Saturday, December 22, 2012

No Shortcuts to Competence in Vocabulary

A while ago (12/13/12), an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (paper version) grabbed my attention.  The title was "Vocabulary Declines, with Unspeakable Results." The article by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. can be viewed at the above google-cache link (although I don't know for how long).

The reason I read the article was that, just the day before it was printed, I had had a conversation with a high-intermediate TOEFL student who wondered why our English language school doesn't place students by level according to a vocabulary score.  I didn't have a good answer to his question.  How important is vocabulary to mastery of English?  Can we rate an ESL student's ability level by the vocabulary that (s)he can command in reading, listening, speaking, and writing?  How would we create a measurement/scale for that?  Do test-makers rate every word used in their exam by level?

The focus of the Hirsch article is on native speakers of English - on the American educational system and how it fails to equip its public-school students with appropriate academic and formal vocabulary so that they can function as well-spoken adults.  Hirsch points out that "Vocabulary building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words.  Substance, not skill, develops vocabulary and reading ability - there are no shortcuts." 

I totally agree with Hirsch that there are "no shortcuts" to learning vocabulary.  It is unlikely that a student can quickly grow his/her lexicon without simultaneously expanding her/his knowledge of various subjects.  In other words, vocabulary is best learned and remembered within a subject or topical context.

Some readers may disagree with the view that "all verbal tests are, at bottom, vocabulary tests." However, as Hirsch says, research has "shown that ...verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level.  Words are twice as important as math scores..."  My students can attest that what holds them back the most in achieving the scores that they need on the IELTS or iBT (TOEFL) is a lack of vocabulary. The TOEFL is designed to test a non-native speaker's ability to comprehend and use language that would allow them to function in an American college.

How can we teachers ensure that students are well equipped vocabulary-wise for college and university or for the business world.  Will studying vocabulary lists work?  When a test asks a student to figure out the "gist" or general meaning of a reading or listening passage on the iBT, can a student consistently choose the correct answer if (s)he is totally unfamiliar with the topic being discussed or written about. The test-makers (ETS) claim that all the information a student needs to correctly answer a question on the iBT is contained in the reading or listening passage.  They do not need to be knowledgeable about any particular subject matter.   

Recently, one of my students (Chinese) in a low intermediate preparatory iBT writing class scored 40 out of 120 points on the iBT.  He was very ashamed that he got a "0" on the listening part of the exam. He said that he had no familiarity with what the speakers were talking about, so he couldn't guess enough answers to score even a few points out of the 30 possible for the listening section. I was somewhat incredulous that he scored so low, too, because he was very good at recognizing individual spoken words and to orally give synonyms for the majority of vocabulary words that we had learned from a list in our textbook.  What went wrong when he had to listen to lectures and conversations in English where all the vocabulary was contextualized?  (It is important to note that he had trained for listening and speaking for the iBT, but, according to the student, the topics covered in the listening passages on the exam had not been covered in his practice sessions.)  Is there any way to ensure that all potential academic topics discussed on the iBT can be covered in a ten-week preparatory course? 

The WSJ article and my own observations of ESL students continue to reinforce the notion that much more attention needs to be given to vocabulary development both in public schools and ESL programs.  For teachers, this means that we must be more creative and attentive to the multiple meanings of single words in both common, everyday speech and in more restricted academic contexts. Teaching a love of words could go a long ways toward making students delight rather than cringe at the thought of learning vocabulary.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Intermediate Level Connectors Chat Board

As with other board games that I have put up on this blog, I hope that this one will be useful to both teachers and students.  I used it recently with an intermediate group of ESL learners in a TOEFL writing preparatory class (they learned how to write independent task essays).  Along with vocabulary building activities, the students had the chance to orally practice using connectors (conjunctions) with the assistance of the attached game board and the comparative word chat board.

You can use a die or not (it will go faster using dice and game pieces).  However, I wanted my students to do a lot of practice, and it was highly successful making the students alternate turns.  They did not finish the whole board, but got a lot of practice after 20-30 minutes.  Happily, they remained engaged until I stopped them because they were challenged creating their own sentences that linked words or ideas from the comparative chat board and used the conjunction that came up next on the board.  The partner could choose any pair of words on the comparative chat board. I was able to monitor students and spot-checked to ensure that they knew how to punctuate coordinating (the FANBOYS) and subordinating conjunctions (e.g., when, because, while, before, after) and conjunctive adverbs (e.g., however, therefore, first, second, finally).

