They Won’t Know Unless You Tell Them

One of my least favourite genres of article is the Kids these days…!  or Back in my day, we…. article focusing specifically on university students. At a very regular frequency, these articles appear in the mainstream press and in publications focusing on academia alike. They invariably consist of a lot of hang-wringing because unlike the (usually Baby Boomer-age) authors of these articles, today’s university students are brainwashed capitalist zombies addicted to social media, who can’t spell or use grammar correctly, and are coddled snowflakes who can’t handle the real world without a trigger warning.

That’s why I loved this article, What First Years Might Not Know and What To Do About It. It’s short blog post listing academic behaviours–emailing, note-taking, interacting with professors–that many first-years lack upon arriving at university simply because they’ve never learned them. The post reminds faculty and staff that they may have to explicitly teach these behaviours. Your first-year students don’t know how to write a proper email? Rather than bemoan that this indicates that the decline of Western civilization, well, just teach them how to do it and get on with it.

And if students are not exposed to these academic behaviours in North American high schools and have to be taught, then what about students who are arriving to a completely new academic culture when they arrive at a Canadian university from another country? For me, this further underlines the need for academic expectations and behaviours to be made explicit and specifically taught to domestic and international students alike. Academic English is no one’s mother tongue, and similarly, no one is born knowing that you shouldn’t use emojis in an email to your prof. If you want someone to act in a certain way, well, then show and tell them what you want; otherwise, how are they supposed to know?


NYT Writing Prompts

Capture I recently came across the New York Time’s list of 401 prompts for argumentative writing. This would come in handy in many an EAP classroom, where opinion or argumentative essays in various forms are taught at most levels, really. The topics and questions are such that most of them could form the prompt for an essay being written purely from a student’s own background knowledge, experience and opinions, or for a research essay drawing on external sources of information.

There is also a list of prompts for personal or narrative writing, along with a lesson called “From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’, Writing Personal Essays with Help from the New York Times”. It’s true that those two particular sections/columns in the NYT are particularly interesting and engaging; not to mention that there’s an archive with thousands of relatively short, easy-to-engage-with texts that could be mined for any number of uses in a writing class.

Also fun to use would be the daily picture prompt. This could be especially flexible for use with lower levels, or as a prompt for genres other than the essay, such as creative writing.

Video: How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada

CaptureI recently came across a video by CBC News called How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada, featuring Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin, that I think would be a great classroom resource for those teaching in Canada. It’s language-focused, explaining the levels of specificity of different terms related to indigenous peoples in Canada and some aspects of use. It’s also extremely clear, concise and explanatory, which ideal for those who might not have extensive background knowledge on indigenous peoples in Canada–such as newcomers to Canada or many Canadians of a white settler background whose schooling in this area may be lacking.

I’ve had several students over the years who have come to the classroom without the nuanced and complete linguistic repertoire needed to talk about complex and historically-rooted social issues such as identity, privilege, racism or colonialism. In some cases it seems apparent that they’ve only been exposed to or learned words and terms that reflect the systemic racism present in pop culture and mainstream society, but lack knowledge of the heavy social and historical baggage and power some of those words carry.

I consider it part of my duty as a language teacher to first get myself informed as to the more appropriate and socially just linguistic choices to make when talking about complex issues (and keep myself informed as society and language, evolve and change), and then to pass that knowledge on to my students.

BC TEAL is putting on a webinar entitled An Indigenous Strategy for the ESL Classroomwhich seems like it could be one example of initiatives being taken towards the reconciliation of the ESL/EAL world and the indigenous communities in Canada; a relationship which has been troubled in the past by things such as denials of racism in ELT coursebooks.

I would love it if you could share in the comments any other people, groups or institutions working on Indigenous-ELT reconciliation in Canada.

Teaching Idea: Phoneme Prevalence Chart


 I came across this fascinating chart on Twitter a few days ago of the prevalence of phonemes amongst the world’s languages. Though it could come off as intimidating for someone who doesn’t know IPA, I think that it could be interesting to draw upon in the classroom. It could spark conversation around the fact that some sounds that are common and fundamental in English might actually be rare cross-linguistically, and therefore difficult for some.  It could be a confidence booster for someone who is struggling with a certain sound to know that there is a reason why they find it difficult, and that they’re not the only one.

