Helping Students with Appropriate Language

 by Joe McVeigh

English language teachers who work with students in the United States know only too well that teaching language by itself is not sufficient. Language learners also need to grasp the culture of the country they are living in, as well as learn how to overcome intercultural differences. These differences often surface in issues such as how to be polite, how to express yourself non-verbally, and how to maintain academic integrity in the classroom.

One challenge for English language learners is discerning the appropriate register  to use in different situations. A communicatively competent person doesn’t speak the same way all of the time. For instance, a teenager would probably use one form of expression with her friends and classmates, but a more polite and formal type of language, or register, with a teacher or principal.

To help students learn about different types of register, try this activity:

1. Write the following on the board:
“Shut the door.”
“Shut the door, please.”
“Would you please shut the door?”
“Gee, it’s a little chilly in here. Shut the stupid door!”

2. Ask students to identify which sentences they think are the most and least polite. Discuss which sentences would be appropriate to use with different people.

3. Write the following on the board:

“What time is it?”
“Hand me those scissors.”
“Bring me a glass of water.”

  • Form small groups and ask each group to choose one of the sentences and write a list of possible ways to express the meaning ranging from very polite to rude.
  • Ask groups for their ideas and write them on the board. Discuss the sentences and the students’ ideas.

You can find more ideas for teaching culture in the classroom in Tips for Teaching Culture, part of the Tips for Teaching series from Pearson.  The Tips for Teaching series covers topics of practical classroom-centered interest for English language teachers. Written in clearly comprehensible terms, each book offers soundly conceived practical approaches to classroom instruction that are firmly grounded in current pedagogical research.


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.

Towards the Critique: Teaching EAP Students to Be Critical

Tania Pattison PhotoTania Pattison

For EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teachers, it may not be enough these days to teach standard essays and research skills. In order to prepare students adequately for their future studies, EAP teachers at CEFR levels B2 and above need to go further. Recent corpora-based research has shed new light on the genres of writing that our students should expect to encounter in their future studies; for example, in research carried out in the UK, Nesi and Gardner (2012) identified 13 genres that undergraduates could be expected to write; these include essay, case study, narrative recount, and more. One that is common across the disciplines is the critique.

What is a critique?
As Nesi and Gardner put it, “The central purpose of Critiques is to demonstrate and develop understanding of the object of study and the ability to evaluate and/or assess its significance” (2012, p. 94). This could take several forms; depending on their field of study, students may be asked to review books, articles, films, plays, and works of art; they could be asked to evaluate financial data, legislation, government policy, and business operations, or they could be required to analyze critically the results of an experiment, a process, or a system (Nesi & Gardner, 2012). In other words, understanding is not enough; students need to use their critical thinking skills to respond to something they are studying and to express a judgment about its value or usefulness. In the EAP class, the item being subjected to critical analysis is usually a written text.

Learning to be critical
Most EAP students, I have found, are not really clear about what being critical actually entails; many think it has something to do with being negative, and it comes as a bit of a surprise when I tell them that while the word critical often does suggest a negative reaction, critical analysis does not necessarily involve looking for problems within the text. I like to draw students’ attention to people who work as critics of movies, music, restaurants, and so on; these people write reviews that may be positive, negative, or a little of both.

Another thing worth emphasizing to students is that a critique is not an emotional response. Students may be predisposed to disagree with any text that goes against their own personal beliefs, which may have their basis in religion or politics. It is important to emphasize the need to look objectively at the author’s argument and to come to a reasoned analysis, not an emotional outburst. Continue reading

A is for Authenticity

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty 

Since the 1970s, teachers have been arguing about authenticity in the classroom. As a TESOL professor and textbook writer, I’m often asked whether I’m in favor of authenticity. It seems a simple question, but there are several related ideas to consider: How do we define authenticity? What is a continuum of authenticity? How does authenticity relate to materials, situation, and task? and Where and how do we locate authentic materials?

