Teaching academic writing

Most writing books are pretty useless.


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”

Are we sure we know why we teach what we teach?

A recent article in the New York Times:

“MEMPHIS — Jack London was the subject in Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course. In a high school classroom packed with computers, he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

“Mr. Hamilton, who had failed English 3 in a conventional Continue reading “Are we sure we know why we teach what we teach?”

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.

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.)

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.

Project 400 – Backstage Fashions

A large percentage of our students get jobs at foreign trade companies. Backstage Fashions is a woman’s fashion exporter doing business in several countries in Europe and in the USA. One of my former students works there.

As part of the 400 Project, I visited my former student and her boss. In the photo, I am talking to the manager of Back Stage. I am learning (1) what kind of English do companies need (2) what kind of English we taught our students that they use at their jobs (3)  what kind of English we taught our students that they do not use at their jobs (4) what kind of English our students need but were not taught.

From this research, I am learning how to prepare our students to find jobs easier and to do great at their jobs.

Project 400 – McDonald’s logistics company

McDonald’s sells millions of hamburgers in China. All of that food has to be sent from the companies that make the food to every McDonald’s restaurant. The food has to be kept in a high-quality condition, sometimes kept cold or frozen, and sent to each McDonald’s restaurant when the restaurant needs it. Taking care of that food and moving that food is the job of McDonald’s logistics company called Havi, an international American company operating also in Guangzhou.

The accounting manager and human resources manager explained to me how their American company uses English, what kind of English students need to learn and what kind of English students do not need to learn to work at their company. These managers are also my English students and we meet every week to talk about business innovation and management concepts while improving their English.

Our students may not get jobs at American logistics companies, but this research helps me to have a better understanding of how business English is used in China and how our students may get jobs in American companies.

Project 400 – What kind of English does Mercedes Benz need?

As part of my Project 400, I am talking to company managers, HR managers and company staff to learn how English is being used today.

Teachers should teach students the English they will need when they use English. So let’s start with the question, Why are students learning English? Although most students will say they want to learn English to travel and to make friends, the most important reason they will say is for their jobs.

If that is true, then the next question is, What English do they need for their jobs? We can answer this question by studying the English used in companies right now. When business people in today’s companies in our city use English, how do they use it?

The number one way English is used in companies today is in Emails. I have studied company Emails for almost ten years. They are short. They are informal, almost friendly. They are almost always written to people who are known, not to strangers. They usually use company special words correctly but there are mistakes in sentences. Here are some examples of real Emails from Benz. Please note the mistakes and corrections.

From these sample Emails, you will see that the main mistakes are with small errors in grammar. This is what students need to improve.


Kindly I’d like to inform you that yy has invited xx to be the speaker of OOC touch point seminar.
The seminar will be held on July 27 in the evening ( Pls see the attachment for the detail detailed rundown).
On yy’s introduction, we have invited xx. xx is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin Mandarin, too. He is a world class speaker.
We think it’s maybe a good opportunity for agency promotion(,). we We wonder whether you need to invite him too?
If yes, we should inform yy of the schedule today.
Your reply today will be highly greatly appreciated!


The under insured’s leaflet has finish finished it’s final design, I’ve submit submitted it to bb for her comment.
I’ll attend an HR training this these two days, dd will forward the confirmed design to you ASAP.
If there is Anything anything urgent pls contact zz or aa.
Thank you!

Action research: Mom and Dad and grammar

Spot quiz. Ready? What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Write down your answer.

Pencils down. Thank you!

If grammar teaching works, why does it take years for students to follow the simplest rule with accuracy?

Don’t try this at home! Try it in your classroom!

Without any reminder of the rules, ask your students to talk to you about their mother and their father and see how they do. The grammar rule on pronouns of gender cannot be simpler. Mom = she. Dad = he. We’re not talking about complex grammar rules. This rule takes less than a minute to teach and if you teach it and then test it, all of your students will pass the test.

They “learned” it. Why do they get it so wrong?

In December 2010 and January 2011, I gave an oral speaking test to 120 Chinese college students. As part of the test, I often ask the students to speak of a family relative. As part of the test this time I asked two questions about parents:

1. Tell me about your mother.

2. Tell me about your father.

Each student answered the request with about 3-4 sentences for each parent.

In the first sentence they always used “my mother” or “my father” but in the following sentences they used the pronoun of gender.

The students also filled out a form so I could learn how much English training they have had. They have almost all had the same amount of training, about nine years. Let me remind you, Chinese teachers are not shy about teaching grammar. Grammar is hammered into the students. Often the English instruction is given in Chinese. Extensive reading or other forms of extensive input is not promoted making this a more ideal situation to test the effectiveness of grammar teaching.

Considering nine years of training plus the simplicity of the grammar rule of gender, our students should be 100% accurate in usage. So how did they do?

Out of 112 students tested so far, 80 have called Mom a “he” and/or Dad a “she” one or more times during this test.

The question was: What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Answer: After nine years of English training, only 28%.

Some languages like French or Spanish have pronouns of gender. It is possible that it is easier for French and Spanish students of English to use “he” and “she” correctly but this could be more a matter of language transference than language acquisition.

If after 9 years of English training only 28% of the students can use “he” and “she” correctly, we must doubt the ability of learning grammar rules to lead to grammar acquisition and accurate grammar use.

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.