Adapting “Academic Reading Circles” for the Listening and Speaking Classroom

I stumbled upon a post on Lizzie Pinard’s site about an IATEFL presentation by Tyson Seburn called “Academic Reading Circles”. As an EAP teacher, it immediately piqued my interest and I carefully read the blog post. I was excited to find that there was a small book with the same name being published by The Round. Unfortunately, I did not have time to acquire that book before my upcoming term, but I knew I wanted to implement the concepts immediately.

My class schedule for the summer term did not include any upper-level reading classes. However, it did include an upper-level listening and speaking class. Academic Reading Circles (ARC) are based on “texts” and “texts”, in ELT jargon, does not necessarily mean written texts but also spoken and visual texts as well. Therefore, I made “Academic Discussion Circles” (ADC) an integrated part of my listening and speaking class.

Now that I have had time to read Seburn’s book, I realize my adaptation varied markedly from his but was nonetheless effective at getting students to listen and academically discuss various aspects of authentic “lectures” in the form of TED Talks. TED Talks, as I have written about before, are short and highly engaging academic-ish lectures that many students enjoy. What’s more, this spoken text also includes a transcript, therefore providing more of a traditional text to exploit as well.

Seburn’s ARC framework is quite simple to understand (though not necessarily easy to implement the first time around). It is based on students utilizing a common text and “provides the opportunity for learners to co-construct their comprehension of the text by
sharing their individual discoveries and interacting with them” (p. 42).

Students’ achieve this by working in groups and having individualized roles. There are five roles, including:

  • Leader – the leader asks conceptual questions (focused on questions not related to specific details but deeper understanding), incorporates other students and their roles in the overall discussion, and finally asks inferential discussion questions to round out the discussions at the end.
  • Visualizer – the visualizer finds elements within the text that can be represented visually (as photos, charts, etc.) in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Contextualizer – the contextualizer takes not of references (direct and indirect) of people, places, events and concepts and presents them to their group in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Connector – the connector finds connections between the text and other courses, familiar events, or their own lives and then explains these connections in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Highlighter – the highlighter finds high frequency and likely unknown vocabulary, technical or topical vocabulary, and words and phrases that signal tone or emotion and presents these to the group in order to add to the understanding of the text.

The book concisely and illustratively provides more information on these roles, but as you can see, they can be easily used with non-written texts. I further adapted Seburn’s idea to place more focus on speaking and discussion strategies, as this was part of a listening and speaking class. I adapted the roles to the following, keeping in mind I wanted students to not only discuss and build their comprehension of their TED Talk, but also practice useful and valuable discussion skills (including phrases and strategies). Due to class size, I combined two roles. I also renamed them.

  • Leader – the leader asked comprehension questions, made sure every student was involved and shared their opinion (which included the use of discussion phrases), and made sure all students completed their roles.
  • Connector – the connector thought of how the lecture connected to their previous coursework and shared experiences. They were required to not only explain how the lecture connected to something outside the text but also ask “connection” questions that got students to think about and discuss their own connections as well.
  • Researcher – the researcher found more information about the people, places, events, and ideas discussed in the lecture and presented the information to the group. The researcher had to use phrases for citation and referencing other sources.
  • Linguist – the linguist highlighted interesting vocabulary, including individual words, phrases, structural vocabulary, stress and intonation, and accent, and presented them to the group. The linguist had to use phrases that asked about the meaning of words, and were used to define words and their usages.

I assigned a large set of TED Talk videos somewhat related to the week’s topic and had students choose a single video together. They then had the weekend to listen and prepare for their roles. Every Monday, we held an academic discussion. Some of the discussions were recorded and I provided individual feedback on both language (grammar, pronunciation) but also their discussions skills (role fulfillment, use of discussion phrases and strategies, etc.).

Overall, I was pleased with the Academic Discussion Circles and I know my students got a lot out of them. However, after reading Seburn’s book and having a better understanding of ARCs, I feel I could further adapt ADCs to be not only more effective but also run smoother.

Some things I have learned from reading about ARCs which I would recommend adapting to ADCs include:

  • Students should create handouts relevant to their roles in order to aid not only their discussion but the other students’ understanding.
  • All roles should be done “in order to add to the understanding of the text”. I repeated this phrase several times in describing the roles of ARC because I realized my ADCs often got off-topic or the information students brought to the table did not necessarily add, aid, help, improve, or deepen the understanding of the lecture.
  • Presenting information through “turn-taking” is not very useful for a “discussion”. My students naturally defaulted to each role having their time to present their information. This does not really provide the interaction wanted. Luckily, the ADC roles required questioning and therefore more interaction occurred, but not as much as a discussion that went through the text from beginning to end, as Seburn suggests.

From my experience using ADCs as a modified ARC, there are a few things instructors should keep in mind:

  • Modeling – I can’t stress how important modeling is. For these types of discussions, modeling not only means modeling the flow of the discussion, but the analysis of the text, the question generation, how to find visual aids, how to find and integrate relevant research, and how to notice and research interesting language features. My recommendation, similar to Seburn, is to analyze a text (spoken or read) and introduce all these elements without telling them about discussions or roles. The teacher can pre-plan and introduce all the information at once, or the class can co-construct together questions, research, and so on together. I would also recommend explicitly modeling a whole-class, teacher-led discussion where the teacher fulfills all roles (interactively) in order to show students what is expected.
  • Feedback – depending on the goals of your class and course, your feedback may vary, but feedback will be essential to help students progress in terms of understanding the text, fulfilling their roles, or being able to hold an academic discussion. In any case, teachers should provide feedback. I left feedback as comments on a recorded discussion, but live-delivered post-it notes or an after-discussion write-up by the teacher would also be fine.
  • Follow-Up – There must be some follow-up to the discussion. Seburn touches on some follow-up ideas, including writing advice for the next person who takes their role, writing a group report on the discussion, or responding to the discussion in writing. Further follow-up ideas could include skill remediation or refining based on what was observed during the discussion. For example, maybe you noticed students struggled with a particular area of the text due to some difficult structural language, or maybe you noticed students had trouble correctly using phrases for agreement or interrupting. These would be great post-tasks to complete with students, targeting a weak area that is common among them. Similarly, for a class with more grammar or language focus, highlighting some language mistakes (grammar, vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation) and working on those would also be prudent.
  • Assessment – This is one area missing from Seburn’s book. Because we are likely to have multiple discussions going on at one time, we are not capable of gauging everyone’s understanding and contributions. Therefore, some kind of assessment of the students’ understanding of the text might be important. In particular, if we are using formative assessment, these weekly discussions give us a weekly opportunity to assess students’ text comprehension and reading skills, which is, after all, one of the main goals of our efforts. I have several assessment ideas, including:
    • Quiz – provide students with a clean copy of the reading and give students a basic reading quiz that asks questions with answers that should have been discussed during the discussions.
    • Authentic Quiz – In university, our students will be expected to read and comprehend material and then take a quiz pr test that asks them not to simply regurgitate facts or details but apply what they have learned. We can simulate this experience by creating a more authentic-like content-based quiz that students could expect in undergraduate classrooms. Using an authentic assessment such as this makes the discussion experience more meaningful, as it makes the whole task cycle (independent reading, Academic Reading Circles, quiz) more authentic because it simulates what happens in the real world (independent reading, study group, assessment).
    • Pre/Post Quiz – give a short reading quiz (online?) before group discussions and after group discussions to judge their ability to understand the text on their own and after group work.
    • Student-Generated Quiz - have students generate quiz questions as a follow-up activity. Pool the questions, select the best ones, and give a reading quiz the next day. Questions can be made based on details, concepts, inferences, references, and language use.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas for using both Academic Reading and Discussion Circles, how they can be adapted, and general overall motivation to try out this wonderful idea. I highly recommend purchasing Seburn’s book and experimenting with these ideas on your own! My own teaching schedule includes an upper-level reading course, so I will definitely be using these again starting in a few weeks. Happy teaching!


