Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Engaging Content

by AJ

Today I shifted gears with my Advanced class. Up till now, Ive used mostly romantic comedies for the movie technique. These have been fairly popular.

But the last few weeks, we've been reading articles about the immigration fight going on in America right now. Yesterday we read about a library in Lawrenceville, Georgia (a redneck suburb near my hometown) that has decided to cut all funds for adult Spanish language books. This article led to a discussion about racism in America... and my students expressed an interest in the history of this topic.

So, having just finished "Good Will Hunting".. I decided to go with a documentary on the American Civil Rights movement. I think it was a good choice. I realized that while most foreign students are vaguely familiar with this part of American history.. most really don't know much about it. Today we watched a series of interviews with people who took part in the movement. They described their experiences with cross burnings, intimidation, segregation, lynchings, etc. It was very powerful...

As you might imagine, such a film provides for many serious and interesting discussions... and also stimulates a lot of questions about American history and its impact on the present day.

As we discussed these issues, I realized how childish and condescending most ESL materials are... even for advanced students. Most ESL textbooks focus on two general themes: extremely boring tasks (shopping, eating at a restaurant, etc..) or lame pop culture (dumb articles mostly appropriate for adolescents).

Why do we subject them to this tripe? There is an inherent and usually unstated assumption in adult ESL education... that lack of English ability equals lack of intellectual ability (an assumption with subtle rascist roots, in my opinion). Thus we have the absurd practice of teaching students "study skills" and "reading skills" (students who study and read very well indeed in their native languages). We also insult their intelligence with childish and simplistic topics. As a Spanish learner, Id certainly be insulted if a Spanish teacher insisted on teaching me how to "find the main idea" when reading.

Of course, beginning students may not have the language ability to discuss an extremely complex topic like racism. But that doesnt mean we have to condescend to them... or pretend like they have no clue how to study, live, find a main idea, organize their thoughts, etc...

They dont need lessons on these subjects. What they need is more authentic, comprehensible, meaningful, and interesting English content.

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dead Language

by AJ

I understand why so many students hate English (or foreign languages in general). How could they not? Traditional foreign language education is horrible-- an almost total failure.

Traditional school is where inherently fascinating subjects have all the magic and wonder sucked out of them. Its where the miraculous wonders of life become the boring & seemingly pointless subject of "biology".

Likewise, school is where the incredibly interesting & lively subject of language and culture becomes "English 101". Students minds are dulled by a relentless & obsessive focus on obscure "grammatical" rules, error correction, tests, and grades. For many students, English class is an exercise in humiliation. My students tell me horror stories.. of being humiliated in front of the class for making a grammar mistake. While there are certainly kind and generous teachers, the traditional school system is, at heart, a sadistic one of regimentation and control.

My experiences with traditional education were less traumatic than my students, but no less pointless. I loathed Spanish class. I remember feeling overwhelmed and clueless... and bored out of my skull. Each day we went through meaningless textbook exercises. Each week, I memorized the vocabulary list at the end of the chapter, and the grammar rules too. Each week I got high grades on the test... then promptly forgot everything. Spanish seemed like a completely pointless class... for I never understood how all that BS had significance for me or my life.

Self-study (with or without the aid of a tutor/coach) is the way to go. What a difference this makes.

This time, studying Spanish on my own, I am filled with excitement and fascination. Im having a great time with the language-- especially as I learn more about the cultures of various Spanish speaking countries. As I do so, my imagination is fired and Im seized by the desire to visit these places. This time, Spanish is not some obscure academic subject... its a living language spoken in a variety of interesting places I want to visit.

Traditional school divorces language from culture, from travel, from real people, from ideas, from philosophy, from literature, from history. Its a dead subject.

With self-study, this does not have to be the case. You can choose content that fascinates you. You can save money and actually go to a country where the language is spoken. You can eat their food, listen to their music.

Those activities bring the language to life... and power your motivation far more than textbooks & grammar tomes.

So put away the textbooks and fire your teacher. Dare to engage the living language directly!

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Writing Curriculum

by AJ

Writing instruction is ideally suited to the internet. Its easy to exchange texts, edits, and notes... and all this can now be done very quickly.

