Using ESL Pod and testing students to motivate

My thinking on teaching and learning, students and schools, is always evolving.

Research from my Project 400 has shown me very clearly what English my students are going to use after they graduate. It is not the English they were using in their school issued course books so I have abandoned those.

I have discovered some great resources on Continue reading “Using ESL Pod and testing students to motivate”

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!

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”.)

“Teaching” the words or “immersing” in the words

A teacher is deriding me for my views on the importance of extensive comprehensible input. He says, “I must have missed the lessons on modern language teaching trends, so I am asking some practical questions hoping to update my obsolete views on teaching. Please anyone help me start the new semester after the Chinese New Year holiday as a different teacher.”

This teacher is being sarcastic with us. I understand because I used to feel the same way. I know that the claim that extensive comprehensible input seems in some ways to contradict all of our long-held beliefs and assumptions about teaching. It didn’t make sense to me either when I heard about it. But on the other hand it we can intuitively know that it works because (1) children learn their L1 in the same manner and (2) even you and I add to our English vocabulary in this way. Our language development did not stop when we left school. Additionally, (3) our students and many others are adding to their language without being taught (for example: shit) and not learning what we do teach (for example: mom=she, dad=he). (Photo: My students hanging on every word of the film, “Bruce Almighty”, a Jim Carey comedy but with some intense parts. The film is shown in English with English subtitles only. There are a lot of words they don’t know. BUT, there are a lot of words they do know.)

Let’s take a look at the example that this teacher proposes for use with a mid-intermediate level student. Does it meet the three requirements for extensive comprehensible input?

1. Extensive? I don’t think a student would read very much of this sort of text for the reasons below.

2. Comprehensible? No, not at all.

3. Interesting? I doubt it for two reasons. It is talking about a specific industry problem and it is so incomprehensible that only advanced students would be able to make enough sense out of it to begin to understand it and possibly enjoy it.

This is NOT how to do extensive comprehensible input!

However how would those who really want to teach the vocabulary out of it handle this situation? Here Stefan’s sentence plus the whole paragraph. It is only one paragraph of a four-paragraph article which is dense with not frequently used vocabulary. I have capitalized the text that mid-level and many upper-level intermediate students may not know:

Tourism is now among the world’s most important industries, generating jobs and profits worth billions of pounds. At the same time, however, mass tourism can have dire effects on the people and places it embraces – both tourists and the societies and human environments they visit. We are increasingly familiar with some of the worst effects of unthinking, unmanaged, unsustainable tourism: previously undeveloped coastal villages that have become sprawling, charmless towns. their seas poisoned by sewage, denuded of wildlife, their beaches stained with litter and empty tubes of suncream. Historic towns, their streets now choked with traffic, their temples, churches and cathedrals seemingly reduced to a backdrop for holiday snaps that proclaim, ‘Been there, Done that’. Some of the world’s richest environments bruised by the tourist onslaught, their most distinctive wildlife driven to near-extinction, with wider environmental impacts caused by the fuel-hungry transport systems used to take holidaying travellers around the world and back again.

So would a vocabulary teacher then teach these words?

1. generating
2. profits
3. billions
4. mass
5. dire
6. embraces
7. societies
8. familiar
9. unsustainable
10. previously
11. undeveloped
12. coastal
13. sprawling
14. charmless
15. poisoned
16. sewage
17. denuded
18. wildlife
19. beaches
20. stained
21. litter
22. tubes
23. suncream
24. historic
25. choked
26. temples
27. cathedrals
28. distinctive
29. driven
30. near-extinction
31. impacts
32. fuel-hungry
33. transport

We have 33 words to learn there and that is only one paragraph. After we do the other four paragraphs we may have new 100 words to learn from only one article in one lesson.

How many words can an average student memorize in one day? How many will he forget? Anyone know?

This is exactly what extensive comprehensible input is NOT. But it is also my contention that even those who favor discrete vocabulary teaching will not be successful in helping students acquire this vocabulary. Yes, teachers can “teach” it. But the students are going to feel stupid when they forget it.

This text would be suitable for advanced learners who already know 95% of the vocabulary. For them this would be adequate for their extensive comprehensible input. They would be able to add to their advanced vocabulary but I almost never teach those kinds of students. By the time they reach that level they are learning on their own from any English materials they choose.

IELTS preparation tips

Your training should focus on two areas:

1. Introducing the structure of the test, how it works, the timing of things like the different parts of the speaking test and some strategies to deal with the speaking test, etc. There are some basic errors that students can make that can cost them one or two band levels. Conversely, if the students understand these things and use proper strategies it can raise their score one or two band levels. (Photo: My students doing a mock IELTS test.)

