The /r/ and phonemes

I’ve posted a new page about the English /r/ phoneme, with some info and some resources for language teachers:

And here are a couple of articles about the English <th> sounds, which are really two distinct sounds or phonemes. There’s a page about the phonemes themselves, and another page about distinguishing the two sounds – different words and spelling patterns for the two sounds. phonemes_in_spelling

APA guide

The APA is in its 6th edition, which came out in 2009, and is the standard citation and referencing format for social sciences like psychology, linguistics, and education, and sometimes in other fields like nursing, public health, and business research. The APA uses parenthetical in-text citations to cite sources within the body of a paper, and end references with full bibliographic information at the end of a paper. The APA prioritizes authors and dates in the in-text citations and references, since social science researchers and scholars place more value on these kinds of information. Depending on the research field, readers would expect a number of sources that are not more than five years old, and the bulk of them not more than twenty years old (though some older, important research can of course be cited as well).

There are a number of style guides on the web, where the APA format for each type of source is broken up into multiple pages. I’ve tried to put together a fairly comprehensive guide to APA format for my students to use, and I’ve tried to cover all that a student might want to cite in an academic paper. I’ve also added things like dealing with East Asian author names, certain Dutch & German author names, sources in foreign languages, secondary citations, and other quirky source types. Check it out on my wiki:

And there is a brief introduction to APA here:

And a brief overview of various major citation systems here:

Invention activities

At an education conference a few years ago, I attended a very interesting workshop on invention activities. These are a type of discovery learning activity, and probably a number of discovery activities could be considered invention activities. In IAs, students work in groups and have to “invent” something, be it an invention or a procedure, and in doing so, they discover a principle or concept that the teacher intends to then teach (the target concept). This was developed by college science and math teachers to teach concepts that students find difficult to learn, or difficult to retain in subsequent semesters.

The presenters (Taylor, Spiegelman & Smith, 2010) presented a zoo exhibit activity for teaching an important cell biology concept. I have adapted this as a communicative activity, which you can use as a non-science communicative activity, in which students discuss and describe procedures and materials in designing a zoo exhibit for squirrels and mice. The CLT and biology versions are like so.

  1. CLT version. Students are given a handout with pictures of squirrels, mice, their weights and sizes, and diagrams of exhibit cages to design. Each cage has two chambers. They are to design original ways of (1) allowing squirrels to go back and forth between both chambers while confining the mice to one chamber; and (2) allowing mice to go back and forth while confining squirrels to one chamber. They cannot use restraints, electronic or high-tech solutions, or anything that would harm the animals. They discuss these in groups, and present their best, most clever solutions to the class.
  2. Biology version. They go through the above procedures, and this then forms the basis for the following lesson on cell membrane permeability – how cell membranes allow certain molecules to pass through, while keeping out others. This serves as a symbolic or analogical IA for the target concept, and students were found to learn and retain the concepts better than through other learning methods (Taylor et al., 2010).

This activity is described in detail at the following page on my website.

More about invention activities for math & science education

A typical IA looks like this. In a statistics class, students need to learn the concept of variance. For the activity, students are given data about the performance reliability and accuracy of two or three machines, such as a baseball pitching machine for baseball practice (Roll et al. 2009; Schwartz & Martin, 2004). Averages alone are not enough to gauge reliability, so they must deduce the concept of statistical variance as they try to find a way to quantify reliability. In this case, the IA leads directly to the target concept.

In the zoo activity for biology, the activity serves as a memorable analogy for the target concept of cell membrane functions. Invention activities are described a bit more here on my website, and for science teaching, see Taylor’s website from the University of British Columbia.


  1. Roll, I., Aleven, V., & Koedinger, K. R. (2009). Helping students know ‘further’ – increasing the flexibility of students’ knowledge using symbolic invention tasks. In N. A. Taatgen, & H. van Rijn (Eds.), Proceedings of the 31st annual conference of the cognitive science society. (pp. 1169-74). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society. 2009.
  2. Schwartz, D. L, & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition Instruction, 22, 129–184.
  3. Taylor, J. L, Smith, K. M., van Stolk, A.P. & Spiegelman, G. B. (2010). Using invention to change how students tackle problems. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 9, 504-512.
  4. Taylor, J. L., Spiegelman, G. B., & Smith, K.M. (2010). Invention Activities for Small Group Learning in First Year Biology. Presentation at ISSOTL Conference, Liverpool, UK, 19 Oct. 2010.


