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What’s the oddest place you’ve found a lesson or lesson resource?

I just ran across an old Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. Trader Joe’s is a specialty grocery chain where I do a lot of my shopping, and they send out a newsprint newsletter/magazine/ad every few months, with four or so products per page, illustrated using only altered Victorian clip art and described in chatty, often pun-filled prose.

On one page, they describe their “Spicy Thai Style Pasta Salad with Chicken” in a way that I thought might be useful in a rhetoric/composition/writing/reading/media etc. class. It’s two paragraphs, and among other things, they write “And while some of our Thai style foods are incredibly authentic, others are simply our twist on the taste and textures that we love most about the cuisine of Thailand. This is where our Spicy Thai Style Pasta Salad with Chicken fits in. We can’t recall ever tasting a pasta dish just like this one in Bangkok, but we think it would blend in well with the local dishes … with a spicy dressing that evokes Thai cooking with its flavors of peanuts and ginger.”

Assuming your students are at a level where they can understand words like “authentic” and “evoke,” if you asked them whether the entire passage claimed that the salad was authentic or not, what would they say? Many of the students I’ve known, even advanced ones, would think it was supposed to be authentic. What are the signals in the passage that it is not authentic? There are specific sentence patterns, contrasts to other items that are authentic, and other subtle and less subtle cues that the pasta salad is not really Thai food at all. Marking up a paragraph like this could be a useful activity for an advanced class.

(Using ads as source material isn’t appropriate in every class, but it’s very appropriate in some classes.)

Important Reading on “NNESTs”

It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the US, so it occurred to me it might be timely to post on this topic, which has surprising intersections with issues of racism and classism. (Language-based discrimination often does.)

An issue that is close to my heart is the status of English teachers who learned English as a second or additional language themselves (often called NNESTs–non-native English-speaking teachers). Throughout the world, most ESL and EFL teachers are in this category. However, that’s not reflected in the textbook industry, the leadership of many ELT organizations, the popular image of English teachers, and so on. Sometimes, they experience subtle or direct discrimination and bias in hiring, promotion, salaries, and assignments, and they may be treated differently from their native English-speaking counterparts by their colleagues and students. This is despite the fact that many of these teachers are among the best suited to teach English. They have generally mastered English themselves, are often fully bi- or multilingual, may have a lot in common with their students, may have far more awareness of English grammar and any potential problems, may be better at explaining features of English explicitly, and so on. Many studies back up NNESTs’ skills in these areas, which often outstrip their native-speaker counterparts, and while students are sometimes initially skeptical, course-end evaluations usually indicate that students picked up on these strengths and appreciated them. Meanwhile, many of their native-speaking colleagues are teaching a second language or are doing teacher training–teaching second language acquisition–without having ever experienced the full acquisition of a second language. I don’t know, it’s like teaching mechanics without ever having repaired anything yourself, or something like that. (Obviously not all or any of these conditions are true all of the time, but this is frequently the situation. I’m one of the latter teachers myself; I am not yet fluent in a second language, and although I’m trying, I don’t know if I ever will be.)

EDIT: This is not even mentioning the common EFL condition in which “native speaker teachers” or “foreign teachers” have no genuine language-teaching training at all and are not professional teachers by career, in which case a well-educated, English-fluent professional local teacher would be far preferable. However, so many students have swallowed the myth of the native speaker’s perfection that few would make the right choice (and few are aware of the many studies backing up the usefulness of the well-educated NNEST even as opposed to an equally-qualified NEST). In an ideal world, I think real team teaching with a pair of true professionals from both the L1 and L2 backgrounds would be the perfect EFL learning condition, but many nations are short on both the former and the latter–native speakers are often hired willy-nilly with little regard for competency, and local teachers are not often given the chance to study international teaching methods, etc.

At any rate, I learned so much from the many international graduate students and bilingual-bicultural Americans in my certificate and MATESOL programs at CSU East Bay, and I also really enjoyed getting to know them. They’re great people, and it’s not right that the happenstance of my birthplace and schooling and accent mean that some schools will value me more than them. I think it is essential for all English-language teachers to pay attention to “NNEST issues,” whether you are a non-native speaker of English yourself or are a native speaker of English who may accidentally benefit from a system that is often unfair and ignorant of context.

