Author Archives: commonsenseesl

“What would you say if you were interviewing for an ESL teaching position?” (A question from a reader)

job interview

When I’m on a search committee, while we are interviewing an applicant, I can’t help but start thinking about how I would answer the interview questions myself.  It’s actually a good values clarification exercise (although perhaps best not to mentally practice it while interviewing someone).  So I appreciate Kevin’s question.

Instead of writing out a script of what I would say, I’ll explain what I would include, in general, in my response to some of the more commonly asked interview questions.

Question 1: What is your philosophy of language teaching and learning?

Everything that I do in my classroom is based on the premise that language learning is about skill development. Speaking, writing and reading a second language involve using skills. And just like learning other skills, for example, driving a car, playing tennis, or learning a musical instrument, ESL students need focused practice to develop their language skills.

The teacher’s role in helping students develop their skills is to find or produce activities that will engage students and that are at the right level of challenge for them.  The teacher is like a coach, setting up and introducing the practice session and then stepping back and being ready to offer support and guidance.

Also, just like when developing any skill, when learning a language, students should be given opportunities to make mistakes and to learn from them in a non-threatening environment.  This means that the teacher needs to relinquish being the center of attention.
(For more about this, see Introduction to Teaching ESL: Student-Centered Approach)

Question 2: What do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing ESL teachers?

I think ESL teachers often have an image problem.  Their image of a teacher is someone who stands in front of the class talking to the students and conducting the lesson with all the students’ eyes on him or her.  In fact, I recently heard a teacher say that she felt like she wasn’t earning her pay if she wasn’t in front conducting the class.  So the challenge is to break this image and realize that our job is to engage students in developing their language skills and for this to happen, the teacher has to stop being the center of attention.  Teachers are doing their jobs when their students are learning how to write better by actually writing in Writing class, or read better by reading in Reading class and by speaking in Conversation class. Students will actually progress faster when the teachers are on the sidelines giving support.

This doesn’t mean that teachers should never talk to the class as a whole. But we should realize that we are still good teachers even when, or especially when, we are not talking and when students are engaged in an activity.

Question 3A: Let’s talk about how you teach conversation skills.  What is your approach?

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Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 5: Who Affects Us More: Parents or Peers?

Discussion triads

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Some reasons why students seemed stimulated by this discussion:

1) Before reading this article, many students just assumed that parents affected us more than peers.

2) They seemed interested to hear about the relationship their classmates had with their parents and peers when they were younger.

3) They were surprised by the findings of the research in the article about how peers affect each other.

4) They enjoyed comparing, agreeing and disagreeing with their classmates about this controversial topic.

Here is the basis for this discussion: psychologist Judith Harris, in her book The Nurturing Assumption, discusses research which she believes shows that our actions, beliefs and preferences are influenced more by our peer than by our parents.

This and future discussion activities include four parts:

1) A one-page article usually including a brief summary of a high-interest research study.

2) Ten true-false comprehension questions.

3) Pre-Discussion Exercise in which students read and think about several questions about their own experiences about the topic.

4) Small-group discussions of the article in which each student is given a paper with different questions in the form of Student A, B or C.

About Discussion Activity 5: Who Affects Us More: Parents or Peers? (and the handout).

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Common Grammar Mistake: “She hopes him to get a haircut.” 

Questions

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

I recently put my students in small groups, gave them a list of sentences and asked them to identify which were incorrect and to correct those. Several of the groups either thought that this sentence was correct or believed that there was something wrong with it but couldn’t correct it:

  • She doubted him to go to the party on Friday.

Surprisingly, these were advanced-level students who were stymied by this. In fact, when they asked me to explain the problem, some of them asked me, “Are you sure it’s wrong? It sounds right to me.” I imagine that the reason for their confusion is because they are familiar with the pattern of Subject + Verb + Object:

Actually, this is not a difficult grammar structure for students to learn, even lower level students. Basically, I tell them that after certain verbs, they should write “that” + subject + verb.  (Technically, the word “that” is optional, but to keep it simple, I tell them to write “that.”)  Although the formal term of this structure is “noun clauses,” I don’t expect them to remember that. If they can remember which verbs are followed by this structure, they’ll be fine.

