Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Friday, April 28, 2006


by AJ

As much as I love teaching at the intensive English school I work at, I have discovered one downside to it-- no breaks. Most schools, especially public schools, have regular breaks. Every four months or so, you can usually count on getting at least a week off... often more.

But not at my current school.

Until recently, I never considered this a problem. But recently, Ive begun to run out of steam. I find Im a bit less energetic in class. I find I get bored with some of the activities, however successful they seem to be with the students. I find, in short, that Im craving a break.

But the schedule just keeps grinding along week after week.... not a problem for clock-punching jobs, but a big problem for a job in which I hope to pour my passion and enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, my school offers no paid vacation, so Ill need to find other means of recharging. Any suggestions? How do you recharge your batteries?

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Online Students

by AJ

Im finally moving forward on getting some long-distance students. After 6 months settling into SF, Im ready. Ill be ordering a high-speak internet connection this week... though not sure when it will actually get hooked up. After that, Ill be ready to receive students.

The first thing Ill focus on is "aftercare". That is, when students leave our school, Ill let them know they can continue to work with me when they return home.

I may also be open to new students, depending on my workload.

Technically speaking, I hope to use two different resources. One is The Linguist. Id like all my private students to sign up with The Linguist, as its an excellent system and has tremendous resources. One obstacle that has slowed my entry into internet-based teaching is the lack of such resources. I have neither the time nor expertise to create a vast library of audio + text resources... combined with online dictionaries and all the other offerings at The Linguist.

The other resource I hope to use is Tutopia... a new online resource for internet-based teachers. Tutopia allows for real-time online presentations, discussions, audio, text, and video. Depending on the students schedule, needs, goals, and style... Ill use The Linguist, Tutopia, or both with them.

Realistically, Im probably still a few months away from getting this going. Gotta get the connection first. Then its a matter of finding students. Ill report my progress... experiences... and experiments here, as always :)

San Francisco, CA

Friday, April 21, 2006

Spanish Approach

by AJ

An update on my Spanish study.

Currently Im using a book & CD called "Las Puertas Retorcidas". Its a beginning level book, which uses an extended ghost story to teach the basics of the language.

For the last month Ive listened to the audio on my ipod. I understood the first 15 chapters very easily... but from 15 onwards (there are 46 total) my comprehension gradually dropped. Still, I didnt worry too much about this. I tried to catch the gist of the story and mostly did.

However, I eventually hit a wall... where I felt frustrated by all the sections I couldnt understand.

And so Ive now turned to listening and reading at the same time. For now Im focusing on chapters 15-20.... I peruse the vocab/grammar explanations, then read along as I listen to the CD. This has helped boost comprehension significantly. Im also enjoying the story more now, because I understand more of the details.

I hope to work through the remainder of the book over the next month or so.... at the rate of a chapter per day. The chapters are short... so this seems doable.

Another thing Ive started to do is use song lyrics. This was inspired by my uber-student... who constantly listens to English language songs and learns vocab from the lyrics. I have a Gypsy Kings album, and just downloaded the lyrics to a couple of songs. Ill look up unknown words.. and then will be able to sing along with my terrible voice (and understand what Im singing)!

I dont know if Im learning quickly or slowly... probably slowly. I tend to be sporadic with "study"... often skipping days. But I can say that Im having a lot more fun than past attempts using drills or classroom instruction.

Dont underestimate the power of enjoyment. Language learning is a long process. The more enjoyable that process is, the more likely one is to see it through to fluency.

San Francisco, CA

The Coach's Role

by AJ

Like a coach, the teacher has a limited role. The coach cant play in the games. The coach doesnt do the workouts. When it comes down to it... its always the players who do the sweating, the intense training, the defending, the scoring.

The coach is a strategist and a motivator. He gives the players a practice plan and a game plan. He (or She) strives to build the players' confidence... to urge them on to greater and greater efforts.

In sports, this is obvious.