Anyway, the WATESOL (a Washington, D. C. Area TESOL group) NNEST Caucus has published their Annual Review. It includes multiple papers that you can read online using Google Docs or download. Titles include “All Teachers are Equal, but Some Teachers are More Equal than Others: Trend Analysis of Job Advertisements in English Language Teaching” by Ali Fuad Selvi, “Students’ Appraisal of Their Native and Non-native English-speaking Teachers” by Caroline Lipovsky & Ahmar Mahboob, “Teaching as a Native (Chinese) Speaker and a Non-native (English) Speaker: Different Identities, Similar Needs” by Huijin Yan, “‘She Immediately Understood What I Was Trying to Say’: Student Perceptions of NNESTs as Writing Tutors” by Sunyoung Park & Sarah Shin, and more–there’s even a piece on accents by George Braine, one of the most famous writers on the topic of NNESTs.*

The papers are freely available, well written, and interesting. I recommend reading them whether you are a native speaker of English or another language (or English and another language or two). I think doing so can help us improve how we treat each other, how we respect the importance of each other’s languages, and and how we teach.



*I don’t really like the “NNEST” terminology, and I’m resisting putting in a NNEST tag, because it seems weird to me to create an “other” category–particularly when teachers who are not native speakers of English are the default and not the exception. Yet virtually no one seems to actually use the counterpart term “NEST.” If I revisit the topic, which I expect to, I’ll probably have to resolve this to make the posts easier to find. (Never mind that “native speaker” itself is actually rather hard to define and more than a bit problematic.)

Twelve Days of Christmas: Free E-Books

Only a couple more posts left after this one! Grab a mug or cup of cocoa, green tea, barley tea, or your other beverage of choice, particularly if it’s snowing where you are right now–not too close to the computer, mind you–and let’s settle in with a stack of entertaining and educational free reading material.

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The International Children’s Digital Library lets you view children’s books online (legally). Many of these books are beautiful and interesting enough that a class may be willing to view them even if they’re older than the original target age group. (I’ve had success using children’s books with students who are forty-something, as long as the art and stories are sincere enough.) These can make a nice diversion around holidays or form the focus of other activities. I don’t think they can be downloaded, but the ICDL people have thoughtfully provided a teacher training manual with information and suggestions about how to use the site.

The British Council at the BBC presents Teaching English: Transform – Books. These twelve e-books range from Global Citizenship in the English Language Classroom to Intercultural Resources Pack for Latin America . They’re PDFs, so you can view them on your computer and many mobile devices including iPhones and Kindles, and you can always see about printing them (try two-sided printing or see if there’s any scrap with clean backs–I really don’t love reading e-books on my computer, but I hate wasting paper!).

Teacher’s guides for the Azar grammar books can be downloaded from the official Azar website. Yeah, I had no idea until I’d bought a couple, either. You can also download a grammar book called Fun with Grammar here.

Stephen Krashen has put two of his books online, although they’re very old, as well as several articles. If you’ve never read any Krashen but you keep hearing about him, you could start here. David Crystal doesn’t have any entire books online, but does have a great number of articles, dating back to the 60s. If you know of any other language luminaries who’ve kindly put their writings online in bulk like this, please leave a comment!

The Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania is a huge collection of links to online books. You can browse it or search it. When I looked in the official Library of Congress-style subject heading “English Language — Study and Teaching — Foreign speakers” (sigh), I got things ranging from potentially useful for the right person (Writing Program Administration, 2007) to useless but potentially hilarious (books from 1914 and 1916 that would only be useful to people writing histories of change in teaching). But it’s worth poking around; I actually found a novella written for Japanese students of English, Many Roads to Japan, and we all know that material for extensive reading can be hard to come by. I don’t know if it’s any good, but I definitely plan to explore UPenn’s site more. Hat-tip to my husband the math teacher, who has read a variety of books, from Algernon Blackwood to natural history, via this site. (Oh my, he’s just pointed out they have links to a number of free Harlequin romances–well, I’ve heard those can be very popular with students!) Because the site uses this awkward library-style subject categorization, this is definitely a time to put in various topics like “linguistics,” “communication,” and so on if you’re looking for work-related topics.

