Saturday, October 17, 2009

Student book discussion group

By Ken Smith - Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Every Tuesday night ("Tuesday's with Mr.Smith"?) at the college I teach at in southern Taiwan a group of students called "Book Travelers" gets together for a group discussion about books.

It is based on Mark Furr's work with Reading Circles, but I've also added elements from the Robin Williams film "Dead Poet's Society".

Although we don't use graded readers with this group, over the years we have discussed books including classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The Catcher in the Rye as well as more modern fiction including books by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, Veronika Decides to Die), Lois Lowry (The Giver, Gathering Blue), Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Mitch Albom (Tuesday's with Morrie, For One More Day) and others like Into the Wild (John Krakauer), The Shack (William P. Young), and Dan Millman's Way of the Peaceful Warrior.

When available I show a film version of the book we just finished reading.

Right now the group is reading "I Am the Messenger" by Markus Zusak.

Depending on the book, students are asked to read good chunks of reading (usually 40-50 pages a week) and come to meetings prepared with materials to share based on roles such as Summarizer, Word Master, Passage Person, Culture Collector, and Connector (we've added others too!) which we choose prior to each meeting. Usually the group reads two books a semester, one I choose and one the group selects.

It's a student-centered group (although with input and guidance from the teacher at each meeting) using the roles that are presented in "Bookworms Club Gold's" series.

The title of the book that includes these roles (the last few pages of the book) is called Stories for Reading Circles edited by Mark Furr. ISBN: 9780194720021

Monday, September 14, 2009

Getting students excited about books

By Warren Ediger - California, USA

"One of my early mentors told me that leadership is "knowing what needs to be done, knowing why that is important, and knowing how to bring the appropriate resources to bear on the situation at hand."

Helping my adult ESL students in the classroom and online tutoring students (mostly professionals) understand "why" has paid rich dividends.

Trelease, Krashen, and others have referred to the "home run" book - that book that is so engaging that it triggers the beginning of the reading habit. Your involvement with the students, to help them find that book (maybe not on the first try), may also contribute to accomplishing the goal you seek. See here -

The "home run" phenomenon is one reason I tend to use popular fiction rather than graded readers. It's easy enough to help an adult student learn what is best for him/her and the quality of the writing is often better. There is a reason it's called "popular" fiction."

I live in La Habra (southern), California. I am no longer doing any classroom teaching. My time is divided between writing materials for international ELls who are working independently to improve their English and Internet-based tutoring, primarily with professionals and students preparing for the TOEFL. I will also be branching into speaking/presenting and, possibly, consultation.

Read more from Warren Ediger at

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Educational Disengagement: Undermining Academic Quality at a Chinese University

By Dick Tibbets - University of Macau, Macau, China

This is a fascinating study and so much rings true that I go along with all that I've managed to read so far.

On the Chinese side there is the view of education as the ingesting of information and lack of emphasis on the synthesis of information to create and advance. There is the xenophobia that assists the belief that one can teach a neutral English that allows learners to absorb information but not evaluate any of the values and attitudes associated with that information. There is the view of teaching as a job that is done between certain times with little thought of being more than a figurehead in front of the class and there is the inability of many teachers, in spite of official statements of aims, to move beyond the stage of reading the textbook to their students - pure information transmission that makes no attempt to involve learners and, when students already have the textbook, makes no attempt to come to terms with a new reality. This isn't a problem of Chinese teachers alone; I've come across plenty of Western presenters at conferences who read from the handouts they have given their audience while displaying the same words with Powerpoint on the screen behind them. But experience in Chinese schools and colleges lead me to believe that "teacher holds the book" is a very common scene in the classroom.

The article also brings to the fore the inability of the Chinese administration to evaluate teaching except in terms that have little to do with learning and more to do with time keeping. This causes problems with foreign teachers especially because they tend to fall outside the criteria used by administrators to judge teachers and there is in consequence a bewilderment among the Chinese when it turns out that inadequate teachers have been employed but the administration is unsure even how to judge their inadequacy. The reaction described in the article is typically xenophobic - a shrug of the shoulders
followed by "well, they aren't Chinese".

