Saturday, May 28, 2011

What kind of learner are you?

When we are thinking about the differences in each student's learning style, it is useful to look at the E & L framework (from Ehrman and Leaver (1997, 2003)).  It provides 10 spectra on which we can place a student to get a better idea of how they will absorb information.

Think about each dichotomy as a seesaw.  How far and in which direction is the imbalance?

1) Analogue/Digital scale
Do you tend to absorb information easier through metaphors and analogies (analogue) or through cold facts (digital).

2) Concrete/Abstract scale
Do you prefer hands-on, experimental learning (concrete) or are you a book-learner?  Preferring to learn through lectures and concepts (abstract)?

3) Field Independent/Field Dependent scale
Can you focus on one small part of the whole quickly and easily?  Can you zero in on a small unit of language and focus on just that.  (Field independence is tested by finding a shape in a field of other shapes.  If you can do this quickly, you are field independent.)

4) Field Sensitive/Insensitive scale
Do you use the language environment for your learning (field sensitive) or do you focus on individual units of language out of context (field insensitive)?

5) Global/Particular scale
Do you see the forest for the trees?  Do you focus on overall meaning at the expense of the details?  If you do, you are a global processor.

6) Impulsive/Reflective scale
Impulsive learners think and respond quickly.  Reflective learners think first and then respond.

7) Inductive/Deductive learners
Do you like to create your own hypotheses and test them in the environment in order to learn (inductive) or do you prefer to draw conclusions from reliable sources to apply (deductive)?

8) Leveling/Sharpening scale
When you are looking at two things that are mostly similar, do you look for the similarities (leveling) or the differences (sharpening)?  Do you have trouble remembering the differences or can you recall them easily (sharpening)?

9) Random/Sequential scale
Do you like to work through the material in a sequential way or do you like to read random sections depending on what is interesting to you at the time?

10) Synthetic/Analytic scale
Synthesizers create something new with the pieces that they have.  Analyzers take to take apart words to see the parts that they are made up of.

Keep in mind that each one is a spectrum.  I am usually sequential but at times I will skip a chapter and head into one that interests me more, knowing that I will go back and finish later.

Each student is a different combination of these variables, each class is an average of each of these components.  Teaching is not an easy job if you are teaching right.

Source: Leaver, B.L., Ehrman, M. & Shekhtman, B. (2005).  Achieving success in second language acquisition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pidgin English- Helpful or harmful?

This is always a big debate in the teachers' room when you get some pragmatic teachers with ingrained habits who swear that students won't understand enough otherwise and the teachers who base their style on theories who swear that we should only provide authentic English.

I can see both sides of the argument although I never seem to agree with the way that it is being argued.  Intuitively, I believe that pidgin English is probably not doing the harm that people would have you believe.  Children have learner languages through which they develop on the way to fluency in the first language.  They have no issues with these intermediate steps becoming fossilized.  If you think of it that way, as a tool on the way to more correct discourse, I think the only danger is the teacher developing habits that they cannot break when the students are ready to develop beyond it.

I also believe that although it is not doing damage, it is probably a much more efficient use of classroom time to provide exposure to the entire language as soon as possible.  Grading the language should be done not through unnatural speed or grammatical simplification but through simplification of the idea.  If you keep the idea simple, you can make simple sentences that are correct and convey most of what you say.  It is simply up to the teacher's skill in conveying ideas at the right level for the student.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to and how not to learn a language

When I arrived in Japan, I had no contacts or friends in the city I was assigned to and I was lucky. I was lucky to be living in an environment where I felt anonymous.  For it was that feeling of anonymity that led me to feel truly free to make mistakes.  It was a very different feeling to the university classrooms that I had studied in previously and I felt all of the inhibitions fade.  That is why I understand the negative impact that peer pressures can have in the classroom. 
The pressure to speak the first language often comes from the need to deliver respectful tones that a speaker feels can only be delivered in the first language. In Thai, to show respect to elders, you end sentences in Krab/Kaa.  This is difficult for my students to drop because they feel that without this honorific, they are not showing due respect.  The result is sentences like, “That’s right krab”.

