“Teach me the Present Perfect or I’ll die”

Ok, maybe he didn’t ask me with THOSE EXACT WORDS, but you get the gist. I decided to give a present to a friend of mine who was on vacation but wouldn’t be able to travel. I was feeling like a Genie and the magic lamp and offered him 3 wishes regarding English learning. I said I’d teach him 3 lessons for free and asked him what he would he like to study or review.

Right off the bat he said:

The present perfect, Mo. I don’t know how to use it.”

Students all over the world suffer from this grammatitis infection when they’re exposed to English as a school subject where they have to learn grammar points and vocabulary to pass exams. Period. Not to communicate.

Grammar can be as dry or as lively as the teacher wishes

So I told David a story about Jesus and how he healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a terrible fever.

We worked with rough sketches to represent Jesus in Capernaum.

Where is Jesus? In the synagogue. Going to peter’s house for lunch.

Where is Peter? In the synagogue. Taking Jesus to his home.

Where’s Peter’s mother-in-law? At home. In bed.

What’s wrong with her? She’s sick. She’s ill. She has a fever.

And now… what has Jesus just done? He has healed her.

With that story I could introduce the grammar point I’m trying to teach (Present Perfect)

When teaching grammar, the first No, No is: don’t teach grammar ( on the other hand … don’t treat grammar as a 4-letter word)

How?

1. Avoid discussing aspects of grammar without a context. A dialogue, a story, even a song can add context.

2. Whenever possible give learners time to discover grammar for themselves. In the story about Jesus, what verbs can you see? How were they used?

3. Use games to teach and reinforce grammar. From hangman to tic-tac-toe , to board races.

4. Give learners time to practice grammar in a meaningful way, guide and supervise their practice.

5. Avoid rule teaching … otherwise, learners will focus on the grammar rules and won’t be able to speak it.

Remember that the goal of learning English is to reach a level of acceptable fluency and learner independence.

Cheers,

Mo

(P.S. – yes, he learned the grammar point but now it’s in his hands to notice it around him and use it).

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Teaching in the 21st Century – part 2

This is the second and final part of my summary of the book – Psychology for Language Teachers (A Social Constructivist Approach) by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden (Cambridge University Press)Image result for psychology for language teachers

“This book examines the field of educational psychology and considers various ways in which a deeper understanding of this discipline can help language teachers. Areas considered in the book include approaches to learning, motivation, the role of the individual, attribution, mediation, the teaching of thinking, the cognitive demands of tasks and the learning environment. The book does not assume previous knowledge of psychology.” (Source: https://www.amazon.com.br/Psychology-Language-Teachers-Constructivist-Approach/dp/0521498805)

One of the axioms presented by the authors is that learners LEARN BETTER if they feel in control of what they’re learning, based on the assumption that learning is closely linked to how people feel about themselves.

The idea is that Teachers must motivate Students and persuade them into learning – first of all, a teacher must learn to listen: Yes, it is absolutely conducive to communication but often forgotten and left in the background. The teacher walks in with their agenda for the day, week, semester and  earth and heaven shall pass away but nothing can change it. Sometimes, a change in voice intonation or a contextual misunderstanding could threaten the whole learning session. That shouldn’t be so especially in the language learning environment.

Starting from the premise that teachers are facilitators and mediators with what they do in the classroom will reflect their own beliefs and attitudes, consequently, teachers must show their own interest in the learning process, share their own foibles and mistakes when they were learning that language or the first language the learner speaks. Here we see a great advantage for nonnative teachers of English who can empathize with their learners. Or in the case of English native speakers who have passed through the experience of learning another language.

Image result for the art of teaching

At the end of the day, the teacher must bring forth independent thinkers and learners who after a period of time in class will be able to fly on their own.

Cheers,

Mo

Teaching in the 21st Century – Part 1

Quite often when we think about anything related to the 21st Century, including teaching, we think of the use of technology, gadgets and the internet. We feel we must have Smart boards, tablets, online classes, video sharing, social media, and the list goes on and on. But what every teacher must remember is that his main working material consists of brains inside living organisms labeled as learners, students or pupils.