I think it could also be interesting to get students to think of the phonemic inventory of their L1 and think about overlap with English (though as this chart shows phonemic inventory and not phonetic, there could be sounds in English which also appear in students’ L1s which are not phonemes but exist in allophonic distribution). Here is an amazing resource on phonemic inventories of different languages (along with other cultural and linguistic info). Although these resources have been made for speech-language pathologists and audiologists, they could definitely prove handy for an English teacher focusing on pronunciation.

ELF Pronunciation in Brazil

Most of my pronunciation teaching has taken place in inner circle contexts; mainly, Canada. Standard Canadian English is quite present in terms of models of pronunciation and goals for comprehension on behalf of many students in this context, as much of their interaction is with local native speakers.

Soon I’m going to be doing some speaking and pronunciation teaching in Brazil, an expanding circle context that’s new to me, and so I thought I’d do a bit of research on the Lingua Franca Core, Jenkins’ (2000) proposal for the core set of phonological features that are most crucial for intelligibility.

I plan to cross reference list of ELF core features with the list of features of  Brazilian Portuguese that tend to be most salient in Brazilians’ learner English and focus on these in the course.

What I’ve come up with so far is the following. This list of summaries of the LF Core features is from this amazing blog, and I’ve added my comments in bold below each of their  summaries.

1. Consonant sounds

‘Dark /l/’ (also written as [ɫ]) is not necessary.  Speakers can substitute ‘clear /l/’ (possibly preceded by a schwa if the /l/ is syllabic, like at the end of ‘bottle’).  

In particular, I plan to focus on the substitution of /w/ for /l/ that often occurs word finally, and try to encourage a clear /l/ in this context.

• /r/ should be pronounced as in General American pronunciation (technically called a “rhotic retroflex approximant” and written as [ɻ].  It should also be pronounced everywhere it occurs in spelling, as in American English.

Brazilian Portuguese (BP) has two ‘r’:  /ʁ/ and /ɾ/, and while the latter does not impede comprehension, substitution of  /ʁ/ for /ɻ/ in most contexts in English, especially word-initially, can really affect comprehension.  I plan to work on raising awareness of the patterns of ‘r’ in BP and trying to get students to work on producing some kind of rhotic something word-initially and in the coda position.


2. Consonant clusters

• If learners have trouble producing consonant clusters, it’s usually OK to insert a very short schwa vowel between consonants, providing they don’t then stress this syllable (e.g. ‘product’ could be pronounced more like [pә’rɒdʌkәtә] by Japanese speakers without damaging intelligibility).

• Similarly, learners can add a short schwa at the end of a word ending with a consonant, provided this does not create another word which it might be confused with (e.g. ‘hard’ sounding like ‘harder’).

Speakers of BP often epenthesize schwas into consonant clusters or on the end of words ending in voiced fricatives or affricates such as /dʒ/, etc. I’ll tryt o focus here on making that schwa as short and unstressed as possible. 

3. Vowels

• Length contrasts must be preserved, e.g. ‘pill’ versus ‘peel.  However, the actual quality of vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent (e.g. don’t keep switching between different pronunciations of the vowel in ‘hat’ so sometimes it sounds like RP [hæt] and sometimes it sounds like New Zealand [het]).

• The length of diphthongs must be preserved but, again, the actual quality of the vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent.

• When a vowel occurs before an unvoiced consonant, it should sound slightly shorter than when it occurs before a voiced consonant.  For example, the vowel in ‘right’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘ride’, and the vowel in ‘kit’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘kid’.

• The /ɜː/ vowel, as in ‘girl’ or ‘first’, must be pronounced accurately.

YES to all these. Vowel length is so important and many learners of English are not aware of it. 

4. Word groups and nuclear stress

• The stream of speech should be divided into meaningful tone units (also known as ‘tone groups’, ‘word groups’ or ‘thought groups’).

• Nuclear stress (i.e. which word is stressed within a ‘tone group’) must placed appropriately, especially for contrast/emphasis.  This means the difference in meaning should be clear between, for example, ‘Let’s meet NEXT Saturday’ and ‘Let’s meet next SATURDAY’.

This aspect of pronunciation was the focus of Jane Setter’s great plenary at IATEFL 2017. It’s relatively straightforward to teach and raise awareness about and I plan to do so with this group. 

I have my work cut out for me!

Now, I know that word stress is not part of the LF Core! But I have observed that a tendency of speakers of BT to carry out schwa reduction on syllables that in stress-timed varieties of English are not reduced (in other words, syllables that are stressed or unstressed but not reduced to schwa), and I have seen it cause misunderstandings in interactions with native speakers and non-native speakers. This makes me inclined to bring it up in class.

Any of you ELF enthusiasts out there have more recommendations for me?



Corpus-based Grammars and Style Guides

I gave the keynote address at the AWELL Conference a few months ago, and one of the practical suggestions I included in my talk for writing teachers working with English language learners was to try to draw on corpus-based grammars and style guides based on real language use vs. those that try to pass off personal style preferences as hard and fast “rules”.

Here is an excerpt from that talk, with the references I included. The friendly folks of #tleap on Twitter pointed me toward some of them. I haven’t personally used all of these in the classroom, so welcome any comments and feedback on how well any of them hold up to real-life use.

 I suggest working from a grammar of English that draws on data from language corpora to determine what the constitutive rules of English are. For those of you that don’t know, a language corpus is a “body” of hundreds of millions of lines of text of the language in use. Some corpora compile thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, others academic texts, others fiction writing. So you have a huge repository of the language as its actually used by real people in real contexts. And you can analyze the language in a corpus using technological tools to determine the rules of a language based on how the language is actually used. So for example, if you’re wondering “Can I really never end a sentence in a preposition in an academic text?” corpus data will tell you that in fact, you can; lots of great writers do it all the time. They can’t all be wrong. Use determines the rules in the descriptive approach, remember? So that tells you that not ending a sentence in a preposition must simply be a style choice. (Though it’s debatable if it’s something everyone does literally all the time, if you’d really want to give much time to it. )

corpus grammarsSo here are some English Grammars that are corpus-based: 

Some of them have “learner’s editions” which are aimed at learners of English at lower levels of proficiency. They all endeavor to present the rules of English as it is actually used. Several will contrast frequency of use of a particular item in different contexts, for example in fiction writing versus academic writing.

garnerThe Garner texts (2016 editions), for example, highlight particular language points where there is disputed use. For example, maybe the traditional style guides say one thing, but lots of people do another. It gives corpus data showing the real patterns of use of that particular item, how common each variant is, and if there has been change over time.

 So for me, these are a more accurate choice. Why would we want to enforce grammar rules with multilingual writers that people don’t actually adhere to in real-life written academic English? And If you really want to nerd out, you can delve into corpora yourself to check out certain grammar points. The Google N-Gram viewer or the MICUSP corpus are good places to start. You may also be interested in reading linguist Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”, which is written by a well-known author who grounds his advice for good writing in linguistic theory.

EAP Reading: Defining the Relationship

Here’s an interesting article that could make for a great reading for a class of EAP students about to enter their degree programs. As summarized by

Students need to better understand the role of a professor, writes CHE contributor

“I wonder if college students today truly understand the nature of their relationship to professors,” writes Rob Jenkins for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jenkins argues that over his 31-year teaching career, he has seen the lines defining the professor-student relationship become increasingly blurry. In response to this shift, Jenkins lays out several points that he thinks all postsecondary students should know: a professor does not “work for” a student; a student is not a customer; and a professor is not a high school teacher, boss, parent, BFF, or adversary. Jenkins concludes by laying out point-by-point what he is willing to do for students before adding, “All in all, that’s not a bad deal.”

It’s written from he American perspective, so those using this in another context might have to explain/adapt some of the terminology (university for college, etc.). But I think it could make for a good reading and some great ensuing discussion. (Particularly brave teachers might even want to wade into the comments section on the article for added debate).

Defining the Relationship – The Chronicle of Higher Education

AWELL 2016: Keynote Address

AWELLConferenceRackCard2016_02Feb03_Page_1-1200x533I’m giving the keynote address on the opening day of the Academic Writing and English Language Learners (AWELL) conference being held at Saint Mary’s University tomorrow. It’s a really neat conference which brings together a range of people who deal with writing in the university environment: ESL/EAP instructors, writing support centre tutors and administrators, and faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.