With my private (internet) writing students, I generally use the following approach:

1. The student writes something. I like the student to choose the topic, normally.. though Ill assign one if they want me to. The kind of writing really depends on the goals of the student. If they aim to improve their business writing, Ill suggest formal letters and other business like topics. If they are aiming for academic writing, I usually suggest essays.

2. The student sends their completed draft to me... usually via email.

3. I re-write the piece using standard, concise, clear English. I try to follow a journalistic approach-- emphasizing clear meaning and good organization. Of course, I aim to preserve as much of the student's original writing as possible... and all of their intended meaning.

4. Once I finish my rewrite, I record myself reading it at a moderate rate of speech. I convert this into an MP3 audio file.

5. I then email the original draft, my rewrite, and the audio version of my rewrite to the student.

6. I ask them to review their original and my rewrite every day for a short time.... comparing the two. I ask them to try to understand why I made the changes I made. I also ask them to highlight new phrases (for them) that are in the rewrite... and review them daily.

7. Students then listen to the audio file of the rewrite every day... as much as possible. The purpose of this is to help them get a feel for the phrasing, flow, and word choices of more formal (ie. written) English. The MP3 also allows them to absorb the language as they walk, sit in a bus, ride in a car, etc...

8. At the end of a week (or whatever time period), the student submits another piece of writing, and the process is repeated.

San Francisco, CA

Friday, June 23, 2006

Learn a Language, Get In Shape!

by AJ

Lately Ive been combining two of my favorite activities: language learning and walking. I find they are an ideal combination.

I typically walk for 1-2 hours each day. I love strolling around San Francisco. I walk to the wharf, to Embarcadero, through Chinatown, around North Beach. San Francisco is a great city for walking... and the hills make for good exercise.

Lately, Ive been carrying my ipod as I stroll. Its now full of Spanish content. As I walk, I listen. Sometimes I mumble lines of Spanish to myself. SF is full of crazy people, so no one seems to notice or mind yet another person talking to himself ;)

The great thing is, these two activities work synergistically for me. When I learn Spanish at home or in a coffee shop, I often get sleepy. This is probably some form of unconscious resistance or laziness... cause I only get sleepy once I start studying! But when I walk, the exercise (and sights) invigorate me. I find Im able to concentrate better on what Im listening to. Because of this, I find I can sustain longer periods of listening than I can when Im sitting and doing it.

Spanish helps my exercise too. Because my mind is engaged in an interesting activity, I dont really notice myself getting tired. And so, I tend to walk for longer periods of time. I stroll all over the downtown area... up and down hills... through neighborhoods... all the while listening to my Spanish content.

When I need to work on something new that requires reading, I stop at a cafe in North Beach and work on it. Then I pack up and start walking again.

So... learning English, Spanish, or another language isnt just good for your brain... it can also be great for your body!!

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Narrow Listening Tips

by AJ

Today I received a packet of research about "narrow listening", kindly sent to me by Dr. Jeff McQuillan. I'll write about these articles in several upcoming posts.

Today's post will highlight an article by Stephen Krashen called "The Case for Narrow Listening". The end of the article contains a number of suggestions for students wanting to maximize their listening efforts:

* Ask native speakers to speak for 2-3 minutes on a topic that is of interest to both them and you. Narrow listening should only be on topics that are of real interest. Boredom sets in rapidly when listening is undertaken only because it is in another language.

* You should already know something about the topic. Fill in your knowledge by first reading about the topic in your native language. This will make the foreign language input more comprehensible because you will have greater background knowledge.

* Tape record sessions and listen repeatedly, until interest starts to wane.

* Topics are changed gradually and you move to related topics. This will help ensure greater comprehensibility of input. One might move, for example, from current events to history.

* Commercial tapes are a possibility, but doing it oneself (with the help of native speakers of the target language) is preferable, as it helps ensure interest and comprehensibility.

As Krashen notes, narrow listening is a fairly low-tech, inexpensive, pleasant, and effective means of improving in a foreign language.

