ESL – Subject or Communication Tool?

What happens in a math class? There were so many rules, but only one answer. You sit there and listen. Maybe the teacher asks you to come up and work out some problems on the board. But, honestly, if you find math boring, then you probably just copy the homework off your friend. Exams are an exercise in guesswork.

And, you know what? You were right, and your teacher was wrong – this stuff really isn’t useful after high school.

Of course math is absolutely necessary for certain professions, and some people really love it. I have engineer friends who use it all the time. But for your average high school screw-up, math isn’t nearly as useful as, say, a foreign language.

I teach university in Mexico. I see the looks on my students’ faces on the first day of class – the dull glaze to their eyes, the fear of losing so many hours of their young lives in stuffy classrooms at the mercy of some bore droning on and on.

This learning method – teacher speaks, students listen, students do exercises, repeat – has been beaten into them. It sure was beaten into me back in my university days when I was forced to study Spanish.

How ironic. Back then Spanish was one of my most boring classes, right up there with math. And now I live in Mexico and study Spanish as much as I can. What happened?

While in university I zoned out in class and barely learned a thing. Now, here in Mexico, studying Spanish is a means to an end. That end is communication.

My Spanish teachers taught Spanish like how my math teachers taught math. Learn the rules and formulas. Listen to some explanation and then do exercises from the book. Sure, to her credit, one of my Spanish teachers put us in pairs to get us to practice, but it just didn’t work. We all had a common language, English – too easy to fall back on.

My point is, why teach a language the way math (or history, or science) is taught? Languages have much more in common with music or sports, and they should be taught that way. Practice is vital. Mistakes are normal, even to be encouraged.

You don’t learn piano or hockey by opening up a book and answering questions. You learn by doing it. Your students should spend the majority of their time in class practicing, usually by speaking. Explain the grammar, give some examples, and then give them plenty of time to speak, with corrections of course.

Have you studied the P-P-P teaching method: presentation, practice, and production? It really does work. The presentation part, where the teacher explains the grammar topic, should be as brief as possible, maybe only five minutes in a one-hour class. The other two parts, practice and production, are when the students use the language. Maybe they make a survey, give a presentation, or have a conversation. Remember, it’s not only practice, but practice with correction. Strive to correct every mistake. Make notes if you have to.

That’s the benefit of learning in a classroom, which is why ESL teachers still have a job in this Internet age. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, which isn’t the same as, say, studying to be a doctor.

Circle Time

“Good morning!” I say, just loud enough to turn heads, silencing all other conversations.

“Good morning,” answers the class. There are eleven students, from teenagers to 50-year-old retirees.

I look to my right and ask Carlos, “How was your weekend?”

Carlos sticks to just a few short sentences. “It was great. I went to Mexico City and saw a concert.”

I look around the class, silently inviting the other students to ask Carlos, “Who played?” “How did you get there?” “Was it crowded?”

Carlos then turns to his right and asks Cynthia, “How was your weekend?” She answers, and the class has a few follow-up questions for her too. “How was it?” “Why did you go there?”

The question goes around the circle. Every student asks and answers. Later I will ask them questions more related to the grammar theme of the day, such as “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

My next class is for total beginners. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Do you like X?” “Do you have X?” We repeat questions every day, adding or changing a few at the whim of the students. Many of them make mistakes, which I correct immediately. If they have trouble understanding I’ll write the correct answer on the board, and then cold call the same question around the room.

When I first taught children in Korea we called this technique “circle time.” We sat on the floor in a circle and asked the same questions every day. Since then I’ve found it works in nearly every class – only advanced students don’t need it.

Students can study many parts of English at home – reading the newspaper, listening to podcasts, cracking open the textbook and doing grammar exercises. There’s no reason to spend a lot of time on these in class. Students want to talk and they need correction.

Though they don’t just want to talk, but talk freely with no rush and no interruption. Learn to relax during silences. After you ask a question – “Have you ever seen a ghost?” – allow that silence to hang there unpressured.

We’ve all been in a class (or a work meeting) where someone asks a boring question, then immediately rephrases or simply repeats it, and maybe eventually answers it himself. Don’t be that teacher!

In ESL there are concepts called Teacher Talk Time (TTT), Student Talk Time (STT), and Wait Time (WIT). Here are a few questions for you, the ESL teacher or aspiring ESL teacher:

What do you want more of in class, TTT or STT?

Do you want more or less WT?

Is there a maximum limit of WT, say a minute or more?

An awareness of how much you are speaking in class in comparison to the other students is a fundamental part of ESL. Please leave a comment with your answers and ideas. And thanks for reading!

So How Do I Get The Perfect Job?

It is my opinion that many people seem to respect the idea of teaching overseas. Certainly where I am from there are numerous people who have been here in Korea or Japan, not to mention so many who have a friend of a friend who is currently teaching overseas.

So how does one go about getting a decent job?

The first thing I would suggest is to research your target area. Where do you want to go? What type of living conditions do you like, does it matter, etc. This is very important as I’m sure those of us who are here now can remember someone who came to Korea; didn’t like it and went home! Such a waste of potential adventure and talent.

