Guess What's in the Teacher's Brain

This is a post that has sat in my drafts box for a while now. I can’t remember now if the title comes from Penny Ur or Tessa Woodward. However, the essence of the passage was that too often when teachers pose a question, they are asking students to read their minds. That is, we ask a closed question to students and we already know the answer that we want to hear. We will refuse to accept any answer besides the one in our head.

When we are asking students about a grammar point or a vocabulary word, a question that has only one correct answer, this makes a great deal of sense.  These kinds of questions are also good for comprehension checks. I think they also help with guiding students to a correct answer and modeling thought processes.

However, if we are trying to start a discussion or encourage critical thinking,  then asking an open-ended question which in fact we believe has only one right answer is encouraging the opposite of critical thinking. Instead of reading the source and coming up with their own opinion which they will then defend, such questions ask students to read the teacher and give the kind of answer the teacher agrees with.

Modeling Thought Processes Instead of Feeding Thoughts

NoFor example, I once taught the story, Just a Lather, That’s All, about (spoiler alert) a government general who goes to get a shave from a barber who secretly sympathizes with anti-government rebels. As the general recounts his brutal actions, the barber debates internally whether to slit his throat or not. In the end, he does not. The general gets up and says, “I knew you wanted to kill me and I wanted you to know that it isn’t easy to kill someone.”

In such a story where the two characters have a number of conflicting and complicated emotions, questions like the following have no right answer:

  1. How does the barber feel at the end?
  2. What does the general mean by, “…But killing isn’t easy. You can take my word for it.”?
  3. Does the general enjoy killing rebels?
  4. Why does the barber decide not to kill the general?

Each reader has to interpret the text as he or she sees fit. Asking these questions and then guiding (forcing) students into a correct answer is destructive to their enjoyment of literature, which they will learn is about reading to find the one true interpretation. And it’s destructive to their critical thinking facilities as they learn to interpret the teacher’s world view, not the author’s.

What we can do is ask guided questions that have varying degrees of right answers to help students come up with their own answers to the above questions such as:

  1. What was the general doing before the story began?
  2. Is the barber a rebel or pro-government? How do you know?
  3. What does the barber think about doing to the general?
  4. What does he mean in paragraph 7 when he says, “My destiny depends on the edge of this blade.”

We can draw their attention to the way the author talks about the razor-blade and how sharp it is, the fact that the barber is a skilled barber, to show how the author is saying how easy it would be to kill the general but at the same time how proud the barber is of his profession. We can guide them to talk about the different ways honor and doing your job are portrayed in the story. But in the end, what the story is really about, the significance of different symbols or actions, how the characters, let alone the author, feel…all these are open-ended questions and we do our students a disservice to restrict their analytical abilities. grammar definition

Beyond reading comprehension,

It may not be controversial to say that literary criticism has no one right answer. However,  I think we sometimes squash alternative readings of individual sentences in grammar books or on tests. Often that’s because a student has discovered a loophole in an example sentence and we feel that if we acknowledge it, we will get completely off-course. And we’ve all had the student who loves to pick holes at everything we put on the board in class (out of creativity or out of spite).

On the other hand, when we quash student creativity, we are also quashing their intuitive grasp of grammar and language. Too much, “OK look yeah, you’re right but common sense says that probably what’s going on in this sentence is X.” leads students to again rely on what teacher thinks is common sense rather than their own senses. And in some cases we may lead them to believe certain things are impossible to express in language.

One of the loveliest things about teaching the conditional is how subjective it often is. What’s the difference between starting a sentence with “If I were elected President…” and “If I am elected President…” ? Most of the textbooks on my shelf use this example or one very similar to it. And they all explain that the latter would be spoken by a candidate actively running for President because the first conditional is used only for factual or non-hypothetical situations. When a student begins a sentence with, “If I win the lottery…” or “If I earn a million dollars…” or “If I become President…” who are we to tell them that they are incorrect because they have no chances of achieving those goals?

It’s important to tread carefully when teaching students “correct grammar” or we might be limiting their aspirations, or their understanding of what they can do with words.


All Things Corpus!

