12 Reasons to like ESL Pod

ESL Pod can be found at: http://www.eslpod.com. I recommend it for upper-intermediate level students. It is free. I do not use the extra paid features.

I like it for 12 reasons:


It introduces very useful new vocabulary. When I choose topics related to business it teaches some business words. But it also introduces some general advanced vocabulary like Continue reading “12 Reasons to like ESL Pod”


Your video conferencing studio

I don’t think the sound quality of video conferencing is very good. I’ve tried Skype and QQ.¬† I hear Google is better but I don’t think it will be better by much. All of these things are going to get better and better in the future as connection speeds improve, microphones and cameras and the video conferencing technology improves. In short, video conferencing is the future.

I have seen some “videocasts” made by some bloggers and magazine journalists. They seem to relish wearing the big headset with the attached microphone. I’m not sure why.

When I’m doing video conferencing with my students, I think “TV news”. Teaching online by video conferencing is a whole new game and there is a lot of problems with it and even some general resistance to it. People always think flesh and blood face-to-face is better. I have to overcome that mindset.

So this is something I take as a direct challenge and focus on it and how to overcome it. How can I make the video conferencing experience as positive as possible. And so I have considered my video conferencing studio.

Pay attention to appearance. What is your student going to see?

The whole “work at home” SOHO idea embraces the idea of working in your pajamas but my students will not enjoy looking at me in my pajamas. I make a greater effort at looking nice in a video conference than I do at a face-to-face lesson.

I don’t want a big headset that makes me look like an airline pilot or NFL coach. I use earbuds and a clip on mic.

My window overlooks the garden which is full of mango trees. I turn the desk so that this scene is my background. It is very pleasant.

I look straight into the camera just as all professionals on TV do. They look straight into the camera and you don’t feel they are looking at a machine. You feel they are looking at you. I want my student to feel that.

It is important to be more focused on what the student is seeing and experiencing than what we are seeing and experiencing.

Teaching by video conferencing is a whole new approachfraught with challenges. We have two choices, wait until all the problems are solved and everyone is doing it or we can launch ourselves into it now and start working on these problems, solving them or minimizing them until the technology catches up.

Mobile apps for teachers

My old Windows Mobile phone is still going and still doing a lot of work. It’s not just the app you add to your mobile but how you use the apps you have. I have a Windows Mobile phone that runs a mobile version of Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint and Word. Here are some things I do with my mobile:


I keep attendance, scores and other student data on my computer using Excel and this Excel master file is very complex with a lot of conditional formatting, macros and formulas. But I can also do attendance on my mobile using the simpler Mobile Excel and by using the built-in synchronization features it will automatically update my master Excel file. This way I don’t have to take my computer to class.


I teach some smaller classes of managers or other corporate students. These classes are typically 1-6 students. When I want to create an experience[1] for my students and take them to a shopping mall or an interesting retailer like Ikea, I will write the new vocabulary on my phone in Word. Using Word I can make the text quite large. As new words come up, I write them on my phone and show them to the students. After our two-hour lesson, we say goodbye and go our separate ways but after we part I copy these new words to my phone’s SMS messaging function and send them off to each student. As my students are heading home they all receive the list of new words that we just learned that day.

Sometimes I have some vocabulary or other English points that I want to review with my students. Rather than simply writing this down in a notebook, which I often forget to check, I will write it as a Mobile Outlook appointment. This appointment will pop up at a scheduled time, the time when I will be teaching those students. So this material that I want to review with my students will appear “Just-In-Time”. Appointments can be set in Outlook on your computer and then will get synchronized automatically to your mobile.


In researching business English usage, I have visited trade fairs and used my phone to record myself talk to salesmen about their products. I can study the real language used in trade fairs, the types of business terms and sentences, and also my students can get an idea of real business conversations. (Photo: Maotai salesman who tried to sell me some famous high quality Chinese liquor.)

Although I usually use my computer for this, I sometimes use my phone to record students speaking at my first class with them. Then at the last class, students can listen to themselves to hear the difference in their English, before and after.

I have also encountered certain individuals from a country famous for scamming people through Emails that purportedly offer you a million dollars or so if you help them to transfer several million out of their country. These guys, not Chinese, have actually approached me on the street here in China and presented the same deal as the Email spam scam asking me to help
them in this manner. I have used my phone to surreptitiously record these guys trying to scam me. The English is business English and accent from a certain region in the world that my students need practice with.


