Executive coaching

I have been teaching for many years the Chinese managers at an American company.  Some of these managers already have very good English skills and it became a challenge to keep their interest or provide something that they really needed.

From my research and experience, I found that managers with good English skills nonetheless felt they weren’t communicating well. They always feel that Continue reading “Executive coaching”

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”

Flipping the classroom

Currently there are some ideas amongst teachers about “flipping the classroom”. The idea is for students to have lessons at home and do homework in class.

This idea is being attached to Kahn Academy. Salman Kahn has produced a couple thousand videoed math lessons which are freely available and have been downloaded about a million times. Since Kahn has done such a good job of explaining mathematical concepts in a concise and clear way, teachers are letting Kahn teach their students. The students watch the videos at home and then when they come to class they will practice the mathematical concepts with the teacher there to help the ones who need help.

I am currently experimenting with flipping the classroom with my college students. I am using material from ESL Pod. Each lesson consists of the transcript of a short dialog and a 15-minute long MP3. The MP3 begins with the dialog spoken slowly, then an in depth explanation of the new vocabulary followed by the dialog again at normal speed. I would like to talk more about the merits of ESL Pod in another message but right now let’s focus on flipping the classroom.

Each Thursday I assign four of these ESL Pod lessons on a business English theme and recommend that the students do one a day. On the following Tuesday, I will give them a very short quiz on one of the lessons. The purpose of this quiz is just to put a little pressure on the students to make sure that they do the assignment or to find out who didn’t do it.

Then in the classroom, we will do some games or activities based around the theme of the assignments and the new vocabulary we learned. (Photo: Working in pairs, students use the new vocabulary from the lesson they studied at home to prepare and act out a role play with other pairs of students.)

I am currently engaged in a project to visit 100 classrooms to see how teachers teach and how students learn. I am seeing a lot of teaching going on that is identical to the type of teaching that ESL Pod or other resources do. I think that we as teachers should embrace these resources and use them to their full potential but then in our classrooms we should focus on doing what can only be done in person, that is, things like massive role plays and games and highly personal interaction activities.

>English Safari – 10 students at the mall

>I just got back from an English Safari to the mall this morning with 10 of my students. This time it was with a group of students from a training center. Most are adults with a couple young people.

I’ve been doing about one or two safaris with students every week. This was the biggest group. We attracted some attention. Some shoppers realized there was something special about us and some stood near to hear what we were talking about. The training center sent along a minder in anticipation of this. She gave out flyers about the school. Generally, I don’t think you would want to attract too much attention as the mall management may be disturbed if you have a big crowd or are blocking entrances or aisle ways.

What do we do on an English Safari?

Well, in a way it is odd to even ask the question. After all, we are out in the real world. We are surrounded by realia. The environment is dense with the necessities and even luxuries of life. As long as everyone is speaking English about the things they do and experience there then it is improving their English.

Look at a definition of Task Based Learning:

“A task-based approach assumes that speaking a language is a skill best perfected through practice and interaction, and uses tasks and activities to encourage learners to use the language communicatively in order to achieve a purpose. Tasks must be relevant to the real world language needs of the student. That is, the underlying learning theory of task based and communicative language teaching seems to suggest that activities in which language is employed to complete meaningful tasks, enhances learning.”[1]

If we are in a mall how can we not be talking about things of the real world? This is no book learning and there is no book.

But if you want to make a clear outline or have some goals to accomplish or check your students on here are some competencies taken from the “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment”. In the scale given below, A1 is beginner and C2 is the most advanced.

Can speak well about…


Themselves & others

Simple routine
Limited work and free time activities
Simple directions & instructions
Pastimes, habits, routines
Past activities

Detailed directions
Accumulated factual information on familiar matters within their field


Where they live

People, appearance [they could describe people in the mall, even mannequins]
Background, job [jobs of people who work there, what duties do they have]
Places and living conditions [nice and poor conditions, luxury]
Objects, pets, possessions [their possessions compared to those in the shop]
Events and activities [what do you need/want on holidays]
Likes/dislikes [preferences]
Plans/arrangements [what big things do they plan to buy, when, why and how often] Habits/routines [how often do they go shopping, to the restaurant, to movies, what do they usually do when they go there]
Personal experience [did anything funny or exciting ever happen when they went to a mall]

Plot of book/film, reactions [the mall has a cinema, this is a good one to talk about there]
Experiences, reaction
Dreams, hopes, ambitions
Tell a story
Basic details of unpredictable occurrences, ie: accident

Clear detailed description of complex subjects

Want more ideas?

Here are some topics related to our society, also from the Common European Framework. Nearly all of these topics can be touched on or discussed in detail during an English Safari to a mall. You could get ideas from below and together with your own ideas make a checklist and check items off as you discuss them with your Safari group. If your students show difficulty in some things you can make a note and cover it more deeply in class. Sociocultural knowledge

1. Everyday living, e.g.:
• food and drink, meal times, table manners;
• public holidays;
• working hours and practices;
• leisure activities (hobbies, sports, reading habits, media).

