What are the Rules for Speaking English?
We are starting to accept that humans learn everything by finding the rules or patterns that are always true. We learn the rules for driving a car, cooking food, starting a fire, writing an essay, getting dressed, taking a bath, playing chess… Some steps come before other steps and there is a fairly simple set of steps that has to be followed in order to experience success.
There are no exceptions to the pure rules of any activity. You can’t get in the bathtub before you take off your clothes. It doesn’t work.
(Image from The Merrill Family)
We have also begun to accept that overloading learners with endless details about a topic – let’s say Speaking English is NOT the way to teach effectively. The human brain wants to know ‘What are the patterns that are always true?’
Tell me the rules so I can start to play the game. I’ll get better at it by doing it not by reading about it.
The rules for speaking any language must be fairly simple, every toddler figures them out on their own. Like all pattern systems the rules for Speaking English are simple. There are only six of them. (Grammar isn’t one of them lol. We all uselanguage effectively before we are ever taught to mislabel the parts). I’ve posted this before but in the presence of the upcoming Killer ESL AssessmentWebinar, followers are asking for the free PDF again. English is Stupid, Students are Not is the speaking guide with the six simple (not easy) rules of English conversation with no exceptions. It’s the map for how speaking English works.
[English learners, if you can read this post you can teach yourself how to speak English quickly and confidently using this book as a guide. Click Here Download it. Read it. Play with it. Speaking English is simpler than they teach you in school.]
Enjoy your gift from me and Thompson Language Center in Niagara Falls, Canada.
Yours in ESL,
The Sh…t Has Hit the Fan in Education
Ontario College teachers are on strike and you can’t really blame them. Administration has been trimming the budget by hiring contract teachers at a fraction of the cost of full-time teachers with more money and job security and paying themselves the money they saved! 70% of college faculty members are paid $30,000 a year.
Ontario college presidents were back at the trough asking for another pay hike, this time an unprecedented 32 percent annual average increase, taking the highest salaries in the sector to $494,000—ahead even of some of Ontario’s university president salaries from the largest and top-ranking schools.
Both sides are completely missing the point. If administration took a 90% pay cut and all teachers were hired full time at a twice what they are getting paid now there would still be no job security!
Do yourself a favor, get a coffee and peer into Clayton Christensen’s crystal ball for an hour or so. College education as we know it is a sinking ship. (Administration isn’t helping by grabbing the treasure as it goes down). The content and delivery are not sustainable. Students actually have to get value, skills and be employable after investing in a degree – none of those things are integral now.
The point that everyone has missed so far is that the fundamental breakdown in ESL and education in general is teacher training. If a young teacher could even get hired with their crap degree they’d figure out fairly quickly they can’t make a difference for students. Teachers can only reteach the garbage they learned and fight for a bigger piece of the pie to do it. There is no job security. The system is going down because a better system has already arrived to replace it.
If the 500,000 students left in limbo by the strike in Canada spent the last four weeks online researching the latest and greatest in education the world has to offer, they probably wouldn’t ever go back to traditional school. In the very near future no one will.
If teachers spent the last four weeks re-educating themselves and setting up online, they’d be making more money with more job security than they will ever see from the college barons.
The sh…t has hit the fan. “How do you turn this bloody thing off?” You can’t. Thank goodness.
Until next time,
Students are Over-Tested, Teachers and Institutions are Under-Tested
We are forever developing more and more sophisticated tests to evaluate students’ English ability. Guess what? Learners are in English class because they don’t speak or write English. They will graduate unable to speak or write English and they are likely to be stuck in English class for many more years not becoming fluent in English. The likelihood of learners becoming fluent in English in English class is close to zero. It has been this way for hundreds of years. Learners don’t need any more testing but teachers and institutions do.
If you are an English teacher of long standing or a decision maker in an English teaching institution stop reading now unless you have a very thick skin. It’s not about you, it’s about our gross collective failure to teach English effectively. In spite of teachers and schools this is being changed by the internet – but that is another article.
