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Category Archives: methods

R. Michael Medley, Ph.D. – Eastern Mennonite University

I have recently drafted a content-based textbook for English learners that teaches principles and skills for coping with difficult situations in life.  It is called resilience and is based on materials developed by my university’s program of Strategies in Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR).  The materials are premised on the idea that we need to appeal to and stimulate learners’ multiple intelligences.  To this end, I have included some music in almost every chapter of the book (there are 14 chapters).

In a content-based course like this one, it is important to use songs or instrumental music that are thematically related to the course content.  Some of the language may be beyond the range of students’ ability to (re)produce it, but in the context of the course, students can still work on comprehending the music and lyrics, taking them as matters for discussion.

For example, in a chapter that focuses on what trauma is, I have chosen to use a hopeful song, Ben King’s 1961 hit “Stand by Me.”   One interesting thing about this song is its longevity.  Not only was it a theme for the 1986 movie (Stand by Me), it has recently been recorded in bachata style by the US Latin pop singer Prince Royce (2010) and most  movingly by Playing for Change in a version performed by a team 35 musicians in about ten countries on their CD/DVD “Songs Around the World” (2009).

This way of using music seeks to insert several important effects into the classroom beside the fact that there is a simple chorus that is repeated many times, which even beginning level learners could reproduce (practicing the simple imperative “stand by me”).  These other effects include (1) the stimulation of positive, hopeful emotions, which is something language learners need in order to persevere in their long march to proficiency; (2) the theme of solidarity: we can accomplish these challenging tasks of language learning and surviving in a messy world if we stick together or stand by each other; (3) the realization that as language learners we are involved in a multi-cultural endeavor: no matter which cultures we belong to or attempt to bridge, we can harmonize and we can appreciate music in new and refreshing flavors.  As learners are encouraged to reflect on how the various musical styles convey the message, those class members who are already musically inclined will feel that they can make some important contributions to the class discussion.

Those whose musical sensibility is not so strongly developed will have a chance to develop their musical intelligence.


>By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau

I’ve just been reading Letters (Burbidge, Gray, Levy, Rinvolucri) in the resouce Books for Teachers series and it seems to have some rather good ideas. Written in 1996, it tells how mario collected his letters unopened for a few days, brought them into class and gave them to students. He explained that he’d been to busy to open his mail and asked them to open his letters, read, summarise and suggest a course of action. It occasioned much surprise and interest.

There must be something similar you could do with emails, with the advantage that you can secretly vet the contents first and then mark them unread. You’d need to forward them enmass somehow – I wouldn’t want to do it to individuals or to allow access to my account.

A second idea is to show one of those chain letters that promise wealth if you pass it on and misfortune if you don’t. Then students write their own but give as content 3 phrasal verbs and meanings for the receiver to learn before passing on. you could do it with items other than phrasal verbs and you might need to check the explanations but this is a great idea for students to inform each other and can spread outside the class.

Some of the resource series are available in Chinese printed versions. If Letters is available it should be quite cheap. I like it.

>By Mario Rinvolucri

For myself and for the kind of teaching I do with Europeans I can think of nothing more absurd that a text book. I do not take a “dinner conversation manual” with me if you invitee me for a meal.

However, the coursebook is part of capitalist reality just as much as making sure most Westerns live in debt is, so it is here to stay. This is why I wrote HUMANISING YOUR COURSEBOOK which suggest ways of making even the worst coursebook half palatable.

>By Lesley Woodward, MA, M.Ed. – Cleveland State University IELP, Cleveland, OH USA

I have found that occasionally taping my own classroom teaching sessions was invaluable in determining my own amount of teacher talk. It’s hard to overcome both our own and students’ preconceived notions of what is good and bad teaching, and subjective evaluation is a skewed perception. By unobtrusive taping of segments of my classes, I had an objective account of how much teacher talk I actually generated.

