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>By Tony Gilbert

Before we came to China, we spent quite a lot of money to buy ESL books in Australia as lesson/teaching resources. Feel like a bit of a fool now! Today we visited the Xin Hua Bookstore in Nanning and found some of the same Cambridge series books for about 15% of the price we paid in Australia. And lots of other books besides. For an investment of A$25 (a quarter of what we spent in Australia) we have quadrupled our ESL bookshelf. So, my advice is don’t bother to bring a lot of ESL books to China, unless you are going to teach in deepest Tibet or somewhere.


>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

At the university where I teach in Beijing, I asked a student in private why he chose to major in English, since he apparently doesn’t enjoy learning English. He said it wasn’t his choice. His score on the English portion of the university entrance exam just happened to be higher than his score on the other sections, so he had to either major in English or not attend university. So even though he’d rather be doing something more math/science related, here he is, stuck in my English class. Similar stories for quite a few others in my classes. At Chinese universities, there’s no changing your major a dozen or more times like I did in the US.

The best solution I’ve come up with so far has been to incorporate the topics these students are interested in into the English class somehow.

Creating a communicative classroom environment is naturally more difficult than staying in lecture mode. It might help to look at it as a choice: You can lecture directly from the textbook if you want, or you can encourage student participation if you want. Any teacher will need some compelling reasons to make the extra effort to elicit student communication.

For some it is a labor of love: we genuinely care about our students and their prospects for the future, and are convinced that our efforts to teach them English will be appreciated somewhere down the line. For some it’s about career: we love the challenge of developing our teaching skills to meet with an extreme environment, providing a modern education without the cushy layer of teaching resources available in the West. Whatever motivates you (and there are more answers than just those two), remind yourself of it when times get tough. And be sure to pat yourself on the back at each minor success along the road…’cause no one else will do it for you.

Try asking the whole class to write down their suggestions for topics they’d like to cover or activities they’d like to do? Sometimes students are too shy to raise their hand or approach you, but will give you their opinion in writing when asked.

Last term, I was constrained to a certain textbook which neither I nor my students really liked (Oral Workshop: Discussion). To give my students some say in what they learned, I allowed them to vote on which chapter we should do the next week. Of course they chose the chapters they thought would be the most interesting. Complaints rarely surfaced, but when they did, I reminded them that they chose that chapter. (One student told me that she hadn’t chosen the chapter; she was in the minority when the vote was taken. I told her to blame her classmates, not me. I’m just an impartial election observer.) Another idea is to have your students give oral presentations about topics of their choice.

>By Ruth McAllister

I was “forced” to use Family Album USA with students at a private language school in Changsha. It was a group of about 50 students ranging in age from 10 to 50, with most of them in the 20-30 age group. They loved the book. So much for taste!?!
What I did with it was tell them about what the topic was and write the key new vocab on the board. They scribbled these down with glee. Oooh, new words to learn!!! (sighhh!) Then I showed them the video. After that I would read it out loud, and the whole crowd would recite it after me. I’d walk around and listen to their pronunciation. Then I’d put them in groups of however many characters in the skit for the day and they’d read it to each other.
We’d then go over said key vocabulary.
For the rest of the 2 hour (with 10 minute break in the middle) lesson, I’d take the topic of the skit of the day and expand upon it. I got them to speak to the whole group as well as in their own groups. I tried to find discussion questions to get them talking in their groups and keep moving about to facilitate. For example, in the wedding, I talked about my own wedding, how there are different weddings for different religious groups, got them contributing about their own weddings and then they talked in their groups about marriage in general. We also had a quick wedding improv skit which was actually quite hilarious.

>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery

One teacher explained his problems:

I however, have no book. No photocopying availability, no overhead, but an ample supply of chalk. And my own head. I love teaching these students, they usually respond to me quite well, I think I do quite a good job, and yet I face the task each weekend of composing next weeks classes…. the Chinese teachers keep telling me all I need to do is talk English to the students, etc).

Yes, yes, yes! I was there last semester. I had to teach three textbook-less classes: Video Conversation, Newspaper and Magazine Reading, and Advanced Writing. When I asked my supervisor what sort of conversation/reading/writing tasks do the students in these classes need to be capable of doing by the end of the term, she looked at me like she had never asked herself that question before.

She told me to just tell the students some interesting things that only native speakers know. Well, I tried to imagine what the students would need/want to learn in those areas, but I ran out of ideas about midterm. And I had had a TEFL course, so taking a course isn’t the answer.

What I needed was a syllabus (in case that is an Americanism, I mean an outline of the topics for study, including a schedule of when each one will be discussed in class). It’s not too late for you to create one. Try listing some general topics (dating, aliens, study habits, the future of China, clothing, health and sickness, tourism).

