Into the mind of a Korean teenager – ask me anything!

One of the few traditions I keep is in the final class of every year to allow my students to ask me any question they like, with a guarantee of an honest answer. The students simply write their question on a slip of paper, fold it up and put it in a box. I then spend around 15 minutes answering the 30-40 questions. We always have a lot of fun and of course the students love it. Anyway, here are (almost) all the questions I have been asked so far this week!

Note: lots of questions were repeated, so I removed duplicate or similar questions.

Reflections on Four Approaches to Group Discussion Activities

This week was the penultimate week of classes for 2013 and, with all the material for the exam covered, I now have the flexibility to teach every group of students differently and thus experiment with my classes a bit more. Normally this is frowned upon in my school as the belief is that, if all students are taking the same exam, they should all do exactly (and I mean exactly) the same lesson. This is (supposedly) in order to prevent one group of students being given an unfair advantage (a subject for another blog another time).

Given this flexibility I decided to do some action research this week and chose to try and find out what the best way of facilitating free discussion and to encourage the sharing of opinions is for my Korean high school students. I did this by implementing four different methods for organising a discussion activity over the course of the week.

Continue reading Reflections on Four Approaches to Group Discussion Activities

How I Use Technology to Enhance Student Learning

I was asked to write this short piece for a job application and thought people might find it interesting. Enjoy… (and please bear in mind I only had half an evening in which to write this)

With the rapid development of technology, and the increasing reliance of people around the world on technology, I believe it is an important, even necessary, tool to be harnessed by the English language teacher. Over the course of my teaching career I have used technology to improve my students’ learning experience in several ways. I will now briefly highlight those that I think have been the most important in developing my students’ English ability.

A primary objective of my current position is to prepare students for international communication. This objective was the catalyst for a technology based linked-classroom project I organized with high schools in Japan and Brazil. The aims of the project were for students to:

Continue reading How I Use Technology to Enhance Student Learning

Random Thought – Mortgage Adviser & EFL Teacher, same thing really.

As some people know, before I became a teacher I was a mortgage adviser for a very large bank. I hated the job, it was everything I didn’t want to be, but I was good at it, in fact, I was damn good at it. So, I did the job for a couple of years, banked a healthy return and got the hell out. So why was I so good at it? Well, in case you don’t know, being a mortgage adviser is all about sales, next time you get a mortgage try and get through the application without buying some insurance, seriously, good luck with that. But ye, I had an approach to my job that worked, and it was simple, make the customer feel at ease and relate to them. Depending on who my customer was, I adapted who I was in order to help me achieve this. High flying businessman buying a $5,000,000 dollar home? Guess what, I am hoping to become branch manager in the next year and I’m studying to move into business financial advising. Young guy buying your first house and go to the footy every weekend? Great, I have a season ticket at Leeds United and haven’t missed a match in four years. At the time, both of those things were, more or less, true.

Now I’m a teacher I find myself doing a very similar thing to help me connect and develop rapport with my students. This morning I had a group of 17 year old boys who can think of nothing but footy, League of Legends and, it seems, bikinis. So, to them I show myself as an active, football loving, LoL playing guy that is happy to talk about the fairer sex with them. This class gets kind of roudy, so I find myself being a bit stricter with the rules and speaking with a bit of a louder voice. After lunch time I had less confident, slightly lower level girls who are into all things cuddly, enjoy giggling when they see a picture of a handsome man and always let me know which celebrity’s birthday is coming up. To them, I’m a cute teacher, that speaks softly, has just bought his fiancee a kitten and is going to have a very romantic wedding that they are all invited too. I also seem to find myself doing kind of cute actions and that kind of stuff. Also, I find I don’t do so much error correction, just getting them to speak English in front of each other is a fine achievement. If you asked the two classes to describe their English teacher, I think they would give quite different descriptions. But again, everything my students know about me is true.

In neither situation did I lie about myself, but I did adapt myself to what I thought the other party needed in order to get us where we needed to go. So, as I thought to myself in my class after lunch, in many ways, being a mortgage adviser isn’t always that different to being a teacher really.

Disclaimer: I’m actually quite proud of this, but I never sold insurance to someone who didn’t need it. That might be a thought to follow up on tomorrow actually.

Random Thought #94@( – Mixing Up Classes

So here it is, the moment of genius I had while in bed last night. Conversation classes (actually at the time last night I thought all classes, but that now seems a tad ridiculous, that’s why this project will be fun!) should be mixed classes wherever possible. But I don’t just mean mixed ability, I mean mixed everything. Mixed ages, mixed levels, mixed sexes, mixed ethnicity, mixed goals, mixed hair styles, mixed occupations and anything else that can be mixed. I think this because the goal of a general conversation classroom is usually to learn how to converse, I think it is anyway. Not to learn how to converse with someone from the same place, who can speak at a similar level and has had similar life experiences. That person, you will probably just speak in your L1 with! yet this industry seems obsessed with categorising and streaming our students. What do you reckon, is it time to mix it up?