In my own teacher training at Teachers College, I was lucky to be exposed to the FOCUS observation system which uses a descriptive observation system rather than the usual prescriptive checklist. I highly recommend the book, “Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching” by John Fanselow. When I first used this system, I was amazed at how consistently I did not practice what I preached. I found that I used the same strategies over and over again, that I talked most of the time, and that I tended to call on the same students. Taping segments of my own classroom teaching coupled with using FOCUS allowed me to expand and explore alternatives in teaching. By using a descriptive system, I could see my teaching in a broader conceptual framework.

I have also found that attending to “wait time” is crucial in reducing teacher talk and this is something that I have had to consciously work on throughout my long teaching career. It’s so tempting to finish student sentences, and assume that we understand what a student is trying to communicate before that student has really had time to complete his or her thought, much less express it. Over the years, I have learned to intuit when a student is thinking of how to say something and when that student is just stumped for an answer. It’s a fine line between waiting and embarrassing a student who just doesn’t know. Over time, I learned how to perceive the difference.

John Fanselow was a wonderful though quite eccentric teacher. His book “Breaking Rules” defies a cover-to-cover reading. You have to sample it and then reflect. Most important, he moved away from the prescriptive observations which were and are so prevalent and introduced a descriptive protocol which urges teachers to move outside their usual mode of teaching … to “break rules.”

Two examples: We came into a large methods class once and sat down and began chatting as usual. The time for class to begin passed. Slowly, we became aware that John was sitting in the rear of the class, watching. He finally spoke, and taught the entire class sitting in the back of the room. Then we talked about how interactions were different if the teacher sits and different if the teacher is not front and center of the room. He also like to put “T’s” on the board. He would put various aspects of pedagogy up on the board in one column, then we would be asked to brainstorm ways in which certain received wisdom was not good depending of variables. Or conversely, how practices which we thought bad could be good in certain situations. He was the ultimate iconoclast.

The last I heard, he was teaching on the Tokyo campus of Teachers College, and then that he retired. I’ll never forget his classes.

For more on John Fanselow, see: ESL MiniConference Online interview with John Fanselow

>By Scott Miles

Some grammar teaching advocates referred to the Norris & Ortega survey of the effectiveness of explicit grammar instruction, quoting the abstract:

“[T]he data indicated that focused L2 instruction results in large target-oriented gains, that explicit types of instruction are more effective than implicit types, and that Focus on Form and Focus on Forms interventions result in equivalent and large effects.”

Krashen has written about this in his Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use book. Some of the main problems:

1. The bulk of the reviewed studies only test declarative or ‘learned’ knowledge (multiple choice questions, find the mistakes, etc.) rather than any measure of procedural use (able to use the grammar in unrehearsed speaking or writing).

We all know that students can be taught for a grammar test. I teach at one of the top universities in Korea and thus my freshman students are among the top 2% in the whole country. They have all aced (or nearly aced) the English portion of the entrance exam which has a grammar component. Yet they cannot use the grammar very well in their speaking or writing. Language teaching isn’t just about test preparation. If our teaching does not affect students’ actual performance, then we haven’t done them much good.

2. The bulk of the studies included in the survey do not have delayed post tests.

Students may remember the instructed grammar for a test, but forget it weeks or months later. Studies with delayed post tests generally show a drop in knowledge and usage, and it is not uncommon to see all gains disappear after a few months. If the knowledge doesn’t stick, then can we say the instruction was that useful?

3. Few comparison groups had anywhere near sufficient comprehensible input.

Some studies compared explicit instruction groups to those that simply had nothing (neither grammar instruction nor sufficient comprehensible input). Others had comparison groups with just a few hours of comprehensible input.

Studies which do not address these issues are simply not that useful in regards to the debate on explicit vs. implicit grammar approaches.

There is just a handful of studies covered in the the Ortega-Norris survey which do not have the problems listed above. Krashen reviews those studies in detail in his book and he makes a fairly strong argument that Norris and Ortega’s conclusions are overstated.

Having followed this current TESL-L online debate over the past few months, I wonder how many people have actually looked at the studies which compare programs with explicit grammar teaching and those which just provide comprehensible input. Grammar teaching (or non-teaching) is a big issue in our field and I think it is worth taking the time to look into it directly rather than just rely on the conclusions of other scholars.

