Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: LiveMocha

As an English teacher, I often try to tell my students that if they practice and if they are immersed in the language, they will learn faster. However, I've been in Germany for nearly 5 months, and my German is still dreadful. It would be wise, perhaps, to take an intensive course. However, my flexibility in time is crucial to my employment, and, at this time, I can't afford to give up 4 hours of each day to an intensive course.

I am also a believer in the idea that autonomous language learning is a possibility. However, my efforts to teach myself have been...underwhelming. I decided that it was time to get a little more serious about motivated language learning. Despite my lack of time for an official course, I do have the time to work on my German each day, and in order increase my learning possibilities, I have started checking out some language learning sites.

The first site that I reviewed was Live Mocha.

With a free membership you are allowed to sign up for a few courses that have the same kind of lessons and units that you would see in your typical self-study book. 

The site is based on "tokens," which you can purchase (either by the token, or by the month) or, alternatively, you can acquire tokens by helping other people who want to learn your native language. To proceed through the lesson, you must use the tokens to "purchase" the lesson segments. One entire unit (with 5 parts) appears to be worth 175 tokens. It took me about 20-30 minutes to earn 150 points by reviewing audio submissions in English.

The site has options for vocabulary, grammar, and writing practice, but the thing I like the most about this site is the option for speaking practice. There are mini lessons that you can do, and they will be rated by the community. However, the response doesn't seem to be overly strong yet. There is also an option to work with a Native Speaker teacher, but you have to purchase the "Gold Key" and pay a small fee.

In short, if you have the time to review other people's audio and writing submissions, this could be a valuable site for free learning. If you don't have the time, it seems like it could offer some nice options for a price. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dogme ELT

This week, I came across an interesting paper by Martin Sketchley over at ELT Experiences, a blog I often read. The paper was a dissertation summary that talked about Dogme ELT. I've seen the term a few times in the last couple months, but I never really looked into it. Then, I saw the term “teaching unplugged,” which is also the title of a book on the subject, and I was intrigued. 
teaching unplugged

I read the paper, and I think I will look into this methodology a little more. I'm interested in the idea of a teaching methodology that claims to incorporate the best of Communicative Language Teaching, Task-Based Language Teaching (which I've been experimenting with lately), and Learner-Based Teaching.

The three tenants of Dogme ELT that Sketchley sets out in his paper are scaffolding, “materials light” (a.k.a. no textbooks or unneccesary teaching materials), and learner-based teaching—all things that I agree with seperately, and together, they appear to create a very effective team.

I reccomend this paper for anyone who is interested. As someone with little previous knowledge of the topic, I found it to be a nice summary. At the end of the paper, there is a also a list of suggested reading. I will be checking up on it as soon as I get some time!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lesson Plan: Politeness

This is a lesson plan that I created. Additional, attached materials may or may not be mine, but I have tried to give credit where I can. I have found many lesson plan ideas created by other education bloggers and websites to be extremely helpful in my own teaching, and I would like to contribute to the pool of available resources. Please feel free to use the lesson plans for personal purposes and teaching, but I retain all the rights to my own created content.

Lesson Topic: Politeness
Level: B1
Context: Adult learners, Business English course
Style: Task-Based Language Teaching

Politeness is more of a cultural issue than a language issue. Language learners need to know both the correct forms to use AND the reason that these forms are polite or impolite. Every culture has a unique set of values, no matter what language the cultural members are speaking.

The difficulty I had with this topic was explaining which forms to use with other non-native English speakers when speaking in English. My students wanted to know whether they should use the politeness level that would be required in an American or British context because they were speaking in English, or whether they should use the politeness level that would be required in their own context because that was the common culture. That will be a choice that the learner will need to make on their own, and perhaps giving them some strategies for making the decision would be helpful.

Step 1: Schema Building
For the first part of the lesson, I collected some comics found in a Google image search that dealt with politeness in English. Here are some of the ones I used, but you can really use anything.

They like this one the most.
We read the comics, and then we talked about why they were funny. This is an important step, because a lot of the humor will be lost if the reader does not understand small details (for example, what is a Cherry Cordial and what does the adjective cordial mean?) After everyone understood the comics, I asked them for the phrases found in the comics to elicit some key vocabulary.

Next, I turned to a discussion of how, since there are different levels of politeness in every language, we figure out how polite we need to be when we are speaking. The students could suggest a few of these on their own, and they could recognize the other ones when prompted. Some possible factors that determine politeness are: (1) social distance between of speaker and listener (including age, gender, etc.); (2) power relations between speaker and listener; (3) conversation setting; (4) conversation topic; (5) degree of imposition (for requests); (6) severity of offense (for an apology); and (7) value of complimented item.

Step 2: Practice
To practice the new material, I created a list of requests that were very formally polite (such as “When you have a minute, could you be so kind as to send me an email reminder for the meeting?”), casually polite (such as “Could I see that newspaper, please?”), and non-polite (such as “Did you hear what she just said?”). It is important to point out to the students that non-polite forms are not always rude. For example, using a non-polite forms with family or close friends is often the norm, and no one will feel offended. However, using a non-polite form when a polite form should be used will probably cause someone to be offended.

After I created the list, I printed it out, cut up the lines, and mixed all of the requests up. Then, I gave them to the students and asked them to put the different requests into categories of non-polite, casual polite, and formally polite. They all worked together since it was a small group. At the end, I had them explain why they put each request in each category. Some of them were not exactly in the category that I had intended, but their explanations of why they had put it in the category was acceptable, so I left it.

