They Had No Idea

Have you every taught something to your students about English that utterly shocked them, perhaps opened their minds to a whole new perspective on the language? But to you, you though this big reveal was something they had known the whole time because surely someone must have told them. Well, no, because it takes a combination of the right opportunity, the right students, and the right teacher knowledge to pull something like this off.

I’m not even talking about something amazing, either. Today, for example, is the first time I realized this phenomenon and then I immediately thought back to all the times my students had for the first time learned something no other teacher had told them in the years they had been studying the language.

Today, with an upper-intermediate level reading class, I decided to give students an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the words they were reading because I noticed, though they knew the meanings, they often could not use them in a comprehensible manner. So, I showed them an example of a sentence in the text: “Cities often invest in public art.” Nothing special here. It’s a very basic topic sentence of no significant value – at least, that’s how most students saw it. Then, I zeroed in on the words “invest in public art” and asked them what they noticed. (Ah, noticing! The gateway to learning English.) We discovered that, given English’s affinity for prepositions,  “in” is a likely word that often follows “invest”, and a noun or noun phrase representing a company or something that requires money follows “in”.

I explained to students that they have just seen an example of an English pattern (my friends reading this would call it a lexical chunk, others may be daring enough to call it a phrasal verb). English, any language for that matter, really consists of many patterns, and knowing these patterns can make the language easier. I even told them this interesting fact I learned about Zipf’s law: 50% of any text will be made of patterns and 50% of the text will be made of “singletons”. I showed them a few more examples and asked them to search through the text to find anything else that was interesting.

What ensued was 10 minutes of silence – the type of silence that you can feel, because you can feel the confusion and bewilderment, like the first time you dump a 1000 piece puzzle on the table with all the pieces face down. But, with a little assistance and praise, the students were able to find a few things. We discussed their findings as a class. Quietly, without the enthusiasm students usually had. Lesson failed.

Then, after class, three separate students came up to me and thanked me because they had never learned that there were patterns to the English language and that they found this information extremely useful. One even told me that he studies hard, but this will probably make his studying more effective. Students are not natural language investigators, so although patterning seems obvious to us, it is something we are taking for granted. They had no idea. But now they know, and I hope it helps them.

I was floored and ecstatic after class because of the compliments and because of the effect it had on students. And then I thought back to how many times this has happened but I never really took notice. It happened recently when I compared the pronunciation of 2-syllable noun/verb homographs (such as the nouns record, object, conflict and the verbs record, object, and conflict). Not only were they a little offput by the existence of words that have the spelling but different uses and pronunciations, but they were pleasantly surprised when they learned these words follow a regular pattern of stress (on the first syllable of the nouns, second syllable on the verbs) and unstress (the first vowel in the first syllable of the verb often becomes a shwa). What seemed like “crazy English” a minute ago became rule-based and orderly. They simply had no idea.

When students learn that words in English connect in such a way that the sounds change (a classic example: “Do you want to” becomes /dujəwɑnə/) they are shocked. They are even more shocked when they learn that they can pronounce any word if they learn the IPA, something that was staring at them in their dictionaries from day 1. They just had no idea.

Is Shock and Awe a teaching methodology? Maybe it will be the next best thing, up there with Demand High and The Silent Way. In any case, it seems to be effective, useful, attention-grabbing, and something novel that the students haven’t encountered but probably should have. They just had no idea. And neither did I, until now.

Don’t kill the drill?

How much do you drill grammar? Vocabulary? Pronunciation? I don’t drill very much and lately I’ve been thinking this might actually be a problem. Drilling has mostly fallen out of favor along, with its bigger brother the audio-lingual method. Drilling is in disrepute because it is seen as too mechanical, too decontextualized, too non-communicative, and too antiquated. But, have we jumped to some unnecessary conclusions because a technique was associated with a method that came about in what seems like the dark ages of ELT?

