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?



The Rassias Method

I’d never heard of the Rassias language teaching methodology before an American-trained colleague brought it up recently. It’s like some in-your-face audiolingual/communicative language teaching hybrid.

It seems like Rassias himself was quite the character:


(from Stansfield, Charles, and Jeanne Hornor. “The Dartmouth-Rassias Model of Teaching Foreign Languages.” ADFL Bulletin 12.4 (1981): 23-27.)

I’m not sure our raw meat and egg budget is big enough to get all staff on board with this method. Alas…

[Note: I’d been meaning to write this little blog post for a while, and then I do, and only then realize that John Rassias had just died a few days earlier…]


TESL Canada 2015: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing

TESL Canada Logo

Three colleagues and I are off to Lake Louise to represent the East Coast at the TESL Canada conference being held Oct. 29-Nov.1.

I’m doing a tweaked and updated version of my presentation Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing.

Here’s the abstract:

The five-paragraph essay is omnipresent in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) coursebooks, despite corpus-based research that shows few university students are assigned essays of this type, but rather any number of genres. This presentation will look at alternatives to the five-paragraph essay in the teaching of EAP writing and propose practical teaching ideas to bring genre into the classroom.

Here’s a video of me talking a bit about the presentation and what I’m looking forward to at the conference that I filmed with the conference organizers a few months ago.

Click here to download the slides from my presentation.

I haven’t been to TESL Canada since 2012, so it’ll be nice to catch up with colleagues from across the country. (A flight from Halifax to Calgary is the same distance as the flight from Halifax to London, hence one of the reasons why I’ve been going to conferences in the UK the last few years.) Also, TESL Canada has been going through some turmoil the last few years, so it’ll be interesting to see how the organization is pulling through.

I’ll probably be sticking mostly to presentations on EAP and will try to blog/tweet during the conference as much as I can. Shoutout to Anna Maier and Sophie Paish who will be presenting on cultural attitudes toward grading systems, and Oksana Shkurska, who will talk about metaphors in academic English.

Why All (Serious) English Teachers Should Know the IPA

20120707043356!IPA_consonants_2005IPA as in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and not India Pale Ale, to be clear. 🙂

I recently posed this question on Twitter, and got a variety of responses. Some agreed that it was helpful but not necessary, and others pointed out that knowing IPA is one thing, but knowing the phonology and phonetics that underlie it, and also knowing if/how to use it in class, is another.

I still think that any teacher worth their salt should know it, though. At least the IPA for the sounds of English. Here are my reasons, in no particular order.

  • Credibility. Many of our students know it. (Especially those from certain countries in Asia). Many (though not all, of course) learner’s dictionaries use it. Isn’t there a lack of credibility if the teacher doesn’t know what seems to be a pretty common tool in ELT?
  • Phonological awareness for teachers. In learning the IPA for the phonemes of English, one could assume the teacher has come to the realization of just how many phonemes there are in English, how some of the closer vowel phonemes, for example, resemble each other but are different, and how there is a discrepancy between the sound system and the writing system of English. It is not a given that someone will have gained this awareness simply by learning IPA, but I think you could assume this happens in many cases. This awareness is invaluable for teaching pronunciation and speaking. Our subject matter as English teachers is language, and it is our duty to deepen our knowledge not just of grammar and use, but of the sound system as well.
  • Phonetic awareness for teachers. This one could be even less of a given that the point above, but if a teacher learns the descriptive name for each of the symbols (e.g.: /p/ voiceless bi-labial stop) they will hopefully gain awareness of the place and manner of articulation of the sounds of English, which is also important for the teaching of pronunciation.
  • Precision in the classroom. Though the nuances on how and if to use IPA in the general English classroom are debated, it’s just a concise tool for raising students’ phonological and phonetic awareness. If English had a one-to-one grapheme to phoneme relationship, it wouldn’t be so necessary. But alas, IPA is just a concise way to break students’ habit of speaking English as it is spelled. I don’t know how you can take the teaching of pronunciation beyond “No, just say it more like ME!” if you don’t have the tools to precisely think about and describe the sounds of English. If you didn’t know the types of and names of verb tenses and how they were composed, it would be hard to teach grammar. Isn’t this the same thing?
  • Cross-linguistic potential. This is a minor one, but since IPA is cross-linguistic, it can be a neat way to compare the sounds of English to your students’ L1 and talk about they ways they are similar and different. It’s also useful for writing down and correctly pronouncing your students’ names.

Any reasons I’ve missed? Do you think that IPA is a must for English teachers?

PS: I’m going to cheekily add that in my experience the people who I’ve had most insistently argue that knowing IPA isn’t necessary have not known it themselves. 🙂

To Read: Toward Better Teaching of Pronunciation

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconMan it can be hard to find the time to blog in the summer! My goal in the next few weeks is to find a few more moments of quality time with WordPress, and also to read up on the state of pronunciation teaching. I’ll most likely be teaching a speaking and pronunciation course for graduate students in the fall, and want to have it focus more heavily on the latter than the former. So I thought it could be a good moment to see if we’ve progressed past the days of “popsicle-stick in the mouth to feel the difference between /l/ and /ɹ/”. (Maybe we haven’t! And I’m ok with that.)