But in education, teachers (coaches) and students (players) alike often fail to understand their roles. Too many teachers are obsessed with control. They work, consciously or unconsciously, to keep students dependent on them.

Students play this game too. Many students believe that the teacher is responsible for their success. If they are not learning quickly enough, they complain about the school. While the complaints may or may not be accurate, the problem is that the student is waiting for the school to change instead of changing themselves.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the student. You arent going to get fluent in a language simply by sitting in a classroom. Not gonna happen. As a student, you MUST seek out the language. You MUST get input outside of class. You MUST take control of your own learning.

As a teacher, if you truly want your students to succeed, you MUST push them towards independence. You MUST fire their passion, encourage their efforts, and help them develop excellent self-learning strategies. You MUST eliminate systems and activities that create dependence on you.

An example: Our school recently had a (very short) discussion about placement tests. Next month we will test all of the students to determine which ones will go up a level.

I argued for using a general English test. The other teachers and the director argued for and decided on using grammar tests that cover only what was taught in class.

I think they are making a big mistake. Testing only grammar that is taught in class, from a textbook, sends the message that what happens in school is all that matters. It sends another false message too-- that success on such a test equals an overall improvement in English.

Far better, I think, to use a test of general English ability. After all, who cares if they do well on a textbook test if their general ability to understand & use the language has not improved. Such a test reinforces the idea that overall language mastery is whats important.. not the content of the textbook.

This is but one small example. The overall point is that our job as teachers (coaches) is to eliminate the students dependence on us. To my mind, a success story is a student who becomes a totally independent and skilled English communicator... who no longer needs me or the school.

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Steve Kaufman

by AJ

Yesterday I had a nice conversation with Steve Kaufman, founder of The Linguist. He's a great guy... very enthusiastic. And he's got a wealth of practical language learning wisdom-- born from learning 9 languages.

He's now working on another-- Russian.

I found Steve's comments about grammar study to be particularly interesting. He doesnt do it!

This is what he is doing:
He bought a few "Teach Yourself Russian" books.... ones that came with CDs. His first step was to listen repeatedly to these CDs to get a feel for the language.

Interestingly, he recommends listening first in order to learn the rhythm and sounds and intonation of the language... and then read. He said he either listens only... or he listens and reads at the same time.

Steve repeats the same material over and over again. He told me he'd listened to and read one book at least 30 times. When reading these books, he generally ignores the grammar sections. Once he's gained an understanding of the content, he may go back and consult the grammar explanations as a reference..... what he doesnt do is try to memorize rules.

His goal is to burn through these beginner books as fast as possible... and quickly move on to authentic materials.

Since Im still struggling with Spanish, I asked him for advice. Here's what he told me:

* Crank up the intensity level.... authentic content as soon as possible. Everything should be both audio and text.

* Listen to Converstions... lots of them.... recorded (preferably authentic).

* Use online text with an online dictionary... easy to get instant definitions.... whereas paper dictionaries interrupt the flow of reading much more because they are so slow to use.

* Dont worry about production (speech, writing) in the beginning... its too much pressure and too difficult. Focus instead on listening and reading as much content as possible. Let speech/writing come later, naturally.

Steve and I also discussed ways of teaming up... to allow me to use The Linguist's excellent system with my (face to face) students... possibly as out-of-class study... possibly with online students.

And finally, Steve gave me very good news: The Linguist, in a few months, will offer Spanish. Other languages may soon be available too! I hope to be their first Spanish language student!

San Francisco, CA

Monday, April 17, 2006

Uber Students

by AJ

What is it? Whats the secret?

Some students are special. Extraordinary. They are more motivated, more energetic, more determined. They learn at a lightning pace. They are full of exuberance.

If only I could bottle that... or teach it. For example, Ive got one super-student in my class right now. She is goddam amazing. She comes to class everyday and takes copious notes. Not only that... she also records my class. She then goes home and listens to the recording. But not only that... she listens to the recording and WRITES every word I said. She then looks up words she doesnt know. She showed me her notebook... PAGES of transcriptions.