Step 3: Listening
For our class, this part of the lesson was homework, but it could just as easily have happened in class. I had them watch 2 videos (and I also provided 2 extra videos, if they had time). These are the videos.
  1. Yes and No – I find that one of the biggest “rude” problems with German speakers is their directness in answering yes and no. With Spanish speakers, however, I often found that the problem was feeling like they couldn't politely say no (and consequently, they would communicate a 'yes' when they really meant 'no'). So, either way, knowing how to say yes or no politely is very important.
  2. Asking Permission – Unfortunately, asking permission can sound accusing or demanding if not done properly. This video gives some good pointers.
  3. Want vs. Would Like (Extra) – Important for requests, especially when you are requesting action from a colleague or associate.
  4. Softening the Message (Extra) – The right amount of indirectness is important for English speakers. Too direct, and you will be considered rude and pushy; not direct enough, and you won't be understood. This video talks about how to soften the directness of a message.
Step 4: Grammar - Politeness Strategies
In this lesson, the majority of the “Grammar” information was presented in the listening section. We did go over what was mentioned in the videos, and then we also talked about some other politeness strategies, including:
    1. Hedging: Er, could you, er, perhaps, close the, um , window?
    2. Pessimism: I don't suppose you could close the window, could you?
    3. Indicating deference: Excuse me, sir, would you mind if I asked you to close the window?
    4. Apologizing: I'm terribly sorry to put you out, but could you close the window?
    5. Impersonalized: The management requires all windows to be closed. (source)
Also, we talked about how, in English, a negative response to a request should usually be followed by an excuse. The more specific the excuse, the politer and more friendly the person is perceived to be. For example, when asked to meet someone for lunch, the response “I'm sorry, I have an appointment with a client at lunch today.” is more polite than “I'm sorry, I'm busy.”

Step 5: Practice
For practice, we first started by editing some formally polite requests (“If it isn't any trouble, would you be kind enough to email Mr. Jones about the project?) to more casually polite forms (“Would you please email Mr. Jones about the project?”) that would be appropriate for use between colleagues, especially when there is a power dynamic involved. (Idea credit)

Next, we practiced saying no to requests. One person was on the “hot seat,” and everyone in the class would make a request. Here's the catch: The person on the “hot seat” must say no to the requests using a different reason or strategy every time, and all of the other students are making requests in order to get the “hot seat” student to say yes. Some of the rounds went like this:
  • “Bob, Your reports are always so nice and organized. Would you be able to send me a copy of the template?” --“No, I'm sorry. I am not allowed to send them out because they are confidential”
  • “Joe, would you like to have some coffee with me? I have brought an extra piece of cake for you.” – “No, I am sorry, I must go to a meeting. Can we have coffee later today?”
  • “Jan, would you like me to babysit your three children so you and your husband can go out tonight? I have no plans and I am happy to watch them for free” – “Thank you, but my mother-in-law is in town, and she is watching them for me tonight. Are you free next week?”

It was a very fun exercise, and the students enjoyed it. (Idea credit)

Step 6: Skits, 3 ways
The task at the end of the lesson was a skit. The students, in groups of two and three, wrote a short, formally polite skit that had to include 2 requests and at least one “no” answers. Then, they re-wrote the skit casually polite and then non-polite. When they were presenting the skits, the other group had to guess which version they were doing, and then to say why they thought so. This also brought a lot of laughs. I think that sometimes adults forget that learning can be fun.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Creative Ideas for Business Writing

(a.k.a. How to make forceful emails and complaint letters enjoyable)

One of the classes that I've recently started teaching is a business writing course. It's a night course that the students take after they have finished working, and, as anyone who has ever worked a full day before going to a night class can attest, energy levels are pretty low at that point.

Unlike some of the material that has been provided for my other courses with this company, the business writing material is BORING. Moreover, there is a higher amount of grammar presentation time and a lower amount of discussion and group work situations created.

Since I'm taking over this course from another teacher, there are only two units left—but those two units are at least 4 weeks of class. My challenge is to find a way to And, from TEFLtastic with Alex Case, I found quite a few resourcesmake the learning of writing a fun process, or the next 4 weeks will be torture for all of us.

Last week (when we were talking about exerting pressure and writing complaints), on the spur of the moment, I changed their homework assignment. Instead of having them read the text and answer questions, they were supposed to email me a complaint about my teaching—fake or real. I've already received one very funny response, and I am looking forward to the rest.

I'm not sure what else to do, though. Here are some ideas I found that seemed appropriate for the situation. I am going to try to incorporate them in my lesson plans, somehow.
  • The National Writing Projects' 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing article had a lot of ideas, including:
    • ask students to “metawrite,” or to reflect on (and write about) writing by researching and examining mistakes (See this article for more info: “On the Use of Metawriting...”);
    • use yourself as a model for writing processes – basically, a think aloud where you show the students your mental process by clearly outlining it in from of them;
    • have the students write to an audience for real purpose instead for a hypothetical purpose, or, in other words, create more authentic situations for their practice writing; and
    • experiment with sentence length by instructing students to make the longest run-on sentence possible, and then, conversely, to fill a page with 4 word sentences.
  • Teach about Grice's maxims (this idea was found in the comments of this blog article). Modern business writing is about being concise and accurate. Keeping in mind the maxims (quantity, manner, relation, and quality) and giving students the language to achieve these maxims will be helpful. Flouting the maxims, however, is where the fun comes in.
  • Break the rules! Speaking of flouting, this suggestion on the TEFL.net forum seemed like it would be fun, as well. Sharon said “Something I do with my students is get them to write the opposite of a good letter. By thinking about everything that's bad, they become more creative. They do this in groups to share ideas. then they all look at each others letters.”
  • And, from TEFLtastic with Alex Case, I found quite a few resources:
I'd love to hear suggestions if anyone reading this has fun or creative ideas for teaching business writing. I'll try to keep you updated on these suggestions when I use them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

MiniTube: Solving the Classroom Internet Problem

I don't want to say that Germany is behind the times when it comes to wireless internet access, but, Germany is behind the times when it comes to wireless internet access.

