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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Li Yang and Crazy English

Most people in the English language teaching game have heard about Crazy English at some point. Started by Chinese entrepreneur Li Yang, Crazy English is the brand he has created to market his high-octane method of teaching English.

The New Yorker has an extensive piece on Li Yang and Crazy English in their current online edition. It details Li's background, the methods he uses, some of the resistance he has encountered and the controversy he has created:

"Last fall, Li’s blog site posted photographs from a middle-school lecture in Inner Mongolia. One picture showed hundreds of students on their hands and knees, kowtowing. Bowing one’s head to the ground is, in China, a potent symbol reserved mainly for honoring the dead. It was once required of visitors to the Emperor, and during the Cultural Revolution it was used as a tool of humiliation against those who were accused of committing political crimes.

The response to the photographs was swift. A columnist in the state-run China Daily pronounced Li a 'demagogue,' and his lectures 'like cult meetings.' 'Cult' is a dangerous word in a country that affixed that label to the spiritual group Falun Gong nearly a decade ago and has been rounding up its followers ever since."
Many so-called language experts question whether his techniques truly help people acquire English language skills. They may have a point but what they are possibly overlooking is the fact that a teacher should also motivate their students to learn as opposed to only offering instruction during the few hours they meet every week.

Li emphasizes a mantra-like recital of English as a way to learn. The exaggerated volume and the kind of "out of yourself" trance that develops seems to at least push some students towards practicing and putting in the hours necessary to learn. Not only that, but simply the sense many of Li's followers have that they are part of something special--i.e. his movement--spurs many on to greater heights as well.

I probably have more of an affinity for Li than many other EFL teachers. In my own language learning experience, I have engaged in some rote learning methods and out-loud repetition as a way to retain as many words and phrases as possible in a short amount of time. I find that this method, together with pacing back and forth in a decent sized room, works for me. It's kind of difficult to do this in the classroom in Thailand though I do mention it to my students in the hopes they may do some similar practice in combination with other study methods.

And I have also seen the effect that whipping a class into a frenzy can have. Everyone is in a heightened state and they leave with a positive feeling and walk into class the following week with a smile on their faces and a sense of expectation.

But Li is far more than an English teacher. In his 5,000 student plus, evangelical-like mass rallies/English lessons, he pushes the audience to challenge themselves and the accepted way of doing things.

An article well worth checking out.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thomas Kohnstamm: Lonely Planet Writer Sparks Controversy

A dilemma faced by publishers and editors of non-fiction is that the writers they deal with have much in common with those who pen fiction. Both are good at spinning bullshit.

Those who chronicle "real" events and happenings in the world normally filter what they see through the narrative lens. They focus on certain angles, sensationalize events and try to fit the facts into a neat storyline that appeals to readers. Most people understand that what they read has been hammered into a glamorous version of reality.

But in many cases, the facts as they exist are too bland to qualify for an entertaining non-fiction story. Or the writer in question lacks what it takes to present the situation in a compelling way. Either way, the temptation to simply "make shit up" proves too much for many.

The most egregious types of fraud, incompetence or corruption in any industry are a mirror image of the talents and successes of the people drawn to that particular career. Just as some of the skills that make a successful police officer are also evident in the bent copper who lays beatings on homeless people for kicks, a writer with some degree of talent also has the potential to be a skilled fabulist.

Literary Fraud

Literary fraud in various non-fiction genres has been rampant in recent years. Or more likely, the explosion of the internet has increased communication and the ability of the average person to come forward to point out inconsistencies and make claims. The "autobiographical confessional" that recounts a difficult childhood or other traumatic experience that the author courageously overcomes seems to be a type of book that attracts a disproportionate number of bullshit artists.

Who would or even could question the details of another person's life? Well, many have, and while the fallout has not been pretty for the writers who are caught out, the publicity and book sales that flowed their way probably wouldn't have been achieved otherwise.

Travel guide books also present themselves as a category ripe for abuse. The internet is awash with information on various locations and there are plenty of books already in print which cover most destinations in the world. The ability to paraphrase and confirm facts with people on the ground makes it possible to offer up supposed fresh descriptions without having ever set foot in the country in question.

Apparently, the rather disingenuous "toe touch"--in which a writer makes a one day trip to the place he is writing about so he can claim his coverage is legitimate--is no longer even necessary.

Lonely Planet Writer Confesses

Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm claims that he made up huge swaths of the books he wrote for the travel guide publisher and boasts that he never visited many of the locations. Timed to coincide with the release of his new book, many are saying that it is simply a publicity stunt. If that is the case, no doubt it has succeeded to some degree.

However, on the heels of many non-fiction books being exposed as pure fantasy and in the midst of the internet's "gotcha" culture, Kohnstamm may find his book getting more scrutiny for authenticity than he had hoped.

A quick Google search shows that he has a penchant for getting involved in wild, nearly unbelievable situations more suited to a Hollywood script:

"In March, Thomas Kohnstamm, a 30-year-old Seattle native on assignment in Caracas, Venezuela, for Lonely Planet travel guides, walked out of a bar in a neighborhood called Sabana Grande and quickly found himself in trouble. A group of young men emerged from darkened doorways and set upon him. He was pistol-whipped and knocked to the ground, and the bandits began rifling through his pockets. Angered to learn that Mr. Kohnstamm had the equivalent of just $8, the thieves demanded his belt, his shoes, and eventually his pants.

It was at that point, Mr. Kohnstamm recalled in a telephone conversation last week from the Netherlands, that the police arrived. Armed with submachine guns, they ordered the bandits against a wall and retrieved Mr. Kohnstamm's possessions — including his ATM card. They then explained that for purposes of their investigation, they would need to know Mr. Kohnstamm's PIN. In the end, Mr. Kohnstamm said, the police shook him down for just $25,..."
Hmmmm. Certainly makes a person wonder...

Expect some kind of mea culpa from Kohnstamm in the coming weeks that is both ironic and self-deprecating, that both deflects and makes a virtue out of what he supposedly did. After all, he is appealing to the hipster wannabe set, many of whom think any attempt to romanticize your life or get attention is something worthy of admiration. Or he may just offer up one of the classic trapped-in-a-corner responses along the lines of "I was misquoted" or "taken out of context."

To be fair, he does state that the corner-cutting tactics were used because of unreasonable demands made by Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet's Response

Lonely Planet has offered up a few quotes regarding the controversy in which they come off as offended and defensive. Their immediate goal is assuring their readers that this is some kind of aberration. And how exactly do they know this? Of course, they don't. It's the first move from the playbook of "The Wrong-Headed Response to Bad Publicity."

The follow up, as demonstrated on their website, is mostly silence. However, while there is nothing on the main page about the story, Lonely Planet management is at least responding in their discussion forums. Though the integrity of that is being called into question by some posters claiming mass censorship of comments related to the uproar.

