vocabulary gaps–if they don’t have the right word, they have to explain it in another way or use a synonym.

    This is all realistic practice. When we speak with our friends, we don’t know what they are going to say. Sometimes we have to explain what we mean a second time or ask for clarification. So having students dialogue with each other or with you, the teacher, provides great practice. Dialoguing with a teacher can also give students confidence because it puts them on an equal footing with the teacher. It provides teachers with a chance to correct errors gently or steer students to better ways of expressing themselves through targeted questions. And IELTS textbooks provide wonderful starting questions for dialogues.

    So in short, both TOEFL and IELTS practice can be very useful in giving students great speaking exercises.

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    Flexibility vs. Giving In

    One of the big issues I have as an English tutor, particularly when I do private lessons, is that I never know where that line is between meeting the students’ needs and just doing whatever they want. For example, right now I’m teaching an IELTS course. I firmly believe that studying every day (6 days a week) for one and half hours, is too much for an IELTS prep class. Students need time to reflect and do other things with their brains. Plus I find that 75% of students who want to study every day for one month are less likely to actually show up every day than those who want classes 3 times a week for 3 months. It’s harder to get away from work/school ever single day for one thing and also the personality type that thinks they can do everything quickly and intensely, I’ve found, isn’t the personality type that can necessarily see things through. But I find it so hard to explain to them my pedagogical reasons for wanting a slower pace to the class.

    Where it really becomes a problem is when they say, “I only have 3 weeks to prepare for IELTS. So I need intense lessons.” I have a syllabus for teaching IELTS, it is semi-flexible based on student needs. If a student is doing really well at listening, I’m not going to spend the full time on listening. Much better to move on to Speaking or Writing. But if I have to cut my syllabus because the student doesn’t have time–which really means the student didn’t plan well and schedule lessons far enough in advance, then the only person who will suffer is the student him or herself. Academic Writing takes time to teach. Outlining, brainstorming, developing ideas, using transitions, writing a good introduction and conclusion, revising for spelling and grammar. I can’t cut bits of that or condense it down. I can try to convert some of it to homework, but honestly most of my working students don’t do their homework anyway. Or remember to bring it with them.

    The biggest issue here for me is that it becomes very tempting to give in to these demands, which usually end up dumbing down the class, and just teach by giving them work. No real planning, no thinking about student needs, no explaining anything. Just show up, give them work, tell them the answers, go home. Which is great for stress levels and leaves me free time to do other things besides lesson plan or evaluate past lessons. But it’s doing the students themselves a major disservice.

    Do other teachers run into this problem? That students seem to want low-quality teaching?

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    How to Communicate Without Language

    As I go through stuff I would have posted on if this blog had been active, I remembered this interview I did for my alumni magazine on How to Find Your Voice. My piece is called “How to Communicate Without Language” and I hope it gives some tips for communicating in a different culture. Stuff like body language and cultural communication really should be part of any ESL class, as well as intonation and emphasis.

    By the way, I love the last interview on how to speak with an accent too. And using accents can be a fun thing to do when you learn English. As I said recently, I don’t believe in emphasizing learning an accent because it really isn’t that important in English and because there are more important things to learn. But as a way to make speaking fun and to get yourself (or your students over a stumbling block) using accents, especially exaggerated accents, can be a lot of fun. I once had my students perform the “In Hampshire, Hereford and Hartford hurricanes hardly ever happen” scene from My Fair Lady and they loved it, as well as picking up an understanding of the “h” sound in English. We went back and forth between Cockney and “proper” British and they absolutely ate it up.

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    Intensive and Extensive Readers

    This is part of my series on Intensive and Extensive Learning.

  • Part I is Intensive and Extensive Reading
  • Part II is on Intensive and Extensive Listening
  • Intensive and Extensive Speaking
  • I was recently asked by a local school to talk about using IELTS and TOEFL exercises in the classroom, not only for students preparing for those tests, but also for those who are learning general English. It was sort of a strange topic and one that was difficult to address. Usually, I think that students who are preparing for standardized English language exams are served well by both test prep courses and general English courses, but the other way around didn’t make a lot of sense to me. However, in thinking about it and the difference between the TOEFL and the IELTS tests, I realized that more or less, they illustrate the difference between intensive and extensive learning, which are both important concepts for teachers to know. So I wanted to share some of my ideas here.

