Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Student Advisory Group

by AJ

One of the suggestions I recently made to the director of our school was this: establish a student advisory group.

By this I mean that students in each class select 2-3 representatives. These representatives will meet on their own to discuss issues related to the school. Theyll also join us during staff meetings. Their mission will be to advocate for students, push for student-centric improvements, and join in the management of the school.

Im happy to say we will give this a try. I see this as a first step towards integrating students, teachers, and staff... erasing the rigid lines that separate them. At TU, students had absolutely no voice. They were treated like children... to be taught and controlled by teachers and the administrators. The idea that they should have a voice... and decision making power... was perhaps my most radical heresy. I adapted my classes based on their goals and priorities-- a big no-no in an autocratic bureaucracy.

But its a smart strategy in a school that depends on student enrollment for its survival. We cant rely on the force of massive government propaganda to keep students coming... we've actually got to satisfy them. In fact, we've got to do more than that.. we've got to turn them into passionate raving maniac fans of our school. That, at least, is my goal.

Step by step, we're getting there. Ive noticed a very encouraging trend: my class enrollment is increasing. The more I talk to students, the better I understand their needs, the better they understand my ideas... and the more I employ comprehensible-input based methods.. the more they come to class. Not only are they coming.. punctuality is also improving.

Truth be told, I prefer the crucible of this type of environment. I hate grades.. though I understand why teachers and bureaucrats love them. Grades shift they balance of power to the teacher's favor. When you can hold a bad grade over their head, you can get away with being boring and irrelevant. Not so in my current environment. If they feel the class (or school) is not helping them, its a small matter for them to leave.. or transfer elsewhere.

Public schools should be subjected to the same evolutionary pressures. Student power is not the fearsome threat most teacher-admins think. It is, in fact, the single best contributor to innovation... and the single most powerful contributor to program success.

If nothing else, do this. Hand over power to the students. THEY will lead you to success in the long run.. There's no need to rely solely on your own resources.

Color, Music, Play

by AJ

More great stuff over at Kathy Sierra's blog... this time related to one of my mantras: the importance of decor and environments that offer rich sensory stimulation.

Check out this post: Death By Cubicle

The cubicle picture that accompanies this post shows many similarities to school environments. Notice the muted colors... all greys and slates. Notice the lines... all straight.. all 90 degree angles. Notice the lighting (fluorescent). Turns out this sort of environment slows learning and shuts down the brains' growth... which comes as no surprise to me.

Im blessed with a wall of windows in my current classroom... and thus plenty of natural lighting. What a difference that makes. But this is not nearly enough. The room itself is still corporate drab. Unfortunately Im broke at the moment and as much as Id like to, just am not going to shell out cash to make things better. Also, I may be sharing this room in the future,.. so most likely Id have to win other teachers.. and the director... over to my decor ideas. So for now my room remains bright, but boring.

I got a taste of whats possible this week, however, when I walked to Haight-Ashbury. As most folks know, this was once the epicenter of the 60s hippy renaissance. The hippies are long gone, but the colorful psychedelic aesthetic is still alive. What a riot of color... murals, brightly colored walls, funky signs,... As we walked the street, I felt my alertness increase. My eye woke up.. and eagerly scanned the environment.

This is exactly the sort of classroom (and school) Id create if I had the decision-making power and the resources. Id cover the walls with bright colors and funky murals. Id string Xmas lights around the ceilings. Id put plants in the corners. Vibrant artwork would cover the walls. Id add texture too... with rough woven tapestries.

Id also appeal to the sense of smell with incense, spice bowls, and essential oils. Id have a photo wall... pics of students, teachers, the city. Id put prisms in the windows... to catch the sunlight.

In short, Id do everything possible to make the classroom feel more like an art studio than a corporate office.

But this project, Im afraid, will have to wait......

Monday, February 27, 2006

Leadership, Vision, Synergy

by AJ

Ive said it many times... when it comes to education, small is beautiful. What a difference a small school makes. At my past job, I worked for a large government university. A behemoth. A dinosaur. To say the place was not open to innovation is an understatement.

Big bureaucracies have a habit of self-perpetuating themselves. They are typically intolerant of criticism, disagreement, and dissent. They dont tolerate non-conformity. In my opinion, trying to change such an institution is a waste of time... a pointless exercise in frustration. Teachers who hope to be original and creative should look elsewhere for employment.

The point hit home today as I talked to the director of my current school. He's energetic. He's excited about improving the school. He is open to innovation. Last week I sent him an email full of suggestions... random ideas I had for improving things. We discussed them at length today... and basically he said, "go for it"! Its hard to underestimate the power of this kind of leadership. The bureaucracy is a lumbering beast.. weighed down by "policy"... and by a more general fear of change.

But a small school with dynamic leadership can evolve quickly. Ours is such a school. Started just one year ago... its enrollment has grown rapidly. Students are flocking to the school. We're adding afternoon and night classes. We're instituting social programs. This can happen because our school does not rely on one person for ideas. As large as TU was... nothing new could happen without approval from the few folks at the top.

Our school, by contrast, is evolving at lightning speed. Each teacher tries new things. We're also continually soliciting involvement from students. Suggestions pour in, and we try many of them. The student body is not a passive & obedient group.. they are active participants.. shaping the school, its curriculum, its programs.

When administrators unleash their teachers.. and teachers unleash their students.. a tremendous synergy occurs. Suddenly EVERYONE is contributing. Teachers inspire the students.. and students inspire the teachers. Energy builds. Enthusiasm grows. Innovations accelerate.

For you practical hard-nosed business types... any idea how this impacts the bottom line? Can you imagine the effect on recruitment when students become active participants in program development? Can you imagine the kind of word of mouth this generates? Our school does no advertising... its phenomenal growth spurred only through referral. We are successfully competing against long-established schools with HUGE marketing budgets.

Everyone benefits from this arrangement. The director & business folks get increasing enrollment and more income. Teachers are freed to innovate and enjoy their jobs. Students shape their own education.. and have a more powerful (and more effective) learning experience.

Break the bureaucracy. Burn the policy manuals. Fire the paper pushers. Axe the autocrats. Success will follow.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Zooming Ahead

by AJ

Ive got one student ("J"), in my low-intermediate class, who is zooming ahead of the others. She's acquiring vocab, grammar, and fluency much faster than the other students. She also seems to be having a much better time. In class, she is always laughing and smiling.

This student is delightful to teach. When she comes to class, everyone brightens. She is very much the polar opposite of the hyper-stressed, textbook memorizing, slow learning students Ive described in other posts.

This student does a great deal of self-study too. But instead of reading grammar textbooks, she listens to authentic English on an MP3 player. She always has her MP3. Sometimes she listens to music, sometimes to audiobooks or conversations she's downloaded. Walking to school, sitting on the bus, during work breaks, walking around the city... she's always got the MP3 player-- listening to English.

She presents a wonderful case-study contrast to Z., my grammar-nazi. "J" and "Z" are equally motivated. They are equally intelligent. Each comes to class regularly. Each puts in a great deal of self-study, outside class.

Z. is progressing slowly. She's very pessimistic about her chances of learning English. Her fluency has not improved much. In social situations outside of class, she feels "incompetent".. and so she avoids them. Z. is highly skeptical of my comprehension-based activities. She complains that we should be learning more grammar. However, Z. has studied grammar for 8+ years in her public school system. Each day after class, she reads through her own private English grammar textbook and does the exercises. She does this maybe 2 hours a day. [If she hasnt consciously mastered English grammar through this Herculean effort, I dont know what it takes]. Z. feels totally disconnected from American society and culture... hoping that one day in the far future she will master English and be able to (finally) engage Americans.

J. is very optimistic about her English progression. Her fluency has made HUGE strides in the past couple of months. She is very confident... so much so that she got a job as a waitress- where she must use English. She says she often has communication problems, but views these as learning experiences... rather than proof of her own incompetence. J. completely avoids direct grammar study (she had plenty in public school as well)... her self-study methods focus solely on comprehensible input. Rather than concentrate her listening efforts in a big chunk, she disperses them throughout the day.. 15 minutes here, 25 minutes there. J. loves the comprehension-based activites we use in class. She is fascinated by American culture. She loves hip-hop music and dance. She loves movies. She has friends and engages Americans as well as she can.

There are many lessons here. Of course I believe J. has a superior linguistic strategy to Z's. Eight+ years of intense grammar analysis has not translated to superior grammar PERFORMANCE, nor to greater fluency, nor to greater confidence, nor to more effective communication.

Beyond this issue, I think that J's "non-linguistic" issues play a huge role in her superior performance. Z. is constantly anxious... and we all know that anxious students acquire language far more slowly (if at all). J. is optimistic and enthusiastically takes risks. When communication problems arise, she does not internalize them ("I suck at English")... rather, she uses gestures, writing, circumlocution, and other strategies to adapt and keep communication going. Z. does the opposite. Even in the safety of the classroom, she's extremely sensitive. If I dont understand what she says... if I, for example, ask her to repeat herself... she immediately becomes depressed. Often she will not answer me again. She looks down and goes silent. She takes her "failure" as proof of her incompetence.... and the utter hopelessness of mastering the language.