Story Cubes

I have had three bags of Rory’s Story Cubes just sitting in some random drawer in a dresser in my bedroom. I bought them originally for my children, but they haven’t seen much use for one reason or another. Actually, I hadn’t thought about them for the past year until yesterday when I was searching for “ESL writing games”.

Story Cubes come in different themes and sets, but the purpose is the same. Roll the 9 cubes, look at the pictures, and connect them into an interesting and imaginative story! A simple concept, but genius…and in dice form. There are three different sets and the bags run about $8 each or $20 for all three. There is also an app available for iOS and Android.


My intermediate writing class had just finished working on an interview turned essay and I wanted to end the week with something fun. I stumbled upon the words “story cubes” and my teachy senses started tingling. I immediately designed two activities using the story cubes that I knew the students would enjoy. We used them in class today and they were a big hit. Time flew by and students were engaged 100% of the time. It seemed like, were we not constrained to a 50 minute class, we could have just kept going.

So, here are the activities we did today (1 and 2), plus several other ideas for using story cubes in the ESL/EFL classroom.

1. Perfect Sentences

I put students into groups of two or three and explained that they had 10 minutes to write 5 “perfect” sentences. I told them to choose a cube randomly from the bag, roll it, and use the image to craft their sentence. Then, choose another dice for the second sentence, and so on. Then, I set a point system. I told them that all groups start with 20 points. Grammar mistakes will cost them 1 point, spelling mistakes would be half a point. Any other mistakes would be at my discretion. Finally, I told them about bonus points. I listed some of the grammar and sentence structures we had practiced and gave a point equivalent: 1 bonus point for adjective clauses (max two sentences), 1 point for subordinating conjunctions, 2 points for a wh-clause.

The end result was cleverly crafted sentences in which students took their time and really focused on the grammar. I could tell from the numerous words and phrases scratched out that they were working hard to write perfect sentences. They were noticing errors and thinking through their writing – two skills that hopefully transfer to their normal everyday writing.

While mistakes were still made, I corrected each group’s sentences with them and it was a great overall learning experience – something I will definitely do again. Some variations would be to give points based on sentence length or complexity, set specific errors with specific penalties (such as wrong word form -0.75, wrong subject-verb agreement -2). Overall, it was a great activity just the way it was.

2. Story Cubes

The original intention of Story Cubes is to roll all 9 cubes and connect all the images into one big, cohesive, coherent story – not an easy task, even for native speakers. But, we gave it a go and students turned out to have pretty interesting stories. I gave students about 20 minutes. First, they had to think through their story, and then write it. I assisted with feedback on language use along the way. Then, at the end of class, we gathered in a small circle and I gave a dramatic reading of each story. It was quite fun!

Making stories with Story Cubes serves as both an excellent writing activity as well as an excellent speaking activity. I can easily imagine it being transformed into a listening activity, too (dictation, comprehension questions, paraphrasing practice, etc.).

3. Discrete Grammar Practice

Whether you are writing or speaking, these cubes are very easy to adapt to any type of grammar practice. Past tense? Future tense? Adjective clauses? Even article usage and noun forms! All you have to do is roll the cubes and make sentences or a story. Students can roll the cubes individually, roll one cube for one group and make one sentence together, or roll one cube for one group and make individual sentences with comparisons afterwards. Share them on the board or read aloud.

4. Cube Race

Two students stand at the board, marker in hand. The teacher rolls a cube and the students race to write the best sentence. The class votes!

5. Superheroes

This idea would be great for younger learners. Each student rolls three cubes. These cubes define their superpowers. With their superpowers in mind, they create a superhero profile. This can be a speaking activity to practice describing or “can”, or it can be a longer role play in which students write a story with their superheros as main characters.

6. Role Play

Speaking of role plays, Story Cubes can easily be used in role plays. They can be used to set up the situation of a role play, or can be used during a role play to determine what happens next or what the speaker will say. It seems like a great way to keep advanced speakers on their toes.

7. DIY Story Cubes

You can easily make your own cubes to suit whatever needs you and your students have, as long as you are willing to do some literal cutting and pasting. You can easily find paper cube templates online. Modify them with class vocabulary and grammar and have custom cubes ready to go at any time!

Have you used Story Cubes? Do you have any other ideas on how to use them to practice language? Please share in the comments below!

Research Bites: Pragmatics and Proficiency

If teaching English only required us to teach subject-verb-object, our task would be so simple. But language, be a living, breathing beast requires so much more from us and our students. Layer after layer of lexical, grammatical, and phonetic complexity is added until students begin to resemble capable language users. But, it doesn’t end here. If we are teaching language to actually be used, then we need to teach “how-to-say-what-to-whom-when” (p. 1). In other words, pragmatics.


Roever, C., & Al-Gahtani, S. (2015). The development of ESL proficiency and pragmatic performance. ELT Journal. [$link]

Twitter Summary

Proficiency is not linked to pragmatics, so we really need to teach pragmatics more. #researchbites Continue reading


My Favorite Vocabulary Activities

That vocabulary is a basis for language learning is a given. When people travel abroad, they take dictionaries and phrase books, not grammar guides. Therefore, every course we teach should have a substantial focus on vocabulary. The more vocabulary one knows, the more families are known, and the more one can both derive and express meaning. Vocabulary is infinite; grammar is not.

So, how best to teach vocabulary? There is no simple answer to this. Some will say in context, in co-text, with collocations, as chunks, not at all, etc. There are as many ways to teach vocabulary as there are teachers. We all have our go-to activities – those activities that we have found to be effective for our context, students, and style. I’d like to share a few of my favorite ways to teach vocabulary.

Part I – Activities

Taboo - Taboo is one of my go-to activities for all levels. I keep a running set of taboo cards for each class, which are added to as our vocabulary grows. It’s a great way to practice and recycle vocabulary, and requires little preparation. To play Taboo, simply make cards for your target vocabulary words. Students sit in groups with a stack of face-down cards. One student draws the top cards and using definition, explanation, and example tries to get the other students to guess the vocabulary word. The student who correctly guesses first takes the card. Play passes to the left (or right) and continues as such.

One variation I play is that, at the end of the game, students take the cards they have won and defines them for the group, or makes sentences with them. Likewise, students can also take the cards they had the most trouble with and do the same.

