Category Archives: #TESOL

English School Director

I came to Colombia intending to establish an English program here, however I was not planning to become an English School Director. My idea was to teach some classes and hopefully find a few volunteers to co-teach with me. However, when about 80 people of various English levels expressed interest in taking English classes, I quickly realized that I had to divide up the students into various groups. I also learned that most of the people around here do shift work in the surrounding factories, and for many people that shift changes every month; as a result, I had to create both morning and late afternoon classes. And though I enjoy teaching English, I did not really want to be teaching 4-5 hours every day, so I was forced to recruit teachers to help.

The staffing part of this project has been the biggest challenge. I have been posting almost every week on various online sites, such as meetup.com, expat.com, facebook expat groups, etc., seeking volunteer teachers. I have also sent messages to the universities and private English schools nearby and in Medellin seeking teachers. There are very few native English speakers here in Marinilla or nearby Rionegro, so Medellin is where I have been able to find help … however, Medellin is 1.5 hours away by bus, so to entice people to come here I have offered to pay their round-trip bus transportation. I have had teachers come for a few weeks only to leave on vacation or go back to their home country for a spell. Some people have told me that they are coming to teach on a specific night, but when they don’t show up it forces me to scramble to cover the classes. I have resorted to recruiting Spanish speakers who have something of an intermediate level of English, and then I try to persuade them to give teaching English a try since it is a good way to strengthen their own understanding of English. (Which is actually true, so don’t you go thinking that I am feeding people a bunch of BS down here). And when I do convince someone to give teaching a shot, they generally have no clue how to teach nor do they have any materials, so I have to both coach them and provide materials for them to use. There are no adult English resources in the library facility where we are teaching English (only children’s books), so I have been going to the local public high school and using their library to copy chapters out of books and workbooks. Most of these materials are very youth-oriented, so I have to hunt for sections that don’t talk about teen dating, video games, and the best flavored popsicles. The papelería across the street (stationery store/copy center/gift shop) knows me so well that they drop what they are doing when they see me coming because they know I’ll have a mound of documents to copy, and they often give me a piece of chocolate with my copies. Everyone who is taking classes knows who I am, and when they get concerned about their teacher, or about whether they will have a teacher for a given class, they come to me and ask me what am I going to do about it. Many times someone has been outside my class waiting for the class to end, and sometimes before I have time to erase the board they approach me to ask whether they can join the class … and even though there was an official registration process at the beginning of the term that was organized by the office of Tourism and Culture and that is supposedly closed to new registrants, I take a few minutes to discern the English level of everyone who approaches me before I assign them to an English class (which also requires making more copies so that the new student can participate).

On top of that, I have my own intermediate level classes to teach. I should probably put “intermediate” in quotes, because the reality is that my students range from a few who are true intermediate to those who are not absolute beginners. Those with very little or no English are put into our morning or afternoon beginner English class, and occasionally some will find that class too basic and ask to join my class. Also, several of my students decided that they were overwhelmed in my class, and with a pitiful and defeated look on their face have told me that they need or want to drop back to the beginner class. I have worked very hard to motivate and encourage my students, and to set high expectations for them. I have told them on several occasions about the time and effort required to get to the next level in their English, but the reality is that only about 20% of them are putting in the effort required to learn as quickly as I think they can learn. (Pareto’s famous 80/20 rule at work again). But even if the majority of my students are in class just to have something fun or different to do while hoping to learn a little English, almost without exception I have had no behavioral problems with any of my students, which is why I made clear at the very beginning that I only teach adults and that no teenagers or children are permitted in the classes. (If some “youngins” do sneak in, they either come with their parents or behave themselves knowing that they’ll get the boot if they don’t behave). I had one student about 3 weeks ago that was a bit obnoxious and thought that the class was designed solely for him, but fortunately he got offended when I started to ignore him and he did not return. One other challenging student is a 30-something woman that I let join the class in the last few weeks, but almost immediately she started looking for fault in my handouts or in what I said to the class; evidently, she is a fanatical guardian of the Latino culture, and I think that she assumes that I am a self-righteous American who has come to impose American culture and language on Latinos … but fortunately, my students have come to my defense, and she has not been back in the last few days. (I think I warmed her heart and assuaged her concerns when I told her that the demand for illegal drugs in America is the real problem, not the supply). All in all, our students are learning English, they are very appreciative of these free English classes, and they are a joy to teach.