I read the potted descriptions of some foreign teachers. I may have missed some but of those I read none had much in the way of TEFL qualifications or TEFL experience. The teachers described had various degrees of enthusiasm for their work and various amounts of previous classroom experience but, in the absence of any real syllabus or teaching aims, they lacked the knowledge to design and implement effective courses. I'd say the university desperately needed experienced TEFL teachers with post graduate qualifications both theoretical and practical. A team with a few TEFL MAs and DELTAS coupled with at least 10 years solid TEFL experience for each member might be able to put togetehr an effective program, though the administration might well then swipe it aside as the administration would be unable to comprehend such a program.

I will read the whole thing more carefully because I want to find signs for hope for the future. Many of the views and attitudes quoted in the article were identical to those expressed by Chinese emperors, diplomats and officials over the last three or four centuries and I believe it is these attitudes that changed China from a from an innovative civilisation with a technology well in advance of the West, a country that came within a whisker of starting an industrial revolution centuries before Britain and Europe, into a country where thinking and change are seen as risky occupations. There must be a way forward but so often I see Chinese in authority struggling to keep the status quo and effectively managing to turn the future into the past.

The 'home page' for the complete text can be found at:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Common European Framework for testing and teaching

By Jennifer Wallace
Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma'anshan, China

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

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

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

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

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

Someone also commented about examiners' ability not to be swayed - well, I think what allows me to be more objective is using a number of scales and criteria when I test. For example, this semester my college end-of-first-year students will get some marks for pronunciation (because we've done quite a bit of pronunciation work on their Oral English classes), some marks for fluency, some marks for grammar, some marks for vocabulary/lexis and some marks for coherence. I'm also thinking about including some marks for how they deal with problems - repair work, asking for help, paraphasing, miming, using fillers to gain thinking time and to fill a silence, and the suchlike - what's called strategic competence. My criteria for vocab/lexis and grammar will not be whether they demonstrate use of anything in particular, but in how effective they are at communicating successfully - do their errors interfere with communication, or hinder it, or render it impossible! This is because I teach college English majors - I think testing for specific aspects of these dimensions is the responsibility of other teachers in other classes. but at the same time, my students do realise that I consider grammar and lexis to be seriously important.

As regards a quick test, my experience, and the experience of other testing large numbers quickly for summer schools (in UK language schools), is that in an informal chat of around 5 minutes, grading only on a 5 pint scale (with very easy to understand scoring 5) is a remarkably effective tool in the hands of a native speaker. Even on the most mundane of topics (your home town, your family), it sorts the lower from the higher from the in betweens. I did this at the beginning of this year with my 225 new students, and on subsequent reflection, having taught them now for 2 semesters, remarkably few of my initial assessments were wrong, and none were way off. What's interesting is looking back at their subsequent development! The value for me is how much respect I have for the students who got a low rating at the beginning who would only now get a middle rating - but wow, what progress! In each band, I can see students who have really made big efforts and made progress, and I can also see students who've made almost no progress. Of those, a small number are not interested in the effort it entails (basketball etc is more important), but I also have one or two who I realise are making efforts but little progress. I think that initial testing and placement has really helped me, and I plan to do it for future Oral English classes.

One thing I did was use the test results to make groups according to level, and that's been very successful as well.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On testing oral English

By George

To accurately test my students, I give them oral exams which are recorded on tape. These exams have two parts. The first part is Q&A covering things we have covered in class. They almost always have a memorized response for the basic questions. I tend to ignore these. I focus on their responses to the followup questions. For example, I've told them that we might discuss their grandparents, soI might ask

"Are your grandparents alive?" "How many children did they have?" How many boys and how many girls.? "Do you know your aunt's and uncles?" "O.K let's talk about your youngest aunt" Here is where they begin to breakdown because they didn't think to prepare for a discussion about their youngest aunt. I've also begun ba asking about a favorite middle-school teacher and them focus on the teacher they liked the least. Once I gotten to the real subject I'll begin with what is the persons name, age etc. and gradually lead to more complex questions. Then I start looking for syntactic, grammatical and vocabulary failure. In many cases the exam has ended in 2 or 3 minutes and some have gone as long as 30 or 40 minutes. In all cases I use subjects they are familiar with. Family, School, Friends and Hometowns. If I knew more about sports I would dwell on that. I have been know to ask a student to explain what a mid-fielder, a striker or a goalie does if they play those positions in football or the role of Guards, the Center or Forwards in basketball. I've even asked guitar playing students to explain how to play a particular son. In short they give me a guitar lesson.

To test for middle school, determine what is grade appropriate and start from there.

