>The future just ain’t what it used to be

>A teacher describes his experience at using tele- & videoconferencing in teaching: “While teaching in France I was asked to teach on an online course. IMHO it was a disaster. People came and went from the virtual room and nobody seemed to know what was going on. It was a bit like one of those horrible dreams you have about having no control of a class. I think it MIGHT work IF you have the opportunity to meet the students in the real world before you go virtual – and have a limited number of well-motivated students.”

I think we have to keep in mind that this is a moving target, very dynamic, constantly changing and improving. People, including our students, are using VOIP and videoconferencing more and more. Managers and staff in offices are using this to communicate with each other and with colleagues around the world. Everyone will get used to the protocols of usage and behavior.

It’s not that it is a special tool for English teaching. It is becoming an increasingly common way of communication with all people around the world and something that we can use, too.

It is quickly reaching the point that it is not a cheap and convenient way to teach English but it is a more realistic way of teaching English because it is the way our students are actually using English. My students here in China report to me that of their spoken English communication, about 95% is on the phone and about 5% is face-to-face. Yet, just about ALL of our English teaching is face-to-face. So I think teaching by VOIP, videoconferencing and even by telephone, with all the associated difficulties, are not only authentic but necessary mediums for teaching.

Additionally, improvements are being made on audio and video quality. In ten years, many of us will be sitting down at a table looking at a life-like video image of our student(s) on the other side of the table. Except for the fact that it is two-dimensional instead of three, it will be the same as being there. I and many of you have seen demonstrations of this technology already.

It is no longer called “videoconferencing”. Rather, it has become “Telepresence”.

That is an interesting term to ponder, “Telepresence”. Teachers could work in tandem. The primary face-to-face teacher could hand off to a telepresent teacher for ten minutes to explain some aspect of English and then carry on. When a question comes up he doesn’t know how to answer he could bring up a colleague.

In a Friedmanistic style flattening of the world, teachers can be anywhere teaching students who are anywhere. These dynamics will change many things about our profession in unusual ways. British teachers living in the UK may find it more difficult to compete with British teachers living in China or India where the cost of living is vastly cheaper and a lower salary can be accepted. Indians have mastered call centers, even adopting American or other accents, and it wouldn’t take too much for them to teach American English or whatever flavor is desired to anyone anywhere.

The future just ain’t what it used to be.

>LIMO means Little In Much Out

>Some people have written me for information about some games I have been using. I got one or two of them off the TEFL-China website but then modified them. So I’ll just explain them here.

There is a certain quality to finding good learning and practice activities that require no prep on the teacher’s part. Sometimes these types of things work out much better than activities consuming many hours of preparation. At times when I’ve put the most work into my preparation these were the same times that the students didn’t share my enthusiasm for my idea.

One teacher explained that she had been trained to try to do as little as possible and get the students to do as much as possible.

Here are three quick and easy games. We can call this sort of activity a LIMO, Little In Much Out:

1. Dictionary Liar Game
2. Alibi
3. True Answer or False Answer Game

1. Dictionary Liar Game

Get or choose three volunteers. Explain to the class that these three students are going to tell them a word and what it means. But one will tell the truth and two will tell a lie. The class will have to determine who is telling the truth.

Take the three students out of the classroom and help them to choose a word from (preferably) an English-English dictionary. Words we used in the past were: beret, zebra, igloo, etc. Let the students decide who will tell the truth and who will tell lies.

The students come back in and give their definitions. The liars try to lie convincingly. The class can ask questions of the students. Then the class tries to pick the one telling the truth.

2. Alibi

Ask for volunteers. You should get one volunteer per five students in the class. So if there are 40 students then you should choose eight volunteers. Tell the class the bad news. Last night, at 8 p.m., some people robbed a bank and got away with a lot of money. However, we think we know who did it!

Turn to your group of volunteers and say that we think THEY did it!

This always has a shocking effect on the class and is very funny. The good news is that the rest of the class are policemen and will question the suspects. Explain what “alibi” means. Get four volunteers and send them out of the classroom to develop their alibi about what they were all doing TOGETHER at that time.

While they’re out of the room, divide the remaining students up into groups of four students each to be teams of “police”. Review some types of questions they can ask the suspects.

