Thursday, March 17, 2016

L1 is IN!


Throughout the decades of formal EFL teaching, approaches have changed to try to best suit student’s needs. Many schools, have adopted Communicative approaches as their method and have, therefore, relied on L2 exclusive environments. Casa Thomas Jefferson has fit this profile for a long time and it has been working quite well. Nevertheless, approaches are always being adapted, and our Communicative approach is no exception. The change I will address relates specifically to the use of L1 in the classroom. Since it has been accepted that teachers resort to L1 in Communicative teaching, many people have dedicated time to think about the pros and cons of this change. This essay aims at that exactly: what teachers should be aware of when using L1 in Communicative EFL classrooms.

The first fear many teachers may have is of weakening their Communicative approach and maybe even transforming their classes into translation-based ones. The use of L1 in the classroom does not mean that the approach to teaching is changing completely, it means that it is adapting. However, their fear is not completely wrong, it is a good sign that they must be aware of how and when to use translation in class. Its use must be effective, for example, in a speaking class, if a student says something another student does not understand, it is fine to translate, for the purpose is to communicate, and you do not want to break the conversation with long explanations over one word. Also, if a student is asking about vocabulary that is not in his or her level, it is easier to translate than to explain something so out of reach. Besides situations in which we must judge if translating is suitable (which are countless), we can always teach them how to use translation effectively.

Teaching students how to use certain tools, such as translation, is very effective, for it is empowering. Students should be encouraged to take responsibility for their learning process, as well as teachers should take responsibility in leading the way and teaching students how to use their strategies to enhance learning. I personally always like to teach students how to use dictionaries (L1/L2 as well as L2/L2) and mobile apps in class, so that they can continue using them as they step out of my classroom. Moreover, not only external tools can be taught to them students have a lot of prior knowledge that we should always try to access. Such prior knowledge relates not only to L2, but to L1 as well. We can teach them strategies on how to identify cognates and false cognates, for example. Involving students in the learning process that will benefit them is not just fair and good, it is necessary.

In the path of involving and empowering students, we should never underestimate them. Talking to students about when it is appropriate to use L1 or not is how we can set the tone of our classes. Also, explaining to students why we used L1 to explain a word, a structure or a concept to them is important, for it makes them aware of how and when they can use L1 themselves, or even ask you to use it. This culture of appropriateness when it comes to L1 will not be established in one class, but when it does, it will certainly be effective.

In summary, it is pretty clear that I advocate for the use of L1 in EFL classrooms, even so, I understand that it is not a simple and easy task. Teachers must be aware of how and when to use L1, making decisions that make sense having in mind the students’ learning process success. With time, I believe we will develop automaticity when making decisions about the use of L1 in EFL classrooms.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