This is all in the wake of the buyout of Lonely Planet last year by the BBC. The image Lonely Planet built up over the years as the bastion for independent travelers has started to waver and depending on how they play this one, could take another hit. The BBC itself has been embroiled in a major league shitstorm of its own making regarding credibility over the past few years, so their response to this will be interesting.

Lonely Planet Seeking Authors

A few months ago Lonely Planet put out a call for travel writers on its website. Now I'm thinking that instead of submitting travel pieces and other non-fiction writing, those seeking to get a foot in the door should send in wild tales of adventure and mayhem worthy of the most over-the-top Hollywood movie.

Friday, April 18, 2008

HBO's The Wire: Language and Themes

The Wire season oneThe Wire is a police drama that looks at the inner workings of various social groups and the rules and codes that govern them. Set in Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S., the show revolves around a rag-tag bunch of police officers as they tackle different cases.

The power structure of each different organization or group is explored; including the police force, inner city blacks involved in the drug trade and unionized dock workers (as far as season two.)

A recurring theme is the reference to the supposed codes that exist within each group. This is often represented by simplistic mantras or clichés that are repeated at crucial moments of conflict when dissension threatens to erupt.

The logic behind these tacit rules are rarely questioned. Only when a member of each sociological unit starts to consider the underlying reasons and motives for all these oaths does he start to wonder how really meaningful or genuine the whole set-up is.

Those at the top, of course, encourage the repetition of the platitudes and invoke them whenever a hint of mutiny arises. But they rarely adhere to a set of altruistic guidelines and instead take decisions based on what will benefit them directly. Besides self-serving reasons, their other motivations are to maintain the image that, in fact, they do honour the code and, above all else, to ensure that their minions dutifully follow and keep repeating the empty bromides.

So, there are the leaders who manipulate the system for their own benefits while maintaining the illusion that they care about those below, the legions of dupes who play their roles and don't rock the boat and those who dare to step outside the rules of the game. Retribution and closing of ranks is swift in almost every case that such independent thinking arises.

There are also a few rebels or lone wolfs who somehow operate within or alongside the various structures. They are inevitably sanctioned or ostracized. But they also gain the respect and envy of some of the others who are members of the respective organizations. Not surprisingly, the maverick cop develops an affinity for the drug-trade outsider; a hood who makes a living by robbing drug dealers.

Comparisons between the cops and the criminals are inevitable. Bent coppers and thugs with a conscience can't help but make the viewer wonder how much circumstance has to do with a person's lot in life.

And which collective maintains a truer meritocracy? As two officers sit in their car watching a group of drug dealers attack a rival gang that has tried to muscle in on their territory, one of the cops remarks, "That's why they always win; when we screw-up we get pensions, when they screw-up, they get beat."

Jargon and Slang

Each group has their own language full of slang and jargon. An interesting attempt at creating authenticity and a testament to how much we use language to define ourselves and the roles we occupy.

It also provides a conundrum for both the police who are trying to decipher the wiretaps--the slang and the specifically coded language that is used to avoid detection--and the creators of the show who need a way to let the audience know exactly what is being referred to.

Artistic Influence

The world of books, movies and television is one of influence. Everything is derivative of something else and contains the subtle or obvious imprint of other creations that have come and gone in the past.

In The Wire, it's hard to miss the similarities to Joseph Wambaugh's police novels from the 1970's. The Wire is set in the present day but there is a very retro feel that is achieved through the use of flat lighting, seedy locations and a cast of relative unknowns who won't be winning beauty pageants anytime soon. Most of them are functional alcoholics with a litany of personal problems. They take solace in a base, vulgar humour and a sense of futility and impending doom permeates their lives.

Not that these elements are the sole domain of Wambaugh. In fact, many them are part of a large majority of cop dramas on the big and small screen. But usually there are at least a few other aspects that offset the cynical tone. Here, everything is debased, depraved and cynical. No doubt, there are signs of decency and integrity. But black and white situations or characters are not on offer and the over-riding atmosphere is of filth and degradation.

The result is a stark and unforgiving look at how human beings interact within the tribes and associations they have formed and likewise how those various subcultures clash with one another.

The series' title, The Wire, refers to the wiretaps that the police eventually use on their suspects. But it also relates to the natural monitoring that humans as a social species use to keep track of each other and how they regulate the behaviour of those members who violate different rules.

"It's all part of the game..."

Click here for a full review and analysis of all five seasons of The Wire

Classroom Games: Motivating your Students

Here is another classroom activity using playing cards. This one doesn't focus on a specific grammar point or language function. Instead, its purpose is to motivate and promote interaction from students.

One common refrain from English language teachers is that students rarely get involved in discussions or ask questions. This may be especially true in Asia, where the potential for embarrassment caused by mistakes has a strong influence on behaviour. Lamenting such apparent tendencies is not going to solve the problem. As a teacher, you must find ways to create an environment that encourages student participation.

This activity is best suited to small classes with no more than 20 learners. It is most appropriate for listening and speaking courses but can easily be used when the focus is on other skills as well.

Objective: To increase the level of student participation in the classroom.

Materials: One or two packs of playing cards.

Time: Duration of the class you are teaching.

Procedure: At the beginning of the class, give a pep talk regarding the importance of asking questions and taking an active part in the learning process.

Then explain that whenever someone makes an interesting comment, asks a clever question or otherwise contributes beyond the normal prompting from the teacher, they will receive a card. At the end of the class, the person with the highest point total wins. Point allotment is based on the number on the cards. Make sure to highlight the fact that an ace equals one point while face cards are worth ten each.

Then, continue on with the lesson you already had planned.

You can award a prize to make the game more fun. A bag of wrapped candies goes over well or something more symbolic such as the person's name written on the board as the current reigning "champion" until the next game.

Modifications: There are numerous possibilities for awarding cards. Instead of handing them out for a good comment or question, make students successfully answer your questions. Or, separate the class into teams and give out cards for correct answers.

I've had positive experiences with this activity and find that the effects often carry over to subsequent classes. Things sometimes reach that level where everyone has forgotten about any worries or frustrations and are only concerned with getting the next card/point.

On occasion, students will start making superfluous or absurd comments in an attempt to increase their total and everyone erupts in laughter. A great atmosphere! You can then have the whole group judge subsequent comments and decide as a class whether they are worthy.

As with any game or activity, it shouldn't be used to excess or the novelty factor will quickly wear out.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Tefl Games: Modal Verbs

bicycle playing cards

Using Playing Cards in the Classroom

There's something about playing cards that appeals to almost everyone. The aesthetically pleasing look and feel and the association with fun makes them useful for teaching English. Of course, check local customs to ensure that they are not taboo. In some cultures there may be restrictions due to religion and/or because of the connection to gambling.