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

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

Oral exams can be quantified, but I don't like using them as the basis for a grade. I tell the school that grades shoud be considered as a report of a student's speaking level and how much they have improved. In my classes, the only one's who acutally fail are those who only show up for exams and the rare film. Those who come to class but aren't there count as absent. Our school weeds them out pretty quick. Last term eight of my students flunked out including two who were pretty good english speakers. Six were expelled for cheating on Chinese teacher's exams.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A speaking test examiner teaches speaking

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, China

When I came to teach here, although I‘d been a speaking test examiner for more than 10 years (for UCLES exams) I‘d actually never had to set an oral English exam before. I’d taught always in situations where the students were either taking no exam or were working towards an external exam. So if I did have to set tests, they were very much on the mock-exam model. I’d never taught a modern language within a university/college setting where this was the student’s main subject (major). Although I had a short training specific to coming to this post in China, provided by the NGO who sponsor my post, I came with some sort of assumption that there would be a syllabus, there would be designated attainment targets (although not necessarily expressed in that way). Well, you all know the reality here. I was timetabled for first year Oral English classes who were provided with one of the ORAL ENGLISH WORKSHOP series of books. If anything, I found that was worse than arriving to nothing. It implied someone somewhere thought the content of this course book was what my students should be mastering.

Anyway, after a semester of muddling along and getting some sort of impression about what might be possible, I realised that the lowest of the UCLES EFL exams I’d been a speaking test examiner for was probably within the reach of everyone in the class. I’d been warned about the tradition of everyone in the class passing the exams. Remember I’d done those UCLES tests for years. I could remember the type of tasks set in the exam, and I produced a parallel. Those UCLES tests are taken in pairs, but I chose to give each student an individual exam - partly as a public relations exercise about oral exams within my department. I was interlocuter as well as
assessor. So I recorded all the exams and marked them from the tapes. I was right in that all my students were capable of attaining that first level in the UCLES hierarchy, which means that in a grander scheme of things they had all achieved the Council of Europe Basic User level. The descriptors for this (in summary) are:

Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very personal and family information, shopping, local geography, environment).

Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.

Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters of immediate need.

At the end of the first semester all my students could do that - although a good number could only just do it with a very sympathetic interlocutor. Others walked through it. Which gave me a good spread of marks. And on that basis I decided to model the exam at the end of the second semester on the next level up (which I’d also done examining work for). By that stage my classes had included a fair amount of group work, and so the exam was done in small, randomly selected groups of 4, not including me. This year I’ve done lots more group work, but am actually planning to give one-to-one exams at this stage instead - partly for comparison.

So my decisions were based on a combination of what was within my own capabilities as well as the students. I’m not an expert on language testing. My only teacher training is a CELTA, and in the past when I’ve had to devise and construct college tests it was done under the supervision of a very experienced head of department. But also I’m not into re-inventing the wheel. The Council of Europe stuff - which relates to ALL the languages taught in Europe (and that includes teaching non-European languages) - is the result of mega-input from experts over heaven knows how many years now. I feel I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could devise any better sort of structure to work within - so I’m using it. I do also like it - I find it clear and easy to get my head around.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Extensive reading for students in intensive English programs

By Erlyn Baack - ITESM, Campus Queretaro, Mexico

Here are two of my recommendations, both short essays, four pages and three pages.

For many years, I've used TWO essays for every advanced composition class I've taught (first semester, university level). I cannot remember a time when I haven't used them, actually. My classes are for Mexican students who are supposed to have 550 although some have only 530 TOEFLs. The first essay is Chapter Two from an old book that is out of print and absolutely impossible to get these days unless you can find it in a university library or at (for $250.00 USD (not my copy; I have my own :-) )).

The book itself is Teaching ESL Composition, Principles and Techniques by Jane B. Hughey, et. al. (Newbury House 1983). I bought my own copy during graduate studies, and I would definitely like to see a second printing of this book because I've never seen a book thoroughly cover all aspects of teaching English Composition as this one does.

I use chapter two from this book, available here, In four pages, the authors basically begin /Why Write?/ by noting a dichotomy between two types of writing (meaningless and meaningful), and then they go on to write about four reasons for writing. The chapter is not only excellent information for students who can easily give examples for each reason from their own writing, but the ORGANIZATION of the chapter is much the same as the organization required of university level writing students.

