Lessons for leaders

All of my students want to be leaders. Some of my students are leaders. And they like learning how to be a leader or a better leader. They are looking for an edge, some new insight that will help them improve.

I have found that using English lessons that are quasi-leadership consultations are highly Continue reading “Lessons for leaders”

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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.

SAMPLE 1:

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?

SAMPLE 2:

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”.)

Engineering an experience!

Call the New York Hilton Hotel and get this information...
Can we engineer an English-learning experience so impressive and even so intensive that we need to remind students to breathe?

A teacher asked me to address the question about what the teacher should do in the classroom. If extensive comprehensible input is doing the heavy lifting of language learning, if the teacher does not need to teach, drill and test students on he/she pronouns of gender grammar, what should the teacher do in the classroom?

Over the years I have mixed together the things I have learned from dozens of TEFL books (many written by Jack Richards and David Nunan, both of whom I interviewed when they came to China) with things I have learned from late-night TV comedians like David Letterman, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, best-selling business book author Joseph Pine, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Much of this was driven by problems I was having in my teaching. During my teaching career I have received so many complaints about my teaching that it is almost embarrassing. One adult student told me that I was the “worst teacher” he had ever had. Although I have received much in the way of praise for being the “best teacher” many of my students have ever had, I treasure the complaints. I sincerely believe any accurate criticism is worth more than 100 praises and anything really good about my teaching skills came as a result of such complaints.

This set me on a quest to really understand the dynamics of learning, the psychology of managing student motivation and classroom management.

Now what I am doing in my classroom is engineering experiences. By this I mean to create some degree of mental and emotional experience mediated by English.

One simple example of this I have already described. You know how English coursebooks always have some dialog for students to imitate in order to book a hotel room? To create a better experience, many teachers ask students to sit back-to-back. I think this is very good and causes students to focus their listening more and even their speaking to be more understandable. It is a rather odd thing to do in the classroom and its uniqueness also wakes students up from the boring routine of sitting facing the teacher.

But can we do better than that?

How about booking a real room in a real hotel with a real phone call to a real American? And what hotel? I had once shown the movie, “Regarding Henry”, to my students. When it came time for us to have a lesson about how to book a hotel room, rather than do some boring unrealistic coursebook dialog, we called the Ritz Hotel which was featured in the movie. My students were actually calling a real hotel that they saw in a movie. (We also ate a box of “Ritz Crackers” which were also featured in the movie.)

The students were excited and nervous about the idea. All of them were not going to make the call. We’d choose a student. But I let the tension fill the room and hang there, permeating my students’ minds as every student thought it might be him or her doing the calling. As I played back recordings of students from other classes making these calls (which are completely different than any kind of coursebook sample) my students desperately clung to every word in anticipation and some degree of fear that in a couple minutes it might be them talking to a hotel clerk on the other side of the world. Eyes were widened. Hearts were pounding.

For my “volunteer” I always choose one of my most outgoing self-confident students, sometimes the class clown. His English may not be the best but he is least likely to have a heart attack and die in the classroom due to the excitement and stress. Sometimes I tell them that I will choose another student to make the call after him. This keeps them on edge.

All the other students breathe a sigh of relief that they “missed the bullet” this time, but now they are intensely interested in how this phone call is going to go. After all, they might be next. Again they cling to every word to listen to the negotiation of meaning between the clerk and the student. I record the call and play it back so we can talk about what happened. The mp3 is available so students can review it further if they want.

Contrast the intensity of such an experience with the relative boredom of repeating a coursebook phone call dialog. I’m sure that you have done more exciting things with your students and that you have many more ideas. Please share them with us.

I think we can quit apologizing to our students for the boring coursebook and “think outside the book” or make the book exciting. Some teachers dodge their responsibility of providing students with engaged learning saying they have to “follow the book”, that they and the students are destined to some kind of Dante-ish classroom experience, like it or not.

Don’t you think we can do better?

Notes:

Do not book a room unless you are going to use it. But you can call for information about rooms and facilities. Although it may be afternoon in my classroom and late night in New York, these hotels have 24-hour staff to manage inquiries. To develop skills in understanding different English accents we have called hotels in Switzerland, India and the Philippines. With today’s calling cards these long distance phone calls are quite cheap. I set the phone on speaker mode and put a microphone next to it so the class can hear. Calls to USA 800 numbers can also be made for free by using Skype.

Why publishers do such a lousy job

[Note: This is the message that was banned by TESL-L editors. They did not want you to see it.]

Do you know why publishers keep pumping out boring useless business English courebooks? Do you know why you have to keep apologizing to the students for the boring lessons? Do you know why you struggle to motivate your students to keep at their lessons? Do you know why so much of the English you teach is not exactly the English your students need?

It is my fault. I will take responsibility.

But it is also your fault. You must take responsibility, too.

Let’s look at the publishers’ mission.

Do publishers want to introduce the latest most effective training methodologies to the classrooms? Do publishers endeavor to prepare our students to be properly skilled in English for their life and work? Do they want to help businesses be able to have employees that are highly skilled and ready for the challenges of the 21st century?

We never really thought about those questions before, have we? But it seems like the answers should all be “Yes!”

