“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?”

The Case of The Dancing Men!!! and extensive comprehensible input

A teacher said, “I agree that input must be comprehensible to be effective. That’s why we provide definitions of key vocabulary words for our students. For key words in each lesson, we tell them ‘this word means…’ because it makes the input more readily understandable. Expecting students to figure out the meaning of every word in a lesson on their own would be discouraging and a waste of time. If vocabulary explanations are helpful, why are grammar explanations anathema?”

First of all, by extensive comprehensible input we do not mean laden with vocabulary explanations. And because of that, we cannot assume grammar explanations are also going to be useful.

To make this clear, I’d like to share with you two samples of the opening lines to a Sherlock Holmes story. The first sample is the original text. The second sample is a simplified text that could be useful for extensive
comprehensible input.


From the original Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men:

“Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot. ‘So, Watson,’ said he, suddenly, ‘you do not propose to invest in South African securities?'”

Words that may need to be explained:
1. curved
2. chemical
3. vessel
4. brewing
5. malodorous
6. head was sunk
7. his breast
8. point of view
9. lank
10, plumage
11. top-knot
12. propose
13. invest
14. securities

That is 14 vocabulary terms in the first paragraph. Certainly a teacher can explain all of those terms but wouldn’t you say it is doubtful that after reading the whole story the student will have much or any memory of them?


The same story, the Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men from the “Oxford Progressive English Readers” simplified version:

“Holmes sat quietly for a long time, studying something in a glass bottle. ‘So, Watson,’ he said suddenly, ‘you are not going to buy any land in South Africa?'”

Now I think you and I would prefer the first version. But for our students the first example would require a forbidding amount of vocabulary explanation and much or all of it will be forgotten. The second example is much more accessible to students and presenting clear examples of basic grammar and vocabulary. For example, “studying something in a glass bottle” might be interesting to a student to see that “study” is not something you only do with a book.

This is what we mean by extensive input that is at or near the students level and is interesting.

(Image taken from the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Dancing Men”.)

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.

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:


“Teaching” the words or “immersing” in the words

A teacher is deriding me for my views on the importance of extensive comprehensible input. He says, “I must have missed the lessons on modern language teaching trends, so I am asking some practical questions hoping to update my obsolete views on teaching. Please anyone help me start the new semester after the Chinese New Year holiday as a different teacher.”

This teacher is being sarcastic with us. I understand because I used to feel the same way. I know that the claim that extensive comprehensible input seems in some ways to contradict all of our long-held beliefs and assumptions about teaching. It didn’t make sense to me either when I heard about it. But on the other hand it we can intuitively know that it works because (1) children learn their L1 in the same manner and (2) even you and I add to our English vocabulary in this way. Our language development did not stop when we left school. Additionally, (3) our students and many others are adding to their language without being taught (for example: shit) and not learning what we do teach (for example: mom=she, dad=he). (Photo: My students hanging on every word of the film, “Bruce Almighty”, a Jim Carey comedy but with some intense parts. The film is shown in English with English subtitles only. There are a lot of words they don’t know. BUT, there are a lot of words they do know.)

Let’s take a look at the example that this teacher proposes for use with a mid-intermediate level student. Does it meet the three requirements for extensive comprehensible input?

1. Extensive? I don’t think a student would read very much of this sort of text for the reasons below.

2. Comprehensible? No, not at all.

3. Interesting? I doubt it for two reasons. It is talking about a specific industry problem and it is so incomprehensible that only advanced students would be able to make enough sense out of it to begin to understand it and possibly enjoy it.

This is NOT how to do extensive comprehensible input!

However how would those who really want to teach the vocabulary out of it handle this situation? Here Stefan’s sentence plus the whole paragraph. It is only one paragraph of a four-paragraph article which is dense with not frequently used vocabulary. I have capitalized the text that mid-level and many upper-level intermediate students may not know:

Tourism is now among the world’s most important industries, generating jobs and profits worth billions of pounds. At the same time, however, mass tourism can have dire effects on the people and places it embraces – both tourists and the societies and human environments they visit. We are increasingly familiar with some of the worst effects of unthinking, unmanaged, unsustainable tourism: previously undeveloped coastal villages that have become sprawling, charmless towns. their seas poisoned by sewage, denuded of wildlife, their beaches stained with litter and empty tubes of suncream. Historic towns, their streets now choked with traffic, their temples, churches and cathedrals seemingly reduced to a backdrop for holiday snaps that proclaim, ‘Been there, Done that’. Some of the world’s richest environments bruised by the tourist onslaught, their most distinctive wildlife driven to near-extinction, with wider environmental impacts caused by the fuel-hungry transport systems used to take holidaying travellers around the world and back again.

So would a vocabulary teacher then teach these words?

1. generating
2. profits
3. billions
4. mass
5. dire
6. embraces
7. societies
8. familiar
9. unsustainable
10. previously
11. undeveloped
12. coastal
13. sprawling
14. charmless
15. poisoned
16. sewage
17. denuded
18. wildlife
19. beaches
20. stained
21. litter
22. tubes
23. suncream
24. historic
25. choked
26. temples
27. cathedrals
28. distinctive
29. driven
30. near-extinction
31. impacts
32. fuel-hungry
33. transport

We have 33 words to learn there and that is only one paragraph. After we do the other four paragraphs we may have new 100 words to learn from only one article in one lesson.

How many words can an average student memorize in one day? How many will he forget? Anyone know?

This is exactly what extensive comprehensible input is NOT. But it is also my contention that even those who favor discrete vocabulary teaching will not be successful in helping students acquire this vocabulary. Yes, teachers can “teach” it. But the students are going to feel stupid when they forget it.

This text would be suitable for advanced learners who already know 95% of the vocabulary. For them this would be adequate for their extensive comprehensible input. They would be able to add to their advanced vocabulary but I almost never teach those kinds of students. By the time they reach that level they are learning on their own from any English materials they choose.

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.

In search of comprehensible material on the web

Students can learn vocabulary and grammar from extensive comprehensible input. In fact, even if students memorize some definitions of words they will only have a very shallow understanding of the meaning of those words unless they can be exposed to many usages of those words. Where can teachers find materials for their students that can provide extensive comprehensible input?

The graphic above shows Google’s rating of websites at Basic English level. When I rated a website that I use with my students it rated at 100%. As you can see, ESLPod, rates at 72% which is very good. USA Today, a newspaper that is supposedly written at an American 5th grade level, is perhaps the easiest mainstream newspaper for students to understand. The New York Times is more complicated. That little blue box at the top of the graphic is Bloomberg business news at 2%, very difficult for our students.

If we think of this material as a stairway to proficiency, our students can climb up to greater and greater complexity. You will have to select appropriate materials for your students according to their needs and interests. The materials listed above, for example the MIT university website, are not suggested reading materials. They are only shown to display levels of difficulty.

If you have suggestions of useful online materials, please use the comments section below to tell us.

Project 400 – What is it?

What do students need to learn? What are they learning in school? What are we teaching? What is the best way to teach them? What is working and not working? Answering those questions is the objective of Project 400.

Project 400 is a research project to study:

100 English language classrooms in China to see how English is taught and how students learn.

100 of my former English students who now have jobs. What kind of jobs do they usually get.  How do they use their English in their jobs? What English did they learn in school that they use in their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need for their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need in their jobs?

100 bosses of my students who are now working as well as other managers, HR managers and business leaders. What kind of English do new employees need in their jobs? How important is English?

100 students in their dorms. How do they study? How much homework do they do? How do they feel about their studies.

At the conclusion of this research project, I will have a better understanding of students, teachers and English study.

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?


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.