12 Reasons to like ESL Pod

ESL Pod can be found at: http://www.eslpod.com. I recommend it for upper-intermediate level students. It is free. I do not use the extra paid features.

I like it for 12 reasons:

1

It introduces very useful new vocabulary. When I choose topics related to business it teaches some business words. But it also introduces some general advanced vocabulary like Continue reading “12 Reasons to like ESL Pod”

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Teaching academic writing

Most writing books are pretty useless.

Why?

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”

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.

SAMPLE 1:

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?

SAMPLE 2:

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”.)

“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.

What vocabulary?

What vocabulary do our students really need to know? Book authors and publishers make their best guess based on a world wide selection of corpus but is this the vocabulary your students are going to need?

We used to be dependent on authors and publishers to tell us but the world is rapidly changing and technology is enabling teachers to gain this information with greater accuracy and ease.

By interviewing my graduated students, I found that they often get jobs in foreign trade and have to deal with orders. What is the specific vocabulary involved in orders? (Photo: Visiting my former student at the foreign trade company where she works.)

1. I created my own corpus for “placing an order” by doing a search, selecting appropriate webpages, copying the text and pasting it in one Notepad file.

2. After accumulating what I thought was a representative range of text, I then copied and pasted the corpus into a data visualization tool to generate a Word Cloud [1].

3. I also created a word list [2] that works like a concordance showing different ways these words are used in a sentence.

Using these technology tools, I feel that I have a deeper understanding and greater control over the likely vocabulary my students will encounter and need. I won’t say that this approach is 100% accurate. I will say that for determining my students’ needs it is more accurate than depending on an author and publisher in London or New York.

These are samples from a simple corpus I created. Teachers should develop large and more accurate corpuses for their specific needs.

Mobile apps for teachers

My old Windows Mobile phone is still going and still doing a lot of work. It’s not just the app you add to your mobile but how you use the apps you have. I have a Windows Mobile phone that runs a mobile version of Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint and Word. Here are some things I do with my mobile:

ATTENDANCE

I keep attendance, scores and other student data on my computer using Excel and this Excel master file is very complex with a lot of conditional formatting, macros and formulas. But I can also do attendance on my mobile using the simpler Mobile Excel and by using the built-in synchronization features it will automatically update my master Excel file. This way I don’t have to take my computer to class.

VOCABULARY LISTS

I teach some smaller classes of managers or other corporate students. These classes are typically 1-6 students. When I want to create an experience[1] for my students and take them to a shopping mall or an interesting retailer like Ikea, I will write the new vocabulary on my phone in Word. Using Word I can make the text quite large. As new words come up, I write them on my phone and show them to the students. After our two-hour lesson, we say goodbye and go our separate ways but after we part I copy these new words to my phone’s SMS messaging function and send them off to each student. As my students are heading home they all receive the list of new words that we just learned that day.

Sometimes I have some vocabulary or other English points that I want to review with my students. Rather than simply writing this down in a notebook, which I often forget to check, I will write it as a Mobile Outlook appointment. This appointment will pop up at a scheduled time, the time when I will be teaching those students. So this material that I want to review with my students will appear “Just-In-Time”. Appointments can be set in Outlook on your computer and then will get synchronized automatically to your mobile.

VOICE RECORDING

In researching business English usage, I have visited trade fairs and used my phone to record myself talk to salesmen about their products. I can study the real language used in trade fairs, the types of business terms and sentences, and also my students can get an idea of real business conversations. (Photo: Maotai salesman who tried to sell me some famous high quality Chinese liquor.)

Although I usually use my computer for this, I sometimes use my phone to record students speaking at my first class with them. Then at the last class, students can listen to themselves to hear the difference in their English, before and after.

I have also encountered certain individuals from a country famous for scamming people through Emails that purportedly offer you a million dollars or so if you help them to transfer several million out of their country. These guys, not Chinese, have actually approached me on the street here in China and presented the same deal as the Email spam scam asking me to help
them in this manner. I have used my phone to surreptitiously record these guys trying to scam me. The English is business English and accent from a certain region in the world that my students need practice with.

MP3 PLAYER

Sometimes it is easier for me to load the lesson MP3’s into my mobile for playback in the class than it is to play them from my computer. This is especially so when I am teaching at a coffee shop where I usually go to teach managers.

SPEAKING PROMPTS

I have put many Conversation Questions[3] into my Mobile Powerpoint. I usually use this when I’m out Engineering an Experience or when having lunch with students in the canteen and I want to get them talking about something. I ask them to choose a number between 1-5 and then flip through the slides that many times to add an element of luck or adventure to the process.

BOB and SMS

After learning about how business uses Customer Relations Management (CRM) software to develop closer relations with customers, I decided to develop a Student Relations Management platform, I call BOB[2], to develop closer relations with my students. The purpose is to create a “presence” with my students, that I’m not just there for them two hours a week but I’m always around always trying to help them with their English.