Surprisingly, the answers are all “No!”

So what is the publishers’ mission?

Make money.

That’s it! That’s all! It’s very simple!

They don’t love you. They don’t love your students. You do but they don’t. They are not trying to raise the standard of English in today’s businesses or society.

They just want to make money.

What? Did you think they were a charity? Did you think they are Greenpeace or something? Did you think they are some sort of linguistic Red Cross? Gandhi or Mother Teresa?

They are a business. They are interested in three things: Sales, sales and sales.

We can’t blame them for that. They cannot do anything else but try to produce whatever will sell best. That’s it!

Sure, they put some unit in the book that shows someone using Email instead of sending a telex or fax. (Oh, God, using those old books was so embarrassing.) Maybe they are really fancy and show someone using Twitter. Oh, wow, how cute. These things interest and amaze our students for the first two lessons. By the time our students get to the third lesson they are beginning to realize that it is the same old boring stuff in new clothes.

And that is why it is my fault and your fault that publishers are doing such a lousy job and producing such boring business English materials. Their mission is to sell, sell, sell.

And you and I buy, buy, buy.

Of course, we buy and complain to our students. We buy and then tell our students, “Sorry, I know it is boring but it will help your English.” “Sorry, I know it is boring and you are going to forget half of this stuff after you take the exam or after you get the job but that is the way it is. There is nothing I can do.”

Do you want better materials? Do you want something that will excite your students? Do you want your class to let out a collective groan when the bell rings and class is over because they want the class to go on and on and on it was so engaging and interesting? Do you want your students to stop asking you to show them a movie instead of the boring coursebook?

Let’s demand that publishers start producing materials that excite and amaze our students. Let’s demand they make materials that turn English lessons into our students’ favorite subject. Let’s demand that they help us make our English lessons the highlight of our students’ day.

When I teach my college class on Monday, I tell all of my students at the beginning of every lesson, “Hey, it’s Monday! It’s Uncle Dave Day! It’s your favorite day of the week!!!” They moan and groan with smiles on their faces.

I suppose Uncle Dave Day is not their favorite day of the week. I don’t know if they like my classes at all. I get feedback that they do like the classes but you never know for sure.

But wouldn’t it be great if publishers gave us the tools to make our lessons not only interesting but fascinating? Not only informative but unforgettable?

Publishers want to know what we want. After all, they just want to sell, sell, sell. Let’s tell them what we want to buy.

Contact their local office and their head office. Contact their reps. Tell your director and tell other teachers.

Can they do better? We think they can. Let’s tell them.

“Office English” and why nearly all business English books are useless

Famous publisher coursebooks, such as Cambridge University Press Pass Cambridge BEC Preliminary, teach such seemingly useful and important items as:

Product development (drug development in the USA) Measuring company performance (a private British rail network) Banking sector (about British banks) Quality control (a snack foods producer) Recruiting staff (article about various methods)

The seeming usefulness of this sort of study quickly vanishes when examined through the lens of reality, aka: needs analysis. Our students don’t need it. Contrary to popular belief and even many of our own assumptions, these lessons have little or no connection to the jobs our students will have.

This became apparent to me due to my practice of collecting 10 Emails from each of my corporate students. Examining the English that is actually used in companies, two things are very clear:

1. The specific vocabulary taught in these books is useless.
2. What our students need is basic business vocabulary and grammar.

At the bottom of this message are ten very typical examples[1] of Emails from a foreign insurance company operating in China. Please note the business vocabulary:
seminar
target customers
inactive
criterias [sic]
marketing plan

But please also note the specific industry vocabulary:
insured campaign
agent score card
Production Tracking Reports

As you read the Emails, below, you will see that little vocabulary is specifically about the insurance industry. But there is a lot “office English”, communication about approving forms, arranging a meeting, new procedures. Rather than call it “business English” with all its current sexy connotations of big negotiations, wining and dining in exotic five-star restaurants and stock market investments, I call this “office English”.

“Office English” is what our students are going to need. Not all that other crazy stuff in the business English books. Some of our students are going to work in the fashion, catering, manufacturing, chemical supply industries. Each of these have a very specialized vocabulary.

Special vocabulary they will pick up on the job.

So let’s look at this grammar. A few samples from the messages:

1. I’ll attend HR training this two days.
2. target customers who is inactive
3. the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st 4. u guys need not worry his ability 5. he has agreed with the revise

This is not “business grammar”. This is everyday grammar. They can pick up this grammar from reading novels, watching TV or movies, surfing the Internet, reading newspapers, graded readers.

In other words, they can learn it from extensive comprehensible input, material at their level and a little above that is interesting. Specific business vocabulary they will learn on the job from extensive comprehensible input in their work environment.

Collect Emails from your corporate students or ask your graduates who now have jobs to send you some samples and let’s compare notes. Are business English books hitting the target or are our students’ needs so diverse there is no ESP (English for Special Purposes) book able to serve them well?

Notes:

[1] Below are ten actual Emails from an American insurance company in China. Please note some very specialized vocabulary. Students tell me they learned this vocabulary on the job and did not study it. They just picked it up from their work in the office. For a Word document with 50 examples, please contact me.