This board is designed for lower intermediate level students.  In the future, I will post my more advanced level game connectors board along with some other ideas for how to use it.  Meanwhile, I hope that you'll find this one useful.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Weather Idioms and Sayings

We don't have many bad weather days in Southern California when we can use an expression like "It's raining cats and dogs." There is even disagreement about whether we should teach this outdated expression even though everyone understands it.  Nevertheless, as teachers of English to non-native speakers, our students should also be aware of common expressions that contain weather language relating to everyday life.  These expressions are what we call idioms. To figure out the meaning of an idiom, you have to go beyond a dictionary definition of each individual word.

Here are some weather idioms that you might find fun to use. Lately have you been feeling snowed under? I've been very busy too, so I haven't had as much time as before to post exercises or lesson plans for you.  Now that I've added another post, however, I feel energized.

Some people think that we only have sunny days in San Diego, but actually we do experience differences in weather. You might think I'm full of hot air, but I'm serious.  We do get big rain storms here in San Diego, usually in January and February.  Here are some questions with weather idioms (with online links to definitions), which you can use as writing or chatting prompts.

1. Do you believe that "Every cloud has a silver lining"?  Explain this saying.

2. Describe the last time that you were snowed under.

3. Have you ever had a fair weather friend?  Describe that friend.

4. Do you believe the saying, "When it rains, it pours"?  Why/why not?

5. What is something that is a breeze for you?  Why do you think it is a breeze?

6. When you have an argument, do you usually let it blow over?  Why/why not?

7. What do you sometimes blow hot and cold about?

8. Describe a time when you were on cloud nine.

9. Has anyone ever stolen your thunder?  What happened?

10. What helps you recover fast when you feel under the weather?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Test your Knowledge of Arabic in English

What I love about teaching English is that it keeps me perpetually interested in learning more about it, especially about its vocabulary.  Take the word giraffe.  The giraffe is not a native animal of the Middle East, yet the word is of Arabic origin. Alcohol, too, comes from Arabic even though it is a drink today forbidden to faithful Moslems. Before I began teaching English to Arabic speakers, I had never given much thought to words in my language that might have Arabic roots.  For those readers who wonder what words they know that come from Arabic, here is a link (another crossword puzzle!) for you. The answer to number one across is in this post. Good luck!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Test Your Knowledge of Spanish in English

Here's another crossword puzzle!  You can test yourself to see how many Spanish words you know in English.  If you're like me, you probably didn't know that all of these words have roots in español.  Have fun!

NB:  Because this online crossword puzzlemaker has a limit of 25 letters and spaces for the clues, the definitions are very short or terse.

Friday, August 31, 2012

What's in a Name? (Hitler and the East Sea)

In the beginning, there were names - names of people, of things, of feelings, of places....  It seems that my life as an ESL instructor is all about teaching "names" for everything, and even though my students and I seem to agree on the meaning of the names, when the "names" or words get translated, they often take on other meanings.

Recently, I've become very focused on vocabulary - which is basically "names" for everything we sense or experience in our lives.  We think that there is a word in every language for the things that all people experience, yet it differs depending on the culture.

I've been fascinated for some time with names because people get very attached to them, and it matters very much what something is called. There are some recent examples of names that have created world political tensions.  Take the case of the Sea of Japan vs. the East Sea.  Why does it matter so much what we call this place?

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, "the Sea of Japan is the only internationally established name for the sea area concerned." The Japanese govenment suggests that if they compromise by accepting a second name for the same sea, "...the confusion would necessarily have an adverse effect on the safety of international maritime traffic." In this way, they are emphatic about keeping "the Sea of Japan" as the only name for this body of water.  The South Koreans (Republic of Korea = ROK), on the other hand, argue that "East Sea has been used continuously for the past 2000 years."