Often, things just don’t sound polite enough because of our internal translation system.  I find it difficult to say “mai ow krab” to my mother-in-law.  It is a perfectly correct and polite response to an offer but in my head it sounds like, “don’t want it!” (The word for word translation is not want + Thai honourific.)

For me, the affective factors restricting me from freedom to play with the language came not so much from my peers but from my own beliefs.  I believed that there should be a switch.  I believed that I should only ever use and think in one language at a time.  I saw code-switching as a slippery slope.  Believing that mixing languages would lead to confusion and attrition of my first language, I felt that I had to learn Japanese from scratch in Japanese.

Now, I realize that I deprived myself of key learning strategies such as extension.  Sure, extension leads to errors (over-extension) but that is part of the learning process.  We notice a similarity (e.g. played, worked) and we make an assumption (add –ed to talk about the past).  We overextend (goed, doed) and then we learn the exceptions.  The benefit of this is that we apply one rule and straight away learn 80% (for example) of cases and then we learn the other 20% individually.  Makes sense to learn one rule and 20% individually than to learn 100% individually doesn’t it?

The fear of fossilization also slowed down my learning process.  I tried to learn everything 100% because the fear of learning something wrong, developing a habit and then not being able to change it later lead me to overanalyze simple input and think too much before I attempted a response. 

When we apply assumptions, we make mistakes.  Whether these assumptions are based on our first language (interlingual[1]) or based on what we already know of the target language (intralingual), they will lead us to errors which are really just signs of progression.  These errors show us that we are in progress from L1 to L2 (interlanguage[2]).  That is why we need to encourage students to make errors and to correct them not to avoid making them.

[1] Brown, D.H (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall. PP 263-264
[2] A coin termed by Selinker.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209-231.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The top 5 books for ESL teachers

If you are starting your career in ESL, here are the top five books that I think you need to know about:

1) Practical English Usage
Michael Swan
This is the go-to grammar book for most new teachers.  If you need a reference that is easy-to-use and complete enough to all of your grammar questions, this is it.  Keep it around when doing your lessons plans.

2) English Grammar In Use with Answers and CD ROM: A Self-study Reference and Practice Book for Intermediate Students of English
Raymond Murphy
If you need to recommend a practice book for students, this is the one most often chosen.   This book does teach spoken style over academic style in some parts but it is a very clear and concise way to introduce your students to over 100 different grammar points.

3) Learner English: A Teacher's Guide to Interference and other Problems (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers)
Michael Swan, Bernard Smith
This is my recommendation for those of you who are travelling overseas to teach in a country that you have never been.  This book talks about the learner language of 20 different languages.  It is a good way to quickly get accustomed to the differences between the learner’s language and English. 

4) Second Language Learning Theories
Mitchell, R. & Myles, F.
A book that looks at the various different theories in ESL.  It is often used as a text for post-graduate university courses.  It is a tough read but well worth it.

5) Games for Language Learning (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers)
Andrew Wright, David Betteridge, Michael Buckby
This is a book that I haven’t used myself but I know that it is quite popular and everyone I speak to swears by it.  Let me know your opinion if you have used it (or read it).

Friday, May 6, 2011

The alphabet - an inadequate tool

I think that it helps a lot of teachers to realise just what a sad job the English alphabet does of approximating the sounds that come out of our mouths.

In a perfect world, the same symbol word make the same sound every time.  That would make reading easier to learn for children and ESL students.  But this is certainly not the case in English is it?
Think about the letters ough.
Now, say these words:  
  1. through
  2. cough
  3. brought
  4. enough
  5. although
  6. borough
  7. bough (when the bough breaks the baby will fall).
Is it any wonder that our students have trouble getting their heads around spelling?
Of course, there is something that works better than the alphabet.  You see, a group of linguists got together and created an alphabet based on the sounds that we actually use.  Those crazy-looking letters that show you how to pronounce words in the dictionary.  This is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  It shows not just all the English sounds but all the sounds in all languages.
It may be a bit tough to learn initially but what if all countries moved to using this as their primary alphabet?  Would that help us to understand each other better?  One step closer to a universal language?
Remember, a language dies every 14 days anyway.  Will it really come down to survival of the most entrenched language?  Or would this be a proactive step in accumulating the benefits of all languages?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A couple of steps that should not be forgotten

