Intensive English: Speed up or slow down?

{Sorry about the lack of posting lately. Between two children, 20 hours of classes per week, buying a house, and squeezing in some reading, time for blogging has evaporated}

I’m sitting here with a 300 page textbook (Q: Skills for Success, Listening and Speaking, Level 5) wondering how I will use it for the next 8 weeks. This will be used for a five-days-a-week, 50-minute course I teach as part of the intensive English program I work in. And it has me wondering about the adjective “intensive”.

Am I the only one who thinks the word “intensive” is a contranym? (A contranym is a word whose meanings may be opposites. For example, “to cleave” means to stick together or to cut apart.) An intensive workout could be either a fast-paced circuit training workout or a really long run.

So, is an intensive English program supposed to cover a lot of material and skills in a short period of time, or is it supposed to involve intense focus on a singular skill in a short period of time? The former feels like you are spreading the language too thin, only touching on the surface and not really learning much. The latter feels like you are not learning enough – just mastering a little. As I now teach in an intensive English program, I am often torn between these two concepts: speeding up or slowing down.

This internal debate pops up often through the semester as I work out the students’ pace and needs. Usually, I lean towards slowing down. In fact, I’d say I am now partial to slow teaching.

According to Shelly Wright:

Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality.

Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections with people — culture, work, food, everything.

A slow teaching movement (inspired by the slow food movement) has begun to take place. In slow teaching, things are not done “at a snail’s pace” – they are “done well and at the right speed.” It focuses on personalization (going slow means you have more time to connect with students), formative assessment (which allows for reteaching as well as judging proper speed), depth, creativity, exploration, collaboration, reflection.

This sounds absolutely wonderful, and aligns with all my teacher beliefs. I think TESOL needs a slow teaching manifesto like the one linked above (idea for a future blog post?). The problem comes when depth means focusing only on noun forms until students no longer make these errors. They come away with amazing plurals, but nothing else. Or focusing solely on exploiting one single listening text by focusing on comprehension, strategies, accent, inference, pronunciation, bottom-up, and top-down to the point where the course should have been called “CD Track 3″. Or completing four of the ten units in the book, knowing that the student will never use that book again, and that a forest of trees was likely felled for this set of books.

An alternative would be to dogme the course and make it completely focused on emergent language, but that’s not always practical. In fact, dogme is one of the reasons I have slowed down! That focus on emergent language really gets in the way of covering the material. I suppose that’s why dogme completely abandons material. However, that is not practical for me. You could make your own materials, but who has the time? I teach 21 hours a week, and need time for life outside of teaching. Flipping, e-books, paperless classrooms. There are lots of alternatives. I do a little of everything. But the books are still there, and there is material to be covered. No matter the methodology, program, or idea, we still have to consider fast and slow.

All this being considered, in the end, I stay (mostly) slow, but try to manage breadth with depth. I accept the fact that the Earth is taking another one for the team, and hope that by going slow students not only walk out of the classroom with an oversized paperweight but with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of English, their classmates, and their teacher.


Research Bites: Exploring Englishes with Listening Journals


Galloway, N., & Rose, H. (2014). Using listening journals to raise awareness of Global Englishes in ELT. ELT Journal.

Twitter Summary

Listening journals can be used to raise awareness about ELF #ResearchBites


This article is studded with acronyms to the point where it becomes difficult to read at times. Among the acronyms crammed into 10 pages of content are:

  • GE – Global English
  • WE – World Englishes – the identification of global varieties of English
  • ELF – English as a Lingua Franca – an approach to researching communication between non-native speakers; a possible pedagogical approach to teaching English
  • ELT – English Language teacher
  • NES – Native English Speaker
  • NNES – Non-native English Speaker
  • OC – Outer Circle (referring to the circles of English)
  • IC – Inner Circle
  • EC – Expanding circle


Because English is spoken by more non-native speakers than native speakers, and because  a large majority of the world’s English conversations take place between these native speakers, more and more teachers are researchers are beginning to challenge the native English speaker model of English. This model, the “yardstick” of most tests, textbooks, materials, and teaching, is seen as placing too much focus on a misrepresented model. Instead, more focus should be placed on embracing varieties of English, valuing multilingualism, and focusing on mutual intelligibility rather than perfect native speaker imitation.