The suspects return to the class. Ask them if they robbed the bank. They all say they didn’t. Divide the suspects up and send them to different corners or spots in the room and send a team of police to question each suspect. Encourage the police to take notes. After 4-5 minutes the police teams rotate to another suspect and they can ask the same questions hoping to find something different in the suspects’ alibi. If the suspect says they took a taxi somewhere, coach the police teams to ask him who sat next to him, etc.

After each police team has a chance to question three or four suspects, you can stop the activity and found out what inconsistencies they found in the suspects’ story.

This game is lots of fun. Students forget it is an English lesson and get absorbed in the challenge of the game.

3. True Answer or False Answer Game

Get one volunteer. Tell him to say “Yes” to your question whether it is true or not. Ask him a question like, “Have you ever traveled to a foreign country?” Then other students will also ask him questions and the student should give true answers if the student did it or make up answers how about doing it if it was not true. After several exchanges ask the class if they think it is true or false. Then ask the student if it was True or False.

Other questions are:

Have you ever had a pet?
Have you or one of your relatives ever met someone famous?
Have you ever won a prize for something?
Have you ever broke an arm, leg or finger?

What are your LIMO activities?

>On using songs to teach vocabulary

>I would venture to say it is risky to use any songs that the students themselves don’t recommend. Just ask them who and what they like and they are eager to let you know. Remember, if you like it they probably don’t.

I believe teaching songs may be one of the most undervalued methods of TESL. Just think: the students usually love them (low affective barrier), they are catchy and easy to remember, they are real language (realia), it is likely that the students will hear them again and again and thus have ample opportunity to review the language, they are culturally informative, they add another media of presentation (music, not just listening to the teacher or looking at a book).

Other teachers had a big discussion (read: argument) about the value of teaching Shakespeare. The claim goes that the bard set a valuable milestone in the progress of English. But frankly, for young people especially, I think Backstreet Boys, Westlife, Dion and Houston would help students make greater progress in communicative skills.

Some care needs to be exercised to select songs with the highest potential of useful language. Many rap songs are hindered with a total absence of grammar and high density of slang or invented language.

>Multitasking to avoid boredom – Student need for engaging input

>One teacher wrote:

“I often have the TV on in the background when I’m writing or marking papers or working on my website. I’m not really paying attention to it (the TV), but more and more words seem to seep through. I believe it is helpful. Students to whom I have mentioned it, though, seem skeptical. (Of course they are! It doesn’t fit within that very small box called Chinese English teaching pedagogy!)”

Is this what Chinese middle-school students do to us as well? Often, we talk about our problems keeping students’ attention. I have employed various strategies to deal with this, treating it as a problem.

I noticed that often the students who seemed to not be paying attention often still had the correct answers. I’m coming to believe, in our high tech society, that students are capable of multitasking. They require lots of input and if there is not a high enough load of input from the teacher then the student will achieve his mental bandwidth capabilities by finding other sources of input.

>Betty Azar on teaching grammar

> In a discussion with many teachers, one of which was me, Betty Azar said:

“What we DO mean when we say that ‘grammar teaching works’ is that students develop their interlanguages faster and with better results when a grammar component is included in a balanced program of second language instruction. This is clear not only to experienced teachers, but is clear in the cumulative research into grammar teaching during the past 20 years.”

My reply:

My knowledge of the research on this subject is not complete. From what I understand, much of it actually shows that “grammar teaching” will result in gains in “grammar testing” and only modest gains at that. This doesn’t reflect acquisition. Could you share some references to any research where acquisition has been demonstrated through direct grammar teaching?

Consider this question:

How is it possible that students cannot acquire grammar solely through grammar teaching but students can acquire grammar solely through extensive reading and exposure to the language?

This seems to indicate that grammar teaching can only play the most minor role, if any, in language acquisition. Stephen Krashen recommends grammar teaching to only deal with anything the student has learned incorrectly, what I would call a sort of post-acquisition experience fine-tuning.[1]

[1] http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/eta_paper/02.html

>Chinese grammar troubles


In a discussion with another teacher he suggested that Chinese students may have trouble learning pronouns of gender. However, recall that the question is if grammar teaching works.

Bringing up the question of the way Chinese deal with pronouns really only points out more problems with grammar teaching. After being taught the grammar rules, after being drilled endlessly, as they are in China, on the grammar, they still have trouble with something as simple as pronouns of gender.