San Francisco, CA

Monday, June 19, 2006

A Great Spanish Resource

by AJ

I just got a book called "Read & Think Spanish" and its excellent! The book contains many authentic Spanish articles.. about the food, history, people, and culture of various Spanish speaking countries.

The best part is that each article has a running glossary/wordlist on the side. No need to waste tons of time looking up new words in a dictionary. You can instantly check a word's or phrase's meaning, then effortlessly return to the text.

Better still, the book comes with a CD... with each article read by a native speaker of the country that the article is about. The book provides over 70 minutes of authentic Spanish about very interesting topics. (ie. not "textbook Spanish).

Better still, this book is actually produced by the editors of a magazine by the same name. Their magazine follows the same format and is available monthly.

Check them out at: Think Spanish Audio Magazine!!

PS: There are many magazines like this for English.... I remember seeing them constantly when I lived in Japan.

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, June 17, 2006


by AJ

I highly recommend a blog called "Learning Spanish in 10 Weeks". Adam is on a mission to make a breakthrough with his Spanish in 10 weeks (as the name implies). He's using comprehensible input based methods... lots of reading and also watching Spanish soap operas, listening to Spanish radio, etc.

I find Im inspired by his efforts.. and am encouraged to make greater efforts with my own Spanish studies.

Here's his blog: http://learning-castellano.blogspot.com/

PS: One of his methods is to watch World Cup games on Spanish language TV.. as he says, its "a rich source of excited adjectives and sporty verbs!"

San Francisco, CA

Friday, June 16, 2006

Great Conversations

by AJ

Im beginning to think that my conversations on The Linguist are more fun for me than for the students! I had two fantastic discussions today.

The first was with a Russian man named Ilya. Ilya is a very motivated learner.. but more than that.. he is an innovative thinker. Currently Ilya is working on a system to use movies to teach languages. This would be a self-study system, allowing students to pop a movie into their laptop, watch it, and learn. He's designing an in-sync subtitle system that will help learners acquire the language without needing to constantly pause the movie. The software is in development now, but Im hoping to get a crack at a test run before the end of the year.

My next discussion was with Kyoung and Humberto. Humberto is amazing. He is a native Spanish speaker with a story most of us can relate to. He came to Canada and enrolled in traditional ESL classes. He studied and dutifully attended classes. He steadily rose through the levels, eventually getting a certificate of completion. After all of this, however, he couldnt speak English or hold even a rudimentary conversation.

He joined The Linguist three months ago. Everyday he read and listened to authentic content. He listened repeatedly to the same content. He continued to do this everyday and then suddenly made a breakthrough. In our discussion, he spoke quickly and fluently. I had a hard time believing that just 3 months ago he was struggling with speech.

Humberto's enthusiasm was contagious. He was very excited about his progress, and the "structured input" system he is using at The Linguist. He gave me (and Kyoung) a very powerful pep talk.

As part of our discussion, Humberto related how he tried to get his friends to join The Linguist, but could not convince them. He bemoaned the fact that they insisted on using traditional methods and insisted on relying on a classroom and teacher. Even though he has made amazing progress, and they still can't communicate in English... they insist that they must learn in a classroom and must focus on grammar.

Which just goes to show how powerful the brainwashing is. Truth be told, thats what it is. So many students believe that the traditional classroom, teacher, tests, grades, grammar, textbook system is THE only legitimate way to learn. Even though this system may be failing them utterly, they remain stuck in it. They often blame themselves.. thinking they arent smart enough, or dedicated enough. When in fact the system is to blame.

How do you break students out of this mentality? Its a very tough challenge. Even when the difference in results is as powerful as between Humberto's and his friends'-- its still very difficult to get learners to accept another way.

Yet, if we truly care about our students, that is exactly what we must do.

San Francisco, CA

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Hammer Time

by AJ

As I study Spanish each day, I find that I prefer depth to breadth at this point. In other words, I prefer to focus on a very limited amount of content and repeat it many times.

I took this approach with "Las Puertas Retorcidas". Ive listened to each chapter at least 30 times now. Most days, I repeat several chapters yet again. The idea is to hammer these phrases and words into my brain. Listening a few times simply is not enough, at least at my (very low) level. I need a tremendous amount of repetition.