But thats not all. She listens to songs, downloads the lyrics, looks up unknown words, then repeatedly listens until she understands everything. She does the same thing with TV shows and movies.

This woman is a maniac.... and not surprisingly, she is learning at an incredibly fast rate. (And note, she absolutely avoids all "grammar study").

Honestly, I dont know what her secret is. How does she stay so motivated? Where does all that diligence and determination come from? I struggle to study Spanish 30 minutes a day.... often skipping days or weeks without studying. Most of my students come to class and thats it.. no outside study. A few of the very good ones do pleasure reading or watch movies.

But no one can approach this woman.

Every once in a while, I come across someone like her and I am amazed.

If only I could discover what makes her tick... and somehow convey a bit of her secret to the rest of my students...

... and to myself.

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Intuition vs. Analysis

by AJ

"Ive been living in San Francisco for about five months now. Last year I lived in Bangkok, but I was ready for a change so I decided to come here and give it a try".

Imagine the above is a quote from a native speaker. Now imagine you ask that speaker, "why did you say 'have been living' instead of 'live'? Imagine you ask them, "Why didnt you say 'I have lived'.... "Why did you use the past tense in the second sentence?"

Unless they are English teachers, most will hesitate and struggle to give a clear, rational explanation. Why? Because native speakers are masters of Understanding & Using the language... not analyzing it "logically". Native speakers have what Krashen calls a "feeling for grammaticality". Native speakers operate on "feel", "intuition". Native speakers detect errors not through formulas or complicated analysis.. rather, most will tell you "it just doesnt sound right".

But what about English teachers and English language students? In the classroom, analysis is prime. Students and teachers in traditional schools spend the bulk of their time learning ABOUT the language. They break the language into hundreds (thousands!) of parts. They break each part into complicated rules and explanations. Then there are the exceptions... because most grammar "rules" are not, linguistically speaking, "rules" at all. Real grammar "rules" are extraordinarily complex (read one of Chomsky's books.. or any "real" book on linguistics).

In fact, true grammar is far too complex for our linear, analytical minds to handle. Which is why native speakers rely on the far more powerful intuitive parts of the brain. Native speakers let the brain do its job, without interfering.

In my experience, the best students imitate the native speakers approach. The ones who progress most quickly, who are the best communicators,... who, in fact, have the best grammar usage... are the ones who dont "study" grammar rules. These students focus on communication. They ravenously devour authentic texts, TV shows, movies, audiobooks. They enthusiastically chat with people. They are fascinated by the target culture.

The worst students, typically, are the ones obsessed with grammar. Often theyve been analyzing English grammar for 6 to 8 years... yet still struggle with basic conversation. They cannot understand authentic texts, nor communicate with native speakers. Often these students are highly frustrated. They complain to me about their slow progress. They ask me for advice.

But when I suggest a different approach... that they throw away the grammar book and switch to authentic materials (for example), they resist. They claim they need to improve their grammar more. They insist that "grammar is necessary".

Well of course its necessary. The question is, what is the best way to develop grammatical accuracy? Through linear analysis of partial grammar "rules"... or through intuitive understanding of authentic language. The research, and my experiences, support the latter approach.

Whats the best way to run a marathon? Through analyzing the exercise physiology related to running.... or by actually running every day? Whats the best way to learn the guitar? By studying music theory... or by picking up the instrument and playing it? Do we learn to drive by memorizing the car's manual? Do we improve soccer skills by reading the FIFA rulebook?

Here then is the core problem.... students and teacher alike lump language with other "academic" disciplines like math and history. They attempt to teach/learn language using the same methods: memorize, drill, ruthlessly correct errors, test and test and test.....

But language is a performance art... closer to music, sports, or drama than math. Performance arts demand a completely different approach. With performance arts, no one gives a damn what you "know"... or how thorough your analysis is... all that matters is performance.