Although teaching to the test is common worldwide, I suspect it is the worst in China. It’s where students memorize grammar and spelling in order to past tests and graduate with no authentic ability in the new language. One author doesn’t pull any punches in Teaching English in China is a Waste of Time. It’s not clear if it is students’ time or teachers’ that is wasted but I’m leaning towards both. Teach to the test is an earmark of mass miseducation that serves teachers and institutions but not students. Oh wait, that is worldwide too. Our poor results have nothing to do with students but are due to our having no idea of how to teach language and refusing to learn to do better. Before we check out the gloomy fate of traditional English programs let’s look at how wide and deep the English teaching/learning chasm has become.
Out of the mouths of babes, here is an article from the Japan Times you are going to hate. Junior high students rip elementary English as ‘useless’. In a left handed way it implies that Senior high students are happier with their English school but the opposite is true, they are less satisfied than the Juniors.
From India here is a short slide presentation you are also going to hate. How did Englishmen Cheat Indians on English Education. The author is correct in laying much of the blame for the state of English teaching at the feet of Oxford and Cambridge (not to discount the negative contribution of the entire ESL publishing industry). In collusion with badly educated teachers education systems have intellectually brutalized learners then turned around and blamed the victims (students) for the poor results for generations. Is it possible the problem isn’t the students at all?
Unfortunately, in the Englishmen Cheat Indians PowerPoint the presentation devolves into a lame pitch for the author’s English program by the seventh slide. The author shoots himself in the foot at the end of his exposé by using the recently maligned Oxford as a reference lol. If his program is as bad as his English it should be avoided but he does get in some very valid points about the carnage that is the English teaching culture in India.
India clearly is being cheated by the English as the presentation suggests but this swindle has gone on for over 250 years! How has the worldwide travesty of just plain bad teaching sustained itself for centuries? The answer is in the question. ‘Sustained itself’.
The education industry with salaried, pensioned, teacher-minions sustains itself successfully by avoiding unbiased, third party tests. Institutions, teacher training, conferences, forums… are all parts of a self aggrandizing and self perpetuating culture. There is absolutely no accountability to parents, taxpayers, students… with the sleezy exception of the industry’s own self validating propaganda. Our failure to teach English effectively has continued unchecked for hundreds of years because there is no testing of teachers or schools.
I’m on a bit of a rant here so you can skip over the next few paragraphs unless you have also noticed the same things.
I was looking at the keynote speakers on the agenda at a recent national TESL Conference (TESOL, IATEFL… are in the same sinking boat). I couldn’t find a speaker without Linguistic, Research. PhD or Theory in their bio. Many had all four. Why?
- Linguistics and Grammar are the undisputed roots of student failure.
- The purpose of Research is to control and predict. We failed to produce results and don’t need any more research to predict the end of language education as we were taught it – we are living it.
- PhD – please. We all drank the ‘higher education’ Kool-Aid. Hiring speakers who drank gallons more than we did is a last ditch attempt to legitimize the whole education culture we were born into that isn’t working. More of the wrong kind of education is not where the solution lies.
- Theory is wordy, techno and distancing and looks like this: intercultural communicative competence, explore indigenization, futurology, English in multilingualism, comprehensive examination, adjunct professor… Is it useful in the classroom to learners? No.
The saving grace here is attendance at these professional conferences has dropped from thousands to hundreds. No kidding. Teachers looking for real solutions for teaching English effectively have learned they are are not going to find them at expensive, cushy, country-club, conferences. They are going to find solutions where students are finding them – on the internet.
The current English teaching paradigms are falling apart faster than gasoline evaporates. The internet is providing more effective, economical alternatives. Learners must beware of the online programs that simply digitize IPA and other bad approaches, but good systems are out there and students are finding them quickly because they are motivated.