Though this game is simple, students have always been engaged and it seems to really help them recall vocabulary and gaps in their vocabulary.

Hot Seat - This is a game I have been using more of lately with my students as a vocab review and warm-up. The game is simple. Divide the class into two teams. One student from each team comes to the front with their backs to the board/screen. Show their teams the same vocab and let them start giving the definition or examples of a vocab word. Whoever guesses it first is the winner. This can also be played as a whole class game with one student at the front. You’ll quickly see why this is called “hot seat”. It’s really fun and really effective.

The Popcorn Game - This is an ELT variation of the Korean “Nunchi Game” (눈치게임). In the original nunchi game, one random student starts by standing and saying a number (starting with 1). The next random student says “2″ and so on. However, if two students stand at the same time, they are out. If you say the wrong number, you are out. And, if you are last, you are out. There is a basic “ESL version” explanation here.

In my version, which I have dubbed “the popcorn game” (because students look like popcorn while they play) I say the meaning or an explanation of the vocabulary word. Students who know the answer must stand up and shout the word. However, the same rules as the original game apply: if two students stand up at the same time, they are out (even if they both don’t say it). Additionally, if they are wrong, they are out. Students can guess multiple times unless they are out. Play continues until there are a few students left and there is an obvious winner/know-it-all. Then, everyone plays again. This game takes a round or two to get going, but it is a great, fun way to review vocabulary.

Part II – Techniques

The 24 Hour Game - Although this is called a “game”, it’s more of a technique. Basically, I give students the challenge of using 2-3 (or more) vocabulary words outside of class within 24 hours. They must seek opportunities to fit the words into their everyday conversations. What’s more, they must write down (at some point) the sentence they said and the context in which they said it (e.g. they were talking about politics, or asking for help). They bring their sentences to class and we discuss how they were or weren’t able to use the vocabulary.

This is obviously a much easier activity to do in an ESL context, but it is still possible in an EFL context if students have other English classes, speak English with their friends or parents, or even talk to themselves in English. The point is to get students to use vocabulary so they don’t lose it.

Alternatives to this would be something in tune with the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (or linguistic landscapes) where they have to try and pay attention to their environment and see if they notice their new vocabulary being used (either aurally or visually).

Quizlet - Without a doubt, Quizlet is an essential tool for me as a teacher/learner and for my students. I use Quizlet with almost all my classes and I know that it is effective. I can see which students study, and how often, and their effort is clearly reflected on the assessments I give. If you are not using Quizlet with your students, you should start. If you need some ideas on using it, check out these ideas from Leo Sullivan or this guide from Sandy Millin.

Vocabulary-Integrated Discussions – This is a more serious variation of my “Strangers on a Train” game. For this technique, students briefly review their vocabulary and choose 2-3 words they wish to use during their discussion. They then work in a small group to hold a discussion on any topic (based on lesson, coursebook, student choice). Their goal, besides having a successful discussion, is to use their vocabulary words naturally in that discussion. At first, these kinds of discussions are a bit awkward as students really focus on strategically using their words. However, soon it becomes a less cognitively demanding task as they get more practice noticing opportunities in which they can use vocabulary.

Recycle, recycle, recycle – Any teacher will tell you recycling is extremely important. We need at least 8-12 exposures to a word in order to really internalize it. Few teachers will tell you that recycling is no easy task, especially if they are focused on coursebooks, for coursebooks claim but do little recycling (or they are focused on authentic materials, where the probability of the same non-high frequency vocabulary cropping up is low). There are several ways I make sure I recycle vocabulary.

First, for any materials I use, I always incorporate previously learned vocabulary. For example, I modify my reading texts (often stories taken from BreakingNewsEnglish or simple authentic readings) to make sure it contains both new and old vocabulary. When making language examples for explanation or practice (such as worksheets), I recycle vocabulary. In addition, I try to consciously use vocabulary in my own teacher talk – which is no easy feat, as I often confuse the vocabulary lists of different classes! Furthermore, assessments I create always test previously-assessed vocabulary (this keeps students on their toes, theoretically always reviewing vocabulary on Quizlet).

Admittedly, I may not be the best recycler and I am very curious about how you make sure to recycle vocabulary and give students the receptive and productive exposure necessary to truly learn vocabulary. Please let me know in the comments!


Getting in Bed with TED (Some ideas for using TED Talks)

I haven’t always been a fan of TED Talks. I’ve always watched them with a bit of apprehension, having never liked the compression of ideas into a few minutes, the scripted and overenthusiastic applause, or the elitist atmosphere of the speakers and talks. However, I have come around. I realized, first with surprise and then with admiration, that my students actually enjoy TED a lot more than I do. They apparently don’t have the cynicism that I do. So, while I still find some of the well-timed cheers and applause gag-worthy, I can now see the promise of TED, both in the dissemination of ideas (hence their tagline: “Ideas Worth Spreading”) and in the utility of this medium for my students.

TED Talks now form a solid core of my upper level listening courses because my students find the topics interesting, and because the videos are extremely exploitable, that is, they lend themselves to a lot of adaptation and adoption. So, I wanted to share some activities I have done and some ideas I have had for using TED Talks in the classroom.

First, a quick breakdown of why TED Talks are so exploitable:

  • They include a transcript
  • They often include multiple translations
  • You can download the video for offline viewing/editing
  • You can download only the audio for offline listening/editing
  • They represent enough topics to get anyone interested
  • They are relatively short, from between 5-20 minutes
  • Creative Commons license

Keep in mind that TED Talks may only be useful for intermediate and above learners, and usually for adolescents and up. So, not for really for everyone. But, for those of us who teach older and more proficient learners (especially in more academic environments), TED Talks offers a treasure trove of material which only requires a little creativity and imagination.


TEDxESL offers ESL lessons built around TED Talks. Most of the lessons are grammar and vocabulary heavy with some communicative tasks and activities, but they are a great place to start if you are looking for ways to exploit TED.


TED Talks serve as a great way to anchor any lesson, whether it is grammar, vocabulary, speaking, writing, etc. Anchoring a lesson means putting your lesson into an interesting, meaningful and relevant context. It builds interest, motivation, and helps to activate (or build) background knowledge. In other words, anchoring a lesson lays important groundwork for learning.

If you can find a connection between what you are teaching and a TED Talk, then the talk can serve as a great way to build background knowledge and interest in your topic. It could serve as a springboard for generating discussion, as context for several grammatical points of vocabulary, or as a muse for essay idea generation.

Grammar Study

The sky’s the limit when it comes to grammar. You can find most grammar points, simple and complex, used throughout the hundreds of hours TED Talks. The transcripts will really help with this. The question becomes which to focus on? My recommendation would be to find a highly interesting talk and pull out the grammar points that you think the students a) need to review, b) need to learn, or c) will struggle with. Another idea is to have students follow along with the transcript and underline any grammatical structures that cause confusion. Have them write the sentences on some slips of paper and give them to you. You now have a week’s worth of lessons and ideas. You could also use the translated subtitles to offer translation practice (for budding translators, or as another method of grammar learning) or compare the grammar and nuanced meaning of the two languages. Need to find grammar points fast? Try the TED Corpus Search Engine or analyze a script with AntConc!