In other words, when it comes to language... the only question that matters is: Can you use it?

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, April 15, 2006


by AJ

Here's a post from Sierra that has hopeful implications for the future of face to face teaching. I agree with her post. But I do think technology will pose great challenges and opportunities for teachers. Increasingly, routine tasks will be automated. The TPR folks have now come out with their first TPR software program. It will only improve over time. As will other tech-based systems such as The Linguist, Rosetta Stone, and the like. Increasingly, the low beginner, especially, will be able to move rapidly to intermediate levels without a traditional school or class (and thank god for that!!).

But we arent necessarily destined for extinction. The key is to maximize the social/human advantages that face to face teaching offers. That means a lot less "drill" (well, none is ideal) and a whole lot more authentic input, meaningful discussion, interaction, emotion, community, context.

Here's a link to Sierra's post titled Why Face To Face.

San Francisco, CA

Movie Technique

by AJ

At IIC, I have finally gotten the chance to practice the movie technique. I use it everyday now.... and it is FANTASTIC! I love it. The students seem to love it. And they are learning quickly.

Now that Ive had some time to practice.... Ive discovered a few tips to make it more effective:

*Use the Technique
Yesterday, our school showed "Bridgett Jones's Diary" to all the students in the school. They showed it all the way through without pause.

Frankly, this is next to useless (except, perhaps, for the most advanced students). The input was much too fast and much too difficult for most students. They therefore acquired absolutely NO new language. Not a single new vocabulary word, or phrase,.. nothing. Perhaps this "lesson" helped a few practice listening... and maybe a bit of pronunciation.. but even this is doubtful.

The whole point of the movie technique is that the teacher helps make the material comprehensible. You do this by pausing, explaining, and paraphrasing. You also do this by repeating each scene several times. This does work... it works GREAT! But just showing a movie at full speed.... sort of pointless.

*TV Shows
Im discovering that TV shows are often better to use than movies. Movies do work well... we finished "Hitch" last month and it was great. But a full length movie takes a very long time to get through compared to a 30 minute TV show.

Currently Im using "Friends". The plots are simpler. The episodes are shorter. And there's another advantage: the characters are simple and always the same. I think this helps comprehension. As students get to know each character, they are better able to guess and understand what they say and do. They understand their basic personalities and motivations.

Finally, TV shows tend to use simpler language... useful for intermediate and low-intermediate students (when I switch to teaching the advanced class next month, I may return to using more complex movies).

The traditional approach to discussion is to give the class a scenario or topic, then ask them to talk about it. This topic often comes from out of the blue. In my experience, results are hit and miss.

Using movies/TV shows is MUCH better. Now, all my discussion topics grow naturally out of the scenes we've watched that day. Wednesday we watched a scene in which Chandler is trying to break up with his girlfriend. So that day we discussed the topic, "What is the best way to break up with someone... how would you do it... and what is normal in your culture". This turned out to be a very interesting discussion.

In fact, since I switched to basing topics on movie scenes... the richness, length, and energy of our discussions has improved dramatically.

Tip: Always try to relate the scene(s) to your students personal life. This is also a basic principle of TPRS: Personalize It!!

As we learn new phrases from the movie/show, I write them on the "vocab wall". Then, each morning, I review the vocab wall with students. I ask them the meaning of the phrases/words, ask them to use them in a sentence... and often ask them to remember what scene the word/phrase came from. Sometimes I simply ask them to do this in pairs/groups... sometimes I do it with the whole class.

I find this helps the new words, phrases, grammar "stick".

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Critical Shortage of Leadership

by AJ

We are beset by an oversupply of "managers" but a critical dearth of leaders.

Managers-- I am absolutely sick of them. Managers live by the credo, "Catch them doing something wrong". Managers crave control and order. In education, in business, we are inundated with managers.

Managers are demoralizers. The teacher-as-manager loves to correct mistakes. They look at the best student and class and focus on what's wrong. Managers squash passion. Kill enthusiasm. Their usual results are to irritate, anger, or intimidate those who they manage.