Most of the places that I work have extra outlets (which is good, because I need to plug my old laptop in after 10 minutes). If I'm lucky, the place will have a projector display hook up, which is good, because I like to display notes, etc. if I can. However, nowhere is there a wireless internet connection.

In short, this lack of wireless internet connection means that I cannot show YouTube videos in class. Or, that I COULDN'T. However, I recently discovered MiniTube, a Desktop App that lets you download YouTube videos on to your computer as .mp4 files and then play them later. 

It is a free program for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems, and you can get it here.

Another benefit of downloading the videos (for me) is that I like to keep all of my unit and lesson materials in files for future use. Downloading the videos lets me save the video if it is a major component of my lesson plan, and that way, if for some reason it is unavailable in the future, I will still have it.

Anyway, I thought I would share! Enjoy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lesson Plan: Emailing

In my last post, I talked about using Task Based Language Teaching in Business English. Today, I want to share with you an example of a lesson I did with my German students of Business English (level B1). The lesson was about emailing.
(Yes, Emoticons did come up in the lesson)

Step 1: Schema Building:
I started by talking (in English) about German emails. We discussed issues like
  • How are they written? What is the format?
  • What common phrases do you use? What are the greetings? etc.
  • What is good etiquette? What is polite? What is rude?

The idea here is to elicit key vocabulary about emails, including (but not limited to): Greeting, Introduction, Body, Conclusion, Salutation, Sender, Recipient, Reply, etc., as well as the translation of their common forms for these items. During the discussion, I wrote the information and the terms on one side of a digital note sheet that was projected onto the wall.

Step 2: Controlled Practice
Next, I brought out a series of emails printed on paper. These were emails that were written to me and emails that were written by me, from a variety of settings (both business and casual) and from a variety of people, including friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and people I didn't know. [Side note: It would probably work better to print the emails it so that you can still see the subject line and the email addresses, but that is not as important. I also shortened the emails to the relevant parts only so that the activity would be quicker, as some of the emails were quite lengthy.]

I gave each group several (at least 3) of the emails. Their task was to identify phrases, formats, or things that are different in the English emails than in the German Emails. It's a good idea to make sure that they used English in the group work, because it seems natural to revert to the NL when tasks are information based rather than linguistic based. The students wrote on the emails, underlining and circling items that they found. As we discussed the emails, and I wrote the information on the other side of the note sheet (for comparison with the German).

I also had them arrange the emails from the ones that they thought were the most formal to the ones they thought were the least formal, and then to explain their choices.

Step 3: Authentic listening practice
After the discussion, we watched 2 YouTube videos that I had chosen. Both were intended for native English speakers (i.e., they weren't English teaching videos). This is important to me because I want the students to get a feel for what real English sounds like, not just what teacher language sounds like. 

The first video was a email guide, probably for people who didn't know how to use email at all.


My students are proficient in email, but the task here was for them to write down new words, interesting ideas, or things that they learned. It would be better to have some more focused questions for the discussion, but I didn't. During the video, I paused to let them discuss and write down notes. I also skipped a big chunk in the middle about revising emails because it was really boring and not relevant. We discussed their responses at the end of this video.

The second video was about email etiquette. It was shorter and funnier, and the person in the video also spoke a lot faster.

After, we talked about the questions they had (i.e., “What is Snail Mail?”), and then about the interesting content. They didn't remember some of the content, but when I mentioned how I learned something from the video, too, it reminded them and sparked a little more conversation.

Step 4: Focus on linguistic elements
The linguistic focus for the lesson was a review of the uses of the various present tenses (simple present, present progressive, present perfect) but we also ended up reviewing the simple past. The rationale behind this choice is that, not only do the tenses need to be reviewed, but that emails generally feature a lot of these tenses. This section didn't connect as well as another grammar point could have, but you have to work with your students' specific needs.

I wrote the three present tense forms (I work, I am working, I have worked) on the board and at the beginning, I mentioned their technical grammar tense names once in the beginning, but after that, I focused on their use. We discussed by comparing two forms at a time (i.e., what is the difference between “I work” and “I am working”). After that, we did a go-around-the-room exercise conjugating different verbs for different circumstances.

Step 5: Provide freer practice
I split the class into two groups, and each group got a prompt.
  • Prompt 1: You work at company that makes advertisements. You want to make an advertisement for a big toy company. Email the marketing director (you don't know his name) and see if he is interested in working with your company.
  • Prompt 2: Yesterday, there was a meeting in your company. You went to the meeting, but you are a little confused. You have some questions about what happened in the meeting. Email your co-worker (the meeting leader) to ask for more information.
Each group wrote an email based on the prompt. I gave them about 5-10 minutes, and then they “emailed” their paper to the other team. The other team then responded to the “email”. I saw that they were a little confused in the response, so I also had them switch prompts so that they knew why the original email was written. This activity probably needs more time and it also needs very simple prompts.

