Archive for the ‘teach’ Category

2-4 easily avoidable pedagogical errors

November 6, 2011

given the many years that many students can spend
studying something without ever learning it,
one might fear that much education is entirely useless,
or mostly just babysitting,
and this problem is especially endemic
in language education.

certain recurrant problematic student habits can
however also suggest that failures to attain targets
may derive from the likelihood that students
are all too often getting away with ineffective approaches
which are in fact easily remedied.

thus, i want to strongly encourage all teachers to STOP
tolerating the following behavior:

1a. students answering questions with ONE word,
such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘one’ and other solitary numbers,
‘hamburger’, etc.

1b. students answering ‘yes’ to corrections,
rather than fully repeating an entire grammatically correct sentence.

(the above would seem to be obvious in a language classroom setting,
but from the look of surprise that new students often give
when this expectation is actually enforced, i can’t help but wonder
how often it is.)

2a. reading off written pages all the time.
(i have already emphasized this point
in a previous post;
there is a shocking frequency of students who can read
incredibly complex English without being able to string barely
3 of their own self-generated words together)

2b. speaking in chorus all the time.
(though this is often a useful way of offering
more opportunities to more students to speak,
it’s also shocking how a whole class can seem to have
internalized a pattern, while on closer inspection
many individuals will still be struggling with it)

students’ strengths and weaknesses suggest
that they are in fact learning exactly what
teachers are teaching them:

1. to read aloud
2. to listen and repeat

without 24-7 immersion, language learning will
almost invariably present incredibly challenges,
but if students are given more opportunities
to practice the target skill
of actually expressing themselves,
they just might.


why should i care?

July 15, 2011

anyone who watches the colbert report with any frequency
will also hopefully have been a bit discomforted by how often
he leaves his guests baffled with the simple “why should I care”

speaking about soaring food prices in developing nations,
the guest could only comment that it was such a horrible argument
that she “couldn’t even go there”,

while colbert, though hopefully being sarcastic, is in fact
raising a question that has to be addressed if one is ever
to get beyond “preaching to the choir”.

the recurrent failure of guests to be prepared for this question,
regarding economic equity, resource access, human rights, health care, climate, etc.
demonstrates 1.) an embarrassing lack of preparation for
the kind of interview they are about to encounter, and
2.) a regrettable failure of liberal arts education to even
promulgate the kind of critical argumentative skills
that it presumably proposes to.

in an attempt to remedy such shortcomings,
i’d like to try to list a few of the obvious rebuttals
to such explicit self-centerness.

A.) You should care,
because even if you are comfortable, content, and well-fed now,
the consequences of these events will most likely affect you
or someone you care about negatively eventually.

B.) You should care,
because knowingly letting others suffer,
when one can take some action to reduce that suffering,
encourages others to let you suffer.

C.) You should care,
because demonstrating compassion and generosity,
will give you legitimate reasons to be proud of yourself,
maintain more secure relations with more trustworthy kinds of people,
and sleep better at night.

D.) You should care,
unless you are really willing to tell your children,
that you don’t care about how cute penguins and polar bears are,
or how innocent starving children are,
or how needy elderly and handicapped people are,
just because they don’t offer any practical benefits to you,
if you really aren’t afraid of them looking at you like a monster.

E.) You should care,
unless you really aren’t bothered by the sight of
sick suffering people starving, and wouldn’t mind living
in gated communities surrounded by sick contagious criminal beggars.

All these arguments essentially rely on appealing
to the selfishness of the opposed party, more or less practically,
and though especially the last could well be accused of being
an absurdly slippery slope fallacy,
it merely intends to use the extreme to make the more graded argument
that our environments impinge on our comfort and happiness
even when they are outside our immediate circle of family and friends.

language learning 3 2 1

March 18, 2011

I keep trying to get my students
to appreciate the profundity of the following principles,
but I’m not convinced that they are really taking them to heart.
Anyways, I think both their significance and simplicity make them worth
outlining here:


1. Semantic associations: For instance, food is delicious, but it’s a lil pervy if you refer to a person that way. Also, in Chinese, wind can be big, but in English it sounds better to say strong.

2. Syntactic contexts: For instance, what verbs are followed by what kinds of prepositions or V-ing or to V?

3. Morphological forms: For instance, ‘hit’ is both a noun and a verb, but ‘transform’ needs to become ‘transformation’ to act as a noun.

If you know these 3 things about new words that you learn, as opposed to just how such a word translates into your mother tongue, you will be far more likely to use these new words correctly.


1. Reading is not remembering.
I learned this fact from trying to memorize musical pieces; No matter how many times I read a piece, if I didn’t practice little by little freeing myself from the visual clues, I never could actually recollect the whole piece without them. I believe language students also need to habituate themselves to mentally accessing target phrases without relying on visual cues.

