The English Language Learner and the adolescent brain


Can you read this?

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.
(I got this off the web but I apologise for not remembering where)
Our brains are magnificent muscles in which they ‘stretch’, grow, build and rebuild connections over our lifetime., Unfortunately, to a deteriorating degree at a certain point!
According to the Stroop paradigm, a literate brain cannot help but decode the symbols we see. That means, once we are exposed to reading – be it in English, Korean, French, Spanish – we can’t help but decode what we see.
However, making that link between what we read and what we try to write is another thing altogether.
And besides, the text at the top might be what English looks like to some ELLs!!The teenage brain is a work in progress. The ELL’s (English Language Learner) brain is doing a few linguistic functions at the same time. Turning what they can read into written work is challenging when the expectations is not on social every day language but a rigorous academic one.

What can mainstream teachers do to help ELLs?
1. Set the context of any topic or activity so ELLs know what they are doing and where the activity is headed.
2. Before a ‘big’ listening/reading/writing/speaking task, scaffolding activities  are useful. Provide some pre- activities like pictures, a prediction task, a during- activity that is focused/controlled to provide successful outcomes for the students and post- activities that allow the language or skill to be recycled through check questions, a dictionary race or writing a summary.

Helping ELLs does not mean helping them with only grammar. It means providing a series of activities which would allow them to access the topic/knowledge/skill that is being presented.



Extending Vocabulary


Extending Vocabulary
As students move towards that anxious time of exams, many would find it easier to not only learn new lexis in context but also if the learning and revision is interactive, fun and challenging. Knowing a word is multidimensional with the process occurring over time.

Research shows

(a) learners need to encounter new vocabulary as high as 16 times before it becomes established in memory.

(b) more encounters may be necessary before the word can be used fluently in speech or  it’s meaning automatically understood when it occurs in a new context. (Nation, P 2001 Learning Vocabulary in Another Language).

(c) learning is successful when learners are engaged in meaningful activities that require them to use the word in productive tasks (Hulstijn, J & Laufer, B 2001Language Learning)
However, learning lists of semantically related words can be counter-productive.
Instead, teach new lexis vertically
in context : the situation in which the word is used (historical, literary, geographical, etc.)
co-text : words that ‘go’ with the new vocabulary word (collocations, etc.)
e.g ‘campaign’ – start / launch / run / election / advertising / successful / presidential (campaign)
Make learning new words interactive, fun and challenging.
Point out patterns -what comes before the word or after it? Highlight chunks of words – e.g. new word in text ‘ruinous’, highlight ‘ruinous thing to say’ in the text  instead of merely ‘ruinous’. You can say ruinous or do ruinous things.
1) Collocation Race: listing words collocating with _________. Write the word in the middle of an A3 paper and students to write down other words that ‘go’ with it.
e.g. “do” – exercise, the shopping, gymnastics, (to be active); suffer- from, with, without, because of.
Collocation dictionary :
Make it kinaesthetic
2) Kick-me Vocabulary – gets students up and talking about their missing word.
3) What’s that word? – Give students a text with target vocabulary missing. You could provide the words in a separate box. Include contextual clues to help them figure out the answer, such as the use of “__” for a definition, ‘or’, synonyms & antonyms. Students learn the skills of understanding the meaning of a word using contextual clues.
4) Definition match up – A set of 3 cards – one has the vocabulary word, the other the definition and the third the word used in a sentence. Create as many of these cards for the different vocabulary words you like to review. Students have to match and place them into 3 columns of word/definition/sentence.
Make it challenging
5) ‘Humbinger’ game – Replace a noun/adjective/adverb with ‘humbinger’ and ask students what the word might be. Using the ideas from the sentence, they guess the word. e.g Susie got a new humbinger. (Slide 1) Susie got a new humbinger from the library. (Slide 2 – ‘from the library’ is a prepositional phrase). This works with more complex ideas, too. (I came across the word ‘humbinger’ from an online site. Please forgive me if I can’t acknowledge you as I simply cannot recall where I saw this wonderful word. I use to merely put in ‘XX’)
6) Just a minute – Create cards with the target vocabulary plus other nouns/noun phrases that students should use in their talk. Each student is to talk for a minute based on the word(s). If they stop, the clock is stopped and the card is passed on to the next person and the clock counts down.
More on vocabulary next week…

Guest blog – Dylan Gates from TEFL Online Training


This is the first time we have a guest blogger and we are excited.  Dylan and I have come up with a series of questions which are published on our respective blogs. We hope you find these insightful.