I’m going to start by checking out the following:

Towards Better Teaching of Pronunciation: Review of Literature in the Area


The present paper aims at establishing the need to focus on the importance of teaching pronunciation to language learners. The study is descriptive in nature. It traces out the body of research concerning the weightiness of pronunciation within linguistic, psychological, and sociocultural domains as well as through the eyes of the language learners. The findings highlighted the knock-on effects of pronunciation on the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). In addition, pronunciation instruction was found to be the learners’ priority and a field in which they need more coaching. As an illuminating study, the paper is useful to teachers, researchers, and material writers to consider the language learners’ needs in the English language teaching and learning context.

Seyedabadi, S., Fatemi, A. H., & Pishghadam, R. (2015). Towards Better Teaching of Pronunciation: Review of Literature in the Area. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(4 S1), 76.

I will let you know how I fare! And then the search will begin for good pronunciation teaching resources…though I’m sure there’s no shortage of those.

Having…the talk

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconOne of my colleagues told me this morning that she’s going to be forced to have the talk with a few of her students. No, not the birds and the bees or anything like that; the  your chosen English name sounds ridiculous talk.

We’ve all had students who choose to go by an “English” name in English class that is not their given name. There are the arguments in favour–it helps the student take on an alternate identity that can speed their learning of English, they think (rightly or wrongly) that their teacher won’t be able to pronounce or remember their given name, they have fond memories attached to this particular name because they’ve been using it since elementary school. And it’s a free country, right? Anyone can go by whatever they want.

But then there are the rants and raves (and laughs) at the expense of those who adopt this practice. We teachers love to swap stories of students choosing a particularly dated, or bizarre name, or a name that’s not even one in the first place. My colleague now has a Deft, a Gecko, a Pawn and a Creed*  in her current class! We’ve had numerous Echos, a Beyond, a Chamber, a Purple, a Snowy and a few Floyds, Bobs and Bills  whose names were more fitting of retirees than undergrads. And the list goes on.

So, do you say anything? Do you have the talk  with your students? My colleagues and I have debated this topic. While some are firmly in the “Live and let live; do whatever you want!” camp, I fall on the other side. In an EFL or private language school environment, going by an alternate name for the few hours a week you’re in English class may not be the biggest deal. But we teach EAP at a university in an ESL/EAL context. If students choose an alternate name, this is the name that will follow them throughout their academic career, with professors, fellow students, and into the workplace. We, as EAP instructors, are often the first English-speaking people they come into contact with when they move here. I think it’s our duty to at least inform our students if they’ve chosen a completely ridiculous name that people might have a hard time taking them seriously. A student can then knowingly choose to accept these consequences if they continue to go by their chosen name. If we don’t say anything, there is a danger they will interpret our saying nothing as tacit approval of their choice of names. And next thing you know, someone is requesting that a letter of reference from a prof be addressed to Gecko.

Have you ever had  the talk with your students?

[*This is only slightly preferable to being called Nickleback.]

Poetry in the ESL Classroom: Imagism

I like literature and poetry, but honestly don’t have a lot of experience using it with English language learners. (My colleague Ayesha Mushtaq, on the other hand, has a great method for using fairy tales to teach critical reading in EAP. Cool stuff! I wish some of her talks were online…)

In doing some house-cleaning of some old teaching materials, however, I recently came across an activity I had made a while ago focused around imagist poetry. The lesson includes a definition of what imagism is, a few of my favourite imagist poems, and then finished with students writing their own. Imagist poems are so clear and straightforward that I think this lesson could work with students B1 and up.

I’ve only ever used this activity once, with a group of B2+ EAP students, and the poems they produced were fantastic, ranging from the mundane to intensely romantic. Those students whose cultural background includes a strong poetic tradition  of long, epic ballads freaked out a bit initially at the simplicity of the poems on this worksheet. I assured them that we do have other types of poetry in English (and encouraged them to check them out…)


Imagism_ESL (.docx file)

Getting into Academic Corpora

CaptureI really want to use corpora more often in class, I really do. I love the idea so much. But it all comes down to interface. The interfaces of some corpora are so dated and cumbersome to navigate that you’d have to devote hours of class time just to get students to use them in a basic way. (Though I do like Just-the-Word and SkELL, and I just came across this list of corpora resources on Twitter today and am hoping there maybe be a few gems on there.) Corpora are a teaching tool I need to spend some more time with and that I’d like to expand my knowledge of.

With corpora of academic English, things are even more restricted, simply because there are so few of them. In terms of student academic writing, the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus is a great resources, but I can only find the British Council’s Writing with a Purpose collection, and the BAWE collections in Flax  as avenues through which to interact with it not just on the word and phrase level, but on the paper level.  You can access both the BAWE and the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) corpus through Sketch Engine.

The two academic corpora out of Michigan are my favourites. The Michigan Corpus of Upper-Year Student Papers (MICUSP) and the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE) have interfaces that are so easy to use! And you can explore not just words and phrases, but genre, through access to papers and texts in their entirety.

If you use any other corpus-based resources for teaching academic English please share!