>How can we encourage autonomous television watching?

>Some teachers speak of autonomous learning. Some teachers feel their students are too lazy. Some teachers feel students need to always be pushed to learn.

Why is it difficult to get students to study English but it is not difficult to get students to watch television?

Is it because watching television is, to put it simply, brainless? Do people have an inherent need for brainless entertainment?

Are all television programs brainless? Do viewers never learn anything useful from the tube? Is there no useful educational content in television?

Or is it that the makers of television programming have learned to be “student-centric”? Do they work under the pressure that viewers can switch to another channel with one click? Does this propel them to captivating content?

If our students could get up and leave our classrooms at anytime with no negative repercussions would it change the way we teach?

Are there any teachers out there that could compete with television? Are television programs always more engaging than English lessons?

Is there anything we can learn from television?

I am not recommending television watching or movies here, although I think those are great tools. My point is that we can learn a lot from these people, like television producers, who must, every night, attract the attention of what is a fickle public.

Rather than take the approach of making a boring processes more palatable to students, what if we really challenge ourselves to present materials as interesting as TV to make our training thoroughly engaging to the students?

I think that would motivate students to be truly autonomous.

>Teaching, learning and "concept pods"

>One friend told me that, as a child, he mistook the line from the old Christmas song which goes, “While shepherds WATCHED THEIR FLOCKS by night…” and always ang “While shepherds WASHED THEIR SOCKS by night…”

But I think that we can say that incidental learning actually produces massive results. A tremendous amount of learning is taking place without it being taught, not only new language patterns but reinforcement and greater development of language already acquired. And I think we can say that nearly all of this learning is accurate.

This is where Mert Bland’s Concept Pod Theory comes in. It starts as a nucleus of one single idea of a word. Over a period of time more and more understanding and definition and application for the word is added through a vast number of contacts and encounters with the word and experiences attached to the word. It’s something like a snowball effect as more and more ideas get stuck on the word and our understanding of the word grows.

Christine Tierney is right. Some of it needs to be corrected if it is mistaken when acquired. Thus, direct teaching has a role to play in correcting bits and pieces of this massive amount of material we have not learned correctly.

Now Christine Tierney’s students’ word, “firstable”, was a concept nonetheless. They had a clear idea of what they were trying to express with that word and the concept was valid. Thus, I think according to Mert’s idea of a Concept Pod, the Concept Pod for that word was begun. They had ideas of how to use this word and how not to use it. It’s complex growth had begun. However, a bit of correction was needed to the Concept Pod to realize that actually the correct thing to say is “first of all”, not “firstable”. On the other hand, perhaps we are watching the birth of a new word in the English language.[1]

Here in China, almost all students have trouble with the word “colleague”. They want to say “col-lea-gue” as opposed to “col-league”.

As Krashen says, “The study of grammar has value, however: Even those who are well-read may have small gaps in their writing competence, and conscious knowledge of some grammar rules can be helpful in filling some of these gaps (e.g. the it’s/its distinction).”

Proponents of the value of indirect learning (Comprehensible Input, Extensive Reading, what I call “Extensive Contact”, etc) are not saying that all direct teaching should stop and all learning should be done indirectly. It’s just that we realize the massive amount of language our students learn without it being directly taught and also realize the difficulty students have to learn even simple language rules that are directly taught, so we raise the question if “direct instruction” should support efforts towards “indirect learning” and not the other way around.

[1] http://archiver.rootsweb.com/th/read/WORDS/2000-03/0952827010

>"Nucular" Bush and metathesis

>Do you have a cubbord in your kitchen? I do. I suppose a long time ago it was a board, perhaps mounted on the wall, where cups were kept. Today we commonly speak of it as a cubbord but when we write it we always spell it “cupboard”. The word has yielded to the way people want to pronounce it. Language is so very democratic that way.

In an article in Slate magazine, “Why Does Bush Go “Nucular”?”[1], there is a discussion of “metathesis”, switching of two adjacent sounds. Bush always says “nu-cu-lar” instead of “nu-clee-ar”. It goes on to say, “…Bush’s usage is so common that it appears in at least one dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s, by far the most liberal dictionary, includes the pronunciation, though with a note identifying it as ‘a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.'”

You can often tell how fluent an English learner is by a one word answer to the question, “Do you speak English?” An intermediate level student may reply, “Yes”. But often the advanced speaker will reply, “Yeah”. The difference between “yes” and “yeah” can reveal fluency, familiarity and comfort with the language. I don’t think any teacher teaches “yeah”. I’ve never seen it in a coursebook. Yet if we could survey the oral English of native speakers around the world, I believe we would find it firmly established in our oral lexicon. No doubt teachers became alarmed when “yeah” began creeping into our language. I remember my English teacher forbidding us from using it despite the Beatles assuring us, “She loves you! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”

>Is there life after coursebooks?

>In some postings last year I discussed many teachers feelings of frustrations with coursebooks.