V: What might an outstanding lesson look like to you?

D: One quality that all outstanding lessons seem to share is that the learners (and the teacher) are fully absorbed and in a state of flow. For an overview of flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi), click this link.

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

There seems to be something effortless about outstanding lessons. The learners are engaged from the outset and this is usually achieved with an initial activity which sparks off their interest and activates their prior knowledge of the topic. This initial activity flows into a subsequent activity which encourages learners to share and pool their knowledge, in the process demonstrating their current level of competence to the teacher. Armed with this knowledge, the teacher provides feedback, which may consist of introducing new language to fill in the gaps in the learners’ knowledge, some corrective work to ensure they are able to use key language accurately, or a guided discovery activity which leads the learners into discovering new language patterns.

 All outstanding lessons I have observed have an activity which has been purposefully designed to give the learners the opportunity to practise new language in an authentic task with a clear communicative function (an informational or transactional  task which replicates something learners might be required to do outside of the classroom).

Finally, some sort of plenary task which allows the learners to reflect upon, review or summarise their improved understanding of the language area covered during the lesson should be included to demonstrate that learning has taken place is surely essential to any outstanding lesson. This should always be accompanied by a collective gasp of surprise from the learners that the lesson has finished, demonstrating the adage that ‘time flies when you are having fun’.

V: Who might an outstanding English Language Learning (ELL) specialist  be?

D: When I think of outstanding ELL specialists, I paint a mental picture of somebody with impressive subject knowledge, attention to the needs of individual learners, the ability to engage and inspire learners, a capacity for encouraging independent learning, and personal qualities such as patience, kindness, a sense of humour and assertiveness.

V: Should ELL specialists be bound to schemes of work? How much should a teacher steer away from the SOW?

 D: Unless a scheme of work has been tried and tested over a period of several years with different classes, it is unlikely to be the finished product and will need to be modified and amended as and when problems and issues are identified. If teachers are bound to untested schemes of work, they will be find themselves in a double bind, caught between the demands of different stakeholders, such as course directors, parents or employers who want to see performance objectives achieved, and the needs of individual learners.

Schemes of work should guide but not constrict. Language learning results from the complex interaction of a set of performance skills which means that progress can be measured but is almost impossible to predict. A ‘one size fits all’ scheme of work does not account for individual learning factors so the needs of each and every learner will vary.

A scheme of work which is personalised for every learner may be the best alternative if our objective is to address the learning needs of our students. However, this is unlikely to satisfy neither stakeholders (academic managers, parents, students, employers) who might want to see a clear demonstration between effective teaching and measurable performance objectives nor teachers who may not have the time to collaborate with learners on developing individual learning programmes and objectives.

This question underlines the importance of the role of academic managers who need to act as intermediaries between the different parties involved in language learning.

What do you think makes a good ELL specialist? Do you think Dylan has hit the nail on the head or are there other factors to consider? I would like to hear your views.

Part III: Building listening skills: Getting the best out of videos and youtube


Part III: Building listening skills: Getting the best out of videos and youtube

We have watched the videos, completed the tasks, what’s next? After all the effort spent in pre- and during- activities, it would be a shame to end there.
Videos are a fabulous means of reviewing, reinforcing and extending the subject language and skills.
Post activities:
1) Write a summary: Use the graphic organisers that students have completed, turn those notes into a summary. Highlight what a summary is and what you expect of a summary. Or write a journalist report, a critic’s review, from the point of view of the protagonist, etc. – cash in on the genre that your level and class are currently learning.
2) Expert Groups: Perhaps the video lends itself to forming different groups arguing their points of view. Or if each group watched different segments of the videos, they form expert groups to teach the others what they’ve learnt.
3) Discussions: Take it further by using the information to create hypothesis, predict outcomes, give personal opinions, as ‘what if..’ questions, etc.
4) Debates: Debates are wonderful tools for oral extension, recycling of vocabulary and schema as well as a chance for students to show off their argumentative skills.
5) Draw a picture: Get their creative juices flowing by drawing a picture of their interpretation of the video.
6) Student created quizzes: In groups, students create questions based on certain themes. Put these questions together for an end of topic review session.
7) Mind-map Madness: Each group or pairing is given an A3 paper and markers. In 10 mins, they have to create a mind-map of the video.
8) K-W-L: What I Know, What I Want to know, What I have Learnt. The third stage of this learning framework lends itself well to post-viewing. Students can then pair-share what they have learnt.
Once again, these are mere suggestions in the rich well of strategies. If you have used strategies that worked well, I’m eager to hear from you.
Some tools that might help organise groupings, sitting plans and create quizzes.
1) (thanks Martin)
5) And don’t forget our good old Moodle!