Recently, news reported a problem with a clothing store's name in India.  Apparently, the owner of the store has branded his clothing with the name Hitler and a swastika.  He claims that he didn't know anything about the history of Hitler.  In fact, the grandfather of his business partner is nicknamed "Hitler" because of his strictness.  Because Mr Shah has invested a significant sum of money in labeling his store and its merchandise, he says he'll only change the name if he's given compensation for re-branding the clothing.

Many English speakers know the famous Shakespeare saying from Romeo and Juliet: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  We use the saying to mean that the name of a thing isn't as important as what it IS.  However, looking at news stories around the world, that certainly doesn't seem to be the consensus.

I recall being told when I was a child that "Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you."  Hah!  Was that something that my parents said to me so that I wouldn't get in a physical fight over "hurtful words"?  Because of my own experiences, which disproved the saying, I never used it on my own children.  In fact, many psychologists will probably agree that children recover from broken bones and bruises, but words meant to put them down and spoken by parents, teachers, friends, and strangers can leave an indelible mark on their memories.  Words can haunt and hurt for decades, sometimes for life.

There's much more to say about names that comes from psycholinguistics and cognitive science. Have you ever wondered if the word we use for a thing is based on some characteristic, such as the shape, of that thing.  Read this if you want to explore that thought.  Can we use this knowledge about words and shapes to help teach our students or ourselves to more easily remember vocabulary?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Brain-based Strategies for Teaching English

Coming from biological anthropology, you can imagine my excitement at studying psycholinguistics for the second time this past spring.  The first time I didn't learn much about how to teach using the concepts because it was a general course on the topic in psychology.  I was a graduate student in anthropology, not a teacher. Three decades ago, we simply did not have the amount of information we have today about how language is stored at the cellular level.  We knew about Wernicke's area, the angular gyrus, and the involvement of the auditory and visual systems in processing information.  However, now, I imagine individual cells firing, axons growing, and chemical exchanges at synapses every time a student focuses on a vocabulary word, uses it, and recalls it.  Exciting stuff!

How can I use this information in the classroom? Armed with ideas and techniques demonstrated by Professor Holly Wilson at Alliant University, I have started using brain-based strategies to teach my vocabulary students.  Does it work?  I have no proof that it does, but it certainly doesn't hurt.  The students enjoy it, especially if you give some background to brain-based learning strategies.

One fun way to get students to recall vocabulary and to spell it is to put the first three letters of their target words up on the whiteboard.  Start passing out markers and get students to retrieve the word from memory.  It gets all students up and out of their chairs, even the shyer ones that don't like to speak.  It allows everyone to look at the words on the whiteboard, to re-view them, to look at the spelling of the words, and to decide if the word(s) is/are spelled correctly on the board.  The instructor can ask the class to pronounce the words, emphasizing the primary syllabic stress, to define, and to give examples of how to use the words. In fact, this game is very much like the "Flexibility" game at Lumosity that triggers word memories.  You can sign up for a free account at Lumosity and gain access to several of their brain game exercises.  They're entertaining (warning: can be addictive), but you can see improvement in your skills if you stick with the training.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Stairway to Heaven" - Rocking English!

Last year was the 40th anniversary of "Stairway to Heaven."  Since I am always on the lookout for musical material for English language learners, I decided to post this for teachers and students.  What seems to make this song a classic are the thought-provoking lyrics and the captivating guitar work.  Many covers for "Stairway to Heaven" were presented here at NPR (National Public Radio) last November in a salute to Led Zeppelin's masterpiece.  There are purely instrumental versions and song performances.

Listen to the story at the top of this page - there is also a transcript link.  If teachers want to use this material for a song cloze or anyone wants to sing along, here are the lyrics. There is the interpretation of the interviewee on NPR, but students might enjoy reading some of the more long-winded interpretations of the song (in comment form) by music listeners.