Also posted in #EFL, #ESL, #teachESL, #TEFL

Is immersion the best way to teach a new language to adults?

Many language schools focus on 100% immersion, and even require their teachers to use the target language exclusively. For example, not long ago I interviewed for a position teaching English to business professionals in Colombia, and I was told that I must not use any Spanish in the classroom … that I must teach the entire time in English. Is this the best way to teach adults?

No it is not, and especially not for beginner students.

So, why do language schools focus on immersion? I suspect that many use full immersion out of necessity and not by design because they simply don’t have teachers that can speak both languages effectively, such as the many Spanish language schools in Latin America that sell their programs to native English speakers; their Spanish teachers cannot speak English, so they sell the benefits of 100% immersion in Spanish. Or, it could be that some language schools who do corporate training are required by their corporate clients to provide 100% immersion in the target language. Finally, it is possible that the majority of language learners insist on full immersion. Whatever the reason(s), full 100% immersion for all students regardless of language level is not the most effective approach to teaching a new language to adults.

I am not a linguist that has studied language acquisition, however I have done a fair amount of research on language learning methods. Also, I began learning Spanish at the age of 48 … and having spent 7 years on this process, I know firsthand at least what works best for me. Moreover, I have been teaching English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) for several years to adults, and it is clear to me that complete immersion can at times be very ineffective and discouraging to students. So, I would like to offer a better and more nuanced approach to teaching a new language to adults.

Language immersion should be tailored to the language level of the adult students. For instance, in a class of beginners with little or no exposure to the English language, it would be counter-productive to speak English the entire time while trying to teach them the alphabet, basic words and verb tenses, etc. If I were to speak English the entire time, most of what I said would not be understood. Some will say that my speaking the entire time in English is a good way to tune the ears of the students to hear English, but I would argue that students can get their ears much more effectively tuned outside of class by listening to English language audio, by watching video on TV and the internet, or by having conversations with native English speakers. Advanced language students, however, would obviously benefit from complete immersion in the classroom, and intermediate students are somewhere in-between. Below is my proposal for the relative level of immersion that should be applied to students at different levels of language acquisition.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a widely used guideline for assessing the aptitude of foreign language students all over the world, and it lists the following 6 levels:

Level A1 – Beginner
Level A2 – Elementary
Level B1 – Intermediate
Level B2 – Upper Intermediate
Level C1 – Advanced
Level C2 – Mastery

Based on my research and personal experience (both teaching English and learning Spanish), I recommend that at each higher level more immersion can be applied in a classroom of adults. The level of immersion that I recommend for adult English language learners at each level is as follows:

Level A1 – Beginner – no more than 60% immersion
Level A2 – Elementary – no more than 70% immersion
Level B1 – Intermediate – no more than 80% immersion
Level B2 – Upper Intermediate – no more than 90% immersion
Level C1 – Advanced – 100% immersion
Level C2 – Mastery – 100% immersion

I have taught English to adult native Spanish speakers for many years, and I have also taught English at universities in the USA to international students to prepare them to pass the TOEFL and IELTS exams and to enter university studies. Based on my experience with these (and other) internationally recognized aptitude tests, adults do not reach the B2 upper intermediate level until they can comfortably use about 50% of the verb tenses effectively (including past, present, future and conditional verb tenses). In English there are 16 verb tenses, and the average native English speaker uses most, if not all of them, on a regular basis. However, in my experience, many adult English language learners plateau at the B1 intermediate level, and stick to using no more than about 4-5 verb tenses on a regular basis … and even then, a B1 level student does not use those 4-5 most common verb tenses accurately and comfortably all the time. So, when I am teaching English to intermediate level native Spanish speakers, I have found it very helpful to clarify grammar points and in particular verb tenses by speaking to them in Spanish when necessary in order to enhance the learning experience. For example, once I show them how a specific English verb tense compares to the same basic tense in Spanish, they understand the lesson much quicker (or perhaps for the first time) and we can move on to practicing the language and to deepening their language aptitude.