2. Speaking in your mind is not speaking with your mouth.
If you’re only speaking in your mind, you are not actually exercising the muscle movements that will be required when you really need to speak. I suspect far too many students (including myself) spend too much time studying without ever opening their mouths.

Different languages may use entirely different methods for similar ends.
In other words,
Word for word translation just doesn’t work very well.

This is a well-known fact,
but is so important that it requires restating here.
Students may either not appreciate it sufficiently
or just not have much other choice when they are not yet aware of
the language specific methods to communicate particular ideas.

Lexical items often slice up the world differently,
as in the way Chinese has different words
for younger and older brothers,
where English only has one,
while Chinese conversely uses the same sound
for he, she, and it.

Grammar can also impose requirements
that other languages may leave implicit,
such as the way that English marks tense and aspect,
while Chinese only uses certain aspect markers
in its own way.

Or a word like “lightning”
may be a noun in some languages,
but a verb in others,
or adjectives may actually be verbs
in Chinese.

Or perhaps one would say “have you eaten?”
where another would say “how are you?”
[and a good many kung fu treat this
as the most salient translation].

And the list could go on and on.

teaching tools

November 12, 2010

the following webpages may be of some use to other teachers:

upload a reading on this page, and then you can select words,
which will get highlighted and listed at the bottom of the page:
(in fact a bunch of samples using this page
can be found on my class websites, npu
though definitely some vocab selections are better than others)

this one takes a list of vocab and grabs famous quotes from a variety of websites:

this one takes vocab in one box and text in the other box
(such as the preceding vocab and its associated famous quotes)
and makes fill in the blank multiple choice tests:
(or toss out the multiple choices if you want a more difficult test)

the use of force

August 7, 2010

The other day,
I witnessed another struggling young mother
completely helpless in the face of her screaming toddler.

She tried to pull him along.
He pulled back, slipped, falling, hit his head,
thus intensifying his screams,
and presumably making her feel all the more embarrassed
and incompetent.

Except anyone who has kids or has worked with them
knows how difficult and common such situations are.

In these cases, I always repress my urge to intervene.
I avoid intervening for 2 reasons:

1. Help from a stranger could be even more embarrassing and unwanted.

2. My help might not work; these sorts of patterns of behavior are rarely changed in 1 day.

However, I usually feel that the problem is quite obvious: No one like to be forced to do things, and the adult in these situations usually resorts to increasing degrees of force.

It’s sad that so many parents don’t realize how easy children are to PERSUADE. They are typically entertained by the smallest trifles, and can usually be convinced that anything is fun with the right attitude. However, adults rarely make things look fun.

Their short attention spans also abet the adults advantage.

The proper approach to tantrums is to find DISTRACTIONS. Find something that looks fun, and get the child to focus on that; give them something to want and give it to them!

Of course, the danger with this method is that it easily leads to spoiling children. They may begin throwing more tantrums to get what they want. Notice however, I didn’t say give them what they originally wanted. Let’s assume that’s totally off limits. Find something that’s fully acceptable, that you can trick them into wanting, and give them that!

In any case, I don’t deny that when kids go too far, they need to be brought in line. There are times when force is necessary. But the less the better.

With one’s children, I advocate choosing your battles carefully. Avoid them as much as possible, and especially in public, where the child may even recognize that they have distinct advantages, and is more likely to be stressed in any case.

Why not give them as much as you can? Furthermore, I would like to believe that children who believe their parents want to give them everything will be more understanding when they can’t.

All too many parents see their jobs as keeping their children from all the bad things they will want to do and knee-jerk react in the negative. They quickly lose their children’s trust. Since kids will still fight for what they want, these parents will live an endless battle.

Often, when adults get into a power struggle with children, they feel they have to prove their superiority. Since beating children has become passé, these instincts often lead to failure.

However, if one remains focused on the practical goal of accomplishing whatever tasks were at hand, then adults should still have the ability to OUTSMART children. Accomplish your tasks by re-introducing them from alternative perspectives that give the child desirable options.

If you’re their ally, and they can really understand why certain rare refusals are really necessary, and if such refusals are typically accompanied with desirable alternatives, then I believe most children can be quite cooperative.

does everyone understand?

August 7, 2010

Scott Thornbury’s blog
justifies the “have any questions” question,
as part of fostering an authentic environment
of honest communication.
This environment of trust may be contrasted to
the dishonest and distrustful environments
that Thronbury’s critics, Alan Waters, in particular,
(Applied Linguistics, December 2009)
seem to accept. Such suspicious patronization of one’s students
is offensive to Paulo Freire’s egalitarian conceptions of education,
and reeks of his ‘banking’ model of education,
where the ignorant students must be coerced into compliance.

First, this discussion seems
to confuse addressing
“is” and “should”.