An ordinary pack of cards provides almost endless possibilities for activities in the classroom. I've found that various card games tailored to learning English work best in classes of no more than 20 students.

The first time that you pull out a deck in a particular class is a good opportunity to give a brief lesson on their history. You can tell your students that the playing cards of today, with four suits and 52 cards, originated in Persia (what is now Iran) about 1000 years ago.

Then, draw a picture of the individual suits on the board and tell the class that each one represents an important aspect of society (especially as it existed in the past but still relevant today.) Try to elicit ideas from your students regarding what each suit represents before giving them the answers:

spade symbol

The spade is a tool that is used to dig and prepare the earth for planting. Spades are symbolic of farming and agriculture (and by association, food.)

diamond symbol

Diamonds stand for money and wealth.

club symbol

Clubs represent conflict and war.

heart symbol

Hearts symbolize love.

Classroom Game Using Playing Cards: Modal Verbs

This is a simple game used to practice modal verbs. Modal verbs are helping verbs such as: can, could, should, must, will, would etc.

Objective: To practice the modal verbs: will, can, could. For use with the language function: making requests (can also be used for "negotiating" in a business class.)

Material: 1 pack of playing cards will be sufficient for up to 17 students. Up to 34 students requires 2 packs.

Time: This activity takes no more than 15-20 minutes. I've found it works best after students have done some practice using the target language. As a review at the beginning or end of class is good as well.

Procedure: Make sure that all students understand the vocabulary: ace, king, queen and jack. Tell them that the ace represents a one for this activity.

Instruct everyone to write down 3 numbers, regardless of suit, and to keep their numbers hidden from other students. For example, one person might write: 8, 3, jack. Another student could write down: 1, 3, 3 (you can write down the same number twice.)

Now hand out three cards to every student in the class.

Tell them that in a few moments they are going to walk around with their three cards held out in front of them, face out, and try to trade the cards they have for the ones other students possess in an attempt to get the three numbers they previously wrote down.

Now draw their attention to the board. Model the language that they should try to use.

When trying to obtain a card:

"I'll give you an eight for your queen." or "Can I get your 9 in exchange for my ten?"

Responding: "No you can't. " or "Sure, here you go."

Now, advise the students to stand up and mingle amongst each other trying to collect the cards that represent the numbers they wrote down earlier. The student who gets their numbers first will naturally run up to you or shout out. Let the activity run its course as the other students continue making requests.

In all the time that I have used this activity, only one person has received all three of the numbers they wrote down in the first group of three cards that I handed out.

Modifications: Instead of having the cards face out, have the students hold them in the traditional poker style with the value hidden from others. They can incorporate other questions into the activity such as "Do you have an eight?" before proceeding to the modal verb questions listed above. This will obviously extend the time needed.

As you likely may have considered by now, most popular card games have a standard number of requests and statements that are repeated throughout the course of play. It is quite easy to use many common games to suit the particular language function and/or grammar point that you are focusing on.

Actually playing the card game around a table with the hope of just allowing the targeted language to flow can work though you are limited by the number of students who can play.

Modifying any game to work in a "mingle" setting is something that seems to be the most effective. Remember also that simply allowing a game to play out between students while you stand by may create the sense that not much learning per se is taking place. I have done this on occasion but usually only with a group I have been teaching for some time.

Here is a good website with dozens and dozens of card games. With a little imagination you can adjust them to use with whatever you are teaching at any given moment.

I will post more card games and activities for practicing specific vocabulary, grammar and language purposes in the future.

Tefl News: Britons Murdered in Somalia

Four teachers have been murdered after militants raided a school in central Somalia.

Two of the teachers were British passport holders of Somali origin.

The names of the teachers haven't been released. The victims are a 32 year-old woman and a 70 year-old man. The attack took place at Hakab Private English school.

You can read all the sordid, twisted details surrounding the incident here.

Obviously not the best country or region in the world to be a teacher. I have no idea if the fact that they held British passports had anything to do with their murders or if that detail was even known by the attackers.

It was less than six months ago that the case of Gillian Gibbons grabbed international headlines. She was the British woman teaching in nearby Sudan who faced the wrath of extremists outraged that she had allowed her Sudanese students to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

However, having done a fair amount of traveling in my days, I know that events that are reported on by the media have a habit of convincing people that there is mayhem in the streets and nobody is safe. It's usually not as dramatic as breathless reporters would have us believe. Still, the randomness and violence of this attack is disturbing. It would be interesting to hear from anyone who is currently teaching in the area or has done so in the past.

A tragic couple of days for British nationals overseas. Five British women, all of them in their late teens or 20's, were killed in a bus crash in Ecuador yesterday. And now another young British woman has been found dead in Argentina.

I know the cynics amongst us will say that their deaths are no more tragic than the people who have been killed in the same time period under similarly horrible circumstances in their own countries. As I've written about before, there's something about death in a foreign land that increases the sense of loneliness, heartbreak and loss. It no doubt plays into the fear of the unknown that is part of human nature as well.

Condolences to all the families and friends.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Setting Boundaries with Students in the Classroom and Beyond

This is intended specifically for those teachers at the university level and in other adult learning situations.

An important part of classroom management involves setting boundaries. The parameters you set will also extend outside the classroom. This is extremely important for anyone considering teaching English at universities in Asia. My own experiences and observations of other teachers have shown that failure to do so can lead to some very awkward situations.

Thai students look positively at the opportunity to be taught by a foreign instructor. It means that the usual rules don't apply. Teachers receive a great deal of respect in Thai society and students learn early on that they must behave in a deferential manner while in the classroom. There are exceptions, of course, but I have seen far more defined rules regarding the relationship between teachers and pupils here than exists in western countries.

So, it is uncharted territory for many of the university kids who walk into class on the first day of term and see a foreigner sitting behind the desk. A giddy expectation fills the air as they realize that the strict criteria that govern interaction can be ignored for the duration of the course. This can have both positive and negative results for everyone involved.

The sense of expectation and the initial energy are both things that can be used to get off to a good start. However, play it the wrong way and students may get the impression that their time with you is going to be a free ride. Laying down a clear set of guidelines regarding expectations and classroom rules can set the tone and make it clear that you have no intention of allowing a party atmosphere to develop.

Don't Give In

Once you have established what is acceptable, both in terms of behaviour during class and deadlines for assignments, you will be tested early. Whining, excuse-making and flat out lying are things that you should expect within your first few weeks. It almost seems to be a challenge amongst classmates to see who can first put one over on the imported clown and prove that he is a soft touch ready to be taken advantage of.

