Friday, November 29, 2013

A helpful link for ESP teachers

It goes without saying that, if you're teaching ESP (English for Specific Purposes), you'll see the need to understand your students' profession, especially the job skills that involve oral and written communication. 

And that is where this wondrous website comes in: 

From what I gather, the Canadian government listed the essential skills for a myriad of careers. Granted, this resource won't be all you need to fully apprehend your students' needs and aims, but it seems to be a great springboard for a needs analysis.

For instance, if you are teaching hairdressers, you'll see there that their main focus regarding language should be oral communication, so they can talk to their clients. However, there's also a need for reading manuals and labels. And the website doesn't stop there. It'll even list you the subskills and some of the typical tasks! 

Sweet as maple syrup, right?


(Update: It seems I'm not the only ESP practitioner to like this resource! Take a look at this and other tips by Kristin Ekken.)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On the brink

We teachers never rest our minds, do we? Just seen one of those "pics you can't miss" articles on Facebook, and here I am, thinking of classrooms applications. Granted, this would fit better in a more traditional PPP sort of lesson, but heck if it may help students in some way, who's judging?

So here it is: if you're teaching "going to" and "might/may" for predictions (based on evidence or speculation), these pics might help you illustrate/elicit/practice it. They were all taken from this article called "The 50 pictures in perfect timing." A general "What do you think is going to happen next?" should suffice, but I've added a couple of questions in case more guidance is needed. 

Photo Jörn Kessels

What is the man going to do? 
What is going to happen to the bird?

Photo RedditorJoker

What is going to happen to the lady in white?
What is the blond man going to do?

Photo Sindri Skúlason

What is going to happen to the bird?
Is its stomach big enough for that fruit?

Photo Frode Sandbech

What is going to happen to that man in the picture?
What about the photographer?

Photo Bored Panda

What is going to happen to the soldier who yawned?
What about the other soldiers?

Photo Kathy Keatley Garvey

What is going to happen to the man? How about the bee?


Photo Bored Panda

What is going to happen to the cyclist?
What is the man in jeans going to do? 
How about the photographer?

Photo Michael Swaine @

Speaking of the devil, I have a bee in my bonnet about how ESOL textbooks usually explain the future, that neat tripartite view I am partly reproducing here. But that's a topic for another post, when I have mulled over this a little bit more. For now, I'll leave you with this: could it be that this is one more of those language myths we teachers are helping to perpetuate?

Friday, November 15, 2013

ESP: English through, English for, or English with?

What's your take on ESP: are you teaching English through, for or with your students' field of work?
Cambridge English teacher, one of the communities for ESOL teachers, has recently uploaded quite a few free resources on ESP. I was especially drawn to a document called "Approaches to ESP" by Jeremy Day.

To me, ESP is an approach, but let's not quibble over terminology. In this very interesting piece, the author lists 3 views of ESP, which he cleverly labels "English through", "English for" and "English with". 

Put simply, "English through" is teaching your regular General English syllabus, which Day reminds us is often a grammatical syllabus, with the specialized field acting as nothing more than a context. As a colleague of mine once said, you change the infamous "The book is on the table" into "The plane is on the apron" and voilá you have an ESP lesson (or so you think).

"English for" targets students' present and future professional needs, and by doing so may turn the traditional curriculum on its head or more commonly get rid of it completely.

"English with" is often called content-based instruction. You teach content, and English tags along as the medium. That is to say your main aim will be that students learn something in their field such as "fixing XYZ equipment" or "using ABC software". You may spare a few moments for language work, or perhaps you won't, and (modified) input alone will be all you do regarding language.

The author doesn't pass judgment on those views, but this is a personal blog, and it'd make very little sense if I were to keep my opinion to myself. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the "English through" view. Mutatis mutanti, changing the terms whilst keeping the backbone of a General English course, is no approach to ESP course design. But it's a very pervasive view, ubiquitous even, as I've come to realize

And I'm not saying it won't be effective. It probably won't be an efficient use of resources, yet for some professions it might well do the trick (in the long run... with a motivated student... on a clear day...). Nonetheless, it's not ESP but for a lot of marketing spin. ESP has to stem from the professional needs of the students. It's English FOR Specific Purposes, is it not?

It may be harder to see it when you think of Business English, because that's where a lot of the big bucks of marketing lie. Several textbooks in this field seem to be in fact General English in disguise. But no amount of sales pitches will convince me that the linguistic needs of a nurse, an air traffic controller or a mechanic are nearly identical to the point that I can refer all three to the same "English".