Part II: Building listening skills: Getting the best out of videos and youtube


Part II: Building listening skills: Getting the best out of videos and youtube

How do I keep students engaged during the video? Setting a task will keep them focused.

Have students read their worksheets or study the graphic organizers before the video.

It is advisable to play the video in its entirety before students complete their worksheets.
Pause at significant sections to allow students to write or take in what has been said.
You  may need to play it more than twice on some occasions.

During activities:

1) Turn on the subtitles: This will be most helpful especially if the audio is a bit crackly or you have tiny speakers in the room!

2) Graphic Organizers: Prepare a graphic organizer to help in note-taking (there is a world of GOs out there:
3) Gap-fill: Create a gap fill worksheet. Be mindful that it is in chronological order and does not require more than 3 words per gap (or students do not have time to listen and write). It’d be good if the gaps are filled with information and not just new words.
4) Questions: Create a series of questions that you would like your students to answer. Be mindful to keep to a particular format – having gap-fills, matching items, and short answers in one worksheet is cognitively challenging.
5) Student-created questions: Task different groups to come up with either, Why?, When? Who? questions; students have to create 3 questions for their peers to answer; students create True/False questions.
6) Jigsaw: Perhaps your topic or theme allows for the creation of picture jigsaws or concepts that can be matched or be arranged chronologically during the video.
7) Blank screen: Freeze the screen (on your IWB),  play only the audio. Have students give the gist of the video or predict what they might see in the video. Then play the video, visuals and all.
8) Hands in the air: For a more interactive viewing experience, have students raise their hands every time they hear a specific question answered.

Using youtube videos (from a colleague)  – removes all the clutter from youtube so it just shows the clip on a white screen, simple and brilliant – allows you to create an online Q and A session whilst watching an uncluttered youtube clip  – allows you to save youtube clips, which you can then embed into docs/Moodle ,etc.

Part I: Building listening skills: Getting the best out of videos and youtube

Building listening skills:  Getting the best out of videos and youtube
Using videos and video clips are one of the many ways to not only break up the lesson into manageable chunks but help rejuvenate the class or have another perspective presented to students.

If only it were as easy as merely turning it on. For many language learners, building their listening, memory recall and note-taking skills are pertinent especially at the academic level.

There are several factors to take into account before pressing ‘play’.

1) Narrator’s accent & speed of delivery. Subtitling.

2) New vocabulary terms and concepts that might be introduced

3) Duration of video & number of times it will be repeated
4) Objective(s) of showing the video

5) Task(s) required of students to complete whilst watching the video

It is advantageous that language learners are exposed to a variety of accents and different speeds of delivery. It is important to think about how we can support their learning and access to the information in the video.
Before watching a video. (Best to have some foregrounding before watching the video.)
1) Glossary: Provide a list of new vocabulary words + definitions that will appear in the video
2) Sequencing: Students are to sequence a series of pictures of a process/concept, etc that the video is about
3) Predicting: Write the title of the video on the board. Have students predict what it might be about.
4) Matching: pictures to vocabulary, vocabulary to definitions, etc.
5) Puzzles, word searches, word association games: to revisit vocabulary and access prior knowledge
6) Gap fill: test students understanding of subject-specific vocabulary and concepts
7) Talk: 3-min talk about what they know about topic x  (K-W-L: what I know, want to know, have learnt)


This is by no means an exhaustive list but merely a drop in the well of strategies. Do write and share any pre-viewing activities you have trialled and tested, and think that teachers might benefit from. I look forward to hearing from you.

Rethink Education

I thought you might like to peruse this site by Academic Earth:
“Rethink Education”

Academic Earth believes everyone deserves access to a world-class education, which is why we continue to offer a comprehensive collection of free online courses from the world’s top universities. And now, we take learning outside the classroom with our original series of thought-provoking videos, designed to spark your intellectual curiosity and start a conversation. Watch, learn, share, debate. After all, only through questioning the world around us, can we come to better understand it.”


Something in Common: Practice punctuating titles


The online learning community of teachers has been growing. Not only has this been encouraging that teachers are helping teachers, it means that we access ideas, share new information and clarify doubts in the blink of an eye. Technology has brought knowledge to our doorsteps but as with all learners, there is always this scramble to try to manage all our virtual communities and networks. I tell myself I’ll get better over time but there is just so much out there it can be overwhelming just keeping up to date with all your personal/professional networks. Imagine the degree of filtering our students have to go through as they learn a new language and get on with technology.
My sincerest thanks to wonderful blogs.

English with Jennifer

In my sixth lesson on English Writing Skills, I address writing titles and names as well as commas with adjective clauses. It may not be the most exciting topic, but it’s one that creates doubts among learners and teachers. We are all writers, and when we write, we sometimes hear an inner monologue about punctuation and formatting. Does that letter need to be capitalized? Do we put a comma before “Jr.” in someone’s name? Is that an identifying clause? You’ve heard that voice ask such questions, haven’t you?

I don’t claim to have all the answers. In fact, I take the time to tell students about different style and format guides used, from MLA format to the Chicago Manual of Style. In my video, I explain the patterns I personally use and give learners a chance to edit some sentences about American films and TV shows using those…

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Language Learning in 2014


Today I stumbled across an amazing site, British Library Sounds in my quest for authentic audio activities for my students. Work aside, I had to explore this site. What a jewel of a find!; early recordings of English language conversations for learners. What would my 21st century, Korean EAL students think about these early spoken word recordings?

This got me mulling over the idea of ‘authentic’ or ‘real world’ texts. How real or authentic do we get with learners? In today’s globalised community where English is pretty much accepted as the lingua franca, understanding a native as well as a non-native English speaker is crucial. Language is about communication. Communication today is global extending beyond borders, physical or otherwise.

Before breaking up for the Christmas break, students’ (and parents’) requests came pouring in for suggestions on improving their English Language. I tried my best to give individualised plans for extension and improvement from books to interactive websites. Upon reflection, I think this is the most authentic one can get with teenagers. Their real world is the world of fashion, fads, music, relationships and technology – apps, games, videos, on demand movies and many more I  am not privy to having gone past the teen years by decades. At the end of the day, learners need to be motivated and inspired to attain their language goals. My best advice is besides the formalised lessons, read books you enjoy, watch the movies that interest you, indulge in some telly, bop to that beat or play that game as long as you have a balance of language activities, you will progress. How slow or fast you do that, well, that’s another post altogether.

Happy New Year! To a year of positive change, knowledge creation and many more books to read…



ELLSA Conference 2013


English Language Learning Specialists in Asia 2013

Learning in a “High Challenge, High Support” classroom: Supporting Success for English Language Learners in International Schools

The inaugural conference was alight with enthusiastic English Language specialists in Asia. With millions of language learners in the region, a conference of this sort was long time coming. As Stroupe (2011) has highlighted, many Asian English Language Learners (ELLs) have a positive view about using English in classrooms especially with their governments implementing educational policies to support this learning.

A conference or workshop is always a good excuse to head out of school for a few days. Indeed, it is a rejuvenating experience, in my opinion, to get out of one’s little comfort zone, explore a new city and be challenged with new ideas. Many of the sessions at ELLSA were an affirmation for me – of my teaching methodology and the teacher training programme I conduct in school.

Pauline Gibbons, English language education guru, opened the conference with her keynote speech on the pedagogy of explicit teaching of the English language as a scaffold for ELLs; an affirmation for many of us, like a pat on the back before we headed off to our selected workshops. Every topic was backed by research and experience. Every one a chance to share our successes and frustrations. It was good to know that many of us have had similar experiences.

*Collaboration with mainstream classroom teachers is an ongoing work in progress

*Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) can happen through collaboration

*Scaffolding learners in mainstream classrooms is a necessity in the 21st century

*Technology is our friend especially in today’s classroom

*L1 development is vital along side L2 or L3 acquisition despite the desire to intensify English language learning

**ESL/EAL teachers are not the panacea for learning difficulties or students’ inability to access the curriculum

I walked away from the conference believing in myself as an ESL specialist a little bit more. There are now many more books I want to read and many more activities I would like to try. On my to-do list:

*work with my fellow ESL teachers to create a framework for collaboration and co-teaching

*incorporate more practical activities and strategies in my PD sessions in school

*put together an improved PD on Academic Language for the teachers

Despite having to learn the conference and Bangkok city, we agreed that the conference provided a wonderful networking opportunity and many a name card and emails were exchanged. Nothing could put a damper on our experience as English Language Specialists in Asia, not even the red nor yellow shirts.

A fabulous #ELLSA… wishing more good years