    For example, most textbooks ask students to do intensive reading. We give our students a text and ask them comprehension questions (Why did Billy go the store?), detail questions (What color was Billy’s shirt?), vocab questions (Find a word in the text that means the same thing as ‘unpleasant’) and even grammar questions (Underline the verbs in the past tense). It’s a very efficient way to squeeze a lot of learning out of one text and it also teaches grammar and vocabulary in context, in a real passage. The IELTS is full of texts with a variety of detailed questions, perfect for teaching students to be intensive readings.

    However, intensive reading not a lot of fun for students–they will never learn to love reading if they always have to analyze every text so intensely. Also, while the texts are often realistic, usually in order to be so productive, these readings have to be adapted somewhat or written by textbook writer. So we also should teach students to read extensively.

    The TOEFL, for example, tends to ask questions about the main idea of a text and the major supporting points. It might also ask about the structure of the text or rhetorical style. If it does ask about grammar or vocabulary, the questions can be answered by understanding the context, not just looking up a definition in the dictionary. In other words, extensive reading is closer to how we read in our native language. We don’t always get every detail or know every single word when we read a 19th century novel or a newspaper article about the economy. We don’t necessarily get every reference. But we understand the overall sense and what the author is trying to tell us and we use context clues to figure out what we don’t understand on the first try. Students need to be taught these skills so that they don’t go running for their dictionary every time they hit a new word or get frustrated because they don’t understand every single point of the text. So asking main idea questions about a text is a great way to encourage students to read more like native speakers.

    You can also give students book reports. Have them choose a book to read over some period of time and then write a report or review of the book. What is the book about? Who are the main characters? How does it end? What did they think about it? Or give them a newspaper article and tell them they have one minute to read it and 30 seconds to summarize it. That way they have to focus on the main ideas only. Also letting students read about topics they are interested in will encourage them to read more fluently because they will not want to stop to reread or check a dictionary. So giving students choices in readings can help them become more extensive readers.

    Next time, I’ll talk about how IELTS and TOEFL exercises can teach students to be intensive or extensive listeners.

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    Teacher Tools

    I occasionally get asked by my fellow teachers how I organize my teaching materials and what kinds of tools I use. I’m not sure I am the perfect organizer but for what it’s worth, I’m putting down my method here.

    First, I keep big folders of material sorted by kind of lesson. Every Xerox, every print-out, every article I clip from the newspaper is in a 3-hole punch binder and organized into the following categories:
    Conversation Lesson
    Vocab Lesson
    Grammar
    Listening
    Reading
    TOEFL
    GRE
    SAT

    You may have your own categories or organizational system.

    I also have seperators in with the name of the lesson on it so I can easily find my lesson on stereotypes or the describing people vocab sheet. Putting things in binders is good for being organized but it’s also good as a way to store extra copies. If I make 8 copies of a worksheet and only 2 people show up, I put away those 6 extra copies to use next time. Saves time, paper, and ink.

    I also have files saved on my computer, downloaded from the internet, or worksheets that I have typed up. Those are also organized into folders and for lessons that have a lot of files–like a lesson that has a teacher’s guide, a worksheet, a role play sheet and a vocab quiz, I make a seperate file. I also rename files to things I remember. And if I see something on the Net I like, I save it. Even if I don’t need it right away. I used to bookmark the page and try to remember to go back to it. That never happened. I prefer to have lessons I’ll never use to forgetting to save a really good lesson.

    And any worksheet I really like, or book pages I use a lot, I tend to scan and save away so the book binding doesn’t get worn out from endless copying. For books, it’s time consuming but I like to pick and choose what I scan. For example most TOEFL books have questions and then a lot of explanation. I scan the pages, and then use a snapshot program to pick and choose what I want to give my student. I can cut a 13 page lesson down to 5 pages. Saves paper. And obviously I tell them the explanations.

    I also really think it’s important to take time to rearrange worksheets you don’t like or to modify things. I teach adults and children and there are some conversation books I really like, but the lessons aren’t suitable for children so I retype them and save them. That way I always have the kids’ version ready.

    One huge help is a desktop search program like Yahoo Desktop Search. It’s much better than the Windows search because it’s extremely fast and I can easily find all my lessons that have the word “Christmas” in them. And you can easily refine the program to search only your lesson plan folder.

    The other big thing I personally recommend is saving CD files to your computer and using iTunes or another music program to organize them. Working off the computer instead of a CD player you have more control about starting at a particular place and you can name the files so you don’t have to keep checking the track list.

    Those are my brillant tips. What do you use to stay organized? Any good programs or toys out there that a teacher, or a student, must have?

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