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Monthly Archives: February 2007

>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery

My students expected me to stand and lecture the whole time, and they complained almost constantly for the first month or so that “we’re not learning” and “you’re not teaching us”. When I asked what they meant, they said, “you’re not explaining what the text means and telling us the answers.” I said, “Do you want to know the answers, or do you want to learn English?” It was the first time someone told them there was a distinction.

Progress was made on the day I took away their dictionaries. As they filed into class, I told them to put their all dictionaries on my desk. Of course there was a huge pile. Then, I had them read a story I had printed from the internet (not from the textbook, which they’ve already written translation for in all the margins). I told them to underline any words they didn’t know, and keep reading. When they had finished, I asked them the main idea, and they got it right! I made a really big deal about that. “You understood! Without your dictionary! Hurray!!” Then, we went through each of the words they didn’t know, and I walked them through the guessing-from-context procedure. As they guessed the words, I did the song and dance again, “You learned the meaning without the dictionary! Yes!” They got the message.

Also, every time I explain a word or expression, I use at least one visual example. Sometimes physical action, sometimes a picture drawn on the blackboard, depending on what a given word lends itself to. The students loved to giggle at me demonstrating things like “stagger” and “off-key”, but they would always look in their dictionaries (I did give them back) to double-check the translation.

Just yesterday, we came nearer to a cure for dictionaryitis. I took the list of unknown vocabulary that students had turned in from an outside reading assignment, and I gave each student two words from that list. Each student was to become an expert on the two words, then teach them to the class using 1. the definition in English, 2. a sentence in English, and 3. a visual example. So, when they presented, I just sat in an empty student seat, and watched…and there was no whining about my “not teaching” them. It was downright inspirational to me to see one student explain “intercept” by drawing a soccer diagram where one player kicks the ball toward another, but a third player takes it away. The whole class nodded and murmurred the Chinese equivalent of “Aha!”. And I didn’t see anyone reach for
their dictionary! It was the kind of moment that makes the English teacher in me want to jump up and shout, “YES! Exactly right! Way to make it real!”


>By Karen Stanley

Below are some journal prompts that I have adapted, stolen or created. I am particularly indebted to Ilona Leki’s textbook, Academic Writing (St. Martin’s Press). Of course, these were designed for multicultural classes in Charlotte, North Carolina, so some of them will need to be altered to fit students in China. (I also happen to have my students do email journals rather than hardcopy, as I am trying to get them comfortable with using email in English.)

EMail Journal: Possible Topics

1. Write about something you remember from your childhood.

2. Spend ten minutes writing a list of subjects that you are most interested in. Choose one of the subjects and write for at least ten minutes about it.

3. Think about what your parents were like when they were young. Do you know any stories about them from this time? How do you think they have changed?

4. Think of something or someone that is popular right now that you dislike: a kind of music, a way of dressing, a movie star, a tourist spot, an opinion. Then write about why you think it is popular. After that, write about your reasons for not liking it.

5. Think of something that is unpopular right now that you like. Explain the reasons for its unpopularity, and then write about your reasons for liking it.

6. Write about different aspects of your culture. What is something about your culture that you think it is difficult for foreigners to understand? What do you feel it is important for people to understand about your culture?

7. Write about things in American culture (or some other culture) that you find difficult to understand.

8. What kinds of stereotypes do people have about your culture? Do any of the stereotypes surprise you? Are any of the stereotypes close to reality?

9. Tell the story of the strangest/funniest/most embarrassing experience that you or someone else has had with English.

10. Think of advice that someone else gave you when you were a child that you still follow. Have you had any experiences that show why this was good advice? Do you have any advice to give someone else?

11. Think of places in your home country that are important to you. What are they? Describe them in a lot of detail. Try to include not just what you see, but what you feel, hear, and smell when you are there.

12. What is the most important place to you in this city? Describe this place in detail.

13. Where are you in your life now, and where do you want your life to go in the future? What qualities in your personality will help you get there? What faults could make it difficult to get there?

14. Is there something in your past that you would change if you could? Is there something you did that you wish you had done differently? Is there something you didn’t do that you wish you had done?

15. What is a young child’s school day like in your country? Should children be pushed to learn a lot when they are very young? Are there things that are important for a child to learn at school besides academic subjects (responsibility, team work, competitiveness, moral values)?