Finally, J's fascination with American culture is an important factor. Much research on fossilization points to social-identity factors as a primary cause. In other words, if the student doesnt identify with the culture.. is not enthusiastic about joining it... their accent, grammar, and vocabulary will often fossilize. Progress halts. On the flip side, a student who eagerly wants to join the target culture... who finds it interesting... who can identify/appreciate elements of it.. will often progress much faster and will often avoid fossilization. Z. obsesses about the mechanics of the language, but has little to no interest in American culture (and thus, at a subconscious level,.. no compelling reason to master the language beyond doing well on standardized tests in her home country). J. is excited to be here and desperately wants to communicate, make friends, and join American culture. She cares very little about language mechanics... except as they relate to furthering her communication goals.

J. and Z. present two extreme cases. And, of course, there are no absolutes. However, I believe they are excellent archetypes to ponder. I believe they represent the major trends Ive seen in English language acquisition.

[And as an end note, J. is inspiring me to get off my lazy butt and make a stab at Spanish again. She makes language learning seem fun, exciting, and interesting!!].

Friday, February 24, 2006


by AJ

Of all my students, G. is the one with the best English skills. He's the most fluent. He has the best grammar and the largest vocabulary. He is nearly native.

Whenever I encounter students like G., I always interview them. Im always curious how they did it... and what they attribute their success to. Invariably, these students did not follow the traditional textbook-grammar path (though Im sure there are exceptions out there :)

When I asked G., "How did you do it.. what's your secret?", he gave credit to his middle school English teacher. G.'s Korean English teacher was not normal. For one, unlike many English teachers in the Korean school system, this teacher spoke fluent English. Also, this teacher was a maverick. He threw out the textbooks and "required" curriculum.

This teacher taught G. with movies. Essentially, he used the movie technique. Thus, at a fairly young age, G. had a rich supply of comprehensible input. Not only was it comprehensible, it was authentic... English as it is actually used and spoken in America (most textbooks are more prescriptivist than authentic). While his peers in other schools were slogging through grammar-translation texts.. G. was learning idiomatic language.. from a collection of native English speakers (ie. the actors in the movies). G.'s teacher helped by making the movies comprehensible... explaining the language, paraphrasing with simpler language, etc.

G. went on to be an English major at University. He told me, "my middle school English class was better than the classes I took in High School and University. I became an English teacher because of my middle school teacher. He is the reason I can now speak English fluently."

Ive encountered many stories like G.'s. In fact, whenever I meet a truly fluent non-native speaker.. they almost always tell me they used comprehensible-input based methods. And whenever I encounter an anxious, fossilized, frustrated English learner... they inevitably employ textbook-grammar based methods.

Just a coincidence? I dont think so.

The Tyranny of Grammar

by AJ

C. is a Korean student at my school. Yesterday, she talked with me after class. She was frantic.. almost desperate. She wanted my advice.

C. told me, "I can't speak English. All the other students are better than me". I asked her to explain and she continued... she was extremely frustrated by her lack of fluency. Though she did well on the placement test and is in the advanced class... she felt many of my (low intermediate) students spoke better than her.

She then asked my advice. What should she do? I asked her to describe her study methods. Turns out she is obsessed with grammar. C. attends our school 4 hours a day. Oftentimes, she will also attend another 3 hours of evening classes. But thats not all. Most days she also works for an hour or more in a grammar book. Clearly, motivation and hard work are not lacking.

C. knows more about English grammar than any student in my class, and probably more than almost every student in our school. In fact, Id wager that from an analytical perspective, C. knows more about grammar than any TEACHER in our school. Yet, she feels she still "doesnt know enough grammar". While she can, in fact, speak English... its true that some of my students have greater fluency than she does... and true that many of my (lower level) students have better PRACTICAL grammar skills (ie. as actually used in speech and writing).

C. is the poster girl for why I detest the textbook driven direct grammar methods popular with most schools. Not only do these methods NOT help... they are harmful. C. speaks LESS well because she has focused so much on grammar analysis. She is more anxious, her speech is more halting, and her spoken/written grammar is worse. Because of the methods she was taught with.. and now employs herself... she is learning less quickly than other students whose focus is on comprehensible input.

Its my belief that teachers who use a textbook-grammar centric method are harming their students. They are slowing their progress. They are inhibiting their longterm success. In extreme cases, they are creating students like C.... very bright, motivated students who are great linguists... but ineffective speakers.

Direct grammar analysis should comprise no more than 20% of instruction. Dont damage your students. Dont turn them into grammar quoting drones who cant communicate.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ever So Slowly

by AJ

Gradually, step by step.. bit by bit... Im working out a routine that works with my current (low-intermediate) class. Ive done this by trying lots of stuff (trial and error) and by having many discussions with the students... both as a group and individually.

Finally we've arrived at something that seems to work for all of us, including me.

Our basic daily routine:

40-60 minutes: Basic Grammar textbook.
60 minutes: Audiobook (sometimes with accompanying text, sometimes audio only)
90 minutes: Movie Technique (watch scenes, pause often, teacher paraphrases & discusses new phrases, repeat scenes)

This approach seems an ideal balance to me. Though Im constantly bashing direct grammar instruction, I am not, in fact, totally against it. Its a matter of degree and proportion. I believe direct grammar instruction should be a SUPPLEMENT, not the focus of a language class. Also, Im with Krashen, Asher, Ray, etc... in the sense that I think BASIC grammar is all that should be covered in a direct, analytical way. In proper proportion & degree, this sort of grammar instruction can speed comprehension.. and thus serve as a valuable SUPPLEMENT to comprehension based methods (which should form the bulk of instruction and take up the bulk of class time).

Today we tried listening to the audiobook version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". We tried it without text, but this proved to be too difficult for the students. So Im going to buy the book. Ill use photocopied pages and review the text with them first... allowing us to go slow. Once students understand a section of the text, we'll listen to it. First we'll do so using the text to aid comprehension,... then we'll try it with audio only.

As a supplement, however, Ill be looking for an easier audiobook.... as Id like to give them some "audio-only" practice... at a level very close to their current level ("i+.5" maybe :)

At the moment, we are using "Supersize Me" as our movie. Its working well. Its a funny movie and has other benefits as well. First, its a documentary, so the English is VERY natural and conversational. Second, it covers an interesting cultural topic... one that students are already curious about... they are always asking me why Americans are so fat, why they eat so much fast food, and why portions are so big here.

The textbook is a fairly decent one too. Its a straight grammar one... with very clear and simple explanations. I prefer this to the BS books that try to put a "natural" gloss over their essentially "drill and kill" books. This book keeps it direct and simple (cant remember the name of the book at the moment).

And so, in general, the class is FINALLY starting to gel. Which just goes to show that, in the absence of other strategies, persistence will eventually pay off.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Advice From The Linguist

by AJ

"Listen over and over. Listen many times to the same things. Listen often during the day. Make sure you always have your MP3 player or CD player with you. You can start with this very article, if you are interested in it.

Listen to get used to the sounds. Imitate the sounds. Imitate the words and the intonation. This will help your pronunciation. Then listen for the meaning. If you do not understand it all, read it. If you read on a computer you can access instant on line dictionaries which is much faster than referring to traditional dictionaries. Use The Linguist system to save new words and phrases for later review and to connect new words to familiar contexts. If you are a member of The Linguist you can even ask your tutor for explanations and help.

Now listen again and read again. Stay relaxed and do not worry if there are always parts that you seem unable to understand. When you listen and read you are training your brain to get used to English. Just keep doing it. This is essentially how I learned nine languages, including my most recent ones, Cantonese and Korean.

Both listening and reading are important learning activities. When they are combined they are even more powerful. Repetitive listening and reading and a system like The Linguist will free you from your dependence on "learner English" and text books. Fascinating authentic content that you thought was too difficult, on subjects from business to history to literature, will become available for you to learn from."

--From The Linguist

Im a lazy bastard and dont speak a foreign language. So for first person experiences, I defer to Steve & Mark Kaufman at the linguist... speakers of 9 languages each.

Theyve got an excellent system. Their system is consistent with language acquisition research.

At The Linguist, they dont use textbooks. Thats right... none! They use ONLY authentic materials. At The Linguist, they stress comprehensible input... in the form of listening and reading. While speaking and writing are also practiced, INPUT is by far the focus.

Another fabulous quality of The Linguist approach is their embracement of ambiguity. As you can tell from the above quote, Linguist teachers do not obsess about "perfection". From the start, they teach their students to improvise. They teach them to grow comfortable with real language... to relax and not worry if they dont understand EVERYTHING. Communication is their focus... and it clearly works for lots of students (not to mention the Kaufmans).

The ambiguity/improv hurdle is the most difficult for me. Many of my students "get" the research. They are frustrated with the traditional approach. Theyve studied English with textbooks for, perhaps, 8 years... but still feel they cannot communicate effectively.

But they struggle to let go of old conditioning. They cling to the textbook like a life preserver. They are terrified of ambiguity. They believe they must understand everything at a conscious/analytical level. Though they may use a particular grammar construct correctly, if they cant analyze it, explain it, and reduce it to a "rule"... they feel they dont "know" it... and thus feel they "cant speak English".

When a student says this to me, I usually laugh and say, "Well, you are speaking English to me right now... and I understand you".

Which is to say, its not really a linguistic issue-- its a "non-linguistic" issue. That is, its an emotional issue. However good their skill, however much they have acquired.. They dont FEEL skillful. They FEEL incompetent. They FEEL stupid. They FEEL foolish.

