Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Two Hours a Day

by AJ

From The Linguist:

"It really does not matter why you want to improve your English. The important thing for you to know is that you can improve. You can actually improve quite quickly. You just have to do it the right way. Most people study languages the wrong way. They study from text books or traditional learning systems with uninteresting content, but lots of pictures, plenty of grammar explanation and quizzes. This kind of instruction looks like it should work, but for most people it does not. It is uninteresting and inefficient. Most people do not progress rapidly and are not satisfied with their language studies. They lose interest and will only study if forced to because of exams. I can understand this. It is hard to keep working at something if you do not succeed.

You need to understand how to learn a language. When you learn a new language your brain starts to change. The brain begins to build networks of neurons that will enable you to operate in a new language like English. You will not become fluent because you understand grammar rules. You become fluent as your brain naturally develops the ability to understand English. You become fluent when you can put thoughts together correctly in English without having to try to remember grammar rules.

So how can you most quickly build these new networks for English? It depends on three things: your attitude towards studying English, the amount of time you spend on English, and how efficient your study method is. It does not depend on teachers or tests. You have to realize that your thoughts and actions are what will most influence the development of these new networks in your brain. How well and how quickly you learn is up to you"

Im really quite fond of The Linguist. That fondness comes from a student's perspective, rather than a teacher's. As I continue to try to learn Spanish, I find continued inspiration from The Linguist.

Success "does not depend on teachers or tests". Quite obviously. What the research shows is that success depends on a massive amount of comprehensible input. Authentic. Interesting. Understandable.

But just what does "massive" mean. According to The Linguist, it means about two hours a day of language input. For those wanting to learn English, they recommend listening to and/or reading (understandable) English two hours EVERT SINGLE DAY.

This is far more than Ive been doing for Spanish. I was averaging maybe 30 minutes of Spanish a day... till I stopped altogether 6 weeks ago (I stopped in order to brush up on survival Japanese-- in preparation for my trip to Japan).

Now Im ready to go after Spanish again. At first, two hours seemed daunting. Too much. But its not very hard to do, really. In the morning, I listen to a book on CD for 30 minutes. During the day I can listen to an MP3 player while I walk, take the train, or do errands. I can also read when commuting on the train. At night I listen or read for another 30 minutes.. before going to bed.

Split up in this way, two hours a day is not too difficult to achieve. Especially because these activities are pleasant. Im not trying to memorize grammar rules. Im listening to stories and reading stories. The time goes quickly.

I recommend this same approach to my students. Split up your English time. Listen for 30 minutes every morning. Read on the bus or train... or at lunch time. Listen to a movie or book every night before bed. Invest in a cheap MP3 player... and download English books on CD. Or download conversations from English Conversations.

Spread out in this way... two hours a day is not difficult.

Busy Busy

by AJ

Lots and lots going on right now...

1. Im currently working on three different distance courses. One is an informal English conversation course, for a Thai student. She'll be living/working in America next year and wants to learn slang and informal everyday conversation. So far, we're using a combination of movies and books. The first movie she chose was "White Chicks". I just transcribed most of the slang from scene one, explained it, and posted it to the online course.

This movie is a good choice for her goals... as its filled with slang, jokes, and casual English. My student found the first scene quite difficult to understand. It is indeed filled with plenty of slang.

Which made me realize, again, how utterly useless most textbooks and courses are. The poor students spend years learning formal English... then come to America (for example) and can't understand what anyone is saying. What's worse is that the courses they take in HS and University are often titled "English conversation". (Of course formal English has its place... its just not very useful in everyday conversation).

2. Im developing a Business English course (Visionary Leadership).. this one has been slow going.. but Im getting there.

3. Im developing a TOEFL writing course. One of my (Japanese) students is planning to take the TOEFL test next year and wants to focus on writing, which she considers her weakest skill. The good news is that the TOEFL test has been overhauled. She will be taking the new test.

I think the new format is a big improvement. Its a departure from the strict grammar-translation mindset of the old test. Instead, the new TOEFL aims to imitate authentic communicative situations. Skills are integrated. For example, the "writing" section involves a great deal of listening and reading. First the student reads an article. Then they listen to a recorded lecture on the same topic as the article. The student can take notes during the lecture.

Finally, using their notes and the article, the student writes an essay about the topic. The test designers are hoping to more closely imitate real-life situations. Since the TOEFL test is mostly used to screen university students, the new test aims to mimic the types of tasks required in school (listening, taking notes, reading articles, writing essays, discussing topics).

