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!

BALEAP 2015: Getting discipline-specific in the EGAP Classroom

baleap_logoI’m presenting a talk entitled  Getting Discipline-specific in the EGAP Classroom  at the BALEAP conference on April 18. If only I could be at the University of Leicester with everyone else! But alas, I will be presenting remotely from my office here in Halifax.

Here are the slides. I’ve tweaked this talk a bit since I gave it last year at IATEFL, incorporating some of the materials on genre I developed for this year’s IATEFL conference as well as other ideas I’ve come up with since then.



Metaphors for genre

I’m always trying to perfect the way I present the concept of genre to to my EAP writing classes. Some students seem to get it right away. But others have a hard time letting go of the idea that there’s one type of writing in English that you use in all contexts, (and for many, that writing is synonymous with the writing done on the IELTS exam).

Some groups you can just hit with Swales’ definition of genre. We can dive right into the idea that exemplars of a genre show similarities in terms of purpose, style, structure, content and audience. But with others you have to take a step back and figure out some type of everyday metaphor to liken it to.

The one I’ve been playing with lately is the idea of footwear. We can think of various types of footwear: high heels, soccer cleats, winter snow boots, sandals. Each one has its own particular purpose (to make it wearer look good, to provide traction and allow for speed, to keep feet warm and dry, to keep the feet cool) and also  there are certain contexts where each is expected. If you don’t wear the expected footwear in that context, it can seem inappropriate. It’s not the end of the world if you wear snowboots on the beach, but it is weird to those around you. Each type of footwear shares certain and structural and style characteristics (a pronounced heel, laces and spikes, rubber and lugged sole, open-toed construction), without each pair necessarily being exactly the same.

I think it’s a pretty apt metaphor for genre. How do you explain the concept of genre to your classes?

Upcoming webinar: Why is English So Weird?


I’m doing a webinar on March 7 with English Online called “Why is English so weird?” Looking to History to Answer Tough Learner Questions.

Here’s the description:

The particularities of English orthography, vocabulary and pronunciation are stumbling blocks for many learners. However, what may appear to be random makes sense if one looks at the history of the English language, and knowledge of this history can therefore shed light on how we handle common student questions. This presentation is aimed at new teachers or experienced educators wanting to refresh their approach to questions perennially present in our day-to-day teaching. Classroom activities aimed at developing learners’ language awareness, with a focus on the influence of the history of English on its present-day form, will be discussed.

Here are the handouts and slide for the presentation.

It’s only 30 minutes, so I don’t intend it to be a comprehensive survey of the history of English, but rather a look at some of the things that have influenced the English language over the years that have resulted in features  present in modern day English that are perplexing to learners. I”m really into bringing linguistic awareness into the classroom, so I’ll share some activities to get learners thinking about language as a system, as opposed to a series of random, disconnected phenomena.

I’m really excited about this. We offer a free ESL/EAP workshop series here for students enrolled at the university, and I developed one looking at this very topic. I then went ahead and named it something super boring and dry sounding (The History of English!), so the turnout was small, but the attendees were very keen to finally have explanations for aspects of English that had always just been explained to them as random exceptions or inexplicable. I’m looking forward to sharing  a lot of the material I developed for that workshop to teachers via this webinar. (We’re also planning to re-name the student workshop and offer it again in an upcoming semester!)

“See” you on March 7!

A neat resource for EAP reading

CaptureIf I were teaching an EAP reading class at the B1+ level right now, I would be running to the photocopier with an article I just came across.

Explainer: What’s the difference between and outbreak and an epidemic? appeared on The Conversation a few weeks ago (more on this website in a moment). It’s clearly structured, and would tie in well to instruction on writing definitions, classifications or compare-and-contrast writing. There are also lots of examples of signposting using questions in this text. The article is a vocabulary lesson in and of itself, focusing on terms frequently used incorrectly in public discourse. The topic is related to current events, so could be engaging for almost any class, but could be of particular interest to those students planning on studying a health profession, community health or international development.

I have only recently discovered The Conversation (which has US, UK and Australian versions), which bills itself as “is a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish.” Their sub-heading is “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”, which sums the site up very nicely.

It can be sometimes hard to find authentic texts of an academic nature for EAP students at lower levels of proficiency–university-level textbooks and journal articles are simply out of their reach. And  a few accessible specialty publications aside (such as Scientific American and Popular Mechanics, for example), much coverage of science, health, engineering and technology related topics in the more linguistically-accessible mainstream press can be simplistic or sensational. Many of my students are graduate students, and desire the challenging content and ideas of authentic texts, but just can’t handle the language yet.

It seems that after some hunting and picking, The Conversation could be a great resource for interesting and intellectually challenging articles for the EAP classroom in a relatively accessible level of language. Has anyone tried it out?