Defining authenticity
Most definitions of authenticity in the classroom can be reduced to the idea of something not created for use by language learners. In general, although textbooks can contain authentic materials, they are not authentic. On the other hand, we consider a local newspaper, menu, or bus schedule as being authentic; the language is natural and generally more applicable to the needs and interests of our students. This is one of the great strengths of exposing students to authentic materials: Outside the classroom, they continue learning as they encounter additional authentic materials.

A continuum of authenticity
The opposite of authentic materials are those that are inauthentic. Elementary school teachers and teachers of beginners use inauthentic materials such as simplified menus with purely descriptive names (hamburger) rather than confusing brand names (Big Mac®, Whopper®). Other aspects of the menu are similarly set in plain speech to avoid confusion.

But between authentic and inauthentic materials are constructed materials. In making constructed materials, teachers and materials developers usually start with authentic materials but simplify vocabulary, grammar, and even typefaces to make them more pertinent and accessible. In other cases, materials are constructed from scratch, based on different genres. As an experiment, I asked 56 experienced language teachers to review three passages and decide which were authentic and which were constructed. Only three teachers identified all three correctly (Beatty, 2015). If most teachers can’t tell the difference, well-written constructed materials are probably an acceptable alternative. Continue reading

Smart Practice: Using Repetition to Improve Memory

 Sarah Lynn 2013.1.1Sarah Lynn

 We forget 90% of what is taught in class within 30 days.

Over a hundred years ago the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885) came to this conclusion after painstakingly exposing his human subjects to list of words.   He also discovered that most of this forgetting occurs just hours after being exposed to the new material.  It is called the curve of forgetting.

When we encounter new information, neurons in our brain activate, but the stimulation lasts only up to 90 minutes unless it is reactivated (Squire, Kandel, 1999).  We begin to commit the new learning to memory when we first practice it, but for learning to endure in our memory, we must return to it at intervals and in different ways over weeks, months, and even years.

Quick Learning

A popular model in education is “teaching to mastery”.  We often interpret this to mean that students need to practice a language point intensely until it is burned into memory. Indeed, while students are practicing, they demonstrate an easy fluency with the material.  That is because it is active in their working memory.  Teachers and students alike prefer this intensive kind practice because it produces rapid, if ephemeral, gains. Quickly students gain confidence in their control of the material.  It feels familiar and known.  If tested immediately after intensive repetition and in a way that simulates the rehearsal, students score well.

Quick Forgetting

It turns out, however, that intensive repetitive practice leads to quick learning AND quick forgetting.  (Dunloskey, 2013).  If students are tested on that same material just a day later, their scores drop precipitously. The challenge is to have students put the material aside and then return to it. Inevitably they will have forgotten some of the material, and that is ok.  The effort they make to retrieve and reconstruct the information each time they practice it anew will strengthen their memory. Continue reading

Pictures of Listening

Nick_Dawsons Nick Dawson

“I prefer radio. The pictures are better.”
There are two sides to listening comprehension: recognizing the words in a stream of sound and creating the picture from the meaning of those words. Recognition is easier than production so we can start by asking students to recognize pictures.

Describing pictures
The teacher chooses a picture from the textbook which contains several people. The teacher describes one of the people in the picture. The teacher’s description starts with simple information. “This person is young.” Gradually, the teacher’s description becomes more specific. “She’s a young girl. She’s got short hair. She’s wearing a yellow blouse. She’s looking unhappy.” As the teacher adds detail to the description, students begin to target the person the teacher is describing.

If we want to go beyond describing people, we can choose a double page spread from the textbook which contains many different pictures. The teacher’s description will start with statements which may refer to three or four pictures. Gradually, as the teacher adds detail to the description, students get closer to identifying the chosen picture.

If you like, you may choose to show the students a page from a shopping catalog which contains many different items. You may choose a page showing gardening equipment. Your description will start from a general statement. Gradually, as you add details of color, material, price, etc. students will begin to target the item you are describing. If you choose a page which only contains handbags, your spoken description will need to be very detailed before students can identify the handbag you have chosen.

As you can see, the students’ level of comprehension is challenged by the complexity of the picture and your description. Continue reading