And no surprise. Im constantly horrified and surprised by their English learning stories. They tell me about teachers who yelled at them for making a grammar mistake. They tell me of being ridiculed in English class. They tell me about bad grades and failed tests. They tell me of pressure from parents... Teachers... Administrators. No wonder they are terrified of making a mistake. No wonder they cling to the textbook and its unambiguous scripts.

Which brings me to the role of the teacher... A role I find increasingly resembles that of a social worker. All the research, all the "great techniques", all the passion in the world are meaningless if you cant get students to relax and take the plunge.

To do that, you've got to address their emotional trauma (a word more than one student has used to describe past English classes). Its not just about materials and lesson plans. Its about building confidence. Its about healing those traumas. Its about slowly encouraging risks. Its about creating an emotional atmosphere that is safe, energetic, fun,... and which encourages improvisation.

Clearly, this takes time with some students. But dont give up. Keep having those process discussions. Keep explaining your methods and the research behind them. Keep telling those "hero stories"... about students who won through and achieved fluency.

Hold award shows. At TU, I did this and it was a big hit. The class secretly voted for the following awards: Best Listener, Best Reader, Best Speaker, Best Blogger, Most Improved Student, Most Enthusiastic, Most Supportive, Best Team Member. We gave awards not only to the top vote getter.. but to the top three in each category. I gave small greeting cards as "awards". The winners came to the front of the class, I presented the card, and everyone cheered as they received it (These were college students).

After leaving TU, I got an email from a student telling me it was one of the best educational experiences she'd had in her life. So simple. So easy to do.

Another idea: Hold regular student conferences-- one to one meetings with students. If time is a problem, do this during class (have the class read while you do this). I did this at TU and am planning to start these at my current job. During the conference I talk to them about their individual learning goals. We discuss their past English experiences.. including negative or traumatic ones. We discuss their doubts and worries... and also their hopes and goals. And, can you believe it, we talk about their lives in general... I try to get to know them as real people.. not just as language students (damn, how radical)!

Through these methods.. and others.. I slowly build emotional rapport with the students. I slowly help them relax. I help them grow more comfortable with risk. And hopefully, I help them learn that education (language or otherwise) can be a confidence building process.. full of fun, encouragement, great successes, and regular compliments.

So called "non-linguistic factors" are vitally important. In education, "soft" is hard. Soft is realistic. Soft is effective.

Clueless Power

by AJ

From Kathy Sierra

Here's to the Clueless Ones

"The ones who see things differently

They're not fond of rules (granted, that's because they don't actually know about the rules)

They have no respect for the status quo (see previous statement)

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.
Because they change things.

Maybe they have to be clueless.

How else can you take on city hall at the age of 12?
Or break the impossible record?
Or build an internet startup without VC bucks?

While some see them as the clueless ones,
we see a fresh perspective.

Because the people who are clueless enough to think
they can change the world, might be the ones who do.

Do not underestimate us."


"We cant do that". " Weve always done it that way". These are the mantras of realism. As Ms. Sierra notes, prior to Roger Bannister, the experts KNEW the four minute mile could not be broken. After he did it, suddenly a host of other runners did it too. The barrier was psychological only.

The same is true in teaching. Introduce a crazy idea. Go ahead, the crazier the better. See what happens. If your experiences are like mine, youll find that most people will instantly dig in their heels. Visions of horror will dance in their brains. Theyll try to convince you that your school will implode if policy is not followed. Theyll tell you it "cant be done". They work overtime trying to convince you of this. Imaginary boogie-men will be conjured.

The same can be true of students. Many have been brainwashed through years of education. They are convinced it cant be done: English is impossible. Grammar must be perfect. Textbooks are absolutely necessary. Hard boring arduous effort is the only way.

Here's my own clueless story. When I was 12 years old, I inexplicably decided to organize a fundraiser for the Leukemia Society. Without telling my parents, I decided to have a gaming marathon with my friends. I convinced 10 friends to join me. I then called the Leukemia Society and told them of our plan. They sent me an information packet, complete with pledge forms.

On our own, with no help from parents, we canvassed our neighborhoods for donations. People pledged a certain amount of money for each hour we played (we planned on 48 hours straight).

I decided publicity would be a good idea, so I called the local paper... explained what we were doing... and asked them to send a reporter to interview us. They couldnt believe we were doing this on our own, and so they sent a reporter. We got a full page spread.

In the end, we raised over $4000 dollars.

This happened because I was clueless. I had no idea that a 12 year old "couldnt" organize such an event on his own.

Now Im 37. But Ive tried to preserve the "clueless" attitude that served me so well when I was 12.

Most teachers value realism, preparation, and organization. But I believe Ms. Sierra is right. Perhaps the best strength a teacher can have is a healthy dose of cluelessness.

Just imagine, if you didnt know it was "impossible"... what would you do? What are your craziest ideas? What are your impossible ideas? What totally unrealistic innovation would you love to try?

Go ahead and do it.... be clueless.

Grammar In Perspective

by AJ

I want to be clear-- grammar has its place. Obviously, grammar is an important element of language (though not most important, as most textbooks & teachers claim). The question: what is the most effective way to acquire grammatical competence? A related question, relative to other activities... what proportion of time should direct study of grammar take up? Also, what kind of direct grammar study should we use?

Based on both research and teaching experience, I put the proportion at about 10-20%. That is, I devote this percentage of time to direct analysis of grammar "rules". Furthermore, I limit direct grammar study to the basics only.... following Dr. Krashen's advice. Practically, this means I teach first year basic grammar only (basic verb tenses, comparatives, possessives, etc.). I do not teach the passive voice or other complex grammar constructs... having found they are best acquired unconsciously via comprehensible input.

Another note about grammar-- I do not correct errors. The research on direct error correction is strong and clear-- it doesnt work. Students who receive error correction have no better grammar performance than those who do not. Though students often ask for this, the usual result of error correction is that all the students become obsessed with making mistakes... and thus their ability to COMMUNICATE worsens rather than improves.

Most of my time is spent focused on comprehensible input from authentic sources. I use TPR storytelling. I use interactive reading. I use the movie technique. I use sheltered content. I use books on tape. I use discussions, mini-projects. I use songs. Id like to use more internships, guest speakers, recorded authentic conversations, and other "real world" sources.

These activities constitute 80-90% of class time. Sometimes I assign the textbook grammar as homework. Usually I review the textbook during the first 30-60 minutes of class (out of a 4 hour day).

Basic grammar rules CAN speed comprehension... but only if they are kept simple & basic. And only if the number of rules studied remains relatively small. By far, the most efficient route to grammatical excellence is through unconscious acquisition... gained through authentic comprehensible input.

Help your students put direct grammar study in perspective.

Improv Wisdom

by AJ

"You should listen to the other folks and trust that when it comes to you, what you need to say will come forward. I challenge everybody to try this. Trust that when you start to speak, you have a lifetime of being in meetings, being a person who can communicate. Human speech is the ultimate improvisation. If you screw up, you can correct yourself.
That's another thing I want to say. Go ahead, make some mistakes. Maybe the sentences aren't perfect, but you can go back and sculpt them and fix them. I think natural utterances produce credibility. We feel comfortable around people who speak naturally rather than too smoothly, in my view."

--Patricia Madson

The above is advice Ms. Madson gives to public speakers & presenters (ie. NATIVE SPEAKERS). Focus on listening. Be aware of whats happening in this moment.

If you screw up, you can correct yourself. Go ahead and make some mistakes.

If only foreign language teachers/students would heed this advice. Much of the problem my students have with authentic communication is caused by their insistence on perfection. They are terrible at improvisation... they try to script everything. In the midst of a real-time conversation... they are thinking about grammar rules instead of focusing on the MEANING of the conversation.

Its painful to talk to such students... their speech is halting and unnatural. However perfect it may be grammatically (or not!), its simply impossible for a normal (ie. not a teacher) English speaker to talk to them at length. Theyve got enough vocabulary for the job. Theyve got enough basic grammar. But theyve never learned how to use the language creatively. Theyve never learned to improv. In fact, they are terrified of it.

These students seem to crave certainty. Theyve been taught that language is a formula. Theyve memorized scripts (dialogues). Theyve memorized complex grammar "rules". Theyve used "controlled practice" again and again and again. The problem is, real people dont follow a script.

This is why I typically shun "controlled practice". You know the kind of exercise Im talking about-- first you study the "present progressive".... then students engage in highly structured questions and answers using this verb tense (and no other). From a skills-building point of view, this is logical... you build one isolated skill at a time. But communication doesnt work that way. Students must be able to improv.

Part of being a good improv communicator is a willingness to screw up. You make a mistake.. so what. Native speakers make mistakes all the time. Rather than drill & kill, I prefer to stress circumlocution. If I dont understand a student's speech, I ask them to tell me in a different way. If they cant remember the perfect vocab word for the situation, I ask them to communicate the idea using simpler vocab. After they do so, I might say, "oh, you mean......". But the focus remains on meaning and context, not the structure of the language. This is what native speakers (adults and children) do all the time.

There is a very large emotional component to all this. Much of the work here, for a teacher, is helping students become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. In my experience, the students who progress fastest are those who are comfortable with improvised speech. They accept imperfection. They are eager to communicate ideas. As they gradually build success, they grow bolder... creating an upward spiral of confidence, meaningful & comprehensible input, and social connections.