Plan one for each class period remaining in the semester. And start brainstorming now for interesting ways to present them. For dating, you could have pair up students to role play the worst date ever.

Students could discuss questions like (asking the boys), “what do you look for in a girlfriend?” and (asking the girls), “what do boys look for in a girlfriend?” and see if the answers match. For aliens, you could discuss whether students believe there is life on other planets, and have them draw pictures of what that life would look like, if it exists. Then, without showing their partner the picture, they must explain in English how to draw the alien. Their partner tries to draw a matching picture.

The problem is that my situation doesn’t fit most of the usual teacher textbooks (where it is assumed, for example, that you teach your class all aspects of English in the same course, ie. alternating writing, speaking, reading, grammar and so on).

My advice is, don’t worry about encroaching on the other aspects of English. If it’s easier for you to have the students write something, then swap papers and read each other’s work, and then discuss it, rather than having to pull discussion topics out of thin air, go ahead and include the reading and writing.

Most Chinese students complain that they can read and write far more words than they can say in English; that they can recite far more grammar rules than they can apply correctly when speaking. They need help relating these other things to their oral English, and that can’t happen if reading, writing, and grammar are totally banished from the Oral English classroom.

>By Merton Bland


A few years ago the author was assigned to the prime TESOL institution in southern Vietnam, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. What he found was quite a challenge: an educational system, centrally administrated, mired in traditional practices. The grammar/translation methodology, a legacy of the French, held sway in the classrooms, producing, in spite of six years of English in the secondary schools, a nation of graduates unable to communicate in the target language. Discussions with Vietnamese colleagues, usually trained abroad, resulted in plans for a lecture tour to the major teacher training institutions of Vietnam (including Hanoi, DaNang, Hue, and about a half-dozen others) with a message stressing alternatives to the status quo, and the present format was developed. The author was subsequently invited to speak at institutions of ideological training (Communist Party Cadre) and information diffusion (schools for journalists) previously off-limits to Westerners, as well as the teacher training institutions previously noted.

The Commandments

(1) Do not teach English. Teach something, anything, IN English, using English as a vehicle of communication rather than an object of study. This is sometimes called the content-based curriculum.

(2) Do not teach grammar. Ingesting rules can be counterproductive: We are all familiar with students who are unable to apply rules learned through rote memorization. Instead, the grammar of English is best acquired inductively by the students formulating their own hypotheses. (This reflects Krashen’s acquisition vs. learning.)

(3) Do not teach vocabulary. The schema, the concept pods which constitute the lexigraphical units of language, vary from language to language, even from person to person. No language is a direct translation of any other. Thus, vocabulary must be forged within the target language itself in a manner not unlike that of first language acquisition. To do otherwise is to risk forging the chains which prevent the bifurcation of the native and target languages and forever making your students translate in their heads word for word.

(4) Do not teach pronunciation. There is no longer any standard English. Well over two-thirds of the world’s 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native speakers. Their English is certainly as acceptable as the Received Pronunciation (RP) of a tiny fraction of the British or the Broad Midwestern of Hollywood–as long as their English is comprehensible to the greatest number of persons who do not share that particular accent.

(5) Do not give tests. While testing is well embedded in many parts of the world, scaling is to be preferred to testing. Usually tests only require the regurgitation of knowledge. Scaling, placing people on a scale from beginner to educated native, has much more validity.

(6) Do not use lesson plans. Teach students, not lesson plans. Many teachers come away from their teacher training institutions with a mandated compulsion to spend hours writing lesson plans. Such planning is quite counterproductive since in an actual teaching situation the teacher must be alert to the reactions of the students–stressing pragmatic considerations, putting more time and effort where the lesson needs it and shortening or eliminating parts where the students seem to be in command of the concept being stressed. Yes, the teacher should have a general idea of the objectives of the lesson. Certainly the teacher should have available any materials which will be needed. Most importantly the teacher should leave time after the lesson to reflect on it and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. But the focus of any teaching should be on the students, not on the constraints imposed by any preconceived lesson plan.

(7) Do not use the native language in the classroom: Never, never, never! If our aim is the successful bifurcation of the native and target languages, any use of the native language is by definition counterproductive. Draw a chalkline on the doorsill and proudly use the native language outside the classroom, but create an immersion situation inside.