The Study and Listening Journals

Students at a Japanese university listened to different sources of various Englishes once a week for a semester, and recorded their reflections about the listening. They found source material from websites, corpora, and invited speakers to the university. The reflections asked them to state why they chose their particular listening, and their general reactions to things like pronunciation, grammar, pragmatics, intelligibility, etc. It was the authors’ hope that student would focus on exploring the diversity of English and examining ELF interactions (how non-native speakers understood each other).

The Results

Students focused solely on the former, exploring different varieties of English. Students reflected on native speaker models (British, Australian, Canadian, Irish, etc.) as positive and had more negative comments about non-native models. Although, through repeated exposure, students began to accept non-native varieties. While failing to get students to analyze ELF interactions, the listening journals did force students to challenge their assumptions about who owns English, and what English really sounds like. According to the authors, “[t]he listening journal helped the students challenge preconceived stereotypes and exposure was proposed to aid future comprehension. The listening journals also highlighted students’ awareness of the use of ELF worldwide…” (p. 393).


Despite students’ knowledge that English is a global language, good English is still judged as sounding like a native-speaker. While it is unfortunate that, by believing this, students devalue their own Japanese English, it still makes sense. Native speakers, while no longer owning English, still are the main cultural drivers of English, and will therefore be perceived as models for a long time. Since students prefer native models, there is no sense to disbanding their preferences for what teachers and researchers feel is more fair (note: this is my own conclusion, not that of the authors; click here to read more about my opinions regarding ELF).

Still, I think that giving students more exposure to varieties of English is important, and listening journals seem to be a great way to do this. I am a big fan of listening journals for listening practice, and the number one complaint I have had from students is about listening to non-native speakers. I think repeated exposures is key, and it is something I will try to further integrate into my listening journals.

Likewise, I think the authors’ wishes to get students to focus on ELF interactions is commendable and seems to be a worthwhile endeavor to help students learn strategies for communication with English speakers from diverse backgrounds. The article gives a number of resources and references to ELF pedagogy and is therefore a worthwhile read.

You Win Some, You Lose Some: Lexical Notebooks vs Flashcards

If you read a recent post of mine about lexical notebooks, you could tell that I was keen on using them in the classroom. I had tried them previously in my university in South Korea with mixed but mostly positive results. Students seemed to appreciate them, found them useful, and did a generally good job keeping them.

Unfortunately, things did not work out the same here. Despite me explaining the benefits of lexical journals, they just didn’t take. Students either did not find them useful, did not really do them well, or just didn’t bother to do them. Some made minimal effort, while others did quite a good job. Like Korea, the results were mixed but mostly negative. I actually came away from the last lexical notebook collection (where I check their notebooks for a grade) a little jarred at the results. One student actually showed me a list of words and their translations and told me she preferred to study vocabulary that way. How can I argue with that? “Sorry, but research shows…” I don’t think so.

Lexical notebooks have been somewhat tainted for me now as I realize not every student finds value in them. If I were a student, would I want to use them? When I studied Polish and Korean, did I keep a lexical notebook? The honest answer is “no,” but this has more to do with not wanting to see my own handwriting than not wanting to write pronunciation notes, collocations, or word trees.

Despite the failure of lexical notebooks, I did manage success in my classroom with Quizlet flashcards. I did in fact use flashcards to study Korean, Polish, and GRE terminology – and I used them with success. I am consistently shocked that few, if any, of my students know about flaschards. Unlike lexical journals, there is really little to convince them of. They are easy to make, easy to use, and really effective. They are always with students (because they are on their smartphones), and, with Quizlet’s games, they are fun.

Each week, I make a set of English-English flashcards for my class on Quizlet. These contain the English word and a simple English definition taken from Learner’s Dictionary, along with the pronunciation of the word in IPA. I require my (low level) students to copy the flashcards to their account and add translations for the words, and save the cards as an English-YourLanguage set. This is weekly homework, and they are free to study both. I encourage them to use the different functions of Quizlet, such as the Learn, Spell, and Scatter functions. Sometimes I check my sets or my students’ sets just to see what they have been up to (in the free version, you can see who studied your sets or how students sets were studied). I can also tell which students use the flashcards and which students don’t: students who use the flashcards (1) are the more motivated students, (2) participate more in class, (3) perform better on vocabulary tests, and (4) perform better all around in my class. Whereas none of my students enjoy lexical notebooks, most of them enjoy flashcards.

