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Category Archives: writing

>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 Chuck in China

I was helping a teacher who was grading some papers she was not sure about. She gave me the two papers and I quickly did a Google search and located both papers on the Web. She was shocked at how quickly I sniffed out the plagiarism. So she went back through all of her papers and all night she has been coming to my room and dropping off papers. Not all of them, just the ones that she, in her heightened state of awareness, found suspect.

All but one I found to be taken from the web. I found them all easily through Google. Just pick out an uncommon phrase from the paper and run it through Google and it pops up. Interestingly, all of the papers that were used came from various Chinese websites “dedicated” to English learning.

I used this method this semester when I suspected quite a few essays in my Western Lit class. I quickly found 6 plagiarists. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

The quick lessons for those teaching substantive courses here is:

1. Be careful in assigning essay assignments. Don’t pick a broad topic (as my colleague did) such as: “Write a persuasive essay on an important subject” or (as I did the first time I made this mistake) “Choose one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, analyze it, and tell me why it appeals to you”. Their are thousands of these essays floating around on the Internet on the Chinese websites alone (as a quick search of Google will show). The next time I chose an essay topic, I wanted to use O. Henry. But I first did a Google search to see which of his stories had the least number of references on the Web. I certainly wasn’t going to use “Cop and the Anthem” (which all Chinese students know by heart anyway).

2. Use Google to check the originality of any essays you assign. It takes less than a minute to check each paper. You may be surprised how quick and how many plagiarists you find.

3. In my writing classes, I have decidedly swung away from giving take-home essays as assignments. Now, I give writing assignments in class to be completed in class. Apart from the plagiarism issue, it hones the students’ skills in actually writing under some kind of immediate pressure. It forces them to produce good English on the spot. Also, as Chinese students who are forced to deal with the exam system here (CET, TEM, PET), a writing component is a part of all those exams so giving them time pressure to perform will help them in the short run, too.

Anyway, that’s how I spent the first night of my summer vacation – tracking down plagiarism for a fellow colleague and, (I hope) imparting some useful advice for those who are new to the game here.

>From Mark Richards – James Lyng Adult Education Centre, Montreal, Canada

Dr. Sid Butler wrote an excellent book called “LifeWriting” which uses stimulating ideas to inspire students to write about their own experiences. Here’s one example.

Students brainstorm lists of their “first times”: first time I drove a car, first day in the army, first time I kissed a girl, first time I met my wife/husband, first time I saw my baby, first day in my new country, first day of school, first day of work, first time on an airplane, etc.

They then pick one which inspires them and they make a stick man drawing depicting this experience. Next they get together in groups and discuss their drawings. (As corny as this may seem, I’ve never had a group that didn’t enjoy talking about their pictures, especially after I’d modeled an example on the blackboard). Other students can ask questions which often provoke more memories of this first-time situation.

Students frequently request assistance from the teacher on how to describe the situation or to express an idea. The last step is that the students sit down to write. Because they have been discussing their anecdote and reflecting on the experience, the ideas and the vocabulary come more easily. A simple way to increase the speaking practice is to put students into groups of three or four and after each student has had five minutes or so to recount their narration you have students rotate to a different group and start over again. In my experience, the more times students retell their stories the easier it is when they sit down to write.

Another suggestion from the book which I have used successfully for brainstorming ideas is “My Favorite Place”. This activity also lends itself to the stick man drawing approach. Over the years, I have read some amazing narratives from even intermediate students.

The book, LifeWriting, is full of ideas like this. I have used it successfully in intermediate to advanced ESL classes in Quebec C.E.G.E.P.’s (middle college). Students are motivated because the topics are interesting and they are about the students’ own life experiences.

In 25 years of teaching, Dr. Butler’s workshop on “LifeWriting” was the most interesting I ever attended and that was almost 20 years ago.

>Self-correction, except for typos or some “absent-minded” errors, is very difficult for students because if they knew it was wrong they wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Peer-correction isn’t fun and it is difficult for students to fully trust their partner’s evaluation. The question that puzzles many teachers is what is the best way to help students to improve in areas where they make a lot of mistakes?