Teacher training and administrations are like barges in a port; they can’t maneuver quickly enough to catch up to their competition. Their fate is sealed. I can’t think of a quicker way to sink traditional teaching than with programs like the Canadian Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA) that continues to over test learners and over tax teachers. Traditional English education is killing itself in front of our eyes. It’s too late for teacher or institution testing now, there is nothing anyone can do to save traditional ESL. Don’t despair. It’s not the end of the world it’s just change. In the field of teaching English, change is good. The real test of education is in learners’ ability to function confidently and successfully outside of the classroom.
Yours in ESL,
firstname.lastname@example.org (905) 757-1257
LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT for Conversation
You know how you get a new car, married, break your arm… and suddenly you notice how many people around you are driving that car, getting married, sporting casts…? It’s like that for me now about the real job of English teachers. Confirming conversations, published articles, innovative education programs… are popping up all over the place now that I understand the real job of teachers is not to stuff students’ heads with boring senseless information that doesn’t make a difference, isn’t accurate and forgotten as soon as tests are completed. My job is to teach the patterns that are always true which empower students as quickly as possible to USE THE ENGLISH THEY HAVE comfortably in authentic situations. My job is to prepare them quickly and competently to support their success and continued learning in the real world.
I was trained to teach letters, numbers, vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing to English learners. It didn’t take long to notice no matter how much students studied, they never spoke English confidently. Most never spoke English outside the classroom at all.
From Rita Baker’s first book Brain Power http://amzn.to/19OFwgh I learned human brains are pattern seeking, meaning making machines. We don’t process or retain details. Burdening learners with exhaustive nuances of spelling, grammar, phrasal verbs, word order… is the car-analogy equivalent of teaching Newton’s Laws of Motion and expecting them to drive. It doesn’t work. All I had to do was discard everything I had been trained to teach and find the patterns that are always true.
It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had expected. And loads of great minds have cottoned on to the process of learning languages and the language teachers’ role in the process.
Jason West English Out There
Benjamin Constable: How People Really Learn Languages
Benny Lewis: The Secret to Learning Many Languages
A great way to start looking at this innovative approach to learning is to see the whole picture and decide how to proceed from there. You probably never looked at the critical parts of successful conversation in this way before so I’ll walk you through it.
Vocabulary, Context and Participation are Given
- Vocabulary: Words are really helpful in conversation.
- Context: Context is everything, more so than words because people convey messages using only context and body language all the time.
- Participation: Fluency is only attainable by actually speaking to others.
Clockwise from the top:
Intelligibility is composed of Word Stress and Pausing. English is a stress-based language. Native speakers have unlimited tolerance for individual sound omission or substitution and grammar mistakes don’t even register but if the word stress is missing or in the wrong place English speakers can’t guess what a non-native speaker is saying. Frequent tiny pauses are necessary for the brain to process what is being said and to form responses.
Grammar is relatively insignificant, probably a smaller wedge than indicated in the pie chart. If grammar is wrong or totally missing, conversations are still successful. (Native speakers’ grammar is terrible.)
Confidence can’t be underestimated. Some cultures are naturally unselfconscious about making mistakes and these people learn to speak English the fastest.
Culture is the unwritten rules of behavior that underpin any social group of people. Including but not limited to: Good manners. When is it my turn to talk? How long do I talk? How much information is appropriate to share with strangers?…
Strategies are what to do when things go wrong. Rita Baker counselled me to Look Right, Keep Left and control my instinct to turn right in a crisis. This was my survival strategy if things went wrong.
Expressions and Humor are true indicators of fluency not tests. English is idiomatic and abstract not linear or concrete as grammar suggests.
Non-Verbal aspects of conversation, for example, gestures, body language, tone of voice… are stronger indicators of meaning than words any day of the week. Some say up to 80% of the message.
Listening and Watching are the cornerstones of successful learning and successful conversation. It can’t be emphasized enough that learners MUST listen to and watch hundreds of hours of a new language in order to be successful using that language.
Look Right, Keep Left is the least amount of information I needed to successfully drive a left-hand drive car in a left-hand drive country. Word stress and pausing are the least amount of information an English learner needs to make themselves intelligible in an English speaking environment.