A firm, unflinching adherence to the standards you have laid out is the best approach when faced with a persistent student looking to get a deadline extension or have another misdemeanor forgiven. There are, of course, certain situations in which you have no alternative but to give the benefit of the doubt. The doctor's note holds a certain untouchable status in the world of student excuses and there is really no way that you can question its validity. But there certainly are a lot of ostensibly healthy young individuals coming down with maladies and ailments just as various assignments are due.

There are definitely other cases that may arise that could require some leniency and allowances being made. After all, as an instructor at a university, you hardly want to be rigid and unwilling to consider the nuances and specifics of each individual situation. The most important thing to remember is that you at least maintain the image of a teacher who is tough.

In the Classroom

Thai people in general are quite modest. However, subsequent generations are becoming more and more open about issues previously considered off-limits for casual conversation with relative strangers. Lewd comments made by students in the classroom are not uncommon. This is fueled further by the belief that all foreigners are the wise-cracking, sexual innuendo spewing clods featured in many Hollywood movies.

On occasion, a student will say something that is worthy of a laugh. The odd light-hearted moment together when the class and teacher share in a joke is a good thing for the most part. However, to ensure that the wrong message is not sent, ignoring most borderline comments in a stern and brusque manner is the best course of action.

It is also essential that you avoid developing favorites during lessons. Any attempts to promote discussion and invite questions will inevitably see a handful of students as the most active. You will need to do your best to elicit response from others who are at first reluctant. But the more naturally forthcoming will still contribute the most. It is important to subtly limit their comments when necessary. Also, as much as you may genuinely enjoy the truly interested kids who make intelligent comments and ask good questions, you must temper your reactions towards them. Try to observe your own body language and demeanor when interacting in the class and make sure to be as democratic with your emotions as possible.

This should be done with the purpose of avoiding the impression that you like one student more than others. It has been my experience that Thai students, especially, have a skewed idea about what contributes to their final grade. It's as if they think it is some arbitrary distinction which can be improved by being friendly and smiling. The effusive "thank yous" following good grades on assignments and exams (and which I alway deflect by indicating to them that gratitude is not necessary or even appropriate) tells me that they doubt the whole system and motives of instructors. I make it clear that merit is all that counts. Still, avoiding the impression that certain students enjoy a special status is crucial.

Students who Want to be Friends

You meet some exceptional and intriguing youngsters while teaching. However, you must be very careful about taking any friendship beyond the classroom. Personally, I put up a difficult to misinterpret wall that makes it clear that I simply have no time for anything beyond offers of extra help within office hours or the odd chat before or after class. It is a shame that a person has to be so careful.

I generally operate under the belief that any situation in life could bring you together with a potential life-long friend. Unfortunately, like many interactions, the instructor/pupil relationship is one of power too fraught with possibilities of misinterpretation. The perception of others must be considered as well. If other members of the class see it as an attempt to curry favour, and that student coincidentally does well, gossip and insinuations will fly.

And, any honest person would have to question how much they are being influenced psychologically by such a friendship, especially teaching courses that involve a good deal of subjectivity when making assessments.

Male Teachers and Female Students

This is strongly related to the previous point. It's hard to over-emphasize how much you will be tested in this regard. After having taught at Thai universities for six years, it's sometimes hard to believe that a reputation exists in the minds of Thais regarding the supposed openness and provocative nature of western women. Revealing clothing, tight school uniforms with too short skirts and a kind of caricature of over-the-top come hither looks and other brazen attempts at flirting are all things that you will encounter as a male teacher.

90% of it is likely done in the spirit of impressing friends and trying out their new found sense of feminine wiles. But there are definitely more than a few who would like to test the potentially risky waters of something more. To deny that there is not an enjoyable aspect to all this attention would be dishonest. But just as satisfying is knowing that you have developed a reputation of someone who doesn't react or respond to any such attempts at manipulation.

Not surprisingly, there are foreign teachers who throw all caution to the wind and cross all sorts of lines when interacting with students.

Over the Top and Begging for Trouble

Many teachers I have worked with give out their mobile numbers to students with little concern. They provide the number to one of the more responsible pupils with the instruction that it be used only regarding issues related to school. Surprisingly, this request is usually respected. But sometimes calls are made at odd times of the day and night and when answered, giggling voices and a hang-up click are the only response.

The furthest I have gone in providing access outside office hours is my e-mail address. I have thankfully had no problems because of this.

I have seen extreme disregard for any decency from some foreign teachers and it is truly a repugnant sight to behold. The lack of any sanctions from superiors seems to fuel the behaviour. The culprit develops a sense of surreal abandon, as if they are living in a strange universe where the most unwise but thrilling activities are neither recognized nor punished. Of course, they are noted and filed away to be used at a possible date in the future when the overall performance of the teacher may be called into question. Amazingly, this flagrant abuse of power sometimes has no bearing on the length of a teacher's stay at a particular school.

One teacher I worked with was a model of putrid corruption when it came to dealing with his students. He regularly went out with them on weekends and drank with them to all hours of the night. Of course, it was only a select few who finagled their way into his inner circle. How did the other students feel about this? He had little concern for such thoughts.

He regularly smoked cigarettes in the men's toilets at school, strode in late for classes and scoffed at advice from other teachers who warned him about such behaviour. One day a group of students rushed up to me and showed me a series of drunken photos of them together with the fool in a hotel room. At least there were never any rumours of him regarding indiscretions with females students but only because he wasn't so inclined.

Despite all this (or maybe because of it), he was one of the most popular foreign instructors at the university. He eventually moved on to a different school with nary a caution from management about his extracurricular activities.

To engage in these kinds of practices is extremely risky and could result in being fired or in rare cases, attempts at blackmail.

Keep your treatment of students professional, respectful and fair. Together with a number of other factors, this will help you to have an interesting and worthwhile period of employment at universities in Thailand and the rest of Asia.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Internet Terminology: Typo Squatters

One of the most fascinating aspects of language is its constantly changing and evolving nature. A word that means something today can have a completely different connotation years from now. And new words and idioms are being coined all the time.

The explosion of the internet and all things related to computers and technology provides another source for generating words and adding to the English language lexicon.

"Typo squatter" is a perfect example.

This new compound noun takes two pre-existing words and forms a clever description of a fairly common practice in the internet world.

"Typo" is an abbreviation for "typographical error," which describes an unintentional mistake when using a keyboard to type out words.

A "squatter" usually refers to someone who is illegally staying on another person's private property. For example, a homeless person who lives and/or sleeps in an abandoned building. Here is a case of a squatter whose exceptional endurance paid off.

The new internet terminology, "typo squatter," refers to someone who buys a domain name almost identical to an existing website that is already very popular. This is done with the intent of pulling in people who have mistakenly typed in the wrong website address.