My brain, their brains, our brains

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I have a secret to confess: my gateway to education was actually through Psychology, not teaching. Yes, I started falling in love with the brain and how it works in the University as a Psychology major. As my love for Psychology faded, I cheated and my mistress: Education, stole my heart. At first I thought "Oh my God, I am straying far from where I started", but soon I noticed the similarities between my marriage and my affair: Mediation. It is common for psychologists to have to defend themselves as not counselors, but as mediators of the change the patient needs. For us teachers it should be the same: we do not give knowledge to kids, we mediate so they can achieve it. That is the theory that supports me, but the real challenge is to actually implement this in the classroom.
Truth is: I love challenges, and the tricky part about this one is that it is neverending, which means that we are always finding answers, but they unveil new questions too. Therefore, I keep trying to think about my work in a critical way. I do trust my abilities and will to teach, but like any other, it is hard not to fall off the wagon (even without noticing it). In order to be more clear, I will give an example. There was mistake I was not realizing I was making, and it had to do with correcting the spelling of my young and very young learners. Pressured by time, I would not help them see by themselves what was wrong, I would just get my colorful pens (with the exception of the stigmatized red one) and would correct their exercises; sometimes in front of them, sometimes not even that. And then it came to my attention, although I cannot quite remember why: I am not giving them the chance of learning from their mistakes!
I was being a traditional teacher, trying to teach them by providing input, but not really letting them participate in this process. Zull preaches that deep learning depends on a cycle that starts by a concrete experience, goes on to reflective observation, abstract hypothesis, active testing and then it starts all over again. Having gone through these steps, my students still were inaccurate in their spelling, which is ok, the real mistake was mine. When I told or showed them the answer, I was not allowing them to go through the cycle again and work on changing their memory for a more accurate one. The cycle may be hard to grasp as something essential, it may seem just a theory, but Zull connects the cycle with the parts of our brain and how they work together. Concrete experience is received by the sensory back cortex, reflection starts at the back integrative cortex and goes to the frontal integrative cortex where the generation of abstractions and hypothesis happen and direct the action that will be taken ruled by the motor cortex. Once again, I was expecting my kids to rely on their back integrative cortex, where new memories are created. But why are these steps important? Because that is how our brains are wired! As Zull said " Some of the most obvious wiring in the brain is designed exactly for this front/back connection". And that is how I found an explanation to my question. But what was the answer? How could I effectively teach them from their mistakes?
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I did not have to out of my way to do it, I just started showing them the mistakes. The input I was providing was "there something to be improved here". Depending on the student and the subject I would point out the problem in different ways, but then came a problem: my kids just looked at me and said they did not know the right spelling and I realised I had to teach them to look for information. Sometimes it is as simple as looking to the question above, sometimes they need to open a book or dictionary, sometimes they can use gadgets. The point is, they are to look for the mistake and the answer, to go over the learning cycle again. Still, kids can get really frustrated. So it is our job to create a safe environment for them. Ensure them that they can do it and you have got their backs is essential. And why do you ask? I must quote Zull again " Cognition, control, fear and pleasure are four things brains use to survive." So, I provided them with cognition, control, and even fear, but were they pleased with the activity?
I started thinking about activities that were simple and known to teachers that could be fun, interesting and provide them a safe space to make mistakes and explore the spelling of the words. I nice game came to my mind: using letter blocks, I would show them a picture and they had to write the word with the blocks. I usually separate them in pairs or groups,so that they will benefit from peer teaching. I usually do it as a competition so that I will provide them with just the right amount of fear. And how it worked amazed me! They were engaged and having fun! But more than that, they were going over and over the learning cycle at warp speed! They were receiving the concrete experience (picture), activating their  previous knowledge by reflection, creating hypothesis, and acting upon it by moving the blocks and forming the words. The formed word would immediately become new input (specially when inaccurate) received by the sensory cortex, sent to the back integrative cortex, then the frontal integrative cortex and to the motor cortex one more time to move the blocks to the positions. And I could go on forever, but I think you got the point.  

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To conclude my ideas, I would like to say that the brain is a fascinating structure that is way more complex than we can grasp. Yet, these little bits and pieces of ideas we have about how it works can really improve the way teach. Not only because we effectively change our activities and lesson plans, but also because we become critical of our work. That basically means we are also going through the learning cycle over and over, even though not at warp speed.

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Zull, J. The art of                                 changing the brain.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Past simple adventures: a fun pronunciation class

ESL teachers are used to be faced with many challenges on a daily basis, but the students sometimes need to be eased into a challenge to avoid them being scared of the new grammar topic. Usually, the first time they encounter the past simple tense is a bit daunting, for they feel insecure with the new rules they must oblige to. On top of the grammar rules, we must add the pronunciation ingredient to a fluent learner recipe, and that is when the content may feel overwhelming. The teacher knows it is not rocket science, but only pronunciation that needs to be tackled with meaningful content, activation of schemata and some good old practice, and one way to achieve these three goals is by playing games in classroom. To fulfill the objective of teaching ESL learners how to pronounce the past simple endings, one can go through the following steps in class and have fun while learning!