Happy new year…

Gosh, it’s been a while, eh? I got so busy with my writing class, grading, family, etc. that I didn’t have time to blog. The main news is my website, which got a makeover a while ago, and now I’m gradually adding new contents on applied linguistics and language teaching. It’s now a wiki, running on wiki software, so it’s better organized, better designed, and easier to manage. It’s called the English Wiki:

Now I want to start making some Youtube videos later, which will complement the wiki site. I’m open to suggestions for video topics – leave them below, or on my Facebook page:

CLT & EFL in East Asian: Rationales for communicative teaching

The community of language teaching professionals, educators, and linguists need to convey to the public, parents, school systems, and education ministries of the governments the need for communicatively oriented language teaching in East Asia.

First and foremost are the facts that traditional language instruction have failed the students. Teaching to tests has failed the students, and the tests themselves are poor measures of real English proficiency. The Korean College Scholastic Aptitude Test, or suneung and the TOEFL and TOEIC are not adequate measures of real English ability. Teaching to these tests simply makes students memorize information that they cannot use. The test-oriented teaching methods fail students most of all when they find themselves unable to cope with college courses taught in English at East Asian universities; when they cannot cope with academic texts – research journals, books, and textbooks in English – that are necessary for college courses; when they cannot cope with English texts or media or real life situations requiring English in their later careers and professional situations. CLT, especially a cognitively oriented variety, can better prepare them for even receptive uses of English (reading, comprehension skills) in life, for the following reasons.

One of the greatest obstacles of a second language is the lack of mental efficiency, the amount of extra processing time and effort it takes, in doing any kind of task in an L2 – be it a production task (writing, speaking) or a receptive task (reading, listening). The learner must use more conscious working memory to process both the language and the contents conveyed by the language, which can be slow and tiring. Only hundreds of hours of meaningful practice can help to alleviate this burden. Only with meaningful exposure, practice and use can the learner develop some degree of automaticity in the L2. Meaningful use of the L2 can be accomplished with communicative tasks in the classroom; it cannot be accomplished with behavioristic learning methods and rote studying methods (i.e., large scale memorization and traditional teaching/learning methods).

A goal of a cognitively oriented CLT, as I envision it, is also learner empowerment and autonomy – teaching the learner to learn on his/her own outside the classroom by engaging with authentic materials, e.g., books, online materials and media in the L2. Learners can get far more meaningful exposure to the L2 through authentic materials, more than in the limited classroom time that they would have. This would be better for developing authenticity and intrinsic motivation for learning the L2, especially if they have the freedom to choose their learning materials.

If students want to do better on language tests, it is best if they not study for the tests, I would argue. That is, if they study too hard for the tests, they are less likely to do well. If they want to develop real English skills, confidence, and a genuine understanding of English, then it is best if they do not study specifically for these tests, but for the sake of English for their own enjoyment and learning (not just learning English, but learning other things through English media). Self-empowered study can boost their mental efficiency and lower their sense of stress, and the burden and stress of L2 processing, and they can boost their confidence by learning from authentic materials.

Next time I will explore more rationales for CLT in East Asia.

CLT & EFL in East Asian: Goals and benefits of language learning

The dilemma of teachers wanting to promote communicative competence in the L2 is that students’ and parents’ goals may not agree with this. In fact, the whole system may be resisting this. So how can teachers press on with their desired goal? We don’t have to sacrifice this goal, but we can cast this into a larger cognitive framework, which includes: [1] cognitive rationales for language learning, and [2] cognitively oriented goals in language learning that can supplement the goal of communicative competence. I will come back to rationales later as a selling point for CLT, especially a cognitively oriented CLT. In this post, I will say more about other valid goals that teachers can invoke, that will complement and enhance the competence goal. Even if students are not interested in competence, these other goals can help promote competence, motivation, or other important life skills.

College and career preparation. If students understand that they need English for college courses and for on-the-job purposes in their future careers, this might help them to engage in English learning. This has to be presented not in a condescending or preachy manner, but through activities that pertain to college contexts, their major fields of study, or future job and workplace situations.

Developing learning strategies. Students have often been taught English poorly here, and need to learn better learning strategies, not only for English but for other skill areas as well. They need to understand that a heavy emphasis on brute-force rote memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules will not work. The Oxford inventory (by Rebecca Oxford) of L2 learning styles can be a good start for discussion. Teachers need not administer it, but use this as the basis for discussion of better learning strategies. This leads to the next point.

Empowering learners to learn independently. Many learners are still dependent on college or hagwon classes (private cram schools or language schools in Korea) for learning, when they can learn more on their own; and they still depend on commercially produced textbooks, grammar books, or vocab books that are boring and that rely on ALM, PPP, or GTM approaches. From intermediate levels, they should start learning on their own, outside of the classroom. At intermediate and especially at advanced levels, they can learn more outside of class than in class. This involves teaching them to learn on their own by exposing themselves and engaging with authentic materials, such as books, online videos, popular music, and TV shows. This can be far more motivating than classroom learning. Some of the strategies in Oxford’s inventory pertain to independent learning. This is especially helpful in places like Korea where English is entirely a foreign language.