Take a look at the most popular website address on the internet: It is very easy to type in or instead. Many thousands, if not millions, of web surfers do this on a daily basis. Take a look at those addresses and see what you find. One of them,, redirects to another address, while is a waste of space advertising some kind of worthless crap.

So there are typo squatters who offer up valid content though the tendency is to plaster their space with advertising. In both types of cases, there is little doubt that the name was chosen to capitalize on the presence of the well known site.

Just as with the real world kind of squatter, on the internet there are those who go to varying lengths to settle in and enjoy the benefits.

Take a look at this online address: .

This name was clearly chosen to take advantage of another website, The latter is a famous blogger who gives advice to legions of individuals bent on achieving the same kind of success he has created for himself. He is the equivalent of the president of a pyramid scheme who has convinced millions of dupes that they will become rich by selling the 18 dollar tubes of toothpaste that he supplies. has not only chosen a very similar name that could be mistakenly typed in by those seeking the original, but he has dedicated his site to the same topic. He also offers up the occasional loving paeon to the person he is trying to emulate. If the whole world of search engine optimization (SEO) is a subject that appeals to you, he has a few interesting things to say as well.

Just as bricks and mortar businesses who fashion a logo similar to an industry leader may turn off some people, the online version may strike a few as disingenuous. But many simply see it as a clever way of trying to establish an immediate presence on the web.

As for this blog, apparently the TEFL industry in Spain is already suffering the effects.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tefl Jobs: New Opportunities Listed Daily

I've added a TEFL jobs feed to the sidebar of this blog. This new feature is a good resource for current teachers thinking of making a change and also for those considering their first position overseas.

The five most recent jobs are displayed and updated regularly. Click on any of the links and a new tab or window will open that provides more details on each opening. Clicking on the main header, "Top EFL Teaching Jobs" should ideally take you to the raw feed with the latest 100 jobs. This works perfectly in Firefox but for whatever reason does not display correctly in Internet Explorer. Just one more reason to switch to Firefox.

Do Your Homework

Of course, I cannot endorse any of these jobs or vouch for their legitimacy. It's up to you to do the due diligence required as most people would regarding potential jobs in any industry. However, let me offer some advice regarding the whole TEFL job search process.

The old maxim about 80% of jobs never being advertised also applies within the TEFL industry. And the best positions are usually within that vast majority. The motivated individuals are the ones who do the research and find out which schools have the best reputations and offer the best salaries and benefits. When a rare opening comes up, the human resource department will have a stack of recent resumes and others on file. Or, just as likely, word of mouth will be enough to help put together a list of suitable candidates.

That doesn't mean very good jobs aren't advertised online or in other traditional places such as the want ads of local newspapers. Many reasonable opportunities crop up there as well and sometimes you do find a real gem. Also, the sub-culture in certain schools requires that all positions be advertised as widely as possible and some of those will be exceptional places to work. The question is, how do you know which jobs are worth applying for?

Google is Your Best Friend

Google did you meanThis is where research comes in. Do as much online digging as possible. Try to start with the official website of the institution (if in fact they have one.) While inevitably biased, there is information there that can assist you. If there is a staff page, make note of how long each teacher has been working there. The longer the better, of course.

Also, if there are accompanying e-mail addresses, fire off a few messages requesting information directly from those who have first hand experience. Most people aren't going to respond unless they have something good to say. On the other hand, you might find someone on the verge of leaving who is willing to be blunt or otherwise offer up a few insinuations to help you make a decision.

Do other searches as well. Input various combinations of the school name and different key words. This may dredge up discussion forum criticism or other vital information. And go directly to all the well known TEFL forums and search within their databases. Be aware, however, that more and more online discussion boards are censoring critiques of schools for fear of legal repercussions.

Just as importantly, compare the information you have acquired regarding individual schools against what you have learned about the standards of the particular country or region. Does an individual school offer wages far above or below the norm? Both could be warning signs.

Stated remuneration that seems "too good to be true" is a tough one to call. It simply may be the most prestigious school in the area offering a premium salary.

Beware the Recruiters

There are many legitimate recruiters who will help you to find a good position and then offer you support throughout the duration of your contract. They decent ones eliminate the need for dealing with backwards or difficult management at the school when it comes to issues such as contract renewal and timely payment of wages.

But remember that there are many dodgy recruiters who don't have your best interests in mind.

One thing to always consider regarding recruiters is that they are ultimately middle men who are taking a cut of your salary for providing their service. Some schools deal exclusively with these agents while others will hire directly as well. Almost always, a direct hire will earn more.

Try to discover what school a recruiter is representing before you start the application process. And then, approach the school directly. You may simply be redirected back to the recruiter but you may also be able to hammer out a deal with the school on your own terms.

Consider the Source

This hardly needs to be stated but I'll make the requisite warning about online information anyway. When you run across some harsh criticism of individual schools, keep in mind that the person who made the post may simply hold a grudge for whatever reason. However, multiple warnings and rants against the same place probably indicates a pattern.

Similarly, apparent danger signs might have a perfectly logical explanation. Lack of details in a job posting (for example, nothing about salary) is often a good reason to look elsewhere. On the other hand, many good universities don't discuss pay until the hiring process has begun. They may have been in existence for decades and stubbornly hold onto different practices just because that's the way they've always done it.

No matter how well-prepared you are, there is always some risk involved when accepting employment. However, a thorough and detailed investigation beforehand increases your chances of finding a rewarding and enjoyable position.

Good luck on your job search!

Edit: I recently took down the jobs feed (January 20th, 2011).

Monday, April 7, 2008

10 Ways to Improve Your Writing

"How to improve your writing" lists have been done nearly to death but that's not going to stop me from shamelessly offering up another entry in what has long since become a blog-post genre of its own.

No doubt many of these suggestions have been provided before in various books and on different websites. However, I am certain that here they are expressed with new twists and added details. I hope that this list will be a valuable guide for those looking for advice and motivation to become better writers.

open book1. Read books about writing

At first glance, you may think any time taken away from actually getting words down on paper is self-defeating. However, at least some reading can help you improve your ability to write.

I'm always amazed at the number of people who self-identify as writers but claim never to have read any books on how to write. In what other profession or trade would people admit to never studying up on their craft or trying to learn from those with proven success? It's almost as if there's a stigma attached to admitting that you have indeed sought out information on how to improve your writing skills.

On the other hand, it's important not to immediately adopt all the recommendations made by writing gurus. You may pick up only one or two tidbits each time you read one of these books. Together with likely being energized about your own approach and desire to get back to the keyboard, those handful of ideas are worth the time invested.

guitar player clip art2. Don't only focus on the mechanics

I always like to use the guitar playing analogy when discussing this point. Many novice guitar players devote a disproportionate amount of time towards developing their fret board skills (usually the left hand) while neglecting their strumming or plucking hand. Rhythm comes from strumming or plucking and is hugely important in determining those who have a future playing the instrument.