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The first activity to be done is a review on verbs in the past simple form, for the students have already been introduced to the topic and must practice it. To do that, you will play a memory game in which they must pair the verb in the base form with the verb in the past simple form. You can use this game to review some irregular verbs too, but remember that the regular verbs are the target at this moment. You may divide your class in groups depending on how many students you have and how much time you have on your hands. Each set of cards will be played by two teams, and the team that gets more pairs, wins. It is important to assess them during the game, ask them questions, drill the pronunciation and have them speak, not only read the cards. Once they have gone through the deck of cards, you can be sure they will remember the verbs they have studied.

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Secondly, they need to realize that there are indeed, three possible different ending sounds in past simple regular verbs (/t/,/d/,/ɪd/). It is usually much more meaningful to students realize a pattern by themselves than to simply tell them. Therefore, you should find real audio input with three verbs (that are not on the deck of cards) being pronounced in the past simple (e.g. wanted, helped, called). This is a good moment to expose them to different speakers other than you, their teacher; you can find this audio sample in the course book, on the internet or you can even ask colleagues to record. Once you play the track once or twice, if they have not realized the difference between the samples yet, you can tell them to listen to how they are pronounced. The idea is that you guide them through the realization of the differences. Use the board to build with them a chart with three columns (/t/,/d/,/ɪd/) and write the three verbs from the sample in the columns.

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The third activity needs to make them think about the different endings they have just learned. Therefore, you will play another audio sample with all the verbs in the set of cards. Have them only listen the first time, then make them repeat the verbs after the sample. Tell them that they will have a second chance at winning if they place the verbs they got in the memory game in the correct column of the chart you drew on the board. Go through the listening and drilling on more time before they start competing. Give them masking tape to stick only the cards with the past simple form on the correct place. You can choose a team leader at this point, or even draw a second chart if you have many students. Now the winner is the group that finishes the task first, so you might have to re-distribute the verbs they got in the memory game. Remember that the activity only ends once you have corrected their production as a group, for this is the time to really make the learning settle. Now that the charts have a bigger amount of examples, elicit from them the rule behind these three possible endings. Depending on their level and what you have already studied you can use the terms voiced and voiceless, or you can scrutinize every and each sound that comes before the past ending. To really achieve the goal of having them pronounce the endings correctly, you will need to do some more drilling at this point again.

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To wrap up the fun day of past simple adventures, it is nice for them to produce and practice the pronunciation topic they have just learned. You can tell them that you have planned games for them to have fun, now it is time for them to plan games to each other. For this task you will need IPads with the app TinyTap downloaded. Divide your class in pairs or trios and tell them that they must make a game in which they pronounce the regular verb in the past, and the player needs to choose between (and tap on) the  /t/, the /d/or the /ɪd/ ending. The app is easy to use, but it is important to get acquainted with it in advance so that you can help your students accomplish the challenge. Do not forget to help them with their speaking as well, for that is the target of the lesson. Once they have finished making their game, have them change IPads and play with each other´s games. At this point you can also change IPads with another teacher’s group. The point is to have them listen and produce the verbs within different activities.

Some students might be nervous about producing language for they fear they will make mistakes. What they do not realize is that teachers see these mistakes as teachable moments. In order to enjoy these moments without exposing students, teachers may use games in the classroom. Having a classroom environment that is fun, enjoyable, meaningful and interesting will get students motivated in every activity proposed by the teacher, even the scary pronunciation tasks. This essay detailed a lesson plan that has proven to be successful and, with the necessary changes, I believe it can be helpful to other teachers and ESL groups out there.

ESL Young learners: how to teach pronunciation skills?

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     English has spread around the globe as a Lingua Franca, that much is known. Still, only knowing how to write and read English does not seem to be enough anymore, for many people have had the need to be fluent speakers of this language. As a result, many parents have enrolled their children in English courses as early as they can in an attempt to provide them with an upper hand they will only enjoy when they are much older. As teachers, how do we deal with these young learners? Well, we must recognize that young learners might have an advantage when it comes to becoming almost native fluent English speakers; however, to achieve this goal, their characteristics must be considered in order to develop appropriate activities and develop pronunciation effectively.