I’d like to post on a few studies (starting with this post) which compare explicit instruction with a comprehension-based learning group. If nothing else, I just want to show that this whole issue is not as cut and dried as some people would like to believe.

The Harley (1989) study which Norris and Ortega include in their review is one of the very few studies which does not have the problems noted above.

Harley compared to groups that were a part of a French immersion program in Canada. The experimental group had 12 hours of work with passe compose and imparfait over 8 weeks. The comparison group simply continued their immersion program with no explicit focus on these grammar items.

Here are the results:

Interview Test:….Pre test..Post test…..Delayed Post test (3 months) Experimental………42% ……57%……………. 63%
Comparison………. 44.5%…. 48%……………. 60%

Considering that 12 hours were spent on 2 grammar forms, and that the questions in the interview specifically cued those grammar forms, it is no surprise that the students would recall their grammar instruction and use it in the interview. Nonetheless, the scores are still not that impressive and with the delayed test the immersion group has closed the gap (there were no statistically significant differences on scores at the delayed test).

Harley (and presumably Norris and Ortega) look at these results as a victory for explicit instruction. I look at this and think that this is not a very good return for 12 hours of valuable class time. Normal classrooms cannot devote 12 hours for just two grammar points and again, the differences between the groups are no longer statistically significant after 3 months. What was really gained? And note that the immersion only group is progressing along fairly well despite not having any explicit instruction.

There were two other tests in Harley’s study as well:

Cloze:………..Pre test..Post test…..Delayed Post test

Again, statistically significant gains that are shown on the immediate post test were lost on the delayed post test, as the comparison group closes the gap simply by continuing their immersion program.

Composition……Pre test..Post test…..Delayed Post test

The students’ writing was rated on a 5 point scale for grammatical accuracy. Neither the post or the delayed post scores showed statistically significant differences between the two groups. Again. the 12 hours of grammar instruction did not deliver much to get excited about.

Furthermore , in the speaking and cloze tests these small gains seem to be disappearing, so where is the support for the idea that the instructed students are at any advantage even in the long run (the often proclaimed idea that explicit grammar instruction helps students attain the form more quickly)?

There is another issue that is often overlooked in these studies. Hours devoted to grammar instruction and practice do little to benefit other areas of language acquisition. Sure, the students in Harley’s study might have picked up a little vocabulary or grammar incidentally while they were focusing on the passe compose and imparfait, but most likely not a whole lot. The question is, what did the comparison group get for that 12 hours of extra input in which they were exposed to much more language? The research results above show that they were slowly but surely developing the target grammar forms despite no explicit instruction, and thus assuredly they were also developing many other grammar forms as well. For vocabulary learning, they most likely received a lot more vocabulary exposure during that 12 hours than the grammar focused group, meaning that their vocabulary was probably developing more effectively as well. And of course, their listening and reading skills were also most likely benefited more from that 12 hours of input in comparison to the grammar group.

So I think one could make a strong case that in the sum total of language acquisition among these two groups, the input only group actually came out well ahead.

Of course, this is just one study and there are others that should be discussed.

Harley, B. 1989. “Functional Grammar in French Immersion: A Classroom Experiment.” Applied Linguistics 10:331-59 Norris, J. & Ortega, L. Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50:3, September 2000, pp. 417-528.

