Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, July 30, 2005


by AJ

Midterm exam week has killed much of my enthusiasm. I detest these fucking exams. How idiotic. How shoddy and ill-thought.

The driving mindset behind the exams seems to be something like: "Lets make it very difficult so that too many students dont do well". This is the "trick them and sort them out" school of thought. What a bunch of crap.

I prefer to test the most important points I want the students to know... and I want them ALL to get 100%. That shows that they learned what I considered to be most important... and therefore Ive done my job.

But the university system is locked in an authority mindset. The authority figures (teachers, staff) compile a secret test composed of tricky and difficult questions in order to weed out all but the best English speakers. What this accomplishes, other than creating a hierarchy of grades... and keeping students beat down.. I dont know.

Im happy that the whole sorry exercise is finished. Now Ive got another 7 weeks of teaching before the equally dreadful Finals process begins. At least I can do something useful and enjoyable during those 7 weeks.


Monday, July 25, 2005

Self Study with Movies

by AJ

As Ive mentioned earlier, Im lazily trying to acquire a bit of Spanish. Ive been doing this, so far, simply by reading baby books and the lowest level graded readers (available from the TPR site... by Blaine Ray). This has been a very pleasant and indeed "effortless" approach.

Truth be told, Im not one of these gung ho people who can grind out studying for hours every day. I hate trying to memorize vocabulary and grammar is even worse. In the past I made attempts to "study" Spanish and I got bored and frustrated very quickly... my attempts never lasted longer than two weeks.

But Ive been doing light reading for about a month now... very leisurely... I just do it when I have a little spare time... and Im making much better progress. Because I dont do this a lot, my progress is slow. But it is pleasant and most importantly-- I am continuing with it. Learning a language is like running a marathon... its not a sprint.

After a month of light reading, however, I realize Id like to get some oral input. I suppose I could order a "language tape" and do endless drills (ugh). But instead Ive decided to use movies. Im going to start with "The Motorcycle Diaries". I just watched it (with English subtitles) and loved it.

My plan is to imitate the movie technique... watch the movie in short scenes and play each scene two or three times. Since I won't have a teacher to explain the dialogue to me (in simpler language)... I may resort to looking up key words in a dictionary as I pause the scene.

To be sure, this will be slow work. But Im not in a hurry. And it will be much more pleasant than repeating drills from a language tape. My guess is, in the longrun it will also prove to be much more effective.

This is a technique that all language students could use. Especially my Thammasat students. Im a super-low level Spanish learner (much much lower than my student's English level)... so if I can do it, so can you.

Some of you all want to improve your spoken English. Ill be honest- you wont get enough practice in class. You have to take control of your learning. You must create listening opportunities on your own.

Watching movies in English is a great method... especially if you:
a)turn off the Thai subtitles
b)dont use the English subtitles (they are often wrong)
c)play each scene two or three times
d)look up key words (after youve hear them a couple of times and still dont understand them). Dont do this for every word!!


Friday, July 22, 2005


by AJ
Im increasingly drawn to a projectbased approach for teaching advanced language students. These students have the basics of the language. They don't need teacher-intensive methods like TPR at this point.

In fact, they dont need teachers at all. At the upper-intermediate and above levels, the teachers task is to push the student towards complete autonomy.

Projects are an excellent way to do this. By focusing on projects... students are encouraged to seek out comprehensible input on their own. They read about their subject, talk to others about it, discuss it, and then compile all this info to create a presentation or tangible product.

If most of these activities are done in the target language- all requirements for language acquisition are met. Because they choose their projects, students automatically delve into topics that are interesting to them (rather than the teacher). Through research, they find, read, and listen to authentic materials related to their project. Perhaps they read articles. Or watch documentaries. Or read books (or audiobooks). They are not focused on the target language.... but by doing these activities they are acquiring language nevertheless.

They are doing so in a much more effective (according to a mountain of research) and much more enjoyable manner.

Sure beats the hell out of memorizing grammar rules and plodding through textbooks!!


