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Monthly Archives: April 2008

>By Pete Marchetto

This is an idea I’ve come up with; if anyone else wants to follow this as a blueprint then go ahead. I should be interested to know how you get on.

I set up the ‘English Naturally’ idea in the first instance with printed sheets giving a broad outline of the idea for circulation amongst the students; if they email me this is what they get in return:


Two English people once told me how they learned French. They had gone to a college in France and the two of them – sharing a room – decided to try doing EVERYTHING using French and French alone. They only spoke French with each other and with other students who would let them do so. They watched French television and listened to French radio. They only read French books.

They didn’t know much French before they arrived at the college and at first their idea proved a considerable strain. For a few months they fell over their words and their grammar, became frustrated, were tempted to stop altogether and start speaking English again… but they persevered. At the end of that few months they realised – to their surprise – that using French had become perfectly natural for them. They thought in French, spoke French without realising it, had come to enjoy their own favourite French television programmes and reading their favourite French authors – they were using French naturally as part of their daily lives as if it was English.

I know that many students on campus have tried to follow similar ideas with English but failed. That failure, again and again, comes from the fact that too many other students in their classes and dormitories are not willing to persevere with the idea. It’s hard enough to do as it is at first, without trying to do it in a room with everyone else there speaking Chinese!

Although there are easily enough students on campus who are willing to persevere to make the idea work you are all in different departments and don’t know one another. The idea of ‘English Naturally’ is to put you all in contact with each other.

Once you’ve made contact then it’s up to you. You can arrange to meet other members for lunch or dinner in the canteen; meet together of an evening in the square; arrange a football or basketball match; go shopping with one another at weekends; meet one another in the holidays if you live close enough or email and telephone each other; anything you can think of, doing it all with the agreement that, whatever you do, you do it in English. The idea is not for all of you to meet as a group – though that would be good from time to time – but for all of you in the group to know who one another is and to agree that your friendships with one another are to be in English only. You can all make a list of the English language books, videos, tapes, VCDs, magazines etc. that you own so that other members can borrow them, finding things that interest them that they want to see, read or hear. There are dozens of things you can do with other members of ‘English Naturally’; anything, in fact, that you would usually do in Chinese, only doing it in English instead.

That, however, is an important point – to do things in English you would usually do in Chinese. ‘English Naturally’ should use English NATURALLY. Don’t set up speaking competitions, conversations with set topics, study corners or exchange text books; use English to communicate what you WANT to communicate; to read things you WANT to read and watch things you WANT to watch; to meet people when you WANT to meet them to do the things you WANT to do. Use ‘English Naturally’ to use English as you would use Chinese and not to do more work. Use it for fun and fun alone. It will help your studies, of course – tremendously if you do it enough – but don’t think of that while you are doing it; just enjoy it.

‘English Naturally’ should be arranged BY students FOR students. It will be up to all of you to find other people who want to join in and to arrange things for yourselves. If you are dedicated enough to the idea it should work really well but you must be willing to BE dedicated. Start speaking Chinese with ‘English Naturally’ members and the whole thing will fall apart.

For ‘English Naturally’ to work, your commitment is everything. If you have felt the need for an English environment, now is your chance to help create one but you must do it properly and be willing to focus your time and energy on it. Remember, ‘English Naturally’ doesn’t involve more work as such; all it means is you doing things you would naturally do – playing games, going shopping, chatting in the canteen, reading books, listening to the radio, watching VCDs – only in English and not in Chinese.

If you’ve always wanted an English-speaking environment then now is your chance but remember – it’s not for me to create it. It’s for you.


>By Ruth McAllister – Guangzhou, China

One teacher said on working in China: “…the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!”

I think it is also important to not be taken advantage of in China or in any other job anywhere else. For example, if the school suddenly says you MUST teach 10 extra classes per week, it would not be a good idea to go with the flow. Then all subsequent teachers there would be expected to accept sudden huge changes in work load without complaining. Yes, sometimes the Chinese teachers labour under such loads. But there are also heads of dept who get by with a couple of classes a week.

I prefer to think of teaching in China in this way. Be a person with a backbone, not a jellyfish or a brick wall. Barbara Coloroso says this about parenting as well. Bend when need be but show strength when unfairness is evident. Contracts need to be respected by both sides.

>By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui, China

In my first year in China I was really disappointed in how my students (mostly college freshmen) were doing group activities – or not doing them! I was stumped as to how to manage the classroom to achieve anything better. Various people gave lots of suggestions, and I want to say thank you again for all the help.

This semester all my classes are college freshmen – many barely able to say anything. This semester I got the college to get us the Cambridge Skills for Fluency Speaking (2) book, which I’m now using with them. It’s a task/activity book, unlike anything they’ve ever used or done before, and there are lots of group activities in it. I have 7 classes, all of 30 to 35 students. Each class is now divided into 5 groups, on the basis of their exam marks from last semester’s oral classes. Each group has a manager, a secretary, a monitor (responsible for collecting and returning any written work, etc), a timekeeper and a coach. For a couple of weeks this all felt a real uphill struggle, but suddenly they’re getting their heads round this way of working and the classes are working much better. I’m asking groups to do many activities ending up with a presentation to the whole class, which I tape and mark, and which they’re getting better and better at both doing and listening to.

