N is for Note-taking*

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“Now, remember, don’t tip your hat to another witch unless she tips hers first—you’re still an apprentice. And if you should come across some fellweed, be sure to pick it, but only if it’s the four-leaf variety. The five-leaf kind will rot your fingers.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Mason made a mental note not to touch anything with five leaves.

Cowel made a mental note not to touch anything. (Anderson, 2007)

I can’t remember the book in which I first read the term mental note, but I remember the author used it excessively. My 12-year-old self was following the adventures of some junior adventurer who used these mental notes as a cheap plot device to foreshadow further adventures and drum up anticipation. But I found the idea enchanting: my own brain could hide a secret vault brimming with my wild ideas.

Now, like all adults, I find my secret mental vault over-stuffed and increasingly less secure with short-term memories more susceptible to decay, and my ability to retrieve mental notes is sometimes akin to reading words written in smoke. To compensate, I make lists, sometimes on paper and sometimes on my laptop. I flirt with phone apps that promise to organize my notes for me, but generally find them unwieldy. Continue reading

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

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

H is for Hypotheses


Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“I’m a researcher! Why has no one ever told me?”

Teachers are inherently researchers, driven by natural curiosity to understand their students’ problems and to consider ways of addressing them. Sometimes they apply old approaches and methods that may have been key to their own first or second language acquisition. Sometimes teachers become creative and innovate new approaches and methods. In doing so, they tend to follow the scientific method:

  • ask a question
  • research the question
  • construct a hypothesis (a guess)
  • test the hypothesis with an experiment
  • analyze the data and draw a conclusion
  • share results

For example, a teacher asks a question: Why are students doing poorly on tests? She is surprised because she thinks they know (or should know) the content on which they’re being tested. Doing some research (starting online), she finds a variety of variables that could be responsible:

  • The tests are held after lunch; maybe students are too sleepy after eating.
  • The tests are one hour long; maybe students need more time to demonstrate what they know.
  • The tests are written; maybe students don’t perform as well when writing because most of the teacher’s evidence of their abilities is based on their spoken output.
  • The tests are too narrow; students have to study one or more chapters of material, but are only assessed on a small portion.

The teacher expands her research to directly ask her students what they think. She decides this last problem, of the tests being too narrow, is the possible pedagogical culprit.

Based on this research and student feedback, the teacher formulates a hypothesis. It’s messy at first because she isn’t exactly sure how to word it to cover all contingencies, but it basically looks like this:

Students asked to demonstrate what they know do better on tests than students who are asked to recall a subset of what the teacher expects them to know.

Hmm. It’s a bit vague, but that’s okay at this point because designing an experiment will help to make it clearer. It can be refined as the teacher goes along. She decides to use the class’s current area of study, the ten most common irregular verbs. This is the content for which the teacher expects her students to demonstrate mastery:

Base form Past tense Past participle
say said said
make made made
go went gone
take took taken
come came come
see saw seen
know knew known
get got got/gotten
give gave given
find found found

Continue reading

G is for Games

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“Why are they playing games and not learning something?”

Games are among the most misunderstood pedagogical strategies in the teachers’ toolbox. Parents, other teachers, and administrators can misinterpret students’ enjoyment of games as having fun at the expense of more serious and productive learning. But the opposite is often the case; the casual competitive nature of games suppresses students’ self-consciousness and helps them focus and learn more than during other classroom activities.

However, to be fair, sometimes teachers play games in the classroom without a perfect understanding of the benefits that games carry and the ways in which they can be tailored to better address student needs. In such cases, teachers may only use games as filler activities, as a way of keeping more able students busy while others catch up. Alternatively, games might only be used at the end of a class when there is extra time left.


Because games are inherently motivating, they are useful as a reward or a break from other classroom activities. Some games add excitement, such as kinesthetic ones that require students to stand up and participate as a group. An example is Simon Says, in which students have to listen carefully and follow a leader’s directions as long as they are prefaced with the words, “Simon says (touch your nose).” If the words Simon says aren’t said by the leader, students have to remain stationary or find themselves out of the game.

The pedagogical purposes of Simon Saystype games are usually to encourage discrete listening and also to reinforce language students have already learned around actions related to identifying body parts (touch your knees), types of motion (shake your head; close your eyes), and actions (sit down; stand up). As with most games, there are opportunities to tailor the game to the target vocabulary students have recently covered. Reinforcement through a game is important because it stores the information in another part of the brain. Beyond reading, writing, listening, or speaking, the kinesthetic aspect helps make the vocabulary more memorable. Continue reading