The obvious answer is teacher-correction. But is teacher-correction effective? Recent research shows that students do not make effective use of teacher-correction. The teacher would like to imagine the student takes his corrected paper to a quite place, sits down and pulls out a dictionary and grammar book and carefully goes over the corrections. But in fact, most students only check to see how much “red” is on the paper and then file it away in their book bag never to be looked at again. Much of the teacher’s laborious work of careful correction is actually time wasted.

If self-correction, peer-correction and teacher-correction are not effective, then what is the best way to involve the student in the writing process in a corrective way? How can the student be put in a position to notice grammar or writing in a way that interacts with his previous knowledge and develops a deeper and clearer grasp of English?

I have been doing research in a new method I developed at a university and at multinational businesses where I taught managers and businessmen. I call it Teamwriting. It helps students to benefit from peers, helps students to learn not only from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others and makes the most economical and efficient use of the students’ and the teacher’s time.

I divide the blackboard space into vertical sections large enough to allow someone to stand in front of one section and large enough to contain the writing task (about one-meter wide). Then I divide the class into pairs or teams, assigning each set of students to a part of the board.

The writing tasks are everything from brainstorming a subject to writing a paragraph to writing an essay (write small). This works quite well with a class of about 20 but I’ve only been able to do it with a class of 40 when we had blackboards on two walls of the classroom.

Sometimes each group gets a different topic to work on or sometimes it is the same and they compete with the other groups. I get the whole class out of their seats and up to the board. Usually one student will take up the chalk while the rest of the team (from one to three others) offers suggestions and corrections during the writing process. I find this gets the students intimately involved with the language process and able to benefit from the help of some of their classmates – thus the peer-learning factor.

After the writing is done, usually terminated by a set period of time, I will examine each writing sample, one-by-one, with the entire class looking on. First, I will ask the class to offer corrections. The class really focuses on this activity. You can see every eye examining the sample trying to see if it is correct or not. Some speak up. Others may have ideas about the writing even though they may not voice them. But they’re all involved. Then I will offer my corrections, if any.

Some of my classrooms are equipped with AV equipment, essentially a video camera and projector, which allow the projection of books or papers. If the classroom has this sort of equipment the students do not need to write at the blackboard but can do their teamwriting on a piece of paper that the teacher can project and correct before the class.

Teamwriting seems to be more effective than personally correcting individual writings or conferencing with students, and especially so when considering the economy of time. It allows every student to test their ideas about the language, it enables immediate feedback and is a quick, easy and engaging way to “learn from the mistakes of others”.

>By Dick Tibbets – Macau University, Macau

It’s quite possible to use humour in language learning with Chinese students but you have to make sure the students have a key. Nothing is more humiliating for them than to have to have the joke explained.

A lot of UK humour depends on wordplay and for learners who have been taught to view English as a very referential language, this is difficult to grasp but I work on representational language, language that engages the imagination by making sure my everyday interaction with students covers this area.

Here’s a humour lesson that uses absurdity of situation rather than wordplay and worked well with an advanced class. I used Monty Python’s ‘Thomas Hardy begins his new novel, done as a sporting commentary’. (and he’s strolling out to his desk now, pen held lightly but firmly in his right hand … and it’s the first word and it’s THE, T H E, and over to you Dennis. Dennis: Well he’s running true to form, in the past he’s had 7 THEs, 2 As …) from memory but you get the idea.

They listened and read the script and although they’ve not actually read Hardy they knew of him. They creased – they loved the way it put serious literature down. Then we looked at how the language in this genre works, when present simple is used (not as often as one might think), how the speaker works in real time, the repetition to fill time, the introduction of the expert etc.

Then they took a romantic encounter from any work of English literature they knew and re-wrote it as a sports commentary. I found a lot of attention to detail and a desire to really get it right. Some spent time watching TV sport to try and get a feel for the thing.

Some time I will try Monty Python’s ‘Tonight I’m going to talk about word association football …” I’ll give the text again but layer it so that they can see how the speaker slips from one collocation to another. Then they can try and do something similar, perhaps by writing sentences and challenging a partner to slip a collocation in.

>By YD Chen

I am a Chinese teacher of English and I have taught English as a foreign language at high school, a teacher’s college and currently at a technology college.