I have developed macros on my computer to work with my Excel master file of student data. When I connect my mobile to my computer I can use my computer and macros to send SMS messages through my mobile to my students in the following manner:

* Practice English message – I try to get my students to speak English with each other outside of class. We have sometimes established lunchtime, when they eat lunch with classmates, as a good time for them to do this but they often forget. I have sent reminders to each student to speak English at lunchtime. By using the macros I have developed, I can also send each student a different question that they can ask their classmates to help stimulate discussions in English.

* Student updates – My macros can send each student their individual scores by SMS so they can be aware of how they are doing in class as far as quizzes, attendance, participation, etc.

* News flash – Sometimes a particularly good movie with relatively simple English is showing on TV. I will use SMS to notify my students and invite them to watch it with me by tuning into the program and then using a chat program to chat with me and other students while watching the movie at the same time.

* “Where are you?” message – I can do attendance at the beginning of class and then my computer will send a message to the absent students letting them know they are missing our class. Students realize they are not forgotten.

* Reminders – I can send reminders about upcoming tests or homework that is due.

* Nudges – Research has shown that American students who do not read during the holidays decline in reading skills during the holidays. I figure that my Chinese students probably decline in English skills during the holidays so I will send them an SMS message to remind them to do something in English during these periods. I have developed a whole set of reminders to send to them every couple days of the holiday with a different suggestion of something they can do to improve or practice their English.

* Coaching reminders – I have been coaching some of my corporate students. Coaching involves agreeing on specific study goals with students and then encouraging and checking up on students to help them hit those goals. For example, the student may say he wants to listen to an English mp3 everyday while going to work on the bus. Using Outlook’s appointment function, I can have my phone remind me every morning that the student should be doing this. Then at that time I can send an SMS to the student to remind him or check up on him that he is doing this. My phone’s SMS function allows me to create ten stock messages that I can fire off to my students. Appointments can be set in Outlook on your computer and then will get synchronized  automatically to your mobile.

All of this I have done with four basic programs: Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint and Word. It’s not just the app you add to your mobile but how you use the apps you have.

Notes:

[1] Engineering an Experience – http://goo.gl/i8Ttz
[2] BOB – http://goo.gl/ziWDK
[3] Conversation Questions – http://goo.gl/7uHw7

“Office English” and why nearly all business English books are useless

Famous publisher coursebooks, such as Cambridge University Press Pass Cambridge BEC Preliminary, teach such seemingly useful and important items as:

Product development (drug development in the USA) Measuring company performance (a private British rail network) Banking sector (about British banks) Quality control (a snack foods producer) Recruiting staff (article about various methods)

The seeming usefulness of this sort of study quickly vanishes when examined through the lens of reality, aka: needs analysis. Our students don’t need it. Contrary to popular belief and even many of our own assumptions, these lessons have little or no connection to the jobs our students will have.

This became apparent to me due to my practice of collecting 10 Emails from each of my corporate students. Examining the English that is actually used in companies, two things are very clear:

1. The specific vocabulary taught in these books is useless.
2. What our students need is basic business vocabulary and grammar.

At the bottom of this message are ten very typical examples[1] of Emails from a foreign insurance company operating in China. Please note the business vocabulary:
seminar
target customers
inactive
criterias [sic]
marketing plan

But please also note the specific industry vocabulary:
insured campaign
agent score card
Production Tracking Reports

As you read the Emails, below, you will see that little vocabulary is specifically about the insurance industry. But there is a lot “office English”, communication about approving forms, arranging a meeting, new procedures. Rather than call it “business English” with all its current sexy connotations of big negotiations, wining and dining in exotic five-star restaurants and stock market investments, I call this “office English”.

“Office English” is what our students are going to need. Not all that other crazy stuff in the business English books. Some of our students are going to work in the fashion, catering, manufacturing, chemical supply industries. Each of these have a very specialized vocabulary.

Special vocabulary they will pick up on the job.

So let’s look at this grammar. A few samples from the messages:

1. I’ll attend HR training this two days.
2. target customers who is inactive
3. the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st 4. u guys need not worry his ability 5. he has agreed with the revise

This is not “business grammar”. This is everyday grammar. They can pick up this grammar from reading novels, watching TV or movies, surfing the Internet, reading newspapers, graded readers.

In other words, they can learn it from extensive comprehensible input, material at their level and a little above that is interesting. Specific business vocabulary they will learn on the job from extensive comprehensible input in their work environment.

Collect Emails from your corporate students or ask your graduates who now have jobs to send you some samples and let’s compare notes. Are business English books hitting the target or are our students’ needs so diverse there is no ESP (English for Special Purposes) book able to serve them well?

Notes:

[1] Below are ten actual Emails from an American insurance company in China. Please note some very specialized vocabulary. Students tell me they learned this vocabulary on the job and did not study it. They just picked it up from their work in the office. For a Word document with 50 examples, please contact me.