One of our jobs as classroom language teachers is to get students to internalize chunks of language that can be used automatically to build or recognize meaning. One of the best ways to do this is focused, deliberate, repetitive practice. Drilling is exactly this type of practice.

Research into by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993) show that this kind of focused practice is what helps transform many from mediocre to expert. In terms of language learning, “repeating something gives it an added or even different signifiance” writes Scott Thornbury on his blog post about repetition. He goes on to reference corpus linguistics research that shows that chunks and patterning are the norm of language, and therefore spontaneity and improvisation is not the defining characteristic of a fluent speaker. It seems that fluency is more categorized by the automatic use of patterns of language rather than creating those patterns from scratch, which requires much cognitive effort.

Dekeyser, drawing from psychology’s skill acquisition theory, states that practice is essential for automatic skill use. Mechanical practice such as drilling is seen as useful for muscle-memory skills like pronunciation, as well as for refining declarative knowledge. This is an important concept. This means that for drilling to be effective, it must be done after meaning has already been established or rules have been learned. That means students need to already know what certain grammatical structures or vocabulary patterns mean before having them drilled.

Finally, experienced instructors from the very effective Foreign Service Institute state that drilling is very important for confidence and automatizing language. It is used at both lower and advanced levels and is used together with more communicative methods. According to Jackson and Kaplan:

“…The result of this process is that less and less effort is required for automated routines and the learner can devote more effort to acquiring other sub-skills that are not yet automated” (McLaughlin 1987:149). In order to perform higher order communicative skills—such as participating in social conversations (see lesson 10) and other such job-related uses of the target language—our students must produce spontaneously and accurately the relevant grammatical structures and routines of the language.


Based on this, drilling and other types of deliberate practice seems not only helpful but necessary for language learning with the caveat that it is used after meaning has been established and in conjunction with other techniques.

There are many types of drilling, depending on the language point. My favorite drilling techniques include backchaining for pronunciation in which a difficult word is practice syllable by syllable from the end to the front, and then repeated several times. As a middle school teacher, I liked presenting a grammatical structure (say, the past tense) and then a series of pictures (soccer ball, baseball, computer games) to quickly elicit sentences such as “I played soccer. I played baseball. I played computer games.”

Unfortunately, the extent of my drilling experience doesn’t go far beyond that. However, I did find this wonderful website which has a lot of information and links to different aspects of drilling. I am reproducing a number of the links here for posterity:

So, do you drill? Why? How? Let us know in the comments!


WondERing about Extensive Reading

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about extensive reading (ER) lately, and whether or not I should incorporate it into my reading classes. I’ve read a number of posts by Rose Bard, which initially inspired me, followed by this great post by Kevin Stein, and this post by Geoff Gordan on vocabulary learning and ties into ER. These all came up around the same time on Twitter, so I naturally gravitated towards the ideas.

After reading and thinking about ER, I have some questions, and I thought I’d pose them to the wider community to get a clearer picture of what ER could look like in my situation.

What I Usually Do/My Context

Typically, I will teach one or two different reading classes 5 days a week for 50 minutes each day. In these classes, all students are roughly of the same level, and the levels range from beginner to advanced (pre-university). We focus a lot of short academic readings and different reading strategies, but higher levels (about high-intermediate and up) typically also read a novel or short text throughout the term (8 weeks). Supplementing that and the textbook readings, students at the high-beginner and up level also independently read articles from Breaking News English (though I think I will switch to Newsela or News in Levels next time). Students choose whatever article they want, read it, extract interesting vocabulary, and complete activities offered on the site.

What I Am Thinking of Doing

I am thinking of setting 1 day a week (50 minutes) aside for extensive reading. We have a set of graded readers, but I also have some funds to get some more (I am currently looking into the Zombies in Tokyo books). Depending on the level, I might also take students to the university library, which has a large children’s books section, but these may be both too childish and too difficult for them. One other idea, if the level is high next term, is to assign a novel (which is against the spirit of ER) and leave the extensive reading time for them to reread parts of it (to build reading fluency) or buy some novels (we have a wonderful used book store in town) and let them choose one to read throughout the term (with dictionaries in hand?).

