Thursday, April 30, 2009

TEFL Success Stories

student asleep in classThe sullen kid at the back of the class who doesn't want to be bothered. Keeps his head down. Develops a way to precisely mimic the movement of the student in front of him so he stays hidden. Fidgets uncomfortably in those rare instances when called upon. Looks to his giggling mates for support and then offers up an answer that has been whispered to him.

It creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved and may lead to less frequent intrusions from the teacher. That's the end result such neglected students hope for. And all too often teachers seem willing to go along with the classroom game of hide and...ignore.

The subject often comes up when talking to other foreign and Thai teachers. What to do with the individuals who supposedly "don't want to learn." It's a teacher's cliché that it's "better to focus on the ones who are interested."

No Student is a Lost Cause

After teaching at universities in Thailand for six years, I believe those forgotten students who seem satisfied to slip under the radar, avoid any classroom interaction and get out of Dodge with their final grade C, can in fact be reached. The role they play is out of habit, conditioning and long years of just getting by. In many ways the university English class provides the perfect setting.

Most faculties have at least one required English for special purposes class tailored for their undergrads. There is a false assumption on the part of many teachers that most students will have a modicum of English skills by the time they get to the post-secondary level. Together with increasing class sizes and the easy hits star pupils provide to a teacher's ego during a lesson, it becomes convenient to latch onto the chestnut about focusing on those who are eager to learn.

I've tried to disabuse myself of this default notion in a few different ways. It's not rocket surgery and it doesn't require grand innovative approaches like the ones seen in Dead Poets Society. It only takes a shift in thinking, an attempt to establish connections, and some encouragement for learners to change the roles they've grown accustomed to.

Giving Every Student an A

Years ago I read a self-help book whose name I've long since forgotten. There was one passage from the book that stayed with me and which I used successfully during my time as a teacher in Thailand. The author explained an exercise he called "giving everyone an A." No, this was not a how-to procedure on fabricating grades and becoming the most popular teacher in school!

grade A"Giving everyone an A" is an easy technique in cultivating empathy. It goes beyond simply "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" and operates on the premise that most people want to do well in life and contribute in a positive way. You can practice this idea by trying to create an understanding in your mind as to how students got to where they are in terms of behaviour and ability. It requires you to ponder and consider everything that brought a person to their station in life and accept that everyone has a different set of fears, obstacles, and aspirations to deal with.

Far from giving students a free pass, it doesn't require a teacher to become a soft touch or lower his or her expectations. In my experience, the benefits have come from the almost subconscious understanding from pupils that they are finally being recognized. Whether from a teacher's subtle change in body language or follow-up questions that try go beyond the first superficial response, they sense something is up and a different dynamic starts to develop. This in turn leads to a teacher becoming more approachable and the possibility that students may seek extra help or clarification during or after class.

Once a more comfortable relationship has been formed, it can be strengthened by encouraging weaker students to set short-term goals that will help them to deal with the often too-difficult (but required) course book that has them ready to throw in the towel. Alternative seating plans in class also allow you to eliminate the safe haven at the back of the room. Circle seating or small groups provide more chances for interaction and more opportunity to gauge improvement. Small but useful steps that lead to a situation where you may be able to create interest and make progress with weaker students.

Make it Relevant

Moo avoided eye contact in class, ducked out a few times every period and tried to remain as anonymous as possible. The anxiety he displayed when I tried to elicit responses in class told me that, in fact, he was concerned. Someone for whom the course material and final grade were meaningless would let everything slide without a care. But Moo was obviously tied up in knots because he didn't have even the essentials or confidence to comfortably respond.

Eddie heavy metalHe was as resistant as any student I've encountered when I attempted to build rapport and find common ground. It's at this point for many teachers that rationalizing away further efforts becomes so appealing. I kept looking for an opening and finally saw what had been there all along. The accoutrements of rebellion that are more an attempt for youngsters to fit in than to separate themselves from the crowd. Underneath his engineer's smock, he always wore a variation of a t-shirt with the clumsy and over-the-top images of death and horror that seem to go along with every generation's popular heavy metal bands.