The point here is you have to go with what students like, and…you shouldn’t endorse any method or technique you personally haven’t used to try and learn a language. Having said that, I do wish to play with lexical flashcards, which is something I kind of have used personally. I’ll save this for a later class, and a later blog post.


Research Bites: Discovery Listening


Wilson, M. (2003). Discovery listening - improving perceptual processing. ELT Journal, 54(2), 335-343. [link]

Twitter Summary

Discovery listening: dictogloss and self-assessment to build listening skills.


Magnus Wilson wrote this article back in 2003. His main argument was that textbooks and teachers relied too heavily on top-down processing when teaching listening. Basically, listening instruction was teaching students how to guess from context. Eleven years later and this still seems to be the predominant technique. Even though little has changed, bottom-up processing (understanding the sounds and words) is becoming more popular.

Discovery Listening

Wilson suggests an activity he calls “discovery learning,” which focuses on bottom-up processing as well as students self-assessing their trouble spots in order to address specific problems. He recognizes that top-down processing plays an important role, but when many students can’t even hear familiar words, or are stuck somewhere between bottom-up and top-down problems, finding and addressing specific issues is important.

The Technique

Using a level-appropriate short listening text at normal speed, the task consists of the following simple steps (see the appendix of the article for the specific worksheet):

  1. Listening
    1. listen without taking notes
    2. self-assess (in terms of a %) their comprehension
    3. listen two more times while taking notes
  2. Reconstructing
    1. in small groups, students use their notes to reconstruct the text
  3. Discovering
    1. compare their reconstruction with the original
    2. determine the source of their mistakes (chosen from a list; see appendix of the article)
    3. decide how important the error was
    4. listen again, focusing on their most important errors


While, so far as I can tell, untested, Wilson’s idea seems to be a logical attempt to address important bottom-up processing problems students often encounter. By improving these skills and making sound and word discrimination more automatic, students will likely be able to decrease this type of cognitive processing while simultaneously increasing the processing of meaning.

I think this is a simple yet powerful idea, and it is one which I plan to integrate (or possible test) relatively soon. I already do a mix of bottom-up and top-down work and focus on both extensive and intensive listening practice. Discovery listening seems like a wonderful technique to add to my repertoire of listening activities. In addition, I really like the idea of self-assessment and noticing of errors and I can see myself adapting this in a number of activities. Thank you, Magnus!


Default Teacher Mode

Before I moved (back) across the world and returned to the States, I had been somewhat experimenting with my teaching style, slowly embracing conversation-driven learning (what some call dogme). I have been teaching at my current university for less than a month now and it just hit me the other day: where did my “radical” teaching style go? I was, just a few months ago, teaching out of the box, on the fly, working with emergent language and spontaneity, etc., etc. But now, it seems I have defaulted to a more orthodox (yet, still effective – I hope) teacher.

This got me wondering about whether or not we have a default teacher mode. When presented with new students, new classrooms, and a wildly new teaching situation, is there some default pedagogy and praxis we fall back to? A kind of fight or flight “teacher nature”? Like so many first-time teachers, do we default to the way our teachers taught? Do we default to some distilled base essence of what we consider good, tried-and-true teaching?

In thinking about this, I feel that five years ago, my default teacher mode would have been different. I would have been more rigid, more-planned, and less purposeful in my teaching. These days, while I am rebooting, I can see that I naturally leave a lot more wiggle room in my classes, and I try to incorporate what the students want to say (their emergent language) without thinking about it. In essence, the changes I made in Korea have clearly affected the true essence of my instruction in a way that it has slightly altered my default.

Conversation-driven learning? Not really. Learner-centered? Somewhat? Effective? I hope so. Useful and fun? Always.


Research Bites: Jot This Down – Note Taking, Learning, and TESOL

Apologies for the lack of posting lately. New students, new classes, and new demands – as well as reading all of the articles I summarize below – have prevented me from blogging as much as I usually do. That being said, I really enjoyed researching this Research Bites post, and I hope the lack of writing and my hard work pays off! This post was inspired by an advanced listening class I am currently teaching, as well as this article from Life Hacker.

