Friday, February 28, 2014

Can "doodling" or texting while listening in class help students to remember better?

I'm not a psychologist, so my thoughts here are just "doodlings." I wrote this post as a reflection on an uncontrolled experiment in my listening classroom.  I teach an intermediate level English class to foreign students in a 10-week intensive English program. It focuses on teaching listening skills for academic purposes.

After a year of teaching this course (our textbook is Listening Power 3), I find that one of the most difficult tasks for students is getting accustomed to taking notes. There is a challenging unit at the end of our textbook focused on taking notes and using shorthand techniques, but note-taking is not the primary focus of the course. However, because I have taught iBT Listening preparation classes for many years, I know that without notes, students will have difficulty recalling support points and details, for example. In order to insure that students really focus when listening, I now make them have a pencil and paper in hand.  They learn that they must practice some form of note-taking. They earn points or credit for making any attempt at writing while listening. For jottings of any nature, they get an automatic 5 points. I even had a Saudi student (who was actually a very good listener) who wrote her notes in Arabic, so I had no idea if the notes were on the topic. She explained that she wrote English words using Arabic script - i.e., she transliterated the listening. Did this activity help my student comprehend better? Perhaps.

Recently, I watched a short TED talk about doodling. To my delight, it seemed to support my mission. Consequently, I now back up my emphasis on note-taking or, now, some kind of doodling while listening with observations by business entrepreneur and TED speaker Sunni Brown.  She redefines doodling as "to make spontaneous marks to help you think" and found that "people retain more information from doodling." A quick Google search yielded more material on the topic, including a recent TV interview with Ms. Brown.

The school where I teach - like many others like it - has a policy of no cell phone use in class unless sanctioned by the instructor. Students often use their cell phones as dictionaries, but what if we asked them to use their cell phones to write or take notes? They would most likely have to use abbreviations, and maybe they'd have fun trying to figure out ways to do that and to read back their notes. Has anyone tried this?

This is a thinking-out-loud post. If you have any thoughts or reflections, please feel welcome to comment.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


What are buzzwords?  They are words or phrases that are popular during a certain period of time. Sometimes they're trendy technical terms that are used to make those people who don't keep up with technological or social trends feel out of touch with what "newsmaking" people are talking about or doing.  Should you pay attention to buzzwords?

If you're an ESL instructor, it's probably a good idea to notice buzzwords since your more ambitious students may hear them in the news or on a TV show or in a night club and ask you for a definition. The problem for most teachers is that it's impossible to monitor all media, so the best you can do is to send students to sites that attend to these new (or re-activated) words that regularly pop up. Cambridge Dictionaries Online has a useful blog that focuses on buzzwords. Another well-known publisher Macmillan also has a list by date of trending words.

At the end of the year, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article about words that "popped" in 2013. I often spend a bit of time going over these annual reflections and ask myself which words I heard or used last year.  They include expressions such as twerk, Obamacare, cronut, drone, selfie, Thanksgivukkah, bitcoin, and lean in.

If you're a real "wordie," you should check out lexicographer Ben Zimmer's blog.  There are numerous links to articles that he's published over the years (including the above Wall Street Journal article), and he often responds to tweet queries about origins of expressions. There is another article on buzzwords from WSJ entitled "Which Buzzwords Would You Ban?" but this is currently accessible only to online subscribers. Words from that list include expressions like push the envelope, out-of-the-box thinking, passionate, and viral.  For a look at another sample of words to banish from business use, you should examine LinkedIn's "Top 10 Overused LinkedIn Profile Buzzwords of 2013." You can also be a part of the next survey of "buzzwords to ban in 2014" by visiting and leaving your input at WSJ's "At Work" column.

Attention, teachers!  Here's a link to several lesson plans using Macmillan's dictionary resources on buzzwords.