My advice, therefore, is to strictly limit "controlled practice". Like a good zen master, I prefer to kick out the crutches as fast as possible. Close the textbook. Make mistakes. Engage in the always messy process of genuine communication. Bit by bit, help students grow comfortable with uncertainty.

Most likely, they will hate you in the beginning (its a scary process)... but in the end, they will thank you.

Success Story

by AJ

Ive got a fantastic student in my class... she's young, vibrant, and enthusiastic. More to the point, her English ability is improving rapidly. She's gotten a job as a waitress in a restaurant, catering to American customers... even though she is in the "low-intermediate" class. This student is improving faster than most of her classmates. Whats her secret? After all, she's from Korea.. and so is a product of the same drill-kill-memorize educational system as most of my students.

Turns out this student is instinctively following her own "comprehensible input approach". She hates grammar study. In a recent class discussion, she described the textbook as "useless".

Instead, she prefers music, movies, free reading and TV. She's got a notebook full of song lyrics. She downloads American music on her MP3 player... finds the lyrics on the internet... then uses a dictionary (and native speakers) to help her decode the meaning.

A month and a half ago, we read an article about the benefits of pleasure reading. I advised the class to go to a bookstore and buy an EASY and FUN book to read. She was the only student to take my advice.. she bought an English language manga (comic book) and has been reading enthusiastically.

This student loves the movie technique. At home she even tries it herself.... watching movies and TV shows on her own. She also has no fears of making mistakes. She speaks eagerly... focused on MEANINGFUL COMMUNICATION, not grammar perfection. As a result, her speaking is amazingly fluent for a student of her level... as is her listening comprehension. Her grammar is not bad either, as good or better than any other student in the class.

While a few of her "monitor overusing" peers struggle along at a snails pace, this student is acquiring the language rapidly. Just as importantly, she is already functioning in the language... enthusiastically using it for authentic (non classroom) communication.

My challenge: How can I convince other students to follow her lead?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Class Management

by AJ

For whatever reason, "class management" was never an issue at my last job. I quickly established rapport with students and had no problem maintaining it. Not so at my current job. Here its been an ongoing learning process.

But Im slowly making progress. Ive done so by remembering old social work techniques... specifically, techniques I used when facilitating support groups.

Now, this isnt exactly rocket science... but I have learned a few principles.

The most important is that you dont manage a group, you help the group manage itself. And how do you do this? By directly discussing problems with the class.... and working out solutions together. This is not the "big boss" approach, wherein the leader lays down the law and (through guile, force, or skill) coerces the class into following his rules. Rather, the group facilitator helps the class reach consensus solutions.

An example: When running support groups for abused teens, I found that a few of them could be quite insulting to the other members. They assumed an air of "cool", and ridiculed members who opened up. Obviously, this is a very toxic situation-- that can quickly destroy the "safe sanctuary" feeling so necessary in such a group. I had to deal with this problem. What I didnt do is criticize the offenders. Nor did I try to cut them off or ignore them.

Rather, I stated my observations to the group as openly and calmly as possible, ex. "I notice that a few members of the group occasionally insult others when they share sensitive feelings. Im concerned this might intimidate some of you.. prevent you from sharing your feelings openly. What do you think?" Typically, that opened the floodgates. The other members were, of course, very frustrated with the "cool" ones. By introducing the topic, I gave them an opportunity to voice their feelings... and they usually did in a very forceful and direct manner. Discussions, sometimes heated, ensued. In the end, the "cool" members usually apologized... and the group usually established strict rules regarding respectful communication. Other than introduce the topic, I said very little. The group managed itself. The group established ground rules. The group found solutions and enforced them!

I dont know why its taken me so long to try this approach as a teacher. Actually, I do. Im conditioned to think of teachers as "king of the class"... and so believed I had to solve problems by myself. But it just doesnt work very well. For example, any group will have quiet members... and a few who are very dominant. This can be a real problem, especially when communication is so important. The more timid members need equal opportunities. The "education" way to handle this is for the teacher to cut off the dominant members, or ignore them in favor of the quiter ones. Ive tried this, but it creates a battle of wills. Ill ask a question, say a quiet students name, and look directly at them. However, my most dominant student will still attempt to answer. If I ignore them and continue looking at the quiet student.. they seem only to try harder to regain my attention. The quiet student remains quiet-- unwilling to compete.

Here's the (social work) approach I will try next week. Ill walk into class and tell them I want to discuss the class dynamics. Ill say something like, "Ive noticed that some students tend to dominate in class, while others barely speak. I want to be sure that everyone gets an opportunity to communicate. But I dont want to force people to talk who dont want to. What do you think? How can we guarantee everyone has a chance to participate?" Hopefully this will give them the opportunity to discuss their frustrations. And hopefully THEY will work out a solution to ensure more opportunities for everyone. Since THEY will find a solution, I can also rely on THEM to enforce it.

This is the "wu wei" approach to classroom management... by turning things over to the students, the class is managed more effectively, with less effort for the teacher.

Give it a try. Next time you are frustrated with the class, address it directly and openly. Dont complain or insult them... just say, "here is what Ive noticed, how should we deal with it?".

You may be surprised at the response.


by AJ

Blogging got me into big trouble at my last job. The bureaucrats (and other teachers) got wind of this blog, scoured the archives, and were enraged. Some chose to take personal offense from various posts (though I strictly avoid directly criticizing people at my job). Others decided I was "corrupting students" by airing my thoughts, ideas, challenges, and frustrations. I was scolded for being "negative". My students were interrogated by administrators.

In the wake of these events, I received a lot of advice. Some people scolded me for being so honest and direct. "What did you expect", they said. Others criticized me for using my real name.... telling me I was stupid not to write under a fake one. Some folks agreed with the bureaucrats... that I was (and still am, presumably) a corrupting thought-criminal who should be silenced. One guy repeatedly posted adolescent insults as comments.

I gave each of these comments the thought I felt they deserved, but decided,.. in the end.. to continue writing under my own name. I also decided not to self-censor.... not to sugar coat my thoughts. Might I get "in trouble" again. Sure.

But thats a smart risk to take. Blogging openly has many benefits. The first is that it improves my teaching. By presenting the good, the bad, the ugly, the great, and the stupid Im able to evolve my thoughts more quickly. By using my own name & situation, readers can evaluate what I write in context.

But the best benefit for me is that openness allows my students, former students, and other peers to view my ideas openly. They therefore gain a better understanding of what I hope to do and why Im doing it. I dont have time to discuss this everyday in class.... but through this blog Im able to put it all out there for anyone to read.

I also prefer not to hide this blog from employers. After failed attempts at "stealth", Ive decided on a better strategy- directness. Ive realized I dont want to work for a school that cant handle open communication. I dont want to work for a school that stifles innovation. I dont want to work for a school that cant handle disagreement or dissent.

And so, when I apply for jobs, I still include this blog's address. Contrary to what the devil's advocates have said... Ive found this to be a powerful selling point in my favor. After all, this blog communicates my teaching style (and principles) far more extensively than any interview could.

And so I encourage other teacher-bloggers to embrace openness. In the long run, I believe its a healthier strategy.. and a better career move to boot.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Brain Friendly

by AJ

"Appeal to as many senses as possible. Even if your lesson exists solely in software, use colors, shapes, and potentially sounds (audio is tricky, and a whole separate topic) to give users a sensation of touching or hearing something (heck, pictures of food may make them smell and taste something). Consider podcasts and video, or even song lyrics or poems. Think about rhythym."

--Kathy Sierra

The main problem with the textbook-centric, grammar "drill & kill" approach is that its totally antagonistic to the brain. We don't learn this way... at least not quickly or effectively.

Our brains are wired in a certain way, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. For the bulk of humanity, memorizing lists of vocab is boring... and very inefficient. Classroom learning in general is brain antagonistic. My and your students look sleepy for a reason... its not that they are bad students.. its that we are using very bad methods.

Our brains are wired to pay attention to certain kinds of stimuli. People and faces, for example, are highly interesting to the brain. Stories and conversations are also naturally interesting.

The brain is also wired to seek novelty and rich sensory input. It likes colors. It likes smells. It likes variety. It likes movement.

The typical classroom is nearly devoid of these stimuli. We teach language with few to no visuals (lame notes on a whiteboard do not typically capture the brain's attention). We have no smells in our classrooms. Most schools employ a subdued color scheme (greys, browns, whites). And there is little to no movement in most classrooms. For adult programs, the sensory deprivation is taken to extremes (presumably adults dont want color, smells, art, touch, or variety).

Compared to the average classroom lesson, movies therefore offer significant advantages. They are rich in visual stimuli. They contain lots of movement. They have a compelling story and interesting people. The sound in a movie typically varies considerably (loud & quiet, etc...). Movies also use music to create mood.

The only problem with movies is that the language used in them is too complex for most students. It is not comprehensible, and therefore its difficult or impossible for them to learn English by watching movies. Unless.....

Unless they use strategies to make the language comprehensible. The movie technique is one such strategy. The teacher uses pauses and paraphrasing to aid comprehension. Ideally, the teacher narrates using language just a bit above the students current level. Ideally, s/he rewinds and shows the same scene multiple times... with paraphrased explanations... so that students can make more sense of the language.

Another comprehension tool-- English subtitles. Subtitles allow the teacher or student to pause the movie, read & understand the words at their own pace, look-up unknown words, and then repeat the scene as often as needed till they understand it.