If Chinese did have pronouns of gender in their own language, then it is not so much a matter of teaching grammar but more like translating the language of the pronouns from L1 to L2, teaching that xxxx = “he” and yyyy = “she”, in which case no grammar teaching is necessary.

How to use pronouns of gender can be taught in one day but take years to acquire. This implies to me that “teaching” is playing a minute role in the learning process. Now, if you consider how much students do learn that is not “taught” then a lot of questions are raised as to the usefulness of grammar teaching.

Where do students gain the ability to form complex sentences, was it from that lesson in Mr. Smith’s class in September, 1999?…or was it eight years of reading 24,000 articles in The Guardian newspaper and Time magazine, 12 John Grisham and Stephen King novels, 24 university text books on physics, psychology and history, writing 85 reports and 175 essays? Really, which one helped our student to master the complex sentence?

Of course, you could say that Mr. Smith got our student started off on the right foot. But most students will admit that they forget grammar teaching, that grammar is very difficult to learn, and students in high school and university will cram it for the exam one day and forget it the next.

>The spiral of English teaching in China

>A teacher commented: “After a long teaching career I am sad to see these things go in cycles…”

Language teaching screeched to a halt during the Cultural Revolution but began to pick up in earnest about 1980. Still, China had a lot of catching up to do not to speak of the need to overcome the natural inertia that is always a part of the academic territory.

I wouldn’t say that things are turning in a perfect cycle. I would say it’s more like a spiral. Although it is turning when it comes around it gets closer to the center.

Many foreigners who work here, not just teachers but all foreigners, wish that their work or business was more organized.

I think teachers wish they had more support and instruction in how to go about their jobs. They would like better planning on the part of the school to eliminate last minute changes. I think they would like better classrooms, equipment, materials and books. The would like better salary and living conditions. They would like higher standards in all areas.

I think China is going in that direction. Of course, it will take time. Academia doesn’t change at the same speed as it takes Chinese contractors to throw up a shopping center or apartment building.

But one thing that the improvement seeking teachers will need to be aware of is that China will also have higher standards for foreign teachers and many current teachers will not qualify. China will formulize the requirements and certification for teachers.

Additionally, when the ministry of education starts dictating what books to use and exactly what to teach and how to teach it teachers will have a whole new set of complaints. Gone will be the relative freedom teachers have today to accommodate their approach to the specific needs of individual classes.

Public schools in New York began a program where every school teaches the same page of the same book each day in every school. People who want the government to step in may not be aware of what they are getting.

Up to now I think, considering this being the most populous nation in the world with perhaps also the greatest desire in the world to learn English, the Chinese are doing a pretty good job. Rather than the government dictating what everyone should do and how to do it while perhaps not really knowing the best way to go about it, the government is allowing quite a bit of freedom and hopefully seeing what is working well and what is not working well.

As for the present, the foreign teachers here are like pioneers. The conditions are not so easy. Many things are rather rough. The compensation may seem meager. But as soon as conditions improve and living standards improve you can be sure the teaching field will become crowded with highly qualified teachers coming over.

>Comments after the Beijing TEFL Conference

>A teacher attended a TEFL Conference in Beijing and reported back on the key points (in italics below) with my comments.

1. The emphasis throughout was that students, not teachers should initiate most of the work.

Students can do this only if they are given some direction and training how to do it as well as the power and the freedom. What kind of work are they supposed to do? Preparing for exam work? That doesn’t give them much leeway.

2. Don’t go to extremes. All new and no old usually causes problems. Add the new to the old and discard some of the old.

This is fine as long as they don’t use it as an excuse to have all old and no new. Professor Li Xiao Ju introduced the communicative approach in 1980 and they nearly stoned her as a heritic. Around 1990 the Education Ministry accepted the communicative approach but had to back down over stiff resistence. Now they have the “eclectic clause” which means they pick and choose what they want from communicative approach often picking nothing.

3. Listening – Xian Medical College. Listening plus is the answer. Teacher of Listening is regarded as a ‘button pusher’ for a machine. Isolated skills impair learning. Each teacher, half their classes were left as normal and half the classes were given the new program. They used the same text book. Students in LISTENING PLUS listened in the normal way, and then listened seeing the text, with some words or phrases removed. In pairs (or small groups) they then discussed what the missing words were. They were also given exercises from the CCTV series ‘Let’s Talk’. The students discussed and so listening had a context, conversation, discussion.