>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

A teacher is required to use a boring oral English book and asks what could be done to make the classes more interesting:

Two words: role play.

My students have enjoyed creating their own dialogs based on a dialog I give them. I prepare a short dialog based on the vocabulary and grammar in the chapter. I write the dialog on the board, go over vocab and pronunciation, then let the students practice it in pairs. Next, I improvise a humorous variation, based on the original, playing both roles in different voices (this is where the teacher’s willingness to look silly comes in).

I give the pairs of students about 10 minutes to create and practice their own variation of the dialog, while I wander the classroom assisting where help is needed. Finally, I call on a few pairs to present their variation to the class. An example of how this can be funny: One dialog involved someone comforting someone else who was sad. One pair of male students, clearly born comedians, varied it to something like this:

“What’s the matter?”
“No one will marry me.” (laughter)
“Why not?”
“I’m too old.” (laughter)
“How old are you?”
“Forty.” (laughter)
“It seems to me you are about twenty years old.” (laughter)
“Will you marry me?” (laughter)
“Of course not.” (laughter)
“Do you see? No one will marry me!” (lots of laughter)

Another way to role-play, which the students love, is to turn the classroom into a mock city. For example, with the chapter on shopping, I assigned some students to be shopkeepers in various kinds of shops (their goods were slips of paper on which they could write the English word for the product). Other students were shoppers. I distributed play money equally among everyone. The contest among the shopkeepers was to earn the most money. The contest among the shoppers was to get the most products for the least money.

I used another variation of this game for the chapter on travel/tourism. This time I provided no props. Some students were travel agents, others airport gate attendants, others tour guides in English-speaking countries, still others were tourists. The students had to buy tickets from the travel agents on one side of the room, find the correct gate at the airport (the middle of the classroom), then see the sights in whichever country (on the other side of the classroom), then get back on the plane, go back to the travel agency and buy tickets for another country. I was pleasantly surprised that the students’ level of imagination allowed this activity to succeed.

>By Karen Stanley

There does seem to be a lot of acceptance of non-traditional names in the US. But I used to worry about Vietnamese students who used their Vietnamese names when they were close to content words in English with off-color connotations – Dung, Phuk, etc.

If they had been children, it might have been a different story, but as far as I can see, as adults their names have simply been absorbed into the naming conventions of Charlotte, North Carolina. Along with Jesus, Milagros, Jose Fernando. Aissam, Marboub, Safah, Mouin, Eun Kyung, Sun, Jun-il. I currently have a Thai student – a very cheerful young man who uses a shortened form of his Thai name: Kitti. Another Thai student is Pook. It doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Of course, my father (who grew up way back in the hills of Virginia) was Morris Burns Stanley, and he had brothers named Denver Pershing Stanley and Billie Bird Stanley. It is true that Uncle Billie went by William B., regardless of the name on his birth certificate. I’ve also heard that young American males named Randy got a few laughs but managed to survive life in the UK.

Quite a few students coming from China (but fewer than there used to be) have chosen English names; few students that I have from other parts of the world use anything but the names they were given by their parents at birth – or a version thereof.

In fact, from time to time I have known students to truly *resent* the fact that some Americans won’t at least try to pronounce their real names. Of course, when I was a child, every time I got angry at my parents I would start erasing my given name from my books and writing in a name of my choice…So perhaps there is a kind of freedom in being able to choose your own name…

>By Daniel T. Parker

I’m not going to take sides on the “English names” debate except to throw in a couple of observations as to why I have decided to keep my big western nose out of it, and why I sometimes will decide to put my nose in…

a) My overriding idea is that, as long as I’m teaching in a foreign country, my students’ English names are like our user names on email lists; they’re just handles and nothing more. If someone picked Shiney Sprout as their Hotmail or Yahoo! name, would I object? No. So I’m not going to correct “Esthur’s” spelling or tell “Big Bird” or “Free Fellow” that these are not cool girls’ names. I’m too busy trying to figure out why my 11-year-old son has chosen the name “Creeper33” for his email handle…

b) I also get the feeling that adopted names are symptomatic of static and dynamic culture. As foreign teachers, we’re not part of our students’ native culture, and we’re often not part of their age-culture, either. When I was in China, my students phonetically translated my name into a Chinese phrase translated as “Iron Rake Climbs Mountains” and they thought it was cool; they were a little disappointed when I opted for Zhang Shi Zhe, their second choice. One (the afore-mentioned Big Bird) explained that it was, of course, a proper Chinese name, but “Iron Rake Climbs Mountains” just sort of sounded cool…. and the American Indian drops of blood scattered in my veins agreed with her.