These are the directors who drive away the best teachers while retaining the cover-your-ass clock punchers. These are the coaches who alienate their top performers. These are the teachers who undermine their confident students.

I am simply AMAZED by the poor skills of most managers-- the bulk of whom are nice people who nevertheless sabotage excellence... and make the extraordinary impossible.

We need leaders. Leaders inspire folks to do the impossible. They fire enthusiasm. They build confidence. They mobilize energy. They transform. Leaders focus not on controlling people-- but on unleashing their potential.

Leaders make the extraordinary seem easy to accomplish. While managers typically create resistance and resentment.. leaders inspire action.

There are a great many books written on the subject of leadership-- and no doubt there are many many variables.

But if I had to choose one bedrock leadership principle, it would be this:


Its really not that difficult-- yet the results are absolutely astounding. Most people are so used to suffering through crappy management that they will respond dramatically to even a hint of leadership.

I find it both heart breaking and thrilling. Heartbreaking to realize how much potential is crushed by critical managers. Thrilling to see the joy, enthusiasm, and energy unleashed by just a little bit of positive leadership.

As a super-simple primer on leadership, I recommend Ken Blanchard's "The One Minute Manager". Yes, its super simplified. But its a classic that captures the core essence.

Its central message: Catch people doing something right.

Try it with your students. With your teachers. In all your relationships.

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Presentation Mojo

by AJ

Continuing with the theme of effective presentations... I just came across a link to an article about Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple). Jobs, apparently, is famous for his powerful presentation style. The article outlines the "top five" secrets of Jobs success as a presenter. They are excellent points-- which the bulk of presenters at the California TESOL conference could have benefited from.

I also think they are great principles for teachers... especially when a teacher is presenting new information or explanations.

Here then are the five...
Sell the Benefit
"Steve Jobs does not sell bits of metal; he sells an experience. Instead of focusing on mind-numbing statistics"

This is excellent advice. As a conference attendee, I was focused on one primary concern: How can this information help improve my teaching. While I was interested in the research behind presenters' ideas, I was happy to get this in handout form to investigate at my leisure. What I wanted to hear... during each 45 minute presentation... were practical, powerful, beneficial APPLICATIONS. In other words, how do the research/ideas translate into classroom practice and how will they benefit me and my students.

Amazingly, very few speakers focused on this. They led group activities. They plodded through overhead slides (more on this later). They talked incessantly about theories or ideas or statistics. I found myself, time and again, fidgeting... and combing through their handouts for something I could use. (I find the same weakness in research articles.. all numbers, no practical benefits).

The workshops I enjoyed most were the ones that stayed focused on the practical in-class benefits.

This is an idea that is also applicable to teaching. Too often we focus on the linguistic minutiae, but never sell the students on HOW and WHY its important.. what it will allow them to do, what situations they can use the information in. We fail to sell them on our approach, our materials, our lessons.

To be clear, I am definitely NOT talking about a bullet point list of "objectives" for each lesson. IE-- "At the end of the month the student will know and be able to use the past progressive". Better would be something like, "At the end of the lesson you'll feel more confident talking about past events, will be able to communicate more clearly with Americans, and will understand & enjoy more authentic English materials". I could probably come up with something stronger/better, but you get the idea.

Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More
"Jobs takes nothing for granted during product launches. He reviews and rehearses his material."

One thing I love about teaching in an IEP (Intensive English Program) is that I get tons of practice. Ive got my class for 4 hours every day. This allows me to experiment alot and practice alot.

For example, I never learned how to use the movie technique effectively at TU, because I simply didnt have time to master it. I had limited time with each class.. and lots of curriculum demands from the University. But at IIC Ive been able to use it every day... for months.

In regards to the conference, I got the feeling that many of the presenters had not practiced. I understand that most were not pros. Many may have been presenting for the first time, and were nervous. No problem. But the best cure for nervousness is PRACTICE. The more you practice, the more relaxed you become (so long as you arent trying to stick to a rigid script).

