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Monthly Archives: August 2007

>Maria Spelleri – Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

I have used developmental reading texts with EAP pre-college students with success. These books are written to teach L1 students who have tested and placed as “weaker” readers. These books focus on becoming an active reader, using a method like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) annotating strategies, and text book attack skills like identifying the main idea, types of support, purpose, tone, words that signal organizational patterns, bias, drawing conclusions, etc.

The one I’m using this semester in one class is called “Reading Across the Disciplines” by McWhorter. It has only authentic text book sections and chapters. Another, slightly lower level one is Advancing College Reading Skills from Townsend Press. These could only be used by high intermediate level and above ESL students.

I have found that some ESL reading texts seem to just read and test for comprehension without directly teaching the tricks for staying focused when the interest level is low, or how to change reading strategies with different kinds of reading, so I love these books that analyze what, exactly, good readers subconsciously do.


>By Erica Hughes – Tallahassee, Florida

In my opinion giving a participation grade is basically a way to motivate students to speak in class. It’s a way to encourage informal, spontaneous speech and give students “credit” for it.

I have started a system in my more advanced classes where the students receive a page of about 15 or so little squares that say “I participated” on them. The write their names on the squares and cut them up. Then every time we are having a discussion in class, and they make a contribution, they pass up on card. At the end of 1 or 2 weeks, I count the cards and return them to each student.

That is a way for me to quantify and defend the participation grade I give them, but more importantly the student who don’t usually participate, because they don’t see the benefit of making a comment in class, get immediate “credit” for their comments. It can get a bit cumbersome in big classes, and of course there are still a few students who always participate and others who never want to, but I have stuck with it.

>By Dick Tibbets – University of Macau, Macau

A teacher asked: “Did anyone find their background prepared them well for teaching in China – especially for the first time?”

It is the knowledge that is important and organised courses are probably the easiest way to get some of this knowledge. The letters [MA, Phd], well, they’re just for the CV.

If you take a course then you are accepting someone else’s syllabus and, to some extent, someone else’s ideas of how you should use that knowledge. You just have to hope that they know what they are doing. After all, this is what your students have to do. You are their ‘someone else’.

If you design your own course of self study then you need to know which topics will be useful to you. It can work but you are a little more in the dark.

As for my background, yes it’s helped me all along. When I left computer programming all those years ago, the post grad cert ed I took really did help prepare me for the classroom and once I got there a series of courses by Rinvolucri helped even more. The experience I gained over the next 10 years teaching various types and levels of English to learners from some 70 or so countries then fed into my MA and both the experience and the ‘extra’ knowledge from the MA helped when I came to Hong Kong and Macau. I’d say that the experience is the most valuable part but it was those bursts of learning (I won’t call it training as a fair bit was independent) on courses that put the experience into contexts and made it all much more useful. Teaching in this part of the world IS harder than teaching in, say, Spain or Germany. Knowledge based experience was worthwhile for me.

>By George

To accurately test my students, I give them oral exams which are recorded on tape. These exams have two parts. The first part is Q&A covering things we have covered in class. They almost always have a memorized response for the basic questions. I tend to ignore these.

I focus on their responses to the follow-up questions. For example, I’ve told them that we might discuss their grandparents, so I might ask, “Are your grandparents alive?” “How many children did they have?” How many boys and how many girls.? “Do you know your aunt’s and uncles?” “O.K let’s talk about your youngest aunt” Here is where they begin to breakdown because they didn’t think to prepare for a discussion about their youngest aunt.

I’ve also begun ba asking about a favorite middle-school teacher and them focus on the teacher they liked the least. Once I gotten to the real subject I’ll begin with what is the persons name, age, etc. and gradually lead to more complex questions.

Then I start looking for syntactic, grammatical and vocabulary failure. In many cases the exam has ended in 2 or 3 minutes and some have gone as long as 30 or 40 minutes. In all cases I use subjects they are familiar with. Family, School, Friends and Hometowns. If I knew more about sports I would dwell on that. I have been know to ask a student to explain what a mid-fielder, a striker or a goalie does if they play those positions in football or the role of guards, the center or forwards in basketball. I’ve even asked guitar playing students to explain how to play a particular song. In short they give me a guitar lesson.

To test for middle school, determine what is grade appropriate and start from
there. Again, start simple and progress to the complex. At what level do they abandon an answer or the topic entirely. The second part is a short oral reading which incorporates most of the english phonemes. I sometimes give the samples to practice with but they get a new reading for the exam. The must read cold.

Also, I’ve just begun developing a set of reading passages tha will begin at about fifth or sixth grade level for native speakers using Flesch-Kincaide RGL measures and which become progressively more advanced. This way I can determine the level at which they begin to break down, identified by their rate of word abandonment. In the first year I will be mainly concerned with phonetic identification and production. As we progress, stress and intonation will become more of a factor.

Oral exams can be quantified, but I don’t like using them as the basis for a grade. I tell the school that grades shoud be considered as a report of a student’s speaking level and how much they have improved.

