Monday, December 22, 2008

TEFL Mingle Activities: Present Perfect

If you have any experience as an EFL teacher, you have probably used activities and know that they really can work. They can act as a spark that leads to a successful and satisfying lesson for the teacher and students.

This article describes a specific type of activity that I have had great success with over the years: mingle activities. As usual, I can't claim to have invented this style of activity but I do have some insight on how best to use it and the benefits it provides.

Mingle Activities

Mingle activities encourage interaction amongst students using prompts on cards. Students are given the cards and they then mingle with their classmates. They use information on their cards to form questions, and in turn they answer queries from other students.

As with all classroom activities, there is a contrived aspect to it. In the real world nobody walks around with a card with information printed on it as a way to help themselves form questions. But the activity does serve an important purpose. It gets students talking and forming sentences. It is repetitive and helps them recognize patterns.

Most important, they really enjoy the activity. Once they get going, you don't have to prod them at all. A party atmosphere takes over as students move around trying out their new found language skills.


This example uses the present perfect verb tense. The language function is : asking questions about experiences at any point in a person's life.

After following these instructions, you can then design and prepare cards for whichever grammar point you choose.

To prepare the mingle cards, you need a piece of paper, a pen, and a ruler. Or, simply prepare the cards using Microsoft Word tables.

Create a table with three columns and four rows. In each table cell (each cell will be a prompt card after you cut them out), type in a present simple verb followed by a noun or noun phrase. For example:

Card 1: eat octopus
Card 2: play tennis
Card 3: travel to Russia
Card 4: climb a mountain
Card 5: break your leg
Card 6: see a UFO
Card 7: meet a movie star
Card 8: catch a fish
Card 9: win the lottery
Card 10: see a ghost
Card 11: keep a secret
Card 12: fly a kite

If you have the time and really want to make the cards attractive, you could search online and find a relevant image for each card. Once you have added all the information in each table cell, cut them out into equal sized cards with scissors.

Make the appropriate number of cards up to 20. Any fewer than 10 students and this activity loses some of its effectiveness. However, large class sizes do not make this activity impossible to conduct. I have used it in classes with as many as 60 students. With large classes (more than 20) split students into groups of 10. Photocopy the original sheet before you cut them into cards and use one set for each group of students.

Before your students mingle, conduct the type of lesson plan you usually would in the lead-up to an activity. For this particular mingle activity, your students must:
  • be able to form a "Have you ever...?" present perfect question
  • be able to provide a short answer to the same kind of question (Yes, I have. No , I haven't.)
  • be familiar with some fairly common past participles
  • be able to conjugate a present simple verb to a past participle
  • understand the concept of using the present perfect verb tense to talk about an experience you have had at any time in your life
How your students get to this level is completely up to you.

Conducting the Activity

Tell your students that you are going to give each one of them a card. I find that explaining things first before giving them the card is the best way. If you give them the prompt card first, they will be distracted by it and won't listen to your instructions.

Explain that they will stand up in a few minutes with their card and use it to form a question to ask other students. It is very important to clarify the fact that they must take the info on the card and change it to reflect the present perfect question form you have already taught them.

Model a few questions and answers on the white board.

Example: Card 1: eat octopus

Question: Have you ever eaten octopus?
Answer: No, I haven't.

Finally, hand out the cards and tell the students to begin. There may be some hesitation at first. Provide some encouragement. Tell them to pretend they are at a party.

Within a few minutes, there will be an enthusiastic buzz in the room and the volume will increase as the students get involved in the activity. You can also walk around and listen to their questions and answers.


1. After they have had a chance to talk to each other, get the students to exchange cards and then repeat the activity.

2. Have students report their findings about their classmates after the activity. This can be done orally or in writing. For example, "Nueng has never eaten octopus."

3. Get students to create one of their own questions and then repeat the activity.

A simple type of activity that works and which can be used with any grammar point.

Friday, December 19, 2008

EFL Teaching Advice: Grading

Grade A schoolGrading assignments can be one of the most difficult tasks for new teachers to learn. I am referring mainly to essays and other assignments that involve writing and creativity. Maths and sciences usually present more right or wrong marking potential though they also leave some room for subjective grading.

Grading guidance for EFL teachers working overseas can often be completely lacking.

How should you grade assignments in a fair and equitable way?

Create a Rubric

A rubric is a detailed explanation of exactly how a particular assignment will be graded. Teachers who prepare rubrics for assignments will benefit both themselves and their students. Of course, the question is: how exactly do you prepare a rubric?

The key is to start from the focus of the course that you are teaching. If you are teaching a straight grammar course, you can't fairly assign an essay. The likelihood in most grammar intensive courses is that you will segue into some sort of language function. In other words, you will teach your students how to apply specific language skills to more real world situations such as essay writing.

So let's assume that you have taught university aged students how to write essays in English and now you want them to produce a five paragraph paper on a particular topic.

You may wish to introduce a sliding scale rubric. For example, you indicate to your students that organization is worth 10 points. Each student starts with 10 marks for organization and you substract one mark for every instance where the organizational pattern was not adhered to. If they have four paragraphs instead of five, subtract one point. If they don't have a topic sentence in one paragraph subtract one point. If they don't use a transition sentence between two paragraphs subtract one point, etc.

Similarly, 10 points can be allotted for spelling and grammar. You can then deduct half a point for each grammar mistake. Perhaps you might assign more weight to actual grammar points you covered in class.

Finally, 10 points may be awarded for language usage and content. This section of the grading would not be on a sliding scale and would be far more subjective than the other two areas. This subjective aspect is a real dilemma that comes with assigning grades, especially in language teaching and liberal arts subjects in general. To make things as fair as possible, ensure that you make clear to your students what you expect.

This is an example of a very general and simple evaluation rubric for an assignment. Of course, rubrics can be far more detailed than this one. But having at least some sort of plan is far better than just marking according to a "feeling."

There are other obstacles to marking assignments as an EFL teacher.

Grading on a Curve

Grading on a curve may have some benefits in certain situations, but as part of a language class for EFL teachers working in Asia, it is almost completely worthless.

I encountered mandatory grading on a curve at a university I taught at in Thailand. It seemed geared towards making the teachers' jobs easier. When grading is done on a curve, it is simply an exercise in comparison. The best assignment produced by the best student becomes the standard and every other effort falls somewhere below that. It doesn't matter if the best student was already excellent before they entered the course and made no improvements while the student who gets a C made huge strides.

In an ideal situation, grading on a curve may offer a workable and fair system. If all learners in the class have been screened and are at the same level, the syllabus is clear and closely aligned to the class level, learning goals are clearly outlined, and a fair rubric is used for all assignments and exams then grading on a curve may be possible.

However, this ideal situation will rarely, if ever, exist in the TEFL classroom in Asia. Even when the perfect situation presents itself, grading on a curve doesn't make the most sense if your main goal is to benefit the students.

Regardless of whether you are presented with a situation where grading on a curve is expected, you will face further ethical questions about your assessment style.

Other Obstacles

Pure objectivity is a myth. There are numerous factors, aside from the work a student produces, that affect the way you will grade.

Your relationship with a particular student can't help but play a part in how you view them and the assignments they hand in. When a student makes a good first impression, you may feel obliged to help them maintain the early good grades they achieved.

