“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?”


>Movies in the classroom

>“I made love to over 1000 women. Last Tuesday I turned 21.”

That’s an interesting statement. I’ll explain who said it and why later. There is tremendous interest in using movies to teach English these days.

I’ve found that it is often so enjoyable to learn with films that the students don’t even realize that they are learning. When these students are asked what they did in your class they will simply reply, “Oh, we watched a movie.” So at the end of the each lesson it is good to review with the students everything they have just learned.

It’s sort of like that old adage (adapted), tell’m what you’re going to teach them, teach them, tell’m what you taught them.

It has got to grab you

The movie should be very interesting, gripping, exciting! The movie should pull them into the story so much they forget they’re in a classroom. They become so interested in the story that they are desperate to know what happens next…and the only way they can do so is through English.

You have read until this point, right here, wondering about the young man who has made love to over 1000 women before he turned 21. Your curiosity is aroused. You really want to know and you’re wondering when I’m going to finally tell you. This is the kind of interest we need to create in our students.

These are opening lines from the movie “Don Juan DeMarco” starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando. It is a wonderful tale of romance and how living a little fiction can bring out the truth in us. I love using this film for two reasons. It is totally engaging and the vocabulary is accessible.

Language must be accessible

I make a special effort to select a film with language that is accessible, just a bit above their current level (Krashen’s i+1). I try to avoid pre-teaching as much as possible as it’s boring and ineffective.

One teacher has recommended the film “Wall Street”. It is a business movie and full of business language. It may be good for very advanced students but has way too much vocabulary for intermediate students to try to learn and recall.

Not only vocabulary can be challenging but also idioms. I haven’t used “The Insider” with my students for this reason. Here are some examples. I just grabbed these very quickly out of the movie without trying to find something difficult.

Typical dialog in The Insider contains expressions like: “contractual obligations undertaken by you not to disclose any information”, “you manipulated me into this”, “you greased the rails”, “will he go on camera?”, “faced with a multi-billion dollar lawsuit”.

From “Erin Brokovich”: “This is the only thing you’ve got?”, “that place is a pigsty”, “this is a whole different ball game”, “you think if you got no uterus and no breasts you’re still technically a woman?”, “devote my entire reign as Miss Wichita”.

Of course, these terms can be teaching points. A lot depends on how and much how fast. Some films seem full of idioms and technical jargon and some films seem to use a rather simple English. To give you an idea of typical dialogs in these films I have take a one-minute sample from four movies. I randomly chose 30 minutes as a starting point and took one-minute of dialog from there.

I have put into CAPS the language that I think my upper-intermediate students may not understand. I would suggest that for these students that I am speaking of two of the movies below would be i+1 and two are i+2 or 3.

Think of one of your classes as you read the dialogs and ask yourself if your students would understand it. From this you would base your judgment on how much pre-teaching you would need to do or, if you are like me, if the film is accessible and i+1. (Of course, if the film is tremendously interesting the students will make a greater effort to grasp it and something like i+2 might be possible.)


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, Starring Starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer

A: (Talking about golf) And he gets out there and HE HAS FIVE STROKES ON US. He has more CONCENTRATION than anybody I’ve ever met. It’s SPOOKY HOW HE CAN CONCENTRATE.
B (Jeffrey): I’d rather play than talk about it. What did you want to see me about? I don’t like being back here.
A: (To a 3rd man) Jeffrey SAYS EXACTLY WHAT’S ON HIS MIND. Most people CONSIDER what they are saying – SOCIAL SKILLS. Jeffrey just CHARGES RIGHT AHEAD. (To Jeffrey) Now I know you understand the NATURE of the CONFIDENTIALITY PORTION of your SEVERANCE AGREEMENT with Brown & Williamson.
A: Yeah, I know you do. You know, I CAME UP THROUGH sales. One of the reasons I was a great salesman was I never made a promise I couldn’t keep. I knew that if I ever broke my promise, I’d SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES.
B: Is that a THREAT?