Critical thinking skills. Students can be taught about critical thinking skills in the L2, and the fact that they gain important academic and life skills like this, I would surmise, will in the long run help their motivation or appreciation for English. This can include understanding logical fallacies, constructing persuasive and logical arguments in writing and in presentations, reading between the lines and inferencing skills, constructing counter-arguments, and being responsible citizens who possess (I think Carl Sagan coined this term) “baloney detectors” to detect bogus arguments in politics or elsewhere. Likewise, students can be taught to question assumptions, e.g., learning to recognize and question sexist influences and messages in advertising that objectify men and women (I once did this in an ESL writing class in the US).

The above points lead to matters of social and cultural awareness, which I will discuss next time. These are selling points to students, which can help them appreciate their English classes, and these types of lessons can get them more into communicating in English, when the lessons deal with interesting issues and skills that generalize to their lives outside of the classroom.

CLT & ELT in East Asia (part 2)

This is a follow-up on my previous post on the role of CLT (communicative language teaching) in East Asia.cclt.logo

The CLT/TBLT paradigm has encountered resistance here – perhaps not so much direct opposition, as far as I know, from the government, educators, or the public, but probably more of simply ignorance and apathy about it, and a resistance to change. Parents, private academies, and others just assume that the traditional methods (ALM and GTM) are okay, since they are mainly concerned with test scores and grades, rather than meaningful learning. If a teacher gets a TESOL certificate and learns about CLT, but then gets a job at a private academy or cram school (hagwon), their supervisors will insist that they teach using ALM/PPP and/or GTM. The parents seem to expect that, too, since the parents want their kids to get good scores, so they can enter the better universities and get good jobs. A very sad situation.

However, increasingly the realities of life crash against this mechanical process. More college courses are taught in English, and the kids are not ready for that, despite all the years of cramming English and behavioristic learning. Increasingly, they will have to speak and write English on the job, at least in some fields. But this is not true for all fields. Some may realistically not have to write or communicate much in English, but will need passive skills — reading and maybe listening to English at times in their fields.

So the first challenge is how to sell the benefits of CLT to the public, to the Education Ministry, to educators, and to students. (I’m using CLT as an umbrella term for CLT in its various forms, and for TBLT). The second challenge is meeting the needs of students who really are not going to need higher communicative skills in English. Their motivations and needs are different. Teachers trained in CLT naturally aim for communicative competence, but honestly, some students will not be interested in it, or may not have such a strong need for it. Those who are interested may have other valid reasons for learning English, like needing to comprehend English materials, learning content area knowledge in English (e.g., in college courses), and such. Others are not interested, simply because the system has killed their motivation — this poses a third challenge for CLT here.

That is why I think it will help to situate CLT within a larger cognitive framework. A cognitive framework can provide important rationales and methods for communicative learning, even for those who sense no need for communicative competence. It can provide learning rationales and goals for teaching and learning English in addition to communicative competence. And it might help reach those who have been burned by the system, by addressing their motivational problems within the framework of social-personality psychology.

Let me just outline some of these cognitive rationales here, and talk more about them in future blog posts. In brief, some reasons for CLT in an EFL context like this are:

  1. Even for just reading, listening and speaking ability are important for effective L2 reading skills. Reading depends on phonological and processing skills, and so learning in the speaking and listening modalities is important.
  2. For learning grammar meaningfully, using English in these different modalities is necessary.
  3. Test scores are not effective measures of English ability.
  4. To do better on tests, interactive learning in the long run will be more effective and efficient — as well as for classroom college English, and English in the student’s future jobs.

In brief, some additional cognitive goals for learning as follows:

  1. Awareness and understanding of foreign cultures – not just Anglophone cultures, but world culture.
  2. A better understanding of oneself and one’s culture through the lens of L2 and global culture
  3. Awareness of important social issues
  4. The cognitive advantages of simply knowing a second language
  5. Greater self-awareness and emotional intelligence
  6. Overcoming demotivation toward learning (especially toward the L2), and related self-esteem issues

A cognitively oriented approach to CLT could help us to realize these kinds of goals and rationales. I will expand on these ideas and talk about the above points more specifically in some future blog posts.

English and CLT in the EFL context of East Asia

A criticism that I have heard of communicative language teaching [CLT] is that it does not apply well in East Asia (in my case, Korea). A couple of reasons for this are given or implied. I would like to address these criticisms here.

