Language as a tool

Having joined a family full of nephews (a few) and nieces (lots) I’ve been many a time asked if I could teach them English… my first instinct is to tell them – “I learned it by myself go and do likewise”,  but my soft heart tends to say yes under some conditions:

  1. They’ll do the assigned homework
  2. They won’t act as royal pains

    Big family bigger dreams

The latest niece to join the gang in showing interest to learn English is Maria Eduarda who at 14 had always resisted to the idea of learning English quoting that same old idea of “I not even know portuguese well why should I learn English” or “We speak Portuguese in Brazil” – etc etc, so…

So last week, Eduarda finally gave in, she asked my wife if she could teach her English and basic computer skills.  Quickly I told my wife – try to teach her computer skills using English. That’s what I’ve always encouraged. Using language as a tool to reach different goals not a goal in itself.

Cheers,

Mo

Advertisements

Study Abroad, Revisited

Last week my god-daughter messaged me on Facebook:

Hi, dad! How are you?
 I’m thinking about traveling next year to an English-speaking country to study English. 
So… I need to get ready.
Do you think it’s a good idea to travel through a travel agency such as CVC or exchange program?

I saw it would cost about  R$ 4000. Do you think it’s a good price?

 I was thinking about traveling to England, do you think it’s a good place?
Do you know of any site that might guide me in this search process?
Thank you!!!!
Kisses.
 
Evelyn
 My reply was as follows:
studyabroadbanner
Hello darling.
It’s always a great idea to travel abroad to study, but my suggestion for those who are upper-intermediate or advanced would be to take an open summer course in whatever subject they would like. Instead of just studying English you could study arts, history, photography, endless options in English.
Why? Language schools – as any other business – are focused on profit (nothing wrong with that) but they will be hard pressed to place students at different levels together. In addition to that, your class will most likely have other Brazilians which will be an additional temptation to speak Portuguese. If you’re lucky your classmates will all be Chinese or Korean, so at least, you’ll have to use English to communicate with them.
Another negative point about going abroad just to “study English” – you will be paying your costs in US dollars or Euros or Pounds for content that you could have in Brazil through an intensive immersion course.
Regarding the destination, England is lovely but you will have your costs in pounds (with a still more unfavorable exchange rate than the US $)  which is a disadvantage. Good options would be Canada, USA or even South Africa. Ireland would be a good option but again: too many Brazilians “studying” English in Dublin. Moreover, the Irish accent is lovely but peculiar to that country – so maybe not the best option for a first time abroad.
Again, make sure to get references from other students who’ve been to the school  where you’re considering to study. I know there are schools that have poorly trained teachers with a high turnover while other schools are barefaced scams, many times cancelling the classes (for any imaginable reason) when you get to your destination and of course, you may forget any hopes of a refund.
I’d recommend cities like Pittsburgh, Portland – Oregon or Maine) or San Diego in the US or Calgary, Edmonton in Canada. Also check the weather conditions for the time of year you’re planning to go.
A good site to start your study-abroad research is http://www.studyabroad.com
In Brazil, check with the Student Travel Bureau http://m.stb.com.br/home

May the Lord bless you and your plans and dreams.

Love you,

Dad

Study abroad at home: International Schools and bilingual education

Last week my wife and I met up with Paddy, an Irish lawyer who’s being transferred with his family – wife, a 3-year old boy and a five-month-old baby girl – to São Paulo, Brazil. Bear in mind they live on a farm in county Clare, Ireland with a population of maybe 18 (just kidding) and now they’re preparing to settle in one of the largest metropolises in the world. Liz is a stay-at-home mom but she thinks that it will be good for her 3-year-old to be exposed to some preschool education while in São Paulo.

So I started researching some of the international schools (with international certification) and bilingual schools (locally based). How could I do that in a more scientific manner? By asking my students where their children and grandchildren go to school.