Vocab / The Academic Word List

Just like grammar, there is a plethora of vocabulary that can be gleamed from TED Talks. You can focus on common words or words from the academic word list. I would copy and past the script into the Vocab Grabber and focus on less common words. And like grammar, you can also have students generate the lessons. Have them choose some words from the script. They can then look them up and teach them to their group members. Afterwards, they can write a dialogue or script using those words and perform their script for the class. They can also recycle this vocabulary into presentations or essays.

Audacity / Audio Editing

Because TED offers the audio-only version of any talk, these talks lend themselves to audio editing. Using Audacity, you can quickly pull out excerpts, speed up or slow down the audio, or create loops of specific words or sounds you want students to focus on.

Listening Journals

I am a big fan of listening journals – getting students to do both extensive and intensive listening practice while at the same time reflecting on their listening experiences. TED Talks make excellent sources for listening journals. I couple the extensive listening of TED Talks with gap-fills or transcription activities from the students’ favorite parts.


There are a lot of different speakers from all over the world on TED. You can help students explore and be exposed to different accents by listening to various TED speakers. Listen to a different one each week or get them to explore TED accents on their own. Here is a list of 25 videos featuring different accents

TED Corpus Search Engine

Yoichiro Hasebe, a professor of linguistics from Japan, has create the multi-lingual, multi-modal TED Corpus Search Engine, which allows you to search for words or phrases and see these words in their textual context as well as their aural/visual context (i.e. you can see the part of the TED talk they actually come from). In addition, you can select translations (taken from TED subtitles) which can be displayed alongside the text. There is probably a lot you can do with this, from analyzing lexical and grammatical items, noticing usage patterns, or hearing a word’s pronunciation in context.


Gap fills may seem like a traditional activity, but they have stuck around so long because they are effective at helping students work on their decoding skills. I get students to do gap-fills along with their listening journals, but there is no reason why they couldn’t do it in class, especially if you get students to reflect afterwards on why they misheard certain words. I typically make it so my gaps can be one or more words, which forces students to focus not just on single words but on multiple word utterances that may have gone through so elision or another connective process.

Likewise, TED Talks would be very useful for transcriptions and dictoglosses and I would definitely use these in any class that has a listening focus.


Any TED Talk could be used to help students with their pronunciation. These talks may serve as an excellent model from which students can practice individual words, thought groups, word stress, etc. I would choose a short excerpt (10-20 seconds, perhaps one they have completed for a gap-fill) and have students do a mimicry exercise where they try to record themselves saying the exact same thing in the exact same way as the speaker. I have had students actually record themselves first play the clip, hit pause, say their part, and repeat – but getting them to do the whole thing at once is better. This mimicry exercise is great because it gets them (hopefully) to not only pronounce their segmentals clearly, but has them practicing suprasegmentals such as word stress, elision, intonation, pauses, etc. In addition, it gets them to analyze their own pronunciation by comparing it to the model and judging whether or not it is similar/intelligible enough.


No EAP class would be complete without note-taking practice. TED, while straying from the format of the traditional academic lecture students may encounter, does give students a chance to listen and take-notes, hopefully following the Cornell method.

Academic Speaking Circles

This is an idea I have modified from Tyson Seburn’sAcademic Reading Circles“. In the original concept, students read an academic text and are given specific roles with which they to use to have a discussion following the reading. The roles include a leader (they gauge groups understanding, ask comprehension questions), a contextualizer (they research topics and concepts from the text), a visualizer (they find things from the text that could be visually represented), a connector (they ask questions to draw connections between the text other lessons, courses, or everyday life and experiences), and a highlighter (they focus on interesting linguistic structures like grammar and vocab).

Seburn’s Circles talk about a “text” and in ELT jargon, a “text” is not something read but it is a form of input. Clearly, TED Talks are a form of input and thus a form of text. Therefore, it would be very easy to adapt Seburn’s idea to Academic Discussion Circles based on a TED Talk (I am trying this out this term). Some modifications might be to alter or combine the role of visualizer (since TED often includes visuals) and add pronunciation features to what the highlighter should be looking for.

Presentation Skills

I have stopped getting my students to do presentations in my classes because 1) I don’t really feel it prepares them for the few classes they may have to give presentations in while at university and 2) I don’t feel like I have enough time to teach good presentation techniques. However, for those who do wish to teach these skills, TED offers a number of great speakers who students can watch, analyze, and model. Getting students to do a TED-style presentation would be very fun, very rewarding and most likely payoff down the line of students’ academic careers.

Mindsets and Meta

Fall, 2014: I had just learned about the fixed vs growth mindset and found a wonderful talk by this concept’s main researcher, Carol Dweck. I used this TED Talk not only to practice some listening at the beginning of the term, but also to establish the concept of fixed vs growth mindset. For some of my students, this was their last term before they would possibly enter university and they needed to make progress. Figuring out those who had a fixed mindset and instilling into them the idea of a growth was an important first week challenge. In the first week of class, we learned (or relearned) about the power of errors, mistakes, and failing – and that they could in fact achieve their goals and make their English grow. Throughout the term I constantly referred to the fixed/growth mindset and for some of my students, I could see that it really hit home.

TED could be an excellent source for this kind of metacognitive priming, and it could be using as a reference (and inspiration) point throughout a course. A colleague of mine told me about a gaol-setting video she had her students watch. When she saw students struggling, she would refer back to the video and get them to focus on a specific goal in order to overcome their struggles. This seemed to work well for her.

TED has many, many inspirational talks that can be tied directly into helping change a class’ mindset, perspective, or way of learning.

More Ideas

My Favorite Coursebooks (or: Not All Coursebooks Are the Same)

There is a very lively discussion right now on Twitter and in some blogs (ex: here and here) about the value of coursebooks. What is being presented seems to come down to an either/or fallacy in which coursebooks are taken to be something monolithic that you either support or your don’t – that are either good or bad. These arguments also assume that every coursebook is the same, and all teachers utilize them the same way. All of this is, of course, nonsense, as the value of coursebooks and how they are utilized is not an easy thing to decide and is not uniform. The whole coursebook debate is something very complex that is being too simplistically argued. Furthermore, in my view, you cannot simply categorically reject all coursebooks, as coursebooks don’t all fit in the same category! That is precisely the point of my post today.

This debate has occurred many times, but Geoff Jordan’s excellent presentation at InnovateELT seems to be the catalyst of the most recent online debate. To summarize his main points, he argues that coursebooks have no value because they make these three assumptions:

  • that the declarative knowledge taught in these coursebooks, especially in terms of grammar, will lead to procedural knowledge;
  • that languages are learned by accumulating rules;
  • that learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it.

What Geoff Jordan is making here are valid arguments, with evidence to support them. The problem is, however, they cannot be levied against every coursebook. Take, for example, my two favorite coursebooks: Sourcework and Contemporary Topics.


Sourcework is a coursebook dedicated to helping students learn how to write research papers. It provides practice in research, summarizing, paraphrasing, making citations, organizing research papers, using evidence to make strong arguments, etc. It provides numerous research articles to help guide students in building their first research paper. I have used it numerous times on its own and to supplement other texts. It remains my favorite advanced writing text. How does it hold up to Geoff’s argument?