Perhaps it's the initial struggle to train your left hand to mash down the correct strings and the incorrect assumption that the strumming is easy by comparison that leads to this unequal distribution of practice. Acquiring rhythm can be an evasive skill that requires as much or more attention than getting the individual notes or chords correct.

Similarly, many new writers focus too much on putting together crisp, flawless sentences while failing to address other issues like how to create suspense, flesh out characters and develop a theme. While all those concepts are usually associated with fiction writing, they can also be utilized in non-fiction as well. There are of course other organizational elements important when tackling non-fiction too.

Have you ever noticed that the most popular novelists are not necessarily the best when it comes to creating impressive sentences free of clichés? It often doesn't matter because they have mastered the art of moving the narrative forward and creating characters that readers really care about.

So, how do you actually improve in these elusive areas? The first point in this list will help you (read books that address topics such as narrative, character etc.) As will simply being aware of them and recognizing patterns in what you read and write.

3. Don't self-censor

Self-censorship is one of the biggest killers when it comes to destroying desire and motivation. If you are your own worst critic and bash your own ideas to the ground before you've even played with them on paper and hammered out a few pages, then you will find the writing game a very tough one to play.

Eliminate that sneering little voice inside your head that pounces on story ideas and instead let everything flow with the knowledge that you have created something out of nothing before and you can do it again.

artist easel clip art4. Practice the art of extrapolation

This is closely related to number three. Making connections between wildly disparate things, concepts and people is important if you want to write original stories or articles. This skill will also ensure that you are never short on topics. If you constantly find yourself saying "I don't know what to write about!" bash your head against a brick wall a few times or direct your ambitions elsewhere.

Being able to successfully extrapolate comes from constantly writing. Have no fear that you will empty your trick bag too soon or run out of ideas. Quite simply, writing begets more and more writing. As you write more, ideas will multiply and topics will rise up in your mind and it will become easier.

fog5. Don't get lost in the fog

Despite the fact that I ranted earlier about rhythm and organization over mechanics, there are, of course, times when you should take a hard look at the sentences you are putting together.

One important thing to consider when writing is sentence length. This can be especially helpful for writers submitting feature stories to newspapers or magazines. Many of them will only publish articles that adhere to a fairly standard style of writing. One aspect of any publication standard that is easy to emulate is sentence length.

The Fog Index is a readability formula that helps you to determine, to a degree, what kind of audience a specific magazine targets based on the average sentence length and number of three syllable or more words that appear in their articles. You can submit a passage here to determine the fog index of any writing sample.

In turn, you can more easily shape your writing to suit the standards of the magazine or newspaper in which you hope to be published.

6. Don't be scared to sacrifice your baby

Or at least an occasional arm or leg. This may be somewhat hard to reconcile with the point about not self-censoring. However, this comes after you have the words on paper and are moving into the all important self-editing and rewriting stages.

You struggled for weeks or months on an article or book and you are quite satisfied with yourself because of all the time you've invested and the fact that your mother says it's a masterpiece. Most importantly, it's complete. Not a small achievement considering some of the angst you went through.

But now you have to have the guts to go back through what you have written with a critical eye and slash out the excess. You may come across your most treasured and loved sentence. It may be unique and well-crafted; poetry contained within a single line of masterful prose. But if it doesn't fit within the style of the piece or otherwise fails to contribute to what you are trying to accomplish, slice it out. File it away to use at another more appropriate time.

Go over your words and tighten things up. And then do it again. Make the sentences as lean and taut as possible. At some point, of course, you have to accept that no more changes can be made (except by the lunatic editor who is going to wreak havoc on what you have so carefully written.)

7. Defy supposed truisms

Learn all the long-standing rules and formulas for writing, and then when necessary, defy them. If you follow all the chestnuts about what is acceptable and what isn't and cram your words into the nice confines of all the tried and true conventions, you just may increase the likelihood that your writing is more readable, accessible and entertaining to the average person. And the odds of getting published may go up.

But if rules were never broken, no one would start sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions (see previous sentence.)

For every ten writers who follow the rule about "show, don't tell," there is one who telegraphed the thoughts and actions of his characters and somehow made it work. For every 30 fiction writers who eliminate as many adverbs as possible, there are some who don't and their work doesn't suffer for it.

The point is, everyone is unique to some degree and there simply may be aspects of your writing that make it work but go against a supposed "rule."

8. Coin new words

Remember, everything in life, and especially in writing, is made up! Take liberties. Create words out of thin air and casually insert them into your writing. Who knows, you may one day be credited with introducing a new word into the English language.

9. Analyze your own writing

In doing so, you will identify little tricks and patterns that may be all your own. Take pride in these techniques, use them to good effect and give them a name.

dynamite clip art10. Blow up absurd ideas like "I'll only write when I'm inspired."

No list such as this would be complete without some variation that drives home the importance of actually putting in the hours. There is no single other factor that destroys ambitions of wannabe writers more than lack of production.

There's nothing wrong with telling people that you are a writer. Just be prepared after you answer in the affirmative to the question "Are you serious about it?" for someone to come back with:

"If you were serious, you wouldn't be sitting here talking to me..."

Friday, April 4, 2008

Language and Methods of Interrogation

There is a psychology behind the methods used to interrogate based on decades of research and field study. Sometimes interrogation may only be practiced in the half-baked way of those who have garnered results from a few simplistic methods or it may reach the level of precision and artistry.

Interrogation can take place on many different levels and in numerous situations. While normally the word invokes images of small, dimly lit rooms and harsh tactics with dire consequences for those who fail to respond, here it is used it in the broader sense as well.

It may be as basic as questioning a colleague in the workplace regarding something you don't think is quite right. You suspect some kind of dishonesty so you approach the person in a casual and unassuming way and slowly segue into the heart of the matter.

Airport security staff also uses various methods of eliciting information. This is a more practiced type of interrogation though it is usually based on subtle and refined techniques as opposed to more forceful and desperate approaches.

Police forces employ all the simple techniques used in less intense situations but have the added benefit of being able to confine their targets. This ability to hold someone against their will also lends itself to using more threatening and aggressive questioning tactics. While this may be assumed to be an advantage over softer means and more benign situations, it can often have the reverse effect. The fact that the subject knows they are being interrogated naturally results in resistance. Also, incompetent interviewers may move towards the more forceful practices sooner, simply because they know the option is available.

Various units within the government and military of a country are very similar in what they are capable of doing with regards to suspects. Many have the added license of torture or murder at their disposal, spurred on by righteous justification in the form of oaths, platitudes and other self-serving propaganda.