Among the international schools, the leading one in name recognition among my students is St. Paul’s (www.stpauls.br) – no question it has highly qualified teachers and staff, but it carries a very elitist air with the “crème de la crème” of São Paulo’s well-to-do families vying for a place. Prospective students are submitted to an academic and psychological evaluation before being accepted despite the costly monthly and annual fees, driving especially the nouveau riche up the wall when they realize that money can’t buy everything, especially “tradition”.escola-bilingue

I never had the opportunity to attend a bilingual school but I had a very dear friend, Deborah, who  attended St. Paul’s. Her father was a Brazilian nuclear scientist who had spent some time in the UK and when he returned to São Paulo he wanted to give his children a bilingual education. Deborah’s English was perfect with a slight British standard accent and she could easily switch from L1 to L2. She became a psychologist but during her school years she earned money teaching English as a foreign language. But as it happens with any learned skills, after she stopped teaching and using English on a regular basis her vocabulary started to become more limited with tons of grammar and words stored up in a corner of her brain which would light up again and start shedding the spider webs when necessity arose. Deborah would say that the second best thing about studying at an international school was the network of friends and acquaintances she built along the year (which at times would be a curse as well- but that’s another story for a future blog).

Two other international schools (maybe lesser known just because they are newer institutions but which carry similar quality without the elitist bias) are  St Francis College (www.stfrancis.com.br) and British College Brazil (www.britishcollegebrazil.org).
I’m not quite sure why they both chose the word College considering that they are schools and not colleges – faculdades.But it also relates to the Brazilian term “Colégio” – which refers to a primary and/or secondary education school. Or maybe those institutions are already keeping an eye on their future tertiary education.

As per bilingual education focused on preschoolers – children as young as 14 months to 6 years old, my students whose children or grandchildren attend bilingual schools would recommend the following:escola bilingue

Wings to Fly (www.wingstofly.com.br)
Global Me (www.globalme.com.br)
See-Saw (www.see-saw.com.br)

They vary in size and location, but from what I could observe they follow a carefully planned curriculum to immerse children in a second language (usually English) while not ignoring Portuguese (the children’s mother tongue).

One factor that grasped my attention is that while the international schools can resort to hiring staff abroad, the local schools can’t afford all those costs and their hardest challenge is to find qualified bilingual labor.

Over the past 10 years the number of bilingual schools has mushroomed in São Paulo and other capital cities trying to meet a need that desperate parents have: give their children an edge for their future.

escola bilingue org

What Do EFL Students Want?

I simply love the cartoon below and the myriad of variations of the text. But it leads me to try to find some answers to this ever-present question.

what we want

WHAT DO STUDENTS WANT? 

Find below some of the answers my own students have given me in recent months:

“A tough teacher”

“A demanding teacher”

“A patient teacher”

“A kind teacher”

“A teacher who teaches me English”

“I don’t like English so I want a teacher who’ll make me like English”

“My worst grade in High School was 7. The subject? English, of course” 

“Never needed it.”

“Read for gist and presto”

“I can understand what I hear or read by Deduction and logic”

“I want to speak and understand in one year”

“I want perfection in my writing and speech”

“I want to speak proper English not the ‘patois’ my father uses” 

“I don’t know exactly”.  

And the list could go on and on. 

Students’ wants can be endless but their needs – as far as language learning applies are simple:

They need a teacher who loves the language

who knows what he’s teaching

Who can motivate and create opportunities for students to grow

If students really want to learn, they will have to dedicate time, effort and money, how much they invest (especially time and effort) will determine the return they’ll have on e investment.

what I want 2

As regards to perfection, no one can expect it in a language that has regular and irregular verbs and tons of exceptions to any rule. Beauty yes, perfection just a pie in the sky. So be realistic, optimistic or even pessimistic but leave perfectionist in the closet.

Keep on growing.
Cheers,
Mo

TOEFL OR BUST

How can you measure the level of communication skills a person has? Can they write? Can they read and interpret a text? Can they understand what they’re told to do? Can they express their thoughts in a clear and objective way? Well… that’s a tough task in your mother tongue. Imagine in a second or third language.

