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On the merits of bad TV in teaching Legal English

Anna Konieczna-Purchała takes a look at how she uses a TV show in her Legal English classes. If this is something that interests you, take a look at Express Series English for Legal Professionals.

I work with lawyers and translators of legal texts, helping them acquire the vocabulary and skills they need to be successful at their jobs. In principle, these students are willing and motivated. In practice, they usually come to class after a long hard day at work. They are tired, and – much as they try to shake off the fatigue – their thoughts go towards home, dinner, and rest.

Before any successful learning can occur, they need to wake up, re-focus, and become truly present in the classroom.

And that’s where bad TV comes in.

Why would you ever use TV drama in Legal English classes, when there is a massive amount of real-life information and resources to assist learning, especially at higher levels? The statutes, rulings and debates are all out there, just begging to be turned into authentic study materials. There is just one problem: after a whole day of dealing with authentic legal texts, more of the same is the last thing my students want to see. Sure enough, they will read and discuss whatever I offer to them, because they are dutiful, and hard-working, and really keen on learning.

But will my thoroughly authentic materials make their eyes light up and their tiredness disappear?

I doubt it.

It all changes dramatically if I let them watch TV, even just for a while. I set the scene by telling them that they are about to watch civil litigation unfold. I switch on an episode of The Defenders, playing it from the moment a trial begins. Opening speeches are presented, so the students learn the premise of the trial first-hand from the characters on the show. Now, real-life opening speeches can be boring. The Defenders on the other hand are entertainment TV. They cannot afford to be boring. The trial unfolds with drama running high, reaching a peak when Jim Belushi’s character asks his partner to give himself a severe allergic reaction, and then swoops in to save him with an epinephrine shot to his suit-clad butt, all in the courtroom. It is hilarious, it is most unlikely, and it is utterly engaging.

The clip is only about 6 minutes long. In these 6 minutes, I achieve three goals.


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Teaching EAP – a culture shift

Julie Moore, part of the writing team for the new Oxford EAP series, looks at some of the challenges involved in making the move from teaching General English to English for Academic Purposes.  Julie hosted a webinar entitled ‘Approaches to EAP: Teaching English for Academic Purposes’ on 29th March 2012.

When I got a job teaching on Bristol University’s pre-sessional EAP course some six years ago, I already had plenty of General English teaching experience under my belt.  I was excited at the prospect of teaching a group of intelligent, motivated students with a clear goal at the end of the course. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the huge culture shift involved in moving from general EFL teaching to an EAP environment.

In my webinar, I’ll talk about some of the differences and issues that teachers from a general ELT background come up against when they make the move into teaching EAP. Many of those differences can actually be seen as advantages, the main one being that an EAP syllabus is much more focused and clearly defined than many General English courses.  Because you’re working with a very specific genre, academic English, there are clear sets of skills to be taught – reading academic texts, listening to lectures, participating in seminar discussions – and a well-defined, well-researched language register that students need to master.

For me, one of the big challenges though was getting used to the content-driven nature of EAP.  In a General English classroom, you don’t care too much what the students talk about as long as they’re communicating ideas as proficiently as possible for their level.  In EAP, what you say matters almost as much as how you say it.  You find yourself teaching not just language skills, but thinking skills, how to develop a thesis or structure an argument.  At first, you’re desperately trying to remember back to how you did things when you were at university, and getting to grips with a whole new set of terminology. Once you get into the swing of it though, it can be a really interesting, stimulating environment in which to teach.

You can watch the webinar here.

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Speaking for fluency in public, and for accuracy in private

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English 2nd edition, looks at the concepts of accurancy and fluency in young English language learners.

If you think about it, we need to give children plenty of listening practice in order to help them speak. It’s logical. It follows the natural route of language acquisition: given the right conditions, input (listening) will become output (speaking).

So, one of the best ways to get children speaking English is to provide them with lots of listening practice and guide them into spoken production. Children may not see the point in learning another language: it has no reality in their world. But they have less of a problem in using or repeating another language when they are having fun.

How can we make this happen in the classroom? Let’s look at one way of doing this.

An animated story is a perfect vehicle for moving children from listening to speaking. For a start, most children like stories. They are fun and engaging and children enjoy them. Stories are part of their reality: storytelling is an activity to which children are accustomed. More than that, stories are based on real life and so they are relevant.

When they are trying to understand a story, the language has a purpose. It is given a context and it becomes meaningful. Participating in a story gives them a reason for understanding.

Above all perhaps, children love stories. They can listen to them again and again and never become bored. Stories often have strong repeated phrases. For example, how does this line from a famous children’s story finish: “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow….”? Small children will often join in and say these powerful, repeated lines. They are acquiring language.

In our context as language teachers we can take advantage of this strong human urge and the powerful human activity of storytelling. The stories in our coursebooks are often vehicles for the language we want to introduce to the children. The language that is repeated in the story is usually the language that we want children to “get”.

Helping children to act out a story can be a fruitful classroom activity. Most children enjoy it (but do keep in mind that not all children enjoy it). The specific language aim is to activate a piece of language.

Here are some thoughts about speaking and error correction. The idea of “private practice” and “public performance” may be worth bearing in mind. Or, maybe the concepts of accuracy and fluency.

As they practise, go around helping them say the language. If you like, this is private practice and so getting it right (and that means correction by you, the teacher) is important. They are not exposed in front of the whole class. They are in a private space with you and a small peer group. They are more likely to hear and respond to your correction when they are not exposed in front of the whole group.

