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”

“Text messages help smokers quit” – Can they motivate students?

I have always been interested in research into habit changing efforts that could possibly be instrumental in helping my students. This has led me into studying techniques related to fitness coaching, distance coaching, research into using SMS to remind people to take their meds, using SMS for weight loss, phone calling to coach people quitting drug habits and to support wellness programs, etc. Here is some late news on the same topic. To what Continue reading ““Text messages help smokers quit” – Can they motivate students?”

Benchmarking to The Experience Economy

Pine and Gilmore on The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage[1]

The importance of the experience. Seeing how people want more than just a thing or something done. How successful companies have turned their focus to attaching an experience to their product and service more than a simple product or service. Of course, movies and tour operators do this, too. But why not teachers? I think it can really help motivate students if we can embellish the acquisition of knowledge by stimulating their senses, pushing many “hot buttons”.

How I use it: This has propelled me into wanting to deliver experiences to my students, evident in my attempts at “engineering experiences”. I won’t repeat those here.

[1] Pine and Gilmore on The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage:


Benchmarking to Kahneman’s Peak End Rule

He won a Nobel Prize for his ideas about how a person remembers two things best during a holiday trip or similar experience; the most striking event, be it good or bad, and the end event.[1]

How I use it: Contrary to the impression I try very hard to give you, my classes are not always breathtaking. In fact, they are very often boring. I hate boring classes and do all that I can to make them interesting but we can’t win every time. But from Kahneman I learned to make at least one part of the class and the end very interesting or even exciting.

I may do this with a game, a short film clip that we use for a speaking exercise or a pairwork/groupwork activity that is highly interactive with other pairs or groups (not just sit at your desk). It has to be something that actually makes students forget they are sitting in an English classroom having an English lesson and to really feel they are trying to “sell a holiday package to the moon” or “apply for a job as Spiderman”, etc.

Since I learned the Peak End Rule, at the end of every single class I do three things, (1) try to end with something very active, (2) sum up what we did and learned during the lesson and (3) very important: ask the students if it helped their English and get them to reply to that question. It is something like this: “OK everybody, we’re out of time now! So what did we do today? We learned about making phone calls. We learned ten new words. And we practiced making phone calls and we actually called a hotel in New York! Wasn’t that interesting?! Have you ever called New York before? Haha! OK, did I help your English today?” “YES!” “OK, I’m happy I helped your English! That’s all for today! See you next week!”

Before, many students would leave the class without a firm picture in their mind of what happened. If someone asked them they might say, “Oh, we played a game but I don’t know if we learned anything.” So now I make sure that they leave my classroom with a clear label of what happened, a clear feeling of accomplishment. One, I learned such-and-such. Two, it helped my English. Personally, I know it helped their English. But it’s important to make sure
they know it and say it, too.

Nobel winner Kahneman’s Peak End Rule:

What vocabulary?

What vocabulary do our students really need to know? Book authors and publishers make their best guess based on a world wide selection of corpus but is this the vocabulary your students are going to need?

We used to be dependent on authors and publishers to tell us but the world is rapidly changing and technology is enabling teachers to gain this information with greater accuracy and ease.

By interviewing my graduated students, I found that they often get jobs in foreign trade and have to deal with orders. What is the specific vocabulary involved in orders? (Photo: Visiting my former student at the foreign trade company where she works.)

1. I created my own corpus for “placing an order” by doing a search, selecting appropriate webpages, copying the text and pasting it in one Notepad file.

2. After accumulating what I thought was a representative range of text, I then copied and pasted the corpus into a data visualization tool to generate a Word Cloud [1].

3. I also created a word list [2] that works like a concordance showing different ways these words are used in a sentence.

Using these technology tools, I feel that I have a deeper understanding and greater control over the likely vocabulary my students will encounter and need. I won’t say that this approach is 100% accurate. I will say that for determining my students’ needs it is more accurate than depending on an author and publisher in London or New York.

These are samples from a simple corpus I created. Teachers should develop large and more accurate corpuses for their specific needs.

The future of education?

In almost all cases, our college students are studying and trying to get grades for the purpose of grades and degrees that will help them get a job. For this purpose, employers are going to be the end users of these scores.