For relaxation and personal enrichment purposes (and possibly really advanced students), here’s some legitimate free fiction and nonfiction online:


For short fiction links and other free fiction, check out my free+fiction tags at Delicious (which I’ll talk about using one of these days–maybe tomorrow if I’m desperate!).

By the way, you can find PDFs on many topics by going to Google’s advanced search page and choosing File Type: pdf.

Muddling Through Magazines

I tend to discourage my students from reading mass-market magazines until they are fairly advanced readers of English. I used to do this based on some vague instinct, but later I read that popular magazines tend to use a really challenging mix of styles that can be indecipherable to many English language learners. Aha! That’s the problem–pick up People or Cosmopolitan or Newsweek, and while you won’t tax your brain, you will see a mishmash of slang, academic and technical language, pop-culture references, and jargon. The tone or register varies wildly, too, sometimes in the same piece of writing. Yikes! It makes sense, right? Some students have been deeply relieved when I’ve explained to them why Newsweek and other things that have been shoved at them with the promise of “This is easy to read!” haven’t been so easy after all.

Recently, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve gone overboard in warning students away. When I was in Taiwan and Japan I was essentially illiterate in Chinese and Japanese, but I loved looking at magazines like Taipei Walker and Kikan S. It was through those magazines that I had several of my best experiences. Taipei Walker and the Walker line of magazines highlight shops and restaurants, with little blurbs and tiny maps. It was through one of those spots that I found out about a shop entirely devoted to Wachifield products (a Japanese line that I’m a fan of, featuring a wickedly cute cat somewhere between Kliban and Cheshire). It was in a back street somewhere and I wouldn’t have found it without my incessant magazine-flipping. Some other Taiwanese magazine led me to a fantastic travelling exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s art, too, with the funny result that I’ve now seen Mucha’s art in person in Taiwan and Japan (there’s a Mucha museum just across from the train station in Sakai city, outside of Osaka) but not Europe. Mucha and Wachifield may not be Taiwanese, but both are very popular in Taiwan, and finding my way to those places are some of my favorite memories. I also found some great Taiwanese cafes and restaurants through the magazine–even if you can’t read much, you can tell the price range, look at the lovely little photos, and read the tiny little map.

Kikan S is a Japanese illustration magazine I bought in a manga shop on our honeymoon in Japan, and it had an advertisement for an art exhibition by Japanese fantasy illustrators and manga artists. We had to get some help to figure out where it was, but we managed to go to it and it was terrific! I scribbled down names left and right and remain a big fan of a bunch of the artists I first learned about there. Seeing their paintings in person was a unique experience I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

I can’t say that looking at those magazines actually improved my Chinese or Japanese language skills, and I sometimes think there may be some weird genetic flaw that leads me to want to “read” magazines and watch TV when I’m overseas and can’t understand it. On the other hand, you could say that what little information I got from the magazines worked to reinforce my integrative motivation (positive attitudes toward the target language’s culture and desire to participate in it). Some researchers link integrative motivation with language-learning success, so who knows. It may be worth letting students know about magazines with information that’s usable by them in some way, even if the bulk of the writing is still above their level. Give them other sources for appropriate reading materials, but let them check into the magazines as a way to stay excited about learning English or living in their new home. Let them know why the text is so hard to read, and even better, let them know they can ask you about perplexing things. What I would have given to get someone to explain some of the ads in those Taiwanese beauty magazines…!

What do you think, teachers?

(Huh, it seems that Kadokawa, the Japanese publisher who does about a dozen “Walker” magazines in Japan plus Taipei, tried a Seoul version that failed. I wonder why.)

Kindle 2: Caveat lector!

Well, I’m going to give Amazon a little tough love here. I do use Amazon Affiliate links here and at Readable Blog, but if you’re an EFL teacher who is interested in the Kindle 2, Amazon’s brand new e-book reader, watch out.

The Kindle 2 is a very appealing piece of technology for overseas English teachers. It’s thin and lightweight and can hold a ton of books, so you can keep up on your English-language reading during your commute on Taipei’s MRT or wherever. And just think of all the space you’ll save in your luggage, and all the postage you’ll save mailing books to yourself! (Even in the US, I struggle with how many books to pack in my carry-on, because I finish them quickly and they take up a lot of space.) For that matter, at the prices English-language novels sell for in many countries, the high price of the Kindle 2 may start to seem worth it.