Its not just a matter of "knowing" the words and phrases. If I look at a word list, I can give the meanings for most of the words used in the book. The problem is, I havent totally "acquired" these words. I recognize them in an analytical way. But when listening to the audio, its still difficult to actually hear and understand many of them... much less use them quickly and naturally. Thus, I continue to repeat the same content again and again.

While I continue a bit of light review of "Las Puertas Retorcidas" each day, Im now focused on a book called "Teach Yourself: Improve Your Spanish". Im now on Chapter two and am taking the same Hammer approach. I listen repeatedly to the dialogues. I also try to read & listen to each of them at least once a day. Slowly but surely, the audio is becoming more comprehensible.

This approach is working well for me. I imagine it would work well for many students, especially beginners.

But as an English teacher, I know there is NO WAY I could get away with this. The traditional school system has brainwashed students to believe that SPEED and QUANTITY are THE ANSWERS. Most students want as much vocab and grammar crammed into a semester as possible. Textbooks are designed with this approach in mind.

Thus we have the ridiculous phenomenon of covering the present tense in two weeks, the past tense in a few weeks, the past progressive in a week, etc.. Apart from the dubious benefit of breaking the language into isolated parts like this... its insane to expect students to "learn", much less "acquire" these language points in that amount of time.

Similarly, schools, administrators, and students alike have a VERY low tolerance for review and repetition. I do it more than most, but not nearly enough.

With all this emphasis on quantity, what usually happens is that the students build a giant notebook of vocab and grammar notes... which they remember for a week, or possibly until they pass a test. Then 80-90% of it vanishes... purged from short/mid term memory. Or, just as bad, the student remembers the grammar rules but absolutely cannot apply them. I encounter this all the time in my advanced class. Several students can lecture me with detailed explanations of grammar points. Then, after an exhaustive discussion of the minute particulars, they'll then make mistake after mistake when actually using the language. I cant help but wonder, would they have gotten better results by focusing on structured comprehensible input with a great deal of repetition... rather than memorizing grammar tomes?

San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ipod Video

by AJ

Without a doubt, my "movie lessons" are the most popular activity I do with students. Students in my class can't wait until the afternoon, which is when we have the movie technique class. I even get requests from students in other classes, who have heard about it.

Of course, just watching a movie in English is almost useless, unless you are a very advanced student. Some teachers use movies as a babysitter- they pop in the movie, then do nothing.

That's not what we do. As Ive described many times, the movie technique is a "structured input" activity. The teacher's role is to make the movie comprehensible for the students (that's "i+1" for all you teacher geeks out there ;)

Obviously, you don't do the same thing with beginners as you would with an advanced class. With low beginners, I focus only on concrete images on the screen. I describe them (He's wearing a blue shirt, She's running, ....) and I ask questions about them (What is she doing? Why is she crying? etc...).

With the advanced class I'm currently teaching, we focus on the dialogue. I turn on the English subtitles and play a scene at full speed. Then I rewind, and go through the scene line by line... explaining new vocabulary, idioms, slang, phrases, grammar... whatever. Each day, we write the new vocab on our "vocab wall"... then we review it every morning.

It occurred to me that students could use the movie technique on their own, using a dictionary and the subtitles... and saving phrases to ask me (or another native speaker) about later. I've also thought of doing this with Spanish.

The only problem is that (until recently) video required a TV. You had to be stuck at home to do this. But now, there are ipods with video capability. So its possible to self-study with a movie/TV show AND be mobile.

This is a great opportunity. As Scott noted in a recent comment, video offers many advantages. First and foremost, video makes the language easier to comprehend. The images and actions help you understand what is being said... its a more information rich context than audio only.

At the moment I have a small ipod nano, which can't handle video. But in the future I may invest in a bigger ipod with video capability... and add the movie technique to my arsenal of language learning weapons!

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tony's Blog

by AJ

I just had a discussion with Tony, a longtime learner with The Linguist. Supposedly I was the tutor/coach and he was the student, but really it felt like the opposite.