Here is something in Fast Company magazine from Sal Khan of Khan Academy on the subject. I wonder what other teachers think about this:

“How would he change education? By turning it upside down. First, he says, we should ‘decouple credentialing from learning.’ Instead of handing out degrees, standardized assessments would be the measure of employee competence. Anyone could learn at their own pace in their own way: in an internship, as an entrepreneur, or at home on the Internet. Then, everyone, no matter how they were educated, would be equal before the evaluation. Additionally, he thinks the assessment could be more meaningful than whatever abilities a college degree actual signals to employers.”

If you are not familiar with Khan Academy, I suggest you read the article and look up more on the subject. (Photo: Salman Khan at work.)

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.

iPad or iHype?

A teacher was promoting iPads saying, “You can record and publish a podcast or audio to the web from an ipad in your classroom in about half the time it takes a PC to boot up. This kind of speed ease and portability takes a lot of the time wasting out of computer use in the classroom and makes it all run a lot smoother. There’s a lot to be said for that.”

To discuss the Pros and Cons of iPads, it’s really hard to separate the hype about Apple products, isn’t it? I suppose having a computer that starts instantly gives students about a 30-second jump on the day. I’ve been trying to think about iPads and iPhones with a level head and not get caught up in the hoopla. I’ve been checking out all of the iPad users that I come across to see what they are doing and talking with them. I don’t see any of them doing anything with an iPad that can’t be done as well or better on a notebook computer.

The Starbucks is a natural hangout for iPads. You’d expect to find some interesting usage there but what are they doing? I’ve been checking them out. They are:  (1) Watching movies. (2) Reading webpages. (3) Playing solitaire.

It’s kind of comical to see how the screen flips when people inadvertently tip the iPad and they try to tip it aright again.

Although typing is possible, I notice almost no one really tries to do it. I’ve tried it and found it requires much more focus on my fingers whereas on a physical keyboard I am just thinking what I want to say and without looking my fingers work over  the keyboard automatically. I find that I make more mistakes on a physical keyboard if I look at my fingers and think about the keys so I don’t think that’s going to be better on an iPad. Then when people read, watch or play on the iPad they usually have to have one hand to just hold the thing.

I think it’s useful to talk about the Pros and Cons of the iPad. All of those “Top Ten Apps!” stories in magazines just feature either basic programs for word processing or Email or some odd program which might be completely cool but not really needed. They say there’s something like a million apps available now so I have searched those. Either really standard stuff or unnecessary stuff. No “killer apps” that you can’t get for a notebook or smart phone.

He mentioned AudioBoo as a reason to get an iPad but this is available for Windows machines, too.

I would love to buy an iPad if it saved time or could do something that I really needed. Right now it does seem  completely cool but aside from the coolness factor it just seems overhyped. It is all iHype.

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

Benchmarking to a Moscow band

Sometimes you can take some aspect of a business and compare your business to that. The two businesses may be quite different but there may be some function of the business that can be compared. I do this, too.

In Moscow I had some friends who had a band. They were going to perform and invited me to a big concert. Many bands were going to perform. My friends looked good and sang and played well. I was impressed. After they finished, this straggly young guy got on the stage and I thought he was going to sweep it but he had no broom. I was surprised when he walked over to the microphone and called to the control booth to start the music. Then he began singing. His voice was not remarkable, it was suitable. But somehow he reached out and grabbed our hearts and minds and had us all clapping our hands and dancing in our seats. It was all in Russian and I didn’t understand a single word but he was the star of the show. I was thrilled!

How I use it:

Technical perfection is not the important thing. We can maybe look good and teach well and appeal to our students’ intellect. But I think a great teacher can reach out and grab hearts and minds. I think great teachers can distract students from all their distractions and capture students so completely that they fall under the spell of the lesson. That Russian singer is my benchmark for teaching. I am seldom successful at hitting this mark but I think even hitting halfway is beneficial to my students. Along with his spirit and enthusiasm that so moved me, I noticed how he got us clapping by showing us to clap. When we joined him in clapping we were no longer passive observers but we were active. From this I learned it is important to get my students’ bodies involved in the class. Make them get up and change partners, get up and join others to form a group, and they will be more active. I don’t let them pairwork with the person sitting next to them because their attitude and spirit will be too passive. My first task is to activate my students’ hearts and minds. If they are activated, they can learn anything. If they are not activated, they can learn nothing.