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages - Too common for ESP?

You've all heard of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) or at least seen those A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 on the cover of language coursebooks and exam brochures, right? If you haven't, don't worry, the CEFR will get to you eventually. Unintentionally perhaps, it's little by little realizing Pinky and the Brain's lifelong dream: to take over the world.


We're all too aware of the advantages of CEFR: for one, it provides a common language for us to talk about language levels. I may not speak a word of German, but if a Fräulein says she's a B2 in the language of Goethe, I'll know what she means. I'll know what she's capable of in a General German context.

(not enough, let me make it bigger)

(now that's better)

what is the role of the CEFR in contexts of Language for Specific Purposes (LSP)? Should it have a role at all? 

My go-to response for anything in life (just ask my poor husband) is "NO". That's why the moment I heard Aviation English course sellers refer to the CEFR, my mind pretty much shut down as if they were Charlie Brown's teacher.

Seriously, you're talking gibberish.

Because, no matter how carefully designed the CEFR was, it still has a single purpose: "to explore the communicative needs of adult migrants and to guide the assessment of their proficiency in the language of their host community." (Council of Europe, a.k.a. horse's mouth) And you can't just cross the ocean on a state-of-the-art fighter.

Or that's what I thought until I attended the TESOL International Academy on ESP (BTW, I strongly recommend both the Academy and the Association itself). The speakers there represented the crème de la crème in terms of ESP practitioners, and they did it beautifully. It was serious, principled ESP they were reporting. And yet they'd still talk about the CEFR as a backbone of their courses. Whatever ESP they were in, whatever the background of the presenter, there they were: speaking of their A1-C2 levels.

One of the things we do when we carry out a needs analysis is, of course, list the tasks involving language in that domain. CEFR tasks are those of an adult migrant. May there be a considerable overlap? Well, there might be. In Aviation I seriously doubt it. But in tourism, business or other fields, it might perhaps be possible to map the domain you are working with onto the CEFR. Provided that you set out and do it, actually study how the construct behind the European framework relates to your specific domain, I'd be OK with it, if a bit suspicious at first (ok, very suspicious at first, but I'm a nobody, so don't worry about me). On the other hand, if you just assume the CEFR fits the bill no-questions-asked, aren't you paying lip service to the need of needs analysis?

(Yeah, I'm being controversial. Go ahead, shoot!)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Unreal TV

Hat tip: Upworthy

These ads, which have been recorded for a fundraising campaign for public TV in the U.S., mock reality TV and may serve as a springboard for debate in the English language classroom.

For more commercials like these, go to the campaign website

 If you want to use them in a conversation class, here are a few suggestions:
  • Lead-in:
    • Pair Ss up to talk about the questions:
      a) What are your favorite TV shows? Why do you like them? (If you don't like TV, why don't you?)
      b) How do you (or people you know) choose new TV shows to watch? 
    • Give each S 3 blank slips of paper. On each slip they will write a name of a TV show. One of the slips will have the name of their favorite TV show; the other will be the name of a TV show they can't stand and the last one the name of a TV show they like but can live without.
    • Pair Ss up. Ss will have to read the 3 slips their partner wrote and find out which is which (which is their partner's favorite, which is the one they can't stand, etc). But they can't ask that straight ahead of course! They have to ask other questions to try and suss it out. 
    • Ask Ss to write the names of their 2 favorite TV shows and 2 TV shows they can't stand.
    • Ss mingle to find someone who is very similar to them and sit next to their "TV soulmates".
  • Listening/Viewing for gist: 
    • Tell Ss they are going to see two TV commercials to identify what they are advertising and what they have in common.
    • Show two of the commercials and stop right before the white titles in the black background. Ask them to pair check and elicit their answers. (Key: Both advertise reality shows. There are a lot of things in common: both show recorded scenes of the program; both finish by saying the date and time of the show, etc.)
    • Ss chat in pairs: Would you like to watch those shows? Why (not)? Do you think these shows would be successful in your country? Why (not)?"
  • Reading/Viewing for inference: 
    • Show the end of the commercials. With a new partner, Ss have to come up with what they think these commercials were used for.
    • After you have collected a few ideas, tell Ss this is a fundraising campaign for public TV. Ask Ss if they think the campaign is going to be successful.
  • Debate: 
    • Preparation: Divide your class in 2 groups. Tell a group to list arguments in favor of reality shows, while the other group lists arguments against them. 
    • 1st round: Get 2 students from each group, making groups of 4 to discuss the future of reality TV. (If you have a strong group, you can spice things up by asking Ss to argue for the opposite position, not the one they prepared for.)
    • Collect and give feedback. 
    • 2nd round: Change groups. Ss will have to discuss again, now standing up for what they believe in. (You may want to ask Ss to sort themselves into people who are actually pro and against reality TV so you can mix them for this stage.)
  • Wrap-up:
    • Show the end of the commercial again and draw attention to the tag #TVgonewrong. Ask them if they agree with it.

