Showing posts with the label teaching English

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II

English Grammar and Social Class The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, " in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes "--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's  Short Introduction to English Grammar.   With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).   David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry a

The "Ball of String" Theory for Learning English as a Second or Foreign Language

The "Ball of string" theory I believe in the “ball of string” theory of learning English. Imagine that the English language is an infinitely long piece of string. You begin rolling the string into a ball. The English that you have mastered, can repeat and understand almost perfectly, is your ball of string. Daily English is redundant and repetitive Your ball of string begins with the English words and expressions that you might hear every day: “Hello,” “How are you?” “How much is it?” “Where’s the bathroom?” “Coffee and a cheese sandwich please.” “Nice weather today.” “Tomorrow.” “Next Monday.” “That’s nice!” All the simple words and expressions that you hear constantly repeated. Assuming you are somewhere where people around you speak English, you don’t need to learn any grammar or how to conjugate verbs or have a vocabulary of unusual words or expressions. If you are surrounded by people who speak English and you pay attention, you will discover that in daily

The Truth about English Verb Tenses: There Is Only One!

Tense versus aspect Some languages do not have verb tenses.  The English language has only one tense:  the simple past tense, also known as the preterite tense, which signals that an action was completed at a specific time in the past.  ESL teachers, like me once upon a time, confuse students by saying that English verb tenses refer to the past, the present or the future, but they don't really.  Once you start teaching verbs in detail you realize that we use modal auxiliaries like "will" and "going to" to refer to the future.  What we traditionally call "the present tense" refers to the present, past and future, as in the examples "I live in Canada" or "The population of Sao Paulo is 10 million."  The more difficult and significant distinction among English verbs are aspects like habitual (I study), continuous (I am studying), perfect (I have studied) and perfect continuous (I have been studying), which usually get taught as bei

Testing, Teaching and "Negative Capability"

Teaching for the test I believe in testing.  Some years back, I was even certified as a Government of Canada Language Tester.  On the other hand, my experience as both teacher and tester confirmed my (and everyone else’s) misgivings about standardized testing.  The problems emerge when “the test” becomes the objective rather than one of the means at an educator’s disposal.  Nothing undermines the educational process more thoroughly and renders what is being taught more meaningless than when teachers are forced to teach for “the test.” To Teach is to connect the unknown to the known “To teach,” “to educate,” means to connect something new and meaningful to what students already know.  Meaning is context.  To learn something means that you are able to understand what it means or at least give that thing a meaning, which in turn means that you are able to place that thing in a context, to connect it to something that you already know.  That’s what good teachers do. They help students co

Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony

In Education, sometimes less is more I used to teach a course on Public Speaking.   It took me three years to figure out how to properly organize and deliver the course.   I think I finally did it right in the third year.   The trick was to abandon my teacher ego (a subject for a future post), get out of the way, take care of administrative and secretarial necessities of the course, and allow the students to perform and to educate each other—as much as I could (which was never easy for me).   A majority of the students who took this course were from the Faculty of Education and consequently destined for careers as educators.   One message I passed on to all the students, especially those planning to become teachers:   avoid irony.   Every Joke has a victim This is very complicated advice because if you ask students to list the five features they appreciate in teachers, a “sense of humour” is bound to appear consistently in the list.   (Here is another issue that I suspect teach

Do No Harm

"Do no harm" It was always my intention and ambition as a teacher to honour the basic tenant of the Hippocratic Oath :   “Do no harm.”   It sounds simple enough, and I assume most teachers feel as I do, but for people with sadistic impulses the classroom must seem like a tempting playground.   Since the oath was intended for doctors, much of what it proposes would not apply to teachers, but even some of its tenants like honouring gods and mentors, not using a knife on patients, and not providing abortions seem odd promises even for ancient Greek doctors.   On the other hand, the proscription of having sex with patients or revealing their confidences could and should also be applied to teachers with their students.   (These proscriptions, in my mind, go hand and in hand, and will be discussed in a future post.) "Spare the rod and spoil the child" But I’ve never been able to get passed the basic “Do no harm.”   It is a burden and a challenge for any teac