As unlikely as it may sound, you may even grow to dislike certain students.

The best way to guard against such feelings affecting your objectivity is to mark assignments "blind." In other words, mask the names and identity numbers somehow so that you are only looking at the work and don't have an image of individual students in your mind.

As mentioned, grading assignments can easily become an exercise in comparison. Try to look at whether the student achieved the learning goals and also whether they improved on a personal level. If there are few restrictions regarding how many A's can be handed out, take effort into account when deciding final grades.

This does not fly in the face of the rubric advice. It simply means that a student on the cusp between a B+ and an A, and who has made a strong effort, may benefit psychologically from the higher grade.

Simply being aware of the potential pitfalls can help you to avoid them to some degree. Develop a plan and stick to it but don't be so rigid that you can't revise and update your rubrics and grading methods over time.

Click for Excel tutorial on tallying points and calculating grades

Sunday, December 14, 2008

MS Word 2007: Page Numbering After Second Page

This tutorial teaches you how to begin page numbering on any page after the second page in a document in Microsoft Office Word 2007.

To begin page numbering on the first page of a document is a simple matter. Click on the Page Number button in the Insert ribbon and select one of the various options. Then, to start the MS Word 2007 Logonumbering on the second page, click the Different First Page box that appears on the Header and Footer > Design ribbon.

But starting the numbering after the second page is not as simple and, surprisingly, is not a task that readily presents itself to a Microsoft Office Word 2007 user.

Why exactly would you want to begin page numbering after the second page? Perhaps you have a title page plus a table of contents or a number of other front matter pages. Or there may be some unique reason specific to your document.

One way around this is to create two documents: one with the pages that won't be numbered, and one with the pages that will be numbered. However, this is a needless and awkward fix that creates extra clutter and makes it more difficult to organize your documents.

It is much easier to follow this tutorial and learn how to start the page numbering exactly where you want in a document.

To complete this tutorial, you need:

  • Microsoft Office Word 2007
  • Microsoft Windows operating system
This tutorial consists of two tasks:
  • Create Two Sections in Your Document
  • Insert Page Numbers

Create Two Sections in Your Document

To create two sections in your document:

1. Click the View tab.

view tab ribbon

2. Click the Print Layout button in the View ribbon.

print layout button

Note: If the Print Layout button is already highlighted, do not click it.

3. Place your cursor at the end of the page that precedes the page on which you want the numbering to begin.

page 3 of 5

For example, if you want the page numbering to begin on the fourth page of the document, place your cursor at the end of the third page.

4. Click the Page Layout tab.

page layout tab ribbon

5. Click the Breaks button in the Page Layout ribbon.

page layout breaks

6. Click Continuous from the Breaks drop down menu that appears.

Result: Your cursor now appears at the beginning of the page on which you want the page numbering to begin.

page 4 of 5

You have successfully created two sections in your document. Now, let's get those page numbers inserted.

Insert Page Numbers

To insert page numbers:

1. Click the Insert tab.

insert tab ribbon

2. Click the Header or Footer button in the Insert ribbon.

footer button

Note: This is a personal choice based on whether you want page numbers to appear at the top of the page (header) or at the bottom of the page (footer). This tutorial uses the footer.

3. Click Edit Footer from the drop down menu that appears.

edit footer

4. Click the Link to Previous button that appears in the Header and Footer > Design ribbon.

link to previous button

Note: The goal is to ensure that the Link to Previous button is disabled, in other words, not highlighted. If the button is already not highlighted, do not click it.

5. Click the Page Number button in the Header and Footer > Design ribbon.

page number button

6. Click Format Page Numbers from the drop down menu that appears.

format page numbers

the Page Format window opens.

7. Click the Start at: radio button, indicate at which number you want the numbering to start, and click the OK button.

page number format window

8. Click the Page Number button.

page number button

9. Click the Bottom of Page option from the drop down menu and the specific style of numbering you desire.

bottom of page option

Note: If you chose to put the page numbers in the header, click the Top of Page option.

And there you have it: page numbering that starts on any page after the second page!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Average Son-of-a-Bitch Scholarship Fund

In conjunction and association with absolutely no one, Tefl Spin is proud to announce the introduction of the Average Son-of-a-Bitch Scholarship Fund. The ASOBSF is open to prospective students of any age who are considering post-secondary education. However, there are certain attributes and considerations which will give candidates an advantage in deciding whether or not they are awarded the scholarship.

scholarship fundBelow are the criteria which will eliminate certain applications. There are two main categories that detail aspects that may diminish an applicant's chances of success. Essentially, an average son-of-a-bitch should neither be desperate nor exceptional in order to qualify.


An applicant who is lacking the funds to put him or herself through school will be disqualified. This state of affairs could be due to the individual coming from a family that never had a pot to piss in, parents who were alcoholics, drug users etc., etc. Or it may simply have arisen from poor choices on the part of the soon-to-be student.

This will especially apply to mature students heading back to school for re-training. If you are in this situation and, at the age of 30, 35, 40 or older, are still living from cheque to cheque and suffer from a sense of entitlement and a bizarre inability to live within your means, you will promptly be eliminated from the running.

If you or your family has ever had the misfortune of experiencing a house fire around the Christmas holidays and then been featured in the local newspaper, your application has just been incinerated.

Similarly, if you have ever, through your own fault or a combination of events conspiring against you, been drawn into a destructive lifestyle and then overcome the odds and set yourself straight, your submission will be rendered invalid. This applies regardless of whether you lived out this experience in relative anonymity or, as in the example above, had your melodrama depicted in the press as a triumph over tragedy.

This is in keeping with the profile of the average son-of-a-bitch who has simply never strayed from the straight and narrow and subsequently never been praised for overcoming a moronic lifestyle.

The average-son-of-a-bitch has always pondered the litany of such stories that are routinely written about in the local rags and wondered how these sad clowns come to the attention of the newspapers. Do they phone in and proudly announce that their decision to make something of themselves warrants coverage? Maybe there is a database categorized into different tragedies or addictions, with the cause of the hour rammed full of suitable subjects.

In short, anyone who has suffered a debilitating malady, lapped up handouts from the day they were old enough to recognize the market for helplessness, is confused about their orientation (directionally or otherwise) is part of any deviant sexual niche that will inevitably be celebrated within the coming years, will not be considered for the Average Son-of-a-Bitch Scholarship Fund.

Tefl Spin in no way considers any of those who don't qualify as less deserving. They simply don't fall within the boundaries of this particular scholarship and, in fact, have numerous other opportunities to help them on their way.


Just as any of the aspects listed in the Desperate section will eliminate you from contention, the same applies in the Exceptional category.

Extreme accomplishments of any form will result in your name being removed from the list of candidates. This covers both academic and extracurricular activities. If you have ever been officially recognized as the best in anything in your city, state, province or country, you will not be awarded this scholarship. Also, if while growing up your family engaged in fund raising activities to pay for jaunts half-way round the world to climb mountains or slay dangerous animals, you will not be considered.

If your free time was never eaten up by a part-time job and was instead devoted to various charities and causes, this will remove you from further consideration. In a world where a well-rounded resume is necessary for entrance to the elite world of high paying jobs and breath-taking accomplishments, Tefl Spin would never suggest that such endeavors are anything but completely altruistic. But once again, it doesn’t rank you as an average son-of-a-bitch.