Step 6: Introduce the pedagogical task (Homework)
The last step was homework for the week. I split the group into partners, and I handed each person an A or B task, and then briefly explained what was going to happen. Basically, there must be at least 4 emails total (2 from each person). Person A must initiate a meeting, person B must reply and ask for a copy of the meeting agenda. The students are supposed to print out the entire email chain and then we will review them in class next week.

Here are the task assignments: (2 people, 1 group AB; 3 people, 1 group ABC; 4 people, 2 groups AB AB; 5 people, 2 groups AB ABC; 6 people 2 groups ABC ABC OR 3 groups AB AB AB, etc.)

  • Person A: - Initiate a Meeting. Try to find a a time, date, and place. Provide any information that the other person needs.
  • Person B: Wait for the email from Person A. Agree on a good meeting time and place. Also, ask for the meeting agenda.
  • Person C: Wait for person A and Person B to email you. You can't meet on the day that they suggest, but you are free almost every other day.
I hope you like the lesson. My students told me that they enjoyed it because it was so "interactive." Feel free to use or modify it, and let me know if you have any questions!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Task Based Language Teaching

Recently, my teaching schedule has picked up a bit, and I have started 3 new courses. One of the courses is with an English school that provides a curriculum and materials, and one is a private tutoring gig, but the other course is, for the most part, completely open as far as content goes. Currently, I am facing the challenge of creating a course plan that will satisfy everyone: the participants (adult, business people), their company (that is sponsoring the course), and my company (that claims to have a creative, unique approach to English instruction).

Task Based Language TeachingAs I was looking through my textbooks for ideas, I came across David Nunan's Task Based Language Teaching (Click here for the Amazon page). At the time we studied this book in my degree program, I remember thinking that the system Nunan sets out in the book was great, but still less appealing than the standard Effective Instructional Sequence that we typically used for lesson planning in the program (even though, in reality, they can both go together).

However, in my current situation, faced with the simultaneous needs to teach concrete skills in English, to teach English grammar (without taking a traditional grammar teaching approach) AND to foster a discussion-like environment in the course, Nunan's task based language teaching model seems to be a perfect solution.

In the model, each unit is based around a pedagogical task – a real world activity performed in the safety of the classroom. Building up to that task, the teacher scaffolds activities and lessons that will develop the skills needed for the students to successfully complete the task.

Here is the outline of the unit model:
Step 1: Schema Building
Step 2: Controlled Practice
Step 3: Authentic listening practice
Step 4: Focus on linguistic elements
Step 5: Provide freer practice
Step 6: Introduce the pedagogical task

Obviously, there is a lot more to this book that just the model outline, but I can't do it justice in a blog post. I recommend looking into the book if you are teaching business English without a pre-set curriculum, because it allows you to focus on the specific language tasks (sending email, having a meeting, interviewing, etc.) that they will encounter.

If you want to see the Table of Contents and a little of this first chapter, here is a link. Also, I found this blog that focuses on Task Based Language Teaching. It has not been updated recently, but the posts that are there already have some good ideas.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Strategies in Use – Follow up on Affective Strategies

Recently, I wrote about emotions in language learning and affective language learning strategies. I also talked about a learner that I was working with who had an emotional block with speaking English. This entry is a follow up on the strategies I discussed in action.

Moving Along the Emotional Scale
Lowering Anxiety
In order to help her lower her anxiety, I wanted to give have her try some of the language learning strategies in the “Lowering Anxiety” section. I had planned on just assigning some of the activities suggested by Oxford, but Tim suggested finding out what she already does to relax, and to incorporate that into her learning routine. I thought that this was an excellent (and more authentic) idea, so, in one of our sessions, we spent some time talking about how she normally relaxes. She told me that she likes to read or listen to music, and based on that information, I suggested that she spend about 10 minutes doing one of these activities everyday before she worked on her English project.

Encourage Yourself
For this strategy, I asked my learner to write down a positive statement about her progress in English learning every day for the week, until we met again. We wrote the first one down together, and talked about it. I was surprised the next week, however, when she told me that she didn't write them down during the week because she thought the strategy didn't work for her. She explained that, because of her culture, she feels more secure with hard work and with other people telling her positive things about her learning (But, she said, maybe this will work for other people). When she tells herself positive things, she feels like she is pretending. She also mentioned an American movie she had seen where one of the main characters was told “You have to believe in yourself to achieve what you want” or something like that. She said she thought it was so strange, because no one in her culture would ever say that. They would say. “You have to work hard to achieve what you want.” Based on this exchange, I didn't press this strategy anymore, but I did focus on giving her encouraging statements and pointing out improvement.

Taking Your Emotional Temperature
I didn't directly incorporate this strategy with my learner, but I did indirectly make it a part of all of our sessions. Each time we met, I would ask her how she felt about her English (and about her upcoming project) this week, and we would discuss the times she had felt stressed, and the times that she had felt successful. This was a nice way to begin our sessions, because it allowed her to discuss what she was feeling and it allowed me to see where she still felt insecure so that we could work a little more in that area.