This new test will be internet based. Which means its also ideally suited to distance learning. For my TOEFL writing course, Im first hoping to imitate key aspects of the test. Ill provide an article to my students. Then Ill record myself giving a lecture on the same topic (or find someone else to do it). The student will read the article and listen to the lecture (an MP3) first. Then we'll have a Skype conference to discuss both. Ill explain vocabulary and difficult concepts. We'll discuss both the language used... and the ideas/concepts involved.

Then the student will write an essay on the topic... probably using a blog. Ill review the essay. In the comments section, I will rewrite some, or all, of the essay using standard academic English. The student will review my rewrite and compare it to their original essay. During our next Skype conference, we will discuss both the original and the rewrite... then move on to the next article/lecture.

Being a big believer in Free Reading and Free Listening... I also plan to incorporate/encourage plenty of both. Research on FVR (Free voluntary reading) and on the Movie Technique (Focal Skills) shows that both are very effective at raising TOEFL scores. So Ill continue to be an evangelist for both!

Saturday, November 12, 2005


by AJ

Quick breathe, tight throat. I barely squawked my name, "Im AJ". My gut turned. I stared at the ground as I talked.

This was my first public speaking experience. I was a student in the Dale Carnegie public speaking course... and I was terrified. I was a recent college graduate- while most in the audience were accomplished business people.

Midway through the course- a transformation. I paced energetically as I talked about a rock climbing experience. I looked directly into the audience.. into the eyes of the participants. My delivery was rough, but I spoke with energy and enthusiasm. That evening, I was voted "most improved" by the other participants.

Towards the end of the course, I gave a speech about my father. It was an emotional speech... not easy to deliver. But my confidence had exploded since the beginning of the course. I was sure of myself and the speech went well. That evening my speech was voted "best speech".

The Dale Carnegie course transformed my public speaking ability. Whats more, the increase in confidence bled into other aspects of my life. Of all the formal educational experiences Ive had in my life.. the Dale Carnegie course produced the most dramatic and most relevant results.


The key is their instructional approach: Dale Carnegie trainers NEVER criticize a student. They explain this to you in the first class and they adhere to the principle throughout.

All of the instructors' energy is devoted to "building on strengths". They tell you what you are doing right. They give sincere praise. They shout about your strengths. Thats what the awards are about. By the end of the course, nearly every student has earned an award for something.

Contrast this with the traditional exam approach... which is designed to make 70% or more of the students feel mediocre or worse.

Dale Carnegie Instructors build confidence. In the process, they transform timid, mumbling, terrified speakers into clear, confident speakers. The transformations are amazing. I wish Id videotaped the first class and the last... I can think of no more powerful testament to their approach. The Dale Carnegie approach works and it works very well.

Which is why I turned to it when students told me their number one priority was CONFIDENCE. I brainstormed. I wracked my brain. Then it hit me... the Dale Carnegie approach.

And so, just before being fired, I began to use it. I assigned one three-minute speech per week. I taught the Dale Carnegie "magic formula" for speaking (which is mostly a convenient system to bolster the beginners' ability). And I told my students I would focus on sincere praise of their strengths rather than nit-picking their weaknesses.

Unfortunately, I didnt get a chance to continue this experience. But due to my own experience with the approach (as a student), I have total confidence that it would kick ass (the only limitation being my growth as an instructor).

Which is why I recommend this approach for intermediate and above level students who need a boost in speaking confidence.

A wealth of research shows direct error-correction to be a waste of time. Worse, it undermines confidence and encourages hesitancy. The Dale Carnegie method is much more effective.... sincere praise beats error-correction.

Certainly this was the case last semester. Some of my experiments did well. Some bombed. Some were sporadically effective.

But building on strengths... and recognizing them loudly... always.. ALWAYS.. worked.

Its also a lot more fun.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Process Discussions

by AJ

"Describe the ideal English class".

"Grade you current teachers and classes, including me"

"Design your own course"

These are a few of the small group projects I gave to students last semester. I hoped to get a bit of insight into students needs. What I got was a wealth of feedback.... a treasure trove of ideas and direct opinions.

Surveys and "teacher evaluations" are lame. They come at the end of the course, when its too late to do anything about the feedback. They are restricted by narrow, admin-designed questions. Students, for the most part, think they are ignored. And from a tutoring perspective.... I rarely find anything useful in them. Usually they are filled with vague statements such as "Great class".

But in-class discussion can be very productive. By using the above questions as a starting point... I encouraged students to discuss their needs and desires. They told me what worked, what didnt, what they hated, and what they loved. I was surprised by their honesty (and thrilled).