The last TESOL Convention in Toronto seemed to be corpus-themed for me. I went to a number of sessions about using corpuses as a materials writer, as a teacher, and even having students use corpuses themselves. And I learned about some new corpus tools, new aspects of old corpus tools and lots of activity ideas.

And, yes, I’m just getting around to writing up things I did at TESOL. Better late than never.

Why Use a Corpus?

There were really three reasons I kept hearing that resonated with me:

1. Our instincts aren’t always right. Looking at how language is actually used is important because frankly what we think we know about language usage isn’t always correct. I suspect that as teachers, we tend to get a lot of textbook, overly formal input which biases our ear. We also aren’t necessarily talking to a broad spectrum of society (no one is in constant communication with speakers from all different regions of the country (or the world) of all socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds). We’re also aging while language is changing, like it or now. We’ve all seen those little fun facts about language. My favorite two are: Use of the subjunctive is growing in the US, not shrinking. The subjunctive is almost unheard of in the UK (even though we think the subjunctive is a formal tense and UK English is more formal than US English). If we want to give our students accurate knowledge about vocabulary and grammar use, it’s good to consult a source and a corpus is a nice source of language as it is used. We can then temper that with our own instincts and textbooks, but I know every time I look up a word in a corpus I am surprised by what I learn.

2. We discover patterns and rules we never realized existed. My personal favorite was the discovery that “due to” is almost always used with negative causes. We never say, “We are having cake due to Bob’s birthday.” We say, “We don’t have any cake due to shortages.” Stumbling on those kinds of collocations and associations helps you teach better and gives your students more of that instinct for language that we often attribute to being a native-speaker, those rules we understand subconsciously, but never really think about. That leads me to my last reason for using corpuses.

3. Students can use corpuses  Letting students discover language for themselves is a great way to impart those subconscious rules of language, yes but also to help them build vocabulary (through collocations and word families) and use vocabulary better through real-world examples.

Corpus Tools

  1. The biggest find for me was MICUSP, the Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers (Thanks to Ashley Hewlett). MICUSP is a collection of academic class essays from undergraduate seniors and graduate students. What makes it stand out are:
    • The search and filter functions let you search or filter by academic subject, type or genre of essay, native vs. non-native speaker, particular features of the paper (abstract, lit review, tables or graphs, etc.)What that means is that you can show students examples of argument essays in their own discipline. Or easily find a specific example paper meeting your requirements. You can have students compare argument essays in Philosophy classes with argument essays in English class, or compare an abstract of a critique with an abstract of a research paper. In this way, they can see how different aspects of the paper affect each other. Students can also see what kinds of papers are written in different fields and what kinds of papers are not written.
    • The corpus provides the full-text of the essay, not just the part where your keyword is.
    • Speaking of key words, you can search with or without a key word, so students can see how a word is used across disciplines or genres.
  2. Ashley Hewlett also mentioned the MICASE, the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, which I have used before because there are fewer corpuses of spoken English. Like MICUSP, MICASE has nice search options. You can search by number and identity of speakers (professor, student, post doc fellow, etc.), gender, age, location of the encounter (seminar vs. lecture vs. service encounter), as well as discipline. You can even search by the speakers’ L1s and the nature of the interaction–more monologue or more interactive. Again, it’s nice because it provides sources (in the form of scripts unfortunately). And the corpus is fascinating because even in an academic environment, the spoken language is still full of grammar mistakes, run-on sentences, fragments, false starts, and non-sequiturs.
  3. In another presentation in the Electronic Village, Jon Smart introduced me to AntConc, a tool that lets you build and analyze your own corpus. It’s not super user-friendly but it’s also not terribly difficult. If you collect a series of texts in seperate .txt files, you can use AntConc to search them for keywords, much as a traditional corpus tool does. I thought this would be great for collecting student essays in a class you teach year after year. After a few years, or semesters, you would have a nice set of student essays that you could let students search for language use or genre features. I was also playing with it by downloading the top 100 texts on Gutenberg press, which helps students see literary language in action.

In a later post, I’ll cover some of the activities that I saw.