All the while, they are seeing contextualized people and actions that relate to the language. They are immersed in color, music, context-rich conversation. This, I believe, is what accounts for the excellent results exhibited by Focal Skills programs (which use the movie technique as one of their main components). Students in these programs acquire English, on average, 35% faster than their peers in traditional textbook-centric programs.

But the movie technique is only a start. The more we can bring color, real people, compelling stories, smells, music, art, and contextualized meaning into the classroom... the more powerful will our teaching be... and the faster our students will acquire the language.

Grammar Hounds

by AJ

"Monitor "overusers" are performers who feel they must "know the rule" for everything and do not entirely trust their feel for grammaticality in the second language. One case, "S", described by Stafford and Covitt (1978), remarked: "I feel bad... when I put words together and I don't know nothing about the grammar." In Stevicks terms (Stevick, 1976, p. 78), overusers may suffer from "lathophobic aphasia", an "unwillingness to speak for fear of making a mistake"."

--Stephen Krashen

The above describes quite a few students. We've got several "monitor overusers" at our school. These folks tell me they "cant speak English". A few of these folks are very advanced... but their obsession with grammatical perfection paralyzes them. In terms of useful communication, these students are often overshadowed by others with far less English proficiency.

I find these students challenging. By their own admission, they are frustrated. Their overreliance on conscious grammar memorization is not helping them communicate. They fret that they are not "fluent". They moan about every small mistake... no matter how clear & effective their communication is. They have a tremendous fear of ambiguity... and dont understand that language acquisition follows a fairly predictable path.. with certain mistakes prevalent, naturally, at certain stages. They want to be "perfect" or "native-like"... and until they are, they will insist that they "cannot speak English".

Unfortunately, these students are rarely open to another approach. Despite their frustrations, they insist on doing more of the same. When I suggest less grammar "study" and more "natural English input", they are skeptical. These students have a very strong belief that language learning must be an arduous, serious, mentally difficult process. If they arent diligently trying to memorize rules and lists, they think they arent working hard... and therefore not learning.

How to get through to them? In the past Ive tried hitting them with the research. Ive shared information about free voluntary reading and other "comprehension" approaches. While they sort of get it,... many remain resistant.

Recently, I found a better approach. I target the very best students... the ones with great fluency, great pronunciation, and effortless grammar use. Invariably, these students followed a much different approach than the "monitor overusers".

Some examples:

Tip is a Thai language teacher with a strong dedication to "natural approaches". She is also an excellent English speaker despite having never lived or studied abroad. Tip advocates a "listen first" approach rather than too much focus on grammar memorization or speaking perfection. She watches lots of English TV... including shows such as "Sex & The City". She reads extensively.... focusing on authentic materials. Unlike many "monitor overusers", she doesnt use a dictionary to decode too-difficult texts. Rather, she often reads for pleasure-- especially women's magazines like Cosmo, etc.

Tip's English is fast and fluent. She rarely thinks consciously about grammar, and so her speech lacks the stammered hesitation I see so often from the grammar hounds. Despite (or rather, because of) her approach, her grammar is nonetheless excellent.

Shiori struggled in English classes. She did not do well. By her own admission, she didnt learn much English in school. However, when she left school she decided to teach herself. She did so with movies. She watched English movies repeatedly. She focused first on "feeling" the sounds and rhythms of the language. Then progressed to the vocabulary and meaning. She said she avoided all conscious study of grammar.

Shiori, unlike most Japanese students Ive met, has excellent pronunciation and speaks fluently... without the halting, hesitant, awkward utterances typical of most Japanese English learners. Shiori has never lived in an English speaking country. ... and has never studied abroad.

Gabriel owns a flower shop in SF. He's a native Spanish speaker, but now speaks fluent, nearly flawless English. I was impressed by his skill and asked him, "what advice would you give to students who are trying to learn English?" He said he paid little attention to consciously memorizing grammar rules. Rather, he advised new students to watch TV & movies, and to seek out English conversations as often as possible.

The funny thing is that Gabriel's grammar is far superior to the even the best "monitor overusers" at our school. Like a native speaker, Gabriel has a "feeling for grammatical correctness" that serves him far better than consciously memorized rules.

Ive learned an important lesson. Students dont give a damn about my opinions. And they arent terribly interested in research either. What they are VERY interested in is the question, "How can I kick ass with English"?

That's where these stories come in. Rather than bore them with research & my opinion, Im beginning to switch tactics. Increasingly, Im telling stories like the ones above. When I can, I let the star performers tell their own stories (Ive invited Gabriel to talk to my class about how he learned English).

These people, these stories, have far more credibility than I do. These are people who have done it. They have achieved what our students want to achieve. They have powerful "this is how to kick ass with English" stories. They are very powerful salespeople for a "comprehension based" approach.

And so my advice for dealing with the grammar hound "monitor overusers".... find English stars, people who acquired the language and now use it fluently. Let THEM win over the grammar hounds. Let THEM persuade through the power of their accomplishments.

Present & Persuade

by AJ

A confession: Im a rotten co-worker.... and an even worse employee. One one hand, Im a super passionate teacher.. highly dedicated to my students. On the other hand, Im an anarchist by nature and loathe "authority". Which is all well and good... and nothing I hope to change.

But. At times Ive let my loathing of authority make me timid. Ive taken a stealth approach at some jobs (typically at large rule-bound organizations I knew I could not influence). This is a wise choice when working for a large bureaucracy, though the far wiser choice is not to work for one in the first place! The "typical" school is a place that beats down passionate teachers. Bring up a new idea, and you are instantly assaulted by the devil's advocates (a very accurate term by the way). Try something and "fail", and you are quickly reprimanded. Its always "management by complaint". Ken Blanchard calls this style "Catch them doing something wrong". Not surprisingly, this kind of management breeds a rule-bound, slow to change, boring approach. Its an ever downward spiral... passion is quickly exterminated... first in teachers, then in students.

My current school is not a large bureaucracy. It is a new language school, just under a year old. Its a small school. It has an incredibly energetic and passionate director. In many ways, this school reminds me of the Alcove Youth Shelter.. the social work agency Im always praising. This is a school that is open to innovation... open to new ideas... open to change, growth, evolution.

And its not only the director. The teachers are also excellent... energetic, knowledgeable, personable. While our teaching approaches vary widely, we share a strong dedication to growth and improvement.

But until now, Ive followed the old approach. Still smarting from the uptight bureaucrats at my last job, Ive kept quiet at my current school. But this is a mistake. This school is nothing like my last job, and Ive been foolish to follow the old approach.

I now realize that communication, presentation, and persuasion are just as important with co-workers as with students (assuming the school is an open, innovative, and flexible one). Just as we need to win students over, we also need to win over peers and administrators. By doing so, we can create an amazing synergy... tapping into the brains of our peers... and helping them tap into ours.

Doing so requires two things. One, as Ive mentioned, is an organizational culture dedicated to innovation and egalitarianism. Dont bother trying to change a mammoth bureaucracy, its an exercise in futility & frustration (my advice- quit and find a better job).

Secondly, we need to develop our presentation and persuasion skills. As teachers, we are presenters... and not just to our students. We are also presenters when we attend staff meetings. We are presenters when we discuss ideas with administrators. The better we are, the more we can effect change.. the more we can influence the school (not only our little classroom).

Given the proper environment, synergy is possible. At the Alcove, our small team constantly brainstormed. We supported and helped one another. It was a place that preferred to say "yes, lets try it" rather than debate worst-case scenarios. We fed off each other's energies. We piggy-backed off each other's ideas. We encouraged each other, complimented each other. In the process, we kicked ass. We rapidly improved and expanded the agency's programs (in terms of quality, quantity, and funding). Our clients benefited tremendously.

And so did we. It was a wonderful place to work... fun, exciting, inspiring. I actually looked forward to work (a rarity for me :)

My current school has the same potential. And so I will depart from my tight-lipped habits-- and make greater efforts to communicate with the staff, as well as students.

Hopefully I can help create the same upward spiral of energy, fun, passion, and innovation as I experienced at the Alcove.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Turn That Pyramid Upside Down

by AJ

The traditional organizational structure:

1. Big boss (Director, Dean, whatever): The top. Makes the important decisions. Controls the budget. Controls the information (who gets to know what). Has final say, and veto power, over all program decisions.

2. Teachers: Below the big boss. Follow the boss' general guidelines.... but are the bosses in their class. Control the choice of activities, the evaluation of students, the syllabus, the classroom schedule, teaching priorities, etc.

3. Staff: Below the Boss and Teachers... handle administrative duties... but really no decision making authority.. except over small, daily admin activities.

4. Students: The bottom. No decision making power. No access to information. Basically are told to show up and do what they are told.

This is an inferior organizational structure. It breeds an organization that is slow to innovate... which drains passion & energy from teachers, staff, and students.

Luckily, there is another way. Turn that pyramid upside-down. This is not just the idea of a malcontent teacher (ie, me :) ..... its also the hard-nosed business advice of many management gurus. From egomaniac greedy capitalist Jack Welch (GE's former CEO), to passionate management guru Tom Peters, to Apple computer's Steve Jobs, to internet marketing whiz Seth Godin.... a growing number of cutting edge businesspeople are recognizing the power of "flat organizations". They recognize that an army-like command & control structure is toxic to any organization that depends on innovation and "brain power".

