Teaching academic writing

Most writing books are pretty useless.


They are born out of a sort of academic incest, inbreeding. The authors look at what other authors got published and follow that. Publishers look at what other publishers sold and publish that. Jack Richards hints at this problem on his website. Shocking truth: Publishers are not in the business to help your students. Continue reading “Teaching academic writing”


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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!

>Teaching IELTS writing – keeping it simple

>One of the big problems with all of the IELTS writing books is that they use very complex high-level examples of writing to demonstrate how it’s done. This is the most ridiculous thing!

I talked to a couple teachers who supported such an idea and they told me that the student will not learn everything from the samples but they will catch some of it.

I disagree.

If you want to learn how to ride a bicycle it will not be very useful to practice on a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle. If you want to learn to make paper airplanes the best way is not to go study how to be a space shuttle pilot.

What students need is language that is at their target level or very slightly above. This kind of language is accessible. This kind of language is highly learnable.

Here are two paragraphs from a Task 2 sample taken from IELTS Preparation and Practice by Oxford University Press. I have put some of the bits of complex language in UPPERCASE.

“It seems that salaries often DO NOT RELATE
TO skill, education or THE VALUE OF THE
EMPLOYEE TO SOCIETY. In my opinion this
is wrong, and I feel CHANGES SHOULD BE
MADE to ENSURE that people such as pop
stars do not earn such huge amounts of

“If we take the example of a pop star such as
Madonna, it is HARD TO SEE in WHAT WAY she
even have a NEGATIVE EFFECT on young people
and encourage them to EXPERIMENT WITH SEX AND
In addition, her job does not require SPECIAL
SKILLS or years of training and education.
Therefore, there is no JUSTIFICATION for her
receiving so much money. Although she provides
entertainment for people, I do not think this

Look at “DO NOT RELATE TO”. This sort of language is rather idiomatic and if you are going to use it you have to use it in this way. It’s not the same if you say, “It seems salaries do not compare to…” or “It seems salaries are not suited to….”

Now if we look at “THE VALUE OF THE EMPLOYEE TO SOCIETY” we see some conceptual language. It is a beautiful idea which is supposed to mean that we have some sort of social duty to be a benefit to others. Of course, Madonna does have value to society, millions of dollars a year value. But this phrase is reaching for a nobler idea than that. And if we are to teach this phrase to our students so that they can use it correctly then we have to make sure they capture that nuance.

Of course, we can teach all of these phrases to our students but the problem is that when they take the writing test they will not need any of them. They will need some other phrases, other idioms. To be able to deploy the right phrase at the right time they would need to first learn thousands and thousands of phrases and be competent in using all of them. In short, they would need to be Band 8 or Band 9.

But if our students’ target is Band 6 then this high level language is just clutter that will confuse them. It is unlikely they will need that particular complex language in the sample above and even if we do try to teach it to them it is likely they will get it wrong and instead of saying “experiment with sex and drugs” they may say “do experiments with making love and medicine”.

So I believe we should provide our students with a lot of examples that are within their reach, examples at Band 6 and 7. We could rewrite something like the above example.

“Many people in the entertainment business get paid a huge amount of money. I think this is wrong and should be changed to make sure that they don’t make too much money.

“A good example is Madonna. She doesn’t really do anything to help people. In fact, some of the things she does are bad samples for young people. A lot of her music is about sex and this could cause young people to form the wrong ideas about sex. Some of her music is about drugs and may make people want to use drugs. She did not have to study for many years to learn how to do her job. So I believe there is no reason that she should get paid so much money. She is a very popular singer but I do not think this is a good reason.”

In teaching IELTS, it’s important that we give our students materials that are within their reach and are learnable.

>Correction or Teamwriting?

>Self-correction, except for typos or some “absent-minded” errors, is very difficult for students because if they knew it was wrong they wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Peer-correction isn’t fun and it is difficult for students to fully trust their partner’s evaluation. The question that puzzles many teachers is what is the best way to help students to improve in areas where they make a lot of mistakes?

The obvious answer is teacher-correction. But is teacher-correction effective? Recent research shows that students do not make effective use of teacher-correction. The teacher would like to imagine the student takes his corrected paper to a quite place, sits down and pulls out a dictionary and grammar book and carefully goes over the corrections. But in fact, most students only check to see how much “red” is on the paper and then file it away in their book bag never to be looked at again. Much of the teacher’s laborious work of careful correction is actually time wasted.

If self-correction, peer-correction and teacher-correction are not effective, then what is the best way to involve the student in the writing process in a corrective way? How can the student be put in a position to notice grammar or writing in a way that interacts with his previous knowledge and develops a deeper and clearer grasp of English?

I have been doing research in a new method I developed at a university and at multinational businesses where I taught managers and businessmen. I call it Teamwriting. It helps students to benefit from peers, helps students to learn not only from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others and makes the most economical and efficient use of the students’ and the teacher’s time.

