Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Niqabi Needs Analysis – Private Lessons

I met them for the first time beside the pool of their condo. There was a group of niqabis sipping Saudi coffee, eating sweets dripping with honey and chatting about the things that all women chat about. ‘Oh look, there’s Umm Abdullah’s American English teacher. She teaches Umm Abdullah’s boys for only two hours a day. Surely she’s got time for us to. She’s Muslim so we can have her come to our house and give us private lessons.’

Do you really think that niqabi women have different language needs from any other learner? Could a piece of cloth really be as powerful as that? When it comes to teaching them a language, from the perspective of the Muslim female teacher, the niqab is just that, a piece of cloth. In fact it is removed during the lesson so it is no longer a factor. From the perspective of male and non-Muslim female teachers, the veil can pose as an impediment since it can affect one’s ability to analyse pronunciation fully. However in terms of needs analysis, the niqabi student’s socioeconomic status is much more significant than her attire. Does she work, study, have kids, or have a maid? What does she need to use English for?

From my experience, needs analysis for a woman who wears a face veil will yield the same results as that of any other woman who dresses modestly. The veil does not necessarily signify a particular language need as far as I can see. Even under the veil you find a myriad of personalities, levels of faith, and educational goals. What determines the language need is her lifestyle, and language proficiency. Her previous language learning experiences come into play as do her current study habits, but in determining her needs, one needs to look beyond the veil.

Needs analysis is described by one dictionary of language teaching as “the process of determining the needs for which a learner or group of learners requires a language and arranging the needs according to priorities.” In addition, it states that needs analysis involves the examination of objective and subjective information. This assessment can be achieved through various means such as placement tests, surveys, interviews and observations.

My action plan:

  • Ask them what they need to use English for now. (Listen to how she uses the present tense)
  • Ask them how they would like to use it in the future (note how she uses future forms)
  • Show them the table of contents of a course book and ask them to tell me which items would be most useful and of most interest (Is she able to use conditional forms)
  • All along, I sit taking notes, but not just about what they say they want to do.
I am big brother. I am the fly on the wall. I am listening to see what types of errors they make, because at the end of the day, regardless of what people say they want, it’s my job to determine what they need. No matter how much they say they want to cover in a short period, it’s my job to give them a realistic picture of themselves. They need to have a real awareness of their current language abilities and it’s in their best interest to have just as realistic an awareness of what goals they should set for themselves. From there we can proceed on a mission that is possible and enjoy ourselves along the way, inshallah (God willing).

Want to know what’s under the veil?
In the case of those two ladies it was :

  • An aspiring professor of Arabic Language and Poetry, whose husband is very supportive of her efforts to improve her English.
  • A mother who wants to study Human Science, then become a social worker that helps to improve the lives of the women in her country.
  • Two women who want to
  • make conversations with non-Arabic speaking people
  • order food in a restaurant
  • make sure their hairdresser doesn’t cut to much off
  • buy a book in a bookstore or borrow one from a library
  • tell the doctor what’s ailing her
  • get good service in the airport
  • and very importantly, communicate with the maid

Another thing I might add: One of the niqabi women I once taught said that some (Saudi) people don’t want to learn English because they fear it will force them to lose their culture and be unduly influenced by western culture. I think that this issue deserves a separate blogpost, but I bring it up here to make the point that her concern should have an effect on what materials are chosen for the course. As with all types of students, an effort must be made to be culturally sensitive, thus making her feel that English is for everyone and she can express her complete self through the language of English.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Headwords – not just for dictionaries

Have you ever wondered what headwords were? Not the ones you find in a dictionary, but in the context of graded readers…

How is the proficiency level determined for graded readers?

“Graded readers are partly graded through vocabulary, and vocabulary level is identified by the use of headwords. Following the carefully designed grading guidelines, headwords are words within a level-appropriate list available to authors or adapters to use freely. Students at the appropriate level can be expected to be familiar with these words.” (from Oxford University Press FAQ)

There is a computer program called RANGE that categorises all the words in the text in order to determine the distribution of their frequency at given levels of English.
“The RANGE programme was developed by Paul Nation and Alex Heatley of Victoria University, Wellington. It can apply three distinct word lists, called Base Lists, to any text, and can sort the text vocabulary into three categories of headwords from each list, and a category of words outside all three lists, making four categories altogether. Headwords are defined here as the chief words in each word family, or group of words, coming from the same root, through not necessarily the same part of speech. RANGE can do this either by range across several texts, or by frequency within a text. It can also mark each word according to the category in which it falls. The Base Lists can be altered depending on requirements. The ones which come with the programme are the first and second thousand words from West's General Service List (West, 1953), referred to from now on as the GSL, and Averil Coxhead's Academic Word List, referred to as the AWL. “ (an excerpt from a paper which discusses the authenticity of graded readers)

You can find advice and suggestions on using readers in the classroom from OneStopEnglish here: http://www.onestopenglish.com/section.asp?docid=146513

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Did You Proofread This?