Yes, we still need that Director... but his/her role changes from "boss" to facilitator/visionary/coordinator/supporter. Rather than horde information and decision making power, the director enthusiastically decentralizes it.

Yes, we still need teachers (well, I hope)... but our roles change from "king of the classroom" to coach/consultant/trainer/mentor. We shift from control to collaboration. We mutually create a curriculum, syllabus, study plan, and evaluation plan (evaluating teacher and students). We take an active role in program decision making.... and are encouraged to innovate enthusiastically.

The staff's role expands considerably.... beyond shuffling papers to gathering and analyzing data, coordinating with teachers & students, and sharing in decision making re: the overall program. Strict "job descriptions" blur.

In the upside-down school, the students rise to the top.... they become the driving force of school innovation. They (representatives... or all of them) join staff meetings. They work with their teachers as equal members of a team to design a curriculum that works for everyone. They take responsibility for problems and improvements. They actively innovate on their own. They become the sales and marketing force.

This kind of structure works. I have been blessed to work for ONE organization like this... and it was, without a doubt, the most innovative, energetic, ambitious, and inspiring job Ive ever had.

It was a tiny social work organization dedicated to helping homeless and at-risk teens. We had a shelter for runaways and for abused children who'd been taken from their families. We also had a number of community/prevention/education programs. Our tiny staff was young & hyper-motivated.... and blessed with an exceptional director. She articulated an overall mission. She was excellent at her specific job duties (raising money, community relations, grant writing & management).

What made her special, however, was her insistence that her staff make decisions and innovate. She didnt want us waiting around for permission. She didnt want us waiting around for orders. And she did not obsess about mistakes. When failures did occur, she always backed up her staff... never complained. Rather, she used mistakes as a means to help the organization grow. And just to show how serious she was about decentralization... she insisted that our Board of Directors include a teenager (and former client).

Her approach instilled an attitude of fearlessness in us. We became excited. Our passion and dedication grew month by month. We often shared ideas. We encouraged each other, helped each other. We were a tight-knit team, working together for a purpose: social workers, secretary, interns, house parents, and even the accountant (who often pitched in with the kids).

If not for this experience, Id probably consider Tom Peters' ideas to be great in theory, but not practical. But Ive seen his ideas put into action...

It was a remarkable experience... one I hope to repeat someday, should I fund my own program.


by AJ

Continuing on the last post's theme....... Most teachers, I think, dont spend enough time listening to their students. I have been guilty of this. I was frantically trying to do a good job for them, but I was flying blind. Save for a few complaints/suggestions... I didnt really know how they felt, what they wanted,... nor did they understand me.

So today we had another discussion about the class. First, my gung-ho Korean student made a presentation about the book "Never Study In English". This book is by a Korean man who self-taught himself English.. and became a fluent, native-like speaker. My student summarized his book, and outlined the self-study approach the man used:

1. First, learn BASIC grammar. The man first learned the simple basics of English grammar: past, present, future tenses, etc... the sort of stuff you find in a first year grammar book. He stressed that he steadfastly avoided memorizing the rules... and avoided complex grammar (passive voice, phrasal verbs, etc.).

2. Second, build vocabulary with authentic materials. The man recommended using only an English to English dictionary, not a translation dictionary.

3. Third, build basic listening skills. The writer used easy to understand audiobooks primarily. He listened to the same material multiple times. As he did, he often tried to write what he was hearing... focusing on capturing the sounds (not worrying about correct spelling).

4. Fourth, build advanced listening skills with movies. The writer used English movies with English subtitles. He slowly worked through each film... pausing, rewinding, looking up unknown words (in his English-English dictionary).... asking native speakers about difficult idioms/slang.

After my student presented this information, we discussed it. Each of my students discussed what they saw as the strengths and limitations of the man's approach.

I then put them in pairs and asked each pair to re-plan my class.... to come up with a 3.5 hour daily routine... based on their English needs/goals. Each pair presented their ideal schedule, and then we had a lively discussion comparing them... some students arguing for/against various elements.

Finally, a consensus agreement emerged.... and we decided to try the following daily schedule:

9:00-9:30 Review the grammar textbook
9:30-10:00 Listening skills (listen to an easy audiobook story) OR (listen to a song)
10:00-11:00 Discuss the story/song, review new vocabulary & practice it.
11:00-11:30 Break
11:30-12:30 Movie Technique (watch a movie, teacher pauses, rewinds, paraphrases, questions, and explains often)
12:30-1:00 Practice & discuss new vocabulary from the movie. Discuss the movie.

Homework: A mix of:
Review the movie scenes again, at home.
Do exercises in the grammar textbook.
Free reading/Assigned reading.
Listen to podcasts.
Read an article.

And so this is my IEP (Intensive English Program) plan for my low-intermediate level class. Actually, I should say this is OUR plan. (One nice side benefit of sharing power with your students... if things dont work well, they share in the responsibility... and therefore, in finding a new solution).

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


by AJ

Your students are always smarter than you are. Never forget this.

Today I finally sat down with my class and had a long talk. I told them about my concerns. I discussed the techniques I was trying to use (movie technique, TPRS) and WHY I was using them. I also mentioned my observations... for example, I noted that one of the students fell asleep yesterday during the movie and another left.

I did not scold them, of course. Rather, I said, "This is what Im trying and why, and this is what Ive noticed from you.. now how do you feel about all this?". We had an excellent discussion.

First of all, I gained a much better understanding of them. I learned from my sleeping student (who is actually super motivated) that she found the movie technique, AS I HAD USED IT, too overwhelming. She then suggested the following adapted approach:

1. Instead of doing 90 minutes of the movie technique without stopping.... try doing it for only 15-30 minutes at a time.
2. Since there is so much new language/phrases... please help us understand which are the most common & useful, and which are less so.
3. After 15-30 minutes, let's go back to the classroom to discuss and review. Let's review the new language (phrases & grammar) we learned and practice them till we can remember and understand them. Then let's discuss the movie's plot & characters.
4. After the review and discussion, let's return to the movie and watch another 15-30 minutes.. repeating the above process again.
5. Finally, as homework, why don't we each rent the movie and review it at home (yet again).

I thought these were excellent suggestions. Today we tried her method and it worked great. She was riveted to the screen the entire time, took notes, and seemed fully engaged. All of the students seemed to value the review & practice sessions. I also found them useful, as I could give better explanations and examples without the need to keep the movie rolling.

This discussion also helped the students better understand me. I discussed, in detail, the research and rationale behind the movie technique. I discussed the reasons I thought it was superior to traditional methods. We read a simplified research article about a program that uses the technique.

As a result, ALL of the students became much more interested in the technique. We had a lively and interesting discussion and all agreed they wanted to continue with it. Even better, the student who had walked out yesterday seemed to finally "get it". In truth, I didnt convince her... the other students did.

Even better-- during the discussion, one of my enthusiastic Korean students mentioned a book he'd read about learning English. The book is by a Korean man who learned to speak English fluently, with a native-like accent... through self-study only. The man wrote a book (in Korean) to describe how he did it. Turns out one of his main methods was using movies. He watched the same movie repeatedly, using English subtitles. My student had read this book and so was very excited when I started to use the movie technique (he's one of the passionate fans of the method).

Tomorrow he is going to give a presentation about the book to the class...


Today was a fabulous learning (and relearning) experience for me. I was reminded that the best way to handle frustration in the class is to go directly to the students... discuss the situation openly. Id forgotten how often I used to do this at TU.... (and how little Ive done this at my new school). Id forgotten that you dont just spring new methods on students, you've got to discuss them, justify them, present the research, summarize the benefits. You've got to get their permission to give it a try... and must continue to get their suggestions and ideas throughout the process.

In recent posts Ive complained that I have yet to "click" with my new students. Now I know why. Up to now, Ive treated the class as "my class"... not "our class". Today I changed that.... and today we "clicked".

There are plenty of jargon names for what happened today: "needs assessment", "process evaluation", "feedback session"... but those terms lack elegance and soul... they miss an essential element of the process.

Its not just about getting suggestions. Its about sharing power. Its about making decisions TOGETHER. Its about getting everyone to buy in EMOTIONALLLY and INTELLECTUALLY.

The more power your students have, the more powerful you become as a teacher.

Never forget: Your students are smarter than you are.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Reward Failure

"Reward Excellent Failures. Punish Mediocre Successes."

--Tom Peters

I hate grades... and this is why. Grades punish failure, but we should be rewarding bold failures. Rather than teaching students to fear mistakes, we should be encouraging them to take risks. We should build, rather than tear down, their confidence.

This is especially true in language education. For example, most of my students are good enough to engage in basic conversations with native speakers. But they are scared to. They tell me they fear making mistakes. I tell them, "native speakers make mistakes too", but this never helps. As a result, they leave school and rarely use the language... even though they are capable of doing so, even though they are living in America.

My students have been taught to fear failure and abhor mistakes. Their mindset: "I cannot [will not] use English until I can speak perfect fluent English like a native speaker." Since most will never reach that level (and dont need to), most will never communicate extensively outside the classroom. English, for them, will always be an academic subject... something they study but never use.

I dont blame the students... they were conditioned by their teachers and schools. Most teachers have the same fear of failure. At past jobs, for example, I used to mention new things I wanted to try in my classes. Invariably the other teachers shook their heads and lectured me on why it wouldnt work. If my boss was around, s/he usually criticized the idea and told me to "stick with the curriculum". I quickly learned to keep quiet around bosses and co-workers.

