Project 400 – Oral English with Lenny

As part of the Project 400, I am visiting other classrooms to see how English is being taught.

Lenny, an American teacher at a Chinese college, invited me to attend his lesson.

Lenny was new to the school but seemed to have gotten off to a good start. He gave students speaking activities to prepare and then students were chosen to perform them in class. This was something that I observed Martin, a Canadian at another campus for this same school, doing as well with good affect. Lenny had some students do presentations and dialogs for a trade show. Afterward Lenny staged mock job interviews.

It was interesting to see how Lenny spoke to and interacted with the students. It was useful to hear what the students thought about this teaching and how they reacted to it.

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.

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.

Teaching with movie subtitles


There is only one reason I use subtitles, to make the movie more accessible for my students. Even upper-intermediate level students will have problems following a movie. Subtitles help increase comprehension tremendously. Perhaps advanced students would do better without them. But even I have to use subtitles when I watch certain movies like those of a Shakespearean story with dense rich beautiful language or a movie like “Wall Street” rich in financial terms.


They are very easy to find. Do an Internet search, for example, on the terms:

“Wall Street” subtitles

Replace “Wall Street” with the name of the movie you are searching for. Aside from the teacher developing materials for students in this way, I suggest the teacher demonstrate to the students how to find these subtitles on their own. I suggest the teacher even give the students an assignment to find the subtitles to their favorite English language movie, be it “Harry Potter” or “Titanic”, whatever, and to copy these subtitles into their smart phone, MP4 or even to reformat the text and print them out on paper. In this way the student will have a copy of the words to their favorite movie. This will mean the student can study the English that is highly interesting to him. I have an American friend who learned Chinese by watching one Chinese movie that he liked over and over and over again.

By the way, you can also find subtitles in almost every other major language in the same way.


They are a text file and you can open them and edit them in any text program. Some subtitles have the extension .txt but some are .srt. In any case, you can examine them with any program for text like Word, Notepad, etc. If it does have an .srt extension then I suggest you change this extension to .txt. The file will still work if you want to use it in a movie but it will be easier for your students to simply click on it and open it with their text programs .

When you open these subtitle files they do look rather messy. There are the words but there are also a lot of numbers. These numbers are time codes or frame codes to help the subtitles appear at the moment they are needed. I suggest that you teach students to ignore them. Or if they are time codes, students can use them as a reference to find the specific subtitle for a specific place in the movie. These codes can be removed by making a macro in Word but it is not a real simple solution.


There are a million things you can do.

My general approach to teaching is to avoid pre-teaching if possible. I believe the dynamics work better if the students’ interest is first piqued, if they are highly curious about something, if something fascinating is happening and now they really want to understand it. So I would try to show a portion of the movie, something really intriguing making your students fascinated and desperate to understand, with or without subtitles, and then “help” satisfy their curiosity by going over the subtitles more slowly and carefully. First we make the students thirsty. Then we satisfy their thirst.

Pre-teaching might be necessary if there is some word that is very central to the meaning of what is going on and if the students would be really clueless without understanding that word. However, if there is a lot of vocabulary your students don’t understand then there are too many uncommon words for the students and it is likely, even if you “teach” it to them, they will not retain them.

Another thing you can do is to have students prepare to act out one scene of a movie. This would involve some memorization. Alternatively, you could have the students develop a script to say the same thing in the movie only in different words and then act this out. You could ask the students to attribute a different character trait to one of the people in the story. “In this scene the villain is very cruel. But what would he say if he was a very nice guy and very polite.” You could show the movie until it builds up to an exciting moment and then let the students write and perform a script or even just ad lib a role play for what happens next.

With the words to the movie available to them, you can have students watch a scene and then write a “letter to the editor” about some issue (“something must be done to improve the education of our children”), write a police report (“this morning at 9:35 AM, I saw a man dressed in a Spider costume help…”, or if your students’ level is low they could write a simple postcard to a friend beginning with, “Dear Mom and Dad, You won’t believe what I saw today!…”

Have fun with movie subtitles and tell us how you use them! I’m sure you have lots of ideas!

Understand oral English testing in schools

1. According to research, it is too difficult for highly trained examiners to measure English proficiency spanning more than 9-10 levels. (Covering a scale of no ability to highly proficient.)