Thursday, July 21, 2005

Effortless English for Japanese Students

by AJ

Shiori has convinced me to write a book for Japanese English teachers and students. While grammar-drill-translation methods are the norm everywhere in the world... Japan is the champion of this approach.

Japanese students spend 6+ years disecting, translating, analyzing, and memorizing English-- only to find that they can pass a test but cannot use or understand real English at all. Its quite a sad state of affairs-- the direct fault of the government and its screwy policies.

So Japan is uniquely desperate for authentic English teaching methods that work. My thought is to start with a Level 0 book for kids..... a TPR book that focuses on teaching a lot of English loan words that appear in Japanese. These words are much easier for students to learn and acquire quickly. For example, the Japanese word for "door" is borrowed from English: "doa".

The idea is to build the beginner's confidence with a high proportion of these words- using Total Physical Response as the main teaching method-- supplemented with pre-reading (teacher reads aloud to students and explains pictures in book with very simple language) and very basic video techniques (for example, show an episode of Blues Clues.... teacher pauses often, points to things on the screen, and says what they are in English: "This is a dog..... a blue dog", "This is a boy", "He is eating" (mime the act of eating).

Shiori and I have talked about doing this as a bilingual book... she'd translate the explanations and directions into Japanese-- so that it could be easily used by Japanese (English/Elementary) teachers whose confidence in English might be lower.


Monday, July 18, 2005

Anti-Social Tendencies

by AJ

I admit it, when it comes to work-- Im anti-social. I avoid conversations with most of the other teachers in my department. I keep quiet about my methods and approach.

Krashen urges us not to do this. He encourages dedicated and knowledgeable teachers to communicate with and educate other teachers. He encourages us to advocate for more natural and effective approaches.

But I find this difficult. I know most of my co-workers just won't get it. First of all, most do not have degrees in TESOL or language acquisition. Second, almost all of them are brainwashed by the grammar-translation-textbook approach. They are utterly dependent on textbooks.

I know my indirect grammar, authentic materials, comprehensible input, free reading approach would shock most of them. They just won't get it. If I talk about my methods, I will encourage them to comment on and scrutinize my teaching. I invite interference in my class. And since Im hugely outnumbered... Id be asking for them to try to force me to teach with more grammar-translation methods.

So I choose to avoid conversations with them. I dont care what they do in their classes and wont tolerate interference in mine. I have always preferred to live by the motto "never ask permission".

This makes me a poor advocate, I admit. I wish I had more energy and persuasive power-- to try to educate and persuade my colleagues. But I dont.


Friday, July 15, 2005

Supersize Me!

by AJ

I used the documentary Supersize Me with my Russian Studies students today. This went better than my previous attempts at the movie technique (using full length movies). For one, I think documentaries often offer more in the way of discussion topics and issues. Also, they tend to be shorter and more concrete in their focus.

I paused the DVD often and paraphrased and this seemed to help a great deal. Most students (perhaps all) could not understand the direct soundtrack dialogue.

I found today's experience encouraging. There were still problems, but this went fairly well. First, Supersize Me was still too long for me to cover in one class thoroughly. Second, the dialogue is quite difficult.

But these are easy to solve problems-- by using short segments (15 - 30 minute TV shows or newscasts) I can thoroughly cover the material (by playing each scene twice or more and paraphrasing) and still have time for discussion questions after ward.

I checked out the bootleg DVDs available locally... here are a few of the choices:

Sex and The City
Seinfeld (comedy show)
The Simpsons
Buffy The Vampire Slayer


Thursday, July 14, 2005

Video & TV Suggestions

by AJ

Many students have requested that I use video in class. They want to watch movies or TV shows in English. This is an excellent suggestion.

But we don't have time for an entire movie. Instead, lets try TV shows, news shows, commercials, or documentaries.

This is your chance to tell me what you want. Give me suggestions.

What (short) video(s) do you want to watch?

Leave a comment. Tell me what video you want and which class you are in.

We'll try to use more video during the second half of the semester (but only for those classes that leave suggestions)!