One type of reasoning that I think was underlying the criticism I heard from one teacher at a previous workplace is that it is foreign to the educational culture here. The middle school, high school, and college culture emphasize passive student learning from lectures, deductive transmission of knowledge from teachers to students, and non-interactive learning. However, to imply that East Asian students cannot learn and benefit from inductive and interactive learning methods due to cultural constraints is wrong. In fact, it seems to insult the intelligence of East Asian students, who are cognitively no different than we are, just because of cultural constraints. I have seen my students embrace interactive learning in my university classrooms. They have found it to be a refreshing change from their previous classroom experiences, and they have adjusted quickly and learned well. Some have commented on how much they appreciated the approach – either in final course evaluations, or unsolicited comments in the classroom.

The second argument is a more sound and valid one, which I heard from a conference talk by a well known applied linguist. At the recent KATE conference (Korean Assoc. of Teachers of English), Eli Hinkel noted that a problem of CLT in Korea is the EFL context (English as a foreign language – a totally foreign language in the environment / country and not used naturally outside the classroom). This would, I assume the argument would go, work against teachers’ attempts to have students learn communicative English in the classroom, when there are few opportunities for meaningful communicative use of English outside the classroom. One way of answering that is to adjust the goals and expectations of language teaching, even in CLT, to the EFL context, which I will talk about in a future blog post.

Korean students today will sometimes use English in certain contexts – when they deal with non-Koreans in Korea, at work, or when travelling or studying abroad. Most of all, they will have to deal with real English at the university in Korea. In Korea and other East Asian countries, there is an increasing trend toward English-medium instruction [EMI] in college classrooms, that is, regular courses taught in English. At Korea University, for example, about 45% of undergraduate courses in various majors are taught in English. This is also a trend at other Korean universities, and in other nations. For Koreans, in their academic or professional lives, they will have to deal with English as the global language of their professions. So in CLT/TBLT classrooms, the tasks and activities could be more tailored to the actual situations where they will use English in their lives – e.g., classroom situations, and various professional contexts. These could include college and graduate school class lectures and activities, business meetings, business travel situations, team projects, and others.

In my next post (in c. one week or so), I will talk about realistic goals for CLT instruction in an EFL environment like in East Asia.

Introspecting on the academic writing process (& writer’s block and procrastination)

The process approach to writing focuses on teaching students a systematic approach to writing, and such classes may involve a lesson where students introspect on their writing process – their pre-writing strategies, their drafting and revision process, and other aspects of their writing. Many students can find this helpful for identifying some of their problems, and for learning to use more prewriting techniques. It is also designed to get them to treat writing as a multi-step process, to revise more systematically, and to focus on more important content-level issues in revision rather than on mechanical and grammatical details. images

My approach goes further by addressing the problems they have with writer’s block and procrastination, which often have similar roots. These may be because the have chosen a topic that is too broad, and they cannot figure out how to start because it is overwhelming. In this case, a brainstorming technique could help identify a more specific topic. This could be because the topic is properly specific, or too specific, and they lack sufficient information, and need to gather information and ideas first.

Often, though, it is due to psychological barriers. They may have internalized negative voices of criticism from past teachers or parents, which paralyze them and cause anxiety when trying to do an assignment. They may suffer from perfectionism, which makes them worried about what the professor will think about their writing, or the grade they will get, the poor quality of their draft, or such. They could be stressed or burned out, and may need a break, or may need to break the task into smaller, more doable chunks. They have to accept that a seemingly poor, incomplete draft is simply a necessary first step to a process of revision and improving the paper. In the short term, they may learn to focus on brainstorming and prewriting techniques to get them over the obstacle of the assignment at hand. Over the long term, they need to instrospect on the sources of their blocks and confront them.

In my writing class, I have students discuss these issues in groups and then we discuss them together as a class. Then they write a short paper evaluating their writing process and their difficulties. In short:

  1. In small groups, students are asked to describe their writing process.
  2. In small groups, students then share about their difficultis, such as writer’s block and procrastination, and are asked to think about causes of these blocks.
  3. The instructor leads a full-class discussion, including types of brainstorming and prewriting techniques that students might find helpful, the psychological barriers behind these blocks, and ways of overcoming them.
  4. Students write a short paper in which they not only describe their typical writing process (say, for writing an academic paper assignment in a college course), but also evaluate their process, discuss their problems in writing, possible reasons for these, and maybe  some potential solutions for their particular situation.

This should focus on not what they think they should do, but what they really do, and why. This can be a good opportunity for class discussion of motivational problems and psychological barriers to writing or learning, especially if they have had bad educational experiences, or have come from high-stress learning environments, which have hurt their self-esteem.

The following is a handout that I have used for this unit.