This may be a good way to start off with new or lower level learners. It focuses intense concentration on one word rather than teaching the student how to glean meaning from a recorded conversation or lecture. Because some students try to do listening word by word it makes it difficult when such a strategy is impossible and they have to get the gist from the recording. The former is considered the “bottom-up” strategy of the traditional approach and the latter is considered part of the “top-down” strategy of the communicative approach.

4. English is imbedded solidly when a person is exposed to English for 90 minutes without a break. IMPLICATIONS: Whenever we interrupt the English learning with Chinese, we break the 90 minutes and thus the students’ chance to learn well. (Classes thus should not have a break.)

Interesting. Did they support this with research? You cannot just make a statement like this without some research behind it. Normally no one would assert such a thing unless they did some testing. Did they say anything about the long cherished habit of teachers explaining meaning of words or grammar in Chinese?

5. Essential to include tasks in learning, but not to overdo it. Task should come after the language has been learned, not before. Not TASK BASED LEARNING but TASK SUPPORTED LEARNING.

Using tasks before teaching, an alternative to the old PPP approach, is a way to stimulate the students’ mind and get them engaged in the subject. Authors, movie directors and gamesters use the technique constantly. Throw out a challenging idea. “What is the one common characteristic all millionaires have that you may have, too?” “Can you connect the nine dots with only four lines without lifting your pencil?” “When she got out of the taxi she handed the driver a copy of an Email instead of the taxi fare. The driver objected but when he began to read the message he couldn’t stop his tears.”

This is the appetizer. It makes the student hungry for the answer. This gets the student activated on a certain subject. He calls into service all of his mental faculties, ideas, understanding and experiences. He sorts all of this and focuses everything he’s got on the problem. When the teacher later offers more vocabulary, gambits, phrases and grammar it all gets added to the student’s personal resources before all getting filed away again at the end of the exercise into the student’s mind.

8. Computer testing; don’t just put the paper questions on the computer.

To fully use the computer the program should be designed to take the students’ answers and analyze them.

CALL is Computer Aided Language Learning. But ICALL is Intelligent Computer Aided Language Learning, using the computer to guide the student a little more intelligently. ESL Blue on the web is a good simple example of this. The BULATS test, made by the same people that did the IELTS test, is a smart test which changes itself according to the perceived skill of the student allowing the test to more closely zero in on the students level of skill.

9. “Currently the standard expectation for College English is too high.” Prof. Wen Qiu-fang. L2 speakers should be the model for L2 learners, not L1 speakers. Since 1880’s it has been advocated that L1 should not be used to teach L2. It is not new.

Interesting idea. This touches on the idea of Global English and the fact that the communication partner most students will have when they join the workforce may well NOT be a native speaker of English.

I have found, from learning some French, that I can communicate best with non-native French speakers who also learned a little French. It seems that we know the same vocabulary and our grammar is very simple and possibly primitive even to the extent of being incorrect but easily understood by those like us.

10. Grammar is essential AFTER the language is known, not to teach the language. Learn the words, the form, the context (internal as well asexternal) before you learn the grammar. Grammar is to allow the student to go on and develop the structure in other situations.

Right. That’s similar to what Krashen says. Grammar instruction is more like repair work.

11. Obstacles to overcome. Fear of teacher; teach students to question. Fear of standing out; teach students to be original and, whether you agree or disagree, respect the opinion. Allow others to question it without degrading it. Learn to agree to disagree in many situations.

Very good. One big problem is the exam which reduces all comment, reaction and idea to “right” and “wrong” answers. Many of my students cannot accept a comment like, “Well, in American we would say…” The student answers, “On the test it has to be right or wrong.” Since many teachers are getting judged by how well their students do in exams it remains to be seen if teachers will find a way to shake loose from the shackles of “teaching to the test”.

Another teacher issue is the respect teachers customarily and traditionally receive. This is kind of nice and a great change to some of the attitudes some students in the west display towards teachers. Although many of us foreigners are casual or even too casual with our students, I think it will take time for this to change with our Chinese colleagues.