This application of language learning strategies has taught me a few things.
  1. The idea that all strategies must work for all learners is not correct. The “Encourage Yourself” was a big miss with my learner; however, by listening to her reaction, I was able to help her reach the desired effect of encouragement through other means, i.e., giving her extra “practice” work and telling her about her improvement.
  2. Cultural ideas of encouragement are sometimes strikingly different. Her response that people in her culture would never say “You have to believe it to achieve it” shocked me at first, because it is such an ingrained part of my own culture. That is the American motto! How can you not agree with that?? It is going to be important to find out what your learners' cultural views of positive statements are. If their culture doesn't agree with this idea of making positive statements to yourself, you may want to either explain the purpose of the strategy more clearly or skip it in favor of a different approach to encouragement.
  3. Adapt strategies to the learner's current practices. Strategies that are easy to incorporate into the learners routine may be more effective in the long run. Tim's suggestion of inquiring about the learner's pre-exisiting habits was very helpful in making the “lowering anxiety” strategy activities seem more natural and less new-age-yoga-hollistic-medicine-y.
  4. Strategy knowledge is important for teachers, not just learners. Even if you are not teaching every strategy directly, it is still helpful to know them so that you can indirectly incorporate them into your teaching. While it is helpful to teach learners these strategies, trying to teach all of them can be overwhelming. Modeling the use of strategies in your teaching may also be helpful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Autonomous Language Learning

Autonomous language learning is the idea that learners are capable of learning a language on their own, outside the language classroom. Language programs that focus on incorporating autonomous language learning usually have some sort of self-access center with resources and guides, where the learner can go during his or her free time to study. In this model, the classroom is often seen as a place for learners to interact with an expert (the teacher) and with other learners. Instead of focusing entirely on grammar and vocabulary, classroom time is spent creating language learning goals and sharing positive and negative experiences of learning. As our teaching methodology moves towards a more student-centered model, and as internet technology becomes increasingly more available throughout the word, we are seeing that this model of language learning is a growing reality for students (and teachers) everywhere.

There are several reasons that I like this model of language learning.
  1. Motivation – Autonomous language learning utilizes the learner's motivation. For the communicative classroom to function properly, it is essential that the learners are all motivated to study, learn, and interact. When learners lack intrinsic motivation, the teacher is stuck trying to think of colorful circus tricks and rewards in order to get learners to talk to each other and to study outside of class. Autonomous language learning forces learners to take greater responsibility for motivation.
  2. Power – This model places the power in the hands of the learner. The learners make their own goals and plans to achieve these goals. The learners choose what they are going to learn. The teacher is available to guide the learner in the event that they don't know where to go or what to do, but the ultimate choice is in the hands of the learner. This will lead not only to more relevant language learning, but also to a greater sense of personal responsibility for the material. Moreover, giving learners the power over their own learning equips them for life-long learning.
  3. Authenticity – I have written before about authenticity in language learning, and about how I think it is one of the most important parts of language teaching. Autonomous language learning allows learners to take advantage of authentic materials that teachers cannot feasibly use in the classroom, due to time constraints, discrepancies in learner levels, and access, etc. In this model, learners have more exposure to native-speaker materials and less exposure to pedagogical texts and “classroom talk”.
In my own life, I am trying to learn German. As a supporter of this autonomous language learning, I feel that my own learning experience should reflect my teaching methodology. I am hesitant to sign up for a language course because I feel that, with a little guidance, I should be able to take advantage of the materials available to me while I am living in a German-speaking environment.

However, I have had some trouble identifying good materials for myself as a learner, which proves (to me, at least) that autonomous language learning does NOT reduce the need for a teacher. I will continue to develop my plan and see if I can create path for myself, and I will share my reflections along the way.

Along that line, several blog articles and websites stuck out to me as particularly helpful for and/or related to autonomous language learning this week.

The Telenovela Method of LanguageLearning. Very interesting article about the use of Mexican soap operas to learn Spanish, good tips for learning on your own with this method, and some resources.

The NEW Issue of the SiSAL (Studies in Self-Access Learning) Journal. I'll just say that I like this journal. I also like that it is completely open-access, so you can read it without a subscription. There are some good articles in this issue, and in past issues, for those of you who would like to know more about autonomous language learning (or self-access learning).

I found this website in an article from the new issue of the SiSAL. I haven't had a chance to test it yet, but wow! It looks like an amazing resouce. I wish they had it for other languages. Basically, it is a collection of video clips with transcripts, and learners can watch the videos, read the text, and record themselves saying the lines. Supposedly, they also compare the recording with the original to tell students how they are doing. I know that Google has something to do with the site, and I'm pretty sure it is free.

I regularly read this blog, and I saw this article about talking to native speakers of the target language. It struck a chord with me, and I think that following the advice that the author gives about “just talking” is instrumental in autonomous language learning. 

Does anyone have experience in autonomous language learning (or teaching) that they can share? What about some more good resources for independent learning?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Language Learning Strategies: Affective Strategies

“The affective side of the learner is probably on of the very biggest influences on language learning success or failure” Rebecca Oxford, Language Learning Strategies, p. 140

This month, I was working with a very intelligent, very educated, and very perceptive English learner who identified her main problem with English as an emotional issue. She explained to me that, although she had learned English in school as a young girl (over 20 years ago), she never really learned to use it. A year ago, she started practicing her English again. She started writing emails to colleagues, she started listening to the BBC radio, and she started trying to speak.

When she started, she said she felt great about her success, but now, a year later, she feels terrible about her English. It gives her anxiety and she “feels bad” when she speaks it. I believe that this anxiety is common to language learners, and that it could be related to the language learner's progression through the Conscious Competence model.