My Questions

  1. Which of the above ideas sounds practical/effective?
  2. Can extensive reading and silent reading be the same thing?
  3. Can a textbook with many readings be used to replace graded readers?
  4. Can dictionaries be used before reading to look up unknown words so that they can read mostly uninterrupted?
  5. How can short novels be used in the extensive reading classroom?
  6. What are suitable texts for ESL university students at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels?
  7. What are some ways to measure the effect of extensive reading? In other words, how can I measure whether the skills picked up during extensive reading are transferring over to other areas of reading?
  8. Can/should vocabulary be learned during extensive reading, or is the focus solely on reading fluency?
  9. With that in mind, what is the goal of extensive reading? In extensive reading, students are typically reading things that pose little challenge to their skills. With lack of challenge, how does it actually affect language learning?

Research Bites: 16+ Lessons from the Pros

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is known as one of the best language learning institutions in the world. The FSI trains American diplomats and other professionals and takes them from zero knowledge in a foreign language to general professional proficiency (“able to speak accurately and with enough vocabulary to handle social representation and professional discussions within special fields of knowledge; able to read most materials found in daily newspapers”) in about 44 weeks. That’s quite impressive. Their military counterpart, the Defense Language Institute, does the same with military personnel. According to NPR, only the Mormon religion’s Missionary Training Center surpasses them, getting missionaries fluent in about nine weeks.

The FSI has been teaching language for over 60 years and the lessons they have learned, many informed or supported by research, are impressive. This article, written by two members of the institute, discusses ten important lessons that apply to language teaching. The content, however, has a fair number more. I present to you below all a summary of all the interesting and important lessons learned from more than a half century of effective language teaching. Continue reading

Board at Work (part 2)

I was cleaning out pictures on my phone and thought I would share another Board at Work post, where I post, without context, random board pictures I have taken.

Can TESOL Save the World? (Part III)

My students and I changed the world, the other day. No, not The World – the entire planet and its paradigms. An individual girl’s world. We don’t know her name. We don’t know what country she lives in. All we know is that, through a fundraising project, we can send her to school for a whole year.

Let’s back up. How could a textbook publisher put a unit in a book about an organization that sets out to build schools and libraries while supporting education in the developing world and not expect the students to want to do something about it? The textbook for my advanced listening and speaking class, Leap Advanced, did this very thing, and then kept on going without every looking back or caring what happened to its so called content. Well, as a class we couldn’t learn this information and not take action.

The unit presented an interview with John Wood, former Microsoft executive and founder of the non-profit organization “Room to Read“. We learned that over 800 million people in the world cannot read, and over 70 million children cannot go to school. These were startling statistics, especially when explained in the context of how by learning to read, people can begin to lift themselves and their nation out of poverty. We learned that they have built thousands of schools and libraries, and sent thousands of students to school, sometimes for the first time ever. They had a particular emphasis on girls’ education, as most girls are expected to dropout or not attend school at all. We learned that $1 donation prints one bilingual book. $250 can send a girl to school for a year and cover her tuition, food, supplies, and transportation.

After all our listening and speaking activities, I asked the students if they wanted to move to the next unit or figure out a way to help. Happily, they chose the later and thus began our fundraising project. Some students simply suggested donating a dollar each, but I asked them to think bigger. Eventually, a day or two later, it was suggested that we sell roses for Valentine’s roses. I thought this was a great idea, but did not know rose prices shot up the week before Valentine’s (but, this should have been obvious). Back to the drawing board, and we decided on a bazaar (half bake sale, half used goods market).

I had students prepare presentations to give to other English classes to gather support for the fundraiser. This made the students both nervous and excited to present in front of peers who were not their classmates. This, it turned out, was a great idea and a positive experience for my students and other students at the ELI. In fact, these students were our biggest supporters.