Sometimes it is easier for me to load the lesson MP3’s into my mobile for playback in the class than it is to play them from my computer. This is especially so when I am teaching at a coffee shop where I usually go to teach managers.


I have put many Conversation Questions[3] into my Mobile Powerpoint. I usually use this when I’m out Engineering an Experience or when having lunch with students in the canteen and I want to get them talking about something. I ask them to choose a number between 1-5 and then flip through the slides that many times to add an element of luck or adventure to the process.


After learning about how business uses Customer Relations Management (CRM) software to develop closer relations with customers, I decided to develop a Student Relations Management platform, I call BOB[2], to develop closer relations with my students. The purpose is to create a “presence” with my students, that I’m not just there for them two hours a week but I’m always around always trying to help them with their English.

I have developed macros on my computer to work with my Excel master file of student data. When I connect my mobile to my computer I can use my computer and macros to send SMS messages through my mobile to my students in the following manner:

* Practice English message – I try to get my students to speak English with each other outside of class. We have sometimes established lunchtime, when they eat lunch with classmates, as a good time for them to do this but they often forget. I have sent reminders to each student to speak English at lunchtime. By using the macros I have developed, I can also send each student a different question that they can ask their classmates to help stimulate discussions in English.

* Student updates – My macros can send each student their individual scores by SMS so they can be aware of how they are doing in class as far as quizzes, attendance, participation, etc.

* News flash – Sometimes a particularly good movie with relatively simple English is showing on TV. I will use SMS to notify my students and invite them to watch it with me by tuning into the program and then using a chat program to chat with me and other students while watching the movie at the same time.

* “Where are you?” message – I can do attendance at the beginning of class and then my computer will send a message to the absent students letting them know they are missing our class. Students realize they are not forgotten.

* Reminders – I can send reminders about upcoming tests or homework that is due.

* Nudges – Research has shown that American students who do not read during the holidays decline in reading skills during the holidays. I figure that my Chinese students probably decline in English skills during the holidays so I will send them an SMS message to remind them to do something in English during these periods. I have developed a whole set of reminders to send to them every couple days of the holiday with a different suggestion of something they can do to improve or practice their English.

* Coaching reminders – I have been coaching some of my corporate students. Coaching involves agreeing on specific study goals with students and then encouraging and checking up on students to help them hit those goals. For example, the student may say he wants to listen to an English mp3 everyday while going to work on the bus. Using Outlook’s appointment function, I can have my phone remind me every morning that the student should be doing this. Then at that time I can send an SMS to the student to remind him or check up on him that he is doing this. My phone’s SMS function allows me to create ten stock messages that I can fire off to my students. Appointments can be set in Outlook on your computer and then will get synchronized ¬†automatically to your mobile.

All of this I have done with four basic programs: Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint and Word. It’s not just the app you add to your mobile but how you use the apps you have.


[1] Engineering an Experience – http://goo.gl/i8Ttz
[2] BOB – http://goo.gl/ziWDK
[3] Conversation Questions – http://goo.gl/7uHw7

>Thinking outside the book

>One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I’m just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student’s interest from cover to cover, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking “inside the book”. Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let’s brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Phone messages
Chat rooms
Email spam
Voice spam
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us “outside the book”, what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as “The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins.” To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you’d receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a “Majestic” English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us “out of the book”. Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

– Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

– Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

– Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn’t have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don’t like, etc. (“Don’t go in that dark room!…don’t do it!…Ugh! I knew it!!!”)

– Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

– Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

– He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

– When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. (“Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called ‘Moby Dick’, a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck’s strategy is to become people’s ‘third place’, the main place people go outside of home and work.”)

– Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy’s phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher’s other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It’s interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn’t normally meet (and Jerry thinks it’s always interesting to talk to girls).

– Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

– Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they’ve never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I’m the kind of person who is easily bored.

>Why another CALL symposium?

>I am wondering if we are seeing the end of these conferences. Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) conferences should be the first ones to flee the brick-and-mortar model and hit the Internet airwaves.

Sitting down here in Guangzhou, I often wonder, should I try to go to one of these things? I use my computer a lot in my teaching. I’m sending Emails and SMS to my students with my computer, I use PowerPoint’s in all of my classes. I have a website to teach my students and a website to share my views on teaching. I have started an Open Source Coursebook free for all teachers to use and contribute to as a way to give us dynamic customizable coursebooks better suited to our needs. I use the computer to analyze the corpus of many of my lessons and texts by computer.

Long ago I decided to put all my teaching work into the computer and now I have years of lessons and courses in my machine. I have over 400 video clips, about 100 news clips in English/English and two feature length films in English/English inside my notebook ready to be called on when needed.