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Midcourse Corrections

by AJ

Midterms are almost here and this is a good time to reasses the semester and make some changes. Things Ive learned or will change:

*TPRS: TPR Storytelling has been the most consistently successful technique Ive used this semester. But I have used it sporadically. Why? Because it takes a lot of time to create a new mini-story for every new lesson- Time I dont have.

So Ive thought of a possible solution. I will put the guide vocab words (or grammar) on the board and let students co-create a mini-story using the words. I'll then use their story (with appropriate corrections) to teach the TPRS lesson. This approach will increase interactivity (more involvement from the students) while eliminating the need for me to pre-plan the stories.

*Seating Arrangements: Rows suck! The shy or weaker students hide in the back, tune out, or chat (in Thai). Also, this arrangement sends the message that I am the boss and all they have to do is sit passively. So Im gonna play with other arrangements... maybe a double U shape.... or half circles.

* Background Music: I keep meaning to bring classical music to play in the background and have forgotten. So I plan to do this for the second half of the semester.

* Movies: Research on the movie technique was done in Intensive English Programs... students were in class 5 or more hours a day for five days a week. With that schedule, its easy to finish an entire movie.

But my students come only two days a week for an hour and a half at a time. And I can usually devote only 20-30 minutes per class to a video. So its nearly impossible to get through a movie. However, I did use a news story in one class and it worked great. So in the coming weeks Ill try to use more video... but will use short segments such as commercials and news stories and short TV shows.


Sunday, July 10, 2005

Wu Wei

by AJ

Go with the flow.... adapt to each unique situation.

Thus far I have failed to practice "wu wei" effectively. Ive tried a one-size-fits-all approach with my classes- but I find that each class is unique in its needs and motivation.

My older classes are more self directed. They respond to a looser approach. They respond to free reading. They do well with group projects and discussions.

But my freshman and sophomore classes clearly are not ready for such independence. They need stronger leadership and more focus-- something I have not given them to date.

I realize that, despite my philosophical disdain for grades/points I can use these for positive effect-- as the younger students seem most motivated by these extrinsic factors. I suppose its a lot like kicking heroin... its difficult to kick the habit all at once. A better strategy seems to be to wean the students off dependence on teachers, grades, and points.

What this means in practice: Start assigning points for things like bringing in articles, using English during discussions, listening to movie narrations, and bringing reading material to class. I will no longer try to resist their dependency... but rather use it to move them towards independence. I will nudge them towards self-study, free reading, and other autonomous learning projects.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


by AJ

Its obvious. Class time is not enough. My students will never make much progress if they rely only on English class. They need more comprehensible input.

To help them... to really help them... I must encourage them to become independent English learners. I must encourage them to read English and listen to English in their free time. They get only three hours a week from class (and since Thai students are usually late... its more like two hours a week). Thats not enough.

But if they watch one movie a week... thats an extra 1.5 to 2 hours. If they sit for a couple of hours and read for fun.... If they listen to a book on tape or read the newspaper or a gossip magazine.... They will double or triple the amount of English they get and they should have a lot more fun than they do in any classroom.

I know this. But how do I get them to understand it? They are trained to sit and listen to the teacher. They are trained to be dependent on the teacher. When I try more independent activities... such as free reading or group discussions, many will ignore the activity and chat in Thai (this is true mostly for my younger students... the freshman and Russian classes).

Free reading has not worked with the younger classes... they chat in Thai, they dont bring anything to read, etc. Group work... same problem. If I dont assign reading material as homework and tell them I will collect it and check... many will not bring anything.

So what's the answer? Do I return to a more dependent teaching method.... lead them and push them? Is there a middle way?

I plan to find out.


Monday, July 04, 2005

Studying Thai With Skill Building

By Shiori Iwagaki

I took a Thai language lesson at a school in Bangkok. The method they used was totally different from the way AJ recommends. It irritated me so much and I became depressed within a week after I started.

They use textbooks and drills. There are many teachers who speak English also. Teachers are strict with students about memorizing words (they are very loose about time).