Using The Linguist over the last two years, Tony has become fluent in English. He is a native Chinese speaker from Taiwan. During our conversation, we chatted about my efforts to learn Spanish and he gave me very good advice. He discouraged me from jumping into a book like "Harry Potter" at this time, instead encouraging me to seek out easier content closer to my level. That's great advice.. the same advice I give my students.

I don't know what it is, but I often forget basic principles as a student. As a teacher I will give excellent advice. But as a student, I often ignore that advice. I get impatient or frustrated and try to race ahead too fast. In the end, of course, that only makes me more frustrated. But its so much easier to be wise and rational when you are a teacher... because you don't have a lot of emotions, goals, and ego tied up in the learning process. You can see things more clearly.

And that is a very good role for the teacher... to help the student see clearly and choose learning strategies that will be enjoyable and productive IN THE LONG RUN. We can help students take a longterm view that will lead to true mastery.. not just a good score on a semester test.

Tony would make a great teacher. He not only encouraged and help me with my Spanish efforts, he also encourages and helps other Linguist students with their English learning process. He regularly writes a blog in both English and Chinese, to chronicle his English learning journey and provide support for others who are learning English.

Check out his blog at:
Tony's Blog

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Fantastic Resource

by AJ

ESL Pod has been re-designed, and it looks great. Also, Drs. McQuillan and Tse are now offering learning guides for each podcast, in addition to the free audio and transcripts.

Their podcasts are an excellent resource for students who want to learn English. Each podcast includes a short conversation, and an explanation of grammar/vocab. Each conversation is presented at both a slower speed and a normal native rate of speech.

What I find most impressive about their podcasts is the frequency and consistency. They create a new podcast almost every day. Also, in addition to the "normal" podcasts, they also have a podcast for TOEFL, and an advanced podcast called "English Through Stories".

Ive often thought of doing my own podcast, but to be honest, I can't imagine doing anything that ESL pod isnt already doing and doing very very well.

If you are trying to improve your English through self-study, I highly recommend ESL Pod. You can download the audio to an ipod and listen to it frequently throughout the day. You can also read along with the transcript.

Why use a boring as hell textbook when such a resource is available... at no cost (and getting the more detailed study guides only costs $10 a month)!

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, June 10, 2006


by AJ

Consistency. That seems to be the key with language acquisition. You've got to keep putting in the reading, listening, and review hours day after day after day.

Sometimes this is easy to do. You are enjoying the process. You feel like you are making progress. You build momentum.

But plateaus are a natural part of learning. Whether its learning a new sport, or refining a skill, or acquiring a language... you will inevitably hit a plateau. A plateau is a point where it feels like you are not making any progress.

Plateaus are frustrating. You keep putting in the effort and time, but nothing seems to happen. But "seems" is the key word. Because something is happening. Your body and mind are adjusting. They are processing the new information. They are re-wiring themselves. Plateaus, in fact, are what feed the learning spurts that typically follow them.

Learning is rarely a smooth and linear process. We tend to make progress in fits and starts.

But, nevertheless, we've got to maintain smooth and consistent effort. Even during those times when it feels like nothing is happening.. keep following your system. Continue to listen everyday. Continue to read. Continue to review. If you start to feel frustrated, try to forget your goals for a while... and just enjoy the process. Enjoy what you are reading and listening to. Enjoy the daily routine.

If you can maintain consistency through the plateaus, youll find that you are soon experiencing another marvelous spurt of rapid learning.

Keep at it!

San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Return To Kindergarten

by AJ

To address the aforementioned problem of wasting time in class, I tried something new today. Actually, I tried something old... something I used to do in my first teaching job when I taught Korean kindergarten children.

I introduced the idea of learning stations.

When I taught kindergarten, we did "learning stations" every day. I created little distinct areas in my room. One was a reading corner. I put a lot of our favorite books there. One was a play corner. I put plastic toys there.. mostly little animals, dinosaurs, etc. Another area had phonics cards.

Each day, I divided the kids and sent them to a station. They got 15-30 minutes at each station, sometimes more. It worked great. I got tremendous joy, especially, from the play corner. I loved listening to them play with their little animals using English. They talked for the animals, imagined little scenarios, had arguments and fights between the animals, etc.... all in English. This after having "studied" English for only three months.