During the activities I can spend a few minutes with each group, and a bit more time with one particular group. But what’s really nice is that I’m able to relate much more to the students as individuals this way – even though there are exactly the same number of students in the classroom. In their small groups, I can relate to them much more personally, and even though it’s only ever for a short time, it seems to have much more effect than when they were either in the whole class group, in pairs, or in changing groups (i.e. different people in a group from week to week). I feel that they’re developing a different sort of working relationship with me now, as well as my getting to know each of them better. This has been an unexpected bonus and helped me greatly to start to get my head around how to teach using group-work as well as using task-based activities as the dominant method.

This experience has also made me think about some of the recent discussion about our various training courses and qualifications (or lack of them). I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. On reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way. I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology – and I do wish I’d got more training, not less.

>By Don YD Chen – Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

I have been working with foreign teachers working in Chinese institutions for many years and have alway been in good terms with them. I, as a Chinese teacher of English, fully understand their situations in this vast land, where the culture is so diverse that one can hardly avoid continuous shocks such culture shocks, food shocks or shocks of whatever one can imagine, in the first few months (or a year). Worse, there are students whose enthusiasm shrinks soon after they discover that foreign teachers are not good at teaching them ‘to pass exams’.

>By Leslie Sirag/R.L.”Seth” Watkins – Olympia, WA, USA

The first and most important thing we learned about China in our first year of teaching there is that everything we thought we knew was wrong. I don’t think anything can really prepare you–the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!

>By Karen Stanley – Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

I work with students teaching them elision on a regular basis right from the very beginning. Most listening-speaking books and pronunciation books include lessons on at least recognizing elided sounds starting with the lowest levels. It is possible to introduce it in an organized way, focusing on different parts of the whole system of elision. With the exercises I do, I often end up commenting on a mix of different aspects of pronunciation even though the specific lesson itself may have focused on just one or two.

One important aspect is that stress and intonation on both a sentence and word level are very important in English to being comprehensible, and if students elide their words just as ALL native speakers do ALL the time, we understand them better. Elided speech is not “slang” – it is a *regular* feature of all spoken English, although I’ve had native speakers tell me “I don’t do that” just before doing it in their own speech.

I have found that students who have difficulty with final consonants, often because of coming from a language with a CV (consonant-vowel) syllable structure, become much more comprehensible when they use elided speech because much of English, when it is spoken, actually moves into a CV structure. That is, final consonants are often pronounced with the beginnings of the next word.

Something very important for Chinese speakers, though, is to recognize a couple of things about the length of vowel sounds; this is related to some degree to elision:

(1) vowel sounds in stressed syllables get more time than those in unstressed syllables – Chinese speakers generally want to give all vowel sounds the same amount of time, rendering their speech *much* less comprehensible, and

(2) a voiced consonant lengthens the time given to the vowel before it. Often, in fact, we don’t pronounce the final consonant (it’s an “unreleased” consonant, similar to a glottal stop, especially before a word that starts with a consonant), and our knowledge of whether someone said “had” or “hat” comes not from /t/ or /d/ but from how much time the ‘a’ gets.

One book (now out in a new edition, which I haven’t seen) which presents the sounds from at least a recognition aspect is “Whaddaya say” by Nina Weinstein. However, in the first edition, although she has students learn elided forms for recognition, she tells students (more or less) to use citation (dictionary) pronunciation, which I disagree with. None of us actually pronounce one word separately from the next when we are speaking (try really doing that some time if you disagree). So, I think telling students to use citation form actually *decreases* students’ comprehensibility. However, I agree that elision needs to be explained in an organized way, because getting it wrong is just as bad as getting any other aspect of pronunciation wrong.

Blurb from the book:
“Whaddya gonna git? I dunno. Wanna go fer a soda? Is this English? You bet it is–this is what English often sounds like in everyday life–and now students can understand it, too through this user-friendly listening program! The 30 humorously illustrated, workbook-size units tackle the most common reduced forms such as wanna, gonna, and gotta. Each chapter opens with a conversation (dialogue) on a “hip” topic from the Internet to bungee jumping. Students listen to the conversation spoken with careful, slow pronunciation. They contrast this pronunciation with the same segment spoken with relaxed, fast speech that uses target reduced forms. All scripts are in the book for optional “following along.” After the conversation, students complete comprehension questions and a translation exercise. They then expand their practice by listening to a continued segment of the conversation, doing a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, and working in small groups to discuss final questions. Ten review tests appear at the back of the book and at the end of the audio program.”