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, Starring Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia

A (Talking to himself while doing something on the computer): The Dinky Link…Seven…Jimmy’s Toy Box!
B: Psst! Hey! Psst! I’m Scott Brennen.
A: Uh, I’m Josh Baskin.
B: Listen, are you trying to get us all fired?
A: Huh?
B: Slow down. PACE YOURSELF. Slow. Slowly. Slow.
A: Sorry.
B: Today’s my first day.
A: I know.
B: How long have you worked here?
A: Five years.
B: The WORK STINKS but the FRINGE BENEFITS are great.
A: See that girl over there in the red?


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, Trading places starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Akroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Ameche

A: (In the Jacuzzi) Hey, BUBBLES, man! When I was growing up, we wanted a JACUZZI…we had to FART in the TUB. This is BAD!
B: (In the living room) What’s he doing in there?
C: He’s singing, sir.
D: They’re very musical people, aren’t they?
C: What shall I do with his clothes, sir?
B: Send them to the laundry. He’ll need something to wear back to the GHETTO after I’ve won our bet.
D: (Everybody in the living room) Well, William, what do you think?
A: I like it, Randy. It’s very nice. I like the way you got the mirrors HOOKED UP. It’s very pretty.
B: I don’t think he understands, Randolph .
A: Mortie, I do understand.
D: William, this is your home.
A: Uh-huh, right.
D: It belongs to you.
A: All this is mine. I like my home. Very nice TASTE in houses.
D: Everything you see in this room is yours.
A: This is my stuff.
D: Your own personal PROPERTY.


00:30:00 – 00:31:00, starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney

A: The only thing that CONFUSED me is, NOT that your MEDICAL problems areN’T important, but how come the files on that are in with all the REAL ESTATE stuff?
B: Well, there’s just so much CORRESPONDENCE. I just keep it all in one place.
A: Right. Right. Um, I’m sorry, I just don’t see why you’re CORRESPONDING with PG&E about your MEDICAL problems in the FIRST PLACE.
B: Well, they paid for the doctor’s visit.
A: They did?
B: YOU BET. Paid for a CHECKUP for the whole family. NOT LIKE WITH insurance where you pay and a YEAR GOES BY and maybe you SEE SOME money. They just took care of it JUST LIKE THAT. [snaps fingers] We never even SAW A BILL.
A: Wow. Why’d they do that?
B: Because of the CHROMIUM.
A: The what?

Whatever film you use, try to make sure it is grippingly interesting and the language is accessible.

>The David Letterman approach to English teaching

I received a message from a teacher in Brazil lamenting that the teenagers find the school’s English course book boring. I’ve yet to find a fun exciting thrilling English course book. Even the best courses seem to get boring after awhile.

Igniting the spark in bored students can be quite a helpful challenge. It can help teachers to strive to make their lessons much more interesting and engaging. Consequently, I have adopted the David Letterman Late Night Show approach to teaching.

There are many of these late night variety TV shows with a host who tells jokes, does some funny routines and then invites guests on the show, usually some sort of celebrity, to talk about their latest movie, book, vacation, party or something interesting and then ending the show with the performance of a music group.

Let’s look at the features of the talk show:

One of the biggest ones is that, unlike school, no one has to watch it. It is all purely voluntary. In fact, with remote control in hand, even a momentary lapse into boring material and the viewer will zap it in favor of another channel.

“Can you image the impact it would have on teaching if viewers could zap the teacher if he got too boring?”

How do these shows keep viewer interest? Letterman follows a pattern that insures variety:

  1. The monologue, a series of jokes he tells at the beginning of the show while standing in the middle of the stage.
  2. Then he sits down and tells a funny story of something that happened to him or someone else.
  3. Following this is one of a few things, a “game” played with the audience, more goofy stories or reading Oprah transcripts involving members of his cast.
  4. The “Top 10!”
  5. Guest #1, a movie star, politician or other famous character
  6. Guest #2, same as #5
  7. The band or music group at the end

With this little routine David is able to have a successful show and make nearly $1 million a week. People learn a lot of things from the Letterman show. They see and hear things and remember them. They may remember some details about an operation an actor had and some specifics about heart surgery. They may remember some anecdotes of an author. They may remember some interesting points about a vacation destination.

