Teaching English in Saudi Arabia: An Interview With Daniel Johnson

14787112_10104428013821697_477744730_oI met Dan Johnson at the University of Illinois where we both received our Masters’ degrees in TESL. After graduation, I went to Missouri and Dan went to Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, we’ve had some different post-grad experiences. I got in touch with him to hear about his life and work in the Middle East.

Unlike my previous interviews, which were in person, my interview with Dan was done over email. It starts off with a few general questions about teaching English and then gets into his experiences in Saudi Arabia later. You’ll find Dan to be an interesting, eloquent answerer of questions. I’m very appreciative of the time and effort he put into these answers and I think you will be too. Enjoy.

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Teaching in Vietnam: An Interview with Amy Jammeh, former ELF

aaeaaqaaaaaaaab_aaaajdkyodcwztlkltu5nzktndq5ny04ngvjlthmnwfknwjkogezywIn this interview, I speak with Amy Jammeh, who was selected to participate in a U.S. State Department program (English Language Fellow) in Vinh, Vietnam. She is currently an instructor and my colleague in the Center for English Language Learning (CELL) at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

She is one of my favorite teachers to work with – energetic, passionate, and incredibly fun (for proof, skip to the video at the end of the post).  We talked about Vietnamese students and class culture, her roles as an ELF (English Language Fellow), and of course some travel tips. I had a great time chatting with Amy and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.

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How to Make a Syllabus (when you’re freaking out)

My first teaching job was stressful. I was working in South Korea as the native speaker English teacher at a middle school. About a day before classes started, I asked one of my Korean co-teachers,

So, um…What should I teach?

At that point, I had never had any substantial teacher training and I hadn’t even been given a textbook to work from. Needless to say, I was looking for a little guidance.

Her response?

It doesn’t matter. Teach whatever you want. We just want you to try hard.

The next few months were a little difficult.

And when I say “a little difficult,” I mean agonizing. I spent several school nights staying up until two or three in the morning combing the internet for standalone lessons that would work with classes of 30-35 middle school students of varied proficiency. I’ve been teaching for several years since then and I think I’d still find that situation challenging.

At the time, I was desperately in need of some structure and order to ease my cognitive load. The solution would have been to create a syllabus. But that’s easier said than done, especially for a novice teacher without any guidance. I wouldn’t have known where to start.

Since that period of chaos, I’ve created different syllabi for the various teaching situations I’ve found myself in. In this post, I’ll talk about a few of those situations and how to create an appropriate syllabus for each of them.

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Teaching in Tegucigalpa: An Interview With Juan Jose Reyes, EFL coordinator

12696924_10207589351846080_7544691585711756894_oJuan Jose (JJ) Reyes is from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is the Coordinator of the EFL program for TECVOC, a Vocational Technical degree at UNITEC (Universidad Tecnologica Centroamericana).

I met him in the MATESL program at the University of Illinois and he’s remained a close friend. I was excited to interview him about his job in Honduras, and he didn’t disappoint.

There are a lot of interesting topics covered here: ESL versus EFL, academic contexts versus vocational contexts, perceptions of non-native teachers in ESL contexts, insights from his experience as a program coordinator, and of course, some travel tips.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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3 Ways You Can Use VIRTUAL REALITY in Your ESL Class!

Virtual reality is here and it’s only going to get bigger and bigger in the next few years.

If you don’t know much about virtual reality and don’t believe me, go to YouTube on your smartphone and search for “360 VR” (360 degrees, virtual reality). Choose a video that looks interesting and start watching, but move your phone around. That’s right: you’re controlling where the camera goes.

Now, that’s cool. But can you use VR to teach? I’m sure there’s going to be tons of apps and equipment hitting the markets, but you can already do some activities in class with VR that’s already available, and you won’t have to spend more than $20.

Introducing: Google Cardboard.

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Sharing yourself with students – reflections on teaching my first ever ESL classes

It was the first week of class at Sunduck Middle School in Seoul and the students were giddy and excited to see me: their new American English teacher. I looked the part: I was wearing a tie and was standing in front of a very professional-looking (or so I thought) PowerPoint with a question and answer game. I was beaming a confident smile that hid how completely terrified I was. It was my first time in front of a classroom ever.