>By Joseph Lee

There is an old word board game called Probe, made by Parker Brothers. I don’t know if it is available in stores now. The game is for max of four players, eight if two sets are used. Each player has a stripboard of 12 spaces. Using alphabets on cards, each player forms a word and puts them in the right order hidden (upside down) on the strip. Each space has a different number of points. The players then try to guess the others’ words in turn. Each time a letter is guessed right, the guessing player would get the number of points of the space of the letter. That letter will stay exposed. The player who guesses correctly the word gets a lot of points. I came across this game not too long ago and have not used in any ESL context, so I don’t know how useful it is. But I would think it might be fun to give it a try.

>By E. Snader

My students, sophomore English majors, enjoy TABOO. We make the rules fit the level they are at. If they are very low, they use the words provided on the card. In a class, we divide the group into three teams and become competitive. In my home, as many students as want to can join our circle and participate. The fun is in learning new words, not in keeping score for them.

The UNGAME is another card game I use sometimes when they run out of topics to talk about.

In smaller groups or with partners , SCATTERGORIES can be lots of fun.

I have 180 students and only teach them every other week. I have two afternnoons a week when they can come to my home to play games, talk, or ask questions. This is often a fun time to play word games and develop language skills in a small group.

>By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, China

Lots of us are trying to develop tests appropriate for the situations we’re teaching in. One document I’d recommend, because I’ve found it enormously helpful, is the Council of Europe Framework, which is on the Internet, as a downloadable pdf file (for which you need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your machine). I like the document for several reasons.

The work behind it is the work of a large number of experts across Europe, who’ve developed one framework to cover the teaching (and testing) of any of the languages taught and used in Europe – which of course includes a variety of non-European languages. In other words, the whole thing is language independent. I understand it to be very much a reflection of the most up to date understanding we have of measuring language performance. The particular document in question is the latest version, the result of many revisions.

The document addresses the fundamental questions in all this, and looks at every dimension conceivable – so I can use it as a basis for testing speaking, listening, reading, anything. It looks at things on general levels and on detailed specific levels – so you can home in on the level that is relevant for you at the moment.

Because this framework is as comprehensive as it is, it lets me think up a variety of activities for the form of my tests, activities that reflect the students experiences and what they’ve done in a course. But at the same time it’s kept me very much on track, enabling me to see clearly what level our target it.

Because it’s not language-specific, you can test yourself (there’s one section on self-testing) for your Chinese to see how this sort of approach works.

Someone also commented about examiners’ ability not to be swayed – well, I think what allows me to be more objective is using a number of scales and criteria when I test. For example, this semester my college end-of-first-year students will get some marks for pronunciation (because we’ve done quite a bit of pronunciation work on their Oral English classes), some marks for fluency, some marks for grammar, some marks for vocabulary/lexis and some marks for coherence.

I’m also thinking about including some marks for how they deal with problems – repair work, asking for help, paraphrasing, miming, using fillers to gain thinking time and to fill a silence, and the suchlike – what’s called strategic competence. My criteria for vocab/lexis and grammar will not be whether they demonstrate use of anything in particular, but in how effective they are at communicating successfully -do their errors interfere with communication, or hinder it, or render it impossible! This is because I teach college English majors – I think testing for specific aspects of these dimensions is the responsibility of other teachers in other classes. but at the same time, my students do realise that I consider grammar and lexis to be seriously important.

As regards a quick test, my experience, and the experience of other testing large numbers quickly for summer schools (in UK language schools), is that in an informal chat of around 5 minutes, grading only on a 5 point scale (with very easy to understand scoring 5) is a remarkably effective tool in the hands of a native speaker. Even on the most mundane of topics (your home town, your family), it sorts the lower from the higher from the in betweens. I did this at the beginning of this year with my 225 new students, and on subsequent reflection, having taught them now for 2 semesters, remarkably few of my initial assessments were wrong, and none were way off.

What’s interesting is looking back at their subsequent development! The value for me is how much respect I have for the students who got a low rating at the beginning who would only now get a middle rating – but wow, what progress! In each band, I can see students who have really made big efforts and made progress, and I can also see students who’ve made almost no progress. Of those, a small number are not interested in the effort it entails (basketball etc is more important), but I also have one or two who I realise are making efforts but little progress. I think that initial testing and placement has really helped me, and I plan to do it for future Oral English classes. One thing I did was use the test results to make groups according to level, and that’s been very successful as well.

>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 by asking about a favorite middle-school teacher and then focus on the teacher they liked the least. Once I get to the real subject I’ll begin with what is the person’s name, age etc. and gradually lead to more complex questions. Then I start looking for syntactic, grammar and vocabulary failure. In many cases the exam ends 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 known 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. They must read cold.

Also, I’ve just begun developing a set of reading passages that will begin at about fifth or sixth grade level for native speakers using Flesch-Kincaid 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 reproduction. As we progress, stress and intonation will become more of a factor.

I’ve not seen the CET tests, so I can’t comment on those. Oral exams can be quantified, but I don’t like using them as the basis for a grade. I tell the school that grades should 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 actually 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.