Last week, students fought two days of cold to sell books, clothes, muffins, and chocolate on campus. Students learned the joys of a donation, and the sorrow of having hundreds of students pass our table by. They also fought whatever anxiety they had to not only present to English students but to engage native speaking students on campus. It was great to watch them explain the purposes of Room to Read to other non-ESL students.

After two days of hard work, the students were overjoyed when they learned we had reached our goal of $250…and so was I. The weeks leading up to this event, and the days of, were very stressful for me, as I worried about failure and disappointment if no one contributed or did not contribute enough. But thanks to their presentations and perseverance, I think they have come away from this project (and my class) with authentic English experiences, a memorable student experience, and the feeling of satisfaction knowing they are contributing to a better world for a single individual.

Can TESOL Save the World? (Part II)

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “Can TESOL Save the World?” It was based on my naive belief that what we do should have some positive impact on the world. It was also based on a somewhat cynical viewpoint that while we may be training scientists, innovators, and world leaders, we might not be (or we might be training future Hitlers).

After moving from an EFL to and ESL environment and working in higher education, I am more confident in stating that, in many ways, TESOL can save the world. Or, at least change the world. And not only The World, but Worlds.

As a teacher in an EFL context, I was teaching homogeneous groups of (Korean) English majors at a Korean university. A wonderful job, with wonderful students, but I didn’t feel I had made any major ripples in the pond of fate to the effect that they would change the world. Now, as I teach a mix of international students working hard to enter undergraduate, masters degree, and PhD programs, I feel like I am, in fact, making ripples - and sometimes waves – in that very same pool.

Yes, I’m (mostly) teaching language, not content, but I am equipping these students with the skills necessary to become researchers, scientists, innovators and activists. This is certainly one domino towards making a difference. Beyond this, I am also changing students’ worlds in that I am helping them get the chance to study and live in a foreign environment that many of them feel is freer and safer than their home countries. Case in point, our department has a new influx of Iraqi graduate students. Iraq, by no measure, is a safe country, especially with a growing ISIS presence. If I can help these students enter university and fulfill their dreams, and they and their families get to live longer because of it, it’s clear I have made a definite, positive change.

Why do I feel the need to self-aggrandize, or pat myself on the back. I don’t. I’m not trying to brag. I’m just training to paint one example of what I am sure are many of the good work we do. We need some positivity in our field, especially when many people believe ELT is going down the drain.

As Authentic as It Gets

(Another paragraph blog!)

“Authentic” has a lot of meanings in ELT. We can’t define exactly what it is, and while it is purported to be more motivating/useful/effective, the jury will be out on this one indefinitely. As usual, it depends on level/needs/students/teachers/goals/text/task/etc. Well, for my advanced listening and speaking students, who are about to enter an American university as undergraduates, it is quite needed. There are lots of ways to bring authenticity into the classroom, but for this group of students, I sought authenticity outside of the classroom. I looked through the enormous schedule of classes in search of an actual class we could attend that would fit in our time slot and would be able to accommodate 13 extra students, while being a subject that would appeal to diverse student majors. I settled on an intro to cultural anthropology course and was delighted when the professor accepted my request to attend one of her lectures. The big day came and it was really fun to go out of the classroom, head to the campus museum (where the anthro lecture hall is) and attend a real class. Students got to see what a lecture class was really like, what regular undergrads did in said class (they took notes on paper!) and listen to the speed, pronunciation, segmentation, elision, stress and intonation of real live professor-speak. I was nervous because there were a lot of informal vocabulary words used by the professor which I knew they didn’t know. However, I was delighted when they told me it was easier than they expected, and when they showed me the notes they took. I was proud of them and had a great time discussion our observations of the class and our understandings of the lecture. If you teach on a university campus, I sincerely implore you do make use of the wonderful interdisciplinary nature of the environment you are in. This experience was one which I nor my students will ever forget.



