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Blogroll: Cognitive Daily

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Cognitive Daily is another blog I recommend. Generally, Greta and Dave Munger’s posts serve to introduce a piece of psychological, sociological, or neurological research and interpret it a little (the comments are sometimes very enlightening, as well). Because they cover many aspects of cognitive science, there are often posts that relate to teaching or learning language. Just a few days ago, they posted a guide to teaching with Cognitive Daily, which is essentially a list of some of their best posts by topic. Handily, this includes TESOL-relevant categories such as learning and developmental language, as well as “nearby” categories like memory (e.g., test-taking and memory) and social psychology (stereotypes, discrimination). They have many more relevant posts, though, so as always, I recommend subscribing and checking out the archives.

I have a bit of a background in this kind of thing because my mother’s master’s degree is in social psychology, but generally, I just think it’s fascinating–even though it often just shows how much we don’t know about how our brains work!

P. S. I’m sorry for the delay in posts. I’m preparing to go out of town, and there have been a lot of complications. I hope I’ll be able to post while I’m away.

Helping Burma and China

Today has been a strange day–I’m still mentally dealing with the gargantuan disasters in Burma and China, but I’m also relieved that the human rights situation in the United States has improved marginally, with the probable legalization of same-sex marriage in California.

I guess TESOL people tend to have global connections and an interest in the world at large–in fact, I find a lot more TESOL professionals with “citizen of the world” mentalities than I do in most other fields. Anyway, although this isn’t directly related to the usual topics here, I wanted to pass on a couple of ways that you can help with the disasters in Burma/Myanmar and China:

A former instructor of mine from the TESOL certification program at CSUEB recommends donating through the US Campaign for Burma. You’ll need to tick a box if you want your donation to go to post-cyclone disaster relief (their usual focus is human rights, I believe). She says “despite what you are reading in the news – aid is getting through – slowly, but getting there.”

Those in China who were affected by the earthquake there seem to be in a somewhat better situation, but there’s no such thing as a good situation in these kinds of massive events. I don’t have any personal recommendations from anyone in China, but the most frequently mentioned avenue for sending aid is Red Cross of China. If you have a better suggestion, please leave a comment.

I imagine that at some point in the future, when the immediate health crises have eased somewhat, there will be calls for rebuilding schools and libraries. I’ll try to post information when I get it. Let me know if you hear anything when the time comes.

Thank you!

Tame Info Overload with RSS

A big part of professional and personal development is staying current with research, news, and conversations among others in our fields. There are so many great and worthwhile blogs and blog-like sites that the ones in my blogroll here are just a drop in the bucket. How do you keep up with everything without clicking on 50 different blog addresses every day?

My preferred solution is to use RSS feeds. You can see the orange RSS logo on the right side of this page. Pages with RSS are kind of broadcasting their content in such a way that you can pull that format into your preferred reading place. You can get it sent to your e-mail (like old-school mailing lists, but one-way) or bundled into one place, which I think is the best solution. And yes, it’s all free.

Here’s a great little video that introduces the whole concept, by Lee LaFever. It’s less than 4 minutes long and really explains the basics of using RSS:

It’s actually even easier than that. Try it out with this site, my blog for EFL and ESL self-study, or any of the sites on the right, most of which have RSS feeds. Search for “feed” or “syndication” if you don’t immediately see a link. Most news publications have RSS feeds too, as well as some other often-updated sites such as real estate listings, and even Wikipedia. Some sites will let you create your own feed to send you updates with only the keywords you’re interested in. Students can use RSS to keep up with vocabulary sites, simple English news from various sources, podcasts, etc.

To find suggestions on the best RSS reader for you (since the above video is a little old), check out the brand-new post on Best RSS Newsreaders at Lifehacker.

Anyway, if you’re already an advanced RSS user, or if you’re really excited about it now and you’re using Google Reader, here are some Google Reader tips and tricks from LifeHacker. If you want to get more background, the Wikipedia article on RSS is a good place to start.

I think RSS is one of the most important tools for education professionals, since we really need to stay in touch and up to date without getting overwhelmed. If you have any questions, let me know and I’ll try to help!

Where do you buy your ESL books?

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there’s a well-known ESL bookstore here, Alta Books. I’m always looking for more places to buy books, because Alta is pretty far away. They also don’t stock some of the things I especially want to buy in person rather than online, such as the Cambridge readers. Actually, I can’t find anywhere to look at the Cambridge readers in person besides at conferences, so let me know if you’ve seen them on shelves in the US. I understand that in Japan, they can be bought at Junk-Do, Kinokuniya, etc. I have a sneaking suspicion that those of you in EFL settings have it better than those of us in English-dominant countries, but I don’t know about, say, New York City, let alone London or Melbourne.

