Language learning as a tornado (or: yes, we do need to teach this again)

Don’t raise your hand because you might be in public, but are there any other ESL teachers out there who, in moments of frustration, have thought or said, But we covered that last class/week/semester/level/year? Yeah, thought so.

There are some skills that once learned are fully mastered and almost never regress, like walking, counting, reading (try looking at these words and not reading them to yourself), or riding a bike (so I’m told). Learning a language, sadly, isn’t among them. I studied German for 12 years including an undergraduate degree, but when I went back to Germany after a 15-year gap, my language use was pretty messy. Oh yes, I’d learned all the cases and articles and irregular verbs at some point, and I faintly remember something about strong and weak nouns, but now when I speak, I make so many mistakes that I’m a favorite source of parody. I told an entire summer school last year that they should wash their tie-dyed t-shirts in the dishwasher.

Language learning is dynamic: features of the target language are acquired, muddied, lost, and relearned. And that’s OK.

What is not OK is to insist that there’s something wrong with a learner who struggles with skills and structures that have previously been taught. Yes, I know we taught the present perfect tense in Level 3, but that doesn’t mean the student can use it correctly in Level 6. Why not? Well for a start, they probably practiced the tense in narrow, personal contexts (I’ve been to Canada! I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower! I’ve lived in Delaware for 8 years!), but now they’re expected to choose the correct tense when writing a literature review (researchers have found …. studies have demonstrated … recent evidence has called into question …). Not to mention the fact they have encountered a wider range of tenses since Level 3 as well as a whole bunch of other grammar and vocabulary that they’re trying to use correctly.

You can think of language learning as a tornado: the winds spiral (a popular metaphor for good curriculum design) but they do so in the shape of a funnel. As students become more proficient, they want or are expected to function in a wider range of contexts, which means drawing on more lexicogrammatical resources and using them in new ways. The ways we use present perfect in daily conversation are not the same as its functions in graduate research writing. Conversely, the kind of German I learned to understand 19th-century literature is not much help when I have to discipline 9 year olds who chase each other with staplers.

The same is true of skills and strategies. I’m getting a bit leary of these supposedly universal reading skills that textbooks call finding the main idea, differentiating facts and opinions, or reading subtitles. I suspect that, like writing strategies, these would be better taught in the context of genres where they are most naturally used. But my point here is that none of these skills should be considered so basic that they can’t be recycled at a higher level for a higher purpose.

Take, for instance, an old chestnut: identifying the author’s opinion. There’s nothing about this skill which makes it inherently more suitable for a lower level. It all depends on the sophistication of the writing. In a blog post that’s full of I think that … and we should all… and in my opinion … , learners with lower levels of proficiency  should be able to locate the opinion. But in more complex texts where the author draws on multiple interpersonal language resources to align and distance the reader, identifying the opinion (or more likely, multiple opinions of multiple voices) is far more challenging and certainly an appropriate task for advanced learners.

So, keep spiraling and expanding. Meanwhile, I have a dishwasher to repair.

When is a grade a bagel?

In one of my favorite moments in the TV series The West Wing, politico Josh Lyman winces when a member of the president’s staff uses the word “recession”:

Larry: “If the economy is heading into a recession–”
Josh: “No, no, no. We don’t ever use that word around here.”
Ed: “What word? Recession? …What should we call it then?”
Josh: “I don’t care. Call it a boat show or a beer garden or a bagel.”
Larry: “So if it is a… bagel, the Fed thinks it’s gonna be a mild bagel.”

If you work in the West Wing, then calling an economic downturn a recession makes it a recession (once repeated on cable news, Twitter, and around the proverbial water cooler). On the other hand, if the average English teacher, say, reads in the Delaware News Journal that the stock market has fallen and declares to his two young children at the breakfast table that the US is in a recession … nothing happens. The president’s economic advisors’ utterances have illocutionary force: they make something so by speaking it into existence, just as a licensed official alone can declare two people married.

So what does this have to do with grades?

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Preparation for what?

I work in an intensive English program, whose purpose is to prepare international students for undergraduate and graduate degrees in the US. (So this would be a good time to note that all opinions on this blog are mine alone!)

I’m increasingly bothered by the idea of education as preparation. To some extent, it’s true: we need our schools to prepare young (and not so young) people to contribute usefully to society and fulfill their own potential. Such has always been one of the functions of schooling: education is a public as well as a private good. It’s also true that we in ESL have a duty to help our students develop the language proficiency that will help them accomplish their future academic, professional, and personal goals. To that extent, my teaching is very much concerned with preparation.

But I have a problem when the goal of preparation so dominates our mindset as teachers, curriculum designers, materials writers, and administrators that the lesson, course, or program ceases to have any meaning as an educational experience in itself.

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A criticism of critical thinking

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to travel to Japan to speak at JALT and visit some schools and universities with the wonderful representatives from OUP. During a book fair at a university near Tokyo, a tall Australian ex-pat teacher asked me if we had any books on critical thinking. I dutifully pointed him to a series I’d written for which has “critical thinking tips” and explained how we tried to embed them in the content and assignments. “No,” he frowned, “I want a book that just teaches critical thinking, not a language textbook.”

Honestly, I have no idea what that kind of book would look like, and I certainly couldn’t write it. I’m not even sure what critical thinking means, and I’ve been teaching academic ESL for over 15 years. So I’ve stopped talking about critical thinking, and I don’t claim to teach it. I’ll leave thinking to the psychologists and philosophers.

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(Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

Here’s a blog post I wrote for the OUP Global site on teaching grammar through (extensive) reading. It’s loosely tied to Q:Skills for Success, but I’ve been batting around these ideas for some time. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Source: (Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

Conferences 2017

Here’s my speaking schedule for the coming year. Come join me!

Kansas State University Intensive English Program (professional development workshop), December 15

EAP Conference at St. Andrew’s University, Scotland, February 24-25, 2017

  • Workshop, “Genres That Work in the Writing Classroom”
  • Plenary speaker. “Go with the Flow: Creating Cohesion in Academic Discourse”

AAAL Conference, Portland, March 17-19, 2017

  • Connecting Process and Product: Mixed-Method Research into Collaborative Writing

TESOL Convention, Seattle, March 21-24, 2017 (handouts & slides here)

  • “Myths of the Five-Paragraph Essay.” Second Language Writing Interest Section Academic Session, with Dana Ferris, Christine Ortmeier-Hooper, Luciana de Oliveira, Deborah Crusan, and Ann Johns.
  • ” Argue, Contend, Exort: Teaching the Language of Argumentative Writing” with Silvia Pessoa, Ryan Miller, Tom Mitchel, and Sandra Zappa Hollman
  • “Many Hands Make Writing Work: Planning Engaging Collaborative Writing Tasks” with Monica Farling

New book! Supporting Graduate Student Writers

cover.pngA new collection which I helped edit has just been published by the University of Michigan Press. Supporting Graduate Writers: Research, Curriculum, Program Design (Simpson, Caplan, Cox, & Phillis, 2016) is the first edited volume to discuss options in designing writing support for graduate students writing in English both as their first or additional language. You can find it on the Press’s website,, and all fine booksellers. The blurb is below the break. Thanks and congratulations to editors Steve Simpson, Michelle Cox, and Talinn Phillips as well as the amazing cast of contributors. It was a fascinating project to work on.

Continue reading “New book! Supporting Graduate Student Writers”