1. Assumption: declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge

You will not find grammar or vocabulary in this book. Yet, you will find declarative knowledge. Model sentences (e.g. paraphrased sentences), model paragraphs (e.g. introductions or body paragraphs with evidence) and model research papers fill the book, along with explanations of the why and how of writing techniques, style choices, APA citation formulae, etc. Will this translate into procedural knowledge? Possibly, but the book does not make the assumption that a little practice will lead students there. In fact, the book makes no assumption at all – it’s a book. Only the teacher can make such an assumption, and if they do, clearly they are wrong. The book is a guide, as is the teacher.

The point of the book is to give students a lot of writing practice (structured and free, with tons of teacher feedback) and a source of models and support for writing their own research papers. There is no guarantee that students will be able to complete this course and coursebook, toss it in the fire, and write beautiful research papers with nary a peek at some book or website to assist them. Then again, no course, coursebook, or teacher can promise that. (And even native speakers need help in writing these kinds of papers!) As Geoff has said, the link between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge is not clearly established, nor are the means to move between the two. So, there are few instances where we can guarantee that students internalize and automatize everything that is taught, whether they are in a grammar translation or dogme classroom. All we can do is provide meaningful practice, feedback, and revision – and pray that it works (spoiler: it often does).

2. Assumption: languages are learned by accumulating rules

There are no rules taught in this book, but there are skills, so this assumption could still apply to them. It begins with summarizing and paraphrasing, moving to researching, outlining, planning, writing, editing, etc. – what’s known as the writing process. Do these skills have to be learned in order to be a good writer? No. But, the skills do represent the usual order people take when they begin to write a research paper – perfect scaffolding for a fledgling university student. They read research, summarize and paraphrase it to better understand it, generate arguments, plan and draft, and finally revise their papers. If anything, the structure of this coursebook is simply following the natural writing process that most people – students and professors alike – go through. Nevertheless, the skills do kind of accumulate and culminate in some end product. Therefore, the assumption above is somewhat met. Here, writing skills accumulate in order to produce an end product. Does it devalue the book itself, the course, the teacher, or the skills learned? I highly doubt it.

3. Assumption: learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it

This book recycles over and over again the skills of the previous chapters. It is working on the assumption that you must constantly use all skills to write a research paper effectively. For example, in looking at body paragraphs and integrating evidence, one needs to not only find evidence to use, but decide whether to summarize or paraphrase it, and then figure out how to go about it. Clearly this is asking students to recall, re-apply, and recycle a fundamental writing skill (which may be why summarizing and paraphrasing were selected as one of the first chapters).

Beyond the coursebook, what will the students be writing in class? Will they write a single research paper and that’s it? Probably not. A good teacher would make sure students write multiple research papers, recalling, re-applying, and recycling all the writing skills they have learned while receiving support and feedback all the way. Unless students are truly only given the chance to practice these skills in a singular one-off fashion, this coursebook clearly does not meet the above assumption.


Contemporary Topics is a multi-level academic listening and speaking course (I believe they have 3 levels of books) that offers short 5-10 minute academic lectures (audio and video) as well as model study group student discussions (audio and video) to accompany vocabulary and listening skill building exercises, as well as group discussion techniques and presentation ideas. Each unit represents common academic courses that students will likely encounter (e.g. science, psychology, linguistics, anthropology). Each unit also follows the same structure, which, in truth can be a bit dull. However, the best thing about this book is that its sparseness and brevity of activities, which leaves it wide open for deeper exploration, adaptation, and supplementation. I believe this book was left intentionally sparse, knowing that the teacher will teach what students need to know in terms of grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary etc. It is up to the students and the teacher to explore the language – the book just gives a source for academic listening. However, it is still a coursebook, so how does it fare under the assumptions?

1. Assumption: declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge

There is no declarative knowledge being taught in this book. There are no grammar rules or pronunciation points. No why or hows here. Just some vocab exposure and listening practice – lots of it. Maybe one can argue that this book makes the assumption that hearing vocabulary will lead to true mastery of that vocabulary? If it does, that assumption, of course, is incorrect. However, I believe it is working on the assumption that multiple exposures to vocabulary through reading, writing, listening and speaking help cement vocabulary. I believe this because the vocabulary is presented in these different modes, and it is recycled throughout the book.

2. Assumption: languages are learned by accumulating rules

There are no rules in this book. Nothing gets accumulated. I’m not even sure that the lectures get lexically or structurally more complex – they all seem to be at the same level of difficulty. This book is operating under the assumption that listening needs to be at an appropriate level and improving listening requires motivating listening texts and repeated exposures.

3. Assumption: learners learn what they are taught when they are taught it

This book explicitly teaches one listening strategy and one speaking strategy for each unit. For example, it may teach that keywords that speakers use for defining words or concepts (“that is,” “or,” “in other words”), and it may teach phrases for disagreeing. These are discrete skills in an otherwise holistic coursebook. However, these are secondary to the listening practice. And the listening practice affords multiple chances to recycle this knowledge. Does this book fall victim to this assumption? I’m not sure. However, I know that when I use this book, I never assume students have learned the discrete skills, so we are constantly reviewing and recycling. I also never assume the two suggested listenings are enough for the students. I get students to listen many times, to the whole lecture, to parts of the lecture, with subtitles, without subtitltes, in-class with discussions or at home for homework – we do lots of different activities that go beyond the textbook.


I’ve presented my two favorite coursebooks to show that Geoff’s arguments, while valid, do not apply to all textbooks. The textbooks listed above are far from perfect. No textbook is, just as no teacher, class, or student is perfect. One could argue that the textbooks I presented here are not the type of coursebooks we often refer to when making these argument. But, then, what kinds of coursebooks are we referring to? You’ll find that there is no categorical coursebook that can be argued against, and by constantly changing the parameters of what a coursebook is or isn’t, we may have slipped into a No True Scotsman fallacy.

As you read in my examples above, I never divorced the textbook from the teacher. This is because there is more to what goes on in a language class than the textbook. Teacher agency in terms of following, not-following, utilizing, supplementing and/or adapting a textbook is very important. Student agency is of equal importance. Geoff’s arguments hold up much better if they are applied to teaching in general and not to the specific tools that the teacher uses.

And, it should be obvious to all by now that there is no one correct way to teach a language. Textbook, no textbook, CLT, TBL, dogme, learning styles, data-driven learning, explicit, implicit, grammar, communication – all these are minor variables in a very complex process that we can only seem to make educated guesses at. Out of all the factors that affect teaching the most, time and time again teacher plausability seems to have one of the greatest effects. I highly recommend reading this article by NS Prabhu to learn more about teacher plausability and why there is no best teaching method.