If nothing else, enjoy the performance by Led Zeppelin (here's another one).  Personally, the wordless flamenco-Mexican (Fla-Mexican?) mix by Rodrigo and Gabriela and Stanley Jordan's offerings were my favorites (other than the original, that is)! Now I've got an earworm!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jeopardy Game with Homographs (words that look the same but have multiple meanings)

For those teachers and students looking for more activities and ways to learn words with multiple meanings, this is a site which has 25 words in a jeopardy game-like format.  Two people can compete against each other, or you can play by yourself, trying to beat your top score.  The game gives you two definitions, and you have to type in the one word that fits both meanings. The 1000 point words can be challenging, but the game seems geared primariy for intermediate rather than advanced level students.  Have fun!  See if you can get a perfect score!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Using Voicethread for Writing

Hi Students/Teachers/English Language Learners:
This is an example of a homework exercise using Voicethread.  Read, look at the photo, and listen to the description of the speaker's car drive through Los Angeles on Highway 101.Write a response, or record a voice response to the quotation: "Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it."  What are your thoughts?

Using Voicethread, you can write your answer, or you can write your response and read it aloud while recording it.  It's fun and easy to do.  To leave your answer, sign-in with your e-mail address.  Your e-mail address will not be public.  After that, you can leave a comment.  You can use your real first name for your response, or you can make up a name.

Also, if you have trouble leaving your comment on Voicethread, you can type your answer in the comment section below this blog post.  You have three ways to respond.  It's your choice!

Have fun!  This is another way students can "write" or speak and express themselves.

**NOTE TO TEACHERS:  I assumed that most students could do this activity on their own, but in fact, several of my low-intermediate level students were unable to follow the directions and figure out how to record themselves.  It may be best to use the computer lab for a half-hour and demonstrate exactly how students can record themselves by voice or in writing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Logical Way to Teach English

I'm not quite sure how I found this article online.  Serendipity?  It was written by a well-traveled Japanese professor in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Chuo University, and it's an opinion piece about teaching English using "logic."  It is provocative and connects to my past roots in science studies.  I have long been fascinated with how science researchers who are non-native speakers of English communicate in English (as you can see from an earlier blog post in 2009).

I was, thus, excited to read this piece by an academic with a background in electrical engineering (who admittedly doesn't really like English).  The basic concept under consideration is that "communication [between non-native speakers at science conferences, for example] is established so long as there is logicin the use of English.  The results of a "logic test" will be discussed sometime in September, according to the article.  You can be sure that I'll be checking in to see what the findings are.  Aren't you curious, too?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Test Your Knowledge of French in English (c)

By the end of last year, I had created three online crossword puzzles focusing on French words that are commonly used in English.  This is the third crossword puzzle.  There may be one or two repeats of words found in the previous crosswords, but you can see if you remember them here.  Good luck - and have fun with vocabulary!

The first link (a) is to my blogpost so that you understand how to use this online crossword puzzle site.  The other links take you directly to the crossword puzzle.  Have fun reviewing more French words in English!  Here are the links to the posts for all three crosswords, focusing on French in English (a)(b), and (c) = the most recent!

P.S.  I am aware that in one of the crossword puzzles, I used entree to mean the first course, and in another, I used it to mean the main course.  If you eat at a French restaurant in the USA, it could be the first meaning.  If you eat at a French restaurant here which has adopted the English meaning, it refers to the main course.  To avoid confusion, some restaurants avoid the French word completely, calling the first course, appetizers, and the main course, main course (what else?).

Monday, August 6, 2012

"K" is for Kind

How often have you used or heard the word "kind"?  Does it always have the same meaning?  Trying to find the words that are most useful in everyday English is important.  A word like "kind" is deceptively simple.  What I mean is that when students see this word, they think, "Yeah, I know that word.  I know how to use it and what it means."  Actually, if you think it's really easy, then you probably don't know all the ways that we Americans use "kind."  Look at the following sentences, and read them adding kind.

1.  John is uniquely funny; he's one of a _______ .

2.  Would you be so _______ as to bring me some water?

3.  We need a different _______ of approach to make our product stand out from the others.

4.  I like traveling in Thailand because the people are very helpful and _______ to foreigners.

5.  If you have a flush in poker, it means that all of your cards are the same _______ - all hearts, diamonds, spades, or clubs.

6.  I _______ of like the red more than the green fabric.

How many ways have you used kind?  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Teacher, teacher!"

I've been teaching a long time now, but I feel sometimes like I've come full circle with my students calling me "Teacher" instead of by my name (first name as we do with adult students in our informal state of California, or with title, Ms./Mrs. O.).