I introduced the concept of CD reviews to Moo. While the subject matter was far removed from the chapter we were working on, the grammar and language function were easily transferable. From there, I suggested he focus on a day-in-the-life of a sound engineer when an assignment called for writing a job description. I even ended up making a CD of some older metal bands from before Moo was even born and gave it to him one day after class. These developments took place over the course of four or five weeks.

I like to think those few simple gestures gave Moo some inspiration and encouraged him to look beyond the dry subject matter at hand. Judging from his change in attitude and his increased effort, I believe it did help. While he ended up only receiving a C+, (yet so close to a B) I felt it was a C+ well earned. And yet, what if I hadn't made that extra effort?

His frustration would probably have increased and little learning would have taken place. I believe no student is a lost cause. However, time constraints and other concerns mean that even within that group of struggling students some will probably get more attention than others. But limited success on the part of one individual may serve as a model for others and spur them on to try harder as well. Even if Moo didn't go on to become fluent, perhaps he had a positive experience and will pass on the notion that English can be used for more than just getting through a required course.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

TEFL Reading Activities

TEFL readingDuring my EFL teaching career, I dreaded courses that focused on reading. They always presented more obstacles for me than courses that dealt with other language skills.

Perhaps I'm an exception, but I get the sense that reading classes can be some of the dreariest for EFL teachers.

Ideally, students should read an assigned article before coming to class. But that rarely works out with a group of unmotivated youngsters. It's tempting to hand out an article at the beginning of class and then say, "Here, read this," followed by a series of comprehension questions.

Inevitably, much of the class is then taken up by students reading the assigned article. However, there are numerous activities that you can use to spice up an EFL reading class and make it more enjoyable for the students and yourself.

A Simple Activity

One simple activity that I used with great effect was the impromptu quiz. Not a quiz in the traditional sense. The quiz is not announced before class nor does it count toward final marks.

Once students have finished the assigned reading, tell them to close their books (or turn over the page with the article). Then, separate the class into two teams. Now, ask questions related to the article that they have just finished reading. The teams should try to answer based on memory. For longer passages, you could allow them to search for the answers.

Award one point for a correct answer. Or, to make the quiz/game more interesting, allow each team to ask the other team questions. You can allow the teams to answer collectively, or cycle through each team and focus on individual students.

Very simple but guaranteed to make the class more interesting. You can use this activity two or three times with the same class in a semester without it becoming stale. At least some students will pay closer attention to the next reading assignment if they know there may be a quiz.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Discussion Boards and the EFL Teacher

bullhornWhat an odd piece by a columnist in the Korea Times online edition. A whopping 1300 words to come to the conclusion that foreigners teaching English in Korea vent on discussion boards because...they are treated like crap by their employers.

And then at the end of his meandering pontification, he congratulates himself on his little theory. All delivered with a mind-numbing Fog Index rating of close to 17.

No doubt there is truth to the stunning revelation that people don't take kindly to being treated badly. But there are also a few other factors at play here.

Sarcasm, Nastiness, A Good Insult Etc.

Sarcasm just doesn't play as well in many Asian countries as it does in the west. Huge generalization there, but I'll stand by it. Brits, Canadians, Americans, and people from numerous other English speaking countries find humour in a good sneering insult. Degrading people for laughs somehow comes easier to us. It's a type of humour that just doesn't jibe with the culture in many Asian countries.

So the supposed "bitterness" and negative attitudes observed by the Korea Times writer may not be indicative of true unhappiness. Some people simply enjoy the sport of ripping things. And what better fodder than the surreal foreign twilight zone in which you find yourself immersed?

As an example of this mindset, I recently watched an entire four seasons worth of a television show (Battlestar Galactiaca) just for the sheer joy of bashing and ridiculing one of the most horrid, melodramatic loads of tripe ever produced.