2. Raising their English level. This does not mean teaching them a lot of complex vocabulary or grammar rules. One of the best things is to provide them a lot of English samples at their target level. If their target is Band 6.5 then provide a lot of samples of English at those levels. This is especially true of your own speaking to the students. Although speaking at Band 6.5 is characterized by a small amount of advanced vocabulary, making a lot of errors with basic vocabulary and grammar is a sure way for them to crash and burn in the test.

There is some great free material at ESLPod [1] but I would suggest you keep something in mind if you use it. ESLPod features some bits of more advanced vocabulary. This specific vocabulary may be more useful and attainable to your students in a passive sense. That is, they may only learn it well enough to be able to recognize it when they hear it or read it but may not be able to produce it when speaking. However, when evaluating ESLPod, do not overlook all of the other speaking and text in the podcast. It consists of a lot of basic vocabulary and samples of grammar. Think of the podcasts as featuring some islands of slightly more advanced vocabulary in a sea of very good basic vocabulary and grammar. Expect that your students will improve their speaking with the basics and improve their listening and reading with the slightly more advanced vocabulary.

In search of comprehensible material on the web

Students can learn vocabulary and grammar from extensive comprehensible input. In fact, even if students memorize some definitions of words they will only have a very shallow understanding of the meaning of those words unless they can be exposed to many usages of those words. Where can teachers find materials for their students that can provide extensive comprehensible input?

The graphic above shows Google’s rating of websites at Basic English level. When I rated a website that I use with my students it rated at 100%. As you can see, ESLPod, rates at 72% which is very good. USA Today, a newspaper that is supposedly written at an American 5th grade level, is perhaps the easiest mainstream newspaper for students to understand. The New York Times is more complicated. That little blue box at the top of the graphic is Bloomberg business news at 2%, very difficult for our students.

If we think of this material as a stairway to proficiency, our students can climb up to greater and greater complexity. You will have to select appropriate materials for your students according to their needs and interests. The materials listed above, for example the MIT university website, are not suggested reading materials. They are only shown to display levels of difficulty.

If you have suggestions of useful online materials, please use the comments section below to tell us.

Action research: Mom and Dad and grammar

Spot quiz. Ready? What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Write down your answer.

Pencils down. Thank you!

If grammar teaching works, why does it take years for students to follow the simplest rule with accuracy?

Don’t try this at home! Try it in your classroom!

Without any reminder of the rules, ask your students to talk to you about their mother and their father and see how they do. The grammar rule on pronouns of gender cannot be simpler. Mom = she. Dad = he. We’re not talking about complex grammar rules. This rule takes less than a minute to teach and if you teach it and then test it, all of your students will pass the test.

They “learned” it. Why do they get it so wrong?

In December 2010 and January 2011, I gave an oral speaking test to 120 Chinese college students. As part of the test, I often ask the students to speak of a family relative. As part of the test this time I asked two questions about parents:

1. Tell me about your mother.

2. Tell me about your father.

Each student answered the request with about 3-4 sentences for each parent.

In the first sentence they always used “my mother” or “my father” but in the following sentences they used the pronoun of gender.

The students also filled out a form so I could learn how much English training they have had. They have almost all had the same amount of training, about nine years. Let me remind you, Chinese teachers are not shy about teaching grammar. Grammar is hammered into the students. Often the English instruction is given in Chinese. Extensive reading or other forms of extensive input is not promoted making this a more ideal situation to test the effectiveness of grammar teaching.

Considering nine years of training plus the simplicity of the grammar rule of gender, our students should be 100% accurate in usage. So how did they do?

Out of 112 students tested so far, 80 have called Mom a “he” and/or Dad a “she” one or more times during this test.

The question was: What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Answer: After nine years of English training, only 28%.

Some languages like French or Spanish have pronouns of gender. It is possible that it is easier for French and Spanish students of English to use “he” and “she” correctly but this could be more a matter of language transference than language acquisition.

If after 9 years of English training only 28% of the students can use “he” and “she” correctly, we must doubt the ability of learning grammar rules to lead to grammar acquisition and accurate grammar use.

Project 400 – What is it?

What do students need to learn? What are they learning in school? What are we teaching? What is the best way to teach them? What is working and not working? Answering those questions is the objective of Project 400.

Project 400 is a research project to study:

100 English language classrooms in China to see how English is taught and how students learn.

100 of my former English students who now have jobs. What kind of jobs do they usually get.  How do they use their English in their jobs? What English did they learn in school that they use in their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need for their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need in their jobs?

100 bosses of my students who are now working as well as other managers, HR managers and business leaders. What kind of English do new employees need in their jobs? How important is English?

100 students in their dorms. How do they study? How much homework do they do? How do they feel about their studies.

At the conclusion of this research project, I will have a better understanding of students, teachers and English study.

>Finding suitable authentic newspaper materials for reading

>It is not easy to find authentic newspaper materials that are at an accessible level for students and interesting as well. Krashen always recommended reading materials that were L+1, a level just slightly above the student’s level which causes the student to have to “reach” a little.