>By Michael Swan

As the leader of a small team working on methods of teaching grammar at the Notker Balbulus Language Institute in Edinburgh, I have been following various contributions to the recent debate with considerable interest. In most respects, they characterise our practice with remarkable accuracy. We do indeed require our students to learn grammar rules by heart; and we not only make them recite the rules in chorus, but are training some of the students to sing them in four-part harmony. Many of the rules we teach were, as they point out, devised by mediaeval monks; we find that these have a rich deep patina which one simply cannot find in today’s rules. In this connection, we have been fortunate in discovering, in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, an unpublished manuscript containing a veritable storehouse of arcane rules relating to Middle English word order which we are currently incorporating into our teaching programmes. Labelling we regard as essential, and any of our students can identify an indefinite past progressive subjunctive determiner at 200 paces in a dim light. We steadfastly refuse to allow our learners access to comprehensible input; an account of some interesting early work using incomprehensible input can be found in the paper ‘The Use of Sensory Deprivation in Foreign Language Teaching (Swan and Walter 1983) in English Language Teaching Journal 36/3. We take very seriously the translation component of ‘grammar-translation’ (sometimes neglected in today’s permissive times), and our students spend a good deal of their time translating English texts not only into their mother tongues, but also into Latin, Sanskrit, Classical Greek and Old Church Slavonic. The one area where they are somewhat ahead of us is in the matter of etching conjugations into our students’ brains, referred to in their latest posting. This is an exciting and promising direction to explore, and we have indeed tried several approaches, using Spanish and Serbian (since English has no conjugations). However, our results have been disappointing and in some cases unfortunate, and we have come to the conclusion that, sadly, this is a technique which will have to wait for advances in neurosurgery for its successful implementation.

Michael Swan is a writer specializing in English language teaching and reference materials. His interests include pedagogic grammar, mother-tongue influence in second language acquisition, and the relationship between applied linguistic theory and classroom language-teaching practice, and he has published a number of articles on these topics. And he has a great sense of humor.

>By Lida Baker – Los Angeles, California, USA

A discussion about the Direct Method takes me back more than 25 years, when I was a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. We were required to study a language we hadn’t learned previously, and I picked French. The text, written by Pucciani and Hamel, followed a grammar syllabus and employed the authors’ version of the Direct Method, which went like this:

Each day the teacher began the class by greeting us and making small talk for a minute or two. (I should point out that every word uttered by the teacher was in French, starting on day 1.) She then presented the day’s teaching focus by embedding the grammar in a question, which she directed at a student in the class. The student would answer the question to the best of his ability, and the teacher would instruct him to write it on the board verbatim. We were not allowed to help or correct what the student wrote on the board. In fact, the question-and-answer process continued while the student was writing. Very quickly we learned to focus on what the teacher was saying, not on what the person at the board was writing.

The teacher would repeat this question-and-answer, write-the-answer-on-the-board sequence five times. Each question would have different vocabulary but the same target structure. When there were five sentences on the board, the questions and answers would stop. The teacher would call on students to read the sentences on the board and state whether they were correct or incorrect. If the sentence was incorrect, the teacher asked the student to correct it. If the student was unable to do so, the teacher called on someone else or corrected the error herself.

After going over the five sentences on the board, we would start a new question-and answer set with a slightly different focus from the one just completed (for example, the target verb might be different).

If this procedure sounds tedious, let me assure you that it was not. Student interest and participation were always very high. I attribute this to a number of factors:

1. The method was highly interactive.

2. Students got instant feedback on whether their sentences were correct or incorrect.

3. Alternating between aural-oral and board work gave students time to rest and reflect on what they were learning.

4. New language was presented in small, manageable chunks.

I recall being frustrated from time to time by the inductive presentation of the grammar. I am a “rule following” type of language learner, and it annoyed me when I couldn’t find the rule. In those cases I would see the teacher after class and she would explain it to me in English.

That summer I traveled to France and, to my astonishment, was able to perform basic operations like ordering food, making a hotel reservation, and asking directions entirely in French. The method really worked. I have used it, along with other teaching techniques, to teach ESL grammar for more than 20 years.

However, I don’t know how useful this version of the direct method will be for those who teach in a place like Japan. My French teachers were able to speak French exclusively because there is enormous overlap between French and English vocabulary and syntax. And of course the two languages have the same writing system.

>By Daniel T. Parker

I had a graduate school professor who taught “Teaching College Writing”, among other (non-TESOL) courses.

He continually reminded us about the “affective triangle”, i.e., the classroom chemistry formed by the mixture of teacher, students, and materials/methodology. His usual point was to remind us not to put too much faith and/or dependence upon a particular textbook… but basically he was saying that the same methods won’t work for different teachers, and different classrooms will have different reactions to the same methods and/or the same teacher. The “disciplinarian” will be effective in some classes, the “mother” in others, the “sarge” in others…

It’s frustrating. But I can’t argue with his conclusions. And I would say, maybe I’m going out on a dangerous limb, but I would say that ANY teacher who says the same text and the same approach works for every class just isn’t paying attention.