c) Although I try to remember and use students’ real names as quickly and often as possible, nicknames certainly serve their purpose by making a student memorable. Thus, this semester in Korea, I could call Free Fellow and Smile by their names much quicker than I could the Julies and Julias and Joannes and Joys.

d) However, if I find a student who is planning to go to America (which is probably much more likely, at least easier, here in Korea than in PRC) I may suggest a name alignment, as I did when Sopie (pronounced “Soapy”) told me she wanted to do graduate work in the States. I simply told her that her name’s proper spelling and pronunciation was Sophie or Sophia, and pointed out the image Americans would have in their mind if they were introduced to “Soapy”.

But, other than that, I’m determined to stay out of it. But whenever I meet up with a fellow Western English teacher who wants to get involved in their students’ English names, I stay out of that, too.

>By Pete Marchetto

A teacher recently remarked that he or she didn’t enforce the changing of some of his or her students’ more bizarre English names citing various examples of strangely named westerners and the sense that such enforcement would be somewhat draconian.

The fact is that I actually do enforce the changing of strange names with as much pressure as I can bring to bear without causing actual bodily harm. What seems to lead to students selecting strange names is less a desire to experiment or be eccentric than a misunderstanding of the nature of western names. This is akin to my having selected a Chinese name for myself that my students told me was unacceptable; a choice of two characters whose meanings I liked together rather than conforming to Chinese naming traditions.

In response to students’ criticism of my choice I pointed out that China had its own history of strange names; most recently in the wake of the Communism when new names came to the fore that were considered patriotic or revolutionary. However, as I came later to realise, (my students too polite to point it out to me), it was one thing for the Chinese to change their pattern of naming in response to historical events; quite another for an Englishman to stroll into the country and presume to do likewise.

Similarly, while the odd westerner will indeed saddle their offspring with some ridiculous name, (‘Utensil’ being the strangest I have come across, an American couple liking the sound of the word and so inflicting it upon their innocent child), it’s quite another for Chinese people to introduce themselves as ‘Gun’, ‘Martian’ or ‘Edgar Allen Poe’. The strange name will be taken for what it generally is… ignorance of western traditions. My student Ivy – formerly known as Shiney Sprout – may have put a considerable amount of research into her previous incarnation but I’m pleased to think that I might have saved her some future embarrassment in insisting that her effort was wasted.

One thing I DO think is important is that the students have as much information as possible in choosing their names and so I have a now dog-eared list of several hundred acceptable male and female names with their meanings. The more information the students have in selecting their names – and, indeed, the more effort they put into doing so – the closer their attachment. Random on-the-spot naming is something I always try to avoid.

>By Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

A teacher has a problem, “We have two Hong Kong Chinese students staying with us in Australia. One of them consistently mixes up ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’. So why do the Chinese have such trouble between two totally different words which apparently have specific Chinese counterparts?”

I would be careful about generalizing from a small research sample. It is probably not safe to say that all, or even most Chinese have serious trouble distinguishing tomorrow from yesterday in English. In almost three months in Beijing, with about 120 students, I’ve heard one student make this mistake once, and he immediately corrected himself.

But, to try and explain this student’s error: tomorrow and yesterday are not totally different. They both refer to a day, immediately adjacent on the calendar to today. Their meaning is the same in every respect but one: past or future.

In my TEFL training courses, a professor told the class that mixing up opposites in the second language is a common error, especially when the opposites are taught at the same time, as in a list. So, if you learn the words for hot and cold in a second language at essentially the same time, it’s very easy for them to get switched in your brain as to which means what. This may be what happened to your Chinese exchange student.

The way to be sure to avoid this problem when teaching a second language is to introduce only one word from the pair of opposites at first. Give plenty of examples, have the students become comfortable using it, and only then introduce its opposite.


By George Rosecrans

The stark reality is that the Chinese know technical English grammar better than we do. It’s been drilled into them. A Chinese colleague once observed that “We know grammar so well we can’t speak.”

