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:

1

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”

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Teaching academic writing

Most writing books are pretty useless.

Why?

They are born out of a sort of academic incest, inbreeding. The authors look at what other authors got published and follow that. Publishers look at what other publishers sold and publish that. Jack Richards hints at this problem on his website. Shocking truth: Publishers are not in the business to help your students. Continue reading “Teaching academic writing”

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!

Questioning assumptions about teaching to the test

So often teachers complain about the fact that they must teach so much out of the book so that the students can pass some test. But then in the next breath the teachers complain that the students forget much of what the teachers had to teach and the students had to learn. Then teachers and students say that is how things are and we cannot do anything about it.

But I am suggesting that it is not a fact that teachers and students have to do such a thing.

I am suggesting that teachers may be making assumptions about tests, for example the CET and the
BEC tests, that may be incorrect assumptions. Namely I am suggesting that what is taught in the books may not be what is tested in the tests.

Let’s take these two tests as examples. Although they are two different tests, what I am suggesting is that if we did an analysis of actual CET and BEC test questions that we may not find those test answers in the CET and BEC books.

I feel that all of us as teachers may be holding too many assumptions about our craft These assumptions may be hindering and even harming us and our students causing us to waste time, waste energy, waste teaching and learning
capacity and even waste money.

The implications are tremendous. If you consider the hundreds of millions who take these tests, took these tests or will take these tests, and what could have otherwise been done with this time, energy, capacity and money, it is our responsibility as professionals to be sure about these things.

I suggest that we reexamine all of our assumptions about these kinds of tests and the assumptions that we hold about them.

Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am wrong. But I suggest that it is a worthwhile effort to ask these questions. This is what I am currently doing with the CET Chinese English Test.

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.

Engineering an Experience! – Think outside the book…way outside!

What are we going to do with our time if we don’t teach grammar? Blow our students’ minds!

Have you ever seen a three-way orgy in an Ikea store? I have. You can too! Ikea 3-way

 

Scene from "Ikea Heights"
This crazy filmmaker thought it would be great fun to secretly film a melodrama in an Ikea store. With price tags hanging in front of their faces and customers walking behind, they act out living and dying in a fictitious neighborhood called “Ikea Heights”. What an out-of-the-box crazy idea.

 

If I have a small group, maybe 6-7 students, I will always take them to Ikea at some point during our training.

For us “experience engineers”, perhaps you are one, part of “engineering the experience” is not just to engineer a lesson but to engineer the overall training experience. Some lessons are in the classroom. Some lessons are out…way out! We want to not only have interesting and exciting lessons but also surprising experiences. We want our students to associate English learning to something thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating, amazing — not boring.

To this end we often not only “think outside of the box” but we “teach outside of the classroom”. There’s many things we can do along this line.

You know the boring lesson in English coursebooks where they read some dialog to order the food? Teachers who are “experience engineers” will do crazy things like having lunch together with their students at a buffet restaurant…with a twist. Instead of every student going to get their own food from the buffet counter, the teacher, or even one or two students, will act as “waiters” and take orders from the other students who act as “customers”. The “customers” sit at their tables while the “waiters” take the orders and serve the food. Students take turns waitering so everyone gets a chance. Perhaps the teacher or a student will visit the buffet the day before to make a “menu” that the others will use to order from but this is not necessary. (BTW, if asked, the manager will probably offer a discount for the group.) Wow, a lesson you can eat!

My student, a manager in an American company, trying out the Ikea experience

Ikea is a unique kind of store. They are “experience engineers”, too. They create these realistic rooms or even tiny apartments so you can feel the life of living in an Ikea home. Show your students the “Ikea Heights” film before you go. (Write me if you would like subtitles.) At the store you can act out your own mini-scenarios or role plays. (Orgy scene NOT recommended.)

There are a lot of interesting business strategies employed at Ikea. My English students who are managers love it when I point these things out. Ikea herds customers through a path like a rat maze. They station a cafeteria exactly halfway through the store so that customers will have no excuse to leave before they finish their shopping. They have a very cheap hot dog and ice cream available at the end of the shopping experience to provide a favorable “peak/end” experience.[1] There are lots of business concepts to unravel there.