My advanced listening class’ focus is on academic listening of the type normally encountered in university. Therefore, today’s topic – note taking – is an essential skill that my students need to learn. Instead of presenting the usual single article summary, I have decided to summarize a range of articles about note taking, some of which deal with native speakers, and some of which are based on English language learners. I will then piece together an overall analysis of these articles to see what is applicable to the classroom. Continue reading

Listening Journals: Promoting Extensive and Intensive Listening Practice

As a language learner, listening has always been the hardest skill for me. Grammar, vocabulary and writing are just a matter of practice. Speaking is just a matter of nerves. But listening? How do you learn to listen? The assumption is you just pick it up through exposure, but the reality is much different. Like the other skills, listening requires practice.

And, like the other skills, this practice can come in the form of extensive or extensive practice. However, why separate them? Extensive listening easily leads into intensive listening, just as extensive reading is benefited by some intensive reading practice.

Last semester, I decided to give my lower-level conversation classes some much needed listening practice. I and my colleagues felt that they were getting a long of speaking practice, and some two-way listening practice – yet their listening skills still needed improvement.

We developed our listening journals along the lines of extensive reading – we encouraged listening to anything they wanted, so long as it wasn’t too difficult. Students chose music, movies, TV shows, TEDTalks, cooking videos, and other random authentic English media items. They were to do their best to understand what they heard, write down any new or interesting language they learned, and then reflect on the whole listening process.

I took this one step further and had students move from extensive to intensive listening with the same media they had been viewing, having them complete specific activities that focused more on bottom-up listening skills. I often demonstrated a tool or activity that could be applied to any media (such as making gap-fills, transcription:, or using the wonderful LyricsTraining website) and then had them try it out for their listening journal entry. Much of this was inspired by Thorn’s (2009) article on teaching listening vs. teaching students how to listen.

Although I was not able to test the direct effects of the listening journals (this will be a future project), student responses were overwhelmingly positive. Most felt they benefited from the listening journals, and many students said they would continue on with them on their own. I was encouraged so much by the results of the listening journal that I am doing a new iteration of it with an advanced listening class. I hope that my current students gain as much as my previous students did.

If this continues to be successful, I plan on turning it into a small action research project to try to empirically verify whether these listening journals have any positive effect on listening skills. Below, I have provided links to the information distributed to students. This information contains specific guidelines and examples of what students needed to complete. I would very much appreciate any comments or feedback!


Research Bites: Knock, Knock. Who’s There? TESOL.


Bell, N. D. (2011). Humor scholarship and TESOL: Applying findings and establishing a research agenda. TESOL Quarterly, 45, 134–159.

Twitter Summary

Bell shows why humor is an important skill that should be analyzed, discussed (and maybe taught) in class.


Have you ever told a knock knock joke in an ESL class? Have you ever taught a class about puns? Have you showed a group of students a hilarious YouTube clip, but you became nervous when they only laughed at physical humor and not the clever jokes you previous identified?

Humor, though universal, is far from simple. Yet, its a consistent trait that students say teachers should have. And, it’s also a linguistic reality for language learners: learning a language involved not only learning about its culture, but also its humor. Continue reading

Language Podcasts

I am a little late to podcasts. I am usually very current on technology and the web, but for whatever reason, I’ve wavered on podcasts (including getting students to make them, which sounds like a swell idea). Many of my friends have talked enthusiastically about podcasts, particularly “This American Life”. However, aside from specific podcasts dedicated to learning a specific language (i.e., I have never really indulged until recently.

About two weeks ago, I got the sudden idea to look for linguistics-based podcasts. I downloaded Pocast Addict and begun my search, I came across a number of interesting podcasts, including “Talk the Talk“, “The World in Words“, “That’s What They Say“, and “SAGE Language and Linguistics“. They are all great, but the one I am enjoying the most is “Talk the Talk”.

“Talk the Talk” has very engaging topics, lively banter, and excellent guests. “Talk the Talk” is hosted in Australia by Aussie Ben Ainslie and American Daniel Midgley, who teaches applied linguistics at several universities in Australia. Linguistics may not be the most energizing subject to listen to on a Monday morning drive, but “Talk the Talk” is very entertaining and engaging. My favorite episodes so far have been a recent one about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, where they interviewed linguist John McWhorter, who sort of tore the hypothesis and its supporters a new one; I also enjoyed an episode about the endangered Australian language Kalyakoorl and a musician’s attempt to keep it alive.

Whether you have a passing interest in language or are a professional linguist, I think you’ll find “Talk the Talk” to be worthwhile. Runner up is “The World in Words,” hosted by Patrick Cox, which is another fascinating language podcast with very interesting topics.