I’ve just finished studying a book published back in 1997 but with ideas still relevant today for every language teaching professional: Psychology for the Language Teacher (CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS) by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden.

Professional Development: Psychology for Language Teachers

Undoubtedly some advances and finds have taken place in psychology and the human science of teaching and pedagogy over the past 20 plus years, but some things never change and must be remembered, reviewed and implemented. Sooner or later we will stop referencing to “21st century” and just say ” Teaching”.

The book presented 10 key points on Language Teaching, this first part of my post will work on the first three items:

1. There’s a difference between learning and education.

Learning: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.

these children experienced difficulties in learning”

Education: the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.

“a new system of public education”

A quick look at these first definitions present a great distinction between both processes, which intersect in many areas … both involve receiving knowledge or instruction, but a key distinction is that learning involves the development of skills through experience.

Joi Ito beautifully summed it up: “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do for yourself

Here it is graphically represented:

Now that we have the distinction we can move to the second point.

2. Learners learn WHAT is meaningful to them.

I can try ad nauseam to inculcate in my students the state capitals of the US, the beautiful wording of the Declaration of Independence, the Scottish Calvinist values, etc… but they will not profit from that if they don’t see a purpose or meaning in that. I always ask my students at the beginning of their course about their goals, current activities, hobbies and dreams so that the lessons may be geared towards intrinsic motivation resulting in effective learning. I’m not saying that students
who live in the favelas in Rio should only be taught vocabulary about getting water from a well or snorting glue… (yes, yes, it’s just an example, don’t get up in arms about it) They must learn based on their reality and context but also from that point the teacher can and must build a path where learners will be introduced to a better way and a broader world.

3. Learners learn IN WAYS that are meaningful to them.

I love reading but if my student is interested in speaking “only” I must adapt the course so that any reading they do is impregnated with the spoken language – it can be an interview, a novel rich in dialogue, even part of a play … as long it’s language relevant and appropriate to their level. If they like movies, or sports, let them search and learn about what interests them. Here again Language is a tool not an end unto itself.

Writing is really important for learners to process and review their language acquisition but instead of asking them to write a 500-600 word essay (unless they’re preparing for an exam where such activity is required), why not have them write a business related email? Or even a text message including abbreviations, emojis and shortcuts?

Please, bear in mind that my students are adults who have already gone through their academic process and now need English or Spanish mostly for employment purposes and career advancement opportunities. Actual Fluency in English will be a plus for any CV or Résumé in a non-English speaking nation. The point is that it must be true not just wishful thinking; hence the person’s awareness that they are no longer “students”, but “learners”

Cheers. Happy learning.

Mo

Busting Two Myths about Learning Foreign Languages

Yesterday I was watching a YouTube video by Fingtam Languages (sorry dude, you rarely mention your real name)

Becoming Fluent book
Fingtam Languages on YouTube 

and he was talking about this book he’s been reading. Check his YouTube video channel and subscribe, he’s got tonnes of great information about language learning and linguistics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTefVVnFqyI&t=3s )Becoming Fluent book cover

Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). 

I decided to check its kindle version and the first chapter presents some of the fallacies regarding language learning.

I learned English, Spanish and French mostly as an adult – over 18 – yes, as a kid I had been exposed to English classes at school but had been taught mostly in Portuguese – I’d learned the verb to be, some vocabulary and some grammar rules but nothing much. The little Spanish I heard was from my Galician uncle who spoke some curse words at times (and my mom would also say some Spanish expressions such as – “me cago en la madre (I shit on your mother) and other niceties she had probably learned from my uncle (don’t ask me why – some family secrets are better left unturned).  When I was 11 or 12 I came across a French grammar book my older sister or brother had used in primary school (up to the early 70s  in Brazil, French was taught as the default foreign language instead of English). Of course from that exposure to French as a pre-teen I learned – je me lève  and je m’assieds (thank God that book had illustrations)

French conjugation
French conjugation of the verb to sit 

I can comfortably say that I really learned English and Spanish proper in my 20s and French in my 40s. Yes, my spoken French level is lower than my reading but just because I’ve had to use it much less – though I know about the importance of exposing myself to the language I don’t read much in French or listen to podcasts in French – sometimes I read some news stories or watch some TV5. But last year we were in the Côte d’Azur and I could survive and felt comfortable expressing myself in the French I knew.