First, I went through a phase of requesting that students call me by my name.  Then I read an article in an ESL newsletter suggesting that we should feel honored that students want to call us "Teacher," which is a sign of respect in their own languages (Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Korean, and so on).

However, that voice inside my head began shouting at me after a few quarters of tolerating the "Teacher" name-calling.  This nagging inside me caused me to rethink this issue.  After all, if I were learning English so that I could study in an American college or university, wouldn't I want someone to tell me that calling an instructor by the name "Teacher" isn't respectful in the USA?  The answer is always, "Yes!"  In fact, foreign students should learn appropriate behavior both inside and outside an American classroom.  Students should learn that translating words directly from their language into English often doesn't work. This is one of those cases.

Recently, I've taken to reminding students to call me by my name when they call me "Teacher."  I respond by saying, "Student?"  One male Arab student recently has decided to call me "Teacher" (I believe, to be irritating) and a classmate defended his name-calling by saying, "In our country, it is a sign of respect."  I responded by saying, "Well, you're not in your country."

Afterward, I felt that I knee-jerked, but on rethinking and talking with others, I realized that that is the reality.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do!  When teaching a language, we should be teaching more than words and vocabulary.  We should also be teaching cultural norms and customs.  That is also my job as an ESL teacher.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Verb + ing

Recently I realized that telling students that prepositions are usually followed by nouns or gerunds (= verb+ing) confused them.  Why?  There are lots of structures in English that have the pattern of verb+ing. What are they?  In addition to the gerund, we have the present participle that is used in the progressive tense (e.g., "I am singing a song now.") with the verb "to be."  We also use it as an adjective form in the participial adjectives like interesting, fascinating, compelling, frustrating, demanding, and so on.

It is important that students understand what words do - that words play different roles in a sentence.  Verb+ing can act as an adjective (He is simply dazzling, isn't he?); be a part of the progressive or continuous form of a verb (Now look at him.  He's dazzling people with his ability to dance.), or function as a noun (Dazzling people is easy for him.).  Teachers, the next time you talk about Verb + ing and see a lot of hands go up or puzzled faces, these several uses of the structure verb+ing could be the reasons your students are confused.  Anticipating such areas of possible confusion always helps me feel like I'm at least two steps ahead of my students in the classroom.

After having taught very advanced-level students for a decade, it is stimulating to be teaching intermediate levels again.  In many ways, questions from intermediate-level students are fundamentally more challenging because they focus on structures that are similar in appearance but whose functions are quite different.  What I love most still about teaching English is how much I learn about my native language from my students.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Addendum to "Spellbound by Spellbound"

It is gratifying to see that many of my readers still come to visit an earlier post called "Spellbound by Spellbound" about the 1999 National Spelling Bee competition.  Keeping a blog up to date is a challenge because some links go dead after a few years.  Angela Arenivar, for example, changed her blog name, so I recently updated my link to her.  Here is another link that tells the reader where the students profiled in the 2002 movie are now (as of 2011).

This year's winner is another student of Indian background who lives in San Diego. Her name is Snigda Nandipati and, like Nupur Lala (one of the "stars" of "Spellbound"), was a second-time returnee to the Nationals this year.  You can read more about Snigda Nandipati in this Huffington Post article, which points out that Nandipati is the "fifth consecutive Indian-American winner and the 10th in the last 14 years."  You can also revisit the topic of why children from this heritage have been overwhelmingly successful in the American spelling bee.

Some Tips on Writing (Blogging) Well

I haven't written about blogging for a while, but my daughter has sent me a link to a great site for copywriters.  I am passing along this link about several common writing mistakes because I am sure that you want to avoid these errors.  They are errors that ESL and English instructors everywhere try to avoid making themselves and try to get their students to avoid making.  Sometimes my ESL students seem unconvinced that the rules I teach are ones that native speakers need to follow, too.  Maybe these tips and this site will reinforce my lessons or yours.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"P" is for Polyseme

I've been talking about polysemes in my intermediate classes. Some might say that it is too big of a word for this level, but when I was a low-level student in Spanish, French, and Japanese, I recall being undaunted by big words.  The concept was what was important.