So today I tried a modified form of this. I had four stations: reading (a newspaper article), discussion (with a topic), writing (including corrected rewrites by a teacher) and vocab review.

Results today were mixed. The reading station went well. The writing station went well too. But the discussion station did not. Several groups just sat there doing & saying nothing... this from an advanced class fluent in English. The vocab review station also was so-so... some groups made little effort to quiz each other on the words & phrases we've learned.

I suspect the writing station went well mainly because there was a teacher there to goad them on. Same is true of the reading station. I found this quite frustrating, that the moment a teacher wasnt there pushing them, they lapsed into doing nothing. Herein, again, we find the malaise of teacher dependency.

But Im not giving up. This is one way to maximize classroom efficiency. Stations allow for high intensity learning... because students switch to a different activity after 20 minutes or so. If they are self-motivated, they can accomplish a great deal at each one.

I know this can work and it can work very well. And dammit, if kindergarten children can do this... if they can be energized and on-task, then certainly grown adults can.

I suspect, in fact, that my problems with this advanced class have little to nothing to do with teaching approach, curriculum, and linguistic activities.

My problem is a motivational & emotional one. Ive simply done a piss poor job of coaching them. They dont need detailed linguistic explanations from me (even though they occasionally ask for them). They certainly dont need me to tell them how to learn English, as they are already mostly fluent.

What they need from me is encouragement, focus, a gameplan, and... at times,... a little kick in the ass. Hell, we all need that from time to time. Most of us occasionally need someone to egg us on to higher performance, greater intensity, etc.

When I trained for my second marathon, for example, I did a much better job than when I trained for my first. Why? Because I trained alone for the first one and trained with a partner for the second. The partner helped keep me on task. I was less likely to skip a training run because I knew she was relying on me to join her. Also, we seemed to push each other. If she was feeling a little lazy, Id often push her to a faster pace. When I was a bit lazy, she did the same for me. As a result, my time was considerably better in my second race.

Thats the sort of thing we, as teachers, can do for our students... especially our advanced students who already know the language well. Most of them (all of them) are more accomplished foreign language learners than I am. But thats OK. Michael Jordan was a better basketball player than his coach Phil Jackson... but he still relied on Jackson to egg him on to higher levels.

In sum, I feel Im doing well with the linguistic side of the formula. Ive got a very good tool chest of structured input activities that utilize authentic materials. I also do a fairly decent job with presentation... have a loud and clear speaking voice, good energy, good gestures, etc...

My glaring weakness now is on the emotional/motivational/coaching side of the equation. Im total crap at demanding high standards from other people. Im terrible at egging them on to higher levels of performance. Im always trying to be a nice guy and am therefore horrible at giving the occasionally necessary kick in the butt to good performers who need it.

And so, coaching is the next skill I need to drastically improve.

San Francisco, CA

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Wasting Time

by AJ

As I compare my Spanish self-study efforts with the English learning activities we do in my EFL class, I come to an uncomfortable realization: we are wasting a lot of time in English class.

In other words, when I study Spanish I get a lot more learning per minute than do my English students. Typically, I sit in a coffee shop, pop in the earplugs, and listen to lots of Spanish content. When working on something new, I read it, review the new words/phrases, and then listen listen and listen some more. When strolling around town, I listen to the same Spanish content.

I also do a good job of regulating my attention. When I feel my concentration fading, I take off the earplugs or switch to music for about 10 minutes. After a short break, Im usually ready for more Spanish. In one or two hours, I feel I get a lot of comprehensible input and learn a good number of new words/phrases.

My gut tells me that my self-study efforts are probably much more efficient than what takes place in my English class. Why?

Well, there are a number of factors:

1. We spend a lot of time in English class discussing "Why" questions. From a language acquisition standpoint, "why" questions are absolutely pointless and counterproductive. "Why do you say 'take' a shower, not 'do' a shower?", "Why can you say 'I'm leaving tonight' when you are talking about the future", etc., etc.