I've spent extended periods of time in various countries around the world over the past fifteen years. Venting is a way to deal with the indignities of living as an outsider in a foreign country. Don't get me wrong—living and working in different countries around the world is something I love doing. But despite the benefits, there is a certain kind of relief that only comes from getting together with other expats and unloading on your host country. I've experienced this everywhere I've travelled. It's just that nowadays, many of these venting sessions take place on discussion forums. Which brings us to the next point.

It's the Internet

The age of the internet is truly glorious. Never before in the history of the world have we seen the true, twisted (and wildly exaggerated) pathology of the human mind split open for all to see. There's nothing like the weirdness and exposed deviancy of online discussion boards. And that's half the fun. Discussion boards are kind of like alcohol. Some people can handle it and others can't.

The sheer entertainment value of those who go off the rails provides almost as much entertainment as those who engage in some highly intelligent and interesting discussion. But just like some wacko tanked up on a bottle of Thunderbird, is it an insight into a person's real character, or is it just an excuse to unload and have some mindless fun?

Conflict drives all types of writing, both fiction and non-fiction. And discussion forums are no exception. Some weary clown comes home from a day at the hagwon and blasts off a sneering thread bashing his employer. People pile on. It gets an exaggerated amount of attention. And that provides an outlet for another type of human behaviour. There's something that validates our own choices and existence in highlighting others' supposed unhappiness. Discussion forums provide an extreme and very entertaining outlet for this kind of interaction.

Like never before, we can latch onto whichever twisted tableau suits our fancy, use it to launch a half-baked theory, and then broadcast it to the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review: Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner

Woe is I by Patricia T. O'ConnerThere is no better way to improve your grammar knowledge than to teach English. But regardless of how many years you teach, the fresh eyes of a student will always frame a question in a way that makes you recognize yet another exception to a grammar rule.

During my years as a teacher, I pored through countless books and searched hundreds of websites for concise explanations to various questions and conundrums. And I enjoyed every minute of it, if only for the fact that it increased my knowledge and hopefully made me a better teacher. But the presentation of the information in those books and on the websites was often dreary and pedantic.

Why can't a subject like English grammar be presented in a light-hearted and entertaining way? In such a way that makes it enjoyable to read and more memorable than dry-as-sawdust academic sounding crap?

In fact, it can. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O'Conner, proves that clever, concise writing, and logical and clear explanations result in a book that is enjoyable to read and effective as a grammar guide. Her approach to the subject also ensures that you are far more likely to reference this grammar book than any other on your shelf.

Woe is I is more effective than a Longman grammar book which contains reams of practice sheets. And all because of the writing style and use of succinct memory aids. Woe is I is not a comprehensive book that covers every possible grammar point and language function. Instead, it focuses on all the common problem areas that give even native speakers problems. Within that context, it does a thorough and convincing job.

Together with her engaging style, O'Conner offers up plausible reasons not just for grammar rules but for the reasons behind why certain aspects cause so many problems. For example, when musing on the confusion between the use of I and me, she writes: "We begin to feel subconsciously that I is somehow more genteel than me, even in cases where me is the right choice—for instance, after a preposition." On top of all that, she includes plenty of exceptions to the rules; something that is a must for a good grammar guide.

Writing Style

Light-hearted and humorous is the writing style here. The author makes a point of demonstrating the topic she is focusing on in the comments she makes in each section. For example, when explaining why it's completely acceptable to use prepositions at the end of sentences, she closes out by stating, "At any rate, this is a rule that modern grammarians have long tried to get out from under." But there is no possibility she can be accused of being too clever by half, however, as she often (unfortunately) telegraphs such plays on words for fear some people may not get it.

The book's intended audience is clearly Americans. O'Conner frequently mentions the British alternative regarding usage or spelling and then bats it aside with no further discussion. A few times she states that the American usage simply sounds better to her ears. Quite a shocker that—considering the fact that she is American. Any annoyance felt by Brits will be offset by the fact that she often provides the basic kind of information that should be known by the average 10 year-old.

For example, she clarifies the pronunciation of "nuclear" (think: George W.), and notes in parentheses that , "The vowels are a, e, i, o, u." Though at times you may feel the book has been dumbed down, these asides are simply reflective of the fact that many intelligent people in society are unaware of the language of grammar.