I have scoured the Internet for years for such things. Something I like is from a column called “The Boss” in the NY Times. They have a simple life story of a top boss. Typically the story touches on things about the person’s childhood, school, influence of parents, first jobs and the lessons of life.

They are also success stories and lots of students have some hopes to be successful in life and find these stories interesting. At the bottom is an example of one of “The Boss” stories that you can find in the NY Times.


There are a couple approaches involved in reading. I don’t recommend “pre-teaching” the vocabulary from the text as many course books do, notably in China is “New Concepts” (which is actually a very old concept course book being written in the 1960s and only receiving superficial modifications just recently.)

Although pre-teaching sounds like a practical idea it is very boring for the students. Good teaching allows an element of mystery and curiosity and the thirst for knowledge. Good teaching provides the salt first and then the water. The good teacher gets the student to search his memory, his personal resources in his recollection, and draw on what the student already knows to apply to the problem. Good teaching also gets him to personally recognize what he doesn’t know which causes him to be curious and want to learn it.

So typically, before letting the students look at the material, get them to talk about what they know about some of the points in the story.

Pre-teaching sort of digests the text for the student leaving little mental exercise beyond simply trying to remember what he was told a couple minutes ago.

Encourage the students to guess the meaning of what they don’t understand. You’ll find, in a text as below, that there are a few words the student may not know and may not really need to retain.


I think it was H.D. Brown who talked about the Active Vocabulary, Latent Vocabulary and the Unknown. Some vocabulary the students encounter is destined for their Latent Vocabulary, words that will be important for them to be able to read or recognize when they hear them but are not necessary for them to be able to produce them on the spot like their Active Vocabulary. Some words they may only see once or twice in their lifetime and could well do without ever learning them. So equal stress should not be made on all words that students will encounter. Some words should be pointed out more than others because they will be more useful for students.

I’ve always said that language learning is like packing a suitcase. You’ve got to choose what you will likely need and leave the rest behind. Our students don’t have an unlimited capacity to retain everything and that’s one place where the teacher is most needed. Decisions about what to teach are as important as decisions about what NOT to teach.

It is not a sin to finish a reading exercise with the student not understanding 100% of the words. The teacher has to remember that sometimes English is a buffet. The student does not need to eat everything but he should eat enough to grow.

In the sample text below the intermediate student might need to acquire vocabulary like: headhunter, recruiter, certified, pulled me out of school, over the course of my career, I was No. 2 for eight years, early on.

However, this following vocabulary may not be as important to retain in the student’s Active Vocabulary: Amgen (company name), squadron commander, adventurer, overstate, hammered people, flight physical, class of ship, at the top of his lungs.

Still, the student could be encouraged to guess some of these and should be encouraged to find that he can figure some of these out without a dictionary. He may be able to figure out: adventurer, overstate, hammered people, class of ship.

Some words the student can easily forget without serious damage to their English competency like: Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (name).


Of course it is an ideal time to do some speaking after all the time invested in reading the text. There is a lot of vocabulary covered in what they just read and some speaking can help to consolidate it and allow the student to test his understanding and usage of it.

If my goal was solely speaking and I wanted to use a text I’d use a very short one. “The Boss” is too long for that purpose. But if we used a long text for something else then let’s roll into a speaking exercise. Here are a couple ideas that could be done in pairs or small groups:

1. Students could be asked to talk as if they were the characters. In “Say It” fashion, they could do a short monologue explaining themselves and what happened and why they felt the way they felt and adding in made-up details and parts of the story.

2. They could try to isolate various aspects of the story such as the lessons of life and people of influence and discuss those. Then they could follow up with their own personal lessons of life and people of influence.



Ready for the Admiral
As told to GLENN RIFKIN – June 20, 2004

I had no background in health care or biology before I came to Amgen. The only time I touched biology was in ninth grade, and I didn’t do very well.

I was working at MCI when I got a fax one day from a headhunter, asking if I knew anybody who wanted to be president of Amgen. I had never heard of Amgen and didn’t know what it was. This was 1992. I checked it out and asked some friends, and called back the recruiter and said, “Yes, I want to be president of Amgen.”

It was already a 12-year-old company with 2,000 employees, two successful biotech products, and it was clearly going to be a success.

I was ambitious, and I wanted to be a C.E.O.

My dad, who is still alive, was a naval aviator and a career naval officer. He flew jets early on and was a squadron commander. It’s hard to overstate the psychological impact, as a young boy, of seeing airplanes come out of the sky, knowing that your father is flying one.

My mother was a very strong, independent woman who was a real adventurer. She loved travel, the arts, literature. When I was a senior in high school, my mother pulled me out of school to go to the Los Angeles Philharmonic to see Isaac Stern play the violin.