I’ve never been much of a supporter of language exams conveying the idea that Language is just one more school subject in which you must have high scores. And it feels like it’s just one more scheme for publishers to milk money off potential victims. toefl guideYou and I know that language is much more than 101 points on TOEFL (out of 120), for example. But the reality is that there is a need for more objective and fast assessment tools for specific purposes; and exams still are the tool du jour to do that.

TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. Today the TOEFL iBT (internet-Based Test) is the most used tool to measure the student’s  ability to use and understand English at the university level in North America. And it evaluates how well they combine their listening, reading, speaking and writing skills to perform academic tasks. TOEFL-test

So… when a former student, Vitoria,  contacted me and asked me for some classes to prepare for the TOEFL I was a little hesitant and tried to come up with excuses not to take her on. I said that I like to teach real-life communication not preparatory tips and schemes to reach a high score in a test; I didn’t have an open slot for a new student; I only teach from home; Etc. But how can a teacher say No to a student? Answer me that if you can.

I took the TOEFL back in 1987/88, not yesterday you could say, a time when no computers were used (yes, Dinosaurs also have feelings) – you would receive a booklet with the questions and an answer sheet and be interviewed by a real teacher. Maybe a little more nerve wrecking than just recording yourself.

As in all exams, the goal is to narrow as much as possible the scoring criteria, so even if you come up with a question such as “What’s the meaning of life” – the examiner will be looking for very specific content.

In Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, summarizing is a highly valued skill and connecting the dots in order to answer what has been asked.

A key point is: Make sure TO ANSWER THE QUESTION.keep-calm-and-pass-the-toefl-2

In the Writing Section the student will be judged based on their development, organization and language use.

In the Speaking Section, the students will be analyzed based on their:

Delivery  – clear, fluid, pronunciation, intonation, pace

Language Use – grammar and vocabulary – apparently raters love some connecting words and phrases such as:

  • because
  • so
  • after that
  • on the other hand (which is a very good phrase and requires attention because many students still say “IN the other hand/way/side”)
  • I want to mention
  • what this means is

Topic Development – fully answered, clearly expressed, connected ideas.

What this means is…

  • don’t speak too quickly
  • time yourself when you practice
  • listen carefully
  • summarize the opinions.

So…  my best piece of advice for my students is: practice, practice, practice. Make the language your constant companion. And shine on.toefl 1

Cheers,

Mo

 

 

The Teaching of English as a Foreign Language in Brazilian Public Schools

As you know I’ve been teaching private students, mostly one on one for over 25 years so I can’t say I’ve been in touch with what goes on in classrooms all over Brazil. Last time I taught English as a regular subject at school was back in 1986, so do your math, because I can’t. I’m an English teacher after all.

So I decided to talk (via Twitter) to a dear friend and fellow teacher, Iara Will, who teaches at state public schools in São Paulo. Here’s what she had to say:

Do you use technology in your classes?

Iara Will
Iara Will

“Well…at my school in Sorocaba (Humberto de Campos) we have an IT room with 12 computers working.

But my classes have around 30 students… a tight room with broken air conditioning…, so I use computers in class only when a few students show up. The São Paulo state government has an online English Course program open to public school students who even receive a conclusion certificate. The online course presents everyday situations, videos and exercises even allowing for some interactivity. The course goes up to the Intermediate Level.

In class I allow them to use their cellphones, although it’s forbidden by law.

Reason: we have no dictionaries at the school’s library.  So.. they look up words online.
I try to give them activities that don’t have an easily found answer online, I encourage memorization and I make up many activities.

From the textbooks I only use some texts for reading comprehension.

I also use songs some old and some brand new ones.

I’ve learned that English is more of a decorative subject than really Language Arts. It’s just a complement not a real subject.

I cannot hold back any student. Don’t tell it to my dear students (it’s state secret. LOL)

By the way no one fails any subject nowadays at our schools. But even so, I make my opinion heard at school board and council,  especially in disciplinary matters, because I’m one of the few who listens to the students.

My workload is low so I have some free time. Most teachers survive teaching at least 32 classes a week. It would be writing 18 class reports for English alone.  Many teachers teach 54 classes a week. I don’t know how???!!!!