So, despite those examples, this book will appeal to readers who already consider themselves grammar experts as well as those who need far more work.

Great Content

The chapter on dangling modifiers was one of my favourites. It provides a simple and effective way to recognize and excise a problem that plagues many people's writing. The section on misused and misunderstood words is similarly interesting. I'd be willing to bet that most readers have a skewed understanding of at least one of the following words:
  • enervating
  • eclectic
  • fulsome
  • fortuitous
  • restive
She saves some of her best for last though. In the chapter entitled "The Living Dead" she deals with some disputed grammar topics. For years I have railed against the absurdity that says you should "never split an infinitive." I was happy to see that O'Conner agrees:

An infinitive is a verb in its simplest form, right out of the box. It can usually be recognized by the word to in front of it: Blackbeard helped him to escape. But the to isn't actually part of the infinitive and isn't always necessary: Blackbeard helped him escape. As a preposition, a word that positions other words, the to lets us know an infinitive is coming.

The truth is that the phrase "split infinitive" is misleading. Since to isn't really part of the infinitive, there's nothing to split.

She goes on to eviscerate worn out canards like the one that says you can't end sentences with prepositions. Does she have the final say on all these topics? Of course not. But if you agree with her on any of them, you'll have plenty of fresh ammunition next time you battle a grammar fiend as dreary and pedantic as yourself.

Of course, not everything hits the mark. Not surprisingly, my eyes glazed over while reading the nine pages dedicated to over-used clichés. Referencing usage by Shakespeare is a tactic used by many when arguing a point of grammar. O'Conner perfectly mocks this tradition early on in the book but then does it herself later on. These are minor quibbles, however.

This is a great little book and one that I'm sure I will reference many times in the future. Woe is I is entertaining, a great source of information, and proof beyond a doubt that grammar doesn't have to be dull.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Readability Formulas: The Fog Index

math formulaReadability formulas provide an easy way to tailor your writing for a particular audience. There are a handful of different formulas. The most common is probably the Fog Index. It is quite easy to calculate the Fog Index for an article.

To calculate the Fog Index:

1. Select at least 100 words that appear continuously (10–12 sentences is ideal) in an article.

2. Calculate the average sentence length in the group of sentences (now referred to as the “passage”). To calculate the average sentence length:

  • Count the total number of words in the passage.
  • Divide the total number of words in the passage by the number of sentences.
3. Count the number of words with three or more syllables in the passage.

Note: do not include proper nouns or words whose common suffixes (-es, -ed, -ing) bring the total number of syllables to three. If the root word contains three or more syllables, discount this rule.

4. Calculate the percentage of words in the passage that have three or more syllables. To calculate the percentage:
  • Divide the number of words with three or more syllables by the total number of words in the passage and multiply by one hundred.
5. Add the average sentence length (from step 2) and the percentage of three or more syllable words.

6. Multiply that number by 0.4

The result is the Fog Index rating for the passage.


Regarding the exceptions for words with three syllables or more, there are some sources that claim that compound words (closed and hyphenated) should also be excluded. Of course, this would apply only to compound words that are three or more syllables after being joined. If one of the words alone already exceeds three syllables, presumably the rule wouldn't apply.

I didn't include the rule here for the simple reason that the only reliable online Fog Index calculator that I am aware of does not exclude compound words.

Online Fog Index Calculator

That omission could be due to limitations on the computer script that calculates the Fog Index. Regardless, the Fog Index rating won't be affected too much either way.

Here's another online tool that calculates the Fog Index for entire websites or blogs:

Calculate Readability of Website

What Does the Fog Index Rating Mean?

So what does that magic number indicate?

The Fog Index rating supposedly indicates the number of years of formal education required to read a piece of writing. In theory, the higher the Fog Index rating, the more difficult a passage is to read. However, it is important to remember that a passage with a lower Fog Index will not only appeal to less educated readers. A Fog Index of between 7–8 is probably the most accessible to the widest audience.