The second essay I use every semester is from the book, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya by a the Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa. Thiong'o, now a distinguished professor of Literature at the University of California at Irvine. His website is at The title of his essay is just three pages, Writing for Peace, a paper he wrote during the Ronald Reagan administration, a paper in which he discussed the economic, political, and cultural exploitation of Kenya at that time.

Well, obviously, third-world readers (or, politically correct, "developing-world" readers) can see parallels between Kenya then and their own countries now. (One boy I had taught in high school, for example, was very political--active in the student government, active in political activities at both the city and state level, and he had even gone to the US, Washington, DC, and met Colin Powell, had his picture taken with and signed by Colin Powell, wrote to Colin Powell after 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq--and after reading this essay during his first year in the university, he asked, "Erlyn, do you have any more essays like this?" Writing for Peace is available at with the permission of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o.

I recommend both these essays, not only because their content is exactly relevant for first semester university students (either in a multi-cultural US class or a foreign class as mine are), but also because their are easily accessible for advanced (or even less than "advanced") non-native speakers of English. It is easy for students to relate to both these essays. Finally, both are about writing and writers and their obligations as writers.

I have a few other essays I could recommend but none more highly than these two.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What can Scrabble teach?

By Dick Tibbetts - Macau University, Macau, China

It might be worth consider- ing what Scrabble can teach and what Scrabblers can learn.

Players can learn vocabulary from their peers and peers have to define words when challenged. I'd ban dictionaries for finding words and use something reputable like the advanced learners dic. as an authority for judging.

Scrabble games with NS are used to aid spelling but this isn't so useful with Chinese learners because they learn the spelling before they learn pronunciation and before they are truly familiar with meaning and usage. NS who can't spell often have a wide vocabulary and Scrabble gives them an incentive to hone their spelling.

Scrabble can give practice in the function of challeng- ing and querying.
"Hey, I've never seen that before."
"I don't think that's in the dictionary"
These qualified challenges are useful subtleties in the art of argument.

Scrabble gives learners opportunities to use some of the meta-language of dictionaries in a natural situation. They can challenge by saying "That's a loan word/archaic/slang etc." I'm not sure how useful this is but it is there and it does happen.

Photo: 45 college students, working in teams, playing Scrabble in Guangzhou, China. The board is projected onto a screen.

Mao on teaching and students

"Examinations are approached as if the pupils were enemies who must be attacked by surprise. All this discourages young people from energetically taking charge of their own moral, intellectual and physical education". Mao was also greatly concerned by the health of school pupils. Immediately after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, he wrote twice to the Minister of Education, Ma Xulun, pressing for the schools to be given the following instructions: ‘Health first, studies second’. He returned to that theme on many occasions: ‘We must ensure that young people are in good health, study well and work hard’. A balance must be struck between studies on the one hand, and, on the other hand, relaxation, rest and sleep.

Teacher most likely to succeed

By Bob Gilmour - Programme Manager for In-Sessional English Language Programme, INTO Newcastle University, England

I read this, Teacher Most Likely To Succeed, with interest. Having not seen the New Yorker article before, it is interesting to see that they identified the same points as us.

Two years ago I took over the In-sessional English support classes here at Newcastle University (roughly about 70 weekly classes and 800 to 1400 class places in each Semester).

In the non-credit classes which are not part of students degree programmes, there has always been a problem of dropping attendance towards the ends of the Semesters. We started collecting online feedback from all students who had registered including those who stopped attending. We noted that there were particular teachers who commanded much higher attendances in their classes and analysed the feedback for those classes and talked to those teachers to see what made them different. We also compared that with feedback from other classes where attendance dropped.

What seemed to be the main issues? Engaging and challenging students; humour; taking the class seriously; passion; individual feedback. What was really interesting is that a less experienced, younger teacher is just as likely to be successful in terms of attendance and student feedback as the more experienced and higher qualified teachers. However, there are also limits and, in my experience, the limits seem to be that students expect to be taught by teachers with qualifications equivalent or higher to their own.

We then fed this back into teacher training and awareness raising sessions and attendance across the Semester improved significantly this year (although there's still some way to go!).

Bob Gilmour website

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Students should use dictionaries

By Karen Stanley - Central Piedmont Community College, North Carolina, USA

Guessing meaning from context is a valuable skill to develop, but so is how to use dictionaries properly. I feel there is a place for bilingual dictionaries, learners' monolingual dictionaries, and native speaker monolingual dictionaries. Of course, just as you may need to teach the skills for guessing from context to some learners, you may need to teach them how to use dictionaries in an appropriate way.