2. Even measuring 10 levels professional examiners can be wrong 27% of the time.

3. On such a scale, for classes that meet once or twice a week for 45-minutes, it may take a full year of training or more to improve one level

4. Factors weigh on the whole process which can cause inaccuracies. During some research on IELTS training it was found that after a 3-month intensive training candidates could improve half a level. However, some candidates actually scored at a lower level at the end of the training than they did at the beginning. Reasons for this were the state-of-mind of the candidate on the test day, familiarity and lack of familiarity with the subject matter of the tests, faults in the testing system (IELTS), etc. So it would be possible to test your student at the beginning of the course and then the student could do worse at the test at the end of the course. How would you give a grade in this case?

Alternatively, test the students on the course material at the beginning of the course. If the students are properly placed in the right level classes they should score very low on such a test but after training on the material should score very high at the end of the course.

In that it is too late at this point, the next best thing is to review the material we taught the students and find some distinct and important points that we can test on. However, if the classes consisted of “well, what does everybody want to talk about today?” it may be impossible to test the students.

Finally, the idea of scoring by student attitude or participation in the class or other student behavior focused method, to my mind, but perhaps many would disagree with me, is fraught with the most disadvantages. Such a criteria makes the test exactly one of classroom behavior, not learning or language acquisition. As the focus of most of us teachers is on the student centered classroom we are constantly questioning ourselves if we are meeting the needs and capturing the interests of our students. Some days we do better than others. Some students (especially the very bright and the very dull) are more easily bored than others. We are tempted to punish our troublemakers and reward our so-called ‘good’ students by the score we would give them. But again, we would be scoring the student on their behavior which is perhaps not the best way to reflect their learning in our class.

The irony is that for many schools it really doesn’t matter what score you give the students because the school often does not treat the oral English class taught by a foreigner as a ‘real’ class. These grades often don’t show up as part of their year-end scores.

Nonetheless, I think we should all be careful in how we go about making these kinds of decisions. There are certain ‘automatic’ impulses that we should be aware of and question. How often do we do things because that’s the way everyone else does them? How often do we do things because that’s the way it was done when we were students?

These things I have said in the above are with the realization that they may not exactly apply to the certain aspects of the current discussion. Without complete understanding of the situation I know I may be misunderstanding some things. I am just trying to explore various factors and considerations for the purpose of reflection.

We are the teachers and in a position of power with the students and the school. It is a great opportunity to for us to explore and discover the best ways to do things for our students and ourselves.

>Business dilemmas for business speaking

>For business related dilemmas, problems and issues for your students to sort out I recommend two books by Cambridge. These are part of their ‘photocopiable resource’ book series and has teacher instructions, etc, etc.

“BUSINESS ROLES – 12 simulations for Business English”

Two of the twelve units are:

“Polluting the river – This US fridge maker has been secretly polluting the river for decades. However, putting a stop to it may mean heavy financial or job losses…” (Actually, GE is going through some problems in NY about this right now.)

“Quality and personnel – A VCR manufacturer with factories in the Far East and Europe tries to determine why quality is so much better in one plant than in the other.”

“DECISIONMAKER – 14 business situations for analysis and discussion”

Two of the fourteen units are:

“Smoke Signals – A trainee in a large cigarette company has to respond to a secret marketing strategy”

“The Hohokum Virus – A computer company responds to a blackmail threat.”

Although the books are similar in that they require discussion and problem solving in English, Business Roles is essentially for role play whereas Decisionmaker is for class discussion.

>Thinking outside the book

>One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I’m just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student’s interest from cover to cover, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking “inside the book”. Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let’s brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Phone messages
Chat rooms
Email spam
Voice spam
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us “outside the book”, what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as “The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins.” To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you’d receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a “Majestic” English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us “out of the book”. Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

– Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

– Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

– Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn’t have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don’t like, etc. (“Don’t go in that dark room!…don’t do it!…Ugh! I knew it!!!”)

– Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

– Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

– He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

– When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. (“Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called ‘Moby Dick’, a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck’s strategy is to become people’s ‘third place’, the main place people go outside of home and work.”)

– Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy’s phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher’s other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It’s interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn’t normally meet (and Jerry thinks it’s always interesting to talk to girls).

– Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

– Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they’ve never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I’m the kind of person who is easily bored.

>Total class participation

>Sometimes a few sharp students will answer all the questions I put to the class while some students want to space out, read or chat. To force total class participation I ask all the students to stand up. Then when I put a big question to them like “Give me some words about [whatever the subject we’re studying].” Each student who replies with a satisfactory word can sit down. In this way everyone has to participate.