These are some examples of this kind of mistake:

Mistake: She doubted him to go to the party on Friday.
Correct: She doubted that he would go to the party on Friday.

Mistake: His parents worry their kids to get into an accident.
Correct: His parents worry that their kids will get into an accident.

Avoiding unnecessarily complicated explanations (and handout exercises)

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Whole Class Conversation Mixer Activity: Good for Students’ Skills, Brains and More

conversation standing

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Develop techniques, bond with classmates, improve cognitive performance all in one activity!

The first time I used this type of activity, I was a relatively new ESL Conversation teacher and just wanted something to get my students talking.  Over the years, I’ve developed it more to involve additional conversational techniques.  And from cognitive psychology, I discovered why students are so energized by it.

You may be familiar with a simple version of this activity called “Find someone who” in which students are given a list of items and directed to talk to their classmates and find someone who has that item or has done that activity.  For example, find someone who has a pet or has lived in Europe or has gone backpacking.  However, that simple version has limited value.

A much improved version of this type of activity with great benefits (and handout)

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Surprising Insight: Avoiding Eye-Contact can Improve Comprehension

eye contact

A good reason not to be upset if students don’t look directly at you during a lesson or conversation.

If you need to have an important conversation with someone like a friend or co-worker, your discussion could be deeper if you go for a walk together rather than sit face to face.  And the reason for this isn’t connected to physical exercise.  It’s about eye-contact and thinking.

If someone doesn’t look at us during a conversation, we may think that they are not interested in what we are saying, or that they are feeling embarrassed, or they are hiding something or lying.  If students are not looking directly at a teacher, the teacher might think that they are not paying attention.  Actually, there could be a completely different reason why someone is not making eye-contact.

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Getting Students to Write More Interesting and Unique Ideas in Essays

Argumentation list

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

After your students do this exercise, reading their essays will be much more stimulating for you.

I felt a bit deflated while reading an essay by Jojo, one of my higher-level students. His title was “It’s Best to Marry Someone from a Foreign Country.” From reading his previous essays, I knew he had the potential to be a very good writer with interesting ideas, but on that essay, he just supported his opinion with content that I would expect from students at lower levels.  For example, here is his list of simple support for marrying someone from a foreign country:

  • We can learn a foreign language more easily.
  • We can enjoy eating different kinds of food.
  • We can go easily to a foreign country for vacations.

Although I don’t believe that we, as ESL instructors, should expect our students to keep us stimulated with deep ideas,  (see my posting “Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays) we should encourage those students who have the potential to push themselves to write beyond the mundane. This is especially true for our students who are planning to take English Comp and other academic classes with native speakers.

An exercise to help students develop awareness for writing more advanced and unique ideas (handout)

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Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 4: People Will Like You More If You Ask Follow-up Questions

Discussion triads

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Some reasons why students seemed stimulated by this discussion:

1) They were surprised that some of their classmates’ cultures have different norms about asking questions.  In some of their cultures, it’s actually discouraged.

2) They realized that in order to make and maintain friendships with Americans, it’s a good idea to ask questions.

3) They enjoyed comparing theirs reaction to speed dating.

4) They liked comparing dating in their different countries.

A very important result from this discussion

After this discussion, I noticed students applying what they had learned by asking many more follow-up questions during all small-group discussion.

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Here is the basis for this discussion: According to research, people who ask questions, especially follow-up questions, will be considered more likeable.  The one-page article describes the results from a speed dating study and from an online chat study.  The researchers found that the participants who asked the most questions during a conversation with other participants got the most invitations to have a date or were rated as more likeable.  The article explains why asking questions has this positive effect.

This and future discussion activities include four parts:

1) A one-page article usually including a brief summary of a high-interest research study.
2) Ten true-false comprehension questions.
3) Pre-Discussion Exercise in which students read and think about several questions about their experience and opinions about the topic before discussing them in groups.
4) Small-group discussions of the article in which each student is given a paper with different content/personal experience questions in the form of Student A, B or C.

Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 3: People Will Like You More If You Ask Follow-up Questions (and the handout)

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