The English language school in Colombia that interviewed me has corporate clients that want to improve the English skills of their employees. However, if their employees are anything like most of the adults that I have taught through the years, it would be counter-productive for me to use only English in the classroom (unless, of course, I am given all advanced students). Instead, after I have measured the overall level of the students, I should apply the appropriate level of immersion according to the scale that I have detailed above. If 100% immersion in English is required, it would likely lessen the effectiveness of the language learning environment and reduce a client’s return on investment.

Any thoughts?

Also posted in #EFL, #ESL, #teachESL, #TEFL

English Teacher hits the pavement in Medellin

Perhaps “madness” is too strong a word to describe my first 10 days in Medellin, but it sure has been action-packed. I was getting nowhere via email and the internet in my search for a position teaching English, and so I decided to just show up. (In Latin America, business is done face-to-face). As a result, I had some pretty cool experiences but still no job offers.

I first went to a nearby smaller university, and the security guard escorted me right to the head of the English department. I was asked to email copies of my passport both to HR and to him, but days later I have heard nothing. Nonetheless, at the time I was thinking, “That first connection was easy – today is going to be my day.” Then I went to a prestigious and very large Catholic university in the center of Medellin, and Security would not let me on the grounds without my passport (the copy I usually carry would not do here as in other countries). Not even Mary Mother Anselm could have got me through that iron gate. So, I went all the way back home to get my passport, and when I returned they did a thorough passport review, took my photo, and entered all this information into their computer. After I passed through the iron gate, I was on this large campus for only a few minutes before asking directions to the language department from a man who was wearing a university shirt (perhaps housekeeping staff), and he looked up and called to another man who was walking by to see if that man knew, and that passerby just happened to be an English teacher in the language department. Then while we were walking, the English teacher told me that he got his degree at Northern Arizona University, and he promptly escorted me through the locked door at the language department directly to the Head of the language department. Wow! After a good interview, I was told that the soonest they could use me is in March, but that I would need a work visa to teach there. I sent a follow-up email to thank him for his time, but I have heard nothing since.

On to EAFIT, not only the largest university in Medellin, but the most prestigious and best paying English teaching position to be had in this town. I had contacted them several times since last June, sent several application materials to them, and sent a direct message via LinkedIn to the department Head. (I know that he viewed my LinkedIn profile because LinkedIn tells you who views your profile). As has happened to me many times in this city, people standing at bus stops helped me find the correct busses, and on the bus that would take me to EAFIT, the person who was sitting beside me made sure that I got off at the right stop. With passport in hand, I was able to get through Security, and the language center just happened to be 10 steps past Security. (We’re talking a campus the size of The Ohio State University). I tugged at the locked door that leads to Administration, and immediately someone buzzed me into the offices without asking who I was. Within 5 minutes I was sitting in front of the Administrator who I had corresponded with several times over the last 6 months. She told me that the soonest they would need me is one year from now.

Since that experience I have heard back from other universities in town who all tell me the same thing – without a work visa, I have little or no chance of teaching English at a university here. A work visa would cost around $500 (including attorney fees), would take about 6 weeks to obtain (provided that the mountain of required documents were all submitted exactly as required the first time), and the process should be started at a consulate office outside the country. The woman in whose house I am staying is an attorney, and one day she offered to give me a ride to various locales because she had business to do … and while she was doing her lawyer thing, I was able to visit different neighborhoods. We started in the morning and finished late at night, and we traipsed all over the metropolitan area and beyond as she followed up on cases that needed this jot fixed or that tittle signed, and she told me that this is the norm in Colombia … if documents are not exactly correct, you have to return to stand in line to wait to fix them, and then you might have to go the next office, and the next office, and perhaps pay fees at each office along the way, and of course everything has to be done face-to-face, and by the time you get your approval weeks or months later you are a little bit numb, surprised, and relieved. (She told me that her new law cases are scheduled to be first heard over a year from now). Of course, I don’t have to believe that all processes are difficult and take a long time here, but that is what almost everyone says.