While these questions may (or may not) be interesting from an academic linguistic standpoint, they are absolutely useless from a practical language acquisition standpoint. Its like me asking, "Why is 'silla' (chair) feminine in Spanish?" Perhaps there is a logical answer rooted in Spanish (or Latin) linguistic history... but so what. When learning Spanish, you just accept that this is the way the language works and that is that.

So, all that time we spend in class discussing the ins & outs of linguistic "why's" is a complete waste of time (in terms of actually acquiring more English).

2. Taking turns is another problem. Whether its pairwork, groupwork, or doing something as a class... a good amount of the students' time is spent listening to fellow students mangle the language. Oftentimes, when doing pair or group work, the students just chit chat about small talk. The problem with this is that they aren't in any way challenging themselves... they arent learning anything new (this is an advanced class).

3. Its impossible to please everyone. Every student is different. Some are quite motivated and serious. Some come to class but really don't care much about making an effort on their own. Some demand grammar, textbooks, and more grammar. Others hate textbooks. This means that its difficult to sustain an activity consistently... and its particularly difficult to build in lots of repetition. I find that while a few students may respond well to this, others soon complain, tune out, or drop out.

4. Poor Pacing: In a class with several students, pacing is always a problem. The fastest students must continuously wait for the slower ones, thereby wasting lots of time. Or the slower students are pushed ahead too fast and fail to get enough repetition and comprehensible input, again wasting their time.

In truth, the traditional classroom setup is very inefficient.

A better model might be a self-learning center, staffed by coach/tutors. The tutor would help each student develop a study plan, provide encouragement and the occasional kick in the butt, answer questions, and provide occasional opportunities for everyone to communicate in small groups.

Otherwise, the students would be on their own... maximizing their time by reading and listening to content of their own choosing.

San Francisco, CA

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Take Responsibility

by AJ

"Im probably unfair in saying this, but I think in today's day and age, if you want to improve in a language .... if you are looking for a tutor, you probably will not improve very much in your language studies. If you have an attitude that a teacher is going to teach you the language, I really dont think you are going to improve very much. There is so much content available for people to learn from. And there are good systems... where you can access audio content and text content.

'Where can I find a tutor' probably means 'Im not gonna learn'."

--Steve Kaufman

Just to balance the above quote, I should note that Steve's Linguist system does use tutors. However, they do not play the role of expert. Nor are they responsible for "teaching" the students English. Mostly the tutors act as coaches... helping each learner find productive self-study strategies, providing encouragement and emotional support, and providing opportunities for genuine communication.

The traditional school does exactly what Steve criticizes, which, in my opinion, is why most of them are total failures. Traditional language instruction fosters an attitude of dependence. The students are taught to depend on the teacher. They quickly assume that it is the responsibility of the teacher to make them learn the language. When they learn slowly, or not at all, many assume there is something wrong with themselves. They don't think to question the structure and form of the education they are receiving. Nor do they think to take charge of their own learning. They are passive.

I find this attitude frustrating as both a teacher and a student. As a teacher, I tire of the complaints I hear from students. Some whine endlessly about their lack of progress. They whine about the types of activities we do in class. They whine about their listening ability, or their speaking ability. When I suggest various self-study activities, they pout. After all, they think its my total responsibility to force English mastery upon them.

As a student, this kind of attitude is simply ineffective. In High School I used to do the same thing. I whined about my lack of Spanish ability. I complained that after a year of straight A's, I still could not comprehend a bit of authentic Spanish.. nor negotiate even the simplest conversation.

I carried this attitude with me to AUA in Bangkok, when studying Thai. Read my critique of their program. While I think the observations are accurate from a teaching standpoint,... its easy to see that underlying those observations is a dependent attitude. I didnt make the progress I expected and I put all of the responsibility on them.

Thanks to some self-appraisal, and some good conversations with Steve, Ive finally adjusted my attitude. Ive taken total control of my Spanish learning. I know that I am the only one responsible. This is an empowering shift. As such, I find Im gradually building motivation. Im discovering the strategies and routines that work best for me... the ones which are both effective and enjoyable.