In my classes, the only one’s who acutally fail are those who only show up for exams and the rare film. Those who come to class but aren’t there count as absent. Our school weeds them out pretty quick. Last term eight of my students flunked out including two who were pretty good english speakers. Six were expelled for cheating on Chinese teacher’s exams.

>Tony Lee – Shengda College, Zhengzhou, Henan, China

My marking of the first half semester exam last year was a disaster of sorts. Totally inexperienced, I was far more subjective than I should have been but the kids seemed satisfied with their placings. The marks were not a problem because another techer with zero grading experience of any sort scored the whole class between 90 and 100 so to make it fair we had to do the same.

Next exam I used a ‘proper’ grading rubric and slavishly referred to it while listening to each member of the groups of three. It still resulted in a bunched up result – spread of 10%.out of a possible spread of 40%. Changed the rubric again and this last lot of results was just as closely bunched.

I know that you can turn them into any spread you like but that is a bad way of correcting my own testing “incompetance”. My problem is I lack the killer instinct of a practiced examiner I find it impossible to nit-pick to the extent required and then ruthelessly apply the marking scale.

As others have commented — perhaps with oral it does not matter quite so much if the ability to speak is what we are testing because provided the students are given at least a couple of minutes to prepare they all do a pretty good job of speaking (I see them in 3’s and each student has a different topic to talk on and they have had 10 minutes to prepare. After each has spoken I get involved in a general discussion on some safe personal topic and gauge how well they cope).

The problem is I do not really test their ability to cope with a typical staff meeting or questioning from an audience or even a job interview situation. I have had interview sessions in the classroom and the typical result is that neither side has a clue what the other is saying.they are so busy worrying about working out what they are going to say that they have nothing to spare for listening what the other side is saying — a situation many native speakers also find themselves in. No answers from me I’m afraid – just the same old problems.

Our limited experience with failures here and a bit of insider info from the Chinese teachers leads me to the conclusion that there are no real failures, just those who just scrape through.

>By Simon Gill – Olomouc, Czech Republic

At the IATEFL Conference in Edinburgh in 1999, the opening plenary was given by Mike Wallace, who told the story of the origin of the Berlitz method. I may have got the details wrong but it went something like this. Charles Berlitz, who was trilingual, was on the verge of opening his school when he fell seriously ill and had to employ a stand-in teacher, who spoke only English. On his return from his illness he was amazed to discover that the substitute had achieved great success using an English-only method that was very different from the grammar-translation approach Berlitz himself had intended and, being a sharp businessman, took it over and took all the credit too. So essentially the Berlitz Method is, like so many other successful inventions, an accident.

>By Charles Schroen

Here are some thoughts to add to the discussion of ESL students in college, with apologies for length.

More years ago than I care to admit, I started teaching in EFL in the Peace Corps. The last 12 years of my teaching career I have been affiliated with an ESL program that is part of a two-year college. For the last seven of those 12 years I have been teaching full-time in that program. This has included summer teaching every year.

I care a lot about the progress my students make, and in many cases I find that I care more than they do. As a teacher, what should you do in that case? Without internal motivation to be better learners, how far can former ESL students (or any students for that matter) get in higher education in another language and in another culture? Let us not forget that many students we get were not successful in educational institutions (K-12) in their home countries.

What makes us think that they all should succeed in higher education in another country and in another language? What makes us think that the road for them should be smooth and that teachers should make allowances? What makes us think that teaches should care? I don?t know anyone in a two-year college who is not overworked. The more overworked we are the more difficult it is to care about all of the ridiculous things that administrators can come up with that they think everyone should care about, which makes it even more difficult to attend to students.

A few other questions to ponder: Across the U.S., what percentage of students born and raised in the U.S. who take courses in a two-year college ever get a degree? What percentage of the world?s population ever attempts to enroll in higher education in another country and in another language? And of that percentage, what portion does not succeed? These numbers will give us an idea of the enormity of the task that our students face. It is precisely that enormity that will indicate the percentage of success that we might expect.

As teachers, what can we do to be truly of assistance to these students? First and foremost, they need to be independent learners. We can talk about how to learn; we can have them practice so that they show us they can do those things; and we can be the best learner in the room by example. I like the last one because implicit messages are far more profound than explicit ones. Language is our subject, but learning is our discipline. Students who are good learners will succeed; those who are not will struggle. Good learners will persist through the struggle to find that success is born in the struggle. Use language to help them to become acquainted with these principles and they will become learners for life. Their education, like yours, goes on far beyond the walls of any college or university.

Keep learning.

>Martin McMorrow – Massey University, New Zealand

There have been some interest in the historical subjects of Direct Method and BASIC English over the last week or so. A good source for information about both of them is Howatt’s History of ELT. Howatt points out among other things that BASIC stands for “British American Scientific International Commercial” and it’s intended to be a kind of language in its own right, simply using English words and grammar as its raw ingredients in the same way that Zamenhof had earlier boiled down lumps of Latin, chunks of Czech etc into his Esperanto gruel. The way in which Ogden selected the vocabulary items for BASIC brings to mind the approach of Roget’s Thesaurus – though Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy was said to be a major influence. As Howatt describes it, the 850 BASIC words were made up of 150 qualities, 600 things and 100 operations.