The “Me” Game

The question and answer game was all about me. When I asked my co-teachers what I should do for the first day of class, they told me to do something fun and introduce myself. I talked to a few other new teachers from Canada and America who were teaching at different schools around Seoul and they gave me some ideas. So I slapped together one of the most narcissistic and yet boring PowerPoints I’ve ever created: questions about which state I’m from, what my mother’s name is, my favorite food, etc. Students worked in teams to answer these boilerplate questions about me. After each group said their answer, in a complete sentence shouted in unison, I awarded points to the teams that got the correct answer.

And that was it – I just moved on to the next question. I didn’t go on to talk about what my mother is really like, how she can bake great apple pies, or about the best places in my hometown to get pizza, my favorite food. I just gave a point if they answered “a) Joan” or “b) pizza” and moved on.

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In defense of pop quizzes + an example

“Surprise! Today we have a pop quiz.”

The word “pop” is usually associated with things that make us happy – bubbles, soda, popcorn, Michael Jackson.

But when it’s put before “quiz”, “pop” suddenly turns sinister.

Pop quizzes get a bad rap from students, and even some teachers say they would never use them. The idea of being surprised by an assessment is unsavory if not downright scary. But if they’re used in the right way, pop quizzes can be very useful for both the student and the teacher.

There are definitely right ways and wrong ways to use pop quizzes. Let’s look at some of the bad ways to use pop quizzes first.

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Talking about your day in English to improve fluency + a funny video

I’m a learner of three languages: Spanish, Korean, and German. In each of these languages, I can verbally put some sentences together and describe my day. And sometimes I do just that – to no one in particular. Either when I’m in the car alone or lying in my bed just before falling asleep, I’ll start rambling on…

Heute habe ich etwas spannendes getan…

Mañana voy a ver mi amigo…

오늘 재미있었어요…

I’ve talked to a few other people who are at similar phases of learning languages, and some of them say they do the same thing.

I really think it helps keep the language fresh in my mind. It keeps me fluent. And it’s just fun to see how long I can go.

I made the connection with this kind of practice (what should we call it? is there an academic name for it yet? how about “unrestrained solipsistic L2 vocalizations”?) when I recently re-watched a favorite YouTube video of mine.

Meet Marko…

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Teaching “th” sounds (theta and eth) + a card game

When I start my pronunciation unit on the “th” sounds, half of my class sounds like snakes and bees.

That’s because many languages don’t have theta (/θ/) or eth (/ð/) sounds, so those sounds come out as /s/ and /z/ respectively. If you do a speaking exercise with a lot of words with “th”, you’re going to hear “sssss” and “zzzzz” until you start helping certain students improve their pronunciation.

Since both of these sounds are represented with a “th” in English writing, you can teach your students the symbols – θ for unvoiced, and ð for voiced (these are real letters, just not in English. You’ll find θ in modern Greek and ð in modern Icelandic – pretty cool!)

For Arabic speakers learning English, this will make sense to them since they have two different letters for these two sounds:

 ث  = θ (unvoiced) and ذ = ð (voiced)

Arabic speakers will have no problem pronouncing these sounds since they have them in their language. But they might have trouble choosing which sound to use when they see a “th” in writing, so they can still get something out of a lesson on these two sounds.

Let’s consider a few more things when you’re teaching the “th” sounds.

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Writing rubrics: save time and grade effectively

As language teachers, we want our students to produce unscripted language. It’s great if students can fill in the blanks on a grammar test or match definitions to vocabulary words. Those kinds of assessments show clearly whether or not students are acquiring certain bits of language. But in the real world, those bits of language have to come together to form something meaningful, whether that’s in the form of a conversation, a speech, a report, an essay, etc.

So we should assess those “real” things. OK – how? The common answer is the rubric.

Many teachers hate these dang things. They take a little while to make and they’re never as accurate as you think. Or you spend too much time trying to be accurate and you waste half an hour trying to decide if your student should get an 8 or an 8.5 out of 10 for their second body paragraph (here’s a hint – it all evens out in the long run. Just pick one)

This post will talk specifically about ESL writing rubrics – I’ll write about speaking rubrics later. I’ve got two kinds of writing rubrics I use in my classes, and I’ll explain when and why to use each.

Let’s get started.

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