Perhaps this worked because I presented this discussion as a hypothetical project. I didnt say, "give me feedback on my class". In fact, I have tried that and all I got was silence.

What works better is to break the class into small groups... and give them a design or evaluation challenge. You can even make it competitive,... for example, "Let's see which group can design the best English course. We'll vote at the end of class".

When students present their ideas, pump them for details. Ask about specific assignments, specific activities, reasons for their suggestions. Ask them about past experiences with English classes.... all in the context of the "mini-project".

This worked for me and it worked BIG! Another uncontested success!

Give it a try.

Customer Service

by AJ

One day. Thats how long it took for Dave at Talkr to receive my message, investigate the problem, and get back to me. As it turns out, the problems with my audio feed were a temporary glitch.

But Im very very impressed with how quickly the folks at Talkr responded to my problem. This kind of customer service is very rare.

If you'd like to have your blog posts automatically converted to audio podcasts... do check out Talkr. They've got a great service that promises only to get better.

Another One For The Sidebar

by AJ

Here's another quote for the sidebar... this one from my favorite American writer (my favorite writer, period), Henry David Thoreau:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.
--From Walden

Practical Matters

by AJ

And now back to practical matters. As I move on from TU, I find myself reviewing the last semester. Im combing for successes, failures, and glimpses of potential. I will focus near-future posts on this topic.... some, very likely, will be a review... but also hope to find some gems I might have overlooked.

I'll start with an undisputed champion: TPR Storytelling. This technique just keeps getting better as I work with it. The more I use it, the more I refine it-- and the more effective it becomes.

Last semester I used TPRS mostly with adult-ed community classes. Typically, these are very tough to teach. You are thrown into a room with 20 adults you've never seen, whose level you dont know... and you are stuck with them for three hours.

I used TPRS with these classes and the results were stunning. The key measures for me: Students left the class smiling, energetic, excited, and eager for more. More than any other technique, TPRS delivered the "I kick ass" feeling to students.

My use of this technique has been evolving for over a year and a half. In the beginning, I tended to tell a pre-set story. I'd act it out, and make drawings to aid comprehension. Id repeat each mini-story several times in this way. Then Id have students tell the story to each other. This worked alright, but was essentially passive (though vastly superior to passive textbook based approaches).

As I researched the technique more, I discovered that questions are vital to the technique... perhaps the most important aspect. I therefore added questions to my stories. At this point, I was still telling pre-set stories. But I peppered them with content questions:

The boy got on a bus. What did the boy do? He went to Chicago. Where did he go?

Questions helped make the classes more interactive and communicative,... but there was still something missing.

Last semester, I discovered another important piece. I stopped using pre-set stories. Instead, I "set the stage" and then students and I created a story together. To set the stage, I did two things.

1. I introduced a selection of "target vocabulary". I was required to teach "directions" for one lesson, for example, so I introduced key vocab related to this topic. I taught the vocab using classic TPR, drawings, acting, etc.

2. Once students showed mastery of the vocab, I created a situation with one or two characters and a setting. For example, "There is a guy walking on the street".

From that point on, I used questions to let the students shape the story. This dramatically increased the number of questions I asked... and the interest level of the students... and the communicative/interactive dynamics of the lesson.

For example, I might ask, "Is the guy's name AJ? Is it Bill? Is it Wat? OK, what is his name?". Once students provided an answer, I switched to content/review questions.

Ex. "Ahhh, his name is David Beckham. Is his name AJ? (NO!). Is his name Ronaldo (NO!). Then what is his name (David Beckham!!).

This questioning technique creates massive repetition of key vocab and grammar.... but in an interesting, context-rich, meaningful way. Its also fun, as the students (even the retirees) enjoy shouting out answers and shaping the story.

For use with beginner and low-intermediate level students, TPRS is the best technique I know of. Its absolutely fantastic.

With higher level students it may also be effective, but I have had less luck in this respect. I used TPRS with my Freshman at TU and it worked great. But when I tried it with upperclassmen, they seemed bored. This may simply be my error, not a flaw in the technique.... as I clearly chose stories (vocab, etc.) that were too easy for them. Id like to experiment more with upper intermediate students... see if I could achieve great results.

But for intermediate and below... there is no question. This technique kicks ass... and it helps the students kick ass. It helps students acquire vocab and grammar implicitly, effortlessly, and (in fact) involuntarily. Its tremendous fun. If used with enthusiasm, it encourages confidence and feelings of euphoria in the students.

All in all, a super-fantastic success!

