Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The world of teaching English is a world of acronyms. People often assume that EFL (English as a foreign language) students are basically the same as ESL (English as a second language) students. Here, I would like to point out one of the main differences and what this means to English teachers.

The EFL student learns English in the classroom, mentally puts it on a shelf, and brings it out to use as a tool, when necessary. The EFL student has less exposure to the language and may use ‘textbook’ or formulaic phrases in conversation. In many cases, even though the student has learned English at school for many years, this may not seem to be reflected in their ability.

The ESL student uses English as a second language. For example, in many families in the US, Spanish is spoken at home while English is spoken at work. It may be that the student has never formally studied English, but has picked it up from being ‘thrown in the deep end’, or forced to use it in the workplace. The ESL student has probably picked up slang and has been forced to speak English without paying attention to accuracy. They have great comprehension skills (listening, reading), but weaker production skills (speaking, writing) and much weaker core language skills (grammar) but excellent vocabulary in their field of work or study.

So which type of student should be easier to teach? For me, it’s the EFL student and I will explain why.

Have you ever heard this story about Zen Buddhism? A new student seeks to study under a great master and talks at great length to impress him with his knowledge of Zen. The master pours him a cup of tea, but continues to pour after the cup is full, spilling tea all over the table. The master explains, ‘You are like the cup. How can I fill you with knowledge when you are already full? Before you study with me, you must empty your cup.’

The EFL student is like an empty cup waiting to be filled. The ESL student, on the other hand, is like the cup that is already full. The ESL student may have ‘false friends’ that he uses to make himself understood. For example, some speakers of European languages like to say ‘no?’ – ‘It’s true, no?’ Because they are understood, they continue to use it and avoid using a more natural way of saying it – ‘It’s true, isn’t it?’ Simply teaching them what is correct and what isn’t is not enough. You are asking them to change the way that they have been speaking, maybe for years. What you are asking of them is behavioral change. And any training that involves behavioral change is a lot more challenging than training that simply involves knowledge transfer or gaining a new skill.

In summary then, one of the main differences between teaching ESL and EFL students is that, although ESL students often have better skills in many areas, to move forward, they need behavioral change.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Some idioms

It's time to look at some idioms on the topic of punishments! The first idiom we will look at is, 'Heads will roll!' When someone says heads will roll, what they mean is that there will be strong punishments given out. This idiom goes back to the days where people got their heads cut off as a punishment (and the heads rolled along the ground).

The next idiom is 'call for his head', which pretty much works the same way. If you call for someone's head then you are asking for an extreme punishment to be given. Sometimes, people ask for 'his head on a plate'. This idiom refers to the Bible story of John the Baptist, whose head was presented on a plate. (Yuck!)

The final idiom is 'marching orders'. If someone is given their marching orders, it means they are asked to leave (the company). Occasionally, this idiom may be used in a different way, and it may mean to 'start something', such as a battle or fight.

Here are some examples in use of our three idioms:

The advertising campaign was a disaster! Heads will roll for this.
After the politician was caught stealing, the media are calling for his head.
After yet another mistake, Alan was given his marching orders.

Google the three idioms and see what you find!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fun vs Hard Work

I have known a lot of teachers who I would call ‘activity teachers’. They fill their class time with games and songs and physical activities. On the other hand, there are the ‘book teachers’, who go through the textbook, never missing an exercise and getting the students to do plenty of hard work.

So who is right?

My belief is that learning English should be a balance between hard work and fun.

The problem with the activity teachers is that a fun game may take twenty or thirty minutes to play and the students may end up learning a handful of words. Imagine trying to learn English this way. It would be a slow and, in the end, tedious process.

The problem with the book teachers is that books often do not put the language in context or make it fun. Although a lesson from a book may be richer than a game in terms of language knowledge gained, the students are less likely to relate and less likely to retain the knowledge.

So the learning process needs to be a balance to get it right. And in particular, games need to be focused and rich in learning points. Exercises from books need something to give them bite and make sure the students remember. A roleplay is a good example of a balance between these two styles – it is fun like a game, but it can be rich in learning and easily related to a book lesson.

New Quiz: YOUR and YOU'RE

There is another new quiz on Road to Grammar on the topic YOUR and YOU'RE - many learners - and even native speakers - mix up these two ...