So I am certainly interested in the ways computers can aid language learning.
I suppose it would cost me at least $500 in plane tickets, hotel and meals to go there and about another $500 in lost work. And I ask myself, will I get $1000 of value out of it?

The International Symposium of CALL in Beijing just finished and I am wondering if I made the right decision in not going. Teachers who went had little to report.

Of course, it would be great to get out of the house and get out of the school and get out of the city to have a change of scene. But if I want a change of scene I think a beach on Sanya would be more enjoyable. Often we are given very little information about the exact content of the conference. One list member seemed to suggest that the meeting wasn’t as practical as he was hoping it would be.

Amazon.com offers more information on a $5 book than conference organizers do about a conference. At Amazon you can read the publisher’s blurb describing the book the way they want to put it. You can read parts of the book or even a whole chapter to see if you like it. Then you can read comments, reactions, criticisms and praises of the book by people like you and me and they often suggest other books or even better books. It is not a perfect system but do conference organizers give you a sample of the presentations? Is there a place where you can hear the positive AND the negative reactions of people who have heard the presentation? You may ask how can we hear reactions when the conference hasn’t even happened yet? Well, I did a search on the people presenting at the symposium and they have been giving the same presentations all over the world.

They should just blog it, film it and post it or podcast it. Maybe it adds to their mystique if you can only catch them in their rare public appearances. I could not find much content of what they were going to say on the Internet, just references to them giving talks around the world.

Lots of big names have put their stuff on the Net free for the world. Stephen Krashen does conferences. Mert met him in Russia recently. You don’t have to chase him at symposiums. He also has his own website at http://www.sdkrashen.com/ where you’ll find tons of his articles explaining everything he believes about English teaching.

I’m a real fan of Jack Richards, author of New Interchange. He has a website that explains his views, theories and research on language teaching at http://www.professorjackrichards.com/. I don’t know if he is on any lists.

Many of the people who go to conferences have their trips paid for by their schools or companies but I pay out of my own pocket and have to really justify the costs. I usually hear from people that attend these things that the biggest benefit they get out of it was to meet new colleagues in the teaching profession, make some friends amongst peers, network, etc, and it often seems the main attraction was not the main benefit. I never hear anyone say that what they heard was worth $1000 (although I’m positive it must happen, maybe.)

For $1000 I could probably buy 15 or 20 good books and a ticket to Sanya and a beachside hotel room. I feel I would certainly learn something from those books while watching the sunrise over an espresso or cooling myself on the beach with a Budweiser.

I learn a lot from the Internet. I’ve been learning a lot about corpus and have also been exploring a side interest in complexity theory and Schelling. Often experts leave their Email addresses and I write them. I write professors and experts all over the world. (TIP: Make your first Email to them a short simple thanks for writing something that helped you. After they thank you for your thanks you can ask your questions.)

I wrote Ronald Gray about his paper on Truscott’s grammar correction ideas, John Milton who wrote an amazing writing marking program, Ben Szekely at Harvard about his paper on intelligent ranking systems, Zane Berge at the Universtity of Maryland about his studies into motivation in online training, Ricard Zach at the University of Calgary about some ideas in using Excel to develop a CRM for students, and that is just in the past few months.

Anyone can do this to seek out answers from experts who are great people and very helpful.
The Internet is getting better everyday. More and more professors and experts are sharing their best stuff on the Internet. Knowledge is getting freer as in “no money” not just ease of access or availability. MIT is working as fast as it can to put all their courses and lectures up on the Internet free for anyone with at least a dialup connection. Every month I get an Email from them telling me about the latest video I can watch of some IT CEO talking about the future of technology or NASA manager talking about the heavens. I love those things and what I’ve learned from Semler, Friedman, Drucker and others have changed the way I work and think about work.

And of course, the computer enables us to communicate with each other like we do on mailing lists. Peter Neu posted some things about social constructionist theory. This is the idea of people bringing their knowledge together to interact and learn together rather than simply being told what to do by a teacher. Hmmm, sounds like the mailing lists we’re on or blogs and what we’ve been doing for the past several years. I have learned so much here and have made some great friends. And you and I are all networking and communicating with each other and with our colleagues and peers just like people like to do at those conferences.

Thank God for the Internet. Thank God for the computer. All of this is, literally, at our fingertips.

Isn’t it curious that we are sometimes tempted to travel to the other side of the country to listen to someone tell us how to use a computer to do our job?