Five Cool Online Reading Tools

Reading instruction has been a slowly blossoming interest for me. In particular, reading news and current events, as these articles seem to be more pertinent, interesting and up-to-date than what is usually found in most coursebooks. I teach a reading course once per term and am always trying some new ideas, source, technique or website. I have also written about reading online before (using Flipboard - something I still haven’t tried) and throughout the terms I have been collecting useful websites and tools that I have used or played with to varying degrees. Below, I detail five interesting and useful websites that I think all teachers should know about: Breaking News English, News in Levels, Newsela, Actively Learn, and Social Book.

The first three websites in this list feature graded articles – articles written at varying levels of difficulty but still on the same core story (typically, current events). For each website, I have provided some example readability scores of their articles. Readability scores are based on a formula which analyzes the number of sentences, words, and syllables in a text to determine how difficult it is to read. Of course, these scores don’t look at lexical complexity per se, but multisyllabic words tend to be more lexically complex than monosyllabic words. In addition, these tests seem to have stood the test of time, so I’ll use them as a general guide for judging what texts might be appropriate for your students.

Below, I use three different scores. First, I use the McAlpine EFLAW score, which is meant to judge readability on a scale from “very easy” to “very confusing” (note: I used this VBS script to analyze the texts for this score). Then, I used the wonderfully simple Readability Score website to determine the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score (the lower the score, the easier it is out of 100) and the average grade level this text would be suitable for (for native speakers of English; this is an average of several different readability tests).

The scores I report below are a simple web analysis of single texts, but I think they do give you some good insight into what may be suitable for your students. However, be careful. Some scores came back as “very easy” while my pre-university students (intermediate and above) would have struggled with them.

Happy reading!


1. Breaking News English


Summary: Breaking News English is an excellent source for graded current events. It is updated several times per week and offers a range of reading and listening input and activities. News from popular sites such as CNN, BBC, etc are aggregated and rewritten into two paragraphs at differing levels of difficulty, from Level 0 (roughly beginner) to Level 6 (roughly upper intermediate). Most news stories offer levels 1-3 or 4-6 while some offer all the levels. Each news article often comes with an audio version of the story which can be listened to at varying speeds (slow, fast, fastest) and accents (RP, GA).

In addition to the news stories themselves, there are a range of activities that are produced to coincide with the story. These include gap-fills, fill in the blanks, comprehension questions, etc. What’s amazing about this site is the sheer number of activities, which, unless the creator of BreakingNewsEnglish never sleeps, must be computer generated; yet, they look like they were actually made by humans, including the audio!



Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 0 16 (very easy) 76.6 6.0
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 1 20.1 (very easy) 73.8 7.1
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 2 21.1 (quite easy) 75.3 7.4
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 3 26.3 (a little difficult) 69.1 8.8
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 4 12.0 (very easy) 69.8 7.1
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 5  15.3 (very easy) 64.6 8.5
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 6 22.9 (quite easy) 56.7 10.5

Practicality: The stories are always current and always interesting, but they may pose a challenge for beginners and may not pose a challenge for upper level students. Thankfully, sources of the stories are always given, so you can easily find the original articles and adapt them to your needs. The activities that come along with these stories seem to be computer generated and are almost the same for each story. Each story starts with the same type of “walk around and talk” warm-up and follows through with a similar format. Online activities include filling in missing letters, and reading the news as it scrolls at a set speed. Lots of activities are offered, but don’t seem to be that meaningful, bordering on useless. Any teacher who follows these activities to the T risks boring their students to death.


Bottom Line: This site is very useful for finding graded content about current events, but it will probably serve the teacher well to make their own activities.

2. News in Levels


Summary: News in Levels is similar to Breaking News English in that it offers the same news story in several different levels, here ranging from 1 (high beginner) to 3 (intermediate). Each text is quite short – no more than a few paragraphs. The site also offers audio for each news article, with Level 3 audio/video being taken mostly from On Demand News, formerly ITN News. The sources for the texts also come from here, with Level 3 being the original text. News in Levels includes an extra paragraph at the end of each story to define difficult vocabulary. Some articles offer comprehension questions or further activities, though not all of them do so.



Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Old Bombs in Germany” 1 7.4 (very easy) 86.7 3.8
“Old Bombs in Germany” 2 19.4 (very easy) 83.4 5.7
“Old Bombs in Germany” 3 26.5 (a little difficult) 65.7 9.3


Practicality: While News in Levels offers a range newsinlevels-vidof news articles, the range of difficulty is quite limited. In addition, while Level 3 is authentic in that it is the original article, it is quite short. Likewise, while Level 3 audio is authentic, Level 1 and 2 are spoken at such a slow speed that it is only useful for beginners and lower proficiency students.

Bottom Line: News in Levels is useful at the lower-levels of reading and listening, but does not pose a challenge for higher levels, and it may not be suited for those wishing to have a more academic focus.

3. Newsela


Newsela-levels-activitiesSummary: Newsela offers graded news events at more advanced levels. Unlike Breaking News English and News in Levels, this website was not designed for English language learners; rather, it was designed for native English speaking students. Articles are considerably longer, each being broken into five levels, from 6th to 12th grade (US). Many of the articles often come with quiz questions and writing prompts, both of which are supposed to be Common Core alligned . Newsela requires users to sign-up (free) and log-in to access its articles and services. Teachers can assign and mark these with a Newsela PRO account (not free). Newsela PRO users have a range of tools to manage classes, give assignments, highlight and leave notes on articles, and so on.


Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 650L 12.8 (very easy) 77.6 6.2
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 930L 17.6 (very easy) 69.4 8.1
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 1040L  10.4 (very easy)  61.1  9.5
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 1220L  25.3 (quite easy)  54.9  10.9
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” MAX  29.5 (very confusing)  51.3  12.3

Practicality: Newsela’s articles seem suitable for upper-level students or students with a more academic focus. They seem t  o work great as a graded source of materials that still pose a challenge. However, the great power of Newsela is in its teacher’s tools, which is unfortunately quite expensive.


Bottom Line: Unless you work in a school that can afford the price and will heavily utilize Newsela for all students, this website is only useful as a source of graded current events for which the teacher can adapt offline.

4. Actively Learn


active-teacher menuSummary: Actively Learn offers a different experience when compared to the other websites. One function of Actively Learn is content curation: you can select text from their catalog or upload any text (e.g. an article from CNN, Newsela, Breaking News, or the Journal of Hyperbolic Topography – or even books) and then distribute this article to a class (or individual students) along with directions, teacher notes, and quiz questions (multiple choice and short answer). In addition, from the student’s point of view, double clicking on any word will bring up a definition or highlighting text will allow them to write notes which can be shared with the class. They can also highlight a sentence and choose “I don’t understand it”, which notifies the teacher that a student needs help. Any quiz questions students answer can be seen, graded and commented on by the teacher. Students and teachers have the ability to track progress as well. All of this is with the free account. The paid account offers more collaboration and the ability to use Google Docs.

active-teacher-tool active-ss-tool
Teacher Student

Practicality: Because you can choose any content (graded or not), annotate the text for students, and then draft comprehension questions, this seems like an excellent site for students who will be reading longer, more advanced texts. The free version should suffice for most teacher’s needs.

Bottom Line: I admittedly have limited experience with Actively Learn, but so far it seems to be an excellent website for getting students to work with longer texts outside of class.