When was the least thyme you handed over a peace of righting without proofreading it?

Be very very careful!

Teacher-Poet, Taylor Mali says it with humour:

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Sunday, July 15, 2007


Taking Two types of Tech-NO-logy to Task

If there is one piece of technology I turn my nose up at it’s the electronic translators that students sometimes pull out. I try to contain myself but I always end up trying to make them feel like it’s a waste of money and that they ought to trade it in for an old fashioned hard copy dictionary.

I’ve seen to many instances where those electronic wonders left students questioning whether I’ve in fact been speaking English for over four decades. This is not to say that by virtue of being a native speaker I know the meaning of every word in the English language. I have had to pull out the old fashioned dictionary and point out the true definition of a word on more than one occasion just to convince a student that their sleeker version was actually at fault.

My second pet peeve is Bill Gates’ spellchecker. It’s obvious that some students neglect to use it when they ought to. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that we cannot exactly tell them to rely on it 100%. Have you ever rushed to type a text and later been embarrassed by something that the spellchecker didn’t pick up. Well, let’s not blame Bill Gates. Let’s just say that the English language can be confusing, even to a computer (or a computer programmer). What do you feel like after reading the text below?

They're know miss steaks in this newsletter cause we
used special soft wear witch cheques you're spelling.
It is mower or lass a weigh to verify. How ever it
can knot correct arrows in punctuation ore usage: an
it will not fined words witch are miss used butt spelled
rite. Four example; a paragraph cud half mini flaws
but wood bee past by the spill checker. And it wont
catch the sent tense fragment which you. Their fore, the
massage is that proofreading is knot eliminated, it is
still berry much reek wired.

Now, don’t you feel sorry for the poor old spellchecker?

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Friday, July 13, 2007

I Got Mine in Kuala Lumpur. How About You?

It was suppose to be a two month stay. Get my CELTA, visit a friend, see a few sights then head back to Surabaya with a well needed update to my CV. That was the plan, but …

I ended up staying on for more than two years।

The Tefl certificate is accepted all over the world as a qualification for teaching the language to non-native English speakers. At the moment it is particularly in demand in South-East Asia.

In a future post I will share my experiences with CELTA and also the CELTA Young Learner extention. For now, have a look at one man’s pursuit of TEFL qualification in Calcutta.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Imus Maledicta

I try to stay away from it at all costs,
except when I get provoked,
when I reach the peak of frustration.
Every now and then I’m afraid I let it go.
I’m afraid to say I used the B word this morning.
(yeah, pick your jaw up off the ground, just because I dress modestly doesn’t mean there isn’t a mere mortal underneath)

Even though they hear me ranting on and on about something day after day,even my kids were shocked.

can I offer a feeble excuse?….to make myself clear would have taken a whole sentence
the B word captured the exact meaning in one lone word
and I was at my wit’s end
in a hurry
so the B word it was
out there
making it’s point
loud and clear

• Verbal aggression
• Verbal abuse
• Swearwords
• Insults
• Terms of abuse

• Curses
• Damnations
• Blasphemy
• Scatology
• Taboo Language
• Exclamations
• Boasts and tall talk
• Euphemisms
• Terms of endearment
• Pet names
• Jargon of subcultures
• Libel and slander
• Nicknames
• Slurs
• Stereotypes

I came across a rather interesting text about how such language can be mistranslated.
Wow, what a mess.

Start with “Nappy Headed Ho” and get …
(gotta read the the May 7th engry entitled “How Not to Translate "Nappy-headed hos" to find the many possibilities)
Well, what’s YOUR first language?
...or the first language of your students?
How might they translate that phrase?

Check out that text for some really interesting MIStranslations.

Have you got any funny stories about mistranslations? Please post them!
Seen Dr. Goodword's Mistranslations?
Here are a few more (sorry if some are repeated).

There is a scholarly journal dedicated to the study of derogatory words and expressions. It focuses mainly on the origin, etymology, meaning, use, and influence of vulgar, obscene, aggressive, abusive, and blasphemous language. It has been published since 1977.

I’m curious to know, what YOU would name such a journal? Put your thinking cap on, but be creative. Please don’t email it to me. Post your answer as a comment.