There is a wealth of business talk to engage your students in discussing marketing, sales, promotion, staffing (few staff), ideas from things like Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy?” and Joseph Pine’s “Experience Economy” and business questions like “This frying pan costs only $1. Now why would a big store like Ikea sell a frying pan below cost?”

That’s not to mention all the discussion of preferences and even games: “What do you like more? This sofa or that sofa? Why?” “Now John, choose a chair you like but don’t tell us. Jane, guess what chair John prefers and tell us why.”

How about simulations? “Jane, you go ahead to the bed department. You are going to be a salesperson. Think of what advantages different beds have and when we come you should try to interest us in buying one of those beds. Give us a good sales pitch!”

Let’s quit complaining about the dull English coursebooks. They’re hopeless. Let’s go outside and turn the world into our coursebook. Let’s quit apologizing to the students for the boring books and take the responsibility and the challenge of being like other teachers who are “experience engineers”, creating lessons that you can see, feel, hear and even taste, lessons that are interesting, engaging and even surprising! Can’t we make experiences so mind-blowing that our students will want to grab their phones and text their buddies about the crazy English lesson they are having, that they will have to tell their parents or spouse about the crazy things they did today?

Don’t you think we can do better? I think we can.

(You “experience engineers” out there, share with us your lessons and ideas!)

Notes and references:

[1] Nobel winner Kahneman’s Peak End Rule not only applies to some of the things Ikea does but to what our lessons should be like:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak-end_rule

http://tinyurl.com/4okbks5

“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.

Engineering an Experience! The coursebook

There are many reasons we cannot meet our students “on location” outside the classroom, as movie people say. Due to large class size or other restrictions, we are often confined to the classroom.

Much of the coursebook is tedious but there are ways to spice things up. I already explained how we change the routine boring role play of booking a hotel room into an actual phone call to a five-star hotel in New York. That really gets students stirred up, scared to death, tuned in and awake.[1]

Every time we have to teach from the book, we look for some exercise that we can really activate. One book had an exercise on speaking about charts and graphs from a survey. The survey was about types of cars people liked and there was some information about some rather old cars and unknown in our country but there were some good examples of language for discussing a survey and preferences.

To activate it, we skipped the car stuff and we asked the students to make their own survey. Work together with a partner. Choose a topic. Make a list of questions. Go around the room and survey at least ten other students. The room became full of activity. Everyone was talking. Everyone was smiling. They were completely engaged. Afterward they compiled the results of their surveys and prepared presentations with charts and graphs to explain their findings to the class. They did surveys on popular mobile phones, sports shoes, music stars, fast food restaurants.

One unit was very passively talking about environmental problems. To activate it students worked in pairs to choose one problem and decide on a solution. They prepared posters on a normal A4 size paper. They then took positions around the room something like at a trade fair or exhibition and tried to attract other classmates acting as “visitors” or “passersby” to ask for their support and a donation. These “visitor” classmates had an imaginary $100 to give out to the causes that appealed to them the most. Students looked to the coursebook for language to help them present their causes. The classroom was lively and the English speaking was at a roar level.

Activate any pairwork or groupwork activity in a coursebook by having the students work together with people they are not sitting with. Students always sit with their “buddies” but are often very passive with these friends. Get students out of their seats and working together with others that they are not so passive with. Make sure the boys don’t always bunch up.

Try to flip the topic on its head to grab the students’ minds and not let go. One teacher was going to explain how to do a résumé. We suggested he have the students also make a basic résumé and practice applying for a job from other students who act as employers but with a catch. They should make the résumé as a superhero; ie: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, etc. There was tremendous interest in the activity. The basic English is the same whether you are Superman or John Doe but the interest was tremendous and the students highly activated.

The class does not need to consist of only exercises that are so engaging. If you have just one exercise like this each class the students will then be much more alert with active minds and even ready to tackle something more routine or normally boring.

[1] When we call New York, we don’t book a room but we do ask for information working from a list of predetermined questions. For example, what kind of restaurants does the hotel have, what is the price of a room, do they provide airport pick-up, is there a beauty salon, can we bring our little Pekinese Shou-Shou?