Executive coaching

I have been teaching for many years the Chinese managers at an American company.  Some of these managers already have very good English skills and it became a challenge to keep their interest or provide something that they really needed.

From my research and experience, I found that managers with good English skills nonetheless felt they weren’t communicating well. They always feel that Continue reading “Executive coaching”

9 ways to improve group work

1. Any more than four students is less effective. With five or more students there is often a student or two who has a tendency to not contribute. In a smaller group there is more peer pressure to contribute.

2. You will find that more advanced students will more readily work together in English. Beginners and low-level students will have a much greater tendency to speak in L1. So you should adjust the tasks accordingly. Low-level students may need more modeling, more scaffolding.

3. Make sure the instructions are very clear and do a demonstration if necessary. If there is some Continue reading “9 ways to improve group work”

Yeah, but…? Finding, asking and answering the important questions about teaching

When Professor Michael McCarthy visited here recently to promote his new Cambridge University Press course book, Touchstone, he gave us a presentation on his spoken corpus research.

It was interesting to learn about but almost completely useless for teaching purposes. I used to go to these conferences and take notes. Now I go to these conferences and write questions. As I listen to them, I’m thinking, “Yeah, but what about this?” “Yeah, but how do you account for that.”

I had no notes but I did have ten questions ready for Professor McCarthy when he got to the end of his presentation. Then the organizers announced they were only going to take a couple questions and only one per teacher. I had one question.

Course books authors always believe in the power of their course books to teach students. So let’s question that.

“Professor McCarthy, thank you for visiting us and your presentation. I can’t say I know so much about teaching but I’ve been doing some research. In January I gave a speaking test to 400 Chinese students who have studied English for nine years. I asked them a question. ‘Tell me about your mother and father.’  In China we have no pronoun of gender when speaking, no ‘he’ or ‘she’. Students have to learn this English grammar which is perhaps the easiest grammar rule to teach. What percentage of the students do you think made a mistake calling Mom a ‘he’ and Dad a ‘she’?”

With many years of experience and study into spoken English corpus, he didn’t want to offer any guesses, saying, “Umm, well, ah, you did the research. Tell us.”

“Seventy-two percent of students, after nine years of English study, made a mistake with ‘he’ and ‘she’,” I told him.

So what did the course book author say to that? Two wrong things and one right thing. He said,

1. This was a fossilized error that the students were making.

Yeah, but… something is fossilized when you don’t learn it correctly or learn it wrong. But no student learns “he” and “she” incorrectly. It is the easiest grammar to learn.

2. We should reteach “he” and “she” every six months.

Yeah, but… something that is so simple to teach and can be taught in one minute and everyone knows the grammar rule, how is teaching it every six months going to help.

3. Students need more input, read more English and listen to more English, more English input.

Yeah, but… you know, you don’t need a course book for that!

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.

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: