June 20, 2014

Teaching English as a Second Language, pt. 4: Five Final Ready-Made Lessons

Every language has its challenges, but spelling
and pronunciation is the only nonsensical aspect
of English that I ever find myself apologizing for.
Schoooooool's out for sum-mer! Schooooooool's out for-ev-er! Last day of classes today for the 2013-2014 academic year. Another year of teaching English to Spaniards has inspired another handful of ideas for TEFL lessons. With this set of five (okay, maybe there are really more here), and my previous three blog entries (here, here, and here), you now have 25 lessons total, more than enough to supplement most language books to add spontaneity to the classroom.

I won't count it as a lesson, but one impromptu conversation class I gave proved very successful: bring a printed copy of a simple restaurant menu (I used this one) to your class and talk about ordering food at a restaurant. To make it interactive, I split students into groups of 2 or 3, and had them take turns playing the customer and the waiter, and ordering from the menu. (Before starting, review how to use “would” to create polite expressions (I would like to have the… Would you like…?)

One of the hardest, but also funnest things to talk about are the cultural differences that shape
language etiquette. In general, English speakers use a lot of polite language and
apologize profusely (read about it here). But beware, that doesn't mean they're necessarily genuinely nice,
and there is a lot of regional variation with your "pleases and thank yous" and cursing more generally

***Lesson 21: Cursing – How to Curse Like an English Sailor***

"Thundering typhoon" and "blistering barnacles"
some of the creative cursing euphemism that
Captain Haddock is known to use.
There are many reasons why it is worth setting aside a ful class (an hour and a half even) to explain to your adult students the wonderful, dynamic world of English swear words. For one, they're motivated. It is a rare students who isn't very curious to learn them. Also, I sometimes feel like my most epic challenge with students is getting them to appreciate how flexible and playful language can be... that it evolves. Curse words often sit at the forefront of that evolution, as rebellious teenagers appropriate taboo or marginalizing language and embrace it as a counterculture. Finally, many swearing expressions build on phrasal verbs, and heck, that's the main thing many of my adult students are trying to master.

I owe a debt of gratitude to a colleague for making this class more substantial. She gave me a handout she made for the verb “to fuck”, and a photocopy of an excerpt from a book on taboo words, from which I grabbed the two visuals, one on “shit” and the other degree of taboo meaning. I've built on that and created this handout, as part of a more systematic way to present cursing to students:

Click here to load a PDF of my Cursing Vocabulary handout.

It is likely that your students will have heard many curse words already, and for this reason I recommend you start the lesson with a class brainstorm of what they already know. It is also likely that their understanding of these words is quite literal, and that they are thus missing the richness and nuance in meaning of many of the more figurative expressions they’ve heard. As demonstrated in my handout, I divide the blackboard in half and, as students give examples (usually with great enthusiasm and pride in their knowledge of the profane), I place them on the positive versus negative meaning side, to illustrate the first big point: that (like “de puta madre” in Spain) we use curse words to also say something is insanely great. Next I walk them through a discussion of the degree of taboo, as illustrated in this chart below. (At some point, I take them along a detour of body parts, to talk about polite versus varying degrees of impolite words for them.) Then, I talk more in depth about phrasal verbs with "fuck" and expressions with "shit". And next to last I mention some euphemisms we use for those moments a curse word almost slips out, but we then switch it to an innocuous one (e.g. "Shit!" –> "Shoot!"; or "¡Mierda!" –> "¡Miércoles!").

This list is either out of date or inaccurate. Screw is not that taboo, nor is, so far as I can tell these days,
the word "wank" in Britain. Still, the basic idea of this list is helpful for opening up a discussion
about which words/phrases are strong (e.g. "Fuck you!"), and which aren't (e.g. "Fuck it! I give up!)

Needless to say, the list of words on this handout is hardly comprehensive. I suppose at a university one could teach an entire course about cursing and still manage to forget an expression. Which brings me to the last point: with cursing above all, meaning and usage is dynamic and changes quickly. For any negative label, for example, the labeled group in question might turn it around and embrace it, undermining its power to stigmatize (e.g.: “I’m your bitch.”; “I’m such a slut for attention.”; or the use by African Americans of ‘niggah’ amongst each other). I guarantee you this will be a fun class, and your students will learn something, too. (And it might help them better follow American TV in the original language.)

Please 'pardon my French' in this English class...

Proviso: There is a dramatic difference in standards between the United States and Britain when it comes to cussing, which can be summarized as follows: in Britain, almost anything goes (even "the C word"!), though in polite company people hold back; in the U.S., there is much less cussing (the "C word" is very, very taboo), though certain words like fuck and shit are pretty common these days. So add this to your list of ways in which the U.S. and UK are two nations divided by a common language. (And don't believe the English when they act like they own the language. Many of the supposed Americanisms they disparage are, in fact, often British in origin, like "soccer".)

It might not hurt to take a moment to talk about the importance of correct pronunciation
of English vowels
, as this cartoon from a fun blog by a Korean-Australian couple addresses.
"Beach" is to "bitch" as "sheet" is to "shit" (and "eat" to "it", "each" to "itch", etc.).

***Lesson 22: 10 Common Mistakes on the First Certificate Exam – E.g. the Saxon Genitive... a.k.a. "possessive S"***

Another one of my colleagues went to a weekend FCE workshop this year on the 'Common FCE Mistakes' to look for. A conversation with him lead to the following class idea. (Isn't it wonderful working with talented, motivated and creative colleagues! If you're in Valencia, you can find them at the American Institute, one of the oldest and highest calibre private language academies in the city.) Looking over the list of common errors my colleague brought from that workshop, I tweaked, extended, and elaborated substantially on them, to create this more detailed list of typical mistakes that you can easily spend a class discussing with your students at some point:

Click here to load a PDF of my 10 FCE Mistakes/Saxon Genitive handout.