Teaching There is/There are 

A nice activity I came across while searching for a way to teach There is/There are/There isn’t/ There aren’t. I can’t use this one as I’m trying to stay in the context of clothing. The activity below is in the context of creating a country, which I find students really enjoy (see my discussion lesson on creating a new country)

I found a really fun way to teach There is a …/ There are some …/ There are many …/ There aren’t any … . The first thing i do is elicit and write on the board 20 things you can find in a

Source: Teaching There is a/ There are some/ There are many/ There aren’t any… – ESL Games and Activities – eslHQ

Dictogloss to Introduce the Present Perfect

I discovered in my boxes of lesson plans this nice little dictogloss that I used to use when teaching English to children or to beginners that introduces the present perfect in contrast to the past tense. Specifically, it demonstrates the present perfect as used for unfinished time i.e. things that I have already done today or things I have not done yet.

Yesterday was a busy day. I talked to my wife’s family on Skype in the morning. We went shopping at the mall. I bought a coat and my wife bought a dress. We had already had breakfast by then. For dinner, we had Italian meatballs.

Today hasn’t been very busy. I have had breakfast already and I have taught two classes. But I haven’t graded the tests. I need to go to the bank. I haven’t been yet.

As per standard dictogloss procedure, I would read this aloud once and let students just listen.  I would then read it again and have them take notes. I would give them a second chance to listen and take notes and then put them with a partner to reconstruct the text as best they could. The point of a dictogloss is less to get every word perfectly correct as it is to get the main idea or the main drift.

Once students have reconstructed the text as best they can, I would ask them to identify the sentences about yesterday and the ones about today. Then I would introduce the present perfect, perhaps put the text of the reading up for them to see and compare.

From there I’d get into how to form it and give them some practice talking about their day, with prompts.  Finally I might give them some positive sentences and have the students produce the negative version. For homework, they can write their own today vs. yesterday paragraphs.


Article Discovery Chart

This is a little ESL grammar lesson plan I’ve had lying around that lets students discover the rules of article use in English. It’s more of an activity than a full lesson plan. To bulk it up, I’d add a presentation and practice. I actually designed this activity when I was working with more advanced students but the examples are very simple. Among other things, all the nouns are concrete food items. I’ll have to dig up and share some of my exercises highlighting article usage with abstract nouns, which is much more useful for advanced ESL learners. Still I think this chart is useful as it provides lots of examples and lets students deduce the rules themselves. The students like it and they tend to bring up more difficult questions themselves.

Since I see this as review, insofar as students should already have some familiarity with articles before trying this, I tend to give this to students in groups and let them have at. Then at the bottom, they need to provide the rules, such as:

We use a when we talk about countable, singular nouns in general.

Article Discovery

Only Like This Do I Teach Negative Inversion

There aren’t a lot of resources out there for teaching negative inversion. That’s the form in which the verb comes before the subject when the sentence starts with a negative word such as:

  • Nowhere else do we have such fun.
  • Not only do I like coffee but I also like tea.
  • Never have I seen such a beautiful sunset.

It’s not the most common form to use, but it still crops up in the textbook every now and then.  And honestly, advanced students do need to at least recognize the form and understand sentences that use it.

If you have ever had to teach negative inversion, however, you know that it’s difficult for students. Because it’s so rarely used, students don’t get much input of this form. And many grammar books omit it, so students haven’t learned it before. That also means you, as the teacher, don’t have a lot of resources out there.

That was my problem, so I made this lesson plan to Make Negative Inversion in English Easy which you can preview and purchase at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Practice TOEFL Worksheets

Many years ago, I found myself with not much going on at work. So I began working on my own TOEFL iBT textbook and practice tests, as one does. There was a plan to have them published in Kazakhstan and to have the tests used by a scholarship program, but it never came to much. So I figure I might as well put them up here. They include the grammar and style questions as well as reading comprehension and listening.

These were written a few years ago, so they might be stylistically a bit out of touch. Also, standard disclaimer that the information here is shared for testing purposes only. I don’t claim to be an expert on the greenhouse effect or budgeting or anything else. And of course, I have no affiliation with ETS or the TOEFL test itself. These were written purely by me as materials to help you get ready for the TOEFL iBT exam. I will be updating it as I find, edit and polish my old tests.

And of course, you are welcome to use these for any kind of grammar or reading comprehension practice!