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How to “Top Up”

I had a yummy feast at my former student’s home the other day. I taught him at BC and his wife and kids at home. We had rice, homemade bread (baked in their tandoori oven on the balcony) kebab, chicken, salad and some spicy pickled veggies. While I sipped my tea during the post feast chat, he said that understanding the English of Malaysians can be quite frustrating sometimes.

He heard them say

They meant
“semester three”

He heard them say
“Me dirty and my husband dirty to.”

They meant

“I’m 30 and my husband’s 32.”

Apparently they have trouble understanding his Iraqi brand of English.

After running out of prepaid credit on his mobile phone, he approached the counter and requested – “credit card Digi” (Digi is the brand name of the telecommunications company)After much back and forth he found another Malaysian to translate for him.

Frustrated, he asked “what SHOULD I have asked for?”

The clerk answered, “digi 10”

Of course, this clerks spends day after day having people walk up to her asking for the same thing over and over; cards to reload credit on their mobiles. Who knows why she couldn’t figure out what he meant. Which word threw her off? Was it CREDIT? Was it CARD?... or was it DIGI?!!!!!!!!

Honestly, I think that sometimes people get so nervous at the sight of an expatriate that they prevent themselves from any possibility of communicating with that person. I’ve ordered at a restaurant in Bahasa Malaysia and gotten giggles and confusion, then had my Malaysian friend repeat the same thing in very much the same accent and be understood.
Part of communicating is allowing yourself to relax and simply listen with some degree of confidence. Without these two factors, you don’t stand a chance.

p.s. the name of this post is “How to TOP UP” . This is a term I learned the hard way, my second month here in Malaysia. I’ve been here so long that I can’t even remember how to say it in American English!

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Monday, May 7, 2007


According to this quiz

I am a MASTER of the English language!

Well, I scored in the top third, Thank you very much.

The quiz results state that…

my English is “not exactly perfect” but I am “more grammatically correct than just about every American.” Ouch! That’s not saying much!
Annually, Fortune 500 companies spend billions of dollars teaching basic English.
Our mistakes have become so common that we haven’t a clue we are making mistakes.

A certain Welsh prince complained that American English is ‘very corrupting.’ He said that Americans have a tendency to ‘invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be.’ The EFL/ESL industry is growing immensely and earns Britain over $750 million a year. It’s serious business.

But before you go placing all the blame on Americans, please note that we don’t have a monopoly on “bending” English. The British themselves are known to get out there on the dance floor themselves.

One thing I have learned since I started teaching English full time, is that “correct” is सोमेतिमेस a term that ‘s difficult to pin down. I never considered myself an expert on the English language and find teaching it to be a never-ending learning experience. I’m a facilitator. I help people to use English. I feel it’s my job to make them feel comfortable with taking it and making it their own. The point is COMMUNICATION. Can you express your opinion, order dinner, write your thesis, read a newspaper?

Hey native speaker there! Have you ever questioned YOUR ability to conjugate a verb?

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Could you spell that please?

This afternoon I had one of those moments where a student says something totally unrecognizable.

All the other students heard it and laughed while I just stood there dazed and confused.

Have you ever had one of those moments when someone says something (a phrase or a single word) and you can't make out what they're saying no matter how many times they repeat it for you?

I was eliciting vocabulary used to describe places. We looked at various photos and the students had to discuss what they thought life might be like in those places. In response to a photograph taken in Heidelberg Germany this particular student (a Malaysian of Chinese descent) said "wahKA".

I must have asked her to repeat it four times without coming even the slightest bit closer to what she was saying. By this time I had blocked out all the other students and had absolutely no concern for embarrassing that student. I was on a mission. I HAD TO KNOW WHAT THE **** SHE WAS SAYING!!!

So, I said to her "could you spell what you are saying?"

She replied, "W-O-R-L-D C-U-P"

Boy did I feel the fool. Of course, Germany= World Cup! I mean what was I thinking???? Of course. I ask you "what do you think life is like in Heidelberg Germany?" Of course you should respond "World Cup".

I mean it doesn't matter if the world cup isn't always played there. You're a teenager and all you think of when you hear the word Germany is World Cup!

And, why should you bother giving me a clue by saying "they play the world cup there"? Just leave me standing in the middle of the room where everyone else can understand your accent. Just leave me out there on my own to figure it out with no context whatsoever!!!!!
Speak in complete sentences, PLEASE!!!

I should have known maybe. I'm teaching people who pronounce the word "food" the way the word "foot" is pronounced. Everything is clipped, shortened, cut off. They even do this with their own names. Everyone seems to use nicknames.

