Friday, March 19, 2010

Plagiarism and George Washington

I had to cover plagiarism today with little time. I found this quick quiz, which worked well and wasn't too boring. It's tricky at times. Obviously an essay bought on is plagiarized. But what about sentences that are common knowledge? Just don't copy an exact sentence. Anyway, the quiz tested your knowledge or what was copied and what was legit. One page had a picture of George Washing and it said he is the father of our country. It was plagiarism! Why? Because you have to say where you found the picture!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Can you describe prescriptive and descriptive analyses?

I train graduate students to be teaching assistants. One of my graduate students is studying Public Policy Administration. He lectured on the difference between prescriptive analysis and descriptive analysis. Today he had to review these words from last week by asking questions, eliciting information, thus getting the students to interact. This style of teaching is quite different than in other cultures.
It took like 20 minutes for us to understand the differences again. His English is good, very good, but explaining concepts in simple, every day English, is a challenge. He's from Brazil, so he tends to use formal language.
In case you were dying to know, prescriptive analysis is the plan before you create a policy. Descriptive comes afterwards, the evaluation. However, it's tricky because they constantly overlap. (Kids are dropping out of school. Let's provide milk. This helps but they're still dropping out. Let's provide food.)
I've had this class play Catch Phrase, my daughter's favorite game. You have a word and you have to get your partner to guess the word just by giving hints, synonyms, examples, etc. It's quite fun and challenging. If any ESL teachers out there have other techniques to improve fluency, not just vocabulary but the ability to rephrase ideas in simple language, please share them!

Dream On

I'm teaching rhythm. Rhythm is the most important thing to learn to sound clear. Really! It's the strangest language. All other languages take longer to say the more words you say. Not English. "Students liked my class." "Most of my students should have liked this class." There are lots of reductions: Shoulda, woulda, coulda!

We start with songs. I play them and they mark the stressed words: Every TIME i LOOK in the MIRror....All these LINES on my FACE GETting CLEARer...the PAST is GONE! Steve Tyler sang the original rock ballad in 1972!!!!!!!!! Really! It's still a great song. And imagine how clear those lines are in his face today!

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

A writer for the Brady Bunch wrote these three words one time and they forever resonate. Jan, the orthodontically-challenged awkward middle child was overshadowed by her pretty and popular older sister. The actress of Marcia, Maureen McCormick, wrote in her biography that to this day, people approach her and say that. All the time. And I hear it all the time!
Today I held a lunch for international faculty. We meet every week. I sent them a list of idioms from movies and television shows. So many come from the Wizard of Oz. "Gee, Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." One woman who's lived here a long time agreed that my list was accurate. She explained when we say "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia". Your friend is so pretty and perfect and you're sick of it. Other idioms included "You had me at hello." "There's no place like home." "Show me the money!" "English is easy, NOT" and references like "Webster is like Mayberry!" and "My in-laws are the Cleavers!" Post more below!

Is English a tonal languae?

Chinese is a tonal language. That means the slightest inflection changes the meaning of the word. If you pronounce "ma" going down, up, up and down or flat, you have said four different words. English is not considered a tonal language. However......85% of the message is how you say it. Other languages like Russian just change the word order for emphasis. We use focus stress and lots of it. Normally we stress the last important word in a sentence. "I took chemistry in high school." If I say " I TOOK chemistry in high school" and I really apirate that t, that means I don't remember a thing! And I don't!
SO...where am I going with this? I had a job, a paying gig, to teach American people how to speak on the phone. (This really awesome IT firm hires me to help their non-native employees sometimes.) After going over intonation and focus stress, I had them read statements for tone, like sarcasm, enthusiasm, defensiveness, confidence, insecurity, etc.
I asked a young woman to read the sentence "Why didn't you return my phone call?" I assumed since she was a native speaker she would emphasize phone. I asked her to sound concerned. Instead, she said "Why DIDn't you return my phone call?" with did falling down at like a 75 degree angle slam. That sounded angry. She repeated it with the same word stressed, did, but rounded it, like a circle. Then she sounded concerned. The same word was stressed and not even the appropriate word, but that change in inflection completed changed the tone.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Spelling and Vowels

