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.


Blogging will resume shortly…

My international journey, which included hauling two children, 1 wife, 1 stroller, 2 car seats, 8 checked suitcases, and 3 carry on bags from South Korea to Knoxville, Tennessee, is finally complete. And it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In the end, only one bag was missing, and I got it the next day. That’s the best I could have hoped for.

So, we have been in Knoxville for about three weeks, and still experience stages of homesickness for Korea and reverse culture shock. But, now that I have begun working (though not teaching yet for another two weeks), I have more focus and am now enjoying my time here more.

Continue reading

Student Video Projects – Spring 2014

The final project for this semester’s High-Intermediate English Conversaton classes was to make a video based on the themes of work, time travel, or movies. Students had to use a number of grammar, vocabulary, and other language points they learned throughout the semester and combine them in a creative and interesting short film. The results were very good! Please enjoy! Feel free to comment.

The Professor’s Office
A “The Office” parody which follows a strange professor and his assistants.

Watching Modern Family
Students reenact a scene from Modern Family and then talk about the episode. Very funny!

Movie Talk
Students talk about “Dead Poet’s Society” and parody a scene. Great parody!

Back to the Future
Students parody “Back to the Future” and film a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Weird People at Baskin Robbins
Strange customers and a harsh interview – the world of Baskin Robbins is interesting.

Time Travel
A student gets zapped to the future and sees what its like.

Job Interview
Students go in for a job interview and are not happy with the results.


Research Bites: Skill Acquisition Theory and Language Learning


DeKeyser, R. M. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Twitter Summary

DeKeyser suggests a cognitive sequence for explicitly learning and implicitly acquiring certain language skills. #researchbites

Note 1: This article presents a number of concepts, which I will try to distill below in bullet point format. Although this is a “research bite,” the article was quite in depth, so the write up will be longer than usual.

Note 2: Focus on form does not mean a focus on structures to the exclusion of meaning. In fact, focus on form is brought to attention after meaning is established. All work with forms keeps meaning central. Continue reading