Just the other day, in a key sentence in an advanced reading assignment, I asked students what word X meant. They provided me with four or five different possibilities, ALL of which made sense in the context, but NONE of which conveyed the meaning that was key to understanding the author's perspective.

I will never forget the time, now many years (20, maybe?) ago, when a key word in a paragraph was AFLOAT. One good guesser-from-context with a knowledge of prefixes (taught in class) assumed that the A- represented "without, not" rather than "in a specified state or condition." Nothing in the context (a real article from a magazine) indicated which meaning the prefix had, yet misunderstanding the meaning changed the answers to several questions on the test. That was the moment when I stopped forbidding dictionary use on tests (or in any type of reading assignment).

As a side note, I do encourage students to underline unknown words as they read rather than looking them up. I tell them to finish reading the whole item first, and then go back afterward to see which ones they feel they still need or want to look up.

When I am writing something, and I need a word that I can't remember or never knew, a bilingual dictionary is invaluable. If it's just that the word is on the tip of my tongue, a quick glance in my bilingual dictionary is often rewarded by - oh, that's it! If I don't see a word I know, I will sometimes use a corpus to pull examples of the word to see how people are using it in a sentence/paragraph.

Of course, you have to be careful, and I often double check a word by looking it up in the opposite direction. Also, obviously, some of this is only when I have enough time, but it can be valuable in building my vocabulary skills - especially when there are no native speakers around to help.

In reading situations, a bilingual dictionary can be helpful when I want to ensure that I have understood something correctly - bilingual dictionaries are much quicker than then having to decode the meaning in the same language as the original text.

Learner dictionaries I find especially useful when I want examples of how to use a word and don't have time to search (or perhaps access at that moment) corpora for examples that fit the way I am considering using the word.

Monolingual native speaker dictionaries are most helpful (for me) when the word is at a level of knowledge such that it does not appear even in more extensive learner dictionaries.

Of course, there will always be vocabulary that can't be guessed from context OR found in a dictionary!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Getting students to use dictionaries

By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, USA

I want and encourage my students to use a dictionary. At the lower levels, I like them to use a bilingual dictionary, and at intermediate and above, I prefer them to use an Eng-Eng dictionary. I get annoyed when students are assigned to read something short for homework, and the next day I ask them "Who looked up what X means?" and not one student bothered to use a dictionary. The other day in a high intermediate speaking class, I gave students a list of words to describe character and personality. The students were to work in groups, agreeing on the top three words to describe each- a successful college student, a successful career person, and a good spouse/partner. I knew that with the combined knowledge of each group, there would probably still be about 10-20% of the words on the list the students didn't know. I reminded them to use a dictionary. (And not because I was lazy to explain the word, but because I wanted them to go through the explanation and negotiation of meaning process in Eng as a group! I will always help them refine a definition after they have given it their best shot on their own.) When students were sharing their results, I asked some "Well, why not X to describe a spouse?" and the group would reply "Oh, we didn't know what that word meant." Only 1 person in 1 group had bothered to identify any unknown words. I was disappointed that students just preferred to skip over a word rather than take a chance that it might be the perfect word they needed to complete their task.

I know students have to deal with words in context and that they can't be expected to whip out a dictionary every time they encounter an unknown word, but if a college student isn't curious enough to do define a new word encountered while doing homework, or in a relaxed, un-timed environment, I'm guessing the student will never look up words. Too many intermediate level and above students are complacent with their limited vocabulary because they function OK in their limited worlds, and it's hard to convince them that increasing their vocabulary is anything but icing on the cake.

Naively I thought that requiring a dictionary as stated on my syllabus would result in students actually getting one and each student customizing his or her own use of it as needed, learning the words (or at least looking up words) needed by each individual. Instead I see that I need to resort to choosing the words the students will learn and providing assignments that can not be completed without the use of a dictionary. It's frustrating when I try to treat college students as adults who are able to make decisions about what they need to learn, only to discover that many still have the "learning resistance" of a teenager and lack self-initiative, and I instead have to tell them what to learn.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Developing tests for academic listening & speaking

By Erlyn Baack - ITESM, Campus Queretaro, Mexico

A teacher asked about "Listening/Speaking exams to assess low intermediate students if they are ready for high intermediate level and then high intermediate students if they are ready for advanced level of ESL. Putting an emphasis on better academic preparation, in Listening we stress listening to lectures and note-taking, and in Speaking, we stress academic vocabulary, grammar correctness, and presentation techniques. We consider (1) exam content, (2) testing efficiency considering the number of students, (3) a rubric for Listening/Speaking, (4) involvement of outside instructors to make testing more objective.