I should have known. Or maybe I am just moving on in my heart. I'm due to move to a new country now and maybe I'm just eager to be in tune with their accent now. Yes, that must be it.

Do forgive me, Class. I'm trying my best to hang in there.

But really, next time...some context would help. Otherwise, Spell it, PLEASE!

On a lighter note :-) I thought you might get a kick out of this Berlitz commercial

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

From our window we have a great scenery of the Nile.

your mission, should you choose to accept it,
is to explain the difference between "scenery" and "view"
to someone who thinks these words are synonymous

You must do this in the middle of a lesson whose focus is
• vocabulary: describing cities and towns
• grammar: comparatives
You failed to do your pre-lesson language analysis
(CELTA 101, cmon!)
a simple question of meaning and use
but now
you are in the middle of an activity
you are trying to make your rounds correcting errors
while the students are busy peer checking
you are trying to finish proofreading each pair's sentences before all the pairs have given eachother feedback
time is running out
what do you say?

"Ah..., you mean 'view'. In this sentence you must use the word 'view'.

time's up!

"ok, I will explain this to you later/tomorrow, I'm sorry"

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Yes, But we Don't Say it Like that in the US

Working for the British Council and being an American, I sometimes find myself defending my English. Most times I find humour in it but sometimes it gets...well..i get a bit sensitive. . .

I am not sure where the message below comes from, but i really got a kick out of it. I received it from one of my British colleagues the other day. Enjoy...

A Message from the British to the citizens of the United States of America:

In light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories(excepting Kansas , which she does not fancy).

Your new prime minister, Tony Blair, will appoint a governor for America without the need for further elections.

Congress and the Senate will be disbanded.

A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

You should look up "revocation" in the Oxford English Dictionary)

1. Then look up aluminium, and check the pronunciation guide. You will be Amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it.

2. The letter 'U' will be reinstated in words such as 'favour' and ‘neighbour.' Likewise, you will learn to spell 'doughnut' without skipping half the letters and the suffix -ize will be replaced by the suffix -ise.

Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels (look up 'vocabulary').

3. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as "like" and "you know" is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication.

There is no such thing as US English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf.

The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter 'u' and the elimination of -ize.

You will relearn your original national anthem, God Save The Queen.

4. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.

5. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns,
lawyers, or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you're not adult enough to be independent.

6. Guns should only be handled by adults. If you're not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist then you're not grown up enough to handle a gun. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler.

A permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.

7. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and this is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean.

8. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left with immediate effect.

At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion Tables.

Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

9. The Former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) -- roughly $6/US gallon. Get used to it.

10. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.

11. The cold tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as Beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat's Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.

12. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters.

Watching Andie Macdowell attempt English dialogue in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one's ears removed with a cheese grater.

13. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American Football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body
Armour like a bunch of nancies).

14. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America . Since only 2.1% of you are aware that there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable.

15. You must tell us who killed JFK. It's been driving us mad.

16. An internal revenue agent (i.e. Tax collector) from Her Majesty's Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).

17. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 pm with proper cups, never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; strawberries in season.

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Thursday, January 4, 2007

Is this YOUR class or OUR class?

When facing a class of 20 students, some tasks can be difficult. For example, you cannot correct each student's essay thoroughly during a lesson because you cannnot keep 19 students waiting with questions while attempting to review one student's paper. There are various ways of dealing with this dilemna. For example, the teacher can review the essays when students are working on a reading or listening assignment, or simply do all the proofreading after class. The latter is often not a teacher's favourite choice, especially if he/she is not paid for that time by his/her employer (...visions of my Dad's face having to correct papers after work when all he wanted to do was have a snack and get to the piano).

There is another problem that can occur when teaching a large class. Sometimes there is a well meaning student who thinks that his/her questions are appropriate to ask at any time of the lesson. This goes for questions that are off topic. This goes for questions that are personal, i.e. to clarify things misunderstood by them alone. When students do this, it is actually rather selfish. Depending upon the professionalism of the teacher, such students can end up usurping his/her classmates' time in a way that can reach various levels of ANNOYANCE.

Of course we cannot resort to the method used in the picture here.

So I pose the following question:

Have you got any good one-liners to use with students who have a tendency to use class time as some sort of private tuition time?

Looking forward to your comments!

p.s. such students will not hesitate to take up the teacher's break/lunch time as well so it is important to really nip this behaviour in the bud.

p.s.s. Farsi proverbs would be especially appreciated.

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