     It is known that starting to study English at an early age (before seven years old) might be a big advantage in terms of acquiring native-like pronunciation. According to Rogerson-Revell (2011), many factors might influence the phonological acquisition of a foreign language, such as: exposure, attitude, motivation, aptitude, L1 interference and age. The author talks about the idea that after puberty native-like speech is impaired by neurological changes, but she also refutes that theory adding social and linguistic factors to why adults may not acquire native-like accents as easily as kids (Rogerson-Revell, 2011). The reasons might still be confusing, but fact is: children tend to learn a second language more easily than adults. As English teachers, we must not ignore the fact that adults can achieve fluency in speech and we are their facilitators in this task. We must, also, admit that it is easier to achieve such goal with kids, as long as we do not forget that, once again, we must facilitate the process. 

     Teachers must be aware of the characteristics that influence young learners’ language acquisition in order to ease them through the process of speaking accurately. Shin (2014) points out quite directly that we must always remember that, according to Piaget, children are active learners and thinkers. That means that a book-based and teacher-based approach will not let students live up to their potential. She also points out that, according to Vygostky, children learn through social interaction (Shin, 2014). Therefore, teachers must produce an environment that enables social interaction, not only between teachers and students, but also among students. Apart from these general rules to teaching kids, the author also scrutinizes some important aspects, such as: kids “acquire through hearing and experiencing lots of English, in much the same way they acquire L1; learn things through playing; they are not consciously trying to learn new words or phrases – for them it’s incidental; love playing with language sounds, imitating, and making funny noises; are not able to organize their learning; not able to read or write in L1, so it is important to recycle language through talk and play; and their grammar will develop gradually on its own when exposed to lots of English in context “. In summary, kids will not pick up English pronunciation consciously as adults do, so it is up to the teachers to expose them to English in different ways so that they can develop their phonological skills. To provide such exposure, teachers must be aware at all times of the characteristics of their young learners and apply them. 

     Once teachers have prepared themselves to the young learners they are teaching, it is time for them to apply this knowledge planning activities and classes accordingly. As Shin (2014) points out, in L2 learning environments, the language is more decontextualized, the use of L2 tends to be artificial, and learners may not be motivated. It is the role of teacher to overcome these natural obstacles of the L2 classroom providing a context with meaningful and communicative activities. Fransisca (2014) recalls that activities should be chosen according to the aims of the program as well as the developmental stage of the students, and the possibilities are many. Some useful activities are: role-playing, games (e.g. Chinese whisper), tongue twisters, songs, chants, storytelling and etc. We must remember that children learn by having fun (Shin, 2014) and it is the teacher’s job to provide fun, yet focused, activities to produce target language. Planning classes should not be overlooked by teachers, for it is the time to think about how the correct pronunciation can be acquired in a meaningful way. 

     No task comes to easy when we it comes to language acquisition, and teaching kids pronunciation is no exception: there are some difficulties, but none is impossible to be overcome. First of all, teacher must recognize that there are some phonemes and some qualities of connected speech that might be difficult for young learners to acquire (Fransisca, 214). Teachers cannot forget that kids are losing their baby teeth, using braces, and struggling with difficulties even when producing L1. It is the teacher’s job to understand young learner’s limitations and patiently help them develop skills and strategies to overcome them. Secondly, when planning, teachers must be aware that young learners have a limited attention span, so instead of having long activities, one must plan several varied activities that practice the pronunciation of the same target language. Thirdly, children need repetition to master speaking skills, but having the same activities might bore and disengage them. Finally, the teacher must always assess if and how are the students producing language, so that the lessons planned are being helpful to the group at hand. It is important to know the possible challenges of developing fluency in young learners so that such task will not be hindered. 

     For the kids that have the opportunity of studying English at an early age, the advantage must be acknowledged and used in their favor. Since they are not yet conscious of such advantage and of the significance of being fluent in English, it is one of the teacher’s tasks to engage them. To sum up, awareness is a key word for young learner’s teachers, for they must be aware of the characteristics of children, of their difficulties and of how they learn in order to teach them English pronunciation effectively.