So choose your destination, Middle East, Europe, Asia, South America. From there before you go any further you should do a check online (with government sites – not recruiter sites) as to what the requirements are to teach English in that particular region / country. If you do not qualify, best look somewhere else!
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The Recruiter

Jobs Pages

As a recruiter, agent, job placement supervisor…whatever….I have a few points I wish to post in hopes of getting responses from teachers who have used recruiters, who have not, like/ dislike us-them etc…

1. Do job seekers realize that not all recruiters are scam artists? Some actually try to do a decent job inspecting schools personally, walk teachers through the process, and even maintain contact with past clients regularly.

Some of us even consider this a real job, not a fly-by-night operation! Those of us legally allowed to work in Korea can sometimes even run our business like we would in our home country….with standards and ethics.

2. Yes we make money off placing teachers, that’s our job. Is it easy?

Yes it can be….but it can also mean holding hands with clients for 3-6 months to prepare them for their adventure. It means we are responsible for showing stacks of resume, and highlighting key points about a client even though we have never met most of you!
When the very real Korean bias comes out about hiring the proper ‘looking’ or ‘sounding’ teacher to please the mothers/investors/themselves…we have to tactfully try to deal with that issue in a way not to lose our placement contract, tempers etc….
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Curriculum Standards

The number of non-native English speaking students in the United States has increased drastically in the past years. According to the 1998/1999 Florida Department of Education ESOL report, there were limited English proficiency students (LEP) from 53 countries and 49 different languages in this writer’s county. Despite of the ever-growing ESOL population, national ESOL standards are still quite unclear for parents and some educators.

The NCTE – National Council of Teachers of English – Website clearly states the national standards for the English language arts. Nevertheless, standards for K-12 ESOL are not specifically addressed. Students whose first language is not English are mentioned in item number 10 of the standards’ list, which states that non-English speaking students make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum. The vision guiding these standards is that all students must have the opportunities and resources to develop the language skills they need to pursue life’s goals and to participate fully as informed, productive members of society.
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Graded Materials, A Perspective

Not long ago, a (non ESL) teacher/friend noticed the term ‘graded material’ in an article and asked me: ‘ What? Are ESL teachers expected to grade (mark) their material as well as their students?’

Graded material, as any ESL teacher knows, is material arranged in order of difficulty – progressing from the simple to the more complex. Carefully graded materials are important in most areas of teaching, and in language teaching, they are essential.

What is the criterion for determining difficulty?

Forty years ago, difficulty was determined solely by word level: There were official wordlists for beginners all through to advanced learners. Structural levels of difficulty were largely ignored, and you could find sentences in basic level textbooks/readers such as: ‘And he was never heard from again’ (because the lexical item again appears on the basic level wordlist). Just imagine having to teach/learn English that way!

About thirty years ago, the emphasis shifted. Structural level became the criterion for determining difficulty and materials were graded accordingly.
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Personal ESL Trainers

Personal Trainer

The field of ESL for adults is booming. Even so, it is barely able to keep pace with the ever-growing needs of today’s world.

Registration for English courses at international language institutes (Wall Street, Berlitz etc.) is at an all-time high. Locally owned language schools and chains are mushrooming all over the globe.

Alongside all of this, ESL for adults is witnessing an exciting trend: The rise of the personal trainer.

Why do people prefer to hire a personal trainer rather than join a class?

For the same reason that the idea of personal trainers caught on in the world of physical fitness! Needs and abilities vary and one program cannot possibly encompass them all.

Both individuals and companies have realized that study time is far better utilized in 1:1 sessions. This is especially true in ‘conversational English’ courses where actual speaking time has to be shared with others. For this reason, many language institutes offer individual instruction programs.
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Time Management for Teachers

Old Clock

This article and the accompanying worksheets are based on a workshop I gave to a group of teachers who were about to finish their four-week initial teaching course, and were somewhat panicked by the prospect of teaching 25 hours a week- as it took them every waking hour to prepare their 4 weekly lessons during the course. If you missed out on such a workshop, this article could well be for you (wherever you are in your teaching career). If your time management is good, you can use this as a format to pass your skills onto your stressed-looking colleagues!

Think about time.

To start, think about ‘the world’s least efficient teacher’ and list all the things that take up their time when they are at work. There are suggestions further down.
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Task Based Learning

1. Introduction

At the outset of my teaching career, I readily adopted what little teaching methodology I was aware of to my classroom practice. As with most new teachers fresh from the CELTA course, my lessons followed the PPP (presentation, practise, production) model, or slight variations thereof. However, as my teaching quickly developed on a steep learning curve, so did my awareness of other methodological possibilities, and also the shortcomings of the method I had thus far applied. Nevertheless, I persisted with this method.

Whilst the PPP method offered a comfortable and safe framework1 for me as a newly qualified teacher, I nevertheless soon realised that i) it is important to meet the specific needs of ones learners, and ii) an authentic context will enhance the learning experience. A failure to deliver on both of these counts is one of the major reasons why the PPP method is criticised. This is also the reason why I have chosen to examine an alternative to this model: Task-based learning.
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Using PowerPoint for ELT

Power Point


PowerPoint is an incredibly popular piece of software, mainly because it comes with Microsoft packages. PowerPoint files are easy to create and can be e-mailed as attachments. They can be posted on or downloaded from websites. Not only can PowerPoint presentations be traded and exchanged, they can also be modified to fit any individual classroom setting. Although PowerPoint has been around for years, it’s just begun to spread to schools and ELT classrooms as more and more classrooms and teachers have access to computers and the hardware to use PowerPoint. For these reasons, PowerPoint is becoming an increasingly popular medium in ELT.
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