Spelling in English is very irregular, which makes pronunciation very hard to learn. I usually teach pronunciation of vowels by where they are pronounced. Those pronounced with the tongue forward are: /iy/ meet; /I/ mitt; /ey/ mate; /E/ met and /a/ mat. To me, it makes since to teach them this way so they they can differentiate between the confusing sounds, which are close to each other. (beach/bitch is a bitch for them; too/took; cup/cop; and pen/pan).
Today a student asked why the first i in the word "Titanic" sounds like /ay/ and not /I/. It hit me!!! I can now simplify spelling and pronunciation explaining them the way I was taught as a child!
Vowels are usually pronounced either the short or the long sound. We were taught as kids the long and short vowel sounds: A and a, E and e, I and i, O and o, U and u (which can sound like put or putt). The short o, which sounds like AHHH, is confusing for my students because they learned British pronunciation. The letter o is always pronounced long /ow/ as in so or /AH/ as in popular. The only exception I can think of is the word women, in which the vowels both sound like the short i. I once knew a lesbian who spelled women as wymyn, omitting the men, and this is how my students can remember the pronunciation.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I went there for having fun

A student from Brazil taught us definitions from his field, Public Policy Administration. He explained, "A policy needs to change for a new policy." I corrected him that "change to" is what he meant. "TO" is direction towards: "I am married TO John, divorced FROM Vladimir." "For" is a purpose, why we do something. "I wrote a letter TO Jack FOR Jill since her hand was broken."
This lead to another problem Spanish and Portugese speakers have. They often use a gerund after a preposition, which makes sense since prepositions are followed by nouns. However, it is awkward to follow them with gerunds. "I went there for having fun." "I went there for fun OR to have fun" (the infinitive is a reduced form of in order to.) I don't know why gerunds don't work. We use them after prepositions in other constructions. "I am good at swimming." "I look forward to meeting your mom."
After FOR seems okay in this question: "How much money do you get for teaching part-time?" Maybe it doesn't. Maybe I'm losing my ability for judging the English.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


What makes one teacher likeable and another not? I mean, beyond bringing food and not giving homework..haha. Seriously, students are not motivated by a teacher that they can't relate to. It's more than just good teaching, lesson plans, strong activities.... Too much intonation, not enough intonation, (who can take a monotone voice?) approachability, personability but not too much, liking them, encouraging them...My kid says she needs some compliments with all the criticism and for them to smile in a way that is sincere. Another teacher claims it's important to read their body language and gage your lesson accordingly or even surprising them with a 20-second stretch break. Humor helps. Please post any comments!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Two tribes of people

My reading class is reading a juvenile novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." It is absolutely hilarious and poignant. My students are mostly from China, Saudia Arabia and Korea in this class, so we write a lot about cultural differences, etc. One thing that came up in the discussion is the relationship between men. In Korea and Saudi, men touch. They can put their arms on each other's shoulders. In Saudi, they even hold hands. (I'm not sure if most of the men I know in the U.S. even have close friends.) My students know that they can't touch a man here or everyone will think they are gay. Isn't it ironic that the country with the most rights for gays in some ways is the most homophobic?

Anyway, the kid in the novel is living between two cultures, native American and white American. There is this great line: I used to think the world was broken down by tribs. By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Tone and teaching