After giving the first such class, I further talked with my colleague about the Saxon Genitive, and he recited a standard TEFL position: when it's a person, use the "possessive S", when it's not, don't! I begged to differ, offering counter examples, leading to an extended discussion with him over several days, at the end of which I had a much better idea of why I disagreed with him, even though I did not sway him to my position. The outcome was Pages 3 & 4 in the above handout, my much more extended explanation of how the "possessive S" is and isn't used with certain place names and certain objects/animals. Teachers, it is worth spending half an hour with them on this issue, giving examples and explaining unusual cases. Proviso: this is not so much a handout for students as it is a guide for teachers on what to talk with your students about, listing different example problems on the blackboard.

For a laugh, you can tell your students about the many common mistakes that
native English-speakers make with their own gosh darn language.

***Lesson 23: Some Odds and Ends for the Kids – Another Xmas handout***

It was another year with the same group of kids, so I had to think up a new Christmas activity. Last year was Rudolph, so this year it seemed right to go with the cartoon classic, Frosty the Snowman. If Rudolph introduces dashing and dancing, Frosty introduces cold weather vocab, not to mention a new song to sing with them:

Click here to load a PDF of my Kid's Frosty Xmas handout.

While I have no hand out for it, I also had a nice ad hoc class with some of my kids on Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (1958). You can find the video here, and it works well with the chapter I did with them on camping and exploration vocabulary. It’s also a must if you want to introduce them to America’s wilderness/frontier heritage.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, classic Americana

***Lesson 24: Adjectives, Emphasis and Other Weighty Words***

There’s really not much to say about this handout, except that a student requested info on correct adjective word order, so I worked up a quick and easy handout using information from a few sites online. The basic line is that the order follows the acronym – OSASCOMP: Opinion, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Origin, Material, and Purpose. Your students need to know this, but don’t need more than a 5-minute explanation. I focus on the first and last categories: that the first adjective is always Opinion, and the last just before the noun always Purpose. And then I illustrate a few examples of how swapping order sometimes changes meaning (e.g. “a steel brick museum” versus a “a brick steel museum”) and sometimes doesn’t, but simply sounds wrong (e.g. “a new big book”). With time and practice they’ll get the hang of it:

Click here to load a PDF of my OSASCOMP Adjectives handout.

You know what's a big no-no? Making
an excellent meme about the usage of
English language and having a typo in it.
Can you find it?
While not directly related to adjective word order, I got another useful 5-minute class discussion from a meme using the following English sentence: “I never said she stole my money”. While in Spanish there are certain circumstance when one can play with word stress to change meaning, it is not as common as in English. (This is why my wife and I are regularly falling into the following trap: I want to know how a Spanish word is spelled so I emphasize the vowel I'm unsure about: "So it's estrateg-i-a, with an "i"?" Only to have my wife reply: "No. It's estrat-e-gia. The stress is on the "e"!" to which I get frustrated because I knew that... but, of course, in Spanish changing the stress in a word makes it wrong, or different.) To explain this difference in English, I write the seven word sentence above on the blackboard, and tell my students that with different word stress it can have seven different meanings. I then read it repeatedly, each time changing the stress and explaining how that version is different from the others. Their minds are blown!

In addition to word order, you have to be careful with hyphens and commas.

***Lesson 25: How to Conjugate Every Verb in the English Language 
– My Magnum Opus***

Every year when I teach the conditional tenses in my First Certificate class, the challenge has been getting students to break free from the formula, “If… [conditional clause], [hypothetical consequence clause]”. I like diagramming, my mind likes a good analytic challenge, and one day I started to diagram out for my students what I ostentatiously described as “how to conjugate every verb in the English language”. The result was this overly-complicated diagram:

Click here to load a PDF of my English Verb Conjugation handout.

This is not really a handout as it is a strategy for drawing it for them on the board. I start by drawing the chart with verb forms (simple, passive, continuous, perfect), explaining how some use an auxiliary verb (be or have), and what their function is (in red below the columns). I then explain that there are really only three times (ignoring future, of course): infinitive, present, and past. We fill this out together so they can see how that works for specific verbs. I take a detour: explain the auxiliary verb "do", different from the other two auxiliaries "have" and "be". And then I explain three ways to combine verbs to construct more complicated verb expressions: 1) the general rules of first verb determining the form of second verbs, 2) how to create the "subjunctive" in English using past tenses (and not to confuse "past simple" with the past in such cases), and 3) how to use certain modal verbs to create the "conditional" tense in English.

This is what the blackboard looked like after one of my conjugating English verbs clinics.

What good comes of this? Well, first of all, at a basic level it teaches them to think of auxiliary verbs as different from main verbs, and that you NEVER use “do” with the others. (A corollary benefit is it introduces the concept of stress using uncontracted auxiliary verbs (e.g. "I have been doing it, everyday!" ... instead of "I've been doing it everyday.").) Second, they can start to think of using modal verbs to construct stand-alone hypothetical statements (e.g. "I would like that." "I shouldn’t have done that."). Third, and perhaps it sounds stupid, but it ruptures this completely false idea that many of them have that the infinitive for verbs in English is the same as present simple (particularly problematic when you tell them that modal verbs require second verbs to be infinitive, but then they see: "would have had"... hint: which is the "perfect infinitive").

How many times have I heard Spaniards say that “at least in English conjugating verbs is easy”? With this chart they discover that English’s virtue (no specialized conjugated forms for subjunctive and conditional), is also its weakness (dependence on virtual conjugated forms using modals and past tenses).

This is the kind of absurd arm-chair cultural-lingual explanation I run into all the time.

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