I got to play with the one my friend just bought in anticipation of her new teaching job in Asia, and it’s rather nice. I wasn’t interested before, but I found myself wanting one after I tried it. The “electronic ink” makes reading feel different from an old-fashioned monitor or a laptop screen. It’s more comfortable, although you’ll have to use a booklight at night. One of my initial objections to the Kindle was that I could already download countless works of classic literature that are out of copyright for free through Project Gutenberg. As it turns out, a lot of these have been formatted for the Kindle and can be downloaded free through Amazon, and I had to admit that I would prefer to read them on a Kindle screen than on my MacBook Pro’s screen.

However, there’s a big problem with the Kindle 2 that I haven’t seen getting much or any press.

What’s the catch? Well, it’s a pretty big catch: The USB connection appears to be faulty on many Kindle 2s. Do not buy the Kindle 2 unless you have enough time to experiment before you go overseas, because one of the Kindle 2′s biggest selling points (wireless downloads) does not work overseas, and the backup method (USB) seems to be horribly glitchy. Amazon provides free wireless access to these Kindles (including a kind of rudimentary websurfing) that lets you shop Amazon and download Kindle titles quickly, which is the preferred and primary way to buy books. This access is through Amazon’s own network, “Whispernet,” not through your house’s wifi, etc. The backup method is to shop online with your computer and then transfer items by USB cable, which is also how the Kindle 2 charges. Whispernet is only available in the USA. If Whispernet is down, or if you’re not in the United States, you must use USB. As far as I understand it, there’s no other way to download items, transfer files, or retrieve your previously purchased items if the Kindle 2 crashes.

Unfortunately, many laptops don’t seem to recognize the Kindle 2 via USB. Despite a ton of theories on Amazon’s discussion boards, no one seems to have figured out why. For every plausible theory, there’s a disproof of the theory. My friend returned her original Kindle 2, received the first day they were available, and got a replacement, which worked on one computer but not another. She’s keeping it because it works just well enough and she’s still really excited about having 150 books in something the size of a memo pad. Still, it shows that you shouldn’t buy this unless you have time to establish that it works on your computer and aren’t going to change computers any time in the future. Best case scenario, of course, this is something they can fix via a firmware update. In that case I’ll try to post about it again, because I think the Kindle 2 (despite its high price) is going to be an excellent solution for some EFL professionals. Remember, if you do get one, you have to maintain a US-based credit card to buy things from Amazon.com. I hope they open this up eventually; the national restrictions are really irritating. In the meantime, check out Sony’s E-Reader, which I’ve heard is less restricted. I haven’t tried one myself so I can’t write about it.

(Amazon does have some TESOL books available for Kindle, by the way; the discounts are sometimes not substantial–though you can get From Corpus to Classroom for $18.70 instead of $89 hardback or $34 paperback. Of course, those TESOL books are sometimes heavy! The categories are a bit odd: here are some; here are some; and here are some more.)

P. S. Best wishes to my friend in her new job, and I hope she enjoys those Temaraire books and the other random things I recommended at the last minute! (And I hope she’ll write a guest post at some point.)

Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

A basic principle of any form of teaching is that a teacher should avoid asking students to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. Dr. Sarah Nielsen, the head of my MATESOL program, always put this into practice by joining us during in-class reflective essays. Most models for extensive reading programs similarly encourage the facilitator of the ER session to sit down and read too. With that in mind, and being fairly well convinced of ER’s claims, I set out to find some graded readers for my current target language, Japanese. (See my previous post on tadoku, or extensive reading, in Japan.)

The bad news for me was that there appears to be only one series for Japanese learners, unlike the many that are available for English learners. The series is レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reberu Betsu Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarii, which I’d kind of translate as Leveled Japanese Extensive Reading Library). The good news is that they’re fairly interesting, with a variety of illustrative styles for each little book, and they come with audio. They’re currently up to 3 sets (“volumes”) with several different levels in each set. Each level comprises a slipcase with several thin paperback books inside.

