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,
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
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,
Nothing Makes Me Happier Than Giving Things Away
Nights are getting cooler, the dog days of summer are drawing to a close and it is the time of year thoughts turn back to school. As a long-time teacher of teachers this school year is going to be radically different for me. I’m going back to my roots and teaching students again! Not face to face but through the magic of the internet I’m working with a team here in Canada and far away in the Philippines developing an online student program that teaches – you guessed it – SPEAKING ENGLISH.
Meanwhile, it would break my heart to leave my old materials gathering dust so I’m going to GIVE THEM AWAY. I’m offering the PDF of English is Stupid, Students are Not for FREE. For your copy Click Here
I have given a few copes away already and the recipients were OVER THE MOON.
I think that was a FANTASTIC gesture!! I already owned it but thanks from everyone else!! Nick Wilson
It made me so happy to make them happy – I can’t wait to send you your copy and make you happy too!!!
Until next time,
Making the Impossible Possible
How do you teach Pronunciation to Literacy students? Join us on Saturday February 13, 2016 at 10:00 am EST and find out. It is much easier than you think.
Until next time,
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,
Draw Me a Picture: Pronunciation Tools for Visual Learners
My passion is making English pronunciation simple and accessible for every level of ESL/EFL learner. A few years ago a TD Bank executive told me she was a visual learner and asked me to draw her a picture of the process I use for teaching Speaking. My whole world changed forever. What does a picture of language acquisition look like? The 6-Point Model for Speaking English sprung forth and every aspect of language learning from the historical breakdown between Writing and Speaking in 1476 and the 6-Point Model (which is essentially the road map to fluency), to Venn diagrams on how English compares to other major languages could all be represented in pictures.
New friends at Medicine Hat College, Brooks Campus, October 2015
This presentation features a series of images that show how to teach learners to speak English quickly and confidently using simple tools they already have – ABC’s and Colors. Since Draw Me a Picture was presented at TESL Canada 2015 and TESL Ontario 2015 we have been inundated with requests for Teacher Training workshops and webinars for 2016.
If you are interested in more information on this exciting learning process send me an email: email@example.com
In 2016 we are booking Seminars in Calgary, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and anywhere else you want to learn about these tools.
Until next time,