For more random thoughts they will all be posted here.

Edit: People complained my numbering system was too standard. I agree. I have a new numbering system, that isn’t random.

 

Comments

Lawrence
18/11/2013 02:16

This makes sense to me. As far as I can remember language teachers always used to make us pretend to do this when conversing anyway. Pretend to be talking to someone older, pretend to be talking to your boss, pretend to be talking to a parent, pretend to be talking to a waiter, pretend to be talking to a friend, etc etc. Why not just make them do it to as far an extent as is possible within a school? I think especially for younger children to talk to the older ones would work fantastically!

Reply
Alex
24/11/2013 16:45

Ye you’re exactly right Loz, I still make my students do this, which is pretty ridiculous. I think even if it wasn’t every lessons, but just one period a month or something to create so genuine conversation as opposed to faking it.

Reply
Billy
18/11/2013 03:38

idealistically, definitely good for authenticity, and preparing students for real life english use – I know how you love your ELF – but in terms of feasibility where are you going to get students with different L1s? You’re in one of the world’s most homogeneous countries.Mixed levels leads to the usual problems, and mixed genders… I can’t imagine that encouraging communicativeness in high school boys haha.

Reply
Alex
19/11/2013 17:44

Hi Billy, thanks for the comment. I agree, feasibility would definitely be an issue. But I do keep nagging my school to give me mixed genders, I figure they are asking me to teach them how to communicate with all people, not just half the people in the world and I genuinely think communicating with the opposite ex is a very different ball game to communicating with the same sex. It could be very interesting though!!! lol

Reply
19/11/2013 23:10

Love it. While teaching in Korea doesn’t always allow us to mix things up as much as perhaps we would like, in our role as facilitator, we should aim to do so as much as possible. I would say 80% of the learners I teach are university students, and the other 20% workers or housewives. I always try to pair up the workers with the students, and almost always the conversations that follow are much more interesting than the conversation between two freshman English lit students. Putting two similar people together, they can already guess how the other person feels or thinks about a topic, and then there is no real need for communication.

Reply
Alex
24/11/2013 16:41

Hi David! I really wish I had that opportunity, I get really frustrated by the fact I am absolutely locked in to having single sex, same age classes (even though I teach in a mixed school). I’ve tried explaining to the school that such a policy makes my job near in impssible but they won’t have it. As you say, the problem is, and I really believe it affects communication, they already know everything about each other. Everything we do in English class is just a repeat of what they already know, but in a different language.

Thanks for your read and comment, it’s very appreciated.

Random Thought #0 – Posting Random Thoughts

Last night, as I was trying to get to sleep, I had a thought (yes it is safe to read on!) that, at the time, I thought was pretty genius. I often have these random thoughts (as I think a lot of teachers who love their job do), but they usually get lost at some point within the following ten minutes, often when my morning bus goes past the giant pizza sign on the way to school. Anyway, I’ve decided it would be fun to start sharing these random thoughts. Some might be complete bullshit, some might be absolute genius (less likely), some might just be funny and others just stupid/funny, but they will all just be spur of the moment thoughts, nothing more, nothing less. Of course, the thoughts will almost certainly be education related, probably ELT, that have somehow been stimulated and I want to share. The thoughts will almost certainly never be longer than this post, hopefully a bit shorter.

In the four years I’ve been teaching I’ve worked at 2 different high schools and, through various workshops and organisations, had the pleasure of meeting many native English speaking teachers around Korea. While the experience and expectations in each school are undoubtedly very different, I have noticed one common theme running through

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A total of: 0 hits

most people’s experiences. That is, as the native English speaking teacher, we are expected to share, and teach, the native speaker expressions, idioms and slangs our students are going to require if they are going to converse in English. Of course, at face value, this does seem to be a common sense requirement. After all, we are native speakers of English, and to communicate with us native speakers fluently, surely our students are going to need to be able to use the native lingo (0 hits)? Well, if native speakers were the people our students are likely to be communicating with, this would probably be true (I say probably because many expressions and slangs vary depending on region and time).

However, when this line of thought is scrutinized, the usefulness of the native speaker idioms/slangs/expressions we often teach becomes questionable. This is due to the fact that the vast majority of our students are actually quite unlikely to be using English to communicate with native English speakers (see Jenkins et al. 2011 or Seidlhofer 2004). Now, while I don’t want to get too deeply into the theoretical background of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in this post (please see note at bottom of blog), the basic premise is that the majority of English speakers are now non-native speakers of English, and the majority of communication that takes place is between non-native speakers of English, thus this is the type of communication we should be preparing our students for.