(8) Do not use textbooks. You know your own students better than any textbook author. Authentic materials are all around you. For example: Record the news from the VOA or the BBC. Videotape CNN or Australian TV. Bring in any expatriate Anglophone in town and have him chat with the students. Have your school subscribe to the “International Herald Tribune” or “Time” or “Newsweek.” Borrow English language videos. If they have subtitles put a book in front of the bottom of the monitor to cover up those subtitles. Buy, with your own money if necessary, paperbacks. After you read them they can be the nucleus of an individualized reading program (each student reads his own book and then reports on it to the class). Have your class keep journals in English, and write their own English to English vocabulary lists. Have the class write their own book.

(9) Do not teach the microskills: reading, writing, speaking, listening. English is one language, indivisible. And English is a living language; one only dissects the dead.

(10) Do not teach. Empower your students to take responsibility for their own learning. This reflects a general trend, especially in North American education, to deemphasize the role of the teacher as the font of all knowledge and provide the students with the means to further their own educative process beyond the classroom. This is called the student-centered classroom (as opposed to the teacher-centered classroom).

Thus Hath Dr. Bland Spoke

On the international plane, a focus on communication is overtaking traditional methodologies. This is reflected in most of the commandments. On the other hand, some of the commandments, i.e. Number 4, were reactions to local controversies. Number 4 was a response to the discussions as to which English represented the standard: British (RP), Midwest American, or even, in the Vietnamese context, Australian English. The answer was none of the above, but rather a Vietinglish comprehensible to the greatest number of non-Vietnamese.
Obviously, no immediate revolution was planned, nor did one occur. The aim, rather, was to present some alternatives and allow them to foment. Someday one of those teachers-in-training will become minister of education, and perhaps he or she will remember Dr. Bland’s seminar and institute some of those reforms.

(Versions of this list have appeared in other publications, including the “WATESOL Journal.”)

Merton L. Bland has worked as a K-12 teacher in the USA; a US foreign service officer in Africa, Asia and Australia; and as an ESL/EFL teacher and teacher trainer in the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe. <>

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

I do not correct every little mistake, and it is not immediately immediate. There are few opportunities for teacher monitored individual speaking – up to the maximum of a whole 3 minutes per person per week when a whole class (32 students) activity is involved.

We have a couple of oral classes of 60 students. Divide that number into 100 minutes!!! The opportunities for leisurely individual appraisal and counselling are aqlmost non-existing — so at the end of each student’s speech I praise it as lavishly as possible and tell the student of ONE major problem and how to go about correcting it.

Reinforcing the importance of active listening by requiring peer appraisal and honest reporting by a randomly selected student seems to help as otherwise the rest of the class just switches off. I agree that to stop at each error would be counterproductive and I was just trying to reinforce the finding that the students do want to be corrected immediately – and I know the keen ones really do mean immediate. Students cannot get discouraged from speaking because they do not have a choice of opting out of a speech.

If it is an impromptu speech and they are obviously stuck then of course I do not allow them to stand there losing face — I will relate cases where experienced actors have a mental blank and go on with the next speaker and give them a chance for more preparation.

We are supplied with texts and sometimes even with the corresponding tapes of such poor quality that they are useless. The students (and I) hate the books involving drill and soon get sick of a semester of ‘argument’ or ‘discussion’ or the provocatively named ‘reproduction’ (which for 10 microseconds led me to believe the subject might be slightly more interesting – until I opened it to the first page — silly me) so we have been very grateful for some of the ideas we get from others.

Over concern with shyness/losing face/self esteem can hold the learning process back. These are not 10 year old kids — they are 19 to 23 year old ADULTS. When I speak in English with some seniors (I have not taught any) who have been learning English for 10 years and find that I am forced to speak at a lower level than I speak to kindergarten kids (I have taught once or twice) back home, I wonder what harm a little losing face can do.

>By Simon Howell – Burleigh Heads Language Centre, Australia

A teacher asked for recommendations for coursebooks available in Japan.

Here are some books that I’ve found useful. I’ve always found it hard to use the same conversation book(s) for majors and non-majors but you can certainly do so if it works best for you.

For Conversation

Non-Majors: Levels of Non-Majors can really vary and are usually lower then English Majors, sometimes abysmally low. I had a lot of success with “Nice Talking To You” (2nd Ed) by Tom Kenny /Linda Woo. It’s a good core textbook but like all texts, it needs to be supplemented to bring it to life. Fortunately, the topics are quite good ones and are easy to supplement with your own materials/stuff from the usual sources.

English Majors: Communication Strategies by David Paul. Published by Thomson Learning. Quite a good book and is easy to supplement with your own materials. I have also used “Nice Talking to You” (same as above) with first year English majors, and with a bit of extra supplementing to adjust it to the level of your class it can also work very well.