All types of interrogation are based on the assumption that the person being questioned is hiding something. In all situations there are underlying truisms and motivating factors which guide the entire process.

Here are some of the most common methods used during interrogations.

1. Creating confusion

If a person can be tripped up and confused, they are more likely to falter regarding a lie they are trying to maintain. This is a practice often used by airport security staff who are trying to determine if there is anything odd about a passenger's story. They will ask pertinent questions intermingled with utterly meaningless and banal queries. Then, they will come back with re-worded versions of the relevant questions to see if the responses match the earlier answers. Repetition and a casual approach are key here.

The maxim that has become popular in recent years: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything," can explain the logic behind this style of eliciting the truth. The facts as they actually happened normally remain seared in most people's brains and can easily be recounted while lies must be rehearsed.

2. Building affinity

Making it easy for someone to like you is what this is all about. When you feel like you have something in common with another person, you are more likely to open up to them. This technique is common in social or work situations where there may be no clear indication someone is seeking information for anything other than interest's sake. And, as with every method listed here, it is used in more intense situations as well. The "good cop" in the classic "good cop/bad cop" schtick comes to mind.

People in general tend to give superficial or dishonest answers for a multitude of reasons and covering a wide array of topics. Lies are often not malicious but are offered as a defense or sometimes as the result of deep-seated psychological reasons. Or, just as often, people just don't want relative strangers to know information about them. Develop some kind of a connection and those shields might come down.

3. Appealing to truth

This can work in relatively benign contexts or in the more acute settings where the interrogator has power to restrict the movement of the person being questioned. There is something liberating about coming clean for many people.

But, are these claims about "the truth" valid and do they really speak to an irrefutable reality? Or is the narrative so powerful simply because it is part of the simplistic and redemptive notions that have been instilled at birth yet have little to do with the complex adult world we inhabit?

The foundations of such claims could probably be be swatted away with little effort. Still, invoking "truth" mantras seems to work a treat for many interrogators.

4. Using logic

When someone engages in a simple conversation and is relating a version of events, if their story doesn't hang together, simply attacking the holes in the description can force a person to restate, recant or just plain buckle under pressure.

The statement "That doesn't make sense!" has the remarkable effect of highlighting inconsistencies and forcing the person making the original claims to backtrack and try to change the facts to be more convincing. Even a brazen liar will be thrown off when they realize that there is a problem with their time-line or details.

5. Creating an opportunity to relieve feelings of guilt

Another supposed truism that does seem to be borne out somewhat by experience. When the person being braced is holding a horrific experience inside, the belief that coming clean will be a weight off their conscience can be all it takes to get a confession.

However, if a person has truly gone through such an experience they may conclude that such rehabilitative benefits are limited. The knowledge that the fewer people who know something, the less real it is, could just as easily offset such attempts.

6. Offering a benefit

A basic and effective way to draw out secrets from others. When the sharing of information is tied to a tangible payoff, the odds of convincing that person to spill their guts increase. The benefit can be concrete in a financial or other measurable way or it can be more subtle. In a pinch, many of the other methods and approaches listed here could also fall under such a description.

7. Instilling fear

One of the greatest motivators in all situations in life. Used as a tool to manipulate and cajole people to provide facts and information, it is one of the bluntest and most effective. Threats of harm to a person's physical well-being or that of his family's is the starkest manifestation of such an approach. Of course, there are far more nuanced and subtle ways to use fear as a means to produce a cooperative individual. It is something that is not only used by those in extreme interrogation situations but also amongst colleagues, family and friends.

Just as with the use of torture, the risk with using fear is that the person being grilled will say anything to relieve the immediate stress.

8. Preying on thoughts of revenge

"Provide me with what I want to know and you will cause damage to one of your enemies," can be a powerful way to extract intelligence. Especially if doing so will cause little or no harm to the person supplying the information.

9. Exhausting the target

Simply hammering someone with questions non-stop over time can tire them out to such a degree that they simply give in for no other reason than to stop the process. This could work in situations where the target is held against their will or in a location where the person is free to come and go. Imagine a work situation where a co-worker is badgered non-stop over a period of weeks to the point that they dread coming to the office or seeing their tormentor's face. They give in to end the onslaught.

10. Lying

Simply lying to a person in order to spring the vault is one of the most common tricks in the book. In doing so, any number of the other methods can be simultaneously employed. For example, dangling a financial reward you have no intent of honouring in front of someone in exchange for the information you are seeking

A method used to great success by police forces the world over, especially when there are different individuals being questioned separately. Telling a suspect that his partner has informed on him when nothing of the sort has happened is a simple way to provoke a reaction and try to draw out the truth.

11. Appealing to the greater good

Other people will benefit though you may suffer. Entire organizational subcultures are built on such altruistic thinking and so it is often used to convince someone to divulge secrets or damaging details. The narrative takes hold in the person's mind that they are doing something honourable and they see themselves as a kind of martyr.

This list barely even addresses the ways that people can evade attempts to break down their wall of defense. Nor does it look at the ability of skilled and experienced questioners who can recognize the body language, emotions and small tells provided by those they are interviewing.

And it doesn't cover the specific words that might be used or other aspects of delivery such as voice tempo and volume.

Vastly more complex and nuanced ways of interrogation are also possible. An individual skilled in the art of manipulation may use imagery to create a convincing and hypnotic atmosphere that preys on the target's background or fears. Or he may establish some of the classic power relationship models that exist in the field of psychology.

But this is a sampling of the most common ways that people use to convince others to share their innermost secrets or simply to provide innocuous details that they may have been with-holding. It can be an intense and dramatic undertaking or bland and relatively inconsequential.

Knowledge and information is power. The ability to get at the data and facts that most benefits you is an important skill. As is recognizing and resisting the interrogation attempts of others.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tips for Choosing an English Teacher

Many students see one-on-one learning as the most effective though potentially most intimidating setting in which to improve their English skills. The fear may result from a number of different factors. There is a belief (very often correct) that a personal tutor will charge a premium rate and there is some angst associated with being in a highly focused situation alone with a foreign teacher.

professor black boardSimilarly, many English language teachers may avoid the lone student challenge for a few reasons. Lack of experience in such situations, fear of canceled classes and uncertainty over what rates to charge all make group classes a more comfortable proposition for many teachers.

Here are some tips for students thinking of paying for individual lessons as an option to improve their English language skills.

1. Sit down and chat with a few different teachers before you make your choice. Most private tutors will want to talk with you before they enter into an agreement as well. They can get a feel for your level and what areas you need to improve. You can ask questions about approach and get a sense of whether you feel comfortable with their style.

2. Make your choice based on the individual teacher, not the school he or she is associated with. This even applies if you are learning on the language school’s premises. While the school may require instructors to use a specific method or set of materials for one-on-one classes, the person you are spending the time with is more important in determining how successful you will be.