Failure is great. The textbook hounds are not. Ive had many students in the past who kicked ass with the textbook, got straight A's on tests, and couldnt (or wouldnt) communicate. Often, the "bad" students were much better communicators. They made more mistakes. Their grammar sucked. But they got out there and USED the language. Over time, they usually surpass the "good" students.

One of the many problems I have with textbooks is that students use them as crutches.... as a protective shield against risk. Theyve studied with them all their lives. And so they know exactly what to do.... how to fill in the blanks, repeat the "target grammar", pass the test. But stick them in a remotely "real" environment and they panic. Many are terrified (its no coincidence that most of my students skipped class the day of the retirement home field trip)!

From a no-nonsense practical standpoint, failure is absolutely essential. We've got to help our language students become comfortable with mistakes. Otherwise, they may study English for decades but never have the courage to use it.

And if thats the case, what the hell is the point of studying (or teaching) the language in the first place.

Help your students fail. Encourage them to make mistakes (instead of correcting them).

Reward mistakes. Punish timid perfection.

Fail Faster

by AJ

"If something goes awry, the typical Big Company (or school)... shoots the messenger... appoints a Special Investigator... Aims to make sure that this aberration Never Occurs Again. In the process, the possibility of... Rapid Progress.. is severely diminished.

In short: 'Do it right the first time" is.... stupid. A Snare. A Delusion.

--Tom Peters

That pretty much sums up my "teaching approach": try shit, reflect on it, then try more shit.

Usually, when I try something the first time,... it fails. Sometimes Im clumsy with the execution. Sometimes the students "dont get it". Sometimes its just a bad day. And sometimes its just a terrible idea.

I once tried to implement a complicated stock market type game with my students..... as a means of jazzing up their projects. It bombed. But the projects themselves were great.

The first time I tried the movie technique, at TU, it bombed. But here in SF, its working fine.

Free reading worked great at TU, but I havent been able to get it going with my current class.

There is no "secret curriculum". There is no one-size-fits-all solution. There's no perfect lesson plan, no perfect technique.

Each teacher, each school, each student is different. What's more... each constantly changes. What worked last month might not work this month. What failed a year ago just might work today.

To grow as a teacher, you've got to try stuff..... the more you try, the more you learn, the faster you improve.

"Fail faster. Succeed sooner" (David Kelly). Thats a favorite quote of Tom Peters.. and me too. Dont waste time endlessly debating. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, dont think too much before you act. The time to reflect is AFTER you act. Then, at least, you have an actual experience to examine... rather than a sack full of imaginary spooks.


by AJ

"A school has to be a living organism. It has to be changing all the time and be ready to change at any moment. A great school is like a successful business in that it keeps looking at itself, questioning its operations, and making adjustments accordingly: when the students change, when the technology changes, when priorities change, when new research findings suggest a better way. There can't be one specific curriculum.

At my school, we make small changes every day. Every student's learning plan gets changed when the student discovers a new interest. Contrast this with a traditional school, where a student might fail the same grade three times, and each year come back to the exact same curriculum. Nothing changes.

Most schools need drastic change. To truly meet students needs, there must be a major paradigm shift. And all of us must constantly question what we are doing. We must keep asking questions about learning, structures, assessments, curriculum, and teacher roles. The constant readiness to change does no frustrate me or make me uncomfortable, as it often does others. It makes me excited that I always have a chance to find new ways to do my job. It is very exciting to be learning every day how to educate our students better. It will always be a struggle, but to me, its an exciting struggle."

--Dennis Littky

I agree, its an exciting struggle.. but only if you have the freedom to engage it. There is nothing more frustrating than working in a broken school you are powerless to change. Based on many of the emails and comments I receive, this is a common problem. Many teachers complain that their administrators simply are not open to change. They complain that they cannot innovate because they will get in trouble... that they cannot deviate from the "required curriculum". Im afraid Im not very helpful to these folks. My usual advice is "quit your job and find a better one".

But everyone is not as mercenary as I am. So here's Littky's advice on how to change the culture of a class or school:

1. Concentrate. Figure out what you stand for and try to make it a part of everything you do regarding your school. Put your philosophy up on the wall, if that's what it takes to keep it in focus. Explain to people why you're dissatisfied with "business as usual". Don't let the conflicting demands and multiple distractions of day-to-day school affairs make you stray from your vision.

2. Commit. Change doesn't happen easily or quickly.

3. Conversation. Frequent, forthright, and humane conversation is the lifeblood of school reform.

4. Collaborate. Schools are bastions of isolation. Teachers often work separated from colleagues; students feel alone in the classroom; principals are often rarely seen.

5. Care. What a school is depends more on how people treat each other than on anything else. That old adage "relationship first, task second" applies equally to a class or a committee.

6. Have Fun. Its all well and good to articulate a philosophy of school reform and pursue it in a concentrated and committed way. But somebody's got to buy the pizzas, bring in the birthday balloons, and spice up the meetings with lousy jokes. Conviviality is a quality of acceptance, geniality, and good-naturedness. Its creating a culture where people are known and valued for who they are, not just for the work they do.

I like this list.. especially number one. Why not a personal vision statement for each teacher (or school, if you've got a cool school)?

What would my own be? "Authentic Language" perhaps. Thats certainly my main focus from a linguistic point of view. I want to teach my students functional English as it is actually used. What frustrates me most about textbooks is their uselessness. Nobody speaks like that. If, as small children, we tried to learn our native languages with a textbook.. we'd all be mute!

Other possible "vision statements": " Effortless learning" (thus this blogs title)... "Passionate Learning".....

How about you? How would you sum up your teaching priorities? What is your greatest strength?

Write it down. Post it in your classroom. Incorporate it into everything you do.


by AJ

"If you travel on an airline and they get your there safely, you don't tell anyone. That's what's supposed to happen. What makes it remarkable is if it's horrible beyond belief or if the service is so unexpected (they were an hour early! they comped my tickets because I was cute! they served flaming crepes suzette in first class!) that you need to share it. Factories set quality requirements and try to meet them. That's boring. Very good is an everyday occurence and hardly worth mentioning."

--Seth Godin

Your school uses a "good textbook". So what, everybody does. You do clever pairwork, groupwork, and games. So what, everybody does. You throw in the occasional role play. So what, everyone does. Your school has a whiteboard, neutral colored carpet, white walls, and flourescent lights... just like everyone else.

In the effort to offend no one, we sink into mediocrity. Bureaucrats and teachers often seem terrified of making anyone unhappy. They seem to prefer tepid acceptence to passionate engagement. As a student, I hated this approach.

As a teacher, I hate it even more. I am, in fact, bored out of my goddam mind by most schools. Im bored with timidity. Im bored with Oxford/Longman textbooks. Im bored with "meeting standards". Im bored with corporate decor. Im bored with the same old thing.

Id much rather try something remarkable. By nature, these kinds of attempts stir strong reactions.

A very modest example: Ive started using the movie technique with my class. The most common complaint of our students is that they arent learning "real English"... that is, English as it is actually spoken in America.

Well, they arent going to get it from textbooks. And so Im going to use the movie technique with them. For my students, its a new and somewhat strange approach. They are used to diligently doing the traditional BS: work through a textbook, practice the "target grammar" in pairs/groups, blah, blah, blah. Listening to, repeatedly reviewing, and "studying" authentic movies is a technique they've never encountered.

Not surprisingly, my students are polarized. Out of the five who attended today, three seemed to love the technique. They were on the edge of their seats, listening carefully... taking notes,.... asking and answering questions.

But two seemed to hate the technique. One left class (to another class that was using the textbook). Another complained that she wanted to watch the movie without pause or discussion... then she fell asleep.

What should I do? Conventional thinking suggests I should tone down the technique (compromise) or stop using it completely. After all, I can plod through the textbook and no one will complain. No one will be excited or passionate.. but no one will complain.

But I think polarization is the wiser path. The two students who hate my approach might leave. But the three who love it will stay. And because they love it, they are more likely to tell their friends about it. I dont consider the movie technique "remarkable"... but compared with the same-old-thing... its certainly a step in the right direction.

The important question is, "Is it strange enough?"

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Why Not?

by AJ

"Think small. One vestige of the TV-industrial complex is a need to think mass. If it doesn't appeal to everyone, the thinking goes, it's not worth it. No longer. Think of the smallest conceivable market, and describe a product that overwhelms it with its remarkability. Go from there."

--Seth Godin

Here then is the business argument for thinking small (having already reviewed the educational arguments ala Littky). We are programmed to want big, big, big. Most private English schools have this disease. They are always trying to appeal to the big mainstream mass. To do that, they've got to copy everyone else... copy the traditional school system that most students are comfortable with. And thus they find themselves in the middle of a pack of equally bland competitors.

Imagine this proposal for an English school in Japan: We will help students acquire English through teaching them about African-American culture. We will focus specifically on slang and idiomatic conversation.

Conventional wisdom in Japan holds that Japanese students are scared of black people. This is why you'll find all white teachers at most schools. Conventional wisdom holds that Japanese students demand grammar-translation methods and traditional textbooks. Conventional wisdom holds that Japanese students demand teachers from North America, the UK, or Australia. Conventional wisdom holds that to make good money in Japan, you've got to cater to kids.