When a group shows their story to the whole class I think the dynamic has shifted. I think it’s very important to give positive feedback as this is happening. Help them say the language if they need it, but avoid overt correction. This is now a public performance and so correction is probably inappropriate. Having fun and being motivated is far more important than language accuracy.

Correcting errors is an important part of our work as language teachers. But over correction will demotivate the children. I need to be principled about what I correct and, perhaps more importantly, when I correct it.

How do you encourage accuracy and fluency of language in your classroom?

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The universal benefits of songs as teaching tools

Children singing in classSongs are a great way for children to learn English. In this post, Devon Thagard, co-owner of Super Simple Learning and songwriter for the new Primary level course, Everybody Up, explores the benefits of using songs in class.

This past year, I had the great pleasure to be involved in the Everybody Up Global Sing-along as one of the songwriters, a contest judge, and a workshop leader. The entire experience reinforced and reminded me of the strong feelings I have about 1) the power of songs in the classroom, and 2) the importance of learning from other teachers.

The Global Sing-along received over 70 entries from countries all over the world. When you see classrooms around the world all enjoying singing the same songs, it really brings home the universal benefits of songs as teaching tools. Songs allow all ages to participate and learn at their levels. In the Global Sing-along videos, we see pre-schoolers and kindergartners (like these great students from Ukraine) doing some very simple dancing, picking up a few words, and getting a feel for the rhythm. For very young students who are just beginning to learn English, songs provide a fun, welcoming way to get that oh-so-valuable input, and gestures and dancing help them understand and internalize the meaning.

Older and more advanced students are able go beyond the basics and to express their creativity with songs. As students move into higher grades, they may be a little more reluctant to sing and dance as they did in kindergarten, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy learning with songs, and the benefits of the repeated exposure to comprehensible input continue. At all ages, students are learning vocabulary, pronunciation, intonation, the rhythm of the language, listening skills, and more. Here are some great examples from Thailand, Korea, Turkey and France.

It’s also fantastic to be able to visit our fellow teachers’ classrooms around the world through video. Just having the chance to see how the classrooms are arranged and decorated sparks a lot of great ideas, but being able to see how teachers are using dance, crafts, instruments, and drama together with songs is really inspiring. If you haven’t already, browse the playlist of Global Sing-along videos. I’m sure you’ll come away from it with several great ideas for your classroom.

How do you use songs in your classes?

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Why Teach Grammar?

Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 with co-author Catherine Walter about ways of linking grammar with vocabulary, pronunciation and skills, Michael Swan looks at why you should teach your students grammar.

People probably argue more about grammar than about anything else in language teaching. Research and theory have a good deal to tell us in this area. So does common sense.

1. Regularities

Languages have regularities (if you don’t like the word ‘rules’) in the ways they shape and organise words for various reasons. If you’re not aware (consciously or unconsciously) of these regularities you may not be able to understand language successfully, or structure it so as to make yourself understood.

2. Can you pick them up?

Mother tongue: yes, of course, we all do.

Foreign language: some yes, some no, some maybe. (If you could pick all of them up, immigrants would speak like native speakers.) It depends which regularities and where.

3. Which?

  • Some regularities are so obvious and simple they can easily be picked up from experience. English SVO word order. Japanese question formation (put ‘ka’ at the end of the equivalent statement).
  • Some regularities are too complex to be fully learnable in a reasonable time by any approach. English noun compounding or article use. Japanese topic/subject marking.
  • Some are in between. English question formation. German word order.

4. Where?

When we talk about ‘picking up’ grammar regularities, are we talking about long exposure in a country where the language is spoken, or about three hours a week in secondary school?

5. So does teaching help?

With many of the in-between items, surely. More in the three-hour-a-week situation, fewer in an input-rich context, but some in any situation. If you’re unclear about German word order, five-minutes’ explanation will shortcut a whole lot of struggle trying to make sense of what seems to be very confusing input. What would be the value of withholding this explanation?

6. But knowing what happens isn’t the same as being able to do it.

Of course it isn’t. But it’s a start. Knowing which is the accelerator and which is the brake doesn’t guarantee you can drive. But it beats not knowing. Most skills learning proceeds in part by moving from conscious knowledge to unconscious mastery: it’s a matter of procedural learning ‘leaning on declarative crutches’, in DeKeyser’s words (1998: 49).

7. But isn’t there evidence that teaching grammar makes no difference to learning?

No. Forget Krashen. There’s good evidence in the other direction: see the important research meta-analyses by Norris and Ortaga (2000) and Spada and Tomita (2010).

8. But some people go on dropping third-person -s for ever, however much you teach it.

Sure. There are things like that. The reasons are complicated and interesting.  I’ve never really got hold of vibrato when playing the violin, though I’ve been taught often enough. That doesn’t mean my music lessons were useless. On the contrary, I would play even worse, or maybe not at all, if I hadn’t had them, bad vibrato or not.

9. But is correctness really important?

This is like asking ‘Are boots important?’ It depends what kind of boots, and what you want to do. Rock-climbing? Skiing? Ballroom dancing? Having breakfast in bed? A high level of grammatical correctness is important for some purposes; less so for others. And not all aspects of grammar are equally significant. Getting some things wrong can hinder communication quite seriously; other points may matter very little on way or the other. It’s unconstructive to generalise.
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