From the students point of view, advantages are below;
1) I can ask teachers whatever I want to know about Thai words.
2) Since they use textbooks, I can expand my vocabulary.
3) I can confirm my pronunciation by asking to teachers.

Regarding those advantages, Im staying Thailand now and I have Thai friends. I can ask them. And also there are a lot of bookstores in which i can buy some books.
Therefore, there are no advantages to emphasize about this school that cannot be had by self study and less formal methods.

Disadvantages are below;
1) When I make a mistake, they scold me.
2) I cant proceed or skip any page before I memorize the previous pages.
3) Teachers English is not good enough. Sometimes they dont understand what I mean when I speak English to them.

Regardng those disadvantages;
1) Im not so smart that I cant memorize a lot of words at once. I dont want to be scolded. I found that the best way to avoid making mistakes was not speaking or using Thai. I began to hesitate to speak. [very high anxiety -AJ]
2) What I want to know are practical words. But I cant say to a taxi driver "turn left" because first they make me memorize words like "the Ministry of Education".
3) I dont care about the fact there are a lot of unknown words lacking explanations. But because I cant memorize those words (or pretend to understood them) I can't proceed to the next page.

Therefore, I was so depressed. I dont want to study the Thai language for a while.

My conclusion is; I cant aquire Thai language with this school. I should quit right away!

Saturday, July 02, 2005


by AJ

This week all of my classes went very well... especially the speed dating activity. However, there were two students who did not fit the trend. They were friends, both in my "English for Russian Majors" class.

While every other student in every other class enthusiastically participated in the activity... these two refused to. They sat in their chairs and said nothing. They stared at the wall or ceiling, didnt even pretend to listen to their partner.

I felt a great deal of frustration, but basically ignored them. But I couldnt help but wonder what they were thinking. What was wrong? Were they intimidated by the activity? Were they bored? Were they lazy? Did they resent having to take the course and just had a shitty attitude?

I dont know and probably will never know. Thats a very difficult part of teaching. Its very hard to know what your students are thinking... or why they enjoy some things and not others. I try to get this information with this blog and with the surveys (learning plans) I do... but in the end I will never know for sure.

Its frustrating. But 2 students out of nearly 200 is not bad. Ill accept that rate of failure.


Friday, July 01, 2005

Continued Frustrations With Group Work

by AJ

Today I used "speed dating" with my Freshman classes and it went very very well. But when I put them in groups for discussion, some of them did not use English (unlike my Thursday classes, which are higher level and used English exclusively once we had done speed dating).

I find this situation very frustrating. I hoped to group students according to their self-chosen interests. I hoped they would bring in articles about their interests and discuss them in English. Some do. But some just chat and gossip in Thai.

Im not a speaking nazi. I dont believe in pressuring students too much about speaking. The problem is, if I use groupwork activities and they speak Thai... they are also getting no listening practice and no reading practice. In other words... absolutely no comprehensible input. From an English language acquisition standpoint, its a complete and total waste of time.

So while I love the idea of students choosing their own topics and guiding their learning... the way Im doing it now, by using group work, does not seem to be working (especially not with my Freshman and Russian majors classes).

So its time to change. I plan to phase out these groups and phase in movies (using the focal skills movie technique).

Another problem Ive had... again, mainly with the Russian and Freshman classes, is with free reading. My Tuesday and Thursday classes (older students) are very good about reading quietly from their books. But the younger students tend to sit and chat to each other in Thai. Again, a total waste of time. Im going to give them a warning about this next week. If it continues, I will end free reading with these classes.

In general, the younger students just dont seem to take as much initiative. The older students seem comfortable with directing their own learning. They bring articles, they discuss issues in their groups (in English), they read their books at the end of class.

But I think the younger students need more leadership and direction from me. These are not American/European students who are used to being pushed to be independent. I think they see my attempts as a sign of slackness or laziness rather than as an attempt to involve them more.

There's no use whining about this. Its the way it is. My task is to help them acquire English as best I can. With the older students, independent study works well. But it seems I need to take more control with the younger ones.