In order to stretch this limited lexical stock, Ogden used three main strategies: circumlocution (eg if you can say ‘put a question’, you can get rid of ‘ask’); conversion (lots of the 600 ‘things’ could be used verbally) and combination (phrasal/ prepositional verbs such as get in etc increased the verbal resources exponentially!). Of course, in doing all this stretching, Ogden hugely increased the number of lexical items in BASIC while, strictly speaking, restricting himself to the meagre 850 words. As Howatt neatly puts it “one language learning problem, the number of new words, has been exchanged for another, the multiplicity of meanings that each new word is required to carry” (1984, pp 253-4)

Howatt also points out the weakness of Ogden’s project in practical, sociopolitical terms. BASIC was neither fish nor fowl – neither English, nor not English. There were no native speakers of BASIC English and how would you persuade teachers who could speak ‘proper’ English to ‘break the rules’ in order to speak BASIC (eg by missing off the -s endings, which were ungrammatical in BASIC). (By the way, I think this is also a contemporary issue in relation to EIL/ELF). Howatt uses Malinowski’s notions of ‘context of situation’ and ‘speech community’ (which were developing at the same time as BASIC) as a framework for this critique. According to this perspective, BASIC English was “a lost code looking for a speech community” (1984, p. 255). As such, BASIC English in itself was something of a dead end. In the long term it was Malinowski – through Firth and later Halliday – who had the deeper and more enduring influence on language study and teaching.

That said, one aspect of BASIC English – its strongly visual emphasis – links it to the much more successful Direct Method. One key crossover was the book “English through Pictures” by IA Richards and Christine Gibson – surely one of the most influential and enduring EFL publications – even though, it did seal the breach between Richards – an early champion of BASIC English- and Ogden – its purist originator. In BASIC English, preference was given to qualities and things that could be represented visually – and much the same can be said about the DIRECT METHOD. Whenever we mime in class or point to visual aids, aren’t we walking with our Direct Method dinosaurs? Howatt has some great quotes from Sauveur’s seminal Direct Method work – his 1874 “Introduction”. For instance, “Here is the finger. Look. Here is the forefinger, here is the middle finger, here is the ring-finger, here is the little finger, and here is the thumb. Do you see the finger, madame? Yes you see the finger and I see the finger. Do you see the finger, monsieur? – Yes, I see the finger. – Do you see the forefinger, madame? – Yes, I see the forefinger ….” (Sauveur, 1874, p. 10 as cited in Howatt, 1984, p. 200). I think I’ve done that lesson myself – haven’t we all? In fact, I’m sure I’ve told hundreds of trainee teachers that the first place to look for visual aids is in the mirror. Does this make me a bit of a TEFLosaurus myself – not strictly “Direct” but, at the very least, Direclectic?

About the Direct Method itself, Howatt charts the different stages of its evolution and outstanding success. Howatt explains that the term ‘direct method’ seems not to have been coined by anyone in particular, but to have “emerged (rather like our contemporary ‘Communicative Approach’) as a useful generic label to refer to all methods of language teaching which adopted the monolingual principle as a cornerstone of their beliefs” (1984, pp. 207-8). One interesting fact that I’d forgotten was that, apparently, Berlitz himself never referred to the Direct Method – preferring the term Berlitz method. I suppose the generic nature of the term ‘Direct Method’ ruined it for marketing – brands need ownership and boundaries. If “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” (Weinreich, 1945, p. 13), then perhaps a language teaching Method is an approach with a lawyer and a PR rep!

It must have been the huge success of Berlitz (nearly 200 schools worldwide by 1914), that propelled the term ‘method’ into its lengthy commercial life in ELT. It’s been tacked onto any number of language school names to suggest the uniqueness of the experience on sale within. Judging by the Callan Method, the Schenker Method etc etc, you might assume the world was awash with innovative, unique ways of learning English. Mind you, a similar interpretation of ‘Whoppers’ ‘Big Macs’ etc available on any High Street, might lead you to conclude that we benefit from a rich and varied diet! If only!

Be that as it may, I suspect that the commercial allure of the term ‘Method’ has long since worn off. Marketing loves language to death. Having consumed ‘method’, marketing seems to have switched its affections to ‘solution’ (if the English magazine Private Eye is to be believed – it runs a weekly column on the subject!). Soon, if not already, we can expect to see: MySpeech: a multilevel, multimodal organic language Solution! You read it here first!

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984) A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press (NB an updated second edition is now available) Weinreich, M. (1945). YIVO and the problems of our time. Yivo-bleter 25
(I found this reference at: – which also gives the original Yiddish version: “A sprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot”