Monday, December 31, 2007

Irregular Verb Chat Board

I often begin a high intermediate or advanced level grammar class (yes, at my school, we do have dedicated grammar classes - and they last three hours and meet three times per week! For more on teaching grammar, click here.) with a review of irregular verbs. Irregular verbs are important building blocks of our language. Making mistakes using irregular verbs are not 'fatal' (they do not usually impede comprehension of what the speaker is saying), but they do mark the speaker as not being well educated. In the case of not knowing them for the advanced Cambridge exam, repeated errors of many irregular verbs will lower a student's marks in writing, speaking, and English-in-Use. In addition, verbs such as teach, bring, and seek when used in the past tense may not be comprehensible to a non-native speaker if they do not recognize the root changes in spelling and pronunciation.

Here is a game board that I created for my intermediate through advanced level classes. I had tried using other similar boards, but they did not have enough verbs in my view; this one has 72 irregular verb forms. With this chat board, students practice using irregular verbs to make up questions and answers in the present perfect and simple past. For the fastest students, it takes about 20 minutes to do the whole board (but I've had classes spend 30 to 40 minutes on it). You can judge if the students are engaged or starting to lose interest. I usually ask fast finishers to go back and review the verbs that they didn't land on during the 'game.'

There are several advantages of using this board for communicative activity. First of all, the idea of using grammar in a game changes the mood of the students. They are given a model for how to ask yes/no questions using the present perfect followed by a simple past wh-question (information question), which requires a longer response. You can add to the activity by requiring students to ask an additional follow-up question using any verb to gather more information from their partner.

Second, students control the speed at which they perform the activity and can do it independently. The teacher can circulate around the room, listening to pairs, trios, or larger groups as they are asking and answering questions using the appropriate structures. Errors can be corrected quickly, and the teacher can also answer questions when students are unsure of meanings.

Irregular Verb Chat Board (print an 8.5x11 copy) Below are the model question and response forms that I write on the white board.
Equipment needed: Chat boards, dice, game pieces
Directions: If two students land on the same verb, they either move back or forward one to a different verb. Also students should understand that if they answer 'no' to the first question, their partner must continue asking a question until they respond, 'Yes, I have.' After a 'yes' response, the partner can then ask a wh-question. To speed up the activity, students can always answer 'yes.' It doesn't have to be true, and this is often fun and funny because students must make up information to respond to the wh-question:
Yes/No Question: Have you ever [verb/past participle]....?
Answers: Yes, I have./No, I haven't.
Wh-Question: When did you [verb/base form]? Why did you [verb]? (What...?, How...?, Who...?, Where...?, How much...?, How many....?
Answers: I [verb/simple past] yesterday./I [verb/simple past] because.... and so on.
**Exceptions: With the verb 'be', we do not use 'do' or 'did' to ask wh-questions. In addition, verbs such as 'cost' are not generally used with people as the subject, unless you're talking about how much slaves cost in the 1800's.
Student A: "Have you ever bought a car?"
Student B: "No, I haven't."
Student A: "Have you ever bought a bicycle?"
Student B: "Yes, I have."
Student A: "When did you buy a bike?"
Student B: "I bought a bicycle two years ago."

Finally, students in both conversation and grammar-focused classes all seem to appreciate that this simple activity using dice (a die) and game pieces (or small scraps of colored paper, jelly beans, m&m's, etc.) makes the reality that they're practicing grammar easier to digest.

This kind of board has multiple functions. For more advanced level students, it can be used to practice the second, third and mixed conditional forms. Again, you should model the structure on the board for students, and then let them have a go at it. I hope you enjoy using this 'chat board' in your own classes.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Students Teach Vocabulary

One of the most difficult topics to cover in my exam prep classes is vocabulary development. Although CAE students have a lot of reading exercises and attend vocabulary/idioms classes, many suffer from lack of adequate vocabulary to excel on their exams.

Since one of the best ways to 'know' or 'understand' something is to teach it, the past six months I've been experimenting with switching roles with my students. I model a one-hour vocabulary lesson on wildlife and animals in which I provide warm-up questions and realia (e.g., 50 or 60 photos and illustrations of different kinds of animals and stuffed animals, plastic dinosaur figures, etc.) to stimulate discussion and help students learn how to correctly pronounce names of animals or what to call certain creatures or toys (teddy bears or stuffed animals). In addition, I have a set of downloaded materials from Lanternfish displayed in plastic sheets used to introduce more vocabulary. Students work in pairs, and then I ask individuals to share information they've gained about their partner's preferences in animals, for example. Sometimes they're asked to describe animals, or they can play 20 questions with their partner (e.g., Does this animal have horns?; Can it climb trees?; etc.). Students enjoy themselves and the hour flies by; then, they're told that they'll have an opportunity to team-teach vocabulary to the rest of the class.

Depending on the class size, I put students into pairs or threesomes, providing a range of topics for them to choose from. They are asked to cover two topics in one hour. (In the future, however, I plan to reduce the coverage to one topic.) The goal is to present useful vocabulary and activities to engage the class in certain language and reinforce the new words. Usually students are horrified at the idea of presenting for an hour, but after reflecting on the lesson on animals and wildlife, they see that their job is to get the other students to speak and to activate language on specific subjects.

Invariably, students come up with creative ideas and have fun being 'the teacher(s)' and putting me in the position of 'student.' Once I had to mime a race car driver and a baseball pitcher. Another time I had to role-play a paramedic, explaining how to handle an accident victim, using information discussed in the vocabulary presentation.

These photos highlight some students covering sports and music vocabulary. We listened to "We Will Rock You," talked about vocabulary that we heard in the song, and did a song cloze. Afterward, we worked on action verbs, using illustrations from a picture dictionary and matching vocabulary word strips to pictures.

I'm always amazed that after their initial reluctance, students are able to embrace the idea until they finally present what are very memorable lessons. All students participate and complete the assignment, coming up with creative ways to present and activate vocabulary. I will continue to incorporate this element into my CAE classes.

Using English in a Game to Seek Nuclear Disarmament

Can a game teach students English and world history? Most ESL teachers know that the best way to engage their students in English is to give them a task which forces them to think in English. Here is a link to an activity which can be used as a warm-up or follow-up to engage advanced level students in a discussion of World Politics and History. On the page where you find the game, check out the Reading section in the right column which refers to the 'Conflict Map.' From there, you can get to additional texts on 20th century wars, the history of the Nobel Prize, and briefs about Nobel Peace Prize Laureates .

Unfortunately, the topic of world politics is one that usually elicits blank expressions or frowns in many of my students. Most of my young adult European students do not have (and admit to never having had) an interest in world history or affairs. Incredibly, many of them do not even follow the daily news while they're studying English here in the USA. I suppose that puts them on a par with many of our young Americans. Nevertheless, with the Primary and Presidential elections around the corner, I have high hopes that this game will pique their interest.

Anyway, I'm excited about it as I believe part of my role as an ESL teacher is to light a fire in students' minds using English to broaden their horizon. All of my advanced ESL students have the advantage of being bilingual or multi-lingual. They really have the communicative power to make a difference in the world if they ever decide to take their skills seriously. (The above link will take you to the "Peace Doves Game" at the site which was brought to my attention at Larry Ferlazzo's excellent resource site.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is there a 'standard' English?

Because we teach Cambridge exam preparation courses at my school, the issue of 'standard' English often arises. In this case, we distinguish between American and British English, but obviously, as other posts have pointed out, there are many Englishes spoken in the world today.

What I tell my students is to try to be consistent in spelling and pronunciation. Since the University of Cambridge recognizes American English as a 'standard' English, it can be used on the writing and speaking portions of its test. However, Cambridge does inform instructors that if a student spells 'colour' the British way, (s)he should also spell 'humour' with a 'u.' In addition, students shouldn't call the trunk of a car the 'boot' one time and a 'trunk' the next.

Since students are living in Southern California, listening to American news programs and meeting Americans, I advise them to focus on American English idioms, pronunciation, and spelling. For the Cambridge exam, they do need to recognize British accents, including Scottish and Irish, but they don't have to imitate the pronunciation themselves. They also ought to recognize that a 'fortnight' to a Brit is two weeks to an American and a 'queue' is a 'line.'

For more differences between British and American English expressions, click here. For a very extensive compilation of information on the subject, see Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How to do your own podcasting

For those of you who have been wondering how to get into podcasting, this is a link to very useful info on the topic from the Splendid Speaking site (affiliated with flo-joe). I haven't yet tried getting into audio production, but it is definitely something I'm earmarking for the future. To get to the information, just click here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Does English threaten other languages?

The other side of the discussion about whether American English is threatened by immigration is whether English threatens other languages. This has been an ongoing topic of concern for people in many countries. The French, for example, are well known for their struggles to keep the French language pure, and you have probably heard of Franglais. Here's Wikipedia's treatment of the term and its usage, followed by an online article published in March on how English seems to be infecting not only French but also Spanish.

The issue of English as an imported tongue, displacing native languages, is a concern to speakers in Africa too. I ran across this article in the Tide News of Nigeria which points out that by making English the national language, the government devalues Igbo, which is spoken by millions of Nigerians.

Interestingly, 2008 has been designated the 'International Year of Languages' by the United Nations. I am sure I will be paying attention to the developments of this novel celebration, and we should have much more food for thought about all languages, including English.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Woot! or W00t!

Believe it or not, 'woot' was named a 'word of the year' by a prestigious English dictionary publisher. Since I've only recently become a regular computer user and have never been a gamer, this interjection is one that I've never used. Since I am an English teacher, I suppose I should be aware of such a noteworthy utterance. Here's another link with lots of comments about this 'ritual' listing of English 'words of the year.'

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is American English threatened by immigrants?

A few weeks ago the Los Angeles Times published the findings of some research into the use of English by Spanish-speaking immigrants. In my view, however, the results were not surprising or unusual. What seemed unusual was that the Pew Research Center investigated the language habits of Hispanics, only to conclude that by the third generation, most children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are primarily English speakers. Perhaps this study was undertaken to quell people's fears that Spanish is overtaking English in some parts of our country.

On a similar note, the LA Times earlier covered a lawsuit concerning the Salvation Army's firing of employees for speaking Spanish on the job. Democrats and Republicans have been divided on the issue of whether or not it is discriminatory to fire workers who do not speak English in the workplace. In the Salvation Army case, two women lost their jobs because they were speaking Spanish while sorting clothes. The question of how essential it was that they speak English is the issue. In addition, how far should the government go in protecting people's right to speak other languages in the workplace? Should it be illegal for employers to fire someone for speaking other languages at work?

While I do believe it's fine for people to speak other languages in the workplace, I can imagine situations where it is essential that everyone speak the same language. For example, in hospitals, there are large numbers of medical personnel who are non-native English speakers. I learned from a nurse from the Philippines, who was taking my TOEFL course several years ago, that the hospital that had hired her required a certain score for her to get permanent employment status. She thought it was a waste of time since she had the nursing skills to do the job. However, I was relieved to hear that there was some English requirement (though I'm not sure that the TOEFL test was appropriate for a medical job). If a non-native speaker doesn't understand or misunderstands the patient, the doctor, or a fellow nurse, major mishaps could result.

If you want more to chew on, check out 'The Web of Language', a blog by Professor Dennis E. Baron at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where you can find more thoughts on the position of English in the USA and elsewhere in the world.

Finally, is American English under threat? No, I don't think so. Yet throughout our history, as various immigrant populations grew and spread, and we heard their languages on the bus, in stores and supermarkets, and in the waiting area at the dentist's office, many Americans got a bit paranoid that they might need to know a language other than English. This anxiety continues today, but in time, that fear will change to pride in the fact that the majority of Americans will speak more than one language.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Farewell to CAE Students

It's always hard to say good-bye to students that you've been with for 11 weeks. I taught Advanced Cambridge Exam prep classes every morning this fall, and I had two groups to bid farewell to. The tradition at our school is to either go out to breakfast or to bring food to the classroom for a meal together. Here are some parting shots of my two classes, the last with co-teacher Lauren. Happy holidays and best wishes to you all for 2008! The test is behind us. Enjoy your travels and have a safe return.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Discrimination against English-speaking Latinos

While searching for information about 'broken English', I ran across a first person account of an American who was ostracized for speaking only English in his workplace. The story made me realize how much an individual's personal history can affect their ability to embrace English or to shun it.