Listening, Watching, Word Stress and Pausing cover 50% of the elements required for Speaking Fluency. Someone should tell learners they have enough vocabulary and information to speak English successfully now. As soon as you do you’ll start to notice the way we teach English is evolving all over the place!
Yours in ESL,
p.s. Are you looking for Accents as a feature? For the most part it isn’t. Everyone has an accent. When Accent interferes with Intelligibility then you have a problem that needs to be addressed. The best accent coach (also a pattern thinker like Rita Baker) is Peggy Tharpe. www.americanpronunciationcoach.com
The Future of Education Belongs to Unemployed Teachers
The education systems in native English speaking countries are badly in need of updating (Functional Literacy Rates) which they probably aren’t going to get. To make this real, if my university degree was in Computer Programming I could accept that the material I learned in my first year would be out of date by the time I reached my fourth year, but my training was as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. The training I paid for was at least 30 years behind the times when it was taught to me, twenty years ago. If math is not your strong suit we are up to 50 years out of date. And that stale, ineffective, teacher-centered, grammar-based dogma is still what is being taught to ESL students today. Thanks to the internet, this unfortunate situation spells o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-t-y for many teachers – maybe you.
Here’s the Catch:
Employed teachers can’t learn better systems for their students not because they are bad people but because adult humans can’t learn new things even if they want to. The phenomenon is called conformation bias. It is just the way adult humans are wired.
Confirmation bias , also called confirmatory bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.
Look it up then let’s look at how confirmation bias shows up in a variety of different fields.
Here is a great talk Dare to Disagree by Margaret Heffernan that showcases doctors who x-rayed pregnant woman causing cancer and death in their babies for 20 years after it was proven that x-raying pregnant mothers causes cancer and death in babies. Whatever medical practitioners internalize in school (even if it was wrong) they can’t let go of in the face of irrefutable proof when it doesn’t heal their patients. 20 years is a generation; bad practices can’t stop until the people in the power positions (administration) die or retire. Doctors don’t kill babies/patients because they are mean or stupid, they kill babies/patients because they can’t perceive themselves as baby killers.
Margaret Heffernan , Management thinker The former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns — like conflict avoidance and selective blindness — that lead organizations and managers astray.
I’m Canadian. I hate Trump, so does my country. We followed the American election in the media and were still blindsided by the results because of our confirmation bias. We chose to watch programming that confirmed our pre-existing beliefs about Trump as a sociopath and a buffoon. North Americans have no domestic real news because News programs forfeited facts for ratings a long time ago. (I watch BBC for real news). Real news sold out for rating$ and we are left with opinion programs erroneously called News that tell us what we like to hear.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a classic 19th century story that smacks of evil wherein the character of the young governess is interpreted as everything from innocent victim to ambitions, self-serving opportunist. How can there be such a wide range of hotly defended interpretations of the same character? It’s simple. Henry James understands human confirmation bias implicitly. The interpretations of the governess are reflections of the readers themselves. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. James’ story is timeless and brilliant. What did the Turn of the Screw reveal about you?
The boys in Boyzone have long since grown into men but the lyrics of their famous hit No Matter What are as true today as when they were written. Check out these selected lines:
No matter what they tell us No matter what they do No matter what they teach us What we believe is true….I can’t deny what I believe …
This is confirmation bias in a nutshell.
Really? You want me to go there? Jews have Jewish parents, Muslims have Muslim parents, Christians have Christian parents… It isn’t about religion, love, intelligence, education or informed choice, it is about putting the ideas of the previous generation into the heads of children as if they were the truth. Confirmation bias will take it from there. We take our conformation bias very seriously. Humans justify killing others in the name of whichever random belief system they happen to be born into. This isn’t what religion is about, it’s defending what we were told to believe.
What does all this have to do with education? Teachers preach all kinds of stupid things in good faith. Despite mountains of evidence some material is destructive or ineffective teachers can’t politically, intellectually, emotionally or financially abandon what they have been taught to teach. I never met a teacher who didn’t honestly believe they were a good teacher. If you are an English student and your teacher is using a Grammar Method or IPA – get out. They can’t do anything for you but take your money and waste your time.
