Follow talkclouds on Twitter

Post-Holiday Link Roundup

If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

I wasn’t able to post here during the holidays, but I was somewhat active on Twitter. Here are a few links that I shared that may be of interest to you, rewritten a bit for context and easier clicking.

The Twitter Divide

(Note: This post contains lots of speculation and generalizations based on some extremely subjective observations, without any hard data to back it up. I’m not claiming I’m right about any of this! I’d love to get different points of view, so please comment. Thanks!)


I’m on Twitter as talkclouds. Since I’m currently working as a private instructor/editor, it’s been invaluable for staying connected. The e-mail groups that I joined as part of my various professional organizations are mostly dormant, and conferences are infrequent. Twitter lets me ask questions, discuss issues, and (best of all) share resources. In the last couple of days, I’ve found out about an event in San Francisco with the Japanese ambassador, two open-source textbook websites (more on that soon!), a JapaneseEnglish iPhone app, a new Pearson Longman site for teachers, an article on teaching English in Taiwan, where I could watch part of a Pecha Kucha session at the IATEFL conference in the UK live online, etc.

That leads to me my next question, which is — is it just me, or are UK-based teachers more with it when it comes to twenty-first century communication tools like Twitter and Pecha Kucha*? It’s frustrated me for a long time that technology seems more alien to English teachers than to, say, librarians–ALA (American Library Association) conference websites are usually more advanced than TESOL/affiliate conference websites, there are librarians all over Twitter, and so on. Meanwhile, CALL and TELL are basically niches, and even many of their advocates focus mainly on twentieth-century “language lab”-style stuff.

At any rate, I thought it was English teachers as a whole that were behind, but when my Twitter list exploded with #iatefl tags (see above), I realized that might not be the case. (Putting a # in front of a word in a post/”tweet” makes it into a “hashtag,” which makes it a clickable, searchable term collecting all the tweets on that particular topic/at that particular venue/etc.) So many people were tweeting from the conference, whereas TESOL’s conference just a couple of weeks before in Boston hardly even registered on my Twitter radar. One person I chatted with, who was at both TESOL and IATEFL, indicated that not only were there very few “tweechers” (Twittering teachers) at TESOL, but mentions of it were not received with favor or interest.

(Alternatively, is it not a North America/UK divide, but an ESL/EFL divide? If IATEFL is really focused on EFL, as the name indicates, and is not a general UK-based ELT association–I confess I don’t know–then that might be part of the difference. Most of TESOL’s membership is composed of ESL instructors, and many of them teach composition rather than or in addition to communication-oriented English classes. The former generally have less in common with EFL instructors than the latter. I’ve noticed a relative lack of interest in using technology other than basic computer applications among many composition instructors.)

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should get on Twitter.** It’s not for everyone; lots of people will just find it annoying even after putting in the time needed to get used to it and learn its culture. (After all, I’ve tried Second Life twice and just can’t get into it.) But I think more people need to try it out–after all, teachers also need support and “personal learning networks.” Twitter is great for that. It’s also very casual; there’s not a lot of Twitter etiquette*** to worry about. You can follow (add) and unfollow (remove) people freely, and you don’t need to worry about catching every tweet.

My Twitter stream is like a magic cafe filled with English teachers from all over the world, plus some international journalists, cultural critics, general educators, linguists, and so on, all chatting to each other and to me. No one is making speeches, since it’s not a lecture hall–although someone may hand me a paper to read later. If I pop in, I can catch all kinds of interesting things and share my own thoughts (and due to the magic properties of the cafe, I can rewind a bit too). I have three other accounts–one for my personal life, one for English learners, and one where I post local news and events for my area. I just think the people in these “cafes” would be bored or confused by each other, so I’ve kept them mostly separate. Most people don’t go quite that far, although a lot of people have both professional and personal accounts. Fortunately, many Twitter clients and apps (small programs that just run Twitter) make handling multiple accounts easy.

