Controlling cheating during quizzes and tests

It’s exam time again. I have added a multiple choice vocabulary test to my exam suite. I am doing it in the same way I have been doing my weekly quiz with the students. Controlling cheating is always a concern.

I have four classes so I made four tests. It wasn’t too difficult for a multiple choice test. I suspect that if I had only one test, by the time the last class of the day arrived they would be fully briefed as to the questions and answers.

Fortunately my classroom is very large and I can Continue reading “Controlling cheating during quizzes and tests”


Are we sure we know why we teach what we teach?

A recent article in the New York Times:

“MEMPHIS — Jack London was the subject in Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course. In a high school classroom packed with computers, he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

“Mr. Hamilton, who had failed English 3 in a conventional Continue reading “Are we sure we know why we teach what we teach?”

Yeah, but…? Finding, asking and answering the important questions about teaching

When Professor Michael McCarthy visited here recently to promote his new Cambridge University Press course book, Touchstone, he gave us a presentation on his spoken corpus research.

It was interesting to learn about but almost completely useless for teaching purposes. I used to go to these conferences and take notes. Now I go to these conferences and write questions. As I listen to them, I’m thinking, “Yeah, but what about this?” “Yeah, but how do you account for that.”

I had no notes but I did have ten questions ready for Professor McCarthy when he got to the end of his presentation. Then the organizers announced they were only going to take a couple questions and only one per teacher. I had one question.

Course books authors always believe in the power of their course books to teach students. So let’s question that.

“Professor McCarthy, thank you for visiting us and your presentation. I can’t say I know so much about teaching but I’ve been doing some research. In January I gave a speaking test to 400 Chinese students who have studied English for nine years. I asked them a question. ‘Tell me about your mother and father.’  In China we have no pronoun of gender when speaking, no ‘he’ or ‘she’. Students have to learn this English grammar which is perhaps the easiest grammar rule to teach. What percentage of the students do you think made a mistake calling Mom a ‘he’ and Dad a ‘she’?”

With many years of experience and study into spoken English corpus, he didn’t want to offer any guesses, saying, “Umm, well, ah, you did the research. Tell us.”

“Seventy-two percent of students, after nine years of English study, made a mistake with ‘he’ and ‘she’,” I told him.

So what did the course book author say to that? Two wrong things and one right thing. He said,

1. This was a fossilized error that the students were making.

Yeah, but… something is fossilized when you don’t learn it correctly or learn it wrong. But no student learns “he” and “she” incorrectly. It is the easiest grammar to learn.

2. We should reteach “he” and “she” every six months.

Yeah, but… something that is so simple to teach and can be taught in one minute and everyone knows the grammar rule, how is teaching it every six months going to help.

3. Students need more input, read more English and listen to more English, more English input.

Yeah, but… you know, you don’t need a course book for that!

Impulsive learning?

Don’t buy those chocolates!..No!…Oh, too late!…Yummy!…You deserve it!

You know how it goes. You carefully made a supermarket shopping list and followed it to a “t”. You avoided the aisle that had the cookies and all those yummy snacks. Gotta work on that diet! Good girl! You bought some extra vegetables, more salads are good for you. With a shopping cart full of healthy choices, it is now time to check out. You get in line at the cash register. Someone is ahead of you. You look around. Hmmm, look at those chocolates! Hmmm, your favorite ones! OK, just one little one. It’s a reward! You aren’t buying a big bag of chocolates! It’s OK! One is not going to hurt nothing! And what about one of those tabloid newspapers… Charlie Sheen said what?!!!

Gottha again! Yes, that’s impulse buying. They knew they’d get you. It was all part of a plan. Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy”, said that the American economy would collapse if everyone just bought what was on their shopping list. That is the power of impulse.

Here is how one bank is using the impulse hot-button, literally a big red button, to get people to save more:

Behavioral Economics: “I want to save right now!”
Watch the video from the bank:
MIT TechReview on Ideo’s role in this:

Can we use this power as teachers? Can we push the impulse hot-button of our students and get them to study English more?

Here is an idea that I would like to work on. My students in China are connected to everyone by QQ, a chat program similar to Skype or MSN chat. It is almost a fact that being Chinese = being a QQ user. They use it on their computers and on their phones. (Some of my students even QQ me while they are having a class with another teacher!) Your country probably has a similar popular chat platform. I’ve been doing a lot of experiments with QQ over the past year and it’s greatly helped me develop a “presence” with my students.