Although the above article was published about two years ago, the topic of bilingualism or 'English only' in the United States is still very much alive and continues to fascinate me. This link to NPR contains an excerpt of a book entitled How I Learned English and some audio material for any instructor wanting to further explore this issue and/or to create a lesson around it.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

'Englishization' of Japanese

As some of you may recall from an earlier post, I am informally studying Japanese again. Every time I have a lesson, I'm reminded that some of the most difficult words to say or recognize in Japanese are often English words. This link will give you a little taste and explanation of why that is.

Would you recognize 'chiketto' as 'ticket' or 'gurobaru herusukea' as 'global healthcare'? Though I've been told many times that the Japanese government is aware that the katakana writing system encourages Japanese pronunciation of English, there still seems to be little effort to teach English in the classroom without the support of this writing system.

A further invasion of English into Japanese is explained in the above link. That is, Japanese teenagers, especially, are inventing words that are half-English and half Japanese, such as 'sutabaru' meaning "to patronize Starbucks."

When I was a kid growing up in L.A., my Nisei parents and relatives used to use blendings of Japanese words in almost exactly the same way that the Japanese are using English - only the Japanese part came first. For example, my mother would say that the neighbor was 'monku'-ing again ('monku' in Japanese means 'complain') about our cat going in her backyard.

I'm sure someone somewhere has done a study of these phenomena, but I don't know of one. If anyone reading this does, I'd be interested in hearing about it. There must be lots of stories like this for other languages too. Please do send them my way. :-)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

More on Use of Wikis in the Classroom

Last week on National Public Radio, there was a short story about technology in the classroom which gave some press to wikispaces. The other wiki host mentioned was pbwiki.

As you can see in the column next to this post, I have a wiki on wikispaces, which has been working quite well for me. However, there was one disturbing discovery this week. Someone got into one of the member profiles and replaced a friend's photo with his own. I have no idea how this lurker/hacker managed to do it, but it's so thoughtless.

You should definitely check out Mr. Sheehy's wiki and blog. He's a high school English teacher in South Dakota, and he's using his wikispaces with great flourish, if you're looking for ways to use yours.

Betty Azar, Marianne Celce-Murcia, and Michael Swan on Teaching Grammar

From time to time, it is stimulating to check out what's happening in the field of TESL (or TESOL) either by attending a conference or reading a journal. In my case, I spent a few hours this weekend reading through several articles published in a special edition (September 07) of an electronic TESL journal.

This issue focuses on "The Current Status of Standards of English Grammar" and features such well-known writers/teachers as Betty Azar, Marianne Celce-Murcia, and Michael Swan. I recommend taking a little time to digest the writings and reflect on your own teaching style.

At my school, we have 2 hour 45 minute 'grammar' classes (which meet 3 times per week). We use Betty Azar's GBT (grammar-based teaching with her textbooks), with some FonF (Focus on Form) along with the New Interchange series (which has a more concept-based teaching approach - CBT), always in a communicative language context. From all of the writers in this e-journal, I gained reinforcement of the idea that the most effective language teaching methods are those that engage the students because of interesting content and useful grammatical constructs that allow them to express themselves and be understood.

I agree with Swan who says that "a glance at any history of language teaching will show 'language in use' has been taught, well or badly, since languages were first studied" and that much of the debate over whether to teach 'meaning' or 'use' in the context of grammar structures might be better spent on more fruitful endeavors (Swan, 2007). In addition, I fully understand Azar's defense of her GBT approach, which some have apparently identified as one that excludes communicative language teaching (CLT). She emphasized "doing both" as her motto; I'd say do 'all' of the above - which means use all the tools and concepts you have available to get your students to use their English well and often.

The one discouraging thing about reading some of these articles is the realization that when practitioners and academics of ESL try to talk to each other about subjects that should lead their readership to enlightenment, they can lose us in a sea of acronyms. I had no idea there were so many three-letter 'words' for every school of thought about ESL teaching!