CATESOL is in a few days, and I would love to propose a tweetup (a meetup organized through Twitter)–however, I’ve only heard from two other people who are going. I wonder if there are enough of us for a tweetup. You would think California would be cutting edge, right? So far that hasn’t really been my experience.

Any theories on what’s up? Am I and the other people I talked to just wrong and just not hooked into the North American ESL twitter community? Anyone want to talk about how it is in other places and disciplines?

* Pecha Kucha is not especially high-tech, nor are unconferences, but you could argue that both are part of the spirit of TED Talks and other tech-communication related innovations, and Pecha Kucha first came to the attention of many outside Japan though Wired magazine.
** I included this digression because I knew some people were going to think “What is the point of Twitter, anyway?” — as I did before I started using it and, to a certain extent, while I only had my personal account and didn’t have my @talkclouds account.
*** Previous link deleted due to a malware report [on the site I linked to, not here] by Google.



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.)

I Before E, Except in the UK?

veil their weigh neighbor sufficient

Something called “Support for Spelling,” described as “official guidance distributed to schools” in this article from the Telegraph, now contains the recommendation that UK schools not teach the familiar rule “I before E, except after C.” The reasoning is that there are just so many exceptions that the rule ceases to be much of a rule anymore, and only causes confusion. Naturally, this has stirred up a hornet’s nest…

I wonder. Honestly, this rule always struck me as a kind of useless rule, anyway, because of how may exceptions have to be memorized (although it’s not so bad if you’re a reader).

Useful, or more trouble than it’s worth?

(EDIT: Here is much more background on the rule, as well as the teaching context, from the excellent World Wide Words.)

Bad Words?


If you’re teaching ESL to adults, can discussion of language get you fired?


According to this article, a Northern California ESL teacher was fired because he explained some common swear words to his adult students, including contexts in which you shouldn’t use them, and why it’s important to carefully pronounce the vowel sounds in words like “sheet.”

He was teaching an adult school class, which in this area is part of the K-12 (public school) system, which may have something to do with it. And it’s possible that we haven’t heard the whole story, or what he’s saying happened isn’t accurate.

It certainly sounds like it was badly handled, at best. Any trained ESL teacher is an applied linguist of sorts. Linguists are supposed to be able to talk about language. There is a significant and (usually) clear difference between talking about taboo language and using taboo language, as occasionally pointed out at Language Log. If the instructor’s story is accurate, it should have been clear to the administration that he was talking about taboo language, not using it. (And either way, the students in question are all adults!)

This is not something that most instructors want to build into their curricula, but I think it’s the kind of thing we have an obligation to address, if possible, when students have questions. I think it’s crippling to send language learners out into the world with no understanding of any topic that makes language instructors uncomfortable. Sometimes I have to keep talking even though my face is turning red, but it’s better than causing my students humiliation later!

Composition’s Dirty Little Secret

In my experience with developmental composition classes, most of the teachers and most of the students involved are pretty frustrated. Many of the problems stem from the fact that students were not well prepared for academic writing much earlier in their learning careers, either in underfunded and badly mismanaged American schools or in non-English learning environments (naturally enough). Beyond that, sometimes the lack of progress seems inexplicable. I suspect, though, that a great deal of it comes from a fundamental error in how composition is taught.

Here’s an interesting essay: “The Term Paper Artist,” by Nick Mamatas. Mamatas is a writer who worked for several years as a term-paper ghostwriter (he notes that it’s technically legal, but fails to mention that it’s undoubtedly cause for expulsion or a grade of F at almost any university). Go ahead and read it if you want–I’m about to spoil the punchline, which is what I consider to be the dirty little secret of American college composition courses. Mamatas writes:

I know why students don’t understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.

It’s because students have never read term papers.

Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see … Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” … That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.