5. Socialbook


Summary: And now time for something different: Live Margin’s Socialbook. The first time I heard about Socialbook was from the Professor Hacker blog detailing using this website for film analysis with its video annotation tool. Radically different from the websites listed above, Socialbook allows you to upload a locally saved text (or video) which can then be distributed to classes in the form of Groups. Inside these groups, all have access to the text and may underline and add notes as they wish. The social aspect comes when you start replying to the notes, having active conversations in the margins and hence the name “Live Margin” and “Social Book”. If one wishes, notes can also be kept private.


Practicality: This website seems useful if you are doing a lot of reading outside of class (perhaps a book or a long article) and want to get students to discuss the reading before class (maybe you only meet two or three times a week). Any article or video would suffice, though short texts be superfluous in this kind of text.


Bottom Line: Probably not very useful for your average ELT class, keep this website in mind for larger projects in the future.

A Letter to My Younger Teacher Self – #YoungerTeacherSelf challenge

This post is part of the #youngerteacherself challenge started by Joanna Malefaki. Please read her original post and the numerous other posts she has linked to! 

Dear Anthony,

You majored in anthropology, the study of people. But did you forget that you aren’t a people person? Did you forget you do not like talking with random people? That you do not like giving presentations or being the center of attention? That you are introverted and a little disinterested in other people, not to mention borderline misanthropic? How did you ever expect to do fieldwork with a disposition like this?

Well, would it shock you to know that in 2015, you have talked with strangers from around the globe, commanded the attention of children, teenagers, and adults, lived in several foreign countries, and are now a “professional”? No, you’re still not an anthropologist. And you’re not the president. You’re a teacher.

And not like an elementary school or high school teacher. No, you’re an English language instructor at a university – the coolest kind of teacher. You have been a teacher for almost 8 years. You have taught all ages, but have decided teaching university students and adults is more in line with your personality and interests. Good choice. Kids are terrible (incidentally, you have 2 beautiful children and they are not terrible!) You’ve also developed a keen interest in linguistics despite no formal training. And of course, because you’ve always been a nerd, you have integrated technology into everything you’ve done (and regretted not becoming a software engineer so you can invent the technology that you think is missing in this field).

Your first days of teaching were face-palm worthy. Just terrible. It’s never a good idea to ever make students stand up and shake hands. This is not language teaching. This is public embarrassment. It took you about six months before you figured out what you were doing, and you decided to pursue a master’s degree. You get much better. Some have even described you as a great. In my opinion, you’re not bad.

But, you can be so much better, which is why I’m writing. Those valuable months of failure you went through – I’m not going to give you any advice to avoid that. I want you to have that. Teaching is something you do learn on the job, through mistakes and failures. It’s how we grow. In fact, that’s my first point of advice. Here is what I want you to do:

  • Understand that failure is only an opportunity for growth and reflection – this is something I just learned.
  • Double major in linguistics and computer science – you’ll find that these areas will not only leave you well-informed in terms of language structure and language learning, but you will find numerous niches in which to combine these fields. You can invent software that will make language processing and language learning much more effective. Or maybe you’ll just make awesome power points. You’ll also find that examining the underlying structure of language is super fun, and what all the cool kids are doing on blogs and Twitter with their phonetic symbols and waveforms and brain diagrams. Don’t worry about what those are right now. Just keep reading…
  • Learn a language, or three – do not give up on French! Do you see those posters all over campus about study abroad? Don’t just daydream about them. Rip one down, march into the Study Abroad office and figure out a way to get there. Your poor, but you’re not that poor. You have a secret desire to be a polyglot. It’s hard work and it needs to start now!
  • DO NOT move to the woods. You will learn some valuable lessons about life and survival there, but you can learn those elsewhere. Instead, look for “esl teaching jobs” on AltaVista or whatever search engine is popular right now. Places to focus on: Japan, Korea, Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia. Spin the globe and pick a place at random. You’ll get valuable experience and a decent paycheck. See if you can get short-term contracts. Do this for a year or two.
  • Then, go back home and start your master’s ASAP. I started it while I was teaching in Korea. This allowed me to apply a lot of what I learned to the classroom to kind of test out what works and what doesn’t. This is great, but you will get a whole host of valuable experiences and opportunities if you get your MA before teaching. Applied linguistics sounds like a good area. Applied cognitive linguistics is also interesting. Natural language processing sounds boring, but a company called Google may be looking for people with this experience.
  • I got my master’s degree via distance. It was very convenient but I realized something major it lacked: the chance to work with faculty to conduct research. When you are getting your master’s degree, please please please find as many research opportunities as you can. This will give you the ability to travel, present, publish and create a stellar CV. That will be important for the future.
  • By the time you teach, study, and teach some more, it will have already been 2015 and you are me. We are struggling to figure out when to get a PhD, where to get a PhD, how to pay for the PhD, and whether or not a PhD is even worth it. Do me a favor: figure this out before you get here.

All in all, if you don’t follow any of this advice, you still have a pretty decent career. But, like I said, I think these things can make your life a whole lot better. Notice that I don’t have any advice for actually teaching? Because, as I said, this comes with time and experience. Your teaching style fits your personality, and it is always changing because you do a lot of reading and research. Whatever path you end up on, I believe your teaching style is a representation of you. Me. We. Us.


You on May 12, 2015 – Knoxville, Tennessee, USA

How Language Shapes Our Myths, Logic, and Common Sense

There are those who will tell you that learning styles are a myth – that the evidence from psychology, cognitive science, neurology, and other numerous fields just can’t prove there is any such concept as learning styles. Despite the rational arguments, the research, and the evidence, the belief in learning styles is still persistent. It is so ingrained in us for a number of reasons, but mostly because it logically makes sense. I know that the idea is a myth, and I know the reasons why it is a myth, but also know that it still makes sense, logically. I’m sure many of us feel this way. We’re suffering from a kind of cognitive dissonance in which we must believe the evidence rather than our logic and gut instincts.

Our personalities shape how we learn. Now, let’s replace a few keywords: Our language shapes how we think. Another perfectly logical idea! However, like learning styles, it is another myth (even one that some anti-learning styles gurus may subscribe to). This is a myth I have been bothered by for quite some time.

Not a week goes by in which I do not stumble across an article that explains how our language shapes our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs, our diet, our bodies, or our love-making skills. It’s as if Sapir and Whorf themselves have risen from the grave and begun a linguistic click bait crusade. These poplinguistics articles are found on (mostly) reputable sites like NPR, The New York Times, TED.com, The Independent and Scientific American.

This is a hotly debated issue, and the “How Language Shapes Our…” titles draws a lot of traffic, shares, and retweets to the point where just the sheer volume of these titles is likely beginning to shape most people’s perspectives on this issue. And people believe it because the idea is just so logical! Of course language shapes us. Why wouldn’t it. However, it’s not that simple and I fear a belief in this kind of logic can have minor but far-reaching negative effects.

There is an implicit sense of racism and cultural differentiation behind these headlines that focuses on arbitrary differences. Yet, the headlines abound despite these ideas being debunked again and again. John McWhorter wrote a wonderful and brief book on this subject that I highly recommend reading called “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language“. Below, I attempt to explain my thoughts on the subject, unfortunately not so articulately laid out as McWhorter’s. (Hear an interview with McWhorter on “The Language Hoax” here.)