2. Living conditions, e.g.:
• living standards (with regional, class and ethnic variations);
• housing conditions;
• welfare arrangements.

3. Interpersonal relations (including relations of power and solidarity) e.g. with respect to:
• class structure of society and relations between classes;
• relations between sexes (gender, intimacy);
• family structures and relations;
• relations between generations;
• relations in work situations;
• relations between public and police, officials, etc.;
• race and community relations;
• relations among political and religious groupings.

4. Values, beliefs and attitudes in relation to such factors as:
• social class;
• occupational groups (academic, management, public service, skilled and manual workforces);
• wealth (income and inherited);
• regional cultures;
• security;
• institutions;
• tradition and social change;
• history, especially iconic historical personages and events;
• minorities (ethnic, religious);
• national identity;
• foreign countries, states, peoples;
• politics;
• arts (music, visual arts, literature, drama, popular music and song);
• religion;
• humor.

6. Social conventions, e.g. with regard to giving and receiving hospitality, such as:
• punctuality;
• presents;
• dress;
• refreshments, drinks, meals;
• behavioral and conversational conventions and taboos;
• length of stay;
• leave-taking.

7. Ritual behavior in such areas as:
• religious observances and rites;
• birth, marriage, death;
• audience and spectator behavior at public performances and ceremonies;
• celebrations, festivals, dances, discos, etc.

I make note of the new words we learn together. I sometimes do this on my cell phone and after the class is finished I send a copy to each student.

[1] http://iteslj.org/Articles/Rabbini-Syllabus.html

>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.

>Why my students hate me

>One teacher confided, “The first thing I do is to explain why I’m asking for change.”

I’ve had entire classes rebel and reject me when they thought I didn’t teach enough grammar. I’ve been told I was the worse teacher a particular student ever had (and he was an adult.) I have taught in classrooms with a big “No Pain – No Gain!” sign over my head that the students’ regular teachers had placed to make sure the students knew that learning was supposed to be an academically masochistic(1) experience.

A teacher has two options in these situations.

A) Go along with what everyone wants. After 10-12 years of grammar translation training in school they have at least reached low intermediate level — so just give them more of it.

B) Help them learn about learning and teach them about teaching.

This is the same thing a doctor does when he introduces a new therapy, drug or treatment. He explains the research. He explains the results. He explains the problems with the older and the advantages of the newer. The doctor teaches you. He doesn’t say, “Well, if your mother always said cod liver oil will heal anything, then let’s try that.”

We have to explain the history of English teaching and the advances that have been made in understanding how the mind and language works. We have to sell our methods and set their minds at ease. I tell my students about Dell Hymes. I tell them about Krashen. (I’m going to have to start telling them about Mert.) I don’t follow a Krashen plan (nor Mert plan) but I mention these things to show them some of the ideas involved in current research. I think we have to hit the problem head on. Teach them exactly why we are going to do things differently and really sell it. Teach them exactly why they don’t already know English from their previous learning experience if it was under strong Grammar Translation.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that cod liver oil is just what some people needed nor the possibility that many people learn best with a strong grammar translation method. I had an American buddy who loved grammar. To him it was like a puzzle. We picked up a how to learn Japanese book with lots of grammar in it and after three months he was speaking Japanese and I knew nothing.

But if Grammar Translation and Audio Lingual are so great then everyone in China should be speaking English fluently by now.

(1) A willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

>Academia resists change

>Xiujuan Zhang and Hongna have pointed out the challenges that they’ve faced as teachers in China. If there were more support or at least tolerance for change it would not be so difficult. Changing academia is one of the hardest things in the world to do. How do you tell the teachers that they don’t know?

A couple years ago we were having our annual Communicative Approach (CA) vs. Grammar Translation (GT) debate. A teacher said that although she believed CA was more effective she had to teach GT because their school expected them to do it that way. The teachers had to act against her conscience and against what she thought was in the best interest of the student in order to please their employer. And in this case this was an American teacher in New York, USA! So we can only have sympathy and admiration for our Chinese colleagues who struggle to do something different in their schools.

It was the end of my last class when she came in. She unloaded an armful of books on the desk and asked me if I had any videos or films that she could borrow to help her learn about business. I assured her I could help her and offered to leave them with one of the students to pass to her. She asked me to not do that. She explained that although she has been an English teacher for many years, she just passed a special training to allow her to teach business English but now she doesn’t want students or her superiors to know that she doesn’t know a thing about business. She felt very badly about being so covert about the whole thing but made it clear that showing any kind of weakness in professional skills was risky.

Teachers feel bad about inadequacies but at the same time the necessity to cover them up. It is likely they are covering them up from superiors who also are covering up inadequacies from their superiors who are also covering up inadequacies from their superiors, all in the politics of academia.