=======================
EMAIL 1

Kindly to inform you that xx has invited xx to be the speaker of OOC touch point seminar.

The seminar will be held on July 27 evening ( Pls see the attachment for the detail rundown).

On xx’s introduction, xx is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker.

We think it’s maybe a good opportunity for agency promotion, we wonder whether you need to invite him too?

If yes, we should inform xx the schedule today.

Your reply today will be highly appreciated!

=======================
EMAIL 2

The under insured’s leaflet has finish it’s final design, I’ve submit to xx for her comment.

I’ll attend HR training this two days, yy will forward the confirmed design to you ASAP.

Anything urgent pls contact xx or zz.

Thank you!

=======================
EMAIL 3

Dear all:
Kindly to remind you that as GZ’s inactive orphan policy lead size is not so sufficient. GZ have 2 selection criterias:
1. For the target customers who is inactive for 5 years(the same as SH), 2. For the target customers who is inactive for 3 years.
Thank you for your attention.

=======================
EMAIL 4

Kindly be informed that the marketing plan of Under Insured campaign has been approved by our GM, I’ve fax the hardcopy to you, pls check it.

As the time is very tight, can we finish the whole approval circle in two weeks?

Thank you very much!

=======================
EMAIL 5

Considering the under insured campaign is LG channel, to give more information and motivation to our agent, I modified the tracking report:
1. Add a new report named: billboard
2. Modify the agent score card( for team) I’ve discuss with xx, he has agreed with the revise.

Thank you!

=======================
EMAIL 6

Many thanks for your kindest support to make it happen! We strongly believe that xx is the right person for our seminar.
Your continuous support is the key of our success!

=======================
EMAIL 7

Dear both,

Denise has already invited a guest speaker from HK agency. He is called Andy xxx ( Senior District Director).

well, he is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker, so u guys need not worry his ability 🙂

Kind regards,

=======================
EMAIL 8

I’ve double checked these cost items, and they are all right. Furthermore, I’ve mastered how to use correlative forms, and I’ll ask xx’s help when I have other questions.

=======================
EMAIL 9

There is the final version wording of “NML Campaign” we prepared in the attachment, please help to check whether it is ready to apply for approval program.

=======================
EMAIL 10

To conduct the campaign better and more conveniently, we prepared three “Production Tracking Reports” for agencies, and we’ll update them every two weeks from now on; Furthermore, because the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st- when our campaign have only launched for ten days, so some items just for your reference. If there are some questions or proposals about these reports, you can contact us further.

>Literati and Scrabble

>One of the most popular on-line games on Yahoo is Literati. It is just like Scrabble. I described this game to this list several months ago and invited everyone to join me for a game which we played one night.

It’s a great game to play with friends or students. While you play there is a little ‘chat’ window where you can talk about words, the weather, whatever. I think the maximum number to play is 4 or 5 but others can join in to watch the game. You could even have the extras join the players and make ‘teams’ so that you would have 4-5 teams.

I think any activity that works with words is helpful for students. Before a student lays out his tiles for a 4 letter word he has run through his mind hundreds of possible words. Every spelling combination that seems like it could be a word is followed by the thought “Is that a real word? What word is it and what does it mean?” It is a delightful way for students to review vast amounts of vocabulary.

I had a private class with some executives (a banker, a manufacturing CEO, a company president and a head of a law firm). They liked it when I pulled my mini-Scrabble game out but were thrilled when they learned you get points. The lawyer was so enthusiastic he was trying to cheat and the president had to guard the tiles to stop him.

Scrabble is one of the most popular games in the U.S. So I’m sure many students will enjoy it.

>Scrabble and Liar Liar for vocabulary practice

>SPELLING AND VOCABULARY REVIEW

SCRABBLE: It’s almost embarrassing to get paid money to play Scrabble but we’re professionals and have to be ready to endure anything. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts I like to teach from our coursebook for an hour and then like to do something else with the class. I was really surprised at how appealing Scrabble turned out to be. Especially when my students found out they could get points and win. I’ve had managers jumping up and down like kids and a lawyer so intent on winning he couldn’t resist cheating. Students have to think of thousands of words to play this game and it’s a great way to get them to review the vocabulary they know.

Photo: 40 students playing Scrabble. The game is projected on a screen. The students are divided into eight teams.

VOCABULARY STRETCHING

LIAR LIAR: Often our coursebooks have a dictionary section in the back. Give the students a couple minutes to study one page of it. Then they close their books and on a paper draw two vertical lines forming three columns. At the top of the left column they write 100. At the top of the middle column they write YES. Then put NO at the top of the right column.

The 100 is their dollars. The teacher reads a word with its’ definition or with a definition from another word. The students use their dollars to place bets on how sure they are if the word and definition are true or false. They do this by marking how much they want to gamble under one of the YES?

The game is terrifically effective in winning students concentration and focus on these vocabulary words. And they have great fun in playing the game.