Traditionally, Chinese students tend to consider their teachers the main source of learning, which, to a great extent, results from the philosophical foundation for education in China laid by Confucius, one of the greatest thinkers in ancient China. Even today, no one can deny his unparalleled contribution to Chinese education. Many of his wise sayings and maxims still govern the behaviour of learners in China.

Take TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) for example, students are still accustomed to speech dominated education by a teacher-centred, book-centred, grammar-translation method and an emphasis on rote memory. There is little student initiative and, if any at all, little student-student interaction.

Teachers who are keen on spoonfeeding their students generally receive higher appreciation than teachers who are not. Any attempt from a teacher for simulated interactions such as games, roleplays, talk-based communicative activities, i.e., pair/ group/team work, risks resistance or even resentment from the students. The students tend to associate games and communicative activities in class with entertainment and, exclusively and accordingly, are skeptical of the use of games as
learning tools.

To make things worse, there are students who may go so far as to distinguish “good teachers” from “bad ones” solely by how many pages they can cover in their notebooks. Teachers who advocate communicative approach to teaching English are likely, though unfairly, to be considered lazy or irresponsible by some students.

On the other hand, a fairly large number of Chinese teachers of English play a crucial part in the current situation of TEFL. Although China has been on the way of opening to the outside world and many foreign experts in English teaching are increasingly available, many of these newly-arrived teachers are engaged in training Chinese foreign language teachers at the tertiary level of Chinese technology specialists.

The bulk of the English teaching is still conducted by Chinese teachers, mostly trained in a traditional way, the majority of whom have never been outside of China or talked to a native speaker. Owing to a lack of English proficiency themselves, some Chinese teachers find it a painful step to adjust to different teaching techniques and, therefore, are usually unprepared when difficulties crop up in the course of teaching.

Consequently, they often give up and resort to using outdated methods in the work. Some Chinese teachers are concerned about being unable to answer spontaneously questions about English, sociolinguistics, or culture as they arise from interactions in the classroom. It is not rare to hear teachers complain: “I can only teach English for the sake of teaching. If I am bombarded with more explanations on language and cultural differences, I may be at a loss.”

Last but not the least, the current CET-4/6 (College English Test Band 4/6), started some ten years ago, has led students to a false belief that written English is more important than spoken English. As a result, it is not unusual to see a holder of band 4/6 certificate very weak in spoken English, so much so that he/she often fails to speak a complete sentence. The two examples given at the beginning provide food
for thoughts, don’t they?

>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. <>

>By Frank Holes, Jr.

Much has been said and written lately about providing students with choices. I’m all for any methods which will improve student involvement in class, giving them ownership in their learning. There are many ways to give students choices, options, or just to provide random results and change up the monotony. This article will discuss how to use random results in typical class situations.

One technique I use is drawing from a hat (or mug, box, basket, or other container). You can choose anything to put in the hat, and decide if you or the students will do the drawing. You can draw, or let your students pick. I try to keep the ‘hat’ above the chooser’s head so there is no possible way to cheat on the draw.

In the hat I like to use different colored poker chips: white, red, and blue. We will use these for many applications, or at least any that involve three different outcomes. When grading freewrites, for example, drawing a blue chip means I take an immediate grade on the assignment.

A white chip means “thank you for writing today”, but we aren’t going to grade it, just file the writing into your folder. A red chip indicates I’ll collect the papers, read over them, grade them, and select a few to write comments upon. By drawing a chip, the students don’t know if the assignment will be graded or not, so they must do their best. However, for the teacher, the students are writing more but you don’t have to grade every paper!

We will also use the chips for minor homework assignments. Same idea – white is a no grade, blue goes immediately to the grade book. But on red chips, I’ll allow a minute or two to fix mistakes before I collect them. It depends on the situation. It’s that simple. And the students never know if the assignment will be graded or not, so they have to do their best just in case. Another technique is to use strips of paper in a coffee mug for completely random choices. This is great for games like charades where students draw random words, topics, or choices. This could be used to randomly discuss class topics or answer questions.