What I’d like to see now is a TESOL podcast that is as rambunctious and thought-provoking as the TESOL Twitter PLN. I think a podcast that discusses activities, methods, grades, dogme (conversation-driven learning), edtech, reflection, etc. would be a worthwhile endeavor for anyone with the time and passion. Or, are there already such podcasts that I have somehow missed? What podcasts do you listen to? Please give me some suggestions in the comments!

Lexical Notebooks

Few would argue that vocabulary acquisition is one of the most important skills when learning a second language. The adage goes that you can say more with a lot of words and a little grammar than a lot of grammar a few words. Some important concepts that I have recently learned about vocabulary include:

  • learning vocabulary from a list is perfectly fine
  • learning vocabulary from contextual clue (i.e. guessing its meaning) is awfully hard and requires that you know at least 95% of the surrounding vocabulary
  • learning vocabulary through translation is worthwhile, though the simpler the vocabulary the better it is learnt with pictures
  • learning vocabulary in thematic (green, frog, green beans, grass, trees) rather than semantic sets (green, red, blue, yellow) is more effective

There are numerous vocabulary acquisition strategies and techniques, the most popular being flashcards. Vocabulary journals are also a popular choice, but this is a rather vague term that is open to interpretation by teachers and students alike. Last semester, I came across a specific type of vocabulary journal called a “lexical notebook”.

A lexical notebook is a lot like a vocabulary journal, only it is more lexical. Instead of endless lists of words with part of speech, pronunciation, and original sentences all laid out in a spreadsheet-like paper, lexical notebook are more about quality, not quantity. A lexical notebook may have only two words on a page, but these will contain not only part of speech or original sentences, but information about collocations, colligation (its regular patterns of grammar), useful phrases, related vocabulary, etc. The point of a lexical journal is the write about only a few words, but to include a lot of information about that word. At the bottom of this post, I will include some useful links to reading more about lexical notebook, but to summarize some of its principles:

  • words should be student-selected and of high interest
  • they should be thematically organized if possible (e.g. money, shopping, politics)
  • they should not be written chronologically, and adding words to previously created pages/themes should be encouraged
  • there should be a lot of white space
  • quality not quantity
  • a table of contents may be useful to organize this notebook
  • there could be completely separate sections for collocations with specific verbs, adjective + noun, phrasal verbs, etc.

There is actually a lot of information out there on lexical notebooks, but very few actual students examples. Last semester, I explained the advantages of lexical notebooks, gave examples of what I could find, and made up the rest. I told students that they could include as little or as much information as they wanted, and I told them they should consult my two favorite corpus tools, Word and Phrase and StringNet. The lexical notebooks were optional, but, mid-semester I asked students to show me what they had been doing (if they had been keeping them at all). While some did not keep a journal, and others did a half-hearted job, I was blown away by some students and their effort. I took some pictures but I have only been able to located four examples. Although these may not be the best examples, I would like to share with you now some of my students’ lexical notebooks, followed by a brief explanation of what they did.

Example 1

2014-05-02 15.42.24


Here, the student focused a lot on the grammar that was being taught in the class. She organized it by theme (yellow highlights: habits, preposition phrases), and used red to highlight important grammatical examples.  She used blue underlines to indicate vocabulary and used a blue circle to indicate a preposition. She also used a lot of Korean to explain grammatical points or provide important translations. The blue post-it note provides additional grammar info. For an example like this, my advice would be to skip a few pages between themes so that more can be added.

Example 2

2014-05-02 15.42.35This is a simple example of words, their Korean translation, and an example sentence.

Example 3

2014-05-02 15.43.22


This is probably my favorite example. Here, the words are on the left and include a phonetic transcription. The part of speech and an English definition are included on the right. A Korean definition is also included. Synonyms are written in purple. An example sentence is included in black. There is plenty of white space and room to write more. It is also organized by theme.

Example 4

2014-05-02 15.43.15This is actually the same student as above, just another theme and another page.

So, as you can see, there are numerous ways to organize a lexical notebook, but the principles outlined above are likely to make them more useful and effective. The challenge is to not only convince students to keep them but to also convince them to review them and keep adding to them even after your course has ended.

Do you keep lexical notebooks or vocabulary notebooks? Can you provide any student examples? I’d love to see them! Let me know in the comments.