I was talking to a colleague about tone and intonation. I gave an example about how we use a stronger downward pattern to sound strong or rto eprimand and a light, sing-song cadence when don't want to offend someone or show a lower status. We use high lifts to encourage people. However, I never thought about if we use too many high pitches while teaching, it can sound too cheerful, like fake praise, and lower our status as teachers. It's especially tricky when teaching college level because they want to be treated like adults or near-equals. However, they need guidance and sometimes have bad behavior and deserve to be reprimanded. The wrong tone makes them feel discouraged or that someone is talking "down" to them. I think this must be very difficult for non-native speakers, no matter how fluent they are in English. Even within English dialects, intonation causes terrible misunderstand. I've read that Indians in England can sound rude when they intend to show respect due to cultural differences in how intonation is used.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Believe it or not, I've taught ESL for nearly 20 years and have only recently learned that most of my students can't read cursive handwriting. However, being international students with high respect for instructors, none ever told me this.
As a child, I was fantastic in cursive writing class. My fourth grade teacher said I didn't have to practice any more because I could perfectly copy those posters hung in the classroom. They were green, always near the ceiling, and each showed a letter as it was to be written reaching either to the first line or second line. Yes, I rocked at cursive.
Today, however, I scribble something that is a cross between cursive and print. I believe most American adults write like this. All these years of writing on the board and no one mentioned it was illegible. At first I thought mostly the Arabs couldn't read it. I learned today that my Chinese students can't read it either. I wrote their names on the board with the fancy, near-calligraphy-but-how-I-learned-to write-cursive-capitals of  "G", "Z", "F" and "Q". They were shocked! They had no idea what those letters stood for. I then googled "cursive handwriting" and attached the file to the class website.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Knock on Wood

After learning about why we cross fingers, I began to wonder what the origin is for "knock on wood." Some say it's because most cultures believed that spirits lived in trees. The Irish would knock on trees for good luck from the leprechauns. However, I believe it has more to do with a Jewish version back to the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century. Jews seeking refuge from persecution fled to synagogues built of wood, and they devised a coded knock to gain admission. As a result, many lives were saved so it became common to "knock on wood" for good luck.


"Taste" can be count or non-count. "She has great taste in fashion!" is non-count. But when my student wrote: "He makes tea which is superb taste." I corrected him "...which HAS A superb taste." Another student asked if "taste" is a count noun and I said that it was. Then he asked if it could be plural and I said no. Can it? I don't think I've ever heard of "tastes".
He gave me a dirty look and said, "It can take a singular but not a plural?" I replied, "Don't shoot the messenger! I didn't create this language, I just teach it1"

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

why do we cross our fingers?

I asked a Chinese student to present two idioms to my speaking class, and he chose "keep your fingers crossed" and "a little bird told me". First he explained their meanings, good luck and a secret source.

But then he explained the history of these common expressions. People used to ward off vampires by making the sign on the cross, crossing their fingers. (Take that, Edward Cullen!)

"A little bird told me" was even more bizarre. It was forbidden to say anything bad or have evil thoughts about the king, because the thoughts could drift away out the window, like a little bird. So a little bird signifies your secret thoughts. Isn't that wild? This reminds me of that sign that says to watch your thoughts because they may become words, which become action or reality.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


One of my students is really fluent in English. I read her essay and had no suggestions or corrections. Her sentences are very complex and correction, and her grammar is perfect. I told her this. She complained that she needs help with vocabulary. (Note: students who really need ESL claim they don't and those who don't claim they do. Isn't that the case with everyone and everything?)
I looked over her paper and noticed that she used the word "different" many times, so I told her to use a thesaurus, on-line or book, and write synonyms. She said she didn't know how we use those. It's true. I'd never thought about it, but as a native speaker, I can read synonyms and get the tone, nuance or just usage.
Later, I stopped at Border's and saw a $15 thesaurus on clearance for $4. Most thesauruses (sp?) are about $5 or $6 anyway. This one, American Heritage, explains all the meanings. It claims for "different" that "difference" is the most general; "dissimilarity" is difference between things that are alike, such as twins; "divergence" suggests an increasing difference; "distinction" means a difference that is determinable only by close inspection; and "discrepancy" is a difference between things that should match. (American Heritage Thesaurus, page 191.) There you go! There are many differences among the synonyms for "different"!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Beers and Malls

My pronunciation students gave presentations last week and today. A Korean compared American and Korean beer commercials. Many American ones take place in homes with parties, like the Superbowl one in which the house is made out of Bud Light. He said Koreans do not have parties in their homes; most live in apartments, so they drink in bars and clubs.

Another Korean explained that malls don't have windows. Also, the escalators force you to walk around the other side through merchandise, which drives me crazy, but I've never thought about it.