Keep It Visual
"Speaking of slides, there are very few bullet points in a Jobs presentation."

This was perhaps the worst aspect of most of the CATESOL presentations. EVERY presenter I saw seemed to be a slave to the overhead. Their presentations were driven by bullet points. Some had slides that contained multiple paragraphs of text. And worst of all... most used overheads that were EXACTLY the same as the handouts.

Most presenters used the overhead as a teleprompter... plodding through slide after slide.. and then paraphrasing it. By the last day of the conference, I stopped listening. Rather, I would race around to different rooms and collect the handouts-- because I knew most speakers were just reading them anyway.

My advice-- skip the overhead completely. Or, do as Jobs does-- put PICTURES on your slides. Pictures can reinforce the point you are making. But dont use these as a crutch either. The best presenters I saw were the ones who unattached from the overhead, approached the audience, and just talked to us.

Exude Passion, Energy, and Enthusiasm
"Jobs has an infectious enthusiasm. When launching the video iPod, Jobs said, "It's the best music player we've made," "It has a gorgeous screen," "The color is fantastic," and "The video quality is amazing."

This should be point number ONE. Enthusiasm erases a thousand mistakes. I admit, I was shocked. Most presenters at CATESOL were flat. No energy. No excitement. They stood still, using few gestures. Their voices were devoid of emotion. They just didnt seemed very interested in what they were saying.

But there was one standout exception. On Saturday morning I awoke at 7:50. I was three days sleep deprived (I hate mornings). Worn out. I threw on some clothes... ran from my apartment to the conference. Stumbling up the stairs, I felt spaced out.... and irritable.

I arrived at the workshop 5 minutes late (title: "Brain friendly teaching")... thinking Id collect the handout then doze off.

But in five seconds the speaker had me hooked. She was passionate. She walked around the front of the room. She smiled and laughed. She was obviously excited about the ideas and their applications. All eyes were on her. My exhaustion vanished. I took out my notebook and wrote like mad.. struggling to keep up with her stream of ideas.

My next workshop was more typical... a guy read through his wordy handout.. with absolutely no feeling. Suddenly, I was sleepy again, and found it impossible to pay attention.

Consider this point carefully when you teach. Passion can overcome anything.

"And One More Thing..."
"At the end of each presentation Jobs adds to the drama by saying, "and one more thing." He then adds a new product, new feature, or sometimes introduces a band. He approaches each presentation as an event, a production with a strong opening, product demonstrations in the middle, a strong conclusion, and an encore -- that "one more thing!"

I like this idea... an encore. A surprise. One idea I continually come across is the obvious fact that the brain loves novelty. And so, why not finish every presentation/class with a fun surprise. Something exciting. Something weird. Something crazy. Get them stoked just before they leave... keep them wanting to come back for more.

Strong Openings
A strong opening is just as important as a powerful end. This is Dale Carnegie 101: Dont begin with a wordy introduction. Dont begin with long explanations.... or a mind-numbing list of your qualifications.

Start right in the middle of things. I teach an English Presentation course.. and tell my students to begin with a "no shit, there I was..." story. For example, "I was standing in front of a large class-- 50 students. Some had their heads on their desks. Others had their heads bowed. I smiled and said "hello". No response. No smiles. Nothing. My gut turned. I realized immediately that my carefully prepared lesson plan would never work. What to do?......."

Then you launch into your brilliant idea that saved (or would have saved) the day.

Thats a lot more powerful than "Hi, Im AJ. I have been teaching English as a foreign language for six years. I have a Masters degree from... blah blah blah". Many of the presenters went on like this for ten to fifteen minutes! (Out of a 45 minute presentation)!!

Skip the intro... jump right in.

San Francisco, CA

Thursday, April 06, 2006


by AJ

During her presentation, Ms. Pollard commented that conferences were great for reminding you of great ideas you had forgotten.

