Is Fluency Achieved in or out of the Classroom?

Posted October 29, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Methodology

Tags: , , , , ,
Jason Levine headshot

Jason R. Levine

I was recently invited along with 33 other English language teachers to offer an opinion on how fluency is achieved. Jason R. Levine, a.k.a. FluencyMC, compiled 34 tips on becoming fluent in English.

Seeing the range of ideas as well as the striking overlap of viewpoints is exciting. In my opinion, the compilation is a starting point for more discussion. With so much value placed on real language and meaningful interaction, one might begin to question the need for a teacher or instructional publications. Is fluency achieved in or out of the classroom?

Obviously, we all believe teachers are a necessary part of the process. Otherwise, we’d each have a different profession! And as we do our job as teachers, we all make use of instructional materials, from textbooks to YT videos. But how much of a contribution does formal instruction make towards developing fluency?

The need for focused study. To varying degrees, all learners are able to pick up patterns from comprehensible input. However, even the most gifted language learners need the chance for practice with feedback. Being understood is one thing; articulating your ideas very clearly is another. In other words, fluency implies a certain amount of accuracy. One might be very functional in a language, but that’s not the same as fluency. Classroom study, be it traditional or virtual, provides a safe, comfortable environment to develop accuracy. A leaner benefits from feedback given from the teacher, even when it’s a classmate being corrected.

The need for confidence. In Jason’s article, Scott Thornbury refers to the relationship between fluency and the impression the speaker creates. Other teachers in the group also mention the role that confidence plays in being fluent. Does that kind of confidence develop only outside the classroom? Based on my observations, I believe that some people are adventurous and self-assured by nature. Mistakes are made and taken in stride. But for many learners there’s hesitation to speak or write due to lack of confidence. As adults, we especially worry about the impression we’re creating. The pressure mounts in a real-life situation: at work, in town, on the phone, or in a mainstream classroom.

The ESL classroom is meant to be a supportive environment in many respects. One of our jobs as teachers is to make our students feel comfortable enough to try. We want communication to flow easily, without fear of mistakes. We know that there are different types of self-esteem, and a person’s self-esteem can drop when they switch into another language or step into a particular situation. A positive classroom experience can help a language learner transfer confidence to real-world situations.

The need for guidance. Ultimately, we want our students to be independent learners. We hope to guide them to a point where they need our instruction less and less. Good study habits can be taught and practiced. This is my final defense of formal instruction. The ESL classroom isn’t an alternative to real-world practice and communication. It should be seen as a bridge. The wonderful thing about that bridge is that it doesn’t have be burned at any point. I’m happy to have advanced speakers of English turn to me with questions about the intricacies of the language. I supply an answer to the best of my ability, and then the learner continues on his or her personal journey.

Fluency is largely achieved through real-world interaction, but language study with a teacher makes that goal all the more achievable.

Secrets to Learning Vocabulary

Posted October 23, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Different students have complained to me that they can’t seem to remember the words they need when they talk in English. I’m not sure there are really secrets to learning vocabulary, but I do think that each learner needs to discover what study practices work best for him or her. Perhaps the key is to guide them by explaining what kinds of practices they need to develop.

Here are some ideas to share with learners:

Study the context. It’s helpful to recall the context in which you heard or saw a new word. Not only will this help you piece together the meaning, but you’ll also be able to get a feel for when the word is used. Who used it and what was their relationship with the listener? What was the subject of conversation? A playback of a film clip or a flashback to a page in a novel can be mentally attached to a word. It’s like a multimedia vocabulary notebook stored in your mind. Visualize the word and its spelling. Replay the original example in your head. Pay attention to pronunciation and grammar. How was the word used?

Engage in reflective study. Having a real vocabulary notebook is a great idea, whether it’s kept on paper or in some digital form. You can’t store too much new information in your head. If you have key points written down, such as the word, its definition, and an example, you can review more easily. Eventually, it will stick. And when you forget a word in conversation, be sure to look it up later in your notebook. The privacy of your own mind allows for a do-over. Go through the conversation again and restate your ideas using the words you want. Refer to your notebook as needed.