What if we used a chat platform that our students used to deliver content that would appeal to our students’ impulses? Something short. Something cheap on time, quick. Something catchy. Here is one example although you can probably think of many more and I’d appreciate you sharing your ideas on

What about Extensive Reading? The student gets a teaser like this:

“HI JOHN, READING IS GOOD FOR YOUR ENGLISH. YOU MIGHT LIKE THIS STORY: Jaws – Chapter 1 Night Swim. The shark moved through the night water without a sound. It swam towards the shore, with its eyes and mouth open. The woman began walking out towards the sea. The water came up round her feet. It was a warm June night, but the water felt cold. The woman called back. ‘Come and have a swim with me!’ But there was no answer from the man. She ran into the sea, and soon the water was up to her head. She began to swim. The shark was a hundred metres from the beach. It could not see the woman – it could not see anything in the dark water – but it felt the sea move. It turned towards the shore. PUSH ‘MORE’ TO CONTINUE THE STORY”

Perhaps 200 words by 200 words, the reader could continue through the story. He may be riding on the bus, eating breakfast, waiting for a friend, but doing something he would not ordinarily do. Learning English. Impulsive reading.

I’m interested in what other teachers might think about the possibilities of using technology and the dynamic possibilities of appealing to impulsive studying.

[1] I am not suggesting using copyrighted materials. Finding appealing materials would be another question to resolve. Jaws: Penguin Readers Level 2 (Penguin Longman Penguin Readers).

7 Secrets of Great Teachers

Recently I gave a lecture for Cambridge University ESOL and Higher Education Press at a conference attended by 150 teachers. I told them the 7 Secrets of Great Teachers.

1. Seeing. Don’t always focus but always see. Sometimes we get so busy that we miss what is important. See this video

2. Action. Great teachers use minimal action to achieve maximum result. Sun Tzu and Bruce Lee examples.

3. Independent. Be on guard against the power of conformity. See this video

4. Creative. Capable of outside the box thinking. Can you solve the problem below?

5. Limit. Know your students’ limitations and your limitations. See this video

6. Target. Teach what will be used. The story of Lisa and the year of lost words.

7. Quadrant Two. Live and work in the zone where you can calmly do important non-urgent things and reflect on what you do. See below.

Puzzle: Draw 4 continuous straight lines (without lifting your pen) to connect all the dots.

.     .     .

.     .     .

.     .     .

Quadrant Two:

The Case of The Dancing Men!!! and extensive comprehensible input

A teacher said, “I agree that input must be comprehensible to be effective. That’s why we provide definitions of key vocabulary words for our students. For key words in each lesson, we tell them ‘this word means…’ because it makes the input more readily understandable. Expecting students to figure out the meaning of every word in a lesson on their own would be discouraging and a waste of time. If vocabulary explanations are helpful, why are grammar explanations anathema?”

First of all, by extensive comprehensible input we do not mean laden with vocabulary explanations. And because of that, we cannot assume grammar explanations are also going to be useful.

To make this clear, I’d like to share with you two samples of the opening lines to a Sherlock Holmes story. The first sample is the original text. The second sample is a simplified text that could be useful for extensive
comprehensible input.


From the original Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men:

“Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot. ‘So, Watson,’ said he, suddenly, ‘you do not propose to invest in South African securities?'”

Words that may need to be explained:
1. curved
2. chemical
3. vessel
4. brewing
5. malodorous
6. head was sunk
7. his breast
8. point of view
9. lank
10, plumage
11. top-knot
12. propose
13. invest
14. securities

That is 14 vocabulary terms in the first paragraph. Certainly a teacher can explain all of those terms but wouldn’t you say it is doubtful that after reading the whole story the student will have much or any memory of them?


The same story, the Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men from the “Oxford Progressive English Readers” simplified version:

“Holmes sat quietly for a long time, studying something in a glass bottle. ‘So, Watson,’ he said suddenly, ‘you are not going to buy any land in South Africa?'”

Now I think you and I would prefer the first version. But for our students the first example would require a forbidding amount of vocabulary explanation and much or all of it will be forgotten. The second example is much more accessible to students and presenting clear examples of basic grammar and vocabulary. For example, “studying something in a glass bottle” might be interesting to a student to see that “study” is not something you only do with a book.

This is what we mean by extensive input that is at or near the students level and is interesting.

(Image taken from the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Dancing Men”.)