Shes right. One such idea: student support groups. Pollard recommended creating small student support groups in each class. During class time, these groups meet to discuss their individual learning goals, their progress towards their goals, and the strategies theyve been using. For example, you might work with each student individually to develop concrete goals (ie. 200 new words per month). Students would write these goals down and keep them.. and the teacher would copy the student's individual plan and keep it.

Students then meet regularly with each other (weekly maybe) to brag about their successes, discuss challenges, encourage each other, share effective techniques, etc.

I used a version of this technique at TU and it worked great... I worked with students to develop individual learning plans.. but I didnt add the support group aspect. I think its a great addition, and plan to use it with all my future classes.

A last note about Pollard's presentation: She's an advocate of Effortless Teaching... or "wu wei".. though she doesnt use those exact words.

However, Pollard talked frequently about the advantage of developing "effective zero-prep routines". The support group is one such routine. As is the aforementioned "four corners" vocab flashcard quiz. These are very simple activities. They require virtually no preparation by the teacher. And yet, they work.

The movie technique is another such technique. I usually use movies Ive already seen. I dont prepare elaborate worksheets or other school-like BS. We just work our way through the movie scene by scene and create our study aids as we go (vocab wall, flashcards, notebooks, etc.). No prep for the teacher. No boring, contrived activities for the students. And it works great!

And since Im not wasting huge amounts of time/energy on generating worksheets... I have plenty of energy for what matters most: dynamic and effective classroom teaching.

San Francisco, CA

Vocab Workshop

by AJ

Attended a workshop today called "Fun and Effective Activities to Teach Vocabulary"... presented by Laurel Pollard.

A sampling of interesting ideas and good stuff:

* Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets does NOT facilitate acquisition.
Pollard presented research that shows that students are likely to be confused if they learn closely-related semantic sets at the same time. By "semantic sets" she means sets of words that belong to a closely related category of meaning.

For example, the semantic set of "fruit" includes, apple, orange, banana, etc.
Many textbooks present vocabulary in exactly this way. One chapter, you learn food vocabulary. Next chapter, you learn about family (aunt, uncle, neice,...). Well, this isnt a very efficient way to do it, as it turns out (no suprise to me).

What does work, according to the research Pollard presented, is teaching vocabulary related to a given story or theme. For example, students learn a story about a vacation: "The Martin family traveled to France on a bright silver jet. This was their first time traveling......." From this story, you might teach the students "silver" and "first" (assuming these are new for them). But you would not go on to teach them "gold", "red", "bronze"... and other colors. Those words would be learned at another time... from a context in which they are not isolated.

*Students need frequent, spaced exposures to words in multiple contexts.
In other words, lots and lots of review spaced over days and weeks... but each review should be brief. The "multiple contexts" point is important too. Its not just a matter of reviewing the word and its definitions or synonyms. Students need to encounter the word in different contexts (speech, movie, various readings) and need to practice the word in different contexts.

*Cool Activity: Four Corners Vocab (from SIOP)
Rather than encouraging students to use a standard textbook or make their own word+definition notebook... Pollard recommended the four corners activity. Each new word is put on a card... which is divided into four sections. In section one, they put the word. In section two, they draw a picture to represent the word (which can be literal or abstract). In section three they write the word in a sentence. In section four, they write their own definition for the word.

In this way, they create multiple associations for the word, rather than the usual single synonym/definition. Im gonna try this with Spanish.

*Use Vocab (Flash) Cards In Class
Again, rather than using a notebook... encourage students to use flashcards for new words. On one side they put the word. On the other they put the four corners info.... plus any other associations that help them remember the word (including translations into their native language).

Pollard recommends reviewing these regularly.... by having students quiz themselves independently during class. When quizzing each other, they should give the words meaning and also use it in a sentence correctly.

All of Pollards suggestions mesh quite nicely with my teaching methods. I had already decided that textbooks were a piss-poor source for vocab... and now draw vocab exclusively from authentic materials.

