February 2013

Newton, an Apple, Noticing and Teaching English

Recorded in Newton’s memoirs is the exact notation taken from his journal, “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…” Newton’s Apple: The Real Story

Look what blossomed from one man contemplating such an ordinary thing? It ushered in scientific concepts and vocabulary and established English globally as the language of science evidenced to this day.

What is different about Newton’s noticing and ours?

He acted on it.

Some of Jennifer England’s brilliant students!

How many epiphanies do each of us have that get pushed aside and in our busy lives forgotten? Collectively probably billions. How many great teachers employ a creative range of effective techniques in class everyday but these gems never get beyond their classroom walls where other great teachers in similar situations could benefit?

The electronic age and programs like TED and are providing unprecedented opportunities for ordinary people to reach broad audiences. Education (and other national institutions) is feeling the effects of what individuals ‘notice’ and are shifting dramatically before our eyes.

In January 2013 I noticed hundreds of people from a region in Spain were opting into my website (Sign Up). I tracked down the single woman responsible. Jennifer England had noticed her students learned vocabulary faster and spoke English more confidently when they stored  vowel sounds as colors. (Thompson Vowel Chart). Her noticing was infectious and the English teachers at her school all jumped on board.

I felt very strongly that I should do something to support this surge of interest in teaching English a new way. So I went to Lleida in February  2013 and met Jennifer’s students. I was astounded at the impact one woman was having on the way English is being taught in her city.

God bless Jennifer England and all the ‘noticers’ with whatever it takes to do things differently.

Until next time,

Teacher Judy

Noticing is at the Heart of Learning

Andrew Weiler is a language teacher in Australia who has sought new ways of guiding students towards success for over 30 years. Here is a refreshing article he’s written about why people fail to become fluent and by association, what teachers can do about it.

First and foremost Andrew noticed, “It is interesting that in language teaching and language learning , we tend to ignore (choose to believe we are right) and instead believe that if we learn the rules, if we parrot phrases, if we memorize words and study grammar, and then we try to apply what we have ‘learned’ we will learn the language. Then we wonder why all our efforts are producing such poor results.”

Andrew isn’t shy about ‘outing’ the shortcomings of current language teaching methods and he goes one further by exploring techniques that work better. When I started developing my LinkedIn presence in 2012, Andrew was one of the first people I connected with. We don’t agree totally about how to ‘fix’ English teaching but I applaud his audacity and courage. He whole heartedly addresses the huge problems that exist in our industry and combats them creatively and relentlessly.

First you have to notice that something is wrong. That takes guts.

Until next time,

Teacher Judy

You Can’t Leave Them Naked

The way English is taught is not working. 100% of students after (fill in the blank) years of study don’t speak English fluently. That represents total failure on the part of teachers and educators of teachers. On a personal level, this scale of failure occurs like death. Humans naturally avoid the bad feelings of looking at our own failure until the funding for no results dries up and we are forced to make some reality adjustments. “I am not the dedicated, educated professional making the difference I wanted to make” is just too hard for most of us to swallow at first blush.

The red line on the bottom represents a .05 grade point improvement in speaking after 1,000 hours in ESL class which was not better than the control group that was not in school at all.

Our loss of personal identity is a death professionally so the 5 stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance will kick in. It is usually easy to plot yourself on that scale and if you think this doesn’t apply to you, you are in the first stage.  I belong to several teacher groups on LinkedIn – it is really easy to plot the mean contributors as Stage Two in the grief process:)

Enough about death. The silver lining in the 2008 world collapse (and the incentive to get through the grief process as quickly as possible) is the opportunity to rebuild systems better than they were before.  With functional illiteracy at 40% rate for native English speakers (native speakers can’t read) and a 100% failure to teach speaking (ESL learners don’t speak English confidently) – this shouldn’t be too hard to do.

When studies from reliable sources (the government) prove we don’t teach English successfully why aren’t there changes in teacher training? 

Here is a robe. Put it on.
Native speakers who can’t read and non-native speakers who can’t talk have the same root problem and it is easy to fix. It’s as easy as ABC, the problem actually is ABC. The Latin alphabet (26 letters) doesn’t represent 40+ English sounds and it never did. Forcing a relationship between letters and sounds, “Sound it out!” is the breakdown for native speakers trying to read non-phonetic English as if it made sense – ridiculous.

One solution is to separate reading/writing from listening/speaking. Keep ABC for reading (with full disclosure it is not logical) and adopt the English Phonetic Alphabet (EPA) for speaking.

If you are getting chilly out there, there is a flattering wardrobe of teacher training and materials on this site to remake yourself into an invincibly employable speaking teacher.

Until next time,

Teacher Judy