He was the first professor I ever heard who scoffed at degrees. He said we needed the documents (“gotta know the secret handshake”) for employment reasons, but he saw teaching as an art, and would say that giving a guy a few art classes and putting a brush in his hand won’t turn him into Picasso.

He wouldn’t advise us to ignore cultural differences, or be careless about methods & materials, or refuse to listen to other teachers… but he would, and did, point out that every classroom we step into, every single day, is a laboratory, and we’re not the cheese or the rats… we’re the maze.

>By Daniel T. Parker, Korea

Knowing or not knowing all the technical mumbo jumbo doesn’t necessarily mean that one will or won’t teach well.

Teaching requires several elements, one of which is a necessary amount of knowledge about the subject taught. How much is necessary depends largely upon the level of the learner. I teach university students in South Korea, and most of my students are in the English Language and Literature Department, and many of them take TESOL courses. One of my colleagues is an enthusiastic teacher and very personable, but can’t explain grammar to writing students and can’t tell the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants to conversation students. I’m not saying she can’t teach! But it does frustrate some of her students; I know this because they come to me.

Earlier this week I had a student ask me a question about “approximants.” I didn’t remember the term, looked in my old linguistic textbook and couldn’t find the term, then looked in her new textbook and found the information; bingo, I was able to craft a satisfactory explanation and offer extra examples.

On the completely other end of the coin, I have taught special courses to people who teach elementary English here in Taegu. Some of them are very good in English, some are fair, some of them can’t carry on a simple conversation about time, clothing, weather, etc. Does this mean they are bad teachers? No, it’s insufficient data to answer the question.

But many of them were fascinated when I started explaining where and how different sounds are made. With all of their conversation classes in college, no one had ever taught them that. It didn’t mean they were able to immediately correct their own pronunciation…. but, one of my students took the time to write me a short note basically saying this: “Before, I could only tell if my student was or wasn’t making the correct sound; now, I can tell them how to make it correctly.”

But remember: if I go into their 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade classrooms and start talking about glottal stops, affricates, transitive verbs or passive voice, I won’t have taught their students a darned thing by the time I’m kicked out.

So here’s my ultimate point: being a good teacher requires more, much more, than knowledge of the subject one teaches. However, a good teacher can and will become a better teacher by learning as much as he or she can about the subject.

>By Tsc Tempest – Tuha Petroleum Foreign Language School, China

The following FAQ addresses some commonly asked [or considered] questions relating to the setup, operation and development of English Salons, English Corners, English -Club, Teahouse, Tea Garden, Lets Talk, etc.

Q: What is an English Salon?

A: An English Salon or Corner (or any other of a myriad combination of names) is an organized activity that allows Non-Native speakers (NNS) and practitioners of English to practice and refine the art of Speaking in English. That is, to provide opportunities for NNS to use and develop their oral English communication skills. From observation English Salons can be loosely categorized into the following

1. Commercial: Run and organized by companies also offering study overseas opportunities;

2. Community Based: Setup and organized by members of the NNS community who have a burning desire to provide English speaking opportunities not offered by commercial or educational providers;

3. Educational: These are setup by Educational institutions to provide speaking opportunities for students so as to improve their English. These vary from voluntary attendance through to compulsory attendance. Where there are foreign teachers (FT) in
the educational institution, attendance by the FT is often a contractual obligation.

4. Other: These types of English Salons either do not fit into the above groups or could be sub-groups, due to the specialized nature of the targeted participants, the duration of operation or the nature of delivery of the activities of the English Salon, e.g.
a. programs targeting oratory practice (master speakers, toastmasters etc.);
b. programs aimed at improving the fluency and speed of language translation (conference speaker language services, etc.);
c. programs for young learners at either primary or pre-school level.

Q: Who attends English Salon?