However, Ive been wracking my brain lately for ways to make this new vocab "stick". This week I put butcher paper on one wall of my classroom. Each time we discover a new word or phrase (I tend to emphasize phrases rather than individual words)... I write it on the paper. I then use this paper for review each morning.

But that still isnt quite enough. So I will definitely be trying the flashcards & four corners idea. I imagine the following routine: First thing in the morning, review the vocab wall... quiz students or have them quiz each other on the phrases. Next, launch into the days new material (usually a book or movie or both)... discover new words/phrases from these and add them to the wall. While I add them to the wall, the students will create flashcards for them. Then, at the end of the day, they'll spend time reviewing all of their flashcards.

By repeating this process every day, they should gain much better retention of the vocabulary.... enabling them to acquire 10-20 new words per day (which is my basic goal for them).

San Francisco, CA


by AJ

First day of the California TESOL conference. For a day, I was once again a "student"..... listening to presenters. This was a valuable experience... from which I learned a valuable lesson:


Cant underestimate this. Most of the conference... in fact, pretty much all of it.. is dedicated to the WHAT of EFL teaching-- what activities to do, what assessments to use, etc. Some of these are very useful and interesting. I loved the vocabulary workshop I attended today-- filled with good ideas.

But no one is talking about HOW. Yet, ten minutes into a workshop it is the HOW that hooks or loses me.

Im talking about delivery. About the speakers use of voice, gestures, movement, visuals. Im talking about the order they present the information and the manner in which they present it. Im talking about energy, dynamicism, enthusiasm. Im talking about pacing.

Why dont teachers talk about this? Why are teachers given a license to bore? How is it that business speakers recognize the power of good presentation. And artists too (who all know that a bad performance can ruin a brilliant play/movie/song). But teachers.... not a clue.

Lesson number one from this conference is this-- Ive got to pay A LOT more attention to my presentation skills. Ive got to tune my sense of pacing. Ive got to incorporate more compelling visuals (for gods sake, never use bullet points in a presentation). Ive got to develop a sense of drama.

And I need to train my voice... to vary its pitch and volume more.... learn to deliver a point with thunder.

The WAY in which we teach a lesson is as important (more?) than the content of the lesson itself. Delivery has a powerful effect on participants attention level, enjoyment, engagement,... and also on how they judge the speaker, and thus, what they are saying.

As a teacher you are a performer. Accept it. Embrace it. Excel at it.

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, April 01, 2006

How to Energize

"Just do your job, then let go"
--Tao Te Ching

Ive been accused of "having a lot of energy"... of being "passionate".... of having "great enthusiasm". Usually, these are accurate descriptions. But over the years Ive noticed that, like anyone else, my energy, passion, and enthusiasm fluctuate.

Ive looked at these patterns and discovered a fairly clear method for preventing burnout... one characterized by the above saying from the Tao Te Ching.

"Let go", thats the key. As much as I reflect, brainstorm, and experiment... in the end Im willing to let go of the results. If a class bombs, it bombs. If its great, its great. If Im fired, Im fired. Making lots of money... thats fine too. I try not to get caught up in the results too much.. focusing instead on enjoying the process.

A key part of doing this is to let go of teaching altogether-- to cultivate a wildly interesting life outside of teaching. If teaching is the most important thing in your life... you are almost sure to burn out.

And so, sometimes, the best advice is to work less. Be lazier. Rather than fret more, plan more, and work harder-- focus instead on the rest of your life. Is your life "wildly interesting"? Do you have deep meaningful friendships? Passionate relationships?

Are you constantly challenged, stimulated, and engaged? Do you have creative outlets away from school? Compelling sources for inspiration?

If not, teaching is the least of your problems...

Great teachers are great people. Its about more than the subject, Its about who you are as a human being. Students respond to interesting, creative, compelling human beings. You cant fake that.

San Francisco, CA