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

breakingnewsstories

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!

breakingnewsstories-activities

Readability

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.

breakingnewsstories-activities-warmup

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

newsinlevels

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.

newsinlevels-diffwords

Readability

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

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.

Readability

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.

newsela-offers

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  

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

sb

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.

sb-intext

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.

sb-book

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.

Sincerely,

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?

 

Listening in the Hot Seat: LyricsTraining

I love the reciprocal and unexpected nature of sharing. Several months ago, I gave a faculty presentation about listening skills and included a demonstration of using LyricsTraining.com (If you don’t know about LyricsTraining, it’s a very fun gap-fill listening game based on popular music videos – students love it!). Usually I use it as part of student listening journals, but got a new idea from one of my colleagues the other day.

Several days ago, I passed by one of my colleagues classrooms and heard the song “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift being played and paused, played and paused. I was curious because a) I didn’t think this colleague was a swifty, and second, I was curious about what they were doing with this song. I asked them when I saw them in the office, and was told a very simple, whole class activity that I hadn’t thought of before.

The activity is a kind of “hot-seat” game in which there are two or more teams. A representative from one team comes up to the computer and plays the LyricsTraining game for 20-30 seconds (use a timer). After the allotted time, the game is paused and the number of correct words typed is tallied on the board. During their turn, students must listen to the song, can repeat it, and can have their teammates shout the word if they heard it. They are bombarded with the word on all fronts, so they are really in the listening hot seat! After their turn, a student from the next team comes up and so on until the song is done. The group with the most points in the winner.

I thought this was a great motivating game that got all students practicing specific listening skills. It seemed like everyone was 100% engaged. This would work well as an introduction to LyricsTraining, as a end of class treat, as a warm-up, or the beginning of a serious lesson focusing on some aspect of a song.

Do you use LyricsTraining? How?

Grammarphobia?

Grammar! That single word can pit teachers against teachers or turn any conference into a battle royale. The concepts revolving around grammar are so ridiculously divisive that it is impossible to not have some opinion on the matter. Some people scoff at the idea of teaching grammar and label it as “traditionalist,” as if that is a valid argument in itself. Others call it “ineffective,” yet do not have the evidence to back up this claim (as far as I know, the jury is still out). Like most disagreements, it is mostly seen in mutually exclusive binomial terms like explicit vs. implicit, direct vs. indirect, fluency vs accuracy, grammar syllabus vs. functional syllabus vs. no syllabus, contextualized vs. decontextualized, metalanguage-non-metalanguage, etc.

I recently learned about a teacher trainer who has been teaching student teachers that grammar is taboo and should never be taught. I’m sure this person is not the only one? What kind of dogma is this? And if you are preaching against some method or technique, it is certainly dogma as you are not presenting all perspectives and evidence, as well as experience, and letting teachers decide for themselves. If this kind of thing is happening all over, are we breeding teachers who are grammarphobic, afraid to even entertain the idea of working with grammar, either explicitly, implicitly, or as Thornbury writes: “exposure, use and feedback first, then some upfront grammar teaching to sort out the mess!”? Not only will these teachers no learn about the fundamental workings of the very subject they are teaching (because it is not important) they will not be able to help students who want to know why or how something works (except on some native intuition, which is not necessarily accurate).

Am I a grammarphile because I do teach with some grammar? No, and it’s because I don’t see grammar in grammarphobe / grammarphile constructs. I employ all manners of grammar teaching and non-teaching in contexts I deem appropriate because I am guided by insight, experience, and research not dogma.

I don’t teach grammar because:

  • sometimes fluency is more important;
  • it is often decontextualized;
  • grammar-based instruction is too narrowly focused on one specific language point when, in real communication, numerous language points come into play;
  • there are too many rules and too many exceptions to rules, so it is better to learn them through exposure rather than analysis;
  • students, especially beginners, want to communicate not learn rules;
  • we learn better through meaningful practice, which grammar instruction does not provide;
  • communication is the essence of language.

I do teach grammar because:

  • sometimes accuracy is more important;
  • sometimes things need to be looked at out of context;
  • in real communication, there are numerous language points that come into play, and directing students attention to salient ones is important to help them communicate;
  • there are complicated rules and exceptions that can’t always be picked up naturally;
  • students, especially beginners, need foundation grammar skills on which to build up all their language skills;
  • we learn better through deliberate and meaningful repetitive practice, which meaningful grammar drilling can provide;
  • grammar is the essence of language.

Do you teach grammar? Why or why not? How or how not?

A Board Warmup That Is Not Boring

Inspiration for teaching ideas can strike anywhere. Walking around the library at my campus, one can see a recent effort by library services to engage with students by providing whiteboards on every floor with a question students can answer like, “Why do you love the library?”, “Finals week: what are you thinking about?”, or “What’s stressing you out today?” However, it wasn’t until I read a post by Mike Harrison about getting students to utilize an empty whiteboard that I realized that this whiteboard idea could be a very useful activity in the classroom.

After reading Mike’s post and leaving ]a comment about this, I decided to try it out the next day in my classroom. The topic in the textbook had been robots, so to start the class, I wrote on the board: “What kind of robot would you like?”. I walked around the classroom and handed out whiteboard markers to the students and asked them to go up and write whatever answer they wanted. This was before class started. After class started, we looked at the answers and at some interesting ideas, and interesting vocabulary. This was a great way to start class because everyone was engaged, genuinely interested in what other students had to say, and were curious about whether or not what they wrote was correct. This gave a great springboard for talking about interesting ideas, and talking about grammar points that would otherwise not have come up. For example, several students answered with “I like” instead of “I would like”, so I was able to mention the difference that adding “would” makes. In addition, there was some confusion about “robot teacher” and “teacher robot” regarding order of adjectives. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of my whiteboard (which I tend to do, so can’t explain why I didn’t.)

Overall, it was a great warm up. It’s a quick activity and worth a quick try!

They Had No Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t kill the drill?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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