So it’s time to bust some myths: 

Myth 1 – adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children 

Adults can and will learn, but differently from how children learn. First, ok… the child will acquire a better accent – thanks to their facial elasticity and also their lack of  fear/shame/anxiety of making mistakes in the other language. But… the adult has already gone through the process of learning their own language so they can use that experience in the new language learning process.  Ok, … as an adult you will have an accent, but hey, I’ve got news for you: everybody HAS ONE!. Also, unless you plan to be an undercover secret agent, why would you want to hide the fact that you’re from another country? Actually, that’s a bonus, at least you can speak  one more language.

Myth 2 – when learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

For years I subscribed to that school of thought that L1 would smother L2, therefore the former should be eliminated from the language class environment. Yes, it’s true that some students, if allowed to, will only use the L1 and talk to each other in that language. So the teacher must control its use in class but be mindful not to throw the baby away with the bath water.  Roberts and Kreuz say that the banning of L1 in the classroom “deprives adult  language learners of one of their most important accomplishments – fluency in their native language. Although it is true that one language is not merely a direct translation of another, many aspects of one language are directly transferable to a second language.” (1)

They add “… looking for places where concepts, categories, or patterns are transferable is of great benefit, and also points out another area where adult foreign language learners have an advantage over children. ” (1)

So if your’re trying to teach someone or learn yourself a new language, don’t lose heart. It can be done. Just adjust the methods and tools and be realistic on your goals.

Happy learning,

Cheers,

Mo

 

(1) Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass./ London, England.

Language Teachers’ Continuing Professional Development – CPD

We live in a world of increasingly faster changes. Jobs that existed a few years ago are no longer around … although in Brazil and other developing countries the change may take a little longer but it will come.

Extinct jobs like the gas lamplighter

Yes, in most developed countries, gas stations haven’t had attendants for years, only a cashier. Buses have no conductors to get payment and give change. Elevators don’t need a lever operator to open and close doors on the right floor… .

Elevator operator – a job still found in some places but going the way of the dodo

Many jobs have been made extinct and others need to change and adapt.

In Brazil due to a wrongly defined protective labor market, large metropolitan areas like São Paulo still have conductors – “cobradores” working on buses. They have been protected by their unions and other interests for years, but they know their days are numbered. Some will qualify to become bus drivers, others will have to find their own ways to get by.

The bus conductor is as useful as a toothache – they usually can’t give information on directions or give change.

How about teachers? When talking about public school teachers – they might self implode into extinction due to misguided public policies and lack of incentives to renew and empower younger professionals. Technology may provide some relief to the poor qualification of teachers and lack of resources.

Public school teachers are threatened both from inside and by outside forces

How about language teachers? Based on our ability to adapt to different We and forms of literacy we must be continually improving. What?

  1. Orality – speaking and listening
  2. Reading and writing
  3. Linguistic and grammatical knowledge
  4. Psychological and pedagogical skills

I’m not talking only about academic development, which has its value but about the teacher taking charge of his or her own growth. not being afraid of experimenting with new methods and tools. This continuous growth will feed into his or her motivation in a vibrant virtuous cycle.

Happy CPD,

Cheers,

Mo

The Secrets of Learning a New Language

For some people to speak one language is already a challenge. Two languages and some already feel on the top of the mountain. Can you imagine speaking 3, 4 or more languages? Being a polyglot?!

Not everyone needs to speak more than one language but there is no question how useful a second or more languages can be… even for the shiest person who never plans to leave his hometown.

But … how can you achieve that?

Let me cut to the chase or the cheese (as some of my students understand it) and tell you that there is no single way to learn a language. It depends on several factors, especially motivation, time and skills the learner may have. Despite that, there are some good pieces of advice any language learner can use:

1. Start speaking from day one – some methods encourage hours of listening before the student utters his first sound… but my advice is: start mumbling those new sounds as soon as you can. if you have someone to talk to, a teacher, a tutor or your cat, great. If not, no worries, talk to yourself.