I divide the blackboard space into vertical sections large enough to allow someone to stand in front of one section and large enough to contain the writing task (about one-meter wide). Then I divide the class into pairs or teams, assigning each set of students to a part of the board.

The writing tasks are everything from brainstorming a subject to writing a paragraph to writing an essay (write small). This works quite well with a class of about 20 but I’ve only been able to do it with a class of 40 when we had blackboards on two walls of the classroom.

Sometimes each group gets a different topic to work on or sometimes it is the same and they compete with the other groups. I get the whole class out of their seats and up to the board. Usually one student will take up the chalk while the rest of the team (from one to three others) offers suggestions and corrections during the writing process. I find this gets the students intimately involved with the language process and able to benefit from the help of some of their classmates – thus the peer-learning factor.

After the writing is done, usually terminated by a set period of time, I will examine each writing sample, one-by-one, with the entire class looking on. First, I will ask the class to offer corrections. The class really focuses on this activity. You can see every eye examining the sample trying to see if it is correct or not. Some speak up. Others may have ideas about the writing even though they may not voice them. But they’re all involved. Then I will offer my corrections, if any.

Some of my classrooms are equipped with AV equipment, essentially a video camera and projector, which allow the projection of books or papers. If the classroom has this sort of equipment the students do not need to write at the blackboard but can do their teamwriting on a piece of paper that the teacher can project and correct before the class.

Teamwriting seems to be more effective than personally correcting individual writings or conferencing with students, and especially so when considering the economy of time. It allows every student to test their ideas about the language, it enables immediate feedback and is a quick, easy and engaging way to “learn from the mistakes of others”.

>Should students practice their English by posting articles to Wikipedia?

>An American teacher working in Beijing said: “In our summer course, we are having students post their own ideas onto Wikipedia. One student had already done this and his article about a ski resort near his home was published but marked as incomplete.”

I’m sure students get a great thrill out of contributing to something that is as famous and internationally recognized as the English version of Wikipedia. But I can’t help but feel it is irresponsible for a teacher to have a number of students do such a thing and violates the expectations of the people who go to Wikipedia for facts. If one student does it, it probably won’t hurt anything.

By definition, English students are learning English because their English is not “good enough”. They feel their ability to communicate in English is too poor. That’s why they study English. Why is their English suddenly of the caliber to contribute to an encyclopedia? And why “their own ideas”? Wikipedia is not a blog. Just because they CAN do it does not mean they SHOULD do it. It would be better for them to write to some more informal areas of the web like actual blogs.

Likewise, a mailing list like TESL-L does not allow linguistics teachers to assign students to post here as a class project or homework. Without this rule, list members would become defacto teacher’s assistants to a group of students in Morocco or some such place.

Of course, Wikipedia has different language versions and the students may do an excellent job contributing to one in their own L1. There are good places for students to practice and there are bad places for students to practice. Wikipedia was not designed as a practice venue for English students.

>Business English or "Office English"

>A teacher said: “I have been in business most of my life & found business letters from Australia, New Zealand, America & Canada were written in a fairly casual way. Letters from South Africa & Europe were more formal.”

The vast majority of letters our students write will not be “letters” but rather Emails and they won’t usually be sales letters or apology letters or late payment notification letters or any of those types of letters found in every “business writing” book, but will be what I call “office” letters. They will be reminding someone that the XYZ label needs to be applied to the front of the boxes or customer ABC wants to know what has happened to his order. This has been my experience after studying hundreds of company Emails.

The standard length of these communications is 55 words, about 3-5 sentences and very informal. This sort of writing will constitute about 90% of the writing in English with the rest being reports and presentations. (I’ll include 30 writing samples from one company below.)
Writing constitutes about 90% of their communications in English. About 8% will be speaking on the phone and only about 2% will be face-to-face.

Typically, a professional will already have a firm grasp of the primary language for his profession. He will be very familiar with the technical terms. However, he will be making grammar errors or errors with other vocabulary not directly related to the profession. Sometimes the company, as P&G and others companies, will have their own company lingo, a vocabulary only used in their company. In this case, some students need to learn some more general words that the rest of the world uses. For example, P&G never has any “problems”. However, they certainly have some “issues” that need to be dealt with.

The ESP (English for Special Purposes, like English for Manufacturing or English for Information Technology) does not need to teach these special words to professionals but does need to help the student learn how to use them properly in sentences.


30 Samples:

=======================EMAIL 1:
Kindly to inform you that Z H has invited S T 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 Z H’s introduction, S T 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 R B 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 L for her comment.
I’ll attend HR training this two days, A will forward the confirmed design to you ASAP.
Anything urgent pls contact A or G.
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 B, he has agreed with the revise.
Thank you!

=======================EMAIL 6
Many thanks for your kindest support to make it happen! We strongly believe that Mr. A T is the right person for our seminar. Your continuous support is the key of our success!

=======================EMAIL 7
Dear both,
D has already invited a guest speaker from HK agency. He is called A T ( 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 Y’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.