My city has three main bookstores: Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Half-Price Books. Borders’ ESL books are weirdly scattered over three areas, I think (ESL, writing, and reference?), but you can almost always count on them to have Azar books in stock. With the 20% off coupon perennially available at, it’s a place I often point new clients towards. Our Barnes & Noble seems to have a few more ESL textbooks in stock, though. I’m always kind of amazed that these big chain bookstores in towns with large immigrant populations don’t promote and enhance their ESL sections more. A spinner rack with Cambridge readers could bring in a lot of sales! How about your local chain stores? Are they clued into ESL or not?

By the way, both Borders and B&N offer free corporate discount programs to schools, school departments, libraries, and individual business owners. Since I’m about to become an official sole proprietor, I plan to join. Every little bit helps! Just ask at your store’s information desk to find out how to sign up.

The third bookstore here is a smaller chain and more responsive to the local population in general, but actually even less useful in terms of ESL books. I really love Half-Price Books for inexpensive science fiction paperbacks and other items for myself. I send students from Asia there to buy cheap translated manga, and I send advanced students to their $1-3 bargain shelves in the back to load up on interesting novels and nonfiction. Their ESL section, though, has only a tiny handful of books, which are inexplicably combined with the ASL section (that’s American Sign Language–good to have, since we have a major school for the deaf here, but still an odd combination).

Of course, there’s always Amazon, but ESL publishers seem to be a bit slow on sending material to Amazon for “Look Inside This Book” and other features. (The responsibility for that kind of thing is the publishers’, not Amazon’s.) This makes Amazon less useful for me, since I really need to be able to take a good look at a book in order to tell if it’s what I need. Sometimes I can go to the publisher’s site and find a sample chapter, but that’s not always sufficient. And, of course, Amazon’s discounts are hit and miss.

Yesterday I visited downtown Mountain View and spotted a secondhand bookstore called Book Buyers. That was a real find! Their ESL section isn’t huge, but it’s the biggest I’ve seen in a used book store. I picked up the current edition teacher’s guide for the intermediate Azar book at $8.95, which was a terrific bargain. I also got a book on Japanese linguistics (they have good sections for foreign language learning and for books written in other languages). They had a fair number of ESL and EFL textbooks, many with teachers’ guides and workbooks. They had a few TESOL books, too, though most weren’t recent. If you visit, you can sign up for the mailing list and write down ESL and TESOL as two areas in which you want to buy books! I highly recommend stopping by Book Buyers if you’re in the South Bay sometime soon.

Where do you buy your textbooks and TESOL books? Here’s a poll, but feel free to leave a comment, too.

If you teach in an English-dominant area, such as Canada, where do you buy your TESOL-related books? (Choose as many as you like.)

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If you teach in an EFL-type situation, where do you buy your TESOL-related books? (Choose all that apply.)

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EDIT: By the way, Alta has since closed to the public, making life a lot harder.

Blogroll: Language Log

I’d like to introduce some of the links in my blogroll, the list on the right of blogs and blog-like websites. One with which you’re probably already familiar is Language Log. It’s so well known that I hesitated to write about it, but if you haven’t seen it, you’re really missing out. Most–not all, but most–of the TESOL professionals I know really enjoy playing with, learning about, and arguing over language. Language Log is a wonderful source for all of those activities. It’s a collective blog written by a group of distinguished authors, including Geoffrey K. Pullum. Most are linguists, and they bring a charming combination of academic expertise and honest crankiness to their posts.

Language Log is straightforwardly descriptivist. The writers talk about language as it is used, not as it is imagined to be. If you cling to particular rules from Strunk and White in the face of centuries of usage evidence, you may very well find yourself offended. Other than that, though, I think there’s something from everyone, from very abstract linguistic theory to amusing yet practical notions such as the Cupertino effect.

The Cupertino effect is a great example of how Language Log is more than just brain candy–I have actually used this notion to great effect with the students I tutored at CSUEB. The Cupertino effect is what happens with users are too submissive or too inattentive to their spellcheck programs. Sometimes a word that has a spelling error or a typo (cooperatino) is interpreted by the software as most likely to be another word entirely (Cupertino), even when human users might think that the intended word (cooperation) is much closer to the misspelling and should have come up. As a result, UN documents are full of bizarre references to Cupertino, the small California town where Apple, the manufacturer of the laptop I’m typing on, is headquartered.

Telling this story sometimes really makes it clear to students that they absolutely cannot rely on spellcheck to suggest the right answer every time, and that they must look at the suggested replacements and actively choose the right one. Just telling them “Don’t rely on spellcheck!” doesn’t seem to work very well, but based on repeated sessions with the same students, telling them the Cupertino effect story does work.