I want students to know that English has a huge number of words that, on the surface, look very simple, but have multiple meanings.  They are polysemes (n) or polysemous (adj).  There are other words that I could introduce to them, such as homophones, homonyms, homographs, but mostly what I want them to know is that there are words that look identical and have more than one meaning.

Try this little game to discover some simple and common polysemes (e.g., homographs).  Also, if you haven't seen "'R' is for Range", it is a previous post that examines the word "RANGE" for its multiple uses and meanings.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Quizlet Vocabulary Practice

Vocabulary students and teachers can practice vocabulary for free using this great application called Quizlet.  Open the page and you will be taken to a list of vocabulary words that we have practiced this quarter.  These are flash cards which will allow you to hear the pronunciation of the target words as well as definitions.  There are also some matching and spelling games that are timed for play.  Have fun!

There are other links that you might enjoy.  If you want to practice some vocabulary for jobs and for adjectives describing people and their skills, here's another link (it's not mine, but you can use it!).  That's the neat thing about this site.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pronunciation Tools

If you have wondered where you can practice pronunciation and get some sort of feedback without paying for a tutor, there IS a site for you.  It's called English Central.   It is free to sign up.  Then you will have access to lots of materials for practicing individual sounds.  In addition, this site has numerous videos with scripts.  The nice thing about the site is that you can choose your topic and speaker, watch the video, and read the script while you're listening to the speaker.  Finally, you can synchronize your computer's microphone with the site and record yourself. When you record yourself saying exactly the same speech as the speaker in the video, you get feedback that shows how close your speech comes to matching the speaker's.  To get the highest score, reproduction of intonation, stress patterns, and the speed of delivery are important.  It's fun and easy to do.  I encourage you to try it out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What's a good sentence?

Without a doubt, teaching writing at any level in any language is challenging.  A primary reason for the difficulty is that most students want to SPEAK (not "write") English.  The students that I've encountered over the years find writing a pain in the.... neck but a necessary pain to get admission into a university program or a high score on a language exam (e.g., iBT TOEFL, IELTS, FCE/CAE/CPE).

With low-intermediate-level students, my job is to get them to write and control different kinds of sentence structures (simple, compound, and complex) and to organize those into one well-organized, coherent paragraph.  I've examined many ESL textbooks on writing, hoping that one of them contains another way to look at what I do.  Thus, I was pleased to run across an article in Slate about "How to Write a Good Sentence."

Having grown up with W. Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White's Elements of Style as the last word on good sentence structure and not liked what it did to my creative side and love of the sound of words, I enjoyed having someone put the latter little tome into a historical perspective.  I felt less burdened recently telling my students that "Rewriting means rethinking."

Even if I don't offer them an alternative word, I encourage them to always make an effort to use more colorful language or more varied structures in their writing.  I ask them to avoid the two-cent words (good, bad, thing...) and to use some five dollar words (extraordinary, disgusting, item...).  Alternate a short simple sentence with a ten-word complex sentence.  Read the sentence aloud.  How does it sound? Language evolved as a spoken means of communication - later people created the symbols for words.  Writing does connect to speech - but this is what Strunk and White forgot to stress in their guide.  Language is spoken.  To get good at writing (and speaking) - to be eloquent, you should be encouraged to be more than sparing - especially in the beginning.  Have fun expressing yourself!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

English is NOT enough

Although my profession as an English language instructor is being sustained by millions of people who want to learn English, we native English speakers are becoming the minority.  That is, since there isn't a lot of pressure here in the USA to learn a second language, we don't.  However, there is lots of evidence from brain-based learning research suggesting that being multilingual is a brain enhancement.  In addition, economic reports forecasting the job markets of the future say that bilingualism is better than monolingualism.

What does this mean?  It means that people who speak only English may be the dinosaurs of the future. In a recent article in Language Magazine, Kristal Bivona discusses the rise in importance of Portuguese as Brazil becomes an important economic force in the Western Hemisphere. Other reports suggest that Spanish is the language of the future.  If you see China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as markets to tap into, then Chinese, despite its daunting script and vocal tones, is a language worth learning. Not only that, we have to consider which Chinese to learn - Cantonese or Mandarin.