Speak even if to yourself from day one

2. Start listening to natives of the language you’re learning – YouTube, internet radio, get familiar with the sounds of the language even if not understanding it.

3. Imitate the sounds – yes… learning a language works wonders on those self conscious people… break down your walls of fear of shame or embarrassment…

4. Start learning the language by reading its grammar

5. Memorize key words of the target language (until you reach 500 key words, for example) use paper or digital flashcards for instance.

6. Find ways to enjoy the learning process. Every learner will have unique ways. Even if you’re a genius, you’ll see there are no shortcuts to language learning. Do something pleasant with the target language EVERY DAY.

7. Be patient.

This short list is not comprehensive and not all items apply to everyone… pick and choose and start learning your dream Language today.

Cheers,

Mo

You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn another language. The world is your classroom

Shakespeare in ELT

This post came about after I saw a tweet by Nathan Hall questioning whether Shakespeare should be used in the ELT environment/context. Nathan tweeted the following:

Unpopular opinion: I think using Shakespeare (original text) to teach English is an unproductive use of time in a general classroom. I am open to hearing counter arguments

The premise – original text – would require the student to have a high English level (C1 or higher) and the energy spent in trying to understand the text would not be “well spent”.

Early on as a learning EFL teacher, I wasn’t able, or didn’t know how to prepare independent lessons – I would use coursebooks – and in the early 90s the best coursebook I came across was the Headway series – honestly, I learned a lot about the English language and culture using Headway Advanced and Unit 2 under the theme of Literature and Literary Genres contained a little bit of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Could it get any better? I had to carefully prepare my lessons in advance otherwise I wouldn’t be ready to deal with the grammar and vocabulary points presented in the unit.

Back in 1991, I was teaching for a language school in São Paulo and they sent me to teach a group of three ladies at a sports club where they would have their gym, tennis practice, swimming activities and, of course, English lessons. They were nice, intelligent mature women who had already traveled the world, were advanced English learners and had already read and seen a few Shakespeare plays translated and performed in Portuguese. They did not hesitate to read an excerpt of the “7 ages of man” in modern English (not Elizabethan English as some highbrow pedantic educators would like to say) despite the nebulous vocabulary (some of it) for the advanced language learner there was a ton of conversation to be obtained from that short and brief text.

Image result for headway advanced 1996Headway Advanced published in 1991

headway s
A page from the New Headway Advanced 4th Edition 2014

Yes, I totally get the fact that for many students (no matter their linguistic background and location) Shakespeare would be a drag: representing another time and another place far removed from their contemporary world. Well, … tell them to see The Lion King and they’ll be seeing Shakespeare’s ghost there. Yes, the language evolves but today some of Shakespeare’s quotes are still as relevant as back then even within a different context.

Can’t any B1/B2 English learner understand some of these quotes?

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

—Jaques in As You Like It

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

—Escalus in Measure for Measure

 “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

—Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Yes, Shakespeare’s texts are old but the truths those works convey can be adapted to contemporary English by publishers’ Readers, plays can be re-enacted and adapted etc.

Shakespeare map
This map shows all the different locations and countries described in Shakespeare’s plays. He truly belongs to the world. 

My point is: don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. In this day and age, language teaching is still seen as a form of colonialism so the condescending “native teacher” desires the learner to see himself and his values first and only use the language as a literal tool for a very specific purpose. Why shut down the learner from the rest of the world in time and space?

If the learners are Asian should then all the material be Asian related? The same for African or Latino learners? In Brazil why bother teaching them the word “snow” just teach them to say “it’s a scorcher”? That’s the oppression of multiculturalism gone awry when it’s only good if you’re different from me and we have nothing in common and don’t even try to understand me “for I’m marvelous”.

Let the learners dream a Midsummer night’s dream… as teachers we’re supposed to expose them to the world not shelter them from it.

And don’t get me started on the beauty and usefulness of the second person singular – thou/thee. 😜

Is it unproductive to read any Shakespeare in the original text? As a sign of our times: Yes and no. That depends! Who said you can only use the original text? Yes, you may use it, but also adapt it in a myriad of different ways. Dost thou get me?

Mo and Shakespeare.jpg
Mo and his friend, Billy S.

Cheers,

Mo