  • Possible follow-ups:
    • In groups Ss come up with another reality show spoof and sell their idea to their classmates.
    • If they really got into the campaign, Ss can go online to find out how much money the campaign has raised so far and see the other ads.
    • Ask Ss if they believe reality shows are "really real". Refer Ss to this On the Media podcast about the subject.

Would you use these ads in class? How? :D

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Whose meaning is it anyway?

"What's the meaning of..." seems to be a perfectly innocent question. But language is never innocent, is it? 

I give you exhibit A: white-shoe

According to The American Heritage,
"white-shoe adj. Of or being a long-established business known for reputable service and a wealthy clientele: “took a job at... [a] pronouncedly white-shoe investment-banking firm” (Connie Bruck)"

 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines it as:
"US denoting a company (esp. a law firm) owned and run by white upper-class Americans and typically regarded as cautious and conservative"

And now exhibit B: bleeding heart

The American Heritage considers a bleeding heart to be "a person who is considered excessively sympathetic toward those who claim to be underprivileged or exploited," while their counterpart to the North, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, glosses the expression as an informal term to "a person perceived as overly sentimental, esp. in regard to social problems."

My husband, who in my unbiased opinion just happens to be the best English-to-Portuguese translator in the world, was the one who brought these different definitions to my attention. To us, these are without a doubt blatant pieces of evidence of how ideology(ies) influence(s) the product of a reference work... And of ideology in language.

If languages are ideological, it follows that teaching one is necessarily so. That is why, of all the acronyms in TESOL, my least favorite one is certainly "PARSNIP". Each letter stands for an allegedly forbidden topic in the EFL classroom: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (e.g.: feminism, socialism), and pork. Of course there are topics wise and sensitive teachers would avoid for certain groups, but the idea that language teaching can be at all "neutral" or "sanitized" has always baffled me. It is language, after all. And it is teaching. Neutrality is the opposite of what we set out to do.

But perhaps this is just the opinion of a bleeding heart on white-shoe establishments.

Related posts:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

What's up

A long hiatus in terms of blogging, but definitely not in terms of teaching...

BRAZ-TESOL, the Brazilian Association of Teachers of English as a Second Language, published my first blog post as an article in their latest newsletter. =) Really, really happy.

Also, I am about to finish an intensive CELTA, and boy, is that intense! :) On the other hand, the tutors were very supportive and my CELTA trainee team was truly a Team with capital T, so this has made the course a little easier to cope with. I'm certainly one who gets "by with a little help from my friends."  (So thank you, Sharon, Filipe, Sara, and Alini!) 

In fact, it wasn't as hard as I expected it to be, but only because I thought it'd be nearly impossible. ;-) It still meant sleep deprivation and no days off, though. And I have been in teaching for a while. I can't imagine what the intensive CELTA is like for inexperienced teachers, who Cambridge says is the CELTA's target audience! 0.o

I don't know what my score will be yet, but I've already got something much more important. Learning, of course. New friends, without a shadow of a doubt. Plus, a lot of heartfelt thank yous. For example, after I finished my last lesson, in which I worked with the song "Que Sera, Sera", students simply wouldn't leave the room. One of the students who lingered, a smiley 72-year-old, hugged me and said, "your lesson made me happy." 

Now, what in the world could top that? :D

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lie to Me

(Hat tip: Nadhir Moghli.)

As a teacher, are you average, better than average or below average?

A survey of college professors at the University of Nebraska found that nearly 100% of the teaching staff thought they were "above average" as teachers, according to this 2006 article. A mathematical impossibility. If there is an average, most of them should be around it, not above it. 

The article discusses how self-assessment can be flawed*, but what I wish to focus on here is a different matter.