This sort of situation, which happens in certain academic situations in many places around the world, can be like that children’s game where everyone makes a circle and slowly sit down until they are sitting on the knees of the person behind them while at the same time providing their knees as a seat for the person in front of them. They can even march, although, only in a circle. Lots of action but not getting anywhere. But if one person stands up then everyone falls down. The dynamics are that there is more common interest in perpetuating the system and strong risks in challenging it or rocking the boat.

Dynamics like these cannot last an instant in business where it is sink or swim and constant change and real progress are the keys to survival. Academia does not have to play the survival game.

>Why it is difficult for Chinese English teachers to use the communicative approach

> [Photo: Professor Li Xiao Ju and Dave]

There was tremendous resistance to the Communicative Approach (CA) when it was first introduced in China in 1980 by Professor Li Xiao Ju at a conference at the Guangzhou University of Foreign Studies. In fact I was told, only one young teacher at the conference welcomed the idea. Even though the Ministry of Education later accepted it as the approved way to teach it seems they had to back down a bit later due to some pressure.

For those who embrace CA it is an uphill battle to spread its acceptance in China. Why? Perhaps there are two reasons. Before I discuss them I’d like to set some definitions. I believe ALL teachers want their students to learn grammar. The question is how? Grammar-Translation (GT) advocates believe rule learning and a direct understanding of the mechanics of the language are essential. CA advocates believe language mechanics study is an extra step leading to complicate and even frustrate the learning of the language. They believe the best way to learn the language is to use it and the grammar will be learned internally. But in the scope of CA advocates is a range of extremities. Many hold Krashen as the most extreme.

Back to the reasons, first, there is not complete acceptance of CA amongst western teachers. Many teachers in the west believe GT to be a required part of language teaching. This has been witnessed on this list with the subject of GT vs. CA flaming up about once a year. But what I think is more interesting is what I consider the second reason of why CA has not spread around China more easily. Can Chinese teachers do it?

The question was “Can Chinese English teachers make use of the Communicative Approach?”

The skill level of Chinese teachers varies widely. With some teachers you forget they are not native English teachers because their English is flawless. But some teachers have very poor English. It is difficult for them to communicate in a conversation. They are hard to understand and it is hard for them to understand you. I’m not sure how to quantify the number of teachers at these various levels of skill. Another thing is that we must factor in some cultural factors and the politics of academia. After all of that I would guess that less than 25% of Chinese teachers could operate in a CA classroom without losing face and my guess is probably very very generous.

On the other hand, GT is a much more comfortable way of teaching. Rules are laid out, memorized and recited. Drills are given with structured sentences that require only one correct answer. The teacher does not have to score a sometimes convoluted mass of words that the student has used to describe something. The teacher has to check if the correct word is filled into the blanks. Certainly I’m over-simplifying this but I use it as an illustration.

This leads us to a bigger question. What do you do in a country with 100 million English students to teach and only a small percentage of your teachers have near native English skills themselves? Is Grammar-Translation the answer?

>China is in the past with "New Concept"

>A teacher wrote us: “I noted recently the, I think, generally unannounced passing of LG (Louis) Alexander in June 2003. Alexander was a giant of TESOL in the early 70s when I began using his texts in TEFL situations. When I returned to the field a few years later his hour had passed and he wasn’t heard of again. Too much repetition; too much focus on habit formation.”

Alexander and his “New Concept” series, published in 1965 (with only superficial changes since) predating even Dell Hymes’ and the Communicative Approach (is it still a new concept?) is the number one best seller in China even today. It seems like Chinese students and Chinese teachers think it is the greatest invention in English teaching since the dictionary. They erected a statue to Alexander in Beijing .

A teacher suggested an examination of methodologies of the past to see what good things from them may have been overlooked. Obviously, more work needs to be done to get the world’s largest English learning population out of the past and at least to the present. So much has changed in the English teaching world since “New Concept” was published. The study of linguistics has benefited a lot from the research of Noam Chomsky, Stephen Krashen and many other researchers and modern thinkers. “New Concept” is in the past. It is the old concept. Time for a “new” new concept.

>Must students understand language mechanics to achieve language usage?

>Private Sub Reply_to_message_about_grammar()
Dim MESSAGE as String
MESSAGE = “Hello,” & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & “I think the goal is to teach our students to use the language. “
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & “Sometimes trying to study the mechanics makes it more difficult and confusing. “
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & “The same is true with computers. Most of us just want to use programs. “
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & “Trying to study computer language makes it more difficult and confusing.”
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & “However, computer people should understand programming. Teachers should understand language mechanics.”
MESSAGE = MESSAGE & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & Chr$(13) & Chr(10) & “Dave Kees”
End sub



I think the goal is to teach our students to use the language. Sometimes trying to study the language mechanics makes it more difficult and confusing. The same is true with computers. Most of us just want to use programs. Trying to study computer language makes it more difficult and confusing.

However, computer people should understand programming. Teachers should understand language mechanics.

Dave Kees