Class Activities: Spot the Difference

“OK guys, we’re going to describe this picture…” you say to your eager students. Silence is their response. We’ve all experienced the silent response and will continue to experience it for as long as we teach a foreign language. But what are some ways to alleviate it? One activity that I’ve been trying of late with both younger learners and adult learners utilises spot the difference pictures. Most people love a good puzzle, so to give them something they may enjoy in their L1 and transfer it to something that makes use of the language patterns they are currently learning can give some light-hearted relief and much-needed spontaneous speaking practice. How to use the spot the difference pictures? Well, your imagination is your limit as with any teaching scenario. I’ve used them to cover: prepositions of place descriptions with progressive continuous descriptions of people (appearance) descriptions of the scene differences in thoughts and emotions (via body language and facial expressions) As for how to use them? Well, again… imagination is the key. I’ve used them in pair work, group work and whole class work, and have also made a team game out of them. The game being that the students work in teams to communicate with one another and write down the differences as quickly as possible. This is most effective with the younger learners since they like the competitive side of things, but I’m sure it can be adapted to suit all ages. I’m sure there are other ideas of what they can cover as well… and I’d love to hear about...

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Class Activities: Audio Diary

What’s a common homework assignment or part of the so-called on-going assessment? Getting your students to write a diary is a pretty safe bet. We’ve all requested it and most students will deliver. The diary is used as a reflection of general speech and trying to get the student to find their own voice in their L2. But at the end of the day, no matter how much of their voice we can help them find, they don’t always progress when it comes to speaking. Be it confidence or perhaps even the physicality of actually speaking the L2, there are often obstacles. One possible way to alleviate these obstacles are to change tact a little bit. Where many of us teach (Korea, Japan, China…), the students are rather tech savvy little creatures… perhaps more so than the old-fashioned teacher gripping his chalk. It probably goes without saying that the majority of them will have an iPod, mobile phone or access to a computer. Any of these have recording capabilities – yes, even the iPod if you get a measly $2 microphone attachment available from all good electronic outlets based in places like Hong Kong. And for recording on a computer there’s always Audacity… Anyway, it’s these recording capabilities that we need to tap into. Out students want to speak, they have trouble speaking. We assign them writing, they still have trouble speaking. So here’s a pretty radical idea… let’s assign them speaking! Give our students a speaking assignment. It’s pretty simple. They keep an audio diary and can just email it to us before class (I record 45 minute presentations at 32kbs; they are perfectly audible and only weigh in at around 8mb… so a 3-5 minute diary is going to be sub 1mb). Or if it’s a weekly assignment, have them bring them on CD or even have them upload to a free web space. As for corrections, you can either provide written feedback or take the alternate route and give the students audio feedback to assist their listening skills. The ideas today are to focus on verbal communication, so I like the audio feedback route with perhaps a few key notes in the written form if they’re needed. In the beginning, students are likely to forget these assignments but with time and enouragement should become more comfortable. One possible way of clearing the first hurdle is to take the iniative and send a recording to each student via email to get the ball rolling. Once the students get over their initial reservations about this form of assignment, they should open up a little and take some risks… and hopefully they will be able to see the benefits...

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Academic Vocabulary
May12

Academic Vocabulary

As many of you will know, the study at university in an English speaking country you’re likely to need the right TOEFL or IELTS score. And that’s a lot of work. Speaking to some of my international classmates though, I’ve come to realise something. Even though they have an excellent command of English and the right score, they don’t always have the tools for the academic setting. They sometimes lack the relevant vocabulary. Vocabulary that many of us take for granted. So what do they need to study? Endless wordlists to increase their vocabulary to the 20’000 mark or something absurd? Not exactly it would seem. In reading Thornbury’s How to Teach Vocabulary I came across an interesting piece of information I’ve encountered before. The restricted number of word families in use in academic settings. Thornbury has some interesting notes on vocabulary and the book is well worth a read – the whole series is actually! Anyway, he firstly notes that a core vocabulary numbering 2000 of the most frequent word families will account for circa 90% of words in use in many written texts. Add to these 2000 a meagre 570 more word families that have been written about recently as being frequently used in academic texts and the reader will have a bridge a large gap. The 570 most frequent academic word families (found here) are said to cover 1 in 10 of those in use in academic texts. Which may not seem like a lot, but when added to the core of 2000, you’re bound to be on pretty solid...

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Study Materials: The Dictionary Debate

Everyone owns one.. at least one. Or at the very least, has access to one. People that don’t even study languages own one. Dictionary play a pretty major role in the lives of people of all ages. They’re set a standard for us to follow… sometimes we disagree, and sometimes we all get along. So how can language learners make the most of them? I’ll steer clear of the descriptive elements and this will be more prescriptive… No, I’m not telling you that you have to follow it, but these are just some ideas that I’ve had from both my own learning and also from observing my students during class. Paper versus electronic: I love paper books and much prefer them to reading on a screen, that is, with the exception of the dictionary. I much prefer electronic dictionaries. By electronic I mean the portable, dedicated, electronic dictionary and not the web-based dictionary, which I also dislike reading but will use if I really need to. It’s all about personal preference here and relatively straight forward. However, in the class, I prefer my students to have a paper dictionary; they’re less distracting and kids don’t rely on them as much as they do the electronic variety because they actually have to read words (shocking I know!) to find what they are looking for. In any case, weigh up the pros and cons of each and make a decision 🙂 Bilingual Dictionaries: Fantastic for early learners where they don’t have a base strong enough in the target language to decode the meaning. Very easy to use and make it quick to understand a concept. The problems are that they often lack example sentences, so usage can be a little askew from an over-reliance on them. Also, students need to realise that they should cross-check the vocabulary both ways (both ‘to target language’ and ‘from target language’). This will alleviate some of the issues with usage out of context, but not all… nothing is perfect. Another concern, a minor one… batteries die. But c’est la vie right. Monolingual Dictionaries: Once a learner has a strong base in a language they should, in my opinion, be moving to a monolingual dictionary. This isn’t necessary the fastest way to find the meaning, but it has the highest overall benefit to the learner. They have something to work from and they have to read and decode the meaning in the target language. More exposure equals more learning right? Plus, moving away from an over-reliance of the bilingual dictionary and using it as a crutch can actually hinder learning. Although, there are obviously going to be times when the...

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Class Activities: Dictation with Speaking

Here’s an activity that incorporates three skills in one: listening, writing and speaking… with some reading thrown in if you twist it a little bit. The steps are pretty simple, it’s simple to incorporate and easy to control. use a recording of a conversation with the question parts removed… so basically you are playing one side of a conversation. students do a typical dictation exercise for the parts that are played. as a class you can correct the dictation so everyone has the right answers (or give the students the script to read so they can cross-check). work as a class to verify meanings. now the students create questions through speaking to suit the answers (or answers to suit questions if you’re doing the activity that way)… basically, they just complete the conversation. verify the completed conversation on the board so students can get the more suitable questions for the answers (or if having students answer questions, you can have them write on the board some of the possible solutions). As a final activity, play the complete conversation and have students practice speaking with or after the dialogue. Then working with the complete script so they can read and speak simultaneously. The final part of this activity exposes the students to shadowing, which is likely to be something they haven’t encountered all that much. But if given this activity they may come to see the benefits on their own rather than just listening to their teacher mindlessly preaching about the...

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