3. Ask yourself what your English language learning goals are. Be as detailed as possible. Write down your ideas and bring the list to the introductory meetings. Be prepared to ask potential instructors how they will help you achieve your aims.

question mark4. After you have decided on a teacher, discuss the possibility of undergoing a trial period—perhaps two or three weeks—after which you can make a longer commitment. While the initial meeting will help you select someone appropriate, it may only be after a few actual lessons that you feel satisfied with continuing. Don’t be embarrassed to inform your teacher that you would like to consider other options.

5. Consider the amount of time involved in making a real effort to see progress. It’s a good possibility you will pay more for a private tutor than you would for group lessons. Meeting once or twice a week with the teacher isn’t going to result in real advancements unless you put in some effort outside the classroom.

6. If at all possible, make it clear to your teacher that you would like some support outside of the hours that you meet. This could simply be in the form of e-mails sent during the week in which you seek clarification on something you are studying or just as a way to practice your writing skills.

7. Engage in some enjoyable activities outside the classroom in which you are required to use English. This could be watching movies (without subtitles!) or listening to English language programs on the radio or online. You could also form a group with other learners with similar goals and agree to meet once a week during which time you are only permitted to speak English.

8. Have reasonable expectations. Don’t set unrealistic goals that aren’t in line with the amount of time you are spending. Language acquisition is an ongoing process and different students may progress at different speeds. Of course, rapid improvement is possible. It all depends on how much time you are able to invest.

one-on-one lesson9. As the weeks pass, be willing to alter the structure of the lessons and be flexible about what you hope to achieve. You may find that certain aspects of your weekly meetings are more effective than others. All teachers appreciate feedback and are more than happy to accommodate the wishes of their students. You might discover that a very casual, conversation based approach is more suited to your liking or you might want grammar points explained in detail.

10. Whatever teacher you choose or plan you agree upon, make sure that you have some fun and are satisfied that the lessons are worth your time and money. The increased attention and the fact that each lesson is tailored for your needs and requests almost ensure that your level of learning will be greater than in other settings.

If you put in the effort and are actively engaged, you will probably find that your instructor will thank you for helping him to learn a thing or two about the whole process as well.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tefl Classroom Games and Activities: The Passive Voice

light bulb idea
Some EFL teachers who have been working for a number of years in primary and junior schools assume that teaching at the university level is somehow a step above. Older students and the images we associate with institutes of higher learning convince some people that there must be special skills associated with being a "lecturer."

In fact, many methods for teaching younger students work just as well when you are dealing with post-secondary students.

Yes, even games and activities can be implemented in the university classroom!

Remember that the very designation "EFL" makes classroom games appropriate and logical for learners of all ages. We are not teaching academic courses for the most part (though there are no doubt foreign teachers who do.) We are teaching ESP classes (English for Special Purposes) and fundamental or foundation courses that focus on the four important skills. Therefore, all classes taught by such teachers are essentially language courses.

Games have been proven to be an effective way to improve English language skills and confidence at the same time.

The heightened sensation or natural high that comes from competing, laughing and encouraging each other, makes students more receptive to further learning and retention. From personal experience, I have no doubt that games and activities increase motivation and make the whole process easier.

After using a wide variety of language learning games over a number of years, you naturally develop a sense for what works and what doesn't. Simple is almost always the best. The instructions for the game should not be too difficult for the level of the students (a killer for many games that at first glance seem promising).

A good classroom game is kind of like a performance, with you as the director trying to convince the students to play their roles with enthusiasm. There is always some kind of script (specific grammar point and the language that is modeled to get them started) and the hope that some free flowing improvisation will take place. And as with any movie or live production, a certain degree of suspense is important in contributing to its success.

With those elements in mind, here is a simple and effective classroom game to practice the past simple verb tense in the passive voice.

Great Inventions

Objective: To correctly form sentences in the past simple tense, passive voice. The main language skill is speaking. Secondary aims include: improving vocabulary related to every day objects.


1. A list of dates detailing when numerous items were invented. Here is a good website where you can choose the items you wish to use for the game. Print off or write down a sizable number--ideally, at least one for every student in the class. Try to use a good selection of items from as long as 2-300 years ago and as current as during the last few decades. Further searches for items not included on the website can round out your list. I've always found that computer related items such as mouse or CD are good, as are exports from western countries that have become ubiquitous around the world (Coke or jeans, for example).

2. A picture representing every one of the items whose dates you have recorded. This may involve a fair amount of work locating images online or drawing them yourself. You could also simply write the names of the items on slips of paper though this could require extra time to explain the more obscure examples.

This game can be played in as little as 20 minutes though 35-40 is better.

Procedure: This game should be played after the basics of the passive voice have been taught and some practice and exercise sheets completed.

The class is separated into two teams. Model these sentences on the board:

Team 1

The car was invented in 1885 (date chosen by team). singular

Cars were invented in (date chosen by team). plural

Coffee was invented in (date chosen by team). uncountable

Team 2

No, it was/they were invented, before that.


No, it was/they were invented after that.

Tell the class that either singular or plural is acceptable for the initial statement but uncountable nouns must follow the third example. The team answering should, of course, model their answer based on what style was used in the opening guess.

If team 2 is right, they receive one point. If team 2 is wrong, team 1 gets one point. If team 1 has successfully guessed the correct year, they receive two points (rare but it has happened.)

The game begins when the first team chooses a picture.

Allow consultation within the teams but ensure that each student both guesses and responds at least once.

The game ends when the teacher decides or the class finishes. The team with the most points wins.

Conclusion: Time permitting, introduce the past participle "built" and have students separate into pairs. Using similar sentences as above, students can exchange ideas regarding when they think various buildings (famous or simply familiar, such as their school) and monuments in their country were built.

Homework: Students can write a short paragraph about a famous invention, making sure to include at least one past simple, passive voice sentence.

While only one past participle is practiced during the game, the pattern is the focus here. Also a good opportunity to practice the -ed ending /Id/ that can be difficult for many students.

Different sources may provide conflicting dates regarding certain inventions. Also, some definitions regarding the items in question may vary and result in some confusion. For example, "automobile" for most people means that there is an internal combustion engine involved while others have a looser interpretation. I would avoid getting into these distinctions and focus on the language usage.

This game has never failed to elicit an enthusiastic response from the students. Alas, I can't claim to be the originator. I first came across it a few years ago in an activity book with sheets including the dates and pictures that could be cut out.

Another fun aspect of this game, especially for the teacher, is the realization of just how young and unsophisticated your students are. You will no doubt have to offer some encouragement to think carefully about history and technology after someone offers up a statement along the lines of:

"The helicopter was invented in 1742..."

"Why teacher laughing?"