Try it!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


by AJ

Much of the debate (nearly all, as far as I can tell) about teachers, teaching, and schools, is metaphoric. Lets be clear, we are arguing metaphors. We are pushing archetypes.

Traditional teachers promote the "Parent" metaphor. In this sort of system, the teacher is a surrogate "mom" or "dad" and the learner, whatever their age, is a "child". The parents role is to exercise authority (strict or loose, depending on the teachers temperament), set limits, and direct the child. Implicit in this model is the assumption that the parent is superior to the child (in terms of power, "judgment", knowledge,...).

I won't argue the merit of such a metaphor when applied to real children.. those under 18 years of age-- primarily because I detest teaching this group and have no insights to offer.

But I do find great fault with this metaphor when applied to learners who are 18 years and older. For a 30 year old teacher to adopt the role of "parent" to a 40 year old immigrant ESL student (for example) is not only weird, its condescending and insulting. And the same goes for 18 year old college students, 28 year old businesswomen, and 70 year old retirees.

Adult education, in particular, needs new metaphors. There are plenty to choose from...

Teacher as Coach: Think of the teacher as the coach of a professional sports team. In such an arrangement, the players are the stars. These days, few professional coaches succeed with the parent model. However tough or loose they may be, they are dealing with confident, difficult, and highly paid stars who simply will not tolerate condescension. In the words of NBA coach Phil Jackson, "Coaching is winning players over". And in coaching, motivation is as important (or more) as conveying specific skills or strategies.

Teacher as Designer: Think of the teacher as a service/experience designer. Based on the clients (students) desires, the teacher designs a learning system to meet their needs. This is not done in a vacuum, but by working closely with the student. Think of the way an ad designer or interior decorator works.

Teacher as Personal Trainer: For those who worship "toughness", consider swapping the parent model for that of the personal trainer. Trainers get paid to work their clients to the bone. The best ones push clients to the edge of their limits. The difference from the parent metaphor is that ultimately the client is boss. The client can and will stop when they want to..... and while the client expects toughness... they also demand respect, encouragement, and equality. If they dont get it, its the trainer who gets fired.

Teacher as Counselor: For the touchy-feely folks, why not think of yourself as a counselor. Your role-- painstakingly assess the students needs, fears, desires, strengths, goals, and motivations.. then work together with them to reach those goals.

Teacher as Servant: Imagine flipping the tables on the parent-authority model. Think of yourself as a customer service representative. Your job-- make the customer happy and win their undying and fanatic loyalty. That means helping them to kick ass-- rather than trying to force them to accept your agenda.

Teacher as Director: Think of the teacher as the Director of an improvisational play. The teachers role-- set the scene, convey the vision, keep the action going.. and pull out the very best performances from the learners.

Teacher as Mentor: Another possible role-- that of informal mentor. No authority or control... just the respect that comes from excellence and character. Imagine meeting with learners in a pub, over a beer.

And so on. There is no limit... and thats the point. We do not need to be bound by the tired, ineffective, and insulting parent metaphor. We can create any role we like. We can create any type of relationship we like with learners... so long as it is mutually agreeable.

The key is not to surrender this decision to a committee, or bureaucracy... nor to adopt one because "thats the way we've always done it".

Rather, I think each teacher should make this decision on their own... after a careful assessment of their own strengths.... and the desires of their particular students.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Thai Innovators

by AJ

Today's Nation(Bangkok Newspaper) carried a front page story called "Star Tutors". The article highlights innovative free agent tutors who are commanding intense loyalty from their students. All of these teachers are Thai nationals.

Yet mediocre western teachers are fond of stating that "innovation", "creativity", and "change" are Western-only values. According to them, it is Conventional Wisdom (read "arrogance") that trying to innovate or improve or individualize in the classroom is an exercise in "Western cultural imperialism". Trying to do these things, they say, is a sign of "insensitivity".

Id say they have it exactly backwards; their attitude smacks of condescension and "western superiority".

In The Nation interviews, several themes emerged. One is a rejection of traditional teaching methods. Another is an intense effort to make subjects (English, Physics, Thai) fun, entertaining, and easily understandable.

No "repeat after me" in these classes.
No boring drudgery.

I want to break from traditional methods of teaching English. My technique consists of the four F's: That's Fun, Firm Foundation, and Friendship. When students have fun, their natural learning process starts as they will remember things by heart, which is more lasting. I also try to create a friendly atmosphere so there can be deep interaction. -- Ajarn Arisara

Fun. Friendship. Two of her three key elements address NON-LINGUISTIC factors... ie. emotional/social factors. Aj. Arisara recognizes the primacy of the student's emotional experience. Without "fun" and "friendship"... there is no "firm foundation".