While Americans are opening up to China, some don't like the idea that schools in the USA are accepting funds from the Chinese government to teach Mandarin.  Despite NCLB policy that is supposed to raise the standard of education in this country, funding for education seems to be a low priority in most city and state budgets.  I guess the Chinese see a long-term benefit to teaching young Americans their language.  Those parents who aren't worried about some hidden agenda of a foreign power may find that their children who learn Mandarin Chinese will have a distinct advantage over their monolingual age-mates when they are old enough to enter the job markets in their 20's.

If only my ESL students could understand that they're actually in a great position relative to most of their instructors because English is their SECOND language.  They've got two languages to our ONE.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Language IS Power

This is an old advertisement for learning a new language, but its message is still very effective.  Isn't that why so many people are studying English?  From my 12 years of teaching ESL, the reason they study is not from love of foreign languages.

That's what makes the teachers' job challenging.  Many language learners seem to think that if they just sit in a language class, they can absorb everything they need to move to the next level without doing any work outside of class, including speaking the target language.  Go figure!

Ten weeks ago, I had a student announce in class that he didn't think his teachers (including me) understood how much work it is to learn a language.  The other students nodded in agreement and stared at me for an expected defensive reaction.  Instead, I smiled and said that undoubtedly EVERY ESL teacher at our school has had the experience of studying a foreign language and has first-hand knowledge of exactly how hard it is to learn a foreign language.  "Not only that," I explained, "if you haven't cried out of frustration, you're probably not working hard enough!"

I've known male students and female students (besides myself) who've had an immersion experience in a foreign language that brought them to the point of tears.  I often ask my students if they've had dreams or nightmares in their target language because that's another indicator of a foreign language penetrating the subconscious.

Recounting stories of my immersion in Lingala in the former Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) always gets students' attention.  I went from being laughed at by villagers for my almost non-existent Lingala to wielding the language well enough to pressure a group of men to help me load brick on the camp truck without bribing them with a "tip" of cigarettes (I never gave cigarettes to our workers because they're just as unhealthy for Africans as for Americans.)   Seeing words moving people to action is imprinted on my mind.  Language is POWER.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Read Signs to Build Vocabulary

There are many ways to continually add to your knowledge of English.  Noticing and reading signs wherever you go is an easy way to do it.  Not only do you expand your vocabulary, but you also learn something about local culture and values.  These are some photos I took while roaming around Dana Point in Southern California.  Yes, there were a lot of dog-walkers!  

Pictures definitely help a                            Again the simple drawing of
person figure out the meaning of                   the bird (a pigeon) with the hand
a word like "leashed" (leash =                      and red line drawn through the
a verb and a noun).  The dog in                    image signal to the reader, this is
the picture is leashed by a leash.                  a no-no.  DO NOT FEED THEM!
                                                                     I guess "feed" is what the hand is

"Fine" doesn't mean it's a fine day.  This is a verb meaning to charge 
someone to pay for a rule/law that was broken.  You don't want to be fined 
in Orange County, so be sure to "pick up (the poop!) after your dog." 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why is English Cool?

English is my business.  These days it seems like that's all that I think about and do - whether it's putting together a literature review for a graduate class in TESOL or teaching ESL in an IEP (Intensive English Program).

I can't remember where I ran across the following reference.  I believe it was a link from a Facebook friend.  It comes from although it's, in my view, primarily for our amusement with the English language - and not to promote conservative politics.

You should definitely have a look at the numerous comments posted after checking out the list of sentences.  The replies contain even more funny (haha-funny and strange-funny) English.  The polysemous nature of my language makes it an endless source of fascination.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sentence Types and Connectors

Thanks to the miracle of Authorstream, I have instantaneously uploaded a Power Point slide presentation (so can you!).  Even though this online tool has been around for some years, it's my first time using it, and it's so cool!  Thanks to Beth Bogage at San Diego's ECC for bringing it to my attention.  My students can view my slides without having the Microsoft program on their computer. That makes this material accessible to all.