As I see the shift this has caused in my own learning, I begin to question just what it is I should be doing with my English classes at IIC.

Am I really helping them... or am I feeding their attitude of dependence?

How could I change my approach to encourage a dramatic shift in their attitudes? How could I help them find effective self-study strategies?

And what is the best use of the four hours of classtime we have together?

San Francisco, CA

Friday, June 02, 2006

Customized Content

by AJ

I took EFL Geek's advice concerning Audacity and it worked great. As I mentioned in a previous post, I bought a book & CD called "Teach Yourself: Improve Your Spanish". I was annoyed to discover that each chapter began with a long winded intro by a British woman... in English.

So, following EFL Geek's advice, I downloaded the files to iTunes. Then I opened the first chapter in Audacity. I used Audacity to cut all the English parts of the audio, leaving me with Spanish-only conversations. Perfect!!

This takes a little time, but is well worth the effort. I imagine this technique could be used with any audio files, so long as they come in MP3 files or other file types supported by Audacity.

San Francisco, CA

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Crappy Materials

by AJ

Now that Im almost finished with Las Puertas Retorcidas, Im looking for more Spanish language content. Specifically, Im looking for content that comes in both text and audio form, preferably with a word list or very accurate translation.

First, Ill move on to Teresa Sanchez's SSL Podcast.

What I like about both Las Puertas Retorcidas and Teresa's podcast are that both have Spanish-only audio. I didnt realize how important this was until tonight. I recently bought a book/CD combo called "Teach Yourself: Improve Your Spanish". From a quick look, it seemed it would be good. It had a number of dialogues in it on various semi-interesting topics.

However, upon listening to the CD, I discovered a problem. Every damn chapter is introduced by a long winded British woman yammering away in English. I find it EXTREMELY annoying. The introductions are totally unnecessary. Worse, they make repeated listening almost impossible. When Im listening to Spanish I want to listen to SPANISH... not English. I find the sudden English interruptions to be very jarring and distracting.

Luckily I have a lot of past SSL podcasts to listen to. But once I finish those I need to find more Spanish-only content that is interesting, relatively brief, and has both text and audio versions.

Any suggestions would be welcome :)

San Francisco, CA

Process Focus

by AJ

Steve over at the Linguist recently had a great post about enjoying the process of language learning. Here's a short quote:

"Listening to a new language, or reading in a new language or any of the activities that you can do to improve in a language, can be enjoyable as long as you do not put pressure on yourself. The main thing is just to do it."

This is another example of where the child typically uses a superior approach to the adult student. Its not that the child is more gifted. Rather, they just tend to focus more on the process of communication rather than measures and milestones. As adults, we are often terribly uptight. We fret over our progress. We constantly worry, "Am I learning fast enough", "Is my grammar perfect", "Do I know enough words", "Is my accent wrong"......

With English students, its often worse because there is a huge standardized international industry built up around the language. Thus, students fret about their TOEFL score, their national standardized test, their performance on grammar-based academic tests. Its not totally their fault, of course. Teachers, parents, and "experts" encourage their anxiety.

In the end, most students completely lose their joy of learning the language. English becomes a chore. An unpleasant requirement. A duty. An ordeal. Small wonder that students with this kind of attitude often struggle to make more progress. After all, only someone with an iron will can persist in the face of such drudgery.

Young children don't generally carry all of this emotional baggage. They are able to relax and have fun. When I taught kindergarten in Korea, I was amazed at the fearlessness and joy of the students. They loved class. They loved to sing in English. They loved to play games. They loved when I read Dr. Suess books (and later, they loved to read their favorite books themselves). And they loved to try to communicate with me... they never worried about mistakes... they cared only about understanding me and being understood by me. And yet, after a short time, their accents, grammar, and fluency were superior to many older students who had studied for YEARS.

With any long and difficult task, it is essential to enjoy the process and not get too worried about the end result. I learned this training for my first marathon. I learned to relax and enjoy the training runs. Preparing for a 26 mile race takes a long time.... if you hate the training runs, you're unlikely to ever make it to the race. The same is true of language learning and language teaching.

The process itself must be enjoyable and interesting.

San Francisco, CA