Language Log also does a wonderful job of deconstructing language myths, bringing your attention to funny comic strips, and challenging the conventional wisdom. Occasionally, they’re saucy or rude, but I usually love them all the more for that (even though I don’t always agree with them). Still, I guess the first Cupertino effect post is my favorite Language Log post, because it’s been so useful to me. What’s yours?

If you’re new to Language Log and want to catch up, it’s been around for so long that it can be daunting to dig through. Check out the Categories section on the bottom right for some of their most important topics.

English-Teaching Zombies

No, no, not me and my mentor-teacher after we graded a stack of 30 multi-draft essays–we’re talking about a videogame. English of the Dead is not a joke, but an honest-to-goodness game produced in Japan for all those gamers who would like to work on their English and destroy a few zombies.

You can even try out the demo yourself: Flash demo of English of the Dead! Wait for it to load. If you want to hear sound, click on the “No” symbol labeled “ON” in the upper right corner (how nice that it defaults to silent, if you’re in the office!). Then click on the bottom of the two screens displayed on the DS. When the zombies pop up, click on the correct English word to fill in the gap. Unfortunately, you may be at a disadvantage–my Flash doesn’t display the Japanese translation correctly, so I missed one due to two possible answers.

This probably isn’t the most pedagogically sound piece of software in the world, but if it’s entertaining and keeps a user interested in learning English, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. At the very least, it gave me a laugh, and I hope it amused you, too.

Japan is actually pretty serious about educational games. The DS is a perfect platform for this, because it’s very portable, has both button and stylus input, and is popular with people who’d otherwise be considered non-gamers. (It’s also relatively inexpensive, and I actually really recommend the DS Lite for English teachers who need to blow off some steam, particularly those who commute on public transportation. More on this later–and no, Nintendo’s not paying me! I spent my own money on that Wii.)

If you are dying (HA!) to know more, DS Fanboy has all of the relevant posts collected under a tag.

(N. B.: A quirk of DS Fanboy–besides the noninclusive blog name, darn them–is that links to external sites that are the main point of a post are hidden under the “Read” link at the bottom of the post.)

The One-on-One Teaching Life

My job is a little unusual. I’m not a Freeway Flyer, tenured community college instructor, or IEP teacher–I’m essentially a tutor, although I usually don’t use that word to describe my job.

I think “tutor” makes people think of a college student earning a few dollars by teaching the neighbor kids how to do algebra, but I see myself more as a language and culture consultant. I’m still somewhat new to this, but so far I really, really like it, and I want to keep doing it.

My students, or clients, are adults (except for one 14-year-old) from East Asia. We do everything–from working through “Blue Azar” to editing accounting reports, from reading comics to discussing why American businesspeople don’t generally go out drinking together. I often play “cultural informant,” as my anthropology professors would have put it: trying to predict how a client’s boss might react to a gift, or helping interpret a grocery store ad. For me, these exchanges are exciting and rewarding.

Most of my current clients are through a large corporation that handles international relocation–the clients’ companies pay the corporation for a package that includes English lessons for them and their families, and the corporation pays me. The corporation lets me manage everything myself beyond an initial needs assessment, so I have almost total freedom to teach the clients as I see fit. Other students are direct clients.

Because I’m considered a consultant/contractor by the corporation, and because my direct clients have hit a certain critical mass, I’m in the process of becoming a business. I’m an educator and an entrepreneur. (I should be filing my business license tomorrow!) I’ll do occasional posts about this process, because I think there’s relatively little information out there.

While I’ll write about some of the drawbacks of this arrangement later, let me give you some of the advantages:

  • I have total academic freedom (materials, topics, methods, everything)
  • No power struggles or politics
  • I can set my own schedule
  • I can work more or less according to my time and budget
  • I can cancel or reschedule lessons any time
  • I really get to know my students (and I never worry about multilevel classes)
  • Socializing with clients is okay (I don’t give grades or feedback to their bosses)
  • Students get really focused, personal attention
  • I don’t have to commute–some clients come to me, but all are within a 5-mile radius
  • I never get bored–every client is different, and I get to learn about new fields
  • Clients are seriously motivated and appreciative
  • No pressure to teach to a test
  • No classroom discipline issues
  • I can “fire” my students if I want to, though I’ve never had to
  • And finally (don’t hate me!) no stacks of papers to grade!

If you’ve done this kind of work, what are some other advantages? I know I’m missing several.

The disadvantages are not insubstantial, though. I’ll definitely be discussing the many drawbacks and how I’m trying to address them.

If you have questions about doing this kind of work, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to try to answer in a future post.