Image from Creativeaffirmations.com
In the first step, the language learners are not conscious of the lack of competence in the language. As they move through the model, they become aware of their incompetency. Although this eventually leads to language learning (because they realize that there are deficiencies in their language), I believe that it also increases anxiety (because, again, they realize that there are deficiencies in their language).

Another interesting point I observed during our session was her description of her own language and language use:
  • “I feel bad about my English.”
  • “I think that my English is not very good.”
  • “My speaking is bad. I think that people will not understand me.”
This negative language reflects a low language self-esteem, which can be very damaging tto possible success, as well as to future reduction of anxiety. Negative statements about language learning keep the learner in a constant mindset of pending failure.

I feel that learners' emotions are often overlooked in language learning. Stress, anxiety, or general bad feelings about language learning prevents learners from accessing the language that they already have, and additionally, from acquiring the language that are exposed to. Here is an interesting article that discusses this topic and a different article on the same information where you can read the abstract or buy the research that these two news articles talk about. Krashen's Affective Filter hypothesis proposes that affective factors create a mental block that prevents language input from reaching the language acquisition part of the brain.

Affective Strategies in language learning can help students identify these negative emotional features, increase their language self-esteem, and decrease their anxiety. Oxford's Affective Strategies for language learning are :
  • Lower Your Anxiety: The best way to lower anxiety is to relax. Listen to music, laugh, play a game, or meditate! A while ago, Ann Evans from Linguistics in the Classroom wrote about how she uses meditation in the language classroom. This is a great example of lowering anxiety.
  • Encourage Yourself: Help students overcome negative language self-esteem by making them act positively. Have them write down positive strides that they've made in language learning, or help them set achievable short-term goals that they can reward themselves for.
  • Take Your Emotional Temperature: Increasing learners' awareness of emotions is very important, as well. Often, they don't know what they are feeling, or even that stress and anxiety are normal. Help them identify how their anxiety and stress may be playing out in their lives, and then show them how to counteract it (with the other two affective strategies)! A good tool for taking your emotional temperature is using some sort of checklist (with the different emotions) and having students identify what they are feeling daily.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cultural Views of Learning

This week, I “taught” a discussion group for one of my colleagues who is on vacation.

Cross-cultural discussion, graphically depicted
This discussion group was a free, round-table setting for employees of a pharmaceutical development company. The participants were German chemists, IT specialists, and engineers. When I say “taught,” what I really mean is that I was the native English speaker “expert” in charge of the group, but that my actual role was really not much like traditional teaching at all.

I prepared several discussion games and activities because I wasn't sure what to expect. However, it turns out that the participants wanted to talk about current events (occupy wall street, outsourcing business, total freedom, communism vs. socialism, etc.) amongst themselves. They were eager to use their English, they didn't rely on me “calling on” them before they answered. They simply negotiated a conversation the way they would have if they were conversing in German. They questioned each other, asked for clarification from each other, changed the topic together, and agreed/disagreed with each other. If the conversation ever died down, I would simply ask an open-ended question to direct the topic. The thing that surprised me the most was, at the end, when they told me that I needed to correct them more often!

My previous experience with group discussions is very different. I am used to having to pry words out of students' mouths, used to having to encourage and build them up in order to get them to talk, and used to having to decide on the one, singularly most important issue to correct so that I don't discourage learners.

Germans are direct people, and this is a fact. My very limited experience teaching Germans has led me to theorize that they, because of their culture, take a very different (and more active) approach to the role of the learner than some other cultural students do. (It could also be that the German learners that I have worked with have been very similar in their age, education, and socioeconomic levels, but since I am in Germany and the culture is new to me, it first occurred to me that it was a culture issue.)

This leads me to a more general question: How does culture shape language learners' expectations of their role in learning?

McCarger's (1993) survey of American ESL teachers and international ESL students in the U.S. showed that typically, “...students expected a more teacher-oriented environment than did the teachers” (p. 200).

**Interesting side note on correction of students errors. As I previously noted, the participants in my discussion session expected more correction than I provided. This survey confirmed that my experience seems to be typical: “The teachers clearly disagreed that they should correct every student error. Except for the Japanese, who agreed mildly, each student group clearly agreed with this item” (p. 198). Also, “...the diversity of expectations on the error and error correction items...shows that errors and correction are a sensitive factor in second-language classes. Students wanted more correction than teachers wanted to give, and much disagreement existed on whether students should make mistakes, how students should feel about making errors, and whether teachers should criticize errors” (p. 200)

I did some quick internet research about cultural teacher/students' expectation of learner roles, and here is what I found.

Hispanic Students:
When we watch our Hispanic students during the time we lecture and lead the discussions, we will see that they are all quiet and look at us somewhat scared at the thought that we might call on them individually. When they are called upon, they will often freeze, get confused and embarrassed as they try to answer. They feel much more comfortable responding in groups, doing exercises together, and helping each other. … [G]roup exercises can cut down the frequent interruptions, when a student explains something to his/her neighbor, namely what the teacher has said and what it means. (Source)

Middle Eastern Students:
Compared to Middle East, most US classrooms employ less power differences (egalitarian ideal), expect more self initiative (empowered students) and focus on critical thinking over memorization. (Source)

Asian Students:
While Western teacher expect students to use other sources of information, like libraries, media experts, the internet (i.e., they do not provide all information required), Asian teachers provide the information through notes and one main text. While Western students usually view the teacher as an expert (but more as a resource), Asian students see the teacher as one who has acquired a level of mastery worthy of significant respect. (Source)
These are very general (and very basic) stereotypes of expectations, but I think they illustrate a good point: expectations differ from culture to culture. When you are dealing with cross-cultural education, you will most likely encounter differences in teacher and student expectations.