=======================
EMAIL 1

Kindly to inform you that xx has invited xx to be the speaker of OOC touch point seminar.

The seminar will be held on July 27 evening ( Pls see the attachment for the detail rundown).

On xx’s introduction, xx is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker.

We think it’s maybe a good opportunity for agency promotion, we wonder whether you need to invite him too?

If yes, we should inform xx the schedule today.

Your reply today will be highly appreciated!

=======================
EMAIL 2

The under insured’s leaflet has finish it’s final design, I’ve submit to xx for her comment.

I’ll attend HR training this two days, yy will forward the confirmed design to you ASAP.

Anything urgent pls contact xx or zz.

Thank you!

=======================
EMAIL 3

Dear all:
Kindly to remind you that as GZ’s inactive orphan policy lead size is not so sufficient. GZ have 2 selection criterias:
1. For the target customers who is inactive for 5 years(the same as SH), 2. For the target customers who is inactive for 3 years.
Thank you for your attention.

=======================
EMAIL 4

Kindly be informed that the marketing plan of Under Insured campaign has been approved by our GM, I’ve fax the hardcopy to you, pls check it.

As the time is very tight, can we finish the whole approval circle in two weeks?

Thank you very much!

=======================
EMAIL 5

Considering the under insured campaign is LG channel, to give more information and motivation to our agent, I modified the tracking report:
1. Add a new report named: billboard
2. Modify the agent score card( for team) I’ve discuss with xx, he has agreed with the revise.

Thank you!

=======================
EMAIL 6

Many thanks for your kindest support to make it happen! We strongly believe that xx is the right person for our seminar.
Your continuous support is the key of our success!

=======================
EMAIL 7

Dear both,

Denise has already invited a guest speaker from HK agency. He is called Andy xxx ( Senior District Director).

well, he is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker, so u guys need not worry his ability 🙂

Kind regards,

=======================
EMAIL 8

I’ve double checked these cost items, and they are all right. Furthermore, I’ve mastered how to use correlative forms, and I’ll ask xx’s help when I have other questions.

=======================
EMAIL 9

There is the final version wording of “NML Campaign” we prepared in the attachment, please help to check whether it is ready to apply for approval program.

=======================
EMAIL 10

To conduct the campaign better and more conveniently, we prepared three “Production Tracking Reports” for agencies, and we’ll update them every two weeks from now on; Furthermore, because the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st- when our campaign have only launched for ten days, so some items just for your reference. If there are some questions or proposals about these reports, you can contact us further.

>Those #&!*% boring books!

>One major problem teachers have brought up is that material is boring. Although it is quite easy to find that material is boring it actually leads us to a much more difficult but important and useful question. What material is exciting? What coursebook do you know of that makes students excited to come to class? What books have made your class the most interesting class the students attend in their school? What coursebooks give the sleepers insomnia? What coursebooks are so much fun that students who have no extrinsic interest in learning English take your course just because it’s so fascinating?

>Business dilemmas for business speaking

>For business related dilemmas, problems and issues for your students to sort out I recommend two books by Cambridge. These are part of their ‘photocopiable resource’ book series and has teacher instructions, etc, etc.

“BUSINESS ROLES – 12 simulations for Business English”

Two of the twelve units are:

“Polluting the river – This US fridge maker has been secretly polluting the river for decades. However, putting a stop to it may mean heavy financial or job losses…” (Actually, GE is going through some problems in NY about this right now.)

“Quality and personnel – A VCR manufacturer with factories in the Far East and Europe tries to determine why quality is so much better in one plant than in the other.”

“DECISIONMAKER – 14 business situations for analysis and discussion”

Two of the fourteen units are:

“Smoke Signals – A trainee in a large cigarette company has to respond to a secret marketing strategy”

“The Hohokum Virus – A computer company responds to a blackmail threat.”

Although the books are similar in that they require discussion and problem solving in English, Business Roles is essentially for role play whereas Decisionmaker is for class discussion.

>Favorite materials & teaching via telephone

>I am using ‘Discussions A-Z, A resource book of speaking activities’ published by Cambridge. It’s expensive, but worth it to me as I’ve been able to use it a lot in my training.

It has photocopiable pages. I’m teaching an IELTS class and will photocopy 3 pages for the students. During the week, the students will call me three times and we’ll do a page each time. This is an English by telephone course and it works great.

The book has lots of little questions formed around a topic. For example:

TIME
What would life be like if we didn’t have clocks? Would there be any advantages? etc, etc.

FAMILIES
Why do we need families?
Is the family ever likely to disappear as an institution?
Should the mother or the father be the head of the family?
etc, etc.

JOBS
Which is the easiest job?
babysitter, dentist, football player, teacher
The most tiring?
doctor, farmer, miner, tip model
etc, etc.

There’s about 50 units. Each unit has teacher’s instructions. My students like it very much.

I’m doing this training by phone, partially as an experiment. I’ve found it to go surprisingly well. I was afraid there might be trouble with clarity over the phone line but it has been very clear. Also, the student gets one-on-one conversation time with me, howbeit only 15 minutes a go.