This may be true of most Japanese (I have no idea), but The Wisdom 21 school broke all these conventions and is thriving. They are thriving BECAUSE they broke with conventional wisdom. They employ a "rainbow coalition" of teachers.... many who are from African or Asian countries where English is widely spoken (ie. India). Their curriculum is focused on African-American culture... clearly a passion of their African-American founder/owner. They do not teach children,... adults only.

Simply put, the big chains cannot compete with them. There's simply no way in hell a giant company like Nova could create anything so interesting. Wisdom 21 now has four schools... is growing quickly despite their seemingly "small" target market.

Being remarkable is good business.... and its a good career path. Being remarkable, increasingly, is the only kind of "job security" available.

Whether you are a teacher or a school owner.... consider Seth Godin's advice:

"Find things that are 'just not done' in your field, and do them. Ask, 'Why not?'. Almost everything you don't do has no good reason for it. Almost everything you don't do is the result of fear or inertia or a historical lack of someone asking, 'Why not?"

Hard Cold Nuts & Bolts

by AJ

"If the nature of a remarkable business (person, etc.) is to be extreme in some attribute, it's inevitable that compromise can only diminish your chances of success.

Compromise is about sanding down the rough edges to gain buy-in from other constituents. Vanilla is a compromise ice cream flavor, while habanero pecan is not. The safe compromise for a kid's birthday party is the vanilla. But vanilla is boring. You can't build a fast-growing company around vanilla.

In almost every market, the boring slot is filled. The product designed to appeal to the largest possible audience already exists, and displacing it is awfully difficult. How can you market yourself as "more bland than the leading brand"? The real growth comes with products/services that annoy, offend, don't appeal, are too expensive, too heavy, too complicated, too simple,-- too something. (Of course their too too for some people, but just perfect for others.)

Bootstrapping entreprenuers often upend existing industries because the dominant players in an industry are the last places you'll find empowered mavericks.

If someone in your organization is charged with creating something remarkable, leave them alone! Don't use internal reviews and usability testing to figure out if the new service is as good as what you've got now. Instead, pick the right maverick and get out of the way."

-Seth Godin

I love Godin's statement. He's absolutely right... and his statements perfectly describe the state of language education in Asia and America.

In both areas, the boring slot is taken. Eveyone is doing the same things. Everyone draws from the same pool of textbooks. And everyone supplements those with pair and group work, plus a few games.

Here in SF, every school has a social calendar.. and they all have basically the same events. They all have essentially the same curriculum and approach.

Likewise, most ESL/EFL teachers Ive met follow the same basic approach (textbook plus supplemental pair/group work).

Im not much of a capitalist, but I love Tom Peters and Seth Godin because their ideas are applicable beyond the business world. Both recognize that "safe is risky". Its risky because there are already thousands of better established schools filling the Vanilla market. The "something for everyone" approach is a really bad business strategy. For an individual teacher, its also a very bad career strategy.

This is why Im worried about my recent risk-aversion. While I know it may keep me at my current job for a while, I also recognize that it is longterm career suicide...

I don't believe there is one "right way" to teach. I wouldnt want to replace the current traditional, boring, soulless system with an equally uniform copy of my own. Students are diverse. They each learn differently. Depending on their culture, personality, educational history, motivations, etc... they thrive in different educational environments. Teachers are the same... each has their own particular passions.. and extraordinary qualities.

What I DESPISE about traditional education is its crushing of these passions (in both teachers and students)... its relentless drive for standardization... for uniform blandness. But conformity isnt only boring... increasingly, its bad business.

"It is the nature of a remarkable business to be extreme in some attribute..."

Rather than copy other schools/teachers... why not embrace extreme passions. Why not accept that mediocrity does not inspire passion. You won't recruit passionately loyal students by trying to please everyone. In fact, as Kathy Sierra notes, passionate love is almost always accompanied by passionate hate. Do something remarkable and you will, most likely, create a cadre of fanatics. But you'll also create a cadre of folks who hate what you are doing. So what? Let them go elsewhere. There are plenty of schools and teachers out there.

I cant understand why people open a private English school only to copy every other school in their market. While they may do allright, they would do much better by being remarkable in some area. This is why Im so fond of Wisdom 21s approach. Its not for everyone, but its clearly different. They stand out. No one will confuse them with Nova or Berlitz.

This gives them a HUGE business advantage. While the vanilla companies must spend huge amounts of money on advertising, Wisdom 21 has managed to grow mostly from free publicity and passionate word of mouth. Im sure many students hate their methods... but lots LOVE them. The ones that love them become evangelists... energetically recruiting their friends. Such a school doesnt need high-pressure sales tactics... their students are their most powerful salespeople.

Here's another advantage: remarkable schools can charge more. If you are just as bland as the big schools, you've got little to compete on except price. Since you can't say "we are remarkably different and super cool", you're left with little choice but to charge less. And what does that get you except students who care only about price... bargain hunters who will gladly jump to another, cheaper school should one come along.

Think of Apple Computer. Some people hate them. But they've got a cadre of super loyal customers who gladly pay significantly MORE for their computers. What's more, these people are not easily enticed by competitors. Apple users have fan clubs, blogs, and self-created support groups.

On a tiny scale, Ive seen this in effect. I still have a core group of students from TU who continue to email me. They continue to ask English questions, tell me about their lives, etc. This never happened to me at previous teaching jobs. So what's the difference? The difference is that at TU I finally threw caution to the wind and tried to be remarkable. I ran with my passions. Sometimes I failed, sometimes had great success. But always I was trying to push the envelope. It was a good start, but I have much farther to go.

Why not embrace this mindset at the school level? Can you imagine a fan club for your school.... started and run by students (or alumni)? Isnt that the kind of passion we hope to generate in students? Can you imagine students remaining in contact with your school long after they leave it? Can you imagine them forming alumni groups? Can you imagine them energetically recruiting for and selling your school (with no prompting from you... no promotional gimicks)?

Ill end with my absolute favorite example of a remarkable business: Autotech of Athens, GA. These guys were my mechanics for 13 years. I have never seen a more loyal (fanatic!) group of customers in my life.

Autotech did not advertise. Their garage was hidden on a back road far from traffic. Their garage had no sign... you could drive by it and have no idea what it was. They charged MORE than other garages.. including the big chains like Pep Boys. Yet they had a long waiting list. They regularly turned away customers.

How did they do it? By being remarkable... doing things no other garage did. For one, they did not try to serve everyone. They fixed only Japanese cars. Second, they were remarkably honest. If your car required only a small repair, they often did it for FREE! They knew every one of their customers and greeted them by name. In fact, they not only rememebered my name, they remembered my job... and my ex-girlfriends (who Id referred to them)! There were little extras too... for example, they helped my ex-girlfriend find a reliable (and cheap) used car (from another customer). Whenever I bought a car, I brought it to them to check out.... they looked it over for free. And finally, they were damn good mechanics. When they fixed a problem, it stayed fixed.

Autotech created powerful loyalty. When I moved to South Carolina, I continued to drive back to Georgia to have them fix my car. When I did so, they told me they had customers in Florida and Alabama who did the same thing.

I have yet to encounter an English school with students this passionate and loyal.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Passion, Risk, & Economics

by AJ

The blunt truth: Im not as passionate at my current job. After two months, things still arent clicking. No mojo. Increasingly, Im getting annoyed with this state of affairs.

Over the past few weeks, Ive attempted to diagnose the problem. Whats wrong? At TU I was a maniac.... and also at Lanier Tech. I left class with MORE energy than when I entered. I had mojo. I knew it, and my students knew it.

No, every class wasnt great... but overall I felt an effortless flow while teaching... and was in-sync with my students. I could feel myself improving every day. I could see my students gaining confidence. I fed off their interest and energy, they fed off my passion. An upward spiral.

Not so now. Why not?

My first diagnosis is risk-aversion, caused by a precarious economic situation. At the moment, Im living paycheck to paycheck. Ive relocated to an expensive city... a process that was super-stressful. Things are more stable now, but Im one missed paycheck away from homelessness. That weighs on my mind.

Despite my inherent risk-taking nature, its made me more timid. I simply cant afford to get fired right now (not that I expect to). I find myself playing it safe far too often. I worry too much about the one or two students who dont like my teaching approach. I take criticism from my boss far too seriously. I feel as though Im betraying my strengths. And so the passion fades. Its becoming just a job. Increasingly, Im finding it easier to just work through the textbook. Its a no-brainer, no-energy approach.... and although totally ineffective, the students dont complain because its what theyve done all their lives.

I have seen the dark side. I understand how teachers arrive at that path... how they sell their passion and soul for a steady paycheck and smooth sailing. Id rather change careers than do that.

And so, strangely, my number one teaching priority has nothing to do with school or the classroom. My number one priority is to save money. My goal (and my usual practice): stash away enough to cover six months of living expenses (rent, food, etc.).

With that in the bank, I need not worry about losing my job. Once that dependence is cut, worry evaporates.. I return to my strengths. My passion for learning, innovation, and risk-taking naturally reasserts itself.

I wonder if Im alone on this. Might this be the problem with many teachers? Are they naturally timid.. or has economic dependence made them so? Is that why they seem so listless? Is that why they are so terrified of challenging the bureaucrats? We dont typically think of new, young teachers as passionless. When we imagine a boring burnout.. dont we usually think of an older teacher? One who has accumulated a mortgage, credit card debts, car payments, etc. Is it really the job that crushes their courage... or is it their lifestyle?

I suspect the latter.