Avoid the Nice Talking to You Too (2nd book in the series) at all costs. It is simply not ready to be used with a class.

For Listening

I quite like the Impact Listening series and have used Impact Listening : Book 3 with 2nd year English Majors. I haven’t used Book 2 before but the level is probably ok for 1st years. I also got the students to do listening homework from Randall’s Fantastic Listening Website. It’s an excellent site and the students can select the topics and levels they wish to do. You can find the homework sheets I used to use at here. On their course feedback forms, almost all the students mentioned that they really enjoyed the web homework. You can also put the students in small groups / pairs to chat about the homework at the end or beginning of the class: Which topics did they do? Any new interesting vocabulary? Would they recommend their topic to another student? etc?. It’s a good warmer or ending for the class and you can then easily check who is or isn’t doing their homework.

Sample copies of all the books above are available from the publishers if you don’t have access to a copy right now.

>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 Maria Spelleri, Manatee Community College, FL, USA

I know what I need to teach in a particular semester. If I am lucky, the textbook that was selected for the course (not by me) will cover many of those points and I will have a ready source of useful material for the student. But how can following page after page of a static book developed to appeal to the widest variety of learners adequately serve our ever-changing students and their various needs, interests, and learning styles?

For me, the text is but one classroom tool that serves our course objectives (hopefully). I choose from the text what I want, when I want it, to add to MY specified lesson plan.

I recently had a semester where we tried out a new series of books. They turned out to be very wrong for our students, and in my writing/grammar class, I didn’t use the textbook at all for the complete second half of the course. I am currently using a reading text book that has a nice selection of college-content readings, but I am not fond of the accompanying exercises. No problem. I decide, through my lesson objective, how I want to use the readings and can ignore most of the activities in the book.

We simply cannot let publishers make the decision of how and when to present material to our students. Of course a text book with a lot of useful material is a godsend, but the instructor must determine how to best use it. And concerning lesson planning, this is where we can see its great importance. Maybe if we don’t make lesson plans, we are letting a textbook make it for us.

I have observed many classes at many different levels. Without a doubt, the most engaging were those lessons without a textbook!

There was a certain part of teacher training that I valued highly. Every class we had to teach 20 minute mini-lessons without books or “ESL” materials to a group of ESL students who were taking the classes for free, knowing that student teachers were the instructors.

We could use pictures from magazines and catalogs, the board, things we made (a homemade game board, slips with roles described, etc.), realia objects like food and clothing items, and other little things. We could also use pages that we had created from scratch for dialogs, vocabulary practice, etc., but we didn’t have computers so everything was printed or typed and that constraint limited the paper output!

I learned the importance of dice, a ball, chanting, singing, TPR, and situational role-plays. It is amazing how creative a teacher can become when denied textbooks and computer programs! For people teaching in locations where TESL materials are scarce, I suggest the following depending on the level of your class:

– begin a picture file from magazine and news photos
– now and then buy an English language newspaper and research activities to do with a newspaper (there are dozens)
– jazz up boring drill or recite type activities by throwing a ball around or clapping/marching, etc.
– invest in a teacher resource book that has ideas for oral practice like Klippel’s Keep Talking or Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities
– think role play and small group projects/tasks like creating an advertisement, planning a travel itinerary, etc.
– if you have a digital camera and one computer, great. If not, can you access a video camera and player? If not can you get hold of a cassette player that records? Are disposable cameras affordable? There are all sorts of projects that can be done and that students of all ages love to do if they can hear or see themselves and their classmates in media.

>Barbara Silas, South Seattle Community College, Seattle, WA USA

I use textbooks, but hardly slavishly. I choose a textbook that has a fair amount of stuff related to the focus of the class and I rearrange, add to, and skip things.

A large part of my motivation for having a textbook is affective and cultural. Students like to have a book they can take home with them and work in independently. It also gives them something to hang on to when they can’t come to class (as often happens with my adult, working students with families and myriad obligations.) It gives some measure of security to a lot of students.

In my particular venue where we have many first gen college students as well as students from other educational cultures, it is part of the cultural adaptation to college to be responisible for buying and learning to use a textbook.

There is also the personal work angle. Why should I re-invent the wheel when there is a perfectly good string of activities in a textbook that addresses this or that goal?

No textbook is perfect and most are necessarily general in order to be economically viable. I regard a textbook as just one of many raw materials to be tailored to specific needs within the classroom. They have their places and uses, but if anyone is looking for a textbook to meet all needs, they’re dreaming. Ain’t gonna happen.

I think the trick is to find an adaptable textbook with at least 50% relevant content unchanged. The rest of it you either manipulate or cut altogether.