The teacher asked a whole series of interrelated questions involving testing of 40 low intermediate and 80 high intermediate students, and while the questions were specifically about "Listening/Speaking exams, the emphasis is much broader including listening and note-taking and academic vocabulary, grammar correctness, and presentation techniques.

Those questions, therefore, are all-encompassing questions that must be asked early on in the semester or even before the semester begins.

Teachers at both levels and the school administration should ask themselves (1) What do we want the students at each level to know (or be able to do) when they finish the level, (2) how are we going to teach it, and (3) how are we going to test it? Essentially, therefore, teachers at both levels should be (or should have been) addressing these questions in their lesson plans and classroom activities since the beginning of the semester. If daily or weekly classroom activities are designed for students to achieve the successes desired by the time of the final exam, their probability of success is high.

It would seem to me that listening to lectures and note-taking would be the easiest to teach and test although it takes collaboration among teachers and administrators on setting it up. For a simple classroom activity, I would recommend going to a website like Living on Earth at , download some MP3 files of radio stories, play them for the class while they take notes, and then test using ten multiple choice questions, for example. (Parenthetically, it is EASY to get written permission from LOE to use their MP3s in this manner, even including putting their files on CDs for the reserve in the library or for free distribution.) After the quiz (or before in some instances) students at both levels should have the opportunity to discuss the stories because they are interesting, sometimes polemic, and they can generate a lot of discussion. The last radio show is at consisting of seven stories ranging from three minutes to 17 minutes, and finally, an additional benefit is that the text is always available to these MP3 stories as well.

Regarding testing, to be fair, academic vocabulary and grammar correctness can be taken from materials (like Living on Earth) that students have already been exposed to. The text can be used for that, and at the levels Inna Braginsky is asking about, students can always benefit from focused attention toward S-V agreement, pronouns, modals, simple, compound, and complex sentences, adjective clauses, parallel structure, etc. It is up to the teachers and administrators to address the most obvious weaknesses at each level and focus on a few specifics students can study, so when they take their multiple choice texts on these things, they can succeed. (No apologies for multiple choice tests here! ;-) )

The hardest part is the speaking exam because it requires an enormous amount of consensus among TRAINED teachers.

First, teachers must agree on a series of possible questions or topics which may be announced beforehand or not, their preference. I think to be reliable the topic should come from topics students have already been exposed to, much like the Living on Earth topics suggested above (a dozen topics would not be too many for students to prepare for). After students are given three or four minutes to present a (1) SUMMARY or an (2) ARGUMENT for something or a (3) RATIONALE against something (for examples), teachers should ask a pertinent follow-up question or two, and both teachers/administrators and students should at least feel that the speech topic was fair; it was a topic the student was at least exposed to and had the chance to study.

Then, teachers should assess the speaking abilities of the students (both the prepared and extemporaneous parts), and ideally they will have worked together long enough with the parts of their rubric to arrive at a consensus independently. If four teachers, for example, assign the student a four of six points on an aspect of his speaking performance, they should be very proud of that!

I didn't address bringing a bunch of non-ESL-trained teachers into the mix, but their opinions count! Spaces both formal and informal should be available for "mainstream" teachers to explain the "greatest weaknesses" of the ESL students, but I wouldn't invite them to exams.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ideas for oral English practice

By Karen Stanley - Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

- provide a list of interview questions, and have students use them to interview each other; better still, have the class generate questions (with your guidance) on a particular topic, and have the students interview each other using them (one example theme: questions related to the person's carbon footprint). Make sure they don't think they have to write complete sentences with the answer to each question - in fact, they don't necessarily have to record the answer at all. Otherwise, they spend more time writing than talking.