Second, even the defenders of “does everyone understand?”
seem to acknowledge that a great deal more of investigation
is actually necessary to determine if everyone understands.

To my mind, the most insightful observation
comes from Linda Aragoni,
who brings up the point that the discussion
should not just address purposeful duplicity
for the sake of avoiding embarrassment;
it also needs to consider
the fact that misunderstandings
are often unaware that they are such!

This comment hopefully reminds one that
the conversation should be less about
malicious deception and accusations,
and more about the daunting challenges
to being completely honest.

If one wishes to support Freire’s ideals,
one may prefer to identify loci of deception,
both intentional and unintentional,
and purposefully attempt to eradicate them,
or one may may simply hope to wish them away.

Which strategy is more effective is hard to say,
and may depend greatly on the personalities
of the implementer and of his subjects.

How effective is Freud’s ‘talking cure’.
That depends on who you ask.
What personality factors are relevant to its success?

Does pretending something make it so? Or,
is acknowledging problems the best way to solve them?
I’d argue effective action requires deploying
both these strategies in their proper contexts.

I’d also argue honesty is useful
but not sufficient for learning.

In any case, saying “be honest” is probably
even less useful than “do you understand?”.

immersion issues #2

August 5, 2010

The problems of

1.) students being afraid/unable to ask questions


2.) teachers misunderstanding questions and offering unrelated answers
(答非所問, as the Chinese say)

are serious enough in native language classrooms. How much more serious are these problems in a foreign language classroom? Most importantly, what can be done about them?

Travelers in foreign countries may have encountered the situation where they make the mistake of asking for directions in a yes or no format. “Is the museum this way?” Upon hearing “yes”, they proceed, only to discover that the museum is not that way at all. After experiencing such a situation too many times, one may realize that it is better to ask, “where is the museum?” even if one already has some presumption. If the informant answers “yes” to “where is the museum?”, the traveler safely concludes that the informant has not understood and proceeds to ask someone else. From the other perspective, informants who wish to be helpful don’t just answer “yes”; they answer “yes, the museum is that way” so that they can endow the traveler with complete confidence.

When a teacher loses a student’s confidence the educational endeavor is essentially lost. What use is a question if one can’t believe the answer? (there are uses, but not ones the teacher should strive towards!)

While failing to offer any concrete advice, I can only say, I wish that teachers would strive to ensure that they fully understood students’ questions before answering them.

Regarding the first issue, it is often up to the teacher to ask students questions to determine their comprehension and their ability to delineate it. The question, “Does anyone have any questions?” is often useless. Targeted questions may intimidate students but only insofar as they reveal their weaknesses. Shouldn’t that be sufficient indication that one needs to slow down and back up, until students have sufficient basis, and confidence, to ask their own questions?

immersion issues #1

August 5, 2010

One major problem with common implementations of the immersion method in foreign language education is that teachers continue to explain rather than exemplify.

Let me first address reasonable justifications for immersion:

2 major dangers in using the source language in a foreign language classroom are:

1.) Over-use, by both teachers and students, so that the amount of practice actually listening and speaking the target language becomes unjustifiably diminished.

2.) Over-identification of target vocabulary and patterns with source conceptions, such that the student remains uninformed of the way in which target items may slice up conceptions (or syntax) in ways quite different than their source language.

Banning source language in the classroom resolves the first issue, except in so far as some students may then simply not say anything. The question I wish to address is whether it resolves the second issue.

When a teacher hopes to explain A by saying “A means B” in the target language, then this definition is certainly no better than the students’ understanding of B. If the students’ understanding of B is a direct translation into the source language, then the problem of over-identification has certainly not been resolved.

Without dismissing the great challenge of freeing our minds’ from our mother tongues’ assumptions, I would like to suggest that a plethora of examples is a more suitable way to utilize the immersion method to free the student from over-identification.

Concise, comprehensive examples populated with maximally simple (relative to the students’ level) partner vocabulary can help a student identify both syntax and semantics, as well as offering phonetic repetition. Concise simple examples insure the students comprehension. Comprehensive examples should allow the students to recognize where their source identifications may be in error.

Explanations may describe proper social context but are only as good as the students’ familiarity with those contexts (as implied above). Furthermore, they typically fail to demonstrate permissible syntactic contexts and rarely advance auditory familiarity.

Thus, I argue that examples more than explanations provide the benefit that immersion intends to offer.

Finally, regarding the immersion method in general, I would claim that absolutes are for the simple-minded. Black and white demands are primarily justified when one can not trust others to strike an appropriate balance. However, when one’s mind is focused clearly on the goals on maximum target usage and maximum target comprehension, then why wouldn’t one use all available resources to these ends? Thus, I would argue that source language has justifiable usage in the foreign language classroom.