For over fifty years the Chinese followed the Soviet model which was primarily memorize every grammatical rule no matter how arcane. Their examinations usually consisted of being presented a complex sentence and being asked to identify the grammatical structure in great detail, or they were given a set of grammatical rules and expected to compose a sentence around them.

The rest of their English education was to essentially memorize dictionaries. The problem was, and still remains, that even though armed with a complete understanding of grammar and a vocabulary exceeding twenty-thousand words, they still can’t order a meal in a restaurant or engage in casual conversation.

I am not a grammarian. Although a published writer with a pretty decent list, I avoided the English department while in school. I was fortunate to test out of English Comp. All that aside, I believe one should seek out and split infinitives whenever and wherever possible. The purpose of language is to communicate. Grammar Nazis not withstanding, if one is able to communicate their message, needs or ideas, that is sufficient.

The L2 level needed by most folks is related to their needs and roles. The higher the role the higher the level required. Jin Zhemin’s interpreter must speak at a higher level than a tourist trying to buy a coke in Disney World.

If one’s L2 is good enough to meet their needs and maybe pass on a little culture that is sufficient. After who know show many years of study, most people will only be able to retain and actually use enough L2 to function at their normal level. Especially if they are not in an L2 setting everyday. Personally, I’m not concerned with my students ability to parse a sentence. My concern is that they be able to communicate as clearly and concisely as possible.

I am morally opposed to political and linguistic facism. Frankly, I don’t care if one speaks with grammatical perfection. The reality is that most people don’t. Listen to the common language user, be they English, (American, Australian, British, Irish, New Zealander, or Scot,) French, German or Chinese.

Most people rarely if ever speaking perfect grammatical English, especially at the emotional level where one’s real command of the language is revealed. Still they manage to get their message across and get things done. Ultimately it is communicative competence that is important. Eloquence is always nice but not always required.

How eloquent and grammatical does one need to be to order a hamburger or, for my more closely Anglo rooted brethren and sistern, fish and chips.

>By William Donnelly

Two kind of dictionary makers: prescriptive and descriptive.

Prescribers are users of helpful labels telling one what is appropriate in what situations. (Or,more likely, not appropriate.) This is very helpful to foreign speakers and writers.

Descriptive lexicographers work from written excerpts mainly, documenting contexts in which the word has recently occurred in print. And they include words that have a spoken life, too. They avoid judgmental labels. The irdictionaries are helpful with new words, or new meanings for older words.

Since people take the dictionary as authoritative, they are annoyed when they haves een it tabooed for a lifetime and it shows up as a word in the (descriptive) New Merriam Websters International. Say, for example, “disremember.” Ear spellings, like “would of” occur in everyone’s first drafts, but if we don’t catch them, our editors will. So we are talking about talking. Should we waste emotion on “would of” in speech? Among Chinese learners maybe the problem is more like this.

We over-enunciate when we speak slowly. And when we say the particle “a” — as in “a house”, we do not pronounce it schwa (as in the first a sound in “again”), but instead teach our students that it should be pronounced like the “a” sound in “bane.” But in real spoken English we never say “a [long a sound] house.”Or, we may put the “t”sound in “often” — which rarely occurs, at least in American speech. A word like “clothes” now pronounced “close” in American English (a pronunciation that is acknowledged by the Oxford Dictionary as coming into British English) is better elided. Have you ever wondered what a Chinese person was talking about when he said “clo-thes” voicing the “th” sound as the beginning of a separate syllable?

>By Katy Miller

I’m teaching writing to non-English majors (international business students) who are now second year, and taught a writing course to university teachers last semester. I developed the course on the run as I’d never taught writing before and did the course at short notice, and am still not sure if I’m “doing it right”, but I’ll share the things that I did and that worked well.

Most classes combine a bit of group discussion with writing. One thing that worked well was getting them to write a paragraph in class about “the most important thing in the world” (it could be any essay topic).

The students then swapped their paragraph with another student, who read it and wrote their comments. Then they swapped with a third person. When they received their own paper back, they considered the comments and expanded the thing into an essay as homework. I did that because at first the students were obsessed with getting grammar right, so they fretted over correct grammar while sometimes their writing was devoid of any real content. So I focussed on getting depth into their writing and getting them to see the ideas as being as important as the form.