As an average son-of-a-bitch, you have always kept your head down, taken care of business and never entertained the possibility of turning to others for help. When the merest hint of financial difficulties appears far off on the horizon, you regulate your behaviour and take all steps necessary to avoid problems. Regardless, you've always saved a good portion of your income in anticipation of the inevitable screw-ups that arise in life.

At the same time, you've always marveled at the worthless pukes who go about life as if they're owed something, confident that others will clean up their mess. You, of course, have never accepted a cent of direct social assistance, never taken out a loan and never hit up friends for money. In fact, you no doubt have enough savings to pay for any studies you are considering and probably wouldn't even contemplate getting your snout up to the trough.

However, if you fit the profile detailed above, we urge you to make the effort. The Average Son-of-a-Bitch Scholarship Fund will relieve some of the financial pressure while giving us the opportunity to pay tribute to the great silent majority of the unrecognized average sons-of-bitches of the world!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Website Review: Grammar Advisor

Grammar Advisor bannerIn the internet era, when an almost unlimited number of free teaching resources exist in cyberspace, is there a place for a pay-to-join online grammar instruction/advisor program?

I was recently contacted by a representative who works for an organization that has designed and created Grammar Advisor. He e-mailed me for the purpose of requesting that I look at the program and potentially write a review on Tefl Spin. As someone who is constantly looking for fresh material and topics to write about, I agreed.

I think it is important to note that there was no quid pro quo of any kind for my agreeing to review this service. I have received no payment and would not accept any type of remuneration to favourably mention or endorse a product or service on this blog. On the other hand, I may at some point in the future accept banner advertising from those who are interested. Some people may question such a decision but that's a discussion that will take place another time.

The Audience

I looked at Grammar Advisor with some pre-conceived notions. First, it's not the type of service I would ever sign up for. I am one of those rare individuals who actually enjoys reading grammar books, essays on linguistics and other articles and websites related to language. There is so much free material out there that I would never be moved to pay for what I would have assumed would be relatively redundant information. The site is marketed as a support service for those who need help with grammar. So it probably won't appeal to those who are already comfortable with the subject or simply have the time and/or enjoy clarifying, through research, any questions or concerns they may have.

In fact, I have some doubts that it will even successfully reach the intended audience. My experience has been that those who are lacking in their knowledge of English grammar and have limited ability to teach it will shun any resources and avoid the necessary effort to improve. Unfortunately, it is possible to fake your way through many teaching contracts, especially in Asia. The laziest and most shamelessly bad teachers will be unlikely to make attempts to get better.

Most people have certain subject areas that, for them, contain no interest, inspire no sense of joy and fail to motivate them in any way. A grey, hazy blandness surrounds the very mention of anything to do with their most dreaded and avoided topic.

Content and Presentation

The site is slick and professional and the material is generally presented in an interesting and logical way. The program is broken down into various sections, including: words, sentences, tenses and teaching. Within each section there is a fair amount of content. There was obviously a huge effort made in producing the site and on first glance, the results are impressive.

The course goes over the basics and also includes, at least in some sections, more difficult material for those who might be interested in eventually studying applied linguistics. Some of the explanations are made in a conversational way using simple analogies and memory aids that avoid the language of deductive grammar and the accompanying jargon. Of course, the deductive explanations and all related terms are also included. The likely goal was to include traditional illustrations while also coming at things in different ways so as to cater to those whose eyes glaze over at the very mention of grammar.

I found some of the explanations a bit convoluted. For example:

One way to see if a word is a noun is to place a word in front of it that should go in front of a noun (an article and/or adjective) and check the sound. For example, try saying “the awesome” before any on the nouns previously used: the awesome dog, the awesome juice, the awesome beauty, the awesome belief, the awesome Marianne Rains, the awesome RiverCityCollege. Contrast the correct sound of this pattern (article-adjective-noun) with the wrong sound made by the awesome eaten (verb) or the awesome rapidly (adverb). The words that sound right and familiar in this pattern are nouns, so the pattern, article-adjective-noun, can help in labeling.
Others passages were more succinct and effective.

A nice touch is the inclusion of two sound clips on each page. They are delivered by clicking on a Miss Takesplay button that activates the voice and movement of animated characters. More than just a gimmick, each short blurb offers an interesting tidbit that gives some context to the other information as well as providing a nice break from the reading.

Another part of the site that I found quite enjoyable and useful was the "teaching" section. There are some very helpful articles that contain advice on integrating grammar points into lesson plans.

However, though there was in-depth material regarding some points throughout the website, I found many sections fairly lean in terms of the amount of information provided. It's true that that is usually all that is needed when covering a single grammar point. Many grammar books similarly offer up direct and to-the-point explanations that avoid complicating matters. But most of those books are padded out with numerous exercises. And many of them contain clarification regarding the niggling little exceptions to the rules that can prove to be the stumbling blocks for both language teachers and their students.

Grammar Advisor does include quizzes for most topics but they are very short and limited in scope.

While all major points are detailed in the various sections, I felt that they often didn't go beyond the basics. For example, while the present perfect verb tense was explained in a perfectly acceptable way, it didn't go into many of the subtleties and forms that are possible such as the use of "yet" and "just". In the sentences section, the subject-verb-object concept is introduced but I failed to find the intricacies and problems that arise regarding subject-verb agreement. That's an issue that plagues all learners of English as a second language.

In fact, many grammar books omit and gloss over certain elements while succeeding in other areas. And that is my major concern with a one-stop concept for learning grammar. My experience has always been an exercise in comparison. Various sources are consulted and they end up complementing each other. One website focuses on a detail that you happened to be looking for and another book outlines something in a way that makes it perfectly clear while yet another highlights an exception that you were trying to articulate.

This brings us to the one big intangible about Grammar Advisor. The "Ask the Advisor" feature is supposed to overcome any shortcomings and fulfill the tacit claim that no other sources are necessary.

Ask the Advisor

The nature of teaching English as a second language is that you will never be able to anticipate the myriad of questions and conundrums that arise. This is mainly due to the fact that your students are seeing English through the prism of their native language. Because of the nuances and differences from their language, you would probably never be able to anticipate the various angles and problems that will crop up. That's one of the intriguing and fun parts of teaching the English language. The old maxim is true that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

I see a number of possible pitfalls regarding "Ask the Advisor." Those who have signed up for full access are urged to first search the archives for the answer to their queries. Together with all the instructional content, there are a number of submissions and answers already provided though they have a certain canned feel to them.

The questions that actually come from students and stump the teachers, who will subsequently submit them to Grammar Advisor, are the types of queries that could be very challenging. Even explaining certain questions correctly takes a special touch. And then the response must avoid assumptions and express the information in a clear and concise way. The answer itself could very well create a new batch of dilemmas. I anticipate many frustrating exchanges with e-mails that begin along the lines of, "No, what I really mean is," "Yes, I understand that part but I actually wanted to know..."

Will these questions be dealt with in a timely manner? Will chronic question askers eventually start to get the brush off? Can those considering Grammar Advisor as an option be certain that all advisors on staff are going to give them thorough and accurate information? These and many more concerns surround this important element of the service. I suppose I could have sent in a tricky and obscure grammar query and gauged their response but, again, it wouldn't really replicate a real-life situation.