YES. This is one of the reasons I have very little interest in teaching developmental or standard composition/college English. Generally, instructors present students with writing models taken from either popular or classic essays, usually either literary or journalistic in nature. These essays are often well written and sometimes even appeal to students. These essays almost never resemble the college in-class essays, take-home essays, term papers, or research papers that students are expected to write. In some classes students don’t even see essays at all, only pieces of literature provided as “prompts.” What on earth are they supposed to do? Essays may have become second nature to teachers, but they’re really quite artificial constructions. Students can’t produce them out of whole cloth.

We know that students need lots of models in order to produce output that resembles the models. We know students need to read lots of well-written English in order to produce well-structured English. Why on earth do we give them literary/journalistic input and expect academic output? Students would be a lot better off reading exemplary student essays than reading Pulitzer Prize winners.

There seems to be massive resistance to changing this approach. To be fair, there are a handful of composition textbooks out there that include student essays, but they seem to be less popular, or if they’re used, the teachers don’t emphasize the student essays. I’m not sure why–I suspect a misguided belief in the inherently enlightening nature of Great Writing, which I think is nonsense, or perhaps the longings of literature teachers who would really rather not be teaching developmental courses at all. (I can’t blame them, but it just means we really need more full-time specialists and TESOL professionals.) Whatever the reason is, I think composition teachers need to take a good hard look at how many essay and full-length term paper models they are providing to their students. If the answer is “none” or even “less than half of the course readings,” it’s probably time to reconsider just what is being taught.

(Of course, if academic writing bears little resemblance to any writing found outside of academia, there’s another question to be asked–why invent a genre and enforce its rules and train people in it if it only exists during the short time period of college life? But let’s not open that can of worms right now.)

Afraid of Other Languages?

Ruben Navarrette, Jr., is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune; today I read one of his columns printed in the San Jose Mercury News. It’s an excellent column addressing the ridiculous “controversy” over two Vietnamese-American valedictorians in Louisiana who included snippets of Vietnamese in their speeches thanking their parents. Their speeches were almost entirely in English, mind you; they just included a single line or so each in Vietnamese. School officials hit the ceiling, apparently, and are considering banning anything other than English in future speeches. (If this school has a Latin motto, like many schools do, then this consideration becomes even more hilariously wrongheaded, on top of already being racist and xenophobic.) As far as I’m concerned, the two young women demonstrated their commendable virtues of intelligence, multilingualism, good judgment, and respect for their parents.

Anyway, Navarrette’s column does an excellent job of responding to the controversy. He quotes a Louisiana school official who said “I don’t like them addressing in [a] foreign language,” and responds eloquently and forcefully:

Here’s what I don’t like. I don’t like it when busybody officials think that because they don’t like something, they have to outlaw it. I don’t like that language has become a proxy for the immigration debate and the anxiety that some people feel over a changing cultural landscape.

I don’t like it that some American teenagers barely speak proper English, much less a foreign language, and that they will eventually be outmatched in the global job market if they come up against someone from Europe, Asia or Latin America who speaks two or three languages. I don’t like it that some of these same American kids resent the very notion of competition, and that English-only policies enable them by making everyone the same so that no one has a leg up because he knows more than one language.

Well, I think Navarrette may be engaging in some misplaced value judgments of his own in the last paragraph quoted–I presume he’s referring to the slang and “txt” speak of teenagers, or something along those lines. Many teens are fully capable of expressing themselves in more than one mode, so they shouldn’t be scolded for that. Other teens have been raised in text-poor environments with drastically underfunded schools and few opportunities to cultivate a love of reading and self-expression. Adult voters and politicians are to blame for that. If, however, he is referring to those teens who have plenty of opportunities but simply ignore them, then I can agree with him. And I definitely feel that English-only policies reflect a stunning belittling and devaluing of the notions of communication, cosmopolitanism, and genuine literacy, as well as a peculiar kind of entitlement-based blindness about the rest of the world and the future.

Despite my nitpick above, I was moved by Navarrette’s column and I feel that it’s worth reading and sharing. You can read the rest of the piece, “Afraid of Anything but English?”, at the newspaper’s website.