A lot of this is trivia. It may never be useful. But people hear it and often remember it. They have learned it. Later they sometimes refer to this information when making decisions. I feel it is significant that teachers often have trouble teaching students important things but television often has no trouble teaching people unimportant things.

With this in mind, I’ve added more variety in my classes, even if it is routine variety. I usually try to start with a short monologue, a story about something that happened with me and my family. This only takes a couple minutes and gives me a chance to ‘read’ the class, how they are feeling today, are they sleepy or bored, etc. and how do I need to conduct the class to engage them?

Then if this is a relatively new class I am teaching I will probably do a game. Games seem to work well in the beginning but students may not care for games in every class. Game or no game, I believe it is the teacher’s duty to warm up the class and teachers should not expect much participation if they don’t get the students warmed up.

At this point we will dive into our material, lessons I have prepared or a course book. No matter how good the course book is I have not found one that does not get boring.

I always try to save the best for last, something fun, maybe a lesson based around a film clip. End with a wrap up. Tell them what they learned? Review with them all the new vocabulary, the grammar they practiced. Often they don’t know that they learned something and you have to remind them.

Then send them home with a rousing “Goodbye! and thanks for being good students!”

>You’re a nice word…I’d like to get to know you!


Last night a student, CEO of a Hong Kong company, asked me how many words did he need to know to get a Band 7 on the IELTS test. This is an interesting question and seems to be a special focus of Chinese students to ask “How many words” for this or that. At another electronics company the training department has decided they would like the students to learn a certain list of 3000 words.

How do we learn words? How do we know words?

Some people seem to think words are something that we know or not know. It is like a switch, on or off. No or yes.

I don’t think it is like a switch, off or on. I think it is more like a dial that controls the volume, louder or softer or quiet. It is not off and on but more like a scale of 1-9. Our understanding of the words grows. We can also say that when we are first introduced to a word the word has been planted, just like a seed. With proper attention the word will grow.


Counting words that a student knows is the oldest form of vocabulary research. The question is: How are the words counted? Are we counting words or word families? (If a student knows Write, Writing, Written, Writer, does he know one or four words?) Is being able to select the correct word in a multiple choice question the same kind of knowledge as being able to give the dictionary definition of the word or being able to use the word in a sentence?

Learning new words is like meeting new people. Someone may introduce you to someone but you don’t really know that person, only his name and a few facts. Would you be ready to marry this person? No, not at all, you don’t even know if you want to go to dinner with them. Why?

You don’t really know them or maybe you only know them at #1 on the 1-9 scale.

In English learning this would be like looking up a word in a dictionary. You know the definition of the word but you really don’t know how to use it, if you want to use it or if you can use it. You may know it at only #1 on the 1-9 scale.

Let’s go back to meeting people. Let’s say you go to a party and there is that person you met before. You say hello and learn a little more about them. You find out you both like Japanese movies and there is a new one showing in town. You decide to go see it together. Now you know them at #2 on the 1-9 scale. It was fun spending time with this other person and you learn there is going to be another party next week so you decide to go together and you talk a lot about many things. Now you might know them at #3 on the 1-9 scale.

As you spend more and more time together you get to know them better and better. Perhaps you will become best friends, decide to go into business together or even get married. And you will continue to get to know them better.

It is the same with the words we learn. What does it mean to know a word? Know it how well?

This student I was talking to, a general manager of a small company, spoke English quite well. But at the same time he sometimes called the other student, a female, “he”. Why did he make that mistake? Didn’t he learn that males are “he” and females are “she”. On the scale of 1-9 how well does this student know the word “she”? Perhaps #6 or #7 ? And all the words that he knows are actually on a scale of 1-9. So if learning words is not an off or on thing, if it is not yes or no, then how do we learn new words?

We need to “meet” the words over and over in different situations and get to know them better and better, see how they are used and learn to use them in different situations.

This is true for even simple words like “he” and “she” and special complicated technical words. We need to read lots of materials. We need to hear lots of materials. We need to speak with these words. And our understanding of the words will grow.

So keep yourself in English. Get to know your words better and better.