I like to use this for choosing project topics. Put slips of paper numbered 1 through however many students are in the class. Fold the slips and then have students draw their own place in the waiting line. Whoever has the slip #1 gets first choice of topics, #2 chooses second, and so forth. No one can claim a biased order of selection! This is great for research paper topics, where you don’t want students choosing the same topics. We will also use small slips of colored paper to form random groups of students. If I want four different groups, figure how many students you want in each group and tear that many small slips of colored construction paper. Do this for each group, using different colors. I find this is a good use for scraps of paper left over after an art project (the thick paper holds up better). Then go around the room and let the students ‘choose’ their group. Collect the slips back after recording the groups & names so you can re-use the slips again.

You could use all sorts of everyday items to get random choices. Flip a coin in a two-choice situation. A die or pair of dice can give you even more choices. You could even use a deck of playing cards.

To randomly call upon students, we utilize note cards filled out with student names and personal information. At the beginning of the year, students write their name, parents’ contact info, text book numbers, hobbies/interests, and other information on a regular 3 x 5 index card. I then collect these and pull them out, shuffle, and select a random card (with the student’s name on it.) Voila! Random selection
of students.

And if you want to ensure you call upon everyone equally, just don’t shuffle the cards, and place the used card at the back of he deck. You can cycle through the card deck over and over, ensuring you’re calling upon every student equally.

Cards, dice, coins, poker chips and simple slips of paper can be easily used to make random selections in class. We’d love to hear any other ‘random acts’ ideas and techniques you may have. We’ll add them to this article and post them on our website with credit to you!

Find Frank Holes, Jr.’s website at:

>By Daniel T. Parker – Keimyung University, Taegu, South Korea

A teacher asks about the difference between academic writing and journalistic writing.

Aha, I finally get to put my 14 years of journalism to some good use.

A major difference is the writing style. Academic English is much more formal and structured, with paragraphs that rely upon topic sentences and supporting sentences. In journalism, a paragraph is often only one sentence (this is to keep the paragraph from looking too long when written in column style for newspapers).

The level of diction is different. Academic English, especially on the collegiate level, asks for a more formal level of diction. Journalism, however, must appeal to the public. Here’s a depressing note — journalists in America are often trained to write to the 4th-grade level of education as some adults are not so literate. In other words, keep your words as simple as possible.

Another difference is the use of commas. Traditionally, comma usage in newspapers, especially, was kept to a minimum, for a comma, after all, is another character that takes up space — and that is the prime consideration in journalism, to pack as much information in as little space as possible.

Journalists are trained to write in the “inverted pyramid” style. Without going into painful detail, this basically means that the most important and interesting details are crammed into the top of the article. This is for two purposes; first, the realization that your reader will probably NOT read all of your article before drifting to another story (unlike the academic reader, who is typically expected to finish the essay) and also because the editor may come along and decide to trim your story, and the old (pre-PC) days, it was easier to trim a story by simply lopping off the last few paragraphs.

This causes the idea of the “lead” or “lede” paragraph, where the rule of thumb (for straight news reporting, anyway) is to provide the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and/or HOW information in the first sentence (which is why these are often referred to as the reporters’ questions).

Finally, I’d like to point out that there are differences between journalistic areas, for example, a feature story writer or editorial writer can take more liberty than a “straight” news reporter, and a sports writer will typically use more hyperbole (inflated language) than anyone else in the newsroom (“The upstart Diamondbacks stunned the aging Yankees…”) These differences are problems for composition teachers in American colleges, for American college freshmen are usually much more familiar with journalistic writing than academic essays, and it’s sometimes difficult to convince them that what is “proper” for one audience is not for another.

As to the idea about words being left out of headlines, yes, the rule of thumb is to avoid use of the “be” verb or its variants.

I’ve seen many ESL/EFL reading textbooks that include or focus upon journalistic readings. I think it’s very helpful for reading purposes, but, again, for writing purposes, the teacher has to be careful, especially in the area of support sentences for paragraphs.

Hope this helps. In addition to teaching conversation and (academic) composition at Keimyung University in Taegu, South Korea, I’m also assuming the role of English advisor for the university’s English language newsmagazine, “The Gazette.”

>By Karen Stanley

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

EMail Journal: Possible Topics

1. Write about something you remember from your childhood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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