This power point does a really good job illustrating some different aspects of culture and explaining how they affect student and teacher expectations in education.

The different cultural aspects discussed are:
  • Power Distance
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Masculinity (distinctly separate emotional gender roles) vs. Femininity (emotional gender roles overlap)
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Long term orientation (working towards the future) vs. Short-term orientation (learning from the past)
Additionally, this site  also discusses these cultural factors:
  • Monochronic vs. polychronic cultures
  • High context and low context cultures
(While it doesn't talk about how these factors affect teaching or learning roles, I think that it is obvious that students from these different backgrounds will have different expectations, as far as learning goes.)

Once you have determined what your learners' expectations are (whether by reading about their cultures or by just asking them), another question presents itself: Whose cultural expectations should you teach to? The learners' expectations or your own expectations? 

The answer to this question will likely change depending on each group of learners you work with, the composition of the group, and the degree of difference between your cultural expectations and theirs. However, I think the most important thing is to be aware yourself and to discuss with your learners your shared and distinct expectations and motivations behind them. Otherwise, you will end up with learners who are dissatisfied, frustrated, and not sure that you are an effective teacher, despite your years of training in current teaching methodology.

Works Cited:
McCarger, D.F. (1993). Teacher and Student Role Expectations: Cross-Cultural Differences and Implications. Modern Language Journal, 77(2), p.192-207. Accessed through EBSCO Host.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Language Learning Strategy: Guessing

Guessing has bad connotations for many language learners because, let's face it, if you're guessing, it means that you don't know. In a setting where knowing and understanding is so vital to a feeling of success, being unsure can be less than ideal.

guessing language learning strategy
GUESS WHO: One of my favorite board games!
Picture Credit*

However, this compensatory strategy (i.e., one that compensates for missing knowledge) can be a great tool for language learning. Studies have shown that that “guessing meaning from action or context” is positively-related with language learning achievement (1). Moreover, a study of language learners of French found that students who were made to guess words from context rather than being handed a word list not only learned more words in a shorter amount of time, but also retained the knowledge of the words longer (2).

A language learner's ability to guess accurately is affected by several factors, including knowledge of vocabulary, as language learners rely mainly on vocabulary, and rarely on syntax clues, in their guessing. The higher the proportion of comprehensible words in the dialog or text surrounding an unknown word, the more accurate the language learner's guesses will be (3). One study also showed that the guessing ability is improved in areas where the students are cognitively similar to people from the target language (by which the author seems to mean that they have culturally similar ways of thinking) (4)

Despite the seemingly positive applications of properly applied guessing strategies, it is not always beneficial to promote guessing in language learning. Some studies have shown that despite initial gains in vocabulary learning, guessing often impairs some students' abilities to learn the right definition quickly. Moreover, inaccurate guessing can quickly become frustrating, as has been discussed in this blog post by The Linguist.

Instead of promoting a global guessing strategy campaign, it may be better to teach learners to identify situations where it is good to guess and situations where it is better to ask or look up a word (3).

Promoting Guessing in Language Learning

As guessing is a strategy for understanding received data, it can be applied to both reading and listening activities. When teaching students to guess while developing these two macro-skills, it is important to focus on teaching them when and how to make better guesses, rather than just teaching them to make guesses. Increasing language learners' awareness of context and guessing strategies, as well as other, “mutually supportive” strategies (i.e. a strategy chain) will allow learners to develop this strategy in a useful way (5).

Other ways to promote good guessing skills include teaching learners to activate their past knowledge on a subject. Brainstorming words, topics, verbs, and ideas on the subject at hand could enhance their guessing. Also, since learners naturally look to known vocabulary words to support guessing, it may also be beneficial to teach them how to better consider syntax and any other non-linguistic clues.

This article offers an activity using a guessing chart, based on Clarke and Nation's 1980 inductive 5-step approach to guessing (the chart is on page 7). These five steps are, simply, one, to determine the part of speech of the word; two, to consider the surrounding context; three, to consider the wider (syntactic) context; four, to guess; and five, to check the guess by making sure the part of speech matches, by seeing if the parts of the unknown word relate to the guessed word, by filling in the guess for the unknown word, and by checking the dictionary (6).

What do you think? Any experience as a learner or as a teacher? Do you promote guessing in language learning? Why or why not? Any suggestions for activities that help?

  1. McGroarty, Mary E. (1989). The "Good Learner" of English in Two Settings. California Univ., Los Angeles. Center for Language Education and Research. Accessed: www.eric.ed.gov.
  2. Redouane, R. (2010). Assessing Instructional Methods in L2 French Vocabulary Acquisition: Guessing-From-Context Method versus a Word List Method. Annals of Spiru Haret University, Journalism Studies, 11. p. 73-87.
  3. http://www2.aasa.ac.jp/~dcdycus/LAC97/guessing.htm
  4. Qi, R. & Li, F. (2008) The influence of cognitive factors on guesses about the meaning of English word groups and phrases. U.S. - China Education Review, 5(9). Accessed: www.eric.ed.gov.
  5. http://web.ntpu.edu.tw/~language/workshop/read2.pdf
  6. http://english.tyhs.edu.tw/epaper/epaper9/thesis_eng.pdf
*Picture Credit - Unknown. Google had only the picture, but the connected website was no longer maintained.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Closer Look at Language Learning Strategies

Recently, I posed a question about the best language learning strategies on Facebook. I also posted it on Twitter, but I guess I haven't figured the twitter system out yet, because no one responded!