A: The variety of attendees often directly reflects the management structure of the English Salon and the personal interests of the key organizers. There are English Salons for Junior School students, senior school students vocational school students, university students, private language school participants, Study Abroad Preparation school participants, and general members of the community. Some English salons are exclusively for people belonging to the particular organization responsible for the English salon, others can be open affairs, or pay per use – that is if you can pay you can attend.

Q: What role(s) do Native English Speakers (NES) take on at an English Salon?

A: This depends on the nature of the English Salon and its targeted participation group. It also depends on additional factors which have resulted in an NES attending the English Salon. The following are some common situations that a NES may find themselves in:

1. Guest Lecturer: you are invited to provide a speech, lecture or lead a panel discussion for the English salon;

2. Honored Visitor: you are usually invited off the street to come and take a look. In this case you would be the centre of attention or a key point of interest with many NES wishing to practice their English on you (sic.) This can be fun, tiring, challenging and/or confronting;

3. Friend of the Salon: You were invited once, liked the people and atmosphere, so you decide to go back on a regular basis

4. Contracted Attendee:
a. Some English salons offer FT or NES monetary inducements to attend the English Salon so that the organizers can promote the fact that their salon has access to NES. You may also be required to provide regular programs or targeted teaching activities.
b. Many Education institutions require their FT to attend English Salon as well as provide full organization and program coordination for the salons. In this situation the demands for the English salon can exceed those for regular classes – take note:
this situation is not considered additional teaching by the educational institution but your contractual obligation to be involved in the school community, as such it can be a source of conflict.

5. Host: Sometimes you may find yourself in the position of being asked by the English Salon you have been regularly attending to provide regular hosting duties. In this case, you act as the face or front [person for the salon and struggle in the background to ensure that the coordination and organizational management of the Salon is handled by the NNS committee;

6. Operator: This is what you end up as when the NNS organizational body fails or abandons its duties, leaving it all to you. Or, you decide to go it on your own and run an English Salon as part of your organization’s business activities and services offered to NNS.

Q: Could you sketch out some types of English salons, how do they function?

A: The following are some of the types of speaking opportunities that shape the types of English Salons and the way they function:

1. Free Talk: This kind of English salon is typical of salons where people of many different ages and from different walks of life attend so that they may meet other NNS. This interaction is typical of a cocktail or coffee bar setting and allow participants to mingle and move around to different conversations;

2. Topic Centers: these English Salons usually operate with set discussion topics for participants to examine and develop through round table discussions;

3. Oral Workshops: these salons usually act like additional English language classes with a focus on conversational dialogues, canned dialogue practice, and formalized/ritualized speech act repetition tasks;

4. English Clubs: these are participant driven organizations that work well with students who are given some guidance, mentoring and directions to take responsibility for their own oral language practice and development. From informal conversations with university level speakers, many who actively pursue improvement activities for their language learning also actively participated in school based English Clubs.

5. Seminar, Guest Speaker: these activities revolve around a NES being asked to deliver a lecture or classroom instruction activity. Where this works well is where the seminar or lecture series focuses on the delivery of set topics and allows for some questions towards the end. Where this falls down is where FT are thrown in to a classroom full of bored kids and told to make ¡°it¡± (what ever that is) work.

Q: Where can I find resources and activities for use in my English Salon?

A: Good question, (tell me when you know the answer.) Many of the resources that are available for Debates, discussions hypothetical panel discussions, icebreakers etc., work well in English Salons that are topic driven or Free talk based. Drawing current events in the media out as discussion points are also good ideas. These work well with participants that have a good grasp of English but are of differing levels of Oral production ability. For Junior Schools and lower such activities may be beyond the participants¡¯ ability or maturity level. Tasks that focus on game like activities and develop critical listening skills are possibly more appropriate. Field
trips with assignment activities as well as report presentations may be useful, watching part of a movie then following this up with some Q&A led discussion may also be useful.

Q: What additional problems exist with developing an English Salon for lower level NNS or young learners?

A: Some major issues that need to be managed and factored into such English Salons so that they don’t become problems are:

1. attention span;

2. participant maturity;

3. participant interest; AND

4. degree of homework pressure from other classes – often the participants may see the English Salon as a chance to grab a bit of slack in an otherwise highly demanding task oriented environment.