The cover price for the first level set, which is five short books, is 2300 JPY–about $21 USD at the current rate, including an audio CD with all of the stories. I bought it from Kinokuniya in San Jose, though, so the price was $32 plus tax. You can read about the books at the publisher’s website (some English; click around to get to samples) and at the website of the nonprofit group behind the series. (Unfortunately, the English version of the latter is temporarily disabled for Firefox users.) I’m so glad somebody’s working on rectifying this lack of Japanese-learning materials, and I definitely recommend the series.

A few weeks I sat down to read the first book. It’s a couple steps up from “see Jane run,” but not a lot. It’s very simple and (thank goodness) below my level. Even then, I learned a new verb and got some good review on kanji that are rarely put into beginners’ materials. Much to my surprise and amusement, when I got to the end, I suddenly thought “I’ve finished my first book in Japanese!”

Well, that thought is kind of silly–the writing is totally oversimplified and fairly inauthentic, the book is only a few pages long, and it’s easier than what I should be reading anyway. Right? I mean, it’s not even a real book. But, somehow, I still got that brief flash of accomplishment. That’s worth something! That feeling itself is one of the reasons why easy, fun reading can be such a powerful tool for language learners.

Later, I’ll write about my continuing attempts to use the series, and how it’s helping me with both my Japanese and my teaching. So far, I’d say the experiment is a success. However, I wonder what I’m going to do when I run out of books at my level, since there are so few texts available for anyone who’s not already at the high-intermediate level.

Many of you are also language learners, so how about it–do you try to practice what you preach? I know I have clients whose enthusiasm for self-study puts me to shame. I’m trying to be more like them!

“Tadoku” Means Extensive Reading

TESOL professionals with training in communicative language teaching methods often complain about the state of foreign language teaching in Japan, where grammar-translation, usually called 訳読/yakudoku is still the dominant method. Yakudoku, though, is not the whole picture, even if it sometimes seems that way. In fact, various Japanese groups are working to supplement or replace this outdated way of teaching with more modern teaching approaches.

One technique that has active, passionate supporters in Japan is 多読/tadoku: extensive reading. Extensive reading is something I’ve been very interested in ever since I read Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading (2nd ed.). The research on extensive reading matches my experiences: reading a lot for fun increases your vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing skills in your first and subsequent languages. The key for second language learners is that they should read books that are easy to understand, so they can enjoy the story while painlessly acquiring language patterns.

This approach has caught on with many educators around the world. I was really pleased to discover that the Extensive Reading mailing list has several active members who are working in Japan, including both Japanese and non-Japanese educators. There are several good websites in English and in Japanese about ER in Japan, including this overview of ER in Japan by Furukawa Akio.

It was through one of the ER ML members that I found out about 英語多読完全ブックガイド [改訂第2版]/Eigo Tadoku Kanzen Bukkugaido Kaiteigai 2/Complete English Extensive Reading Book Guide. This book has about 12,000 book titles in it, organized in several different ways including level and genre. It’s an amazing resource, and I’m totally appalled that there is no equivalent resource published in English. I’m still learning Japanese, so I can’t take full advantage of this book. However, book titles are given in English, and the reading levels are listed numerically, so the most essential information is understandable. All you need to do is look up the level of a few books with which you’re familiar, check the ra and then you have a baseline for how their system works.

The books selected include Oxford graded readers, children’s classics (from Dahl to Rowling), nonfiction, and some adult fiction. There’s quite a variety represented in the 12,000 titles! Some even have short excerpts exactly as printed in their books, which is a great way to get a feel for a book. Don’t you wish we could get something like this in English? (Publishing companies, are you listening? A translation of this book or a whole new book along similar lines is something that countless English teachers would love to get their hands on!)

I do recommend this book, but with the obvious caveats. I had to buy this book through mail order from the Kinokuniya in San Jose, and it was only cheap by comparison to textbook prices. If you want to get a little more information about the book, let me know in a comment and I’ll try to scan a couple of pages to give you a better idea of what it’s like. I’m currently out of town, so it’ll be a while before I can do that.

(Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes in the Japanese in this post. More later about how I’m trying to practice what I preach when it comes to my own learning of Japanese!)