A friend of mine, visiting from the USA, told me that many professors in universities have stopped using commercial textbooks and make their own books for their students. Indeed, while obviously a great believer in the coursebook, while visiting China, Jack Richards, the other of Interchange by Cambridge University Press, said there was a growing movement in Australia to not use commercially prepared coursebooks. He said that people are beginning to think you are not a very good teacher if you have to use a commercial coursebook.

I recently came across this podcast by Richard Baraniuk[1], a Rice University professor, with some brilliant insight about the possibilities of what life would be like after commercial coursebooks.


>Students learn "untaught" language

>Students do learn and fluently use language that is “untaught” to them. They do this through Comprehensible Input. Although Jack Richards does provide models of “yeah” in his dialogs he doesn’t “teach” students to use it.

I don’t think that we can attribute the widespread use of “yeah” to Jack Richards, Interchange books or any other practice of direct teaching. It is an “untaught” language feature.

Another example is what Jack Richards[1], in discussing the nature of conversation, calls conversational routines. Examples Richards gives are:

This one’s on me.
I don’t believe a word of it.
I don’t get the point.
You look great today.
What will you have to drink?
Nearly time. Got everything?
Check please!
After you.
Guess I’ll be making a move.
I see what you mean.
Let me think about it.
Just looking, thanks.
I’ll be with you in a minute.
It doesn’t matter.
No harm done.

How do students learn these things? They are examples of untaught learning. These sorts of examples clearly show how effective Comprehensible Input can be.

[1] Jack Richards, The Language Teaching Matrix, Conversationally speaking, p.75, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

>Improv "games" in the classroom

>Many people are interested in using drama in the English classroom. A terrific source for improvised drama is at Improv Encyclopedia:

They call these “games” but they are spontaneous role-plays. It is truly a LIMO (Little In Much Out) activity. With little input from the teacher much can be gotten out of the students.

Unlike a play, there is no script. All the teacher has to do is to set up the drama situation and then the participants carry on from there. The teacher does not have to make copies of a script for everyone to follow. It allows communicative practice albeit often in a fanciful situation. Some adaptation will be required. The nonverbal games will not be useful.

Here is one of the first games from the first category. I have chosen it rather randomly and I’m sure there are even better:



How it Works

Great high-tempo exercise. 1 player up front. He’s the goalie. The other players all think of an opening line for a scene, and a character. When everyone has their opening line and character, we bombard the goalie with these offers, one at a time. Goalie needs to react right away to an offer, acknowledging the opening and character, snap into an opposite character and reply to the opening. Immediately after that the next player comes up with his or her offer.

This exercise is good for teaching players to react right away, and to snap into a character almost without thinking.


Well, I don’t think we are going to generate such fast reactions out of our students but it will help them to be quicker. It is great fun and students will use English in an enjoyable way.

This could be done in groupwork or in front of class. The so-called goalie could be a student or even the teacher if done in front of the class. If it is the teacher, it will help the students see various responses. Other students think of situations and fire them at the goalie to which the goalie is to make a ropy. For example:

A: “Father, Father, the house is on fire!”
Goalie: “Quick! Call the fire department!”
B: “Listen, John! I told you to have that report on my desk this morning!”
Goalie: “Sorry, Boss. But I was sick yesterday.”
C: “Hey, John, why weren’t you at the basketball game last night?”
Goalie: “Titanic was on TV last night and I had to watch it again.”
D: “Sweetheart, you forgot our wedding anniversary!”
Goalie: “No I didn’t, here’s a diamond ring!”

This game may not fit into a particular lesson but can add a bit of English fun to warm up the class.

>Is English learning golf?

>At teacher compared learning various sports to practicing and drilling in English learning when he said, “This is like saying that the only way for a goalie to get better at soccer is by playing soccer games. Golf players should never go to driving ranges, because they can’t get a sense of the lie of the land there. Tennis players should never practice against a wall because the wall won’t spin the ball the way another player will. Baseball players should spurn hitting practice because it lacks the context of the position of the players.”

No, I don’t think it’s the same. Can we really compare becoming proficient in English to becoming proficient in sports? Wouldn’t we say that English communication is infinitly more complex than sports?

Take golf, for example, the number of variations for a putt are highly limited compared to the number of variations in expressing something in English. In fact, many skills in sports are dependant on the player being able to replicate the motions the same way every time.

That is why repetitious practice can help players. They practice their swing over and over and over until they are like a machine. Of course, in the game, the lay of the land may require some judgements in how to hit the ball but those judgments are calculated into the stroke that the player has mechanically practiced.

Perhaps there are only a few ways to sink a putt but there can be a hundred ways to explain you are going to the store to buy some sugar. I’m sure Tiger Woods would disagree but I believe language is more complex than golf and they cannot be learned in the same way.

Drilling and repeating is not effective. Students can learn English by using English following Krashen’s theories of Comprehensible Input.