The reform movement

I am beginning to be influenced by a major change in ESL at this point. It is the switch to communicative language approach which is put forth by sociolinguist Dell Hymes. The weirdest thing about this is that the reform movement is simply about what we as ESL teachers should have been doing all along. That is, get students to respond to input in the classroom.

I have instituted a number of ideas for communicative language teaching CLT:

  1. Long wait times. Allow there to be uncomfortable silences.
  2. Constantly stop to ask if there are questions.
  3. Give the students a checklist of questions to ask
  4. Stop getting in the way of student input: shut up and allow them to speak.
  5. Minimize Teacher Talk Time (TTT)
  6. Maximize Student Talk Time (STT)

Get the student’s attention without being overtly officious. The minute that you lose the temper, that is the moment that CLT breaks down. I have been trying to institute these in my ESL classroom with varying success. Sometimes, there is just no output. In that case, I revert to TTT. But more often than not, I try to implement these CLT objectives.

I got so many yawns with the top-down approach. When it is all about what I know, the students tend to tune out. But when I try a bottom-up format, suddenly they are more engaged than they ever were.


Crawford grammar


The William Crawford grammar is a great tool for those of us in the ESL classroom. Especially with regards to corpora in the classroom, there are many reasons to employ these techniques in the ESL classroom.  Probably the most important one is that it helps students form their collocations, and can aid in the formation of phrasal verbs.

Crawford has the following to say about the use of corpus linguistics in the classroom:

“Corpus linguistics is a method of describing language by reference to
large amounts of language that occurs in specific contexts. Scholars
have used corpus description to gain new insights into areas such as
language change and variation, sociolinguistics, lexicology, and stylistics,
to name a few (see McEnery, Xiao, & Tono, 2006, for a good description
of corpus linguistics and the various ways that corpora have been used in applied linguistics).” (Crawford, 2013)

I have used these techniques in the classroom with varying success. It is hard to get students to believe that looking up various collocations in a free website like ‘MICASE corpus‘ is in the interest of the student. But after some work, it seems like this begins to set in, and the work becomes easier on their end.

Using free corpora can be a great way to get students engaged who normally would not be able to get this stuff. In fact, it seems that the corpora that is most useful are not online databases, but the CD-ROM that go with dictionaries, such as Collins COBUILD, and corpora like it.

I will continue to develop ESL lessons that emphasize corpus linguistics, because it is an optimal way to learn language. Also, students like to use the computer to learn! Please click the ‘contact’ tab to comment.


Why Greek?

Greek tablet

Some of you might be wondering why the story has Classical Greek in it. In fact, this kind of Greek is used in Homer’s IliadOdyssey, a testament to the enduring quality of this language.

Greek was the lingua franca of the 1st century A.D. Due to the conquests of Alexander the Great, the language was the means by which different cultures could communicate, much like English is today.

However, many of our writing conventions had not yet been established.  This tablet shows that in ancient Greece, letters were often written  without spaces in between words. This is primarily because nothing was written that was not meant to be read aloud. Principally, the reader would be able to sort out the sounds and then speak the words aloud.

No punctuation was put into words until reading silently became important, which developed for English in Victorian England. Of course, this happened at different dates for different cultures.

I consider Classical and its later counterpart Koiné Greek ( the language of the New Testament) to be a magical language that has since been forgotten by a generation of English speakers who have forgotten in large part how important this culture has been in shaping our own.

My current Greek textbook calls Christianity the “last great achievement of classical civilization.” I think this is true in large part. Although this language is very hard for young people to learn, I do think it is possible. My son has learned the Greek alphabet by replacing the Greek characters in the ‘abc’ song.

Comprehensible input?

I just read an article in Language magazine that argued for Stephen Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input. (For you language teachers out there, it is often referred to as ‘n+1’) While nobody would disagree with Krashen’s basic premise, (given that Krashen has rock-star status in ESL and Applied Linguistics) the article was immensely frustrating. It suggested that pleasure reading, more than any other skill, provides comprehensible input to a larger degree than anything else.

Anyone who has been teaching ESL for more than 5 minutes knows that to get your students to ‘pleasure read’ in a second language is about as easy as pulling a tooth from a crocodile’s mouth. Anyone knows that the slightest bit of text that is ‘read in class’ (not pleasure reading) has to be scaffolded with an immense amount of vocabulary building. The one thing that ESL learners are unable to do is pleasure reading.

This is why I wrote in an earlier entry that teachers must make methods ‘work.’ Most of the research does not actually boil down to useable stuff in the classroom. For this reason, teachers constantly have to be adapting their material to the realities in the classroom. The only research based trope that I’ve been able to use in the classroom is Diane Larsen-Freeman’s ‘Form-Meaning-Use’ chart in the “Apple book” edited by Marianne Celce-Murcia.

It makes me furious that this sort of stuff gets published in major magazines! ‘Pleasure reading’ is what native speakers can do with their L1, nobody can read for pleasure in an L2 that’s being acquired. The statement “all horses are purple  with blue polka dots” makes more sense than the article by this anonymous author.

Ah well! ESL is like a blue and purple polka dotted beast! You can claim to understand it, but then we might ask how many articles you have published in TESOL Quarterly. None? Oh, that’s what I thought. So you’re not a researcher. I hope you’re a good and purple horse

ESL journeys

cartoonI’m taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to make a few insightful comments about teaching ESL.

Erving Goffman once wrote: “Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moments and their men…” (Goffman, 1967) I wholeheartedly concur with regards to teaching ESL.  Any day, you never know what semantic rigmarole you are going to get involved in.

In grad school, I had a great teacher named Carolyn Fuchs, and she always said that prescriptive grammar has its limits in the ESL classroom. Better to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Better to do bottom-up rather than top-down instruction.

I’m not sure this is always the best approach, however.  There are some times when the students are just not saying anything. Many or most of Asian learners are going to be in the silent period for a while, and that has a lot to do with the fact that they were subjected to top-down for a considerable period of their education. (No one can argue that the scarves that Chinese girls must wear to school is aimed at having them express their individuality!)

So back to Goffman, the teacher is merely a conduit for the moment.  It is not about “him” or “her” exactly. It is trying to create the right moments for learning. And all of the lesson planning is going to try to make the right conditions for that. Like building a fire, it is better to get kindling to set it ablaze. You have a better chance  at getting a roaring fire that way. You just really can’t shove the lesson plan down the students’ throats. (If it isn’t working, it isn’t working.)

Some of my readers may wonder why I think there is any overlap between  my comments on “eslteacher576” & YA fiction. Actually, I think this stuff stimulates the creativity that is so vital in the classroom. If not for them, then at least for me. I am well-aware that it is not about me. It is about student learning. I am often humbled with how little I can actually get my students to do.

If there is any takeaway, this is it: “Methods mork; teachers work.” Unless you’re ready to put in the work, the results are going to be harder to get.