"Average, below average, above average teacher"? Those terms presuppose a comparison or even a competition among teachers! 

Why should we be going against each other? There are perhaps instances when it may be necessary for management to choose a teacher over the other (promotions and bonuses spring to mind), but for most intents and purposes, doesn't it make sense for a school to want as many effective teachers as possible? Wouldn't a reality of 50% of average teachers -- with a few the worse, and a few the better -- be bleak and saddening for us all?

Is this how you see your teacher's lounge? 
(Source: TABMathletics)

Instead of comparing a teacher against the whole teaching staff in a norm-referenced approach to teacher evaluation, it would be a lot more interesting to adopt a criterion-referenced approach, i.e. to agree upon a set of criteria to assess teaching ability and then evaluate teachers -- via self-assessment or any other form -- against those criteria. In other words, dropping the idea of average for the concept of standard (below standard, up to standard, above standard). After all, I could be the "best" teacher in a group of ineffective teachers and still be ineffective. And the opposite is also possible: I may be the "worst" teacher in a group of super teachers and feel terrible about myself, when in fact I am an overall effective teacher with huge potential for improvement.

In short, numbers lie. Especially averages. And when it comes to teacher evaluation, it is in the interest of the students that we try and be as fair as possible in depicting the reality of their education.

I'd love to know your opinion on this. How do you think teacher evaluation should be conducted?

*In all fairness, the article ends with what I believe is a great message: "When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were." I wholeheartedly agree with the author in terms of how perception can skew our judgment, how we shouldn't see teaching as a single-trait competence, and above all how we must be committed to constant professional development. What I don't buy is the idea that we should be averaging teachers.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Just run with it!

Hat tip: Elmer Neves

(Source: Everywhere! But I got this one from here.)

You have seen these British vs. American English posters. Perhaps the coursebook you teach is full of those tables. You may have even drilled those differences, as I sure did more than once. And you might have acted as if reality were exactly like that: neatly divided somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.

Don't get me wrong: those colorful posters are useful to some extent. Even though they considerably narrow down the spread of English around the world, at the very least they introduce the concept of linguistic variation in the L2 classroom. But as that cute 7-year-old famously asked, "Is this real life?"

(Source: BusinessInsider)

What you see here is the map for rubber-soled shoes one would wear for athletic activities. You know, these: 


According to our British vs. American English poster, to no fault of its own (I'm sure you've seen this repeated time and again), Americans call those shoes "sneakers". Well, judge for yourself: on the map, blue represents "sneakers". Red is for... *drum roll*... "tennis shoes". 

Does anyone else see a red flag here?

In terms of percentage, "sneakers" does have a slight advantage over "tennis shoes" (45.50% v. 41.34%), but it's hard to stand by the claim that "sneakers" is THE term used in the U.S.. "In the U.S.." That continental country. That's a loooot of people. A few of them (0.23% in the survey) even prefer the so-called "British" word "trainers"!

(Not that a small country such as England would necessarily be more homogeneous. On the contrary!)

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir: we all know that languages are alive and kicking, and that they vary. Through time, across regions, across social classes or ethnic groups. Yes, of course we know that. However, are we allowing this knowledge to seep through to our classes, or are we helping fuel the myth of English as a language with 2 monolithic standards? 

I understand there are pedagogical reasons not to overload students with different words for the same object. Teach me a word, I'll learn it; teach me 10, I'll forget all of them. But is that all there is to it? Or, if variation is the spice of language, are there other obscure reasons for such a bland diet?

Click here for:
The original survey
The colorful maps
The BusinessInsider article with funny comments about the maps

Update (June 7, 2013): Ben Zimmer has commented on the maps and survey. As usual, a great read!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Testing times

Even those of us teachers who don't like taking exams (dare I say that's 99% of us?) end up administering a lot of tests throughout our careers. But here is where the danger lies, as this ubiquity of testing may make us take it for granted.

For instance, if duty calls, many of us will blithely use tests to decide on learners' courses of study: fail, pass, revise this, study more of that. In other words, we often act as if all tests were really good representations of a student's current proficiency level.

On the other hand, I've noticed that, as soon as teachers change places and take tests as candidates or students, they tend to see raters, invigilators or test developers as big bad wolves. Let he or she who has never complained about a test cast the first stone!

A paradoxical view, that's for sure. But perhaps that duality is right to some extent: tests are certainly useful, but at the same time they have the potential for misuse and unfairness. In short, tests can be both the beauty and the beast.