I went to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and studied aeronautical engineering on the misconception that it had something to do with flying airplanes. When I failed the flight physical in graduate school because of poor eyesight, I had to decide, at age 23, what to do with my lifelong ambition thwarted.

A friend had joined the submarine force, so I decided I’d go see Admiral Hyman G. Rickover about that option.

Rickover was famous for grilling people, and he asked me why I hadn’t come to see him when I was at Annapolis. I told him that I wanted to fly, but since my eyes didn’t work, he was the second choice.

It was not the answer Rickover was accustomed to getting. He usually hammered people for failing grades or poor performance, and I had none of those things.

After about 45 seconds, he said, “Get out.”

In those days, that was the highest praise you could get from him. It meant you’d been accepted.

Later, when I was the chief engineer of the Memphis, which is in a certain class of attack submarines, on its initial sea trials, I encountered Rickover again. Admiral Rickover would ride every ship on its initial sea trials. So there I was in the control room and Rickover was screaming at the top of his lungs, “Where’s the chief engineer?” He thought the ship wasn’t performing properly.

I told him: “Admiral, you’re wrong. I’m the chief engineer of this ship, and you certified me, and I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. The performance you are looking for is from another class of ship, and here’s the data.”

There was a real twinkle in his eye before he went on to attack me on another point.
That experience paid off when I left the Navy and was interviewing for a high-level job at General Electric. Jack Welch asked me, “Have you ever taken a risk in your life?”

I replied that at 27 years old, when you are guiding an attack submarine all alone in the teeth of the Russian fleet in the North Atlantic, that was a risk.

I mentioned Tom Clancy’s “Hunt for Red October,” which gives a pretty accurate depiction of what it was like.

I guess he agreed because I got the job at G.E. and later became part of Welch’s staff. I left the Navy because I was a typical young guy in a gigantic hurry.

In fact, over the course of my career, the one place I’ve been patient is at Amgen, where I was No. 2 for eight years before becoming C.E.O.

>You’re a nice word…I’d like to get to know you!


Last night a student, CEO of a Hong Kong company, asked me how many words did he need to know to get a Band 7 on the IELTS test. This is an interesting question and seems to be a special focus of Chinese students to ask “How many words” for this or that. At another electronics company the training department has decided they would like the students to learn a certain list of 3000 words.

How do we learn words? How do we know words?

Some people seem to think words are something that we know or not know. It is like a switch, on or off. No or yes.

I don’t think it is like a switch, off or on. I think it is more like a dial that controls the volume, louder or softer or quiet. It is not off and on but more like a scale of 1-9. Our understanding of the words grows. We can also say that when we are first introduced to a word the word has been planted, just like a seed. With proper attention the word will grow.


Counting words that a student knows is the oldest form of vocabulary research. The question is: How are the words counted? Are we counting words or word families? (If a student knows Write, Writing, Written, Writer, does he know one or four words?) Is being able to select the correct word in a multiple choice question the same kind of knowledge as being able to give the dictionary definition of the word or being able to use the word in a sentence?

Learning new words is like meeting new people. Someone may introduce you to someone but you don’t really know that person, only his name and a few facts. Would you be ready to marry this person? No, not at all, you don’t even know if you want to go to dinner with them. Why?

You don’t really know them or maybe you only know them at #1 on the 1-9 scale.

In English learning this would be like looking up a word in a dictionary. You know the definition of the word but you really don’t know how to use it, if you want to use it or if you can use it. You may know it at only #1 on the 1-9 scale.

Let’s go back to meeting people. Let’s say you go to a party and there is that person you met before. You say hello and learn a little more about them. You find out you both like Japanese movies and there is a new one showing in town. You decide to go see it together. Now you know them at #2 on the 1-9 scale. It was fun spending time with this other person and you learn there is going to be another party next week so you decide to go together and you talk a lot about many things. Now you might know them at #3 on the 1-9 scale.

As you spend more and more time together you get to know them better and better. Perhaps you will become best friends, decide to go into business together or even get married. And you will continue to get to know them better.

It is the same with the words we learn. What does it mean to know a word? Know it how well?

This student I was talking to, a general manager of a small company, spoke English quite well. But at the same time he sometimes called the other student, a female, “he”. Why did he make that mistake? Didn’t he learn that males are “he” and females are “she”. On the scale of 1-9 how well does this student know the word “she”? Perhaps #6 or #7 ? And all the words that he knows are actually on a scale of 1-9. So if learning words is not an off or on thing, if it is not yes or no, then how do we learn new words?

We need to “meet” the words over and over in different situations and get to know them better and better, see how they are used and learn to use them in different situations.

This is true for even simple words like “he” and “she” and special complicated technical words. We need to read lots of materials. We need to hear lots of materials. We need to speak with these words. And our understanding of the words will grow.

So keep yourself in English. Get to know your words better and better.