J is for Jokes

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It felt like hours.

The joke my student was trying to tell perhaps took no more than three or four minutes, but it involved many clarification moves on my part (“I’m sorry, do you mean …?”) and repair moves on his part, hesitating, saying the wrong word, and then backing up to explain (“I mean ….”). At the end of it all, the disjointed story (“Oh, before that, I meant to say ….”) coalesced into an anecdote he’d read about a diner receiving a free meal at a restaurant after finding a cockroach in his soup. Afterward, the apologetic server humbly escorts the diner to the door and helps him with his coat when, unfortunately for the diner, a bottle full of cockroaches spills from the coat’s pocket.

I smiled weakly and nodded, but the student was far from finished; he felt compelled to explain the obvious: the bottle meant that the diner doubtlessly made a regular practice of obtaining free meals by this same deception. I nodded again, then gently steered the conversation back to the topic of the class.

Plateaus of language learning ascend from a base of knowing a few words and phrases, to asking yes/no and simple information questions, to using language to learn more about language (“How do you say ____ in English?”). Above those plateaus tower the mountains of dreaming in the target language and making jokes.

In part, jokes are challenging because they may violate some or all of Grice’s (1975) four maxims of how to best share information, summarized below:

Quantity—be concise
Quality—be accurate and truthful
Relation—be relevant
Manner—be clear, brief, and orderly

In the case of my student, there were several impediments to his telling the joke successfully. I suspect he hadn’t mentally rehearsed the story in English and was translating on the fly, so he was not concise. He did not have all the necessary vocabulary items at his disposal, so he was not accurate. In a conversation one expects a speaker to be truthful although in a joke the opposite is often true. But the context—or setup—usually needs to establish the fact that a joke is to follow, as with a well-known opening phrase like, “Three ____ walk into a bar and ….” This is akin to recognizing that the phrase “Once upon a time” signals the start of a fairy tale.

Alternatively, a joke might be introduced with a phrase such as, “Have you heard the one about ….” But the student did neither, so there was nothing to indicate that my class or I should suspend disbelief and understand that an untruthful story was being told for amusement. In the context of the classroom where the joke was delivered, I would have expected the student’s talk to focus on the learning of English as a second language, so it didn’t appear relevant. And because he rambled, he wasn’t clear, brief, or orderly.

However, many forms of jokes can be exploited in various ways in the language classroom. Continue reading

Picture It: A Drawing-Based Pre-Reading Activity

 2013_Heyer_Sandra Sandra Heyer
In the last newsletter, I shared drawing tips that make it possible for any teacher, even one as inept at drawing as I am, to convey meaning with simple sketches on the board. In this newsletter, I’ll share some ideas for making drawings the centerpiece of a pre-reading activity.
Many textbooks at the lowest levels have pre-reading drawings built right into the book. For example, each unit at the Very Easy and Easy levels in the True Stories reading series begins with comic-strip-style drawings like those below, which are from Unit 11 in All New Easy True Stories. (The story, titled “The Best Doctor,” is about a woman in Alaska whose knee problem was finally resolved after she was chased by a bear.)
Sandra_Heyer_Feb1Appropriately, textbooks beyond the entry levels do not give students the extensive visual support that picture-based readers do; however, I have found that students above the first levels still benefit from seeing just a few drawings before they read. Where do I find these drawings? I sketch them myself on the board, using drawing tips I learned from the late Norma Shapiro and from her resource book Chalk Talks. I’ve seen the positive effects of this picture-based approach so many times that now I always preview a reading selection with drawings.
How does the preview work? I simply tell students the beginning of the story they’re going to read, all the while drawing simple illustrations on the board. (I usually draw about five sketches.) For example, Unit 10 in the Beginning-level reader True Stories in the News, “Love or Baseball,” is about a guy named Joe who fakes a broken leg to get out of taking his girlfriend to a dance; he’s a baseball fan, and his favorite team is playing in the World Series the night of the dance. I set up the reading with sketches like these:
The key to this technique’s success is to tell just enough of the story to set the stage for the reading selection but stop short of giving the story ending away, ideally stopping at a “cliff-hanger” point. In the case of “Love or Baseball,” I don’t tell my students how Joe manages to fake a broken leg or how his scheme works out for him—they read the story to find out.
You might also want to try these variations of the basic technique: Continue reading

I is for Intensive Reading

Ken Beatty 1Dr. Ken Beatty

Many teachers cringe at their early memories of learning a language through the teacher-centered grammar-translation method. Rule driven, with a focus on accuracy over fluency, it’s the oldest formal methodology, dating back to the teaching of Latin in the 1500s. Over the centuries, other languages were taught in the same way, and when the first modern language textbooks appeared in the 19th century, they tended to use the grammar translation method as well. Internationally, it continues to be popular in many countries, in part because teachers, unless trained otherwise, tend to teach the way they were taught.

In the 20th century, dissatisfaction with the grammar-translation method saw the rise of many competing approaches through the 1960s. Since then, teachers have increasingly embraced variations of the learner-centered communicative approach or use a mixed methods approach, distilling the best ideas and features of different approaches and methods to find those that best meet their learners’ needs. One aspect of the grammar-translation method that lives on in modern classrooms is intensive reading.

Intensive reading is contrasted with extensive reading. In intensive reading, the focus is on a deep understanding of the text, which is usually pitched at a level that is slightly challenging for the learner. The intensive reading passage might be challenging in one or more ways. The vocabulary might be new, and/or the sentence structures and grammar might be advanced for the learners’ level. The subtleties of the text might be such that the learner needs to use considerable inference skills to decode what a paragraph, article, or story is about. The focus might be on genre, for example, understanding how a lab report differs from an essay or a short story.

Intensive reading focuses on shorter passages and is teacher-centered in the sense that teachers, for pedagogical purposes, select what they feel the learners should read. The teacher (or sometimes the textbook) carefully chooses a text that narrows the focus of what learners should be acquiring in terms of vocabulary, comprehension, or even strategies that will make it easier to read similar texts in future.

Assuming you are not fluent in Latin, look at the following paragraph and reflect on how much you understand.

Eodem die ab exploratoribus certior factus hostes sub monte consedisse milia passuum ab ipsius castris octo, qualis esset natura montis et qualis in circuitu ascensus qui cognoscerent misit. Renuntiatum est facilem esse. De tertia vigilia T. Labienum, legatum pro praetore, cum duabus legionibus et iis ducibus qui iter cognoverant summum iugum montis ascendere iubet; quid sui consilii sit ostendit. Ipse de quarta vigilia eodem itinere quo hostes ierant ad eos contendit equitatumque omnem ante se mittit.

No, really. Read it. I know you just skimmed it or skipped it altogether. Seriously, go back and have a careful look at the paragraph, reading it aloud. Even if you don’t read or speak Latin, there should still be several things that you understand.

Eodem die abexploratoribus certior factus hostes sub monte consedisse milia passuum ab ipsius castris octo, qualis esset natura montis et qualis in circuitu ascensus qui cognoscerent misit. Renuntiatum est facilem esse. De tertia vigilia T. Labienum, legatum pro praetore, cum duabus legionibus et iis ducibus qui iter cognoverant summum iugum montis ascendere iubet; quid sui consilii sit ostendit. Ipse de quarta vigilia eodem itinere quo hostes ierant ad eos contendit equitatumque omnem ante se mittit. Continue reading

Drawing in the Classroom: It’s Easier than You Think

2013_Heyer_SandraSandra Heyer

When I first began teaching beginning-level English, I was surprised at how many times I found myself at the board, trying to draw a picture for my students. The key word here is trying. I am one of those unfortunate people who literally can’t draw a straight line.

But while I had the misfortune of being an inept artist, I had the good fortune of being a contemporary of the late Norma Shapiro, a gifted teacher who made it her mission to help teachers like me enhance their lessons with passable drawings. At a TESOL conference many years ago, Norma gave a presentation billed as a crash course in drawing for teachers who can’t draw. I came early for a front-row seat and took away drawing tips that have served me well over the course of my career. With the help of Norma’s tips, you might discover, as I did, that drawing for your students is easier than you think. Here are six quick tips:

1. To represent people, don’t draw stick figures — draw figures Norma called “blobs.” Most of the time, you’re just trying to get across the idea that your drawing is a human being and not, say, a fish or a can of soda. So it is usually not necessary to draw ears, arms, or legs. A basic blob has only a head and shoulders:

Drawing in the classroom images 1a

Continue reading

Literature in ELT: Navigating a Sea of Choices

2014_Sybil_MarcusSybil Marcus

This content first appeared on the TESOL Blog. © TESOL International Association. Reprinted with permission.

When I first started using literature in my ESL/EFL classes, I thought all I had to do was teach the stories I enjoyed reading.   But I soon found that even my favorite stories wouldn’t always work in class.  Sometimes, they lacked sufficient depth for a 2-hour lesson, they failed to engage my students, or I couldn’t find a good way to organize the discussion.

So, how do you compile a successful syllabus for a literature-based course? If you focus on short stories (as I usually do), you can find thousands of them in anthologies, in textbooks, and online.  The sheer number of options can be a challenge, which I hope to help you with in this post.

1. Group stories into themes

Connecting stories thematically is an effective way to organize your course.  As an added benefit,  it allows for class discussions and writing assignments centered on comparison and contrast.  Some umbrella topics might be:

  • Relationships: Stories dealing with relationships between parents and children, spouses, siblings, and lovers hold universal appeal.
  • Social Issues: Some of the most animated discussions in my classes have been inspired by contemporary topics including war, discrimination, gender, euthanasia, and women’s rights.  Although many of these are hot-button issues, I encourage students and teachers not to shy away from them.  Because I particularly appreciate the role of social issues in increasing cultural awareness, I’ll be devoting an entire future blog to this.
  • Stages of Life: Shakespeare wrote about the Seven Ages of Man. I’ve found that students respond well when dealing with the various stages of life: childhood, the teenage years, young adulthood, maturity, and old age.  Your students will relate directly to some of these; others will require more imagination and empathy.

2. Look for layered stories.

While many stories are fun to read, they may not have sufficient texture for a complete lesson.  I always ask myself how much I can get out of a story.  You need complexity to go beyond a discussion of plot to an analysis of theme and style.  Too frequently we underestimate our students, who are generally hungry for sophisticated material. I like to challenge them with stories that engage them intellectually and emotionally, while stretching their language level. Continue reading