The basic premise of most of these articles’ arguments is that our thoughts are filtered through our language, and therefore our language shapes our worldview (which is not clearly defined, but seems to be an amalgamation of thoughts, perspectives, and subconscious and perhaps conscious beliefs). For example, from the NPR article above, a glimpse of the Russian and English worldviews as permeated by language is summarized below:

For example, she says English distinguishes between cups and glasses, but in Russian, the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape, not material.

To someone who believes in linguistic relativity (a.k.a Whorfianism a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), this fact about how Russian and English distinguishe the objects is insight into how these languages’ speakers’ worldview differ. Couple this with the fact that Russian speakers have been shown in controlled experiments to recognize different shades of blue slightly faster than English speakers and you start to build a case for Whorfianism. A weak Whorfianist might state that this proves there is a fundamental difference in these speakers’ worldviews, and language is the variable that causes this difference.

One must say that because Russians experience blueness different from English speakers and that they perceive everyday objects as categorically different, they have different views of life (i.e. worldview). Taken to its logical conclusion, a strong Whorfian could argue the world of color is richer to Russians, and that this must be somehow related to the Russian peoples’ penchant for Communism, purges, borscht and onion domes. Whereas the world to an English speaker is rather muted and dull, which is why we may spend our time competing to design cars from every shade of the rainbow in a capitalist society.

Does the fact that most Romance languages having gendered articles make these language speakers more sexist in any way, or at the least, perceive gender and everyday objects radically differently? Does the English definite article mean that English speakers understand specificity better than speakers of Polish or Chinese who lack these types of constructions? Do Turkish speakers understand truth differently because they have special grammatical markers that tell the listener where the information they are hearing comes from?

If these last ideas sound extreme, it’s because they are. And herein lies the danger of Whorfianism. Whorfianism, in looking at language differences, focuses on what one language has and another lacks, and then makes broad generalizations about those language groups. The problem here is overgeneralization or false generalization, which leads to reinforcing subtle concepts of racism and otherness.

For example, if we say that the Hopi experience time in a better way because they lack the words for time and are therefore said to experience past, present, and future as a single phenomenon; or if we say that the Inuit experience the world in a deeper way because they have different words for minute variations of snow; or if we say that a certain Australian culture is closer to nature because they do not think of left and right, but use cardinal directions and are extremely accurate; if we say all this, then we are at the same time romanticizing the “primitive” and reinforcing otherness, no matter our noble and equalizing intentions.

According to McWhorter:

…in the end, the embrace of this idea is founded on a quest to acknowledge the intelligence of “the other,” which, though well intentioned, drifts into a kind of patronization that the magnificent complexity and nuance of any language makes unnecessary. It is a miracle when any one of the world’s six billion persons utters a sentence, quite regardless of whether it signals how they “see the world.”

He continues with a great example of the danger of Whorfianism:

Take the intransigent ultranationalist German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Prussophile, xenophobic, and nakedly anti-Semitic, he was given in the late nineteenth century to insights such as “differences of language inevitably imply differing outlooks on the world.” You can imagine the kinds of arguments and issues he couched that kind of statement in, and yet the statement itself could come straight out of Whorf, and would be celebrated as brain food by a great many today. “Surely,” after all, “the question is worth asking …”—yet somehow, we would rather von Treitschke hadn’t, and find ourselves yearning for thoughts about what we all have in common.

Given that our intentions are pure, and that we seem to want to raise up the status of people seen as culturally “backward”, it would be better to focus not on these differences but on the fact that phonetics and grammar are universally arbitrary and that we all speak essentially randomly organized languages. Not equalizing enough? How about the fact that most “primitive” languages are thoroughly more complex than your average world language (English included)? Or how about the fact that, as McWhorter’s subtitle suggests, we all see the world in the same way?

So, here we have a perfectly logical idea: language shapes thought. And this idea make so much sense, that it is written about time and time again. Yet, looking at the evidence, and even more carefully critiquing the idea, we can see that this supposed common sense is just a myth. Yet, it still persists, just as the belief in learning styles and numerous other debunked myths do. Why?

Generous Feedback

It’s confessional time (pardon any sarcasm and my overuse of parentheses):

I give a lot of feedback: on writing, on speaking, and recently on teaching. However, there is a problem with my feedback. It’s all negative. Now, it’s not negative in that I am telling students they are terrible and they should go back to their country and study something else (I never think this!). It’s negative because of the absence of positive. I rarely leave a “Terrific!” or “Good job!” or “You worded this thesis statement in an excellent and clear way.” type of comment. My comments are cold and calculated (“SV,” “noun form error,” “use the past tense,” “I didn’t understand this word”).

It’s not because I am mean (I’m really a nice guy), but because it’s not in my personality, I am a bit lazy (there is a lot more wrong than right which I need to address), and mostly because students both want and need feedback on their problems/mistakes/errors/glitches (grammar, organization, content, plagiarism, etc.) more than they want feedback on what they did right. After all, isn’t me not ripping up their paper in anger and throwing it at them a nice enough gesture?.

Mistakes are important and I not only highlight mistakes, but I talk students through their mistakes, give examples, models, and language rules to help them understand what they did and how to make it better. I rarely correct things for them. And I always have them record their errors, the reason they made them, and how to correct these errors so that they have a catalog of their own specific problems, which they can then use to help them in later work. I do this for both written and oral work.

I remember taking a class on writing instruction. One of the articles we had to read offered what was considered a very good technique. For every written assignment submitted, a good teacher should read it three times: once, pencil down, just to get a sense of what the student is trying to say; once to make comments on general organization and content issues; and once on the grammar and language mechanics. Give me a break. This sounds great, but teachers do not have that kind of time. If I had to read every assignment three times, I’d still be giving feedback on our first assignment! Why not just give feedback correctly the first time? There is no reason one cannot read, understand, and comment on all aspects of the paper during the first read.

Plus, I give my comments only when I am working with a student, so that we can talk about the issues and try to resolve them in real-time. This works because I am dealing with a small class (~12 students) and short assignments (~1 page or less). For longer assignments, I give comments via Google Drive and reserve time for writing conferences. This is time intensive. I couldn’t imagine adding more reading to this.

My technique, while it may not be the “nicest” or most “humanistic,” is effective. My students learn. Their writing improved. And they never cry.

One final confession: I use a red pen. Actually, I have several multicolored pens (with red, blue, green, and blank inks) that help me better comment on student writing. I use red not as a mark of evil but because it is bright and stands out, which makes it easier for students to focus on their issues. Sometimes I use orange because orange is the color of my school and I have a lot of orange pens. I also use blue to make more general comments and content comments. I use green and black too for various and sundry purposes.

Someone once told me, “Never use red.” Until someone presents some empirical evidence showing a red pen can undo a semester’s worth of mutual respect, constructive feedback, and rapport, I’ll treat this as I treat rules such as “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”

What kind of feedback do you leave? What color is your feedback? How does your feedback smell?