Employed teachers are honest, compassionate, hardworking people with no tools to help learners. They fervently believe they are making a difference and they aren’t. The pension, benefits, holidays, job security, feckless administration and lack of accountability in the industry don’t help either. 40% of people in native English speaking countries are functionally illiterate yet each educator firmly believes they are a good teacher. Teachers are not bad people, they are just humans given by what they want to believe.
“If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration. Many have written about this bias, and it appears to be sufficiently strong and pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the bias, by itself, might account for a significant fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals, groups, and nations.”
– Raymond S. Nickerson
Is your school or institution waiting for you to die or retire before students can have access to a 21st century education? Probably.
Unemployed teachers are honest, compassionate and hardworking too but they are something employed teachers are not – motivated.
Q:With the world demand for good English programs increasing everyday why the dramatic drop in attendance in traditional language schools?
A:Students get better information faster online.
If you are an unemployed ESL teacher the future belongs to you. Find one of these modern, effective methodologies online and throw your support behind it. You will always have a job if you have a computer, an open mind and can honestly help students with their language goals.
I’m at the Lydbury English Centre in Shropshire England for two weeks learning the Global Approach from the incomparable Rita Baker. I’ll post about it soon. Today I just want you to know you if you are an unemployed English teacher you can be 20 years ahead of the curve by doing your homework and taking the road less traveled. If you are an employed English teacher don’t worry, teaching the way we have been teaching is unsustainable and soon you’ll be unemployed and have the opportunity to chose to learn better teaching methods too.
Yours in ESL,
Pronunciation Hack – Every Word is a Color
Can pronunciation be this simple? Yes it can.
If you have signed up for free gifts on the Thompson Language Center site you are familiar with the English Phonetic Alphabet (EPA) Vowel Chart. It’s the answer to confident speaking.
We’ll quickly look at the back-story then the solution. It was 1476 when William Caxton ruined English by writing it down without enough letters. There are 40+ sounds in English and only 26 letters in the ABC alphabet. He made a mess. English spelling has never made sense. Until now there hasn’t been an easy way to pronounce words from reading them.
Colors provide a bridge to speaking from written English. The 16 vowel sounds (that’s right, vowel sounds not vowel letters) are in the names of 16 ordinary colors. Students learn the color of words as they learn the spelling and meaning and the color holds the pronunciation for every word regardless of crazy English spelling. Imagine the correct pronunciation for every word, for all of time with no exception and no teacher.
After learning the colors with the vowel sounds they showcase I suggest you figure out the color of your name. It’s fun! JUdy is Blue. The stressed syllable determines the color of multi-syllable words. With this simple system the pronunciation of every word in English is one of the colors in the chart. Listen to the vowel sounds.
TEAcher is Green
ENGlish is Pink
pronunciAtion is Gray
You try it.
I’m often asked two questions:
1) “When is it appropriate to start teaching Pronunciation?”
2) “How do I teach Pronunciation to absolute beginners?”
A: Download the chart below.
Everything is a color and the letters of the alphabet are things. The letters of the alphabet are colors. Start pronunciation the very first day of school.
There’s one little caveat (warning or condition). This chart is Canadian and Z /zed/ is Red in Canada. In the United States Z /zEy/ is Green. If you’d like the American version of this chart email me and I’ll be happy to send it to you.
Yours in ESL,
We are Top 1% on LinkedIn! What is all the Fuss About?
Shout out to my ever-growing LinkedIn ESL Community with over 8,000 connections. It must be therecent webinars on Pronunciation that have topped up endorsements to 4,600! After the second webinar on Teaching Vowels Made Simple we were in the top 1% of profile visits in this community. I was tickled pink!
This is what all the fuss is about. The simple, logical 6-step method for teaching people to speak English as published in English is Stupid, Students are Not. You can get a pdf of this exciting system for the unbelievably low price of $14.95 from the E-Store Here.
Thank you everyone for your continued interest and support. All the best in 2016!
Until next time,