Here’s the abstract:

What to correct? How to correct? Why to correct? Focus on Form with Multilingual Writers

In the teaching of writing to multilingual writers, the grammar correction debate rages on—should we be sticklers about the fine points of grammatical accuracy or overlook errors that don’t inhibit communication? A focus on form gives rise to questions about which linguistic standards to adhere to, how to approach form and grammar when giving feedback, and what our students even gain from it. This talk will offer a look at differing approaches to form and grammar in the teaching of academic writing to multilingual writers, as well as the history, politics, and preferences surrounding these practices.

Here are the slides: AWELL 2016 Presentation

 My talk puts the forward the proposition that we should see our role as language specialists rather than just writing specialists. We should move past whatever prescriptivist tendencies we may have and work to promote a socio-literate perspective on language form and use in our classrooms that better suits the linguistically diverse university environment in Canada today.

The Swedish Number: Speaking task?

CaptureIf I was teaching a speaking class right now, I would definitely turn making a call to The Swedish Number into a speaking assignment.

The Swedish Number is an initiative of the Swedish Tourism Board, which is a phone number which “connects callers to a switchboard and then, wherever in the world they are, to “a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden.”

There are so many directions you could take an assignment based around The Swedish Number.

  • For a low-level English language learner, especially one in an EFL environment, the call would simply serve as great interactive speaking practice. They could work off a script or prompt if needed, and prepare and practice strategies for asking for clarification or repetition, asking the interlocutor to slow down, etc.
  • If a student was studying  vocabulary or other language from a particular topic area, academic discipline, or hobby or area of interest, they could call the number and try to pursue a conversation in that direction. The direction the conversation took, though, would depend on the random Swede who picked up the phone.
  • If a student was planning to travel, study or do business with Sweden, then it would be a no-brainer to have them call. Bonus points for asking the random Swede about language issues, how widespread English use is, some rudimentary phrases in Swedish, etc.
  • If my student was studying English for business in order to work on an international team, was studying English for academic purposes to be able to present and publish at international conferences, I might bring up the concept of English as a Lingua Franca. I’d explain what it is and walk about some of the features, maybe giving them a reading on it, and then ask them to call the Swedish Number and talk with the person as an applied exercise in ELF.
  • Assuming that the random Swede who answers the phone is going to have a good level of proficiency in English, then I would ask students to call and talk to the random Swede about their language learning strategies, experiences and tips.
  • If I were playing around with language learning identities in class, I would encourage my students to call and “try out” some different personalities in English with the random Swede who answers.

Any more ideas? This number will only be working for a limited time, something like 135 more days, so get on it!


The Joy of Dad Jokes

haircutDad jokes–jokes so corny, so lame, so obvious, they make us roll our eyes, groan and exclaim “DAAAAAaaaad!!!” like an embarrassed 8-year old. (Here are some, and some more, and yet another list, and even a Dad Joke Quiz.)

But could Dad Jokes be the gateway humour for language learners? Lots of people have written lots of stuff about humour and language learning:  learning about it and through it in the classroom, using humour as a teaching tool, and the challenge of understanding and making jokes as you learn a second or additional language.

Both as a language learner and teacher, I’ve felt that humour was the final frontier; the level of linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to understand jokes in the media, in advertising, or those made socially was incredibly high. And making your own jokes was even more of a challenge.

But today I was giving a talk to some of the university campus tour staff on best practices for serving students whose first language is not English. Someone mentioned that the jokes he makes with tour groups whose English proficiency is lower often fall flat, and he wondered if it was best to avoid humour altogether. It made me think about how on different occasions some cheesy quip or aside I’ve made in the classroom has been met with roaring laughter. So I suggested he not cut out humour compeltely, but to keep it on the corny side.

Why are Dad Jokes accessible for learners? First, they’re usually super obvious. Lots of them deal with language, but very simple language. And the aspects of language that are at the centre of many Dad Jokes are the very linguistic phenomena that beguile learners: homophones (“Why can’t you play poker in the jungle? Because there are too many cheetahs”),  word boundaries (“Did you get a haircut? No, I got them all cut.”), multiple meanings of words (“Do you know where you can get chicken broth in bulk? The stock market.”), literal vs. figurative meaning (“Did you hear about the guy who invented Lifesavers? They say he made a mint.”), and syntactic ambiguity (“A ham sandwich walks into a bar and orders a beer. Bartender says, ‘Sorry we don’t serve food here.'”)

I think I might let my inner Dad shine in class over the next while and see what happens. Do you ever use Dad Jokes in class?