Okay, so in the 50’s we had Contrastive analysis.  This is where a bunch of geniuses sat around and said, “If we compare L1 and L2, we can see where the students are gonna go off track and we can focus on these areas”.
These guys were debunked by the younger, hipper crowd in the 70’s who said, “yeah, but a lot of errors that we expect to occur under contrastive analysis don’t eventuate.  Maybe what we should be looking at are the errors that the students actually make.” 
This was the birth of error analysis.  Now, what kind of teacher doesn’t try to help students by looking at the mistakes that they are making?  We would be remiss to ignore such vital indications of our individual student’s understanding.  But to base your entire approach on errors now seems to be a little negative doesn’t it?  Don’t forget the positive reinforcement.
But that was a step that our scientist friends needed to take in order to get to the theory of interlanguage.  “What if these errors are not just random occurrences?” they mused as they poured over their sample of errors.  “What if there was some linear progression from one language to another language that we could plot our learners on?  We already know that L1 is learnt in roughly the same order by all children who learn under comparable circumstances, perhaps there is a similar correlation here.”
The part that I find interesting is that sometimes, a progression appears to be a regression.  Children learn words like played, did, went and use them perfectly fine as individual lexical units.  Then, they learn the rule; add -ed if you are talking about the past.  Suddenly, they start using words like doed and goed even though they were using the correct form last week.  They progress from using individual lexical parts to understanding the rule but applying it blindly to applying the rule and understanding the exceptions.
I don’t like to think of the old theories as debunk.  I prefer to think that they are a step that we had to go through to get where we are now and each step contributed something to a fuller understanding of how people learn to communicate.  So look back at your contrastive analysis and error analysis and see what they can offer to what you do in the classroom today.

Speech acts

We often think that the purpose of a language is to pass meaning but sometimes we use language to commit an act.
  •  I have a cat.  (this gives the listener information)
  •  I promise to do better.  (this is an act of promising)
  •  Go away!  (this is used to elicit action)
Here is a simple breakdown of the three groups of speech acts:


This is the actual passing of information from one person to another.

Illocutionary acts

By saying something, we do something[1].
Warnings, promises, challenges, request, greetings
“Searle (1975)[2] has set up the following classification of illocutionary speech acts:
  • assertive = speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed
  • directives = speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice
  • commissives = speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths
  • expressives = speech acts that express the speaker's attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks
  • declarations = speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife”[3]

Perlocutionary acts

This is the result of the speech act.  Convincing, scaring, inspiring and making you laugh are all examples of this.

[1] John L. Austin (1962), How to Do Things with Words
[2] John Searle (1969), Speech Acts, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-09626-X.
[3] Excerpt from

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Perceived progress vs Actual progress

During my time as a teacher, I have had some students say to me that they are not happy with their progress. Now I work in a learning system where you get out what you put in and usually that means that the student did not progress because they did not study.
My first response to this concern then is “how often do you study?” On occasion though, I have met students who say that they study regularly and still are not happy with their progress. These students I take a lot of interest in. I am very interested in how we can improve things so that the students get the maximum benefit from their time. Most of these cases though are just people with unrealistic expectations (I have been studying 3 weeks and I’m still not fluent!) and those with a perception gap.
I have had students say “I have been here 2 years and I have made no progress”. But when I ask them, “what level did you start?” They tell me that they started at “hello” and “how are you?” two years ago. After talking to them for a while, I realize that it is difficult to see changes in yourself, especially changes that occur over a two year period.
Sometimes we forget to reassure our students of the progress that they are making and show them what they can do now. We have to go beyond the simple positive reinforcements “good job!” which really only comment on the minor task at hand. Regularly, we need to show them the level they were at before and the level that they are at now and use this to motivate them to continue that development.
If the student above really had made no progress in 2 years, the conversation wouldn’t have gone much further than “Hello, how are you?” But sometimes people just need to be reminded.