>Organizing speaking tests for large numbers of students

>Yesterday, I did a speaking test for 200 students. It’s quite a big job and took me all day. But it would have taken much longer if I had never done this before and if I wasn’t organized.

Some teachers allow students to choose their partner and choose their subject. Sometimes they can do this days in advance. Consequently, some students will find a dialog and memorize it and then perform it for the test. I don’t do it this way. I don’t think it’s very realistic.

In the workplace, people need to be able to speak English to anyone and they can’t always choose the topic. So I tell my students they can choose any partner they want as long as student #1 chooses students #2 and student #3 chooses student #4, etc. I tell them they can choose their own topics to talk about. They come up to my desk and choose from several slips of paper which are facing down. The students cannot look at the paper before they choose. Consequently, they are choosing randomly. I do allow them 3-4 minutes to prepare before the interview. The topics are always things that we practiced discussing in class.

When one pair of students sits down to do their dialog for me another pair of students will come up to the desk, choose a topic and stand aside to prepare. I don’t allow them to use dictionaries, notebooks, textbooks or to talk with other students during the preparation period. I sit facing the two students who are talking but behind them I can keep an eye on the next two students who are preparing for their talk. This is important because they many of them can hardly keep themselves from a bit of cheating if it is possible.

The students talk to their partner on the topic. I used to be an IELTS examiner and found it is a bit extra work to have to also be asking the students all the questions. So I like to get the students talking with each other and I listen in. If I think a student can go higher or if their dialog was too short I will jump in with a few extra questions.

While they are talking I am recording them. They hold a cheap $2 clip-on microphone that I found which works really well and is fastened at the end of a ballpoint pen. I use free program called Audacity to record the interview. Although I’m sitting right next to them, I actually listen to the students through a set of earphones. This ensures that everything is being recorded. The interview is recorded for reference in case I want or need to go back and check something or if I need to justify a score I have given.

If their dialog is too short or doesn’t reveal their English skills well enough I will ask some questions to make them speak more. Answering”why” questions or questions where they have to explain or justify a viewpoint are some of the toughest questions and are good to push students to the limits.

I have some band descriptors and a list of all the students names and numbers on an Excel sheet. The band descriptors are divided into three areas of speaking (communicative range, overall fluency, accuracy & appropriacy) and four levels (levels 4-7 of a 10 level rating system) While they are talking, I scan the band descriptors and give them an initial score. I continue to listen to them and modify parts of my score as they perform better or worse.

It’s very important to have a clear set of standards that the students should speak to. And while they are speaking you should be constantly checking those standards and try to measure the student to those standards as best you can.

After all of the testing is done, I will use Excel to average out the band scores and assign grades on a curve.

>Teacher talk

>I can often tell an upper intermediate or advanced student by their one-word reply to a simple question. If I ask a student if they speak English and the reply is “yes” then perhaps their English is quite good but more often than not it is at a lower level. If their answer is “yeah” then I know their English level is quite high.

As far as producing the so-called Teacher Speak or Teacher Talk, I learned to do this long before becoming a language teacher. Living and working in foreign language environments, I was unable to learn all the languages of the countries I was in. But I, at least, learned how to simplify my English by employing all the methods that Keith Folse described so that my listeners who spoke a bit of English could understand.

I speak slower and more distinctly. I use simpler vocabulary and shorter and simpler sentences. I avoid idioms. I try to keep the concepts simpler.

I have learned how to listen to myself speak and even to pre-listen. I can put myself into my listeners position and listen to what I am saying or am about to say. Not only trying to keep it simple but also constantly questioning myself if there is any way my listener can misunderstand me.

Often the contraction “can’t” can be confused with “can” by low-intermediate students. So I will try to say “CAN-NOT” making a clear distinction between the two syllables.

Although I am speaking slow, my mind is working fast testing different words and phrases, looking for alternative and simpler ways to express a point.

My students recognize right away I am using a Teacher Talk with them. Low-level students are happily surprised that they feel they can understand everything or nearly everything I say. Upper-level students are annoyed and feel my speaking is not challenging enough. When teaching mixed level classes I have to remember to try to do both at different times.

A related problem is the language of textbooks. On occasion I come across books written for low or mid-intermediate students with advanced English not only in the examples but in the instructions to students.