Combine speaking and writing. Writing prompts reflection. In my recent series of small group conversations, I’ve had students do a short post-class writing assignment. They write a paragraph answering one of the several questions I posed during class. They’ve already discussed the topics, so I’m asking them to rethink their answers and articulate one thought to the best of their ability. In class, I offer corrections and suggested wording, so they can draw from my feedback when they write their paragraphs. In the process, their confidence with vocabulary and grammar generally increases.

A less formal way to combine speaking and writing is with social media platforms. Text and audio are being combined more and more. Interaction through social media can be in real time without being rapid fire. There’s a helpful delay between exchanges, giving learners time to pick and choose their words. One of the apps I’ve been experimenting with for the past few months is HelloTalk. I like the concept behind it so much that I’ve listed it among the student resources on my own website. Basically, it’s a robust texting platform for language exchanges, allowing text or audio with the support of translations, pronunciation models, and correction tools.

As I said, there aren’t really guarded secrets to learning and retaining vocabulary, but it will take effort to discover and implement helpful practices. Encouraging learners to share their practices with one another will facilitate those discoveries.

Teaching Adverb Phrases with More Support

Posted October 15, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , , ,

Previous posts on reducing adverb clauses to phrases assume that study and focused practice have been done to some extent already. One of my activities involves text manipulation and pushes students toward creative writing. A second activity also uses storytelling and offers practice with more types of adverb clauses. In connection with that second post, I discussed the variation we sometimes see with the negative adverbs not and never.

I think what’s needed now is a handout with more scaffolding. Before asking students to manipulate and generate text, we should allow them more opportunities to identify patterns when changing adverb clauses to shorter phrases. With this goal in mind, I’d like to offer my Before Going to Sleep_handout. I limit the types of clauses to time and reason. I hope it helps your learners master this grammar point.

From Day to Day: Learning Prepositions of Time

Posted October 7, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

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As I slowly build my playlist of videos on prepositions, I continue to reflect on use and meaning. What points cause confusion? Very often simple grammar structures turn out to be not so simple because the nature of language always allows for variations and exceptions. From…to… is a good example. It’s such a simple structure that we use to define a range, and yet we also use from…till, from…until, and from…through. We also have the phrases from day to day and from time to time, and those aren’t really marking any specific period of time, are they? I decided to discuss these kinds of prepositional phrases in my most recent lesson.

To add to my other post on prepositions of time, I’d like to offer this activity: From time to time_handout. You may choose to use it as is, or perhaps it will inspire your own activities for review and practice. I also have an interactive quiz on my website to review the use of from, to, till, until, and through.

Teaching the ABCs of English…Literally

Posted September 28, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Methodology

Tags: , , , , , , ,

3117621085_837f89518f_mA fellow teacher has requested ideas for new ways to teach the alphabet. Will you help me out? I’ll get the ball rolling with some initial thoughts and suggestions.

Print or cursive? For letter recognition, I recommend using printed letters only. Reading cursive handwriting can come later. Keep things simple for beginners. That includes writing. Unless your school requires handwritten assignments to be submitted in cursive, it’s easier to master printing first. Also, whether you’re working with children or adults, beginners need a visual aid. In a traditional classroom, hang an alphabet chart up on the wall. A private student can easily print out a chart and hang it up at home.

Letter names or sounds? Students need to learn both. The letter names are essential. Very often we need to talk and ask about spelling, and this can’t be done without saying the letter names. A great way to start a lesson is to ask students to spell their names. Have the alphabet clearly visible somewhere. If it’s Day 1, then choose just a few students’ names and select them very intentionally. For example, you might write three names with the letter A: Maria, Sasha, and Ahmed. Ask students if they recognize the names and ask volunteers to spell them. If that’s not possible yet, underline all the As. Ask the class to identify which letter is in all three names. Then repeat this with another group of names. See if students can call out the one letter that all three names have. This could work well for teaching the five vowels.

Upper case or lower case? Your call, but students will need to learn both. In my beginner videos on YT, I chose to use only upper case letters to practice letter names, but then I moved to both upper and lower case letters when it was time to practice writing.