This now brings me back to my original question, how useful are the native speaker expressions/slang/idioms countless hours have been spent teaching. Well, I decided to consider this question in my context using the framework laid out in the excellent book ‘About Language’ by Scott Thornbury (1997). Thornbury (1997) suggests five ways that might determine the selection of language to be taught:

1) Frequency: Is the word (and this meaning of it) common?

The only real way of knowing how common an expression is is to refer to a corpus. A fantastically easy to use ELF corpus (that includes both native speakers and non-native speakers) run by the Vienna institute can be found here. I decided to run a little test (a completely unscientific one but this is only a Friday afternoon blog post!). I googled ‘common english expressions esl’, clicked on the third link and chose the first expression for low-intermediate students and then the first idiom, which happened to be ‘off the top of your/my/his/her/their head’. I then whacked this in the corpus search engine and received… 0 hits. The second expression, ‘ring a bell’ also received… 0 hits. My third attempt, ‘from scratch’ received… 4 hits. Please bear in mind (8 hits) this was only a two minute experiment.

2) Coverage: Can you use the word in a wide range of contexts, or does it have a very narrow coverage? For example, is its meaning very specific, is it only used regionally, or is it jargon or slang?

I think this is important, how regional are the native idioms/expressions/slangs we are teaching? Again, I think the corpus can help us with this, but I would suggest that, at the very least, many of the idioms/expressions/slangs are regional to the native countries, if not regions, they originate from. I know that when I go for a few beers with my mates (1 hit) from the South of England that, by our fourth beer, a lot of the conversation becomes incomprehensible to me, a native speaker. The typical idioms/expressions/slangs they use are very different to those I use as a Yorkshire man. If this is the situation for people who live in the same native speaking country, imagine two non-native speakers trying to sound native by using various idioms/expressions/slangs.

3) Usefulness: How relevant is it to our students’ needs? (Sometimes relatively infrequent items with a narrow coverage might nevertheless be very useful.)

This factor is probably the most dependent on your context. If you’re teaching English with a specific purpose, while you may receive only one hit on the corpus search, the idiom/expression/slang may still be very useful for your student. For me, in preparing my high school students for the type of communication they are most likely to face, I must take into account the likelihood of their interlocutor, who is also likely to be a non-native speaker, being able to both recognize and interpret what I am teaching my students. Considering this, I have to accept that the good old Yorkshire expression “broke” (meaning having no money) (0 hits) probably isn’t terribly useful besides if my students ever get the privilege of watching Last of the Summer Wine at some point in their lives.

4) Use: Will the learner need only to recognize the item (i.e. while listening or reading) or will it be needed for production (speaking and writing)?

This is quite an interesting one; there is no doubt that my students love US and British TV shows, movies and music. I am actually teaching a course on ‘English through Movies’ at the moment. For understanding the movies there is definitely a case for the teaching of the native English expressions featured in the movies. However, when we come back to conversational English, both my students and, just as importantly, their non-native interlocutors, are going to need to be able to use understand the idioms/expressions/slangs. In fact, teaching idioms/expressions/slangs my students’ interlocutors are unlikely to know may actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate if all it does is cause misunderstanding and confusion. With the sheer number of native idioms/expressions/slangs out there, what are the chances of both my students and their interlocutors having been taught and remembering the same ones?

5) Learnability/teachability: Is it easy to learn and remember? Is it easy to convey the meaning and form of it to learners?

To be honest, I don’t think I have too much to say about this one. If the idioms/expressions/slangs fit nicely in with the syllabus, don’t take too long to teach and are usable then, to me, there is certainly a case to be made for teaching them, if done right (something I will discuss more in my next blog post).

Overall this analysis seems to indicate that, from an ELF perspective, we need to be very careful when selecting ‘common English expressions’ to teach our students. However, if your teaching environment is anything like mine, both my school and students expect me to teach a certain number of native English expressions. If I don’t, they will probably find a teacher that will. This presents a very awkward situation as I am required to teach language that I know might not only prove to be mostly a waste of time, but could actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate in English. In my next blog post I hope to share some of the strategies that I believe can be used to teach native English idioms/expressions/slangs while also preparing students for ELF communication.

Note – For further reading regarding ELF I am going to put some articles I recommend checking out at the bottom, or you can read my thesis, which I’ll be uploading any day now. Alternatively, for a detailed yet eloquently summarized discussion of ELF, I highly recommend my friend Alex Grevett’s blog posts here including the discussion in the comments.

Note 2 – I have decided that from now on, personally I will only be sharing my blog posts through the AlienTeachers facebook groupmy twitter account and email subscription.

Bibliography + Recommended Reading

Cogo, A. (2012). ‘English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use, and implications’. ELT journal 66(1), 97–105.

Jenkins, J., Cogo, A. & Dewey, M. (2011). ‘Review of developments in research into English as a lingua franca’. Language Teaching 44(3), 281–315.


Thornbury, Scott. About language. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 1997.

Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 209–239.

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