- find a problem to solve in small group discussion; George Rooks' "Who gets the heart?" is a classic example. The students are given a list of different people with different characteristics, all of whom need a heart transplant. They then have to agree on how to prioritize who gets a heart. So, on the list you have someone in his 90s who is a national hero (but probably won't live long), a child who may or may not ever do anything of benefit (but who has a long potential life ahead of him/her), a woman in her mid 20s with not such a good lifestyle, but who has no relatives to take care of her three young children if she dies, etc. I recommend all three of George Rooks' books. He provides limitations and details for each task.

Let's Start Talking (lowest level; simpler, more practical tasks, such as planning a party)

Can't Stop Talking (intermediate; example tasks: planning a travel brochure, deciding which person should get a Citizenship Award )

The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook (advanced; example tasks: Who Gets the Heart, Design a Product and an Advertising Campaign)

Other possible lesson plans from posts to this list can be found at:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Learn vocabulary by using vocabulary

By Kenton Sutherland - Emeritus Professor, San Mateo (California) Community College District English Language Specialist, United States Department of State

A teacher in Beijing states that "in China, many English learners will learn words directly from a vocabulary book by remembering the form and one or two Chinese translations of that word" and then goes on to ask if there is a more effective way to learn vocabulary.

This method of learning word meanings does not seem to me to have much value in actual English practical usage. Chinese learners are known to have phenomenal skills at memorizing, but unless they can use the memorized words in meaningful situations, the words are stored like dictionary entries, waiting to be "looked up," many never to be used, drifting away and getting foggy in long-term memory.

When I was a schoolboy, I had to memorize the capital cities of all 48 American states -- this was in the 1940s, before Hawaii and Alaska joined the Union -- and I got an "A" on the test on capitals, but today I don't think I can remember half of them. It was all a meaningless exercise that caused me some anguish at the time, especially trying to remember whether Bismark was the capital of South Dakota or North Dakota. Sixty years later, I still can't get them straight, nor have I ever had the opportunity to use either Bismark or Pierre until now, even though these two names for the Dakota capital cities have somehow managed to stay in my long-term memory. Wait! Is one of them the capital of Nebraska? None of this memory "learning" was ever meaningful to me, and I suggest that similar memorization exercises in trying to learn English vocabulary are equally meaningless for Chinese learners and therefore pretty much useless, yet another blind alley.

So, what's the alternative to memorization? Mert Bland hit the nail on the head when he replied: "The more a student is exposed to a word in diverse contexts, the firmer grasp that student gets of the word." In effect, the students needs lots and lots of different kinds of activities in which to receive and use new words -- oral practices, games, songs, rhymes, jazz chants, readings of all kinds, radio English, television, DVDs and/or videotapes, film, karaoke, drama and theater games, readers' theater, conversation clubs, internet time, chat rooms, pen pals, e-mails in English computer-assisted instruction, talking with foreigners in English, travel outside China, lectures in English, etc. Sometimes it takes several inputs before a student grasps a word's meaning and even more inputs before a student actually understands in what situations the word can be used. That's why Mert stressed "diverse contexts" and "the more a student is exposed." In short, the key to effective vocabulary learning lies precisely in providing massive exposure to English in as many different situations and contexts as possible.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Using rubrics to evaluate spoken English

By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

One way to get a sense of structure with the evaluation of student oral production is by using a rubric. Here's an example of a speaking rubric for an ESL program in a US elementary school system: RUBRIC and here's a site with programs to help you develop a rubric: DEVELOP RUBRIC

To create a rubric for a speaking activity such as retelling a story, you need to break the activity down into its most basic elements. For example, speech is comprised of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation/stress/intonation, logical meaning and order, purpose, and in the case of the story, an element of cohesion. For the specific task, you might want to also consider the accuracy of the retelling, the amount of detail included, number or length of pauses and inappropriate filler noises, etc. Then, for each category, set the possible performance/assessment levels, for example, "excellent", "satisfactory", and "needs improvement". I prefer to work with a basic set of 3 as it is easier for me to break down a production into bad, so-so, and good instead of more subtle variations- although plenty of instructors use 4 and 5 categories.

If you do a Google search using key words like "ESL Speaking rubric", you should find many ideas to help you create a rubric that will meet your needs.

By the way, I would suggest recording the assessment either audio or audio/video because it can be hard to listen to content, mentally evaluate, and complete a rubric at the same time. Replaying the audio gives you time to better analyze the students' work and assess more fairly. Playing back the recording for the student who can then watch him or herself and compare the recording to the completed rubric assessment is a valuable learning tool as well.