Fransisca, E. (2014). Teaching Speaking To Young Learners. Retrieved from: on December, 1st, 2014.

Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011). English Phonology and Pronunciation Teaching. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Shin, J.K. (2014). Teaching English to Young Learners. Retrieved from: on December, 1st, 2014.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Why fragments?

     According to the Cambridge dictionary, a fragment (
/ˈfræɡ·mənt) is a countable noun that means a small piece or part, especially one that is broken off of something. 

    According to Folse (2009), a fragment is an incomplete sentence. It is usually a phrase or a dependent clause not connected with the main one. 
      According to this blog and to the right of tweaking the language to my advantage, I will consider a fragment to be a point of view, a piece of an idea and thoughts on topics related to English teaching and learning. The essays found here are pieces of my bigger and more general understanding of what is and should be teaching English as a second language.

       I hope my fragments do not simply become a part that has broken off of something, as well as I hope they are not an incomplete parts of speech. What I truly hope is that my fragments are like building blocks. Although they should stand on themselves, the fun starts when you start connecting the pieces. What do I expect to build? I expect to provoke constructions and deconstructions based on reflections upon my (and many others') trade: teaching English as a second language.

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This blog is the final project of the Writing module in a Teacher Development Course at 
Casa Thomas Jefferson.


Cambridge Online Dictionary:

Folse, K. (2009). Keys to Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners: A Practical Handbook. University of Michigan Press

What are the advantages of being bilingual in today's society?

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            Western society has always walked a path towards globalization. From the urge to colonize other lands to the need of finding new markets, men and women have always adapted in order to prevail in such big world. The landmarks are clear: the Great navigations and the Industrial Revolution were times in history in which modern society shifted the paradigms. Lately we have been experiencing another shift: the Information revolution. And how are we supposed to adapt now? By learning a second language. What second language is more adaptative? English, for it has become a Lingua Franca. Simply put, to adapt to an ever changing world, learning English as a second language provides many advantages, both personally and professionally, to individuals.

            To begin with, one must acknowledge that contemporary culture is based in English, and (almost) everyone would like to access the cultural products of their time. There is an enormous amount of movies, series, books, articles, songs, etc bombarding us each and every day, and we  are bound to consume them. Apart from entertaining objectives, individuals also want to know about what is going on in the world. With the click of a button, one might access different information regarding politics, economics, religion, culture, among other topics. Reaching information is easy, but being able to access it will depend on how well you can understand what is being explained. Even though translations are fairly common nowadays, it is not the same to read or watch something in a language other than its original one. A lot gets lost in translation, and learning English will grant you full access to a lot of the information you wish to access, both in your spare time and work time.

            Learning English may also provide you with another advantage in terms of what you do in your leisure time: knowing English will make traveling much easier. Most people enjoy getting to know other cultures and places in the world, but it is quite difficult to learn the language of each country we wish to visit. Because English has become a língua franca, in most sights you travel to, you can communicate using it. So, once again, English integrates you to the world around you; it keeps you from being alienated.

            One last advantage to consider is related to professional goals: being bilingual might give you a jump start in your career. Unfortunately, in a capitalist society, not being alienated depends on how much information you can afford to have. In order to travel, to have internet connection, to have a TV, a smart phone, books, tablets, etc, one must work, earn money, and buy all of these gadgets and commodities. Therefore, we are constantly looking for better job positions and offers, which mean, basically, better payment. To succed in this race, people must show why they are better professionals, and one way to do that is by mastering another language. For that reason, English has become almost a requirement, not only an advantage anymore.

            To sum up, if you wish to insert yourself in todays society, being able to access all that it is offering us, you should learn a second language. Start with English, for it is the most spoken language in the world, it is a Lingua Franca and it is your front row ticket to watch the Information Revolution evolve. After all, Western Society has never walked back in the path it has created; we are always improving and enlarging our means of communication around the world.