=======================EMAIL 11
Attached the wording of “Coupon Recapture Campaign” and the “TWN brochure” for your references, please help to design it according to our discussion just now. Thank you so much.

=======================EMAIL 12
I am A -member of “Direct Distribution Department”, unfortunately, I have to deal with some affairs in my family, which make me can’t take part in the Birthday Party at “Q.” Club. Best wishes to other folks sincerely.

=======================EMAIL 13
Because the “Performance Report0615” is compared with “control group”, so we submitted the figure excluding the data relating to “control group” at the first time, that made the data in this form was not match to the other ones. We revise it correspondingly, and we will submit the “total leads group data” from now on. Pls kindly find the latest reports in the attachment.

=======================EMAIL 14
We wonder whether S Branch has executed some campaign about “Cease Policy”, if yes, pls kindly e-mail the correlative campaign materials to us. Thank you so much.

=======================EMAIL 15
Attached the final-edition design of leaflets for GZ under insured campaign, please kindly help to follow up the CHO’S approval. Furthermore, because we have much trivial work about the leaflets to do before 1st August, such as printing, so the feedback given before 14th July is so appreciated. Thank you very much.

=======================EMAIL 16
According to last Friday conference’s decision, we will have a further discussion about “PIF” of correlative products. Next Monday or Tuesday (7.3/7.4) is fine with OOC, wonder whether you are also available. If not, please kindly inform us what time is the most reasonable in your opinion.

=======================EMAIL 17
Because GZ should also submit correlative performance reports about “Birthday4 Campaign” to GZ Agency Office tomorrow, so I want to conform whether we will receive the tracking reports today. Thank you very much.

=======================EMAIL 18
Dear all,For this urgency, I should inform you to attend the tele-conference for the SDM Phase II launch failure on this Wednesday.Time: 14:30 -16:30 on the 12th Jul, 2006 (Wed)Conference Number: (83xxxxxx)

=======================EMAIL 19
Thanks for your helping to generate this TIPS report everyday by manual! But would you pls send this report everyday before 10:30 am, otherwise, the data would be delayed one day. BTW, when would you set up the system to send out the auto pay failure report for renewal case automatically?

=======================EMAIL 20
Per tele-conference between Call Center and SDM today morning, according to TM team’s request in order to improve the first time auto-pay success rate, SDM operator will postpone the submitted time of FPA & ROPADD Application Form for one day from now on. Thus, all the AF is submitted in today from CT call center will be transferred to A/C by tomorrow noon.

=======================EMAIL 21
According to call center’s work station request, 30 for A one month and 35 for H cash tow month. Seen from the below w/s arrangement, there is 23 gap in first half of Oct and 53 gap in second half from 88 total w/s that requested by call center in Oct. Thus, the 23 and 88 would be out of our marketing cost budget. How to cover this?

=======================EMAIL 22
I want to issue one problem is that the OT hours in Oct is more than before month, according to local “劳动法”(labor rule), it is need to control the OT under 36 hours for individual OT hour, but there are around 40 TSR are above that. Is it any other item has been included in the “OT” field? Another, compared with OOC, their average OT hour is only 8 hours.

=======================EMAIL 23
According to the incentive balance, the negative need to be covered by the next coming campaigns. Pls give us the projection and incentive scheme based on the overused incentive. For the pilot campaigns, the negative is 48,980 and 7,887 for rollout by Jan 25. Details see below file.

=======================EMAIL 24
According to your projection, only the TM cost has already achieved 66% of the TARP, it is more higher than 30% of ROPADD benchmark. Would pls let us have a discussion for it this afternoon!

=======================EMAIL 25
DearsPer discussion this morning, it is suppose the TYPA period equal to actual campaign end date plus 1 week since the new flow of TYPA, so the period set up 4 weeks because the campaign period is 3 weeks from your information before in telephone. For the printing is doing, so the period would not be changed. Pls note!

=======================EMAIL 26
The captioned product plan to promote on touch point–Customer Event. China have many Festival, we could cash in on the public holiday to cross/up sell the product via TM campaign. FPA’s premium rate is too higher for OOC selected target customers and a few commission rate is preferred for OOC product too.
Thanks for your kindest support.

=======================EMAIL 27
Are you planning to promote this product in which touch point or any current campaigns?

=======================EMAIL 28
Attached pls find the PRF of Ever Festival PA 2 for OOC.
The product idea comes from EF(Sponsor channel), there are some differences in benefit and premium rate, pls find the details in attachment.
The target launch date was set at the end of August 2006.
Should there has any question, pls feel free to contact me.

=======================EMAIL 29
Local account need us provide a new monthly breakdown on the new budget. GZ and Agency’s production are over adjust, let’s have a brainstorming to add new campaign on this afternoon 2pm to 2:30pm? Pls kindly confirm your availability. Thanks.

=======================EMAIL 30
Could you provide a monthly breakdown for the updated budget? We need to input into the system by month. Thank you very much!