Believe it or not, there is one local university that does not seem scared by my tourist visa, and a friend of my landlord hooked me up with an interview with the Director of the English program. Once again, my passport got me through Security, and my interview with La Directora went very well. She told me that in the off-chance that they get a surge in enrollment (made less likely by the fact that for the first time in history they are requiring each student to pay a full year of tuition before starting classes this term), they could possibly offer me a few classes to teach in February. Since I am the eternal optimist, I am believing that this will come through.

So I turned my attention to the many private language schools in town, and the reputable ones have told me a similar story – they won’t even look at me without an existing work visa and long-term commitment (and of course a work visa requires a sponsoring organization). Moreover, I have read in expat forums about the many disreputable language schools in town that send you all over town for appointments with people who don’t show up, and that even if they do give you clients, somehow they forget to pay their instructors. Again, I choose what I will believe.

As I write this article, I am sitting in the main local office of SENA, the Colombian Government’s Social Service Agency that (among many other programs) operates the much ballyhooed bilingual country-wide initiative that is supposed to make all Colombian students bilingual in the not too distant future, quite a task since the rate of English language proficiency in Colombia is one of the lowest in all of Central and South America. I’ve been sitting for over an hour together with several others who all seem to be waiting to see people who don’t show up, and so I thought that this would be a good time to turn a lemon into lemonade and write this blog article. But now that I am about to finish this post, I don’t know how much longer that I want to wait in this hot and humid office sweating with all the others waiting to see someone who doesn’t show up. In all honesty, I did not have an appointment here today, but rather than try to move this process along via email and internet, I thought that I might just show up in order to expedite the process … and so I wait.

After waiting over 1.5 hours, someone did show up to tell me to search the Spanish language SENA government website on a nearby computer to get a job code, and that once I submitted a job code and my passport information, someone might show up to meet with me. Instead of spending the rest of the afternoon in that office waiting for someone to show up, I thanked them for the information and walked out.

I never say never … but while plan A and plan B (and C, and D, and ???) are in process, I am already strategizing on next steps. Stay tuned.

Also posted in #EFL, #ESL, #teachenglish, #teachESL, #TEFL

30 Ways to be an Excellent ESL/EFL Teacher

  1. Do preliminary testing if possible in order to group students by language level.
  2. Identify your students’ language goals and vocabulary requirements.
  3. Choose your textbooks and resources carefully.
  4. Bring enthusiasm for learning English to the classroom.
  5. Establish your authority in the classroom from the beginning.
  6. Learn your students’ names, and take an active interest in getting to know each student.
  7. Always be culturally sensitive and aware, and show appreciation for the students’ native language.
  8. Don’t be bound by the textbook, rather use supplemental materials as needed.
  9. Prepare a lesson plan for each class, but be flexible and change focus in class as needed.
  10. Explain what you are teaching, and explain why the topic/activity is helpful.
  11. Make your instructions short and clear for each activity.
  12. Speak clearly and with sufficient volume … speak slower as needed, but not too slow.
  13. Don’t talk too much – limit Teacher Talk Time (TTT) to about 50%, depending on the activity.
  14. Respect both “slow” and “fast” learners, and teach to their language level while motivating each student to reach higher.
  15. Don’t try to force change on a student – allow them to be who they are, to use their own learning style.
  16. Motivate your students with variety … turn some activities into games or competition.
  17. Don’t overcorrect.
  18. Allow time for spontaneous communication.
  19. Be an encourager, and use humor to liven up the class.
  20. Stay calm, and don’t exceed their own desire to learn … practice engaged detachment.
  21. Be attentive to each student, and don’t show favoritism toward specific students.
  22. Circulate among all the students.
  23. Be fair and realistic in testing … and give each student honest assessments of their progress.
  24. Develop the 4 language skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing … teach these skills in equal measure if possible.
  25. Become a grammar expert, and develop their grammatical abilities in each of the 4 language skills.
  26. A large vocabulary never hurt any language student … the more words they know, the better.
  27. Be reflective on how well a class went, on how well a term went … prepare future changes as necessary.
  28. Keep it light, and be willing to laugh at yourself.
  29. Be dedicated to always improving as a teacher.
  30. Trust that you are an excellent and dedicated ESL/EFL teacher … and trust that the Universe is working through you.
Also posted in #EFL, #ESL, #teachenglish, #teachESL, #TEFL