(This is my paragraph blog post – my concise thoughts represented in a single paragraph – as inspired by @annaloseva, @springcait, and many others on Twitter.)

I teach a grammar course to a very, very low level group of 8 students. Most can’t read simple words, write the alphabet well, or string together a complete sentence. I had actually never taught a level this low before – my elementary and middle school students in Korea were at a higher level. So, naturally, I was both apprehensive and excited. I went into this class with the idea that I would be as flexible as possible and go with the students’ needs. It turns out, they needed some good ol’ PPP. There are as many ways to teach as there are ways to learn, and PPP takes quite a bashing despite the fact that it is logical and represents how we learn many other non-language skills such as driving, playing soccer, etc. My class is mostly PPP based, with some CLT and dogme thrown in for good measure. The PPP emphasis evolved naturally based on the students’ needs, the speed at which they learned, and what I found to be effective in class. This PPP model is by no means dry, dull, mechanical, ineffectual or any other negative adjective that has been thrown at this “classic”. On the contrary, my students find our activities interesting, motivating, and exciting. I bring in real-world vocabulary, realia, and a lot of enthusiasm – and its paying off. Sure, it has taken us about a month (~20 hours) to master the BE verb in sentences like “A cat is an animal”, “I am hungry”, or “The book is on the table”, but rushing through this stuff and moving on to more difficult ways to have them express themselves would leave them stumbling on rickety scaffolding.

Here’s an interesting article on PPP.

Zombie Story: A Simple Activity for Speaking, Listening, Pronunciation and Reading

We were talking about connected speech in my advanced listening and speaking class last week. Mostly about how certain phrases like /meɪdʒɚdəsɪʒən/ sounds like either “major decision” or “made your decision” and only context will clear it up. Or how vowels following consonants link to form what seems like a single utterance. Or how the letter /t/ between two vowels actually has the /d/ sound in American English, like water /wɔdɚ/.

So, I wanted to give them a chance to analyze a short text and figure out what would be connected and changed, I wanted to give them a chance to practice using connected speech, and listening for it. And, I wanted to do it in a fun way. I remembered a one-off activity I did years ago with my middle school students and thought that it would be perfect. I wrote a zombie story that included teachers and students, and made a kind of reading relay in which each student has a piece of a single story and must read their piece aloud when they hear the line before them. They don’t know the entire story – only the line before and their line, so they have to listen carefully.

Here’s what I did:

  1. First, I wrote a story with enough lines so that each student would read twice. I included the students in the story to make it more interesting. They liked that a lot. You can read my example story here.
  2. I printed and cut the story up so that each student got two cards, each of which looked something like this:
    When you hear:
    “Once upon a time…”You say:
    “It was a dark and stormy night.”
  3. I had them look at their lines and figure out connections, sound changes, etc. I practiced with each student and gave each student pronunciation feedback.
  4. When everyone was ready, we read the story. I started the story and it took about 2 minutes to read the entire thing. They liked it so much, we did it again, a little faster.

 Here’s What I Thought

This turned out to be a really good activity, even for advanced students. This is a university-level EAP class and students found it to be both interesting and challenging. It gave them practice is speaking using connected speech, and listening to connected speech (as well as each other). It also gave me insight into a pronunciation problem almost all of them have that I hadn’t noticed before: pitch control. Some of the lines used commas and quotations marks, and even ellipses. Students usually blew right through these with nary a change in their pitch. They seemed to have little regard for how to speak reported speech or even add suspense to a reading. Basically, they lacked dramatic reading skills. How often will they need to read aloud and worry about changing their pitch when they come across a quote? None of them are drama majors. Still, it’s an important skill that all native and many non-native speakers employ in their speaking. So, It’s something I need to consider for a follow-up lesson.

Overall, this is a quick lesson that is easily adaptable for any level, skill, or topic and i am happy that I could share it with you.