For me, the effectiveness and worth of Grammar Advisor as a paid service really hinge on many of these questions.

The Verdict

Grammar Advisor isn't for everyone. For the price of joining, a new teacher could purchase a few solid grammar books and supplement that information with dozens of free online sites. If the advisor feature proves to be timely, effective and something that is honoured throughout the duration of the membership, then the overall value is much higher. The hours saved in not searching numerous volumes and different websites for the answer to a question could make it just what many are looking for.

Also, as a fairly comprehensive stand-alone online instructional guide for those who want a very complete introduction to English grammar, it well may be an option worth considering. And to be fair, websites can be modified with little effort. In other words, more content may be added and certain things tweaked once they have received feedback.

Overall, Grammar Advisor is a fairly impressive entry in the still young and burgeoning world of online learning.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Volunteer to be a Sucker

Following on the heels of the discovery that the TEFL certificate course I completed six years ago is essentially worthless, I'm in a nasty mood regarding all things related to TEFL training.


If the ostensible motive for any action is to help out those in need, basically anything goes. Even if the end result is huge profit for those making the supposedly altrusitic effort.

Take a look at this ad dressed up as a "news story." An outfit called i-to-i, a self-proclaimed "volunteer travel operator," will hook you up with schools in Cambodia, where you can teach without receiving any remuneration and feel as if you're making a difference.

The catch, of course, is that you cough up $1425 U.S. dollars for the privilege of doing this for three weeks. Curiously, the dollar figure has an asterisk next to it but nowhere is there an indication what the qualifier is. The payout covers a 40 hour online TEFL course, accommodation, meals and miscellaneous things like "24/7 emergency support."

I've always found that such hand-holding set-ups always play on any newbie's sense of fear when making their sales pitch. It would be interesting to know what this emergency support consists of.

Much of what is stated in the ad strikes me as disingenuous, misleading or just plain out of line.

This kind of arrangement takes away jobs from those who are working as English teachers. Someone might respond by claiming that isn't the case since extremely under-funded schools wouldn't be able to afford foreign teachers anyway. There may be something to that logic but if so, then no one should be reaping a profit from such an undertaking.

For anyone really interested in working with poor children in third world countries, there are numerous NGOs that could help to organize a similar experience. Or, you could simply contact schools online and offer your time or show up in person. Either way, many would welcome volunteers with open arms.

i-to-i (what does that stand for anyway, "ignorance to insipidness"?) should also answer a simple question: are they double dipping? In other words, together with the fees from the volunteers, are they paid by the schools or given government grants for performing such an honourable and selfless service?

They continue on with their misuse of punctuation and other language conventions at the end of the ad when a quote is provided: "The beauty of these projects is that the rewards are mutual..."

The problem is, the words are attributed to no one (presumably they are from the mouth of the individual mentioned five paragraphs previously.) It simply stands alone as if the fact that someone somewhere made the statement lends it credence.

I have no problem with an organization offering such a service and trying to make a buck. But I also feel it is my duty to point out the spin and absurdity.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

TEFL Fly By Night

4-6 week TEFL courses don't have the best reputation. No regulations, reams of horror stories and a "give us your money and fuck off to Asia ya schlepp" kind of feel have contributed to the less than stellar distinction.

My own TEFL certificate has been rendered almost worthless as of late by the discovery that the place went tits up a few years after I completed the course. This fact came to light as I recently sought new employment opportunities and went through the usual dusting off of references and other contacts that goes along with such an exercise. I was surprised to find the school's website now non-existent. My guts dropped even further when I realized the most unlikely of situations: not a single hit when I plugged their name into a search engine.

Thankfully, the woman who owned the school at the time has a unique name and has remained in the industry. I tracked her down at a university in the middle east where she occupies a respected position that no doubt validates the years she spent acquiring post-graduate degrees in the field. I sent her an e-mail seeking assistance in proving the legitimacy of my certificate should anyone want evidence beyond the institution's (former) name and location. She promptly responded and assured me that I could provide her e-mail address to anyone who would like confirmation that I had completed the course.

Better than nothing I suppose. Though the whiff of dodginess will remain for many who learn of the demise of the school. In fact, this is one of the oldest ploys pulled by the under-educated and marginalized who have few opportunities and decide there is nothing to lose. They find the name of a school that has gone under and claim to hold a degree from them. So people who truly are faced with this situation may be doubted somewhat.

My trust in the former school owner to come through if any verification is required was shaken recently. An opportunity came up and fairly detailed information regarding the TEFL course was requested. Because of the friendly and agreeable response to my my initial e-mail, I assumed she would be willing to provide a breakdown of all the material we had studied. There was no indication of topics or courses covered on the final grade mail-out nor can this information be checked anywhere as the school no longer exists. My memory of the course is a bit hazy so I blasted off another message asking for her help.

But there was no response this time. Which now makes me wonder if her first e-mail to me was just an attempt to get rid of an annoyance that has probably plagued her periodically since she sold the school. I'm now concerned that I can't trust her to follow through if any potential employer e-mails her for details. I blithely accepted her story that the school was sold and that the new owners quickly rode it into the ground. She also stated that the government institution that monitors private education institutions in British Columbia cannot locate the school's records nor confirm which students studied there.

As I look back at the time I studied there, I realize there were warning signs. It was clear that she was in a marriage that was on the rocks. In the small waiting room and adjoining office outside the first floor classroom, she was often there with her sullen, middle-eastern-looking husband. The mutual contempt was palpable. They were likely winding down their business affairs and looking for potential buyers.

She also hinted cryptically at competitors who were trying to undermine her credibility. Knowing more about the whole TEFL industry, I now realize those people who were making problems for her were probably justified.

When you are given reason to doubt someone, every little thing takes on significance and the nasty tendency to fill in the blanks and ascribe motives takes over.

At the very least, I would like to find out what happened and have some assurance that there is some way to prove that I in fact paid a thousand dollars, received four weeks of training and successfully completed the course. If no agency or person is able to vouch for that, then I can take appropriate measures (i.e. not put it on a resume again or heavily qualify its mention.)

I urge anyone in a similar situation to determine if there is any kind of watchdog organization in your area that oversees private training institutes. Another step that might be worthwhile is to contact other people you studied with. You can at least alert them to what is going on and together your collective voice may succeed in securing some kind of official document indicating that the school was not a figment of your imagination.

I will try to provide an update in the near future regarding the final outcome of my investigation.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Book Review: Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen

Despite years in the classroom, many teachers are constantly plagued by the creeping sense that they haven't got a clue what the hell they're doing. This feeling is offset somewhat by the number of theories, methodologies and exciting new ideas out there. They fill you with the hope that, finally, someone is going to distill all the vague notions into something effective and accessible.

But after years in the game, you inevitably come to the realization that every teacher has to develop their own synthesis from hours of practice, study and development. And yet it all still remains fuzzy and nebulous at times.

The ubiquitous nature of computers and the rapid development of new programs, software and ideas offer yet more possibilities and are especially tantalizing to the average language teacher. There must be some way to harness this technology, you repeatedly tell yourself. Maybe you create a blog for a class, have students submit assignments by e-mail or try to initiate an online discussion outside of class hours.

But in the end, your students end up using computers for little more than word processing and research.