Teacher

Here in Perú almost all of my students call me “Teacher” instead of Keith, even my adult students.  I can only assume that in this culture the students call you “Teacher” as a sign of respect, however I´m not sure that I was feeling much respect from the teenage boys I taught on Saturday morning last month.  One of those boys gave me the middle finger about 40 minutes into his first class after I had told him for the 4th time to put away his cell phone.  When talking about those boys I had to force myself to refer to them as my “angels” instead of as my “devils” … and I did that only because I was afraid of the consequences of calling them devils, fearing that they would fully become what I labeled them and what I perceived them to be.  Granted, there are the “name it, claim it” charlatans that are out there just trying to make a buck off naive followers, but I do believe that there is enormous power in words … for with a single word you can tear down or build up.  In any case, my teenage angels and I made it through the month relatively unscathed.

I´ve worn many hats in my life, and teacher is just one of them.  For these two months in Perú I am working in the official capacity as teacher, however the reality is that our teachers are everywhere, and everyone of us is a teacher.

I have come to believe that every single person that we cross paths with in life can be our teacher … from the child gleefully kicking a plastic bottle down the street and who teaches us how to find joy in the simple things of everyday life, to the elderly blue-haired lady who is in front us driving 20 MPH in a 45 MPH zone while teaching us to slow the hell down, and I could go on and on.  We can view everyone as our teacher.

On the other side of the coin, in everyday life I tend to be a little hesitant about making myself out to be anyone´s teacher.  Is there anyone who actually enjoys being around someone who acts like they know the answers to all of life´s questions?  When I am around people like that I generally disregard most (if not all) of what they say, and then I try to get as far away from them as possible just as soon as I possibly can.  An over-inflated ego is moving away from wisdom and not toward it.  So, I try to remember that the best time to offer advice is when someone asks for it, and if I do offer unsolicited advice, I try to do it with a genuine attitude of service.  They say that all the answers are within us, so perhaps real teaching is about helping people discover the wisdom that is within.

The business of teaching English as a second language has been a very eye-opening experience for me.  First of all, it is a business, and there is a fair amount of money to be made in this business … that is, if you are a school owner or in administration.  Generally speaking, English teachers are not raking in the big bucks.  I´ve heard that the best places to make money teaching English are in South Korea and in the oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and others.  One really good thing about this business is that if you are willing to travel and adapt to different cultures, you will have no trouble finding work.  All the world is learning English.

One other aspect of this business that I´ve discovered is that in many places (especially in Spanish America) it is only the upper class rich people who can afford to pay for English classes in a private school like the one where I am teaching right now.  What that means is that you have to be prepared to deal with a fair amount of snobby, spoiled, generally unmotivated students.  In fact, during teacher orientation here I was told NOT to give any of my students homework, that homework is not something they want or will do.  But as for me, in every place I have taken Spanish classes I have insisted on receiving homework virtually every day because I am very motivated to improve my Spanish.

To this day, the best experience I have ever had teaching English was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, through a program that was known at the time as “Children of the Dump.”  A large evangelical local church was operating an after-school program at a facility that was located a few blocks from the city landfill, and the kids that lived in that poor neighborhood were provided English language lessons for free since all of us teachers were volunteers.  The classes were held at night after the regular school day, and guess what?  Those kids were the most motivated, well-behaved, students that I have ever had.  They were truly angels in contrast to the rich and snotty so-called angels that I have taught in private English language schools.

Well, I suppose that I will continue to teach English for pay for the foreseeable future, but I look forward to the next time I can teach English to an entire class that really wants to learn, to teach people who can use English to escape poverty and improve their standard of living.  And I expect that those people will be my greatest teachers.
Also posted in #ESL, #TEFL