What sort of activities do you use with students?

Reading Activities with current issues from texts I find online or from the textbook.

I use songs and films subtitled in English when I know they’ve seen it 20 times, like Finding Nemo. I give them a handout to fill in the blanks and other activities varying according to their grade.

They love it, if I may say so.

I take my own tv, speakers,  I have to make my own copies.

The school says they have everything I need, until I really need something.

So…

Some students ask if they may go to the restroom in English, even during other classes, just to be funny, or to be the first to go.

We have more writing activities than conversation. It’s only 2 classes a week, I try hard to follow a program.

2 classes of 45 minutes each?

40 minutes.

Wow! Such a short time. How do you divide the time in class? Roll call? Homework? Do you have any warm up activities?

They answer Roll Call in English –  Hi, hello, present, I’m here or here. I use up to 10 minutes just for roll call.

When they return from the restroom they have to say “excuse me”

For warm-up I can use an object, a quiz or a previous activity.

They don’t have homework 😦

Interesting!!!

Sometimes we talk about special holidays, such as Thanksgiving – we have a little party – they bring some foodstuff, name it in English.

Occasionally we even pray in English taking advantage of some special celebrations.

There are cameras in the classrooms. I cannot induce them to anything.

And do the cameras work?

Yes, vice-principals, mediators and school inspectors constantly monitor them

What do your students think of studying English?

It’s hard, cool, boring, Now that I can understand it I like it… things I’ve heard this year.

What’s their social-economic status?

Many of them live in slums. I earn a little more because the school is located in areas of risk.

 

Thank you so much, Iara for sharing with us this wonderful experience as a caring teacher. chamada-publica-escolar-no-es-comeca-com-rematricula-e-transferencia_620_

Speak and Grow Fluent

I’d say most of my English Language students are upper intermediate or advanced which would lead us to believe that they are comfortable enough to speak using their Second Language.

However, living in a gigantic monolingual country as Brazil, and not working in a

Living on a monolingual island

company that requires international contacts, language learners can find themselves stranded on a single-language island or continent (Portuguese).

Today one of these students – whose class lasts only 90 minutes once a week  – when she doesn’t cancel or must finish earlier – became frustrated when trying to say something in English and blurted out in Portuguese – “tá ficando cada vez mais difícil falar inglês” (it’s becoming increasingly harder for me to speak English). Didn’t she know any of those words or the necessary grammar to say that? Yes, she knew all the words and the structure but CHOSE the easiest way – spitting it out in her mother tongue.

Dear students, I’ve got news for you. If you don’t practice your target language you will NEVER feel comfortable using it. No matter what academic level you’ve reached. And here comes my point:

My student in question likes to play tennis – 2 or 3 times a week – how about English? Once a week, sometimes. I rest my case.

So how can you feel more comfortable speaking in English?

  1. No one to talk to? Talk to yourself. I’m sure you do that in your mother tongue. Do it in English or whatever language you are learning.
  2. Read aloud a paragraph or a page. Everyday. It can be a transcript, an interview, a news story, a cake recipe… . It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re listening and producing sounds in your target language.
  3. To speak you must learn to listen. Focus on a poem, a song, etc and listen to it. Then read it aloud. YouTube has thousands of videos with poems and songs+lyrics for you to practice.
  4. Look for opportunities to use your target language. Can’t travel abroad? Look for a friend or co-worker who’s also learning and practice with them. Look for a place where that language is spoken. For example, São Paulo has a few English language religious services – visit them – it’s a FREE and enriching exspeaking-in-tongues__mediumperience. My favorite English Bible class website (www.believes.com.br) meets every Saturday in the morning. Also Calvary International Church is a great diverse and inclusive community (www.calvary.org.br) and Sampa Community Church (http://sampacommunity.com/1/

Now my students will be saying: “Come on, teacher. I’m too busy. I don’t have time for all that. It takes too much effort.”

Congratulations. You’ve got my point.speaking in tongues

Cheers and happy conversations,

Mo