I've said it before and will keep beating this tired drum... EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE should be the first consideration of any lesson plan. Before goddam "language points". Before "learning objectives". Before "class management" issues. Before everything else.

We should be planning for euphoria. We should be designing for fun. We should be actively aiming for enthusiasm and wild confidence. Without these, all other considerations go straight to the graveyard called "boredom".

I need to be innovative and creative at all times. As for Physics, its about turning the intangible into something relatively easy to understand and remember. -- Ajarn Pisit

This is Physics! Hardest of the hard sciences. Yet here we have a Thai Physics teacher saying the exact same thing: "innovative and creative at all times"... "make the intangible easy to understand".

This isnt just a language education issue. Traditional education is dead dead dead. In all subjects. The explosion in language schools, cram schools, home schooling, and various private schools is no accident. The overall trend is a response to the utter failure of traditional education. Sure, many of these schools are rotten too. But a few are doing remarkable things.

The failure of factory schools has many symptoms. But from the students' perspective it tends to come in the form of boredom (coupled with its twin, irrelevance). Lots of students are simply sick of being bored. They are sick of drudgery. They are sick of monotony. They are sick of suffering through the painful process called "education". They are sick of teachers who lack energy and creativity. They are sick of stock textbooks.

So they are seeking alternatives.

This is good news for teachers. For this is just the beginning. We no longer need be bound to bloated bureaucratic plantations. OUR options are also increasing.... freeing us to pursue more interesting approaches:

"innovation and creativity at all times".....

"fun, friendship, and firm foundations".....


Saturday, November 05, 2005

Internet English Tutoring

by AJ

So, you are an aspiring, wired, freelance teacher like me. Where do you find students?

The first, best, place is among former students, friends, and acquaintences. Thats where my first two students have come from.

Another option is through tutor finding services. My Sensei is one such service, based in Japan. This service is free for teachers. Teachers register their qualifications, schedule, pay rate, a photo, and contact information. This information goes into a database.

Students can search this database to find a tutor. If they find a match they like, they pay the service a small fee to obtain the teacher's contact information.

I just registered with My Sensei and will post updates on an activity I get from them. Ill also be searching for other web-tutor finders and will post that information here as well.

Ive got a lot of learning to do.. a lot of challenges ahead... a lot of failures and inevitable disasters on the horizon. But Ill grind through it all, and chronicle the ups and downs here. In the process, I hope to make the path to freelancing easier for readers who may follow my example.

Because, Ladies and Gentlemen, I strongly believe that the future is Freelance.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Freelance Teaching

by AJ

Im not alone. There are already a number of distance and phone teaching services. Ive found several companies that offer students "conversational English" via phone or internet. And Im shocked by how much they are charging (30$ per hour or more).

Phone instruction is a good idea with good benefits for students and teachers. Students can benefit from lower prices (no building or infrastructure to pay for) and a personal relationship with a teacher (no large classes). Some students will also benefit from avoiding face to face contact initially. These are students who are very shy... who may find a phone call less intimidating than staring a foreigner in the eyes.

Teachers, likewise, can benefit from the freelance possibilities of distance teaching. Its easy to compete with anyone in this medium. No need for big buildings. No need for corporate decor. No need for mega marketing budgets. And no need to reside in any particular place.

But as much as phone education has benefits... its the internet that really opens a world of potential. For one thing, internet phone calls are free (Skype, Google). For another, these free services offer conference capability (up to 4 people for Skype).

They also come with simulataneous chat options. So a teacher or student could type a word they were having trouble understanding.

Then there's the video option. Web cams are relatively cheap and easy to use. Now student and teacher can see each other. This technology is rapidly improving.

The would-be freelancer can now create a virtual school with a cheap computer, free internet phone service (Skype), and a high speed internet connection. With this set up, they have access to students in nearly every country of the world. They can accept payment with credit cards, using an internet banking service (such as pay pal).

While starting up, they can choose to live in a low cost country to keep expenses very low.. while targeting students in higher cost countries to make a decent income. Thus, a teacher could live in Thailand but focus on teaching Japanese students.

But there are even more possibilities. Teachers can create MP3 audio files (conversations, articles) and share them with distance students during "non class time". They can help students with writing by utilizing blogs and focused rewrites. They can create social networks between their students... and collaboritive projects.. using listservs, blogs, websites, and forums.

They can easily compete with the big schools... and beat them. They can build a completely freelance income.

They can, in short, be free.