I did a lot of creative writing too. Once I got them to close their eyes and imagine an island, and then write a descriptive passage detailing what they saw in their imagination. That worked – instead of getting “it is very beautiful” we got “there are giant orange flowers and rivers with black water” etc.

With story writing I got them to dream up a character, then got them into groups of 3 or 4. Each group shared their character and wrote a story together based on what would happen if their characters met.

For business writing I really focus on getting the students to think the process through before putting pen to paper; ie: cover letter for a resume. What kind of person would the employer be looking for? What sort of information can you give briefly in the cover letter about your skills, qualities, experience, etc. that they would be interested in?

So lots of the time I introduce the topic, they discuss or we discuss it as a whole class, then they write. I get them to aim for brevity and effectiveness. We do lots of brainstorming to start the process. We’re going to do things like note-taking and editing later on, too. I’d also like to organise a web page to put some of their writing onto, because they’re learning how to do webpages in another class and it would be a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

For the teachers I didn’t set homework – they wrote in class time as they had so little time to do it. If we didn’t finish a task in class time I got them to complete it as homework.

I’m tougher on my undergrads as a lot of them tend toward laziness. They have to keep a diary (not a lot of work – just three entries a week and they don’t have to be long). I also have assignments they’re working on consistently – at the moment they’re just about ready to hand in the “stories of success” assignment where they had to interview a person they consider to be successful(they can interpret “success” any way they want) and write an article about how they became successful. Basically, I make it so they write a little most days if not every day.

Beware of homework assigments which are too general. I had real problems with plagiarism last semester, when I, perhaps stupidly, set a take-home exam. There were a few choices in the exam, and one or two topics were too general. So out of a class of 45 students, about 20 or 21 plagiarised – some out of a well-known textbook, some from newspapers, from a wide range of sources. I was pretty astonished by that!

I would maybe expect it from some undergrads, but not from so many university teachers. They simply didn’t see what was wrong with it – the important thing was to “get the right answer”, not to submit your own work, good or bad.

I was too surprised to be outraged, actually! You can combat that by making the topic a little weird so that it’s too difficult to find material to copy. One of the options in my exam, which some students chose and did very well in, was “write a story incorporating a frog, an old newspaper, a storm at sea, and a pair of boxing gloves”. That was fun and you can bet they weren’t plagiarised. They liked that, too.

We had a successful lesson doing haikus and limericks. They thought that was fun. There, I just wanted them to get an appreciation of using language for beauty in the case of haiku, and fun in the case of limericks.

As a time-filler, they also like that game where you get the person in the front row to write half a sentence on a sheet of paper, then fold it over so the next person can’t see it. The person behind him completes the sentence and begins a new one, then folds it over again, and gives it to the person behind. When everyone in the file has written a part, someone reads out the whole story – usually delightfully weird. Takes a while to explain but after the first time you can use it to warm up or to finish a gruelling lesson. It can be done in ten minutes depending on the size of the class. They did really enjoy that (me too).

You have to write on the board something like “first person should finish with “and”, second person should start with a proper noun and finish with a verb, third person should start with an article and finish with an adjective, fourth start with a noun…” so it makes some semblance of sense.

Main things I try to stress then are: thinking about what to write before beginning (audience, structure, ideas); generating a concern for content; controlling the language in its written form rather than the language controlling them; achieving more depth and 3-dimensional-ness to the writing which tends to be very “flat” if the student is overly concerned with correct grammar; and writing as communication. I do talk about grammar when necessary – particularly tense which is a problem in writing.

A lot of my students enjoyed the classes and started producing some pretty good stuff – but there was one who wrote in the final exam “we haven’t made any progress because you didn’t understand what we needed to learn” which, he argued, was correct grammar and a broad vocabulary which can only be learned through repetition and memorisation. He argued that the basis of writing is words, of which they didn’t know enough.

I disagree – I think the basis of writing is ideas, whether in your own language or another. I used to tell them “there’s no such thing as practice” – if you’re writing something, always write something “real”. Ah well, you can’t please everyone! The essay was well-written so I gave him agood grade. I look forward to reading other people’s ideas and experiences of teaching writing. I actually prefer it to teaching speaking.