The role of computers in the classroom and their potential for changing how people learn is the focus of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson.

The book uses the theory of disruptive innovation as an analogy for discussing the introduction and changing nature of technology in the U.S. education system. Disruptive innovation is an idea articulated and named by one of the same authors (Christensen) of this book. In contrast to sustaining innovation, which improves and builds on existing technology and caters to a current population of consumers, disruptive innovation is represented by new ideas whose only alternative is non-consumption.

One of the many examples presented in Disrupting Class is the advent of personal computers. When they first came on the scene, they were expensive, the technology was poor and the companies who manufactured mainframe super computers had no interest in diversifying. There was no short-term incentive and shifting their focus would have watered down their commitment to their existing customer base. And so, just as in numerous other examples, with few exceptions the start-up companies were the only ones to invest the necessary time and money. When the technology reached a tipping point, the "flip" seemed almost sudden and the companies that had not gotten involved in the early stages were wiped out.

Christensen and his coauthors use this premise to discuss the state of technology in the classroom and claim that the same type of flip will take place at some point in the future. They argue that numerous factors will conspire to make individual computer instruction tailored to each student's aptitudes the wave of learning within the next ten to fifteen years.

There are, of course, numerous differences between the worlds of business and education. However, the application of the disruptive innovation theory to the U.S. education system is very compelling. Just as non-consumption is one of the criteria that is present when disruptive innovation takes hold in the business world, so too it is evident in the areas where computer based learning is now gaining a foothold. For example, many special interest elective courses have been swept aside by various country-wide initiatives in the U.S. Computer learning is an ideal way to make up for this shortfall.

A less in-depth look at the issue would probably have left the future role of computers in schools as unspecific and claimed it was simply inevitable. But here there is a fairly detailed roadmap of how the authors believe the next few years will play out:

Within a few more years, however, two factors that were absent in stage 1 that are critical to the emergence of stage 2 will have fallen into place. The first will be the platforms that generate the creation of user-generated content. The second will be the emergence of a user network, whose analogues in other industries would include eBay, YouTube and dLife (for patients with diabetes and their families). The tools of the software platform will make it so simple to develop online learning products that students will be able to build products that help them teach other students. Parents will be able to assemble tools to tutor their children. And teachers will be able to create tools to help the different types of learners in their classrooms. These instructional tools will look more like tutorial products than courseware. But rather than being "pushed" into classrooms through a centralized selection process, they will be pulled in into use through self-diagnosis--by teachers, parents and students. User networks, not value-chain businesses, will be the business models of distribution. This will allow parents, teachers and students to offer these teaching tools to other parents, teachers and students.
Pointing to the businesses who failed to recognize the looming impact of new technology (for example, traditional camera makers Polaroid and Agfa, who were obliterated by the digital switchover) Christensen urges those working in the education field to recognize and prepare for changes. The final third of the book is prescriptive in nature and offers practical strategies for embracing the growing influence of computers in schools.

The book has a lot of good content and works on a few different levels. I believe that it succeeds in making a valid argument regarding the effect that technology will have on traditional schools and learning in the near future. While the focus is on the U.S. education system, the influence will apply to the wider world as well. For example, another area of non-consumption where online learning is already making a difference is for those who have neither the time nor finances to study for a Master's degree in a traditional setting.

The book also provides a good overview of the theory of disruptive innovation together with numerous historic examples. Also, for readers without a business background, there are straightforward explanations of concepts that are relevant to understanding other points being made.

The writing here is lean and to the point and results in a book that is readable and accessible. There isn't a strong or distinctive style that comes through nor is there any humour to speak of. Not requisites in a non-fiction book though those elements can sometimes create a more memorable final outcome. The ideas are what drive this book forward and it's clear that the authors have genuine enthusiasm and truly believe what they have written.

I could have done without a running fictional narrative that appeared at the beginning of each chapter and which was meant to illustrate many of the ideas being discussed. I found it fairly contrived though some may appreciate the attempt to dramatize the real world effects of the authors' predictions and hypotheses.

This is a relevant book for all teachers and those who have any kind of stake in the future of education systems throughout the world. While the timeframes and specific details of how computers will change the schools of tomorrow may vary, I have little doubt that much of what is stated in this book will come to pass.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

False Friends

What is a false friend? In common usage, its meaning is explicit. It is someone who holds themselves up to be a friend, while in reality engaging in behaviour that makes them anything but. Someone who wants something from another but offers nothing in exchange.

There are a litany of misdeeds that cause us all to reclassify people who we initially thought were mates into less complimentary terms. This is often due to hypersensitivity, our own narrow perceptions and just as often, an accurate and justified turning away from someone who is not worth the heartache.

Dishonesty in all its forms; lies, betrayals of trust and that odd tendency of many humans to be absent and lacking in support for those they claim to be close to when times are toughest, are all reasons for a reconsideration of friendship.

It’s that last one that seems to occur most frequently. A “fair-weather friend” is a variation of the false friend, someone who is only around when things are good. When you’re down you certainly find out who you can rely on.

Of course, we are all quick to recognize such failings in others while likely never holding ourselves up to the same standards. In others, it is a true indication of character while if we engage in such behaviour, it’s only a circumstantial one-off.

In language teaching, a “false friend” is also something that at first glance appears to be beneficial but can lead to confusion and frustration. A recognized word that is already familiar to our brains but which represents an entirely new meaning in the foreign language we are learning. A familiar sound that makes uttering the word easy but also opens up a mental can of worms that can temporarily throw us off the path towards acquiring the new language.

Years ago while living in Israel, I experienced my own personal false friend in terms of language learning. The first few days after arrival I spent wandering around the city of Tel Aviv in a daze with the usual mix of confusion and excitement that comes with being in a new place. I kept hearing my name being shouted out, “Ken, Ken.”

Clerks at the shops I walked into even seemed to know my name. Of course, I quickly realized that the Hebrew word for yes is “ken.”

It later dawned on me that Israel is a nation full of beautiful women who scream my name out every night. A comforting idea.

False language friends abound in Hebrew; “me” in Hebrew means “who” in English, as “who” means “he” and “he” means “she.” Confused? Imagine how difficult it can be for someone learning the language.

There are also examples of false friends in the language sphere for Thais learning English and farangs trying to learn Thai.

While buying pumpkin in the local market, an English-speaking foreigner in Thailand may become somewhat flustered. A Thai in farang-land may feel slightly unpleasant when fumbling in her purse late at night as she tries to find the precision-cut instrument that will allow her to open the door.

There are two main types of false friends. First, words that were adopted from a different language to describe something similar but over time morphed into a different meaning. For a Spanish student, there are numerous occurrences which could cause confusion when trying to learn English.

In Spanish, "una decepciĆ³n" is "a disappointment," which is a different meaning than for the similar sounding English word “deception.” Carpeta is most commonly used for describing a type of file folder and is very close in sound to the English "carpet." To add to the confusion, carpeta is occasionally used to describe a kind of table cloth but never for a floor covering.

Much more prevalent is the second type. These are the false language friends that were arrived at out of apparent coincidence.

It’s interesting to ponder the various symbolic utterances we call language. Why did one group of individuals decide on a combination of grunts and vocal chord manipulations to represent one thing while another group arrived at the same bleating sound in order to designate something else?