"Tale as old as time", "bittersweet and strange", testing is "certain as the sun", 
but is there a "beauty and the beast" quality to it?

To my mind, the double-edged sword nature of testing derives from the fact that, no matter how "objective" tests claim to be, they are necessarily full of value-laden judgements. They're ideological. At the very least, they presuppose a view of
(1) what constitutes the target language;
(2) what constitutes learning a language;
(3) what is acceptable evidence of language learning;
and so on, so forth.

And that's all well and good if we think it through, feel comfortable with the embedded values and know how to keep them when we are writing and grading/rating tests. But do we?


I'd love to know your take on this. How do you feel about testing and being tested? What do you take into consideration when writing and grading tests?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

6 Tips for new ESP teachers

I was wondering how to start this blog when it hit me: from the beginning. So fiat lux: here are the things I wish I'd been told when I began teaching English for Specific Purposes. It's a bit long-winded, but I hope you like it.

6 Tips for new ESP teachers

1. Defer to your students' expertise.

ESP practitioners often teach professionals of fields in which they were not trained: medicine, law, business, oil and gas, aviation, tourism, catering... The list is endless! I, for one, didn't know what air traffic controllers did, let alone the language they used, before I found out I was going to be one of their teachers. Scary. Overwhelming. A challenge, no doubt. 

But here's an ESP mantra to help you cope: you don't have to know everything. You-don't-have-to-know-everything. In English and in teaching, you're the expert. In the specialized field, your students are. Learn from them and provide them with the English they need to teach YOU what they know. Just one caveat: remember that you'll still need to be able to guide them in how their peers use English internationally, which leads us to tips #2 & #3.

"Relinquish power. Listen to your students. You don't have to know everything."

2. Search for published material.

Fortunately, publishers have caught on to various ESP niches. To get your bearings, look for textbooks that cater for your audience. Finding out that you don’t have to start from scratch will lower your anxiety. Also, when leafing through the books, check whether the Teacher's Manual explains the jargon used in the lessons. That'll sure come in handy. But don't stop there.

3. Conduct a needs analysis.

As teachers, it’s our second nature: if we have a new group, we will find ourselves going over their characteristics. Take that instinct and amplify it: in ESP the need for tailoring the course is paramount. Investigate what your students can do with the language and what they need and want to do; find out the genres and skills your students use more often and what characterizes them; check out if they need to focus on accuracy or mainly getting their meaning across. You can accomplish that by interviewing your students, their supervisors and other professionals in the field, and if possible, by observing them at their workplace and reading up on the literature which describes their language use. It may be a little time-consuming, but it will sure be time well spent, as it will help you become a more effective teacher for your students. 

4. Don't overemphasize technical vocabulary.
Classic ESP rookie mistake: you spot all these words and phrases you didn’t know and instantly assume that vocab is what your students need to learn, right? Well, yes and no. They may be acquainted with some of it already, and other words may not be that relevant. Also, there must be more to ESP than drilling a glossary. Remember: you're trying to increase their overall proficiency, not to have them memorize a phrasebook. 

5. Find some backup.

No matter how unique the field seems to you now, chances are that someone else in the world is teaching the same profession. And it's very likely that this someone has an internet connection. So build yourself a personal learning network to have someone to turn to in times of need. There may be specific groups on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook or other social networks, as well as blogs and discussion lists and forums. TESOL and IATEFL, for example, both have interest groups in ESP. 

6. Enjoy yourself!

You've conducted an initial analysis of the field; you're open to your students' input; you have your peers to back you up; you even have some published material to help you plan your lessons. In other words, you’ve got it covered. It is now time to seize the challenge. If you are getting a bit tired of teaching the same syllabus over and over, ESP may be a welcome breath of fresh air. In any case, a change is as good as a rest. 

Something that helped me:
Hutchingson, T., & Waters, A. (1987). English for specific purposes. Cambridge: CUP.

Are you teaching ESP, too? What field? I'd love to read your tips! :D


This blog post has only been written and published because of the encouragement and huge help from Marcia Santos, Luiz Otávio Barros, and Nadhir Moghli. Thank you very, very much! Thanks also to Higor Cavalcante and Danilo Pereira for believing I could be a TESOL blogger! I hope I don't prove you wrong. lol

You may also like to read this post on the subject. I assure you I hadn't read it before, but I am glad to realize those great minds and I think so alike.