Writing Students:  For those of you who are having problems with construction and punctuation of compound and complex sentences and the use of conjunctive adverbs (such as however, in addition, in conclusion, etc.), here is the slide show that I presented in class.  If you have questions, please ask by clicking below on "comments" or ask in class.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Online Vocabulary Quiz #4

To Intermediate Vocabulary Students:
Finally, I succeeded in putting together another online quiz for you to practice before tomorrow!  Yay!
Also, I eliminated extra credit vocabulary as you were tested on this in the previous quiz.  As always, you can do this online quiz as many times as you like.  It is set to change the order of questions every time.  In that way, each time you test yourself, it will feel like a new quiz.  Good luck!  Have fun!  You're welcome. ;-)

If you have any questions or problems with the online quiz, you can post your comments below.

Monday, February 27, 2012

To memorize or not to memorize--that is the question....

A few years ago, I talked about memorization, but the topic came up again in a Wall Street Journal article at the end of last year and prompted me to rethink the subject.  Back in the day, memorization used to be a standard part of all my Spanish language classes from junior high school through high school.  In my view, it was a very effective tool for learning a foreign language.  What we now call "automaticity"was a large component of developing fluency in the language. Amazingly, I can still remember parts of poems that I memorized, just as I do in English.

If you're American of my vintage, you might have had to learn Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" ("Whose woods these are I think I know....  But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep....).  After one of my ESL classes seven or eight years ago, I impressed a couple from Mexico when I told them that I remembered a poem by Ruben Darío: "Juventud, divino tesoro...  ya te vas para no volver... Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro.  Y a veces, lloro sin querer...."  I have no idea where the words came from, but trying to think of something in Spanish brought parts of the poem pouring out of my mouth.  This phenomenon felt the same as my memory of the "times" table in arithmetic 9x2=18, 9x3=27...9x9=81...9x12=108.  It is a great advantage to be able to do these computations in your head.  Who needs a calculator?  In fact, a calculator slows down my brain as well as my answer.

You can practice reciting English at a site like English Central, where they've got great video and vocabulary exercises plus recording capability.  This one, for example, compares British and American English vocabulary for common or everyday items.  You can listen and record yourself. It even rates your pronunciation.

Here's another interesting link that gives you ideas for how to quote a long text verbatim.  I tried Lincoln's Gettysburg address just using the first letter of each word and was amazed that that mnemonic worked even decades after memorizing the speech.  It is amazing that some previously memorized material can stay embedded in the brain for years without using it and can be quickly reactivated.  Even though I don't demand it of my students, now I wonder how many of them memorize vocabulary.  Tomorrow I must ask.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Online Vocabulary Quiz (#3)

To Intermediate Vocabulary Students:

Here's another online Practice Vocabulary Quiz (3).  There seems to be a slight glitch in the matching sections of the quiz, so if YOUR answer and the ONLINE answer match, you can consider your choice CORRECT (even though the site says "incorrect" and takes off points).  I will contact the hosts of this site to see if there is something I'm doing wrong to create the errors.

You can take these online quizzes as many times as you like and get a certificate of completion.  You will get extra credit for taking the quiz by printing out your score/certificate and bringing it to class.

Have fun!  Hope this helps you prepare for the next quiz!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Online Vocabulary Quiz (#2)

After a wonderful free training session on Friday afternoon at OTAN with Barry Bakin from LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District), I have created my first online practice quiz for my intermediate vocabulary students.  This example is primarily posted here for the benefit of my students, but you are welcome to check it out.  To take the quiz, you need to type in a name (any name will do). When you finish it, it will ask for your e-mail, but you don't need to give it.  Just click the "x" to close the box, and you should get your results.  It will display your correct and incorrect answers (unfortunately, it won't explain why they're incorrect) and display a certificate that you can download or print out as evidence of your success.

As a graduate student and ESL instructor, I am continually growing my skills.  When I have another block of time, I will post more information about how to use the ProProfs site for creating online quizzes. It is pretty straightforward if you have worked with other online testmakers.  I have struggled to create my own quiz with Hot Potatoes software.  ProProfs is so much easier for me.  You should also visit OTAN (the Outreach and Technical Assistance Network) as Mr. Bakin taped the online training session so that you can view it on your own at a convenient time.  The advantage, however, of actually attending a session is that you can ask questions of the trainer as you are trying out the site.