In alphabetical order or not? Letter recognition games can certainly mix up letters, but I think it’s helpful to practice saying the letters in order, too. One great reason is for ease in using dictionaries, indexes, a list of phone contacts, or anything else that uses alphabetical order. Music helps many learners, and even older students can be encouraged to watch one of the many cute alphabet songs online. YouTube has a few dozen to choose from.

Classroom games and activities:

1. Circle presentations. This is a good way to review letter names and sounds. Assign 2-3 letters to each student. For example, Maria must write her letters ABC on a piece of paper. Sasha will have DEF, Ahmed will have GHI, and so on. Students can use a picture dictionary to find a word that begins with their assigned letter. You can help as needed in the search or by reviewing the letter-sound correspondence. Once ready, challenge the class to place themselves in alphabetical order, clockwise. Maria will stand at 12 o’clock with ABC. Sasha will be on her left with DEF. The student with XYZ will be on Maria’s right. Once everyone is in order, go around the circle with students saying their letter names, A to Z. Then go around again, and this time each student will “teach” the others the letter name, the sound, and a model word. So Maria will say A /eɪ/ – /æ/ – apple, B /bi/ – /b/ – ball, C /si/ – /k/ – cat. The others can repeat after her.

2. Circle stepping. After the presentations, lead into this activity to test letter-sound correspondence. You will call out a sound, for example /b/, and the student with that letter must step into the center. Sasha will step in and say his model word: ball. Then Sasha continues the game by calling out another sound, any sound he’d like. Everyone should have a turn being in the center at least once.

3. Spelling cards. Prepare letter cards on 8.5 x 11″ paper, or use letter cards if they’re available. Shuffle and distribute them to the class. Call out easy words, like cat, pen, and study. Students must come to the front of the classroom with the necessary letters to spell the word. If you want to spell words with double vowels (school, tree), then prepare additional cards. One student may have two needed letters, so arms will be crossing and it might get a little silly. Once the word has been formed, the students holding the cards should spell it out. The class can shout out support at any time. If you want less movement and a quicker pace, then do a partial spelling of a word on the board. Students with the missing letters can hold them up and call the letter names out. 3978316556_378a9a8a0e_m

4. iPhone spelling. I spotted a creative alphabet chart online. Look at this iPhone alphabet on the right. You can ask your techy students to read a letter name and identify what it stands for: G is for Google. S is for Skype. Etc.

5. Creative letter forms. Let’s hear it for creative photographers! Check out the photo below. Can you see the letters A, B, and C? You can bring in other items and ask students to say what letters they’re reminded of. Open up a pair of scissor for X. Flip open an old cell phone for L. A dangling earring or its hook might look like a J. Every day for a week, bring in a few items and challenge students to identify the letter each object resembles.11237936813_ff429074c7_m

6. Alphabet snack. If you have access to a cereal with alphabet letters and there are no restrictions on passing out food items, you can give a big spoonful of letters to each student. Have them put their letters in alphabetical order, left to right. Then pair students up and continue the alphabetizing. If there are multiple letters, vertical rows can form. Finally, challenge students to form as many short words as possible with their partners. Encourage as much talking as possible so letter names are used.

7. Back scratching. I used this game with my own children. Two people take turns drawing upper case letters on the other person’s back. The person has to guess the letter being drawn based on what is felt. If this kind of touching isn’t appropriate, you can use your partner’s palm. It’s less space to work with, but the idea is basically the same. Still too intimate? Use a long pencil on a blank sheet of paper. One person holds the pencil at the bottom. The other closes his or her eyes and holds on to the top. The person on the bottom is the writer and must draw a letter for the other to guess.

Needless to say, there are apps out there to help students learn the alphabet, from tracing letters to studying phonics. If you have another idea for a classroom activity, please share it.

Photo credit:

Alphabets by Kyle Van Horn. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

iPhone Alphabet by Schnaars. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Photomarathon by Eva Van Ostade. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Helping Students Understand Levels of Formality

Posted September 24, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

formality word cloudWhat’s been catching my eye lately in students’ writing is the mix of formal and informal words. I actually like that students have to submit assignments to me via email because it gives them additional writing practice. Corrections to their messages are opportunities for me to point out levels of formality. One of the hardest tones to master is what I think of as business casual. It’s still respectful, but not overly formal.