As you can guess, the responses generally centered around interaction with native speakers or target language native speaker materials (like television or music). Naturally so—people who have learned a foreign language agree that native speaker interaction is practically irreplaceable. In fact, studies have shown that learning a native language in a context-rich environment (i.e., English as a Second Language) instead of a context-poor environment (i.e., English as a Foreign Language) can shorten the time it takes to become proficient by years.

I will be one of the first ones to jump on the “practice-with-a-native-speaker suggestion” bandwagon; however, I think that we focus on native speaker interaction at the expense of developing other language learning strategies that can make those interactions more salient and that can help even when native speakers or materials are not available.

A prime example is time spent in the classroom. When people suggest interaction with a native speaker as a language learning strategy, they are primarily referring to some sort of effort at independent learning. Few EFL teachers have the ability to pair their students with native speakers during classroom instruction time. Even if they did, it would be difficult to incorporate that activity with the other language instruction needed to keep all students at a semi-uniform level of learning.

This is where the value of incorporating language learning strategy training in teaching comes in. By arranging lesson plans and learning environments that introduce strategies and help students practice them, a teacher can prepare students for more successful independent learning.

In order to help myself (and anyone else) understand these strategies better, I will be doing a series of blog entries covering the main language learning strategies, discussing the research, and providing tips for incorporating them in the classroom.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Linguistic Injustice Rant

Warning—this blog entry is a rant, and as such, it's presented in such a way that facts and objectivity are less important than observations or reason. It is my rant against what I perceive to be linguistic injustice in the world...or at least in the U.S: People don't care about Spanish-speaking countries. I suspect it is a linguistic prejudice.

I grew up in an area with a lot of Spanish speakers. I studied Spanish in high school, and I majored in it when I went to college. In all my time studying, however, I have felt a negativity in the attitude of many people towards the Spanish language, the people who speak it, and the countries that they are from.

In my experience, learning Spanish has a “low” coolness factor. People don't learn Spanish because it's cool—they learn it because they think they can get a better job. A study of student's perceptions of foreign languages showed that
“Spanish and Portuguese were believed by fewer of the students studying them to have cultural or literary value. In the case of Spanish, a large number of students believed it to be easier and somewhat more logical than other languages, but they found it low in socio- economic, socio-political, and practical value. Again, it appears that the view that Spanish is an easy language was a very significant factor in the students' choice.”
Yes, in the higher levels of education, you will find students that genuinely love the language. And these same students will tell you about the beautiful literary and cultural history of Spain and Latin America. And they will also have to keep in the disappointment when their neighbors and friends ignorantly refer to all Hispanic-looking, Spanish-speaking people as “Mexicans,” or “illegal aliens,” regardless of their nationality or immigration status. Non-citizen and illegal alien are two different things.

Spanish is the 2nd most widely spoken language in the world. There is nearly a continent of countries that have Spanish as their official language (and it's not like French in many African countries, where it is the “official language,” but most people speak their dialect as well). For the most part, people in Latin America speak Spanish.

Why, then, are Spanish-speaking countries mostly off our radar? Why does it seem that things that happen in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East are a big deal, while similar events in Latin America barely draw attention?

Example 1: Earthquakes
In March, there was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan. It was in the news for weeks. There were relief efforts all over the place. In 2010, there was a huge 8.8 quake in Chile. I remember seeing an article in the paper the day after it happened, but really nothing else. Granted, the death toll in Japan was way higher than in Chile, and there was the threat of nuclear explosion from that overheating power plant. I definitely don't mean to downplay the severity of the Japanese tragedy.

Example 2: Internal Violence
In Libya, under Gaddafi, between 10,000 and 30,000 people died because of internal violence (Source). It is terrible, but the UN stepped in and supported the people in their uprising. As of June 2011, the death toll in Mexico was somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 from cartel violence. (Source) People are being terrorized, and the government hasn't been able to do anything about it. This has been going on for at least 5 years. Where is the UN? Where is the support? Do you think we would tell any escaping Libyan immigrants that they needed to go back to Libya while Gaddafi  was still in power?

Not completely related to the Language aspect, but a interesting commentary (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/44647976#44647976)

Example 3: Foreign Aid
Between 2003 and 2009, the US gave over $171,194 million in foreign aid to specific countries. Of that amount, $14,802 million went to Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. That is about 8.6%. The U.S. gave nearly that much the the Middle East/North Africa in 2008 alone! (Source)

There are actually really poor examples. They can all be explained away with other side issues, but I think they illustrate the emotional point I am trying to make. People would rather listen to movies that they don't understand in French, German, Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic than in Spanish. We would rather sympathize with the problems of malnutrition in African villages than the same problems in South American villages. Speakers of German and French share our heritage. Japanese and Chinese have interesting “eastern” cultures attached to them. Arabic has the rebellious appeal of it's connection to Islam. Africa has babies.

No one cares what Spanish has. It is not a favored language, and as such, its speakers and countries are marginalized in the U.S. attention span.

Aside from notes about the exaggeration and the clear lack of objectivity in this rant, does anyone else have thoughts on this topic?