Remember also that a passage may be more or less readable depending on how well written it is, regardless of the Fog Index. In other words, sometimes a passage with a higher Fog Index rating is more readable than a passage with a lower Fog Index rating.

So don't attach too much significance to the Fog Index. Simply get a feel for the kind of writing that is representative of different Fog Index ratings. One way to do that is to calculate the Fog Index for number of different articles that you have written. Another way is to calculate the Fog Index for books or magazines that you like to read.

Amazon's Text Stats

Amazon recently added a new feature to the books they sell online. It's called Text Stats, and one of its statistics is the Fog Index for each particular book. However, the feature is not available for all books.

To locate Text Stats for a book on

1. Open in your computer's browser.

2. Select Books in the search menu.

Amazon search books

Enter Of Mice and Men in the search box.

4. Click the first title that appears.

5. Scroll down to Inside This Book.

Amazon Text Stats

6. Click Text Stats.

There you will see that the Fog Index for Of Mice and Men is listed at 4.9. A pretty accurate indication of years of schooling required in this case. I recall reading the book in grade five or six.

As mentioned, this feature is not available for every book on Amazon. When you do a search for a book, only the ones that have an Inside This Book graphic over the book may have the feature.

Benefits for Writers

lost in the fogThe Fog Index provides numerous benefits for writers. Most importantly, it allows you to shape and edit your writing for a particular audience.

Imagine that you are trying to pick up extra work by submitting articles to various publications. Simply calculate the Fog Index of some articles from recent editions of the magazines you are targeting. Tailor your writing so it is within the Fog Index of the kind of articles they publish.

I hope you can use the Fog Index to assist you as a writer. Remember, without clear, organized writing, readability formulas are of little use. However, if a document has a Fog Index rating over 12, it is safe to say that some readers will get lost in the fog.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

EFL Teaching: The Cardinal Sin

light bulb idea
Whenever a budding EFL teacher asks me for a bit of advice, I offer a simple, sure-fire way to improve their teaching skills:

Never, ever, ever check a student’s understanding of something you have taught them by saying, “Do you understand?” There are numerous variations to guarantee that you will never get an accurate answer as to whether a student comprehends.

“Is that clear?”

“Is everyone OK with that?”

“Can we move on now?”

All these questions ensure that, especially in a large class, a good portion of your students will be left confused. Some students no doubt do answer truthfully when asked this question. However, when a student doesn’t have a clue what is going on, they’re often not even sure that they don’t understand. More importantly, they are too embarrassed to admit that they are the only one in a class of students who isn’t nodding in the affirmative (many of whom also are in the dark).

This is an almost universal trait amongst teachers. I hear this every time I observe another teacher in action or return to the classroom as a student. I cringe when I hear myself falling into the same trap and recognize that I need to slow down and do some more work.

It’s easy to understand why teachers do this. It highlights one of the key reasons why teaching can be such a nebulous and evasive skill and why so few truly good teachers exist. It’s all about making assumptions and failing to grasp that concepts you take for granted may be alien to your students.

That most cringe-worthy of cop-outs always seems to come when a general sense of confusion permeates the classroom. The teacher usually recognizes the fact that their best laid plans have careened off the tracks. But instead of doing damage control, they extricate themselves from an embarrassing situation. They say, “Do you understand?” quickly look around, answer the question themselves and move on.

What is a better alternative for checking comprehension? There are a few options. Rephrasing or presenting an idea in a different way is almost always necessary. Recognizing that you haven’t set aside enough time for a particular language function or grammar point is helpful. Examples on the board, drilling, and calling on students can all be beneficial. If you like using activities, come to the classroom with more than one. If you feel the first activity hasn't connected, try out another one. Be willing to alter your lesson plans and concentrate on a problem area instead of rushing to make sure you are at the prescribed stage in the course time-line. Slow down and accept that developing a successful approach can take some serious time and effort.

Next time you hear yourself asking your students if they understand, recognize that it's almost certain that they don't. More importantly, know that your subconscious is telling you that you've got to ease up and make some changes.