I’ve proposed some guidelines in the past for writing email. (Click to see previous post.) What I’d like to offer now is an activity with an actual message that students can discuss and revise. If you have students who could benefit from this kind of practice with levels of formality, please see my Understanding Levels of Formality_handout.

Leveraging Online Tools for Student Engagement and Follow-Up

Posted September 18, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Tech Tips

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Many of us use warm-up activities at the start of a lesson. They can be simple or clever in design, and the nature of a warm-up might remain light and fun or become a bit more thought-provoking. The first goal, of course, is to get students thinking in English. We want them to use the language actively, either through a verbal or non-verbal response. However, it’s also about establishing the right environment and inviting students into the learning zone. Additionally, I use the opportunity to introduce the lesson topic: my warm-up is often a quiet, informal introduction that then nicely transitions into the main part of my lesson. But why wait until class time to start warming up?

With the integration of technology in our everyday lives, we have the wonderful opportunity to begin engaging learners before the actual lesson. Most of us already feel like we’re online 24/7, so extending our reach through a digital presence before and after class shouldn’t seem unnatural. I think of pre-class online activity as setting the tone and then allowing the traditional lesson warm-up be the final bridge that takes the learner fully into the classroom.

Is the door open for learners to step in?

Our classroom might be warm and cozy inside, but unless the door is visibly open and there’s a positive atmosphere outside as well, it’s not easy for one to make the decision to step in.

Take the time to do some “landscaping.”

Taking the time to do some “landscaping” before class can make a difference. Put down a path that’s easy to follow and pleasant to walk along. Learners will want to continue forward.

How exactly can we do that?

  • Use a poll or a survey. SurveyMonkey is a popular choice, but you can always use tools that are embedded into whatever platform you’re using. WordPress, for example, makes that very easy with its plugin. I mentioned Poll Everywhere in a previous post. That mobile-friendly tool would allow last-minute votes and real-time results in the first couple minutes of class.
  • Use a short quiz. The idea is to keep tasks to a minimum. If students are going to participate, it may be on the go, so no task should be time-consuming. I like the ease of Hot Potatoes software, but it’s not mobile-friendly. Since I use a virtual classroom platform, I take advantage of the built-in tools and I’ve shared private pre-class quizzes. There should no pressure to score 100%. Explain that the quiz is simply to help get students thinking about the coming lesson.
  • Post a photo for comments. A picture says a thousand words, right? Hopefully, the right photo will prompt at least a few words from each student. Photos are so easily shared now through social media, from Twitter to Facebook. Other apps will get the job done, too. Personally, I get a kick out of Viber. I like the ability to leave text or voice messages — and stickers.
  • Share a short video. Find the best place to share links. Do your students prefer a text message or is it possible to reach everyone on a discussion board? For my upcoming conversation class, I’ve planned to address work-related topics. I remembered a scene from Big with Tom Hanks. Thankfully, I found the clip on YouTube under the title “Payday.” It’s all of 18 seconds and captures so much about getting one’s paycheck…after the deductions. I’ve shared the link with my small group via the private discussion board on WizIQ. They’ve been invited to watch it and comment on it.

Many of these tasks can also be used post-class. Their purpose is somewhat different from a homework assignment, which is submitted and corrected. Post-class “engagement tasks” give students the opportunity to explore the topic more or interact with the target language in new ways — voluntarily. You can present tasks as invitations to continue learning.Tasks with different levels of engagement are especially a good idea. For example, a set of flashcards on Quizlet can be used once or multiple times in multiple ways. I did a quick experiment today and timed myself. I created 12 basic flashcards in under 10 minutes using my cell phone. My set of flashcards on industries allows for matching, spelling, and other quiz formats.

Got other ideas for pre- or post-class engagement? I’d love to hear about them.

Photo credits:

“Little House” by Green Explorer (Tom). Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

“Up the Garden Path” by Wildroof. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.


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