So there are two basic types of linguistic false friends: ones arrived at by sheer (apparent) coincidence and others that are derivative of a word from one of the languages but whose meaning has changed significantly in the adopting language. Both present some problems for the learner.

Truthfully, the phenomenon of false friends in language learning does not appear to be a serious problem and is usually an occasion for mirth more than anything else. What can a language teacher do to help students regarding false friends? The simplest way is to alert students to the existence of such words and over time compile a list that can be displayed in the classroom. Again, it often provides the opportunity to introduce a humorous element into teaching.

For example, rak is the Thai word for love, while five variant meanings for rack in English are, to quote the entries from

1. A state of intense anguish.
2. A cause of intense anguish.
3. An instrument of torture on which the victim's body was stretched.

This is anecdotal evidence that, in fact, similar phonetic sounds which people have arrived at to describe different things in their respective languages may have some connection after all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Alanis Morissette: Language Sell-Out

Every Canadian knows that the word "flavour" is spelled with a "u." Just as labour, humour, colour and a host of other words differentiate themselves from the American versions. The "our" ending isn't the only contrast between Canadian and American spelling though it's probably the most common.

But I should qualify the opening sentence. Most Canadians over the age of 30 should know the difference. As time passes, that number will further dwindle though there will always be a core of Canuck purists who continue to write the way they were taught. After all, language is as much a part of national identity as many other things. But with default settings on most computer programs deferring to the U.S. brand of spelling (and a general erosion regarding language precision), more of the younger generations will begin to see that as the "right " way.

Of course, even before the onslaught of the internet and the ubiquitous presence of computers, Canadian spelling was always a bit confusing and varied from person to person. More similar to British than American, it nonetheless shares some of the alternate spellings with the yank rule book.

"Kerb," is distinctly British; only a rare Canadian would spell the word this way and probably then only as an affectation. On the other hand, "grey" is the British rendering also widely used by Canadians while the American "gray" is adopted only by those who are clueless to the difference or are one of many self-loathers from the great white north. Then there are relatively neutral examples such as "travelled" and "traveled" which are probably used in equal measures by Canadians.

For learners of English as a second language outside of Canada, the no-man's land option barely rates a mention. I normally advise students to choose between British and American spelling and then stick with it.

But the "our" ending is significant because, unlike many of the words with variant spellings, it has somehow remained one that Canadians have kept in the face of American media, pop-culture and Microsoft (OK, there are a few exceptions.) To be a Canadian and spell "labour" without the "u" is to announce that such matters are insignificant and petty.

Alanis Morissette Flavors of EntanglementStill, I've no doubt that something will twig for many Canadians when they see the title of Alanis Morissette's new CD, Flavors of Entanglement.

Hipsters in the local music industry who interview the singer likely won't go near a question like "So what's up with the U.S. spelling?" for fear it would label them as anal and pedantic. But they too will recognize the shameless pander.

And who can blame Morissette and her record company? Her most important market will be in the U.S.

The inclusion of the "u" would be meaningless to many Americans while others would think something was amiss but be fully unaware of the British/U.S. variations. For those who had a notion of the separate spellings, it would invoke a vague sense of foreignness and annoyance.

All very symbolic of the fuzzy sense of culture in the massive frigid wasteland we call Canada. Proximity to the U.S. means resisting their influence is nearly impossible though many continue to make the effort. At the same time, a nostalgia for the more reserved, traditional and nuanced Brits still has an effect on who we are.

It's only fitting that Morissette, one of Canada's many musical exports, has created a small, thriving industry out of advancing her similarly contradictory and confused public persona. And her prior recording success has already proven that language isn't necessarily her strongest suit. Thanks to her, an entire generation of angry young faux feminists has no idea what the word "irony" truly means.

It would be a nice surprise if there were different releases of the CD depending on location but I have seen no evidence of this so far.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

TEFL Games and Activities: Past Simple

red diceJust as a pack of playing cards can be useful when teaching English, a pair of dice also comes in handy, especially when you are teaching small classes.

They can be used to play games at the beginning of the class. "Warmers" really do help get the students in a good frame of mind before moving on to the (potentially) more serious aspects of the study session. Also, if you have a few minutes left, a dice game (not craps!) can be a great way to end off and leave the students with a positive memory of the class.

Here is a simple game using a pair of dice. The grammar point is the past simple verb tense. Draw two tables on the board, each with 12 squares, and with all the squares numbered. Label one table as "Verbs" and the other "Nouns."

game grids
On a piece of paper, write 2 columns of numbers, with each set corresponding to one of the tables. This will be the list that you refer to when you are conducting the activity. The students, of course, should not see the list. For the first set, write a verb next to each number. For the second set, write a noun next to each number:

list nouns verbs
The nouns in column number 2 can be of any category though I find that animals work well.

Before starting, model a sentence on the board. For example:

“Last week I chased a dog.

It is always good to give students a chance to change the verb tense (conjugate) when playing a game like this.

Now, have one student from the first team roll the dice. If they roll a 4 and 5, they can choose box 4, 5, or 9 (the two numbers added together) from the grid marked "Verbs."

Have the same student roll the dice again and follow the same procedure for the grid marked "Nouns." Then, you (the teacher) will write in the words in the box that correspond to the numbers the student has chosen. Finally, the "contestant" has to form a sentence with the words that have been revealed. You can decide whether to allow consultation with the rest of the team.

As you can see from the list of words I have here, there are some amusing possibilities that pop up. As soon as the words are revealed, the laughter will begin before the sentence has even been formed. Once a correct sentence has been created and spoken out loud by the student, erase the words so that both grids contain only the numbers. With only 12 choices in each grid, it doesn't take long for the class to remember which words are "hidden" behind each box.

For this game you can divide the class into two teams. Each sentence can be rated by the class as to grammar and logic. Of course the other team will be shouting “No point!” but you will be the final judge. There really isn't much choice when the word pairs are revealed and there aren't likely to be many errors. The real benefit is in practicing the pattern and learning the past tense form of different verbs. Encourage students to change up the time reference used at the beginning of the sentences as well.

Take into account different cultural and religious sensitivities when deciding on the options. While some hilarious combinations can result, awkward ones can pop up as well if you’re not careful.

You can also use other verb tenses and could probably come up with countless variations using the same basic premise. It's a simple but fun game that takes the place of otherwise monotonous drilling.

Unlike many of the games and activities I post here, I can claim this one as an original. I have had good success with it though it probably maxes out at about twenty minutes.

Though this game uses dice, it is also one type of a whole classification of games I call “grid games.” In the coming weeks I will be posting more of them here.

Interested in more classroom games and activities? Try the following:

Present Perfect

Modal Verbs

The Passive Voice

Likes and Dislikes

Reading Activities: Writing on the Wall

Friday, May 16, 2008

TEFL: Innovative Methods and Approaches

The world of TEFL has been inundated with some inane ideas over the years. Desperate attempts to jump-start new fads in the English teaching profession are a monthly occurrence.

For example, you may not remember the “back-to-nature approach” which advocated teaching students outdoors. Not just taking the occasional class outside to waste a period or two. Every self-respecting teacher does that once in a while. The back-to-nature approach went much further.

Teachers instructed students while they were nestled in beds of straw, perched in tree houses or crouching in fields of tall grass. This was all meant to better facilitate the English instruction that took place. In the most authentic practice of these techniques, animals grazed nearby. Where this wasn’t possible, the teacher mimicked various sounds such as the munching of grass, yapping of dogs and clucking of chickens.

Here is an article regarding the intriguing and innovative style of teaching that appeared in a well-respected TEFL journal back in 1987.

The Back to Nature Approach to Teaching English

Near the village of Mae Sot in north-western Thailand, Somchai Prenpriporn practices the back-to-nature approach to teaching English. Somchai studied at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1970’s. After he completed his degree in linguistics he spent numerous years living as a recluse in Burma, Cambodia and Mongolia.

During long hours of meditation and reflection he formulated this approach to language instruction. More than simple teaching, the connection with nature is supposed to create a holistic and symbiotic energy flow that allows the new language to be absorbed by students.

“All languages are connected to the natural environment. The earliest people in any society lived close to nature. The particular type of climate and landscape infused their very elemental existence. From this came the earliest grunts, which gradually flowed into language. To immerse students in the environment from which language sprung forth is to subconsciously provide them with a truly…fertile atmosphere in which to learn.”

Somchai provides this explanation in a quiet soothing tone as the musky smell of oxen lingers in the air of his rudimentary office which is located next to what he calls the “learning stables.”

Resembling horse stables, they are where some of the more structured practice takes place. Beyond the stables is a field with clusters of trees and bushes here and there. Amongst the trees are well-worn patches of earth, some straw for bedding and a few troughs. Some of the traditional tools of teaching are also evident. Blackboards on easels, chalk, erasers, a few rubber balls and oddly, a mallet.

The bulk of Somchai’s students are Burmese refugees who stream in from the border a few kilometres from this dusty town. He receives help from Pookie, his Thai assistant, and a steady flow of western backpackers passing through and looking for a unique cultural experience. They are usually not disappointed. It is far removed from the world of standard English teaching that exists hundreds of miles to the south in Bangkok.

“I usually put up the travellers in one of the stalls and offer them what food I can. We’re not doing this for the money and frankly there isn’t much coming our way.”

The occasional donation from local NGO’s and contributions from overseas help Somchai in pursuit of his passion.

On a recent afternoon, we were given the privilege of watching the back-to-nature approach in action.

Students are instructed to get themselves comfortable in the straw bedding in a small grove of trees in the field (Somchai previously told us that the tree house lessons are for advanced students—today’s group are beginners.) Somchai is at intervals animated, soothing and gentle in his repetition of instructions.

What is being said is only in English with no Thai translation. These groups of words are interspersed with barks and growls. There is also a lot of gesturing, pointing, and animal-like movements by Somchai. The students are burrowing into the straw, getting on all fours, now curling into the fetal position.

It all seems a bit surreal. But something is happening. It’s almost like the students are in a hypnotic trance as their eyes glaze over. Some utterances are taking place. Like guttural animal sounds. But wait, there are English words and phrases amongst the sounds. Here is a large beefy young girl mashing her body up against a tree, almost as if she is trying to leave her scent behind for future classes.

Somchai’s methods have created a kind of myth-like aura around the whole spectacle that involves his unique teaching. Like all mavericks who take a different route, the tales about Somchai have developed and spread and taken on lives of their own. There are unconfirmed rumours of incidents involving an electric cattle prod and late-night nude baying at the moon. Is any of it true? If it is, Somchai isn’t saying as he gazes with reverence out across this otherwise nondescript patch of dusty field in north-west Thailand.

Twenty Years Later

There are still a few copies of the issue kicking around but no one at the "respectable" journal has ever commented on the article. That it could even appear in such a publication is evidence of some of the hare-brained ideas that people come up with and the willingness of others to give them an audience. Perhaps it's due to the monotony that can become part of a teacher's life or more likely because of the wackos the industry attracts.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

EFL Teaching: Stigma and Perception

A certain stigma surrounds the entire TEFL industry and those who become English language teachers. This less than pristine reputation exists for a number of reasons.


The main reason is the ease with which any native speaker can become a teacher and gain employment in numerous countries overseas. The great demand results in extremely low standards.

Quality of Teachers

This is directly related to the first point. Because the standards are so low for gaining admittance to the TEFL fraternity, many charlatans, frauds, layabouts and other riff-raff from the west enter the profession for the ease of lifestyle and possibilities for travel it provides.

There are few regulations that govern the industry in most countries and educational requirements for potential teachers are marginal. In some locations, a high school graduate can gain employment with few difficulties.


I like to use the construction industry analogy here. Years ago, after graduating from university, I worked at numerous different menial jobs before doing anything relevant to the degree I had completed. I worked for a number of years on building sites and discovered a simple truism that allows many unscrupulous bastards to prosper in countless different fields.

The greater the level of special knowledge required for the task in question compared to the relative ignorance of that same subject on the part of the recipient/customer, the easier it is to pull a scam.

Significant errors in the construction of houses are glossed over because the builders know the ability of the customer to detect such screw-ups is limited. This applies in other areas such as plumbing, car repairs and yes, even teaching English as a foreign language.

While knowledge of the English language is hardly equivalent to the technical expertise required in the other trades mentioned, the fact that most students are clueless as to what is right or wrong or whether the teacher in questions is an expert, allows many who lack the basic knowledge to continue teaching. The whole art/science of teaching is nebulous enough in its own right that this factor gets further exaggerated.

And the inability to gauge competence is further compounded by cultural confusion. Mannerisms, speech patterns and physical characteristics that expose drunks, wackos or other high risk individuals are hard to spot by those from different countries.

The TEFL Industry is a Racket

Yes, this is a huge generalization but it applies to a large segment of school owners and others profiting from the business of language teaching. They are in it simply for the money and don't give a damn about the quality of education being delivered. Many teachers and students who have been through the system recognize this and pass on the information to countless others and the reputation of all involved is further tarnished.


Regardless of how well a teacher was treated or how professional the school owners were, some people just get a kick out of maligning and belittling the whole profession. Of course, a negative opinion may be genuinely and strongly held. Just as some will rate hip hop music as a nuanced art form created by geniuses while others see it as tripe produced by thugs. Some class a filet mignon as a prime cut of meat cooked to perfection and some consider it a rotting piece of flesh heated up by an oaf in a white hat.

Negative views of the TEFL industry may prevail due to the fact that unprofessional circumstances and colleagues abound. And some of those feelings are probably because of self-doubt on the part of the individuals making the claims and as a way for them to explain away the fact that they never quite got their heads around any effective teaching methodology.

This psychology can best be explained by the famous Groucho Marx quote:

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. "

People Who Will Never be EFL Teachers

Many people will never be EFL teachers, just as they will never be many other things. Their view of others who head overseas to teach in foreign countries is instructed by many of the previous points discussed. Everyone likes having certain paths in life that can be labeled and dismissed as it validates their own choices to a certain degree.

I'm not saying all those who have never taught English abroad hold a negative view of it. However, I have heard enough stories of those returning home and having trouble with potential employers giving little credibility to their experience to know that it's not considered the best career move by many people.

And that isn't a totally unfair assessment. Pulling up roots and heading off to teach half way around the world is a thought that never enters most people's minds. But the negatives act as a deterrence for at least some who might have pondered the possibility.

And that's not a bad thing as it keeps the numbers relatively small and the demand high for those who turn it into a life-long profession.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

TEFL Niche Markets

A number of years ago I worked weekends at a language school in Bangkok to supplement my regular income. There were plenty of students and a core of full-time and part-time foreigners teaching classes six days a week. But, at best, the school only managed to break even on the language classes.

The real money came from many of those same students whose parents sent them to Australia for periods of one month to many years. The language school had partnership agreements with numerous educational institutions in Australia and earned a healthy commission for every student they signed up. They also arranged accommodation, flights and other practicalities to help get the youngsters set up in their new temporary homes. Numerous other support services and products were available to the students throughout the duration of their stay.

The language school created an entire lifestyle brand associated with the experience of living and studying abroad. They published a glossy monthly magazine with models on the cover and articles profiling students already in Australia. Once or twice a year they rented out a convention centre and put on a recruiting drive with fashion shows and live bands for entertainment. In short, they were selling a dream and many were buying.

It was a lucrative business and there were/are only a handful of other similar outfits in Thailand actively recruiting students to study in Australia. There are probably another dozen or so organizations who operate the same kind of business for the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and other locations.

Niche markets for EFL teaching appear to be growing.

Teaching and learning can be nebulous concepts. Seeking a credible school with good teachers is a daunting task. Advertising, price and the promises sold often play a bigger role in determining where a person will study as opposed to any statistics or other tangible proof.

How else to explain the Philippines as one of the most popular places for South Koreans to go for studying English? No doubt proximity, the added incentive of a vacation in a warm climate and the factor that leads to unqualified people being employed the world over as English teachers--i.e. the inability of the learner to accurately judge whether the teacher has a clue what he or she is talking about--also fuels its popularity.

This article discusses the phenomenon:

"A total of 111,000 students from South Korea came to the Philippines last year for English classes and other study tours, accounting for 17 percent of the 653,320 Korean arrivals, the Department of Tourism said.

Koreans have become the biggest group of visitors to the Philippines, surpassing Americans. The tourism department expects them to number a million by 2010 and account for one-fifth of its target of five million visitors a year."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

TEFL/TESL Training Courses

A 4-8 week TEFL course is the only training that many English language teachers receive before accepting their first job overseas. What do such courses offer? Are they necessary? What other options exist for those who recognize the need for some preparation but have limited time and/or money?

My Experience

I did one of these six week TEFL courses before I started teaching in Thailand. Looking back, the real information that I absorbed could have been picked up in three weeks of serious self-study on the internet and at the local library. However, this is an easy claim to make after the fact. Would I have known what to look for? Probably not.

Regardless, the basic things you will be taught include:

A brief history of language teaching and the methods and approaches that have come and gone in the past.

A focus on the “communicative approach” that is used almost universally in language teaching at the moment.

A simple but effective classroom methodology known as the “3 Ps” (present, practice, produce), sometimes labeled differently depending on the course provider.

How and when to implement pair activities, group activities and various classroom games.

The basics of classroom management.

How to make a lesson plan

You will prepare your own lesson plans, teach to an actual class of learners and be observed by one of the course instructors. Essentially, that is what you will get for your 1000 dollars. But is it worth it?

The Cynical View

In recent years more than a few people have discovered how lucrative the TEFL certificate racket is. 30 individuals rammed into a room, each of whom has paid approximately one thousand dollars for the privilege of hearing someone expound on how to play simplistic English language games with children. Every six weeks usher in a new herd of dupes.

Why do so many people feel it is necessary to take a teacher training course?

Fear is the biggest reason. Never having stood at the front of a classroom before, most of these neophytes believe that this six-week induction will set them on the way to being successful teachers.

Those offering the training play on this fear incessantly, flooding discussion boards with tales of the importance of such instruction. They hint at the dire consequences that will result if you dare to take on a teaching job without having first been anointed by one of their gurus.

This is an ideal business for anyone with a shred of ambition and potentially few scruples. It is completely unregulated, there is little overhead and there is a constant flow of eager western refugees ready to shell out the money. Best of all for those who offer instruction is the fact that such a certificate does apparently hold weight with many who are in a position to hire in the TEFL world.

Undoubtedly, many people swear by the fact that their money was well spent and the information they gained has helped them become the teachers they are today.

My guess is that they want to feel validated in their decision. Teaching is an acquired skill/art/science…whatever you want to call it. Those who do it for a long period of time necessarily rightly want to feel a sense of self-worth and pride.

But there is an attempt by many to attach greater significance than necessary to the skills needed to succeed. In doing so they increase their own sense of importance. Those offering these courses play up this myth of hard to define skills simply because they want your money.

Once you begin listening to the supposed wisdom, it often feels like the ostensible goal is to help prospective teachers learn how to eat up huge wads of classroom time and in the process hopefully instill their students with improved language skills. And the same general principle applies in the TEFL course itself…by demonstrating such activities much of the instruction time is pissed away.

A Positive Take on TEFL Training Courses

Most people recognize the limitations that are inherent in such classes. Four weeks is nothing more than an introduction that gives a person a glimpse of the major areas that they will need to learn more about if they are serious about teaching for the long term. But it is still a valuable primer presented to you by those who (hopefully) have many years of experience in the field. They can answer your questions and distill the vast amount of preparation a teacher needs into the bare minimum required to get started.

It also allows those with limited time the opportunity to instantly get their feet wet. It would be great if everyone who decided to be an EFL teacher made their decision years in advance and meticulously prepared for their first job. It rarely works that way. Many people get involved due to circumstance: lost jobs, vacations to a foreign country that convinced them to move there, long distance romances, and numerous other reasons. Signing up for TEFL training requires little advance planning or early registration.

Another positive aspect is the bringing together of like-minded people in the same situation. The support group mentality that develops amongst classmates shouldn't be undervalued. Many friends and family members may criticize or outright oppose your plans. The people you get to know throughout the duration of your instruction can provide a great deal of positive reinforcement. Also, the connections you make could provide you with valuable information regarding the country you are heading to or give you a lead on various jobs.

An additional important fact when considering enrollment is that many schools do see TEFL certificates a positive sign and it may be the deciding factor when there are a number of candidates for a job opening. Will the lack of a certificate disqualify you from being hired? Not necessarily, but in certain markets inexperience and the absence of a certificate will definitely make you less marketable as a teacher.

The teaching practice that is provided by most course providers (if the one you are looking at doesn't offer this, give it a miss) is probably the most valuable thing you will gain.

If you have planned well in advance, an alternative to this would be to contact organizations in your area that offer free or inexpensive ESL lessons to recently arrived immigrants and volunteer to do some teaching. Together with some intensive self-study, you could probably gain as much or more as any course offers. Of course, you wouldn't have a certificate to show to prospective employers.


These observations are based on the TEFL training that I completed as well as countless first person accounts from friends and colleagues. But not all courses are created equal. Do as much research as possible on both the training centre and the individual who will be teaching you. If possible, contact better business bureaus, government funded school watchdog organizations and former students.

I recommend that people looking to teach overseas sign up for some kind of training beforehand. The fee for most courses is running